The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, April 01, 2004

Objectivity and Al Franken - and David Brooks

Franken - who is playing as I write [1] - is predictably terrible radio [2] - next week, Al does brain surgery?

He is, of course, hammering away at the Bush credibility thing - Clarke 'n' Condi and so forth. And gagging in the process.

Which sets up a tension: the critic of USG is pointing to (to put it mildly) inaccuracy and needs to be accurate himself to be credible. But accuracy can easily get in the way of a good gag.

And the medium doesn't help: when you read the parsing of a USG statement or interview online, the first thing you do is get up the source material, to check the trustworthiness of the source, the context in which the remarks criticised appear, etc, etc. Can't do that on radio.

A similar question arises with New York Times op-ed David Brooks - a sort of Margaret Mead de nos jours for the American nation. I mentioned before (March 26) the piece by Sasha Issenberg criticising the soundness of some of his generalisations.

Now, Noam Scheiber in New Republic (March 31) is defending Brooks and attacking Issenberg.

Although, he says,
...I occasionally find his pieces sloppy and his analysis a little seat-of-the-pants...I can't say I find him to be a journalistic villain worthy of a 3,000-word takedown--and much journalistic schadenfreude, to boot.

In the interim, Times ombud Daniel Okrent has spoken on the controversy about op-ed corrections (March 29) - and the need for accuracy in facts (as opposed to opinions) stated by op-eds has been acknowledged by Gail Collins, the editorial page editor.

Brooks is presumably covered by that rule. But Scheiber evidently thinks Brooks is a different kind of rabbit:
Brooks explicitly labels his craft "comic sociology"--hardly the sort of description that evokes images of multivariate regressions and rigorous survey methodologies [3].

Weasel words explicitly labels: where? when? Looking at Brooks' last offering (March 30), I can see no such statement. Nor is there anything of the sort on his index page.

The initiated will recognise it as a Brooks catchphrase [4] - the plebs will be clueless. Literally.

Scheiber goes into some of Issenberg's alleged Brooks boo-boos: some, he admits, are real howlers; others, not so much.

And he thinks that some criticisms could actually have been expanded upon:
Issenberg's on to a legitimate critique here, and it's too bad he only gives it a couple of lines deep in the piece.

But his basic point is that Issenberg's
is an exceedingly lame and tedious exercise. It misses the broader point that Brooks does tend to be a little careless, and that he takes frequent liberties with his descriptions. But you see where I'm headed: Issenberg is guilty of the exact same thing--ignoring the broader point that Brooks is basically right.

(Is it my imagination, or does that need a touch of editing?)

Note I'm steering clear of jury questions here [5]. But Scheiber, in asserting that Brooks is right, adduces no more evidence than Brooks did. It's the sort of stuff you might expect to hear from - Al Franken on his radio show.

Now, I have some sympathy for Brooks: though there's no explicit warning on the back of the box, no one reading his latest piece would suppose he was dealing with a peer-reviewed work of scholarship.

But Collins says:
the columnists are obviously required to be factually accurate.

Which is not, of course, saying that their opinions must be supported by cogent evidence; or that the facts they adduce must be used fairly. But, at least, recognises that some level of quality control is both possible and necessary.

But if Brooks' stuff might be exempted from harsh scrutiny as harmless observational humour, William Safire's Iraq work (February 26) surely deserves no indulgence.

In fact, the more closely and plausibly an op-ed piece is sourced, the more potentially dangerous it is if it misrepresents those sources.

For instance, there's all the difference in the world between a piece that says baldly, and without any supporting evidence, that it's unnecessary for fathers to be involved in the upbringing of their children; quite another to represent a study as supporting that conclusion where, on a fair reading, it does no such thing.

It's the combination of opinion and evidence which is truly potent, for good and ill.

Which requires a well-tailored system of editorial control for op-eds. And dooms poor old Al Franken to zero traction on the lies of the Lying Liars.
  1. Streamed from the Air America homepage.

  2. I've only heard around half an hour, on and off. Things, as they say, can only get better.

    Thought: it takes a whole room of writers to produce 22 minutes of sitcom every week. And mostly it's not that funny. Franken has to produce 40 times that length of material every week. Him and whose army...

    His minder Katherine Lanpher, who is a pro - and, yes, they did the whore gag, lamely - is certainly trying. Which makes two of them.

  3. With which he is less than impressed:
    For that matter, anyone who ever ran a regression in college knows they're even more easily manipulated than one of Brooks's breezy descriptions of a Bobo coffee shop.
    Does that mean you should

    1. do the statistical analysis with skill and care; or

    2. skip the math and pull the results out of your ass?

  4. An Atlantic Monthly piece from June 2000 is one of 72 of 703 provided by Google for "comic sociology" "david brooks". For "comic sociology" alone, it's 86 of 734. That sucker is his!

  5. The argument is about red and blue America. I have a problem with this straight off the bat: there seems to be some doubt whether these are the (permanent) colours of the Republican and Democratic Parties (or, alternatively, conservative and liberal America) or whether these colours alternate every four years with each presidential campaign. For another time.

MORE (April 6)

The Howler examines some of the jury questions in the Issenberg/Brooks business.


And so does Ted Barlow.

(Surely that's enough Brooks? Ed)

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