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April 20, 2009

“Regression toward a phony mean”
Posted by Patrick at 08:11 AM *

NYU media guy Jay Rosen has an excellent post about the “he said, she said” formula that yields news stories in which reality-based assertions from one person or group are “balanced” by shameless lies or fantasy from another. Press critics and bloggers have been criticising this sort of thing for a while—think “Scientists, White House Disagree on Shape of Earth”—but Rosen goes beyond establishing its intellectual hollowness; he also talks about why it happens, how it’s a readily-available “solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail.” But all I wanted to do here (other than urge you to read Rosen’s post) was reproduce an amazing paragraph he quotes, from See How They Run, a book by one-time Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor about the 1988 election.

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering—certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses—partisan, ideological, pyschological, whatever…Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.
It’s unclear whether Taylor realizes, implicitly or otherwise, how this rhetorical posture makes him the willing servant of whichever powerful person or organization decides to stake out a completely crazy position—say, that the United States military should be directed to undertake a project aimed at blowing up the moon. Or, even nuttier, that the most urgent priority of the Federal government during an economic collapse should be cutting taxes and reducing spending. That doesn’t matter, because all by itself, that paragraph clarifies something I’ve always wondered about—the internal dialogue of the reporters who write this kind of thing, how they manage to live with themselves and pretend they’re doing something useful. They’re not tools of players more powerful than they are, they’re judicious analysts “aiming for the golden mean”! Well, actually they are tools. But it helps explain their durable self-regard.
Comments on "Regression toward a phony mean":
#1 ::: David Manheim ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 08:45 AM:

As sad as this is, on some level it restores my faith in humanity. It isn't that journalists are out to destroy the truth, it's that they are too dumb to understand why what they print is false.

I'm just not sure how this problem is fixable. We need more introspective, intelligent people in journalism, just like we need them everywhere else. How does that sort of thing get taught?

#2 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 08:53 AM:

Another sleepless night here. So, some reflections.

"He said, she said" news is almost as fact-free as propaganda--the only facts in such news are the actual words said. And propaganda can tell more and better stories. This is apparently why Fox News, and other radical propaganda masquerading as news have become so persuasive: if the measure of truth is the better story, then the propagandists will be seen as having the truth.

#3 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:19 AM:

"http://74.125.47.132/..." ?

Wherefore DNS?

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:23 AM:

It's as though Paul Taylor believes neither facts nor truth exist, and that the best you can hope for is to find the centerpoint in a range of opinions. He's wrong, and his notion of a "golden mean" is a profound conceptual error.

The idea of the golden mean is that virtue exists at a balance-point between excess and deficiency. However, this judgement is one an individual imposes on himself and his actions, not on the exterior world.

For instance, for a general, the golden mean falls between cowardice and foolhardiness. What it does not mean is that if (a.) one of your advisors says that if you continue this campaign you'll meed massive reinforcement and resupply, and that you should move your primary defensive line forward to some very strong ground along the creek after next; and (b.) your other advisor says that you should not advance, and that any reinforcements and additional supplies you bring in will be encumbrances, and likely to be lost; that (c.) you should therefore bring in half the recommended reinforcements and supplies, and move your defensive line forward by one creek but not two.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:27 AM:

David Harmon, #3: That's what Google's cache URLs frequently look like. Go ask our pastel-colored overlords about it.

#6 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:50 AM:

It's incredible how journalists still don't understand the Overton window.

It's also funny how often they apply a method devised to "[take] a pass on the toughest calls [they] face". Basically, they now find that average political bickering is "the toughest call". The level of cowardice in the newsroom has clearly risen a lot in the last 20 years.

#7 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:57 AM:

It's worth making the connection between this post and the preceding one on torture. One of the dangerous consequences of torture being seen as acceptable is that the "golden mean" (and in this context, it's hard to think of a more inappropriate phrase) has been moved in the wrong direction to the point where some want to frame the spectrum as running from (no torture = deranged liberalism) through (some torture, but not too much really = the voice of sanity and moderation) to (unconstrained torture = justified in the circumstances, even if not quite how things should ideally happen).

In a milder version of the same effect, the head of the UK Association of Chief Police Officers is reported today as saying that the policing of the recent G20 demonstrations should be seen as reasonable, because "any other country" would have used water cannon, CS gas or rubber bullets. So if the actual police tactics can be presented as absurdly moderate, the people condemning them can clearly ignored.

Once that shift has happened, redefining the mean or - much better - challenging the entire idea of there being a mean in the first place becomes a few notches harder, which is of course why it is so important to resist the redefinition in the first place.

#8 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:12 AM:

TNH@#4 -- For any statement, there's a level on which it's false. For some statements, there's no level on which it has any objective correlation to a true relationship (that is, all statements are in some sense false; not all statements are in some sense true). The main problem seems to be picking what level we're actually going to talk at. If we've got an agreed level of discourse, we can have useful discussions about truth and falsehood -- and it's really easy for someone to derail the conversation by changing the level.

#9 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:21 AM:

Giacomo (6), I don't think the increasing level of cowardice in the newsroom is coincidental, and I don't count it from 20 years ago. I think it started with the increased openness of the 1970s (around Watergate.) As the "raw material" for editorial judgments and polished news reports became more widely available, journalists became quicker to second-guess themselves before publication. (Or, in some cases, their editors do the second-guessing, knowing the raw material will be available, and not wanting to risk having the publication as a whole look foolish because they made an unsupportable claim.) Having that raw material so widely available is clearly good. But it tends to set up incentives for big commercial journalists to be timid. And having all the journalism done by people who don't get paid beans creates a whole different set of problems.

#10 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:22 AM:

I'm not sure which is the greater instigating evil in the press' descent into banality.

Is it the absurd pressure of the ever-shorter news cycle, squeezing deadlines tighter and tighter so that background research, analysis and even the most basic fact checking is reserved for the leisure class of talking-head commentators?

Or is it instead the paranoia, if not cowardice, instilled in the media by the right wing's relentless PR campaign bashing "liberal bias" that has reduced the newsroom's role to spell-checking the Republicans' press releases and tacking on a one-graf response quote from the nearest Democrat at hand? (And at that, the GOOPers still scream bias because you dared to go to the Dems for a quote.)

#11 ::: Mike Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:28 AM:

Teresa (#4), I don't think it's so much that Taylor doesn't believe that facts or truth exist as that he has no confidence in his ability to find them (or even to identify them, should he happen to stumble over one in the dark).

#12 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:32 AM:

In the last few years, I've come to have an appreciation for the British style of journalism over the American one. It has its own problems, but the reporters don't seem to feel that they have to pretend to some position of pseudo-objectivity.

Related: how to be a centrist.

David Manheim @ 1:

The problem is fixable, but the current environment tends to select against people writing introspective, intelligent stories. The combination of fast turn-around time, low salary, and the requirement that news outlets be profit-making machines conspire against taking the time to do chewy stories. Other people in the thread have mentioned other good reasons as well.

#13 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:39 AM:

I've met several journalists in my life. A couple of them were very intelligent, insightful people with a passionate drive for getting at the real truth of a story. The rest of them struck me as profoundly dull sorts, not really interested in much of anything, but with a facility with words they could turn into a paying job.

The smart ones both ran screaming from the profession within three years of entering it. The rest are still plugging away. This seems relevant somehow.

#14 ::: Adam Rice ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 12:16 PM:

Now that you mention it, why the hell isn't the U.S. military working on a project to blow up the moon? I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOON-HUGGERS IN THE WHITE HOUSE!

#15 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 12:21 PM:

Adam Rice @ 14:

Because private industry is much better at that sort of thing? I think I heard something about a company owned by Chairface Chippendale.

#16 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 01:33 PM:

This rings a bell with something I read just this morning in Slate's offshoot The Big Money, on The Media's Lost Generation. The article quoted a respected veteran journalist:

"When I went to school, it was about, 'Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,' " says Michael Caruso, a former editor at the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Details, and many other magazines. "You wanted to keep the government honest. Today the goals are different. It's mostly about self-expression."

If the journalist's goal is to report the truth and point out the mistakes of the powerful, then they are going to believe that there is an objective, factual side to the story and won't stop until they have discovered it. But if they're in the business for "self-expression", then they're more likely to see their mission as looking at all the different points of view, and then reporting on the synthesis between those different views as they see it.

Of course the good journalist should look at all the diverse opinions on an issue. Said journalist should also be able to distinguish which of those opinions are garbage, and not afraid to say so in print. That's what the public needs to know.

There's a place for self-expression, and that's your personal website or Facebook page. The news media should be where the public goes for facts, not for intellectually lazy attempts to interpret them.

#17 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 02:02 PM:

In addition to the question of whether journalists should try to find the truth and report on it, I suspect that an underlying premise of "he said, she said" reporting is that readers aren't going to pay attention to anything but conflict.

#18 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 02:06 PM:

I think some of it is down to the modern trend of journalists being required to write more in less time. Judgement takes time to turn over in one's brain, time that you don't necessarily have when you have more column inches or minutes of airtime to fill. Acceptance of "golden mean" journalism may mean that modern journalists have almost reached their limit in how much they can be squeezed.

#19 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 02:50 PM:

Jimcat Kasprzak #16: There's a place for self-expression, and that's your personal website or Facebook page.

Which, ironically, are doing a better job than many journalists at covering the news -- and also at "afflict[ing] the comfortable and comfort[ing] the afflicted"!

#20 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 04:13 PM:

re 12: Perhaps you should only post cartoons like that when there aren't any real centrists around. Like me.

After all, that kind of cartoon is essentially another route to the Overton window: it's a way to exaggerate the unpalatability of the opposition by preventing the consideration of positions other than the extremes. The opposition is not nearly so dangerous as are positions critical of both sides.

The other thing is that "he said, she said" constructions aren't actually centrist: they are the opposite. It's one thing to work through the opposing statements and actually try to find the middle between them. Just presenting them actually removes the middle, because all that is actually there are the two ends.

Also, part of the problem with the "he said/she said" mode is that much of the time both sets of accusations are true but (generally deliberately) incomplete or irrelevant. One often finds a centrism which has therefore assembled a patchwork of positions from both sides.

I personally am going to go with the laziness theory, if only because I've spent years on the net fact-checking statements people make in forums and blogs. It's a lot easier now that one can do a quick search on the internet, but I nonetheless see things which I've already determined to be false to be repeated over and over. It's because people don't check the statements.

#21 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 04:25 PM:

C Wingate:
Perhaps you should only post cartoons like that when there aren't any real centrists around. Like me.

Just as pretty much everyone considers themselves a realist (rather than a pessimist or an optimist), so do so many of us consider ourselves centrists.

Real centrists, of course, not those fake ones mocked in web cartoons.

#22 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 04:25 PM:

This decade has toughened my cynicism. I expect that when biographies are written of major players in media's upper management layers, we'll find that ideas like "aim for the center" and "self-expression" were deliberately encouraged from the top down.

C. Wingate: Like Patrick said, aiming for any balance point between what you care to view as extremes only works when neither one is criminally deranged and vilely immoral. In practice, in the US, now, I don't see any way to justify centrism as a goal until the loonies are stripped of their power, and balancing acts won't help make that happen.

#23 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 04:34 PM:

C. Wingate @ 20:

My apologies. The cartoon is skewering phony centrists, making fun of exactly what Patrick was pointing out in his original post. My link text does not make that clear in any way.

#24 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 04:37 PM:

(Should have posted this with the previous comment.)

Centrist is a perfectly good political position, provided that it doesn't mean the halfway point between center and right-wing insane.

#25 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 05:24 PM:

I think in the push that has come in understanding that the world is not simply black and white but shades of gray many in the press have taken this truth too far.

Some things are true or false, some things are black and white. Facts are either true or they are not true. False balance clouds this. It really drives me nuts when people are given airtime because they have an opposing view when said opposing view is either inane or just insane. It's good to have debate but at some point it becomes theater and distraction. The recent Dyson interview where he talks about global warming was a good example. I heard the writer of the piece on OTM try and justify it. His answer was basically hero worship and "i don't care what he says I just want the story." That attitude scares the bejesus out of me. If you don't care about what you are writing then it makes sense that this type of thing could occur.

I never knew about the Overton Window before now. It makes sense that you may be able to acclimate people to certain ideas. We see it all the time.

#26 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 08:01 PM:

C Wingate @20:

re 12: Perhaps you should only post cartoons like that when there aren't any real centrists around. Like me.
1. Did you miss the part where I announced, somewhere in the early days of this weblog, that I occupy the exact center of the political spectrum? I know I've repeated it at intervals since then. (Furthermore, I'm aware that it's funny.)

2. Are you by any chance suggesting that participants here are subject to reprimand if they don't constrain their comments to suit what they understand to be your tastes?

3. If you win the conversation, what prize do you expect to receive?

#27 ::: myrthe ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 09:16 PM:

I suggest responding to C. Wingate's #20 as if the first sentence wasn't there. (Cos I think it's the flamiest, and it's been well toasted). The point about eliminating the middle is a good one, and emphasises just how much our modern discourse undercuts all of us.

Somebody.. (digby? Glenn Greenwald? I think it's Glenn) keep pointing out the medias' inability to see itself as part of the story. Here, Taylor's system makes sense if you are describing the internals of one group to a disinterested third party. But the media isn't, they're actually the centre and the point of all these conversations. Acting like observers gets them played.

#28 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 10:22 PM:

I'm not a centrist. I used to think I was, but I'm not. I'm an idiosyncratic extremeist.

There are several things I am asbsolute about. They are, to me, internally consistent, but they aren't all mapped to one end of the spectrum. The are all over the place, left, right and center.

I tend to be moderate in them (unless you are talking things like torture, ignoring the rule of law; which is not the same as ignoring some laws).

I also like to think I'm fairly tolerant, which is something else most of us like to think of ourselves.

#29 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:11 PM:

The false middle is like those moving frames of reference they describe in the physics textbooks; if the reference frame shifts to the right, those within it think they are standing still and the world is shifting to the left.

#30 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:13 PM:

The center cannot hold.
There ain't nobody in the middle of the road but a bunch of dead armadillos, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

#31 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:18 PM:

C Wingate @20 and TNH @26, the thing that gets to me about "centrists" is that "centrism" isn't actually a political position. It's an attempt to describe people who actually have political opinions as extremists, and portray one's self as an advocate of (faux-)sensible moderation by comparison.

#33 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2009, 11:49 PM:

Erik Nelson #30 FTW

Avram Grumer #31 FTW w/bells on

#34 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:08 AM:

I'm doing my best to be a radical, because it's better than being a 'moderate' who keeps getting run over by the middle of the road shifting to the right again. (If that makes any kind of sense at all.)

#35 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:50 AM:

The true insight behind this is that neither big political party is always right, no large political movement is always right, and more broadly, in most conflicts there is some truth or justice on both sides.

But you can't apply that insight mechanistically, by trying to split the difference between every pair of people in a disagreement. Instead, you need judgment and background knowledge, so you can determine whether this is a situation where "opinions on shape of earth differ," one where both sides of some dispute are lying through their teeth and neither can be trusted, or one where there really is insight to be had from both sides of the dispute.

I suspect that journalists often don't have the insight and judgment and background knowledge to work out which situation they're in, or what sorts of insights and valid points are to be found from both sides. And if they manage to do it, I suspect they have a hard time getting it past their editors.

#36 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:30 AM:

tnh, #4: "It's as though Paul Taylor believes neither facts nor truth exist, and that the best you can hope for is to find the centerpoint in a range of opinions. He's wrong, and his notion of a 'golden mean' is a profound conceptual error."

I suppose it's easy to end up believing that, in the vast flow of information that passes through any modern news operation. It's not, I suppose, an uncommon belief in materialistic times. But even when the sea is raging, there are still the stars.

#37 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:28 AM:

Avram @ 31: "It's an attempt to describe people who actually have political opinions as extremists, and portray one's self as an advocate of (faux-)sensible moderation by comparison."

Right--everyone, from the most radical anarcho-communist through the comfortable main-streamer to the free-market capitalist is quite certain of the judicious, balanced chain of reasoning that led to their particular political stance. Every single one of them has weighed all the options, and come to the conclusion that their beliefs are the most sensible, embodying the best compromise between left and right. The difference between self-described "centrists" and everyone else is that everyone else is painfully aware of the difference between their own personal sense of certainty and any society-wide consensus on that point. Centrists get to mistake the coincidental alignment of their personal preferences and the results of the political process as a unique mark of their personal good taste.

#38 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:51 AM:

C. Wingate @20, Also, part of the problem with the "he said/she said" mode is that much of the time both sets of accusations are true but (generally deliberately) incomplete or irrelevant.

I agree, except for the "generally deliberately" part. I know that I might start sounding repetitive on this, but I think that people are often very, very good at noticing mainly or only things that fit into their beliefs- including their beliefs about other people- without noticing that they're doing that. I've simply seen so many debates on the internet (and sometimes elsewhere) where people accused others of deliberately misreading them, that I find it hard to believe that all or even most of these misinterpretations really were deliberate.

Terry Karney @28, I'm not a centrist. I used to think I was, but I'm not. I'm an idiosyncratic extremeist.

I think that's probably a good description for a lot of people who get described as "centrists" by journalists, pundits, other media people, political scientists, or even themselves, because all these groups can't think of any neat categories to fit them into.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @26, 3. If you win the conversation, what prize do you expect to receive?

I think you're overdoing it a bit now. "If you win the conversation, what prize do you expect to receive?" is an all-purpose response that almost anyone can give to almost anyone else in almost any debate in response to almost any statement.

#39 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:58 AM:

re 31: I have successfully resisted the temptation to waste time refuting this, because I realized this morning that the extremely centrist development of the unmarked marriage thread provides all the refutation needed.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:08 AM:

C Wingate:

In case you're wondering, you're drawing a lot of moderator fire because you spent about a quarter of an otherwise intelligent and interesting comment (20) asserting your primacy over the rest of the community. Statements like:

Perhaps you should only post cartoons like that when there aren't any real centrists around. Like me.
The opposition is not nearly so dangerous as are positions critical of both sides.
I've spent years on the net fact-checking statements people make in forums and blogs.

...all try to demonstrate a kind of inherent superiority over the other people in the conversation.

Thing is, we all consider our own positions to be intelligent and reasonable. And none of us, not even you, is so very dangerous as all that because of the views we post on this site*. Also, I'd be surprised if everyone in this conversation hasn't spent years fact-checking and correcting misapprehensions on the internet. I certainly have. These are all practically entry requirements to the conversation, not differentiators worth a mention. It comes across as self-aggrandizement of the most tiresome kind. Thus the annoyed tone of many of the responses.

Truly, the honor that you appear to seek is one that is given, not taken. And it's given on the basis of persuasive argument. Lest you think that it's available only to the sinister half of the center, I'd point out that albatross is held in high esteem hereabouts, though he is not a leftie by any means. What he is is willing to listen, and to discuss without the subtle (but not, trust me, imperceptible) interpersonal jockeying that you have been using.

- o0o -

Now, strip those assertions off, and it's a very interesting contribution to the conversation.

The other thing is that "he said, she said" constructions aren't actually centrist: they are the opposite. It's one thing to work through the opposing statements and actually try to find the middle between them. Just presenting them actually removes the middle, because all that is actually there are the two ends.

This reminds me of PNH quoting Chip Delany in another context: "endless arguments about edge cases leave us with less understanding of the center, rather than more."

Also, part of the problem with the "he said/she said" mode is that much of the time both sets of accusations are true but (generally deliberately) incomplete or irrelevant.

There is a tension between the idea that the other guys are deliberately misstating your position, and the idea that their base assumptions are so very different that your position really does look strange from where they're standing. It's not like people all secretly agree about any given thing, but half of them are lying about it. There are people who really do not believe that an egalitarian marriage (much less a gay one) can be a happy and loving one, just as there are those who think that a traditional "wife subservient to husband" one can't be.

Getting out of "he said/she said" by accusing one or both sides of lying is just going to unite them against you. While the show of unity would be refreshing, it's unlikely to be lasting enough to be productive.

-----
* The statement that one is dangerous because of one's views gets you halfway to at least three troll bingo squares I can think of, from "Brave Voice of Wisdom Among You Fools" through "The Moderators are All Fascists" and all the way to "The Government is Coming After My Guns and My Freedom". I'm not saying you're trolling, but little good will come out of using that meme.

#41 ::: Stefan Jones suspects spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2013, 12:32 AM:

Jacket spam! Pretty blatant.

#42 ::: Mary Aileen sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2013, 11:30 AM:

The spammers must think blogs are abandoned during the holiday rush. Ha-ha.

#43 ::: TNH ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2013, 01:11 AM:

Spam fairy bagged.

#44 ::: P J Evans sees probable spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2013, 01:29 AM:

Or else someone is playing games.
WTF is a 'miumiu bag'?

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2013, 01:38 AM:

They're a line of large unwieldy Prada handbags, not especially attractive IMO, that are often pirated.

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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