Friday, September 14, 2012

Andrew Gelman forces me to read Bob Somerby

"Gore elicited in us the childish urge to poke a stick in the eye of the smarty-pants"

Margaret Carlson

I was going to write a reply to Andrew Gelman's recent criticism of Paul Krugman but since everybody beat me to it, I'll limit myself to this post script
P.P.P.S. Maybe the zillion commenters who disagree with me here have a point! I still find it a bit of a stretch for people to claim that reporters’ personal likes/dislikes would have more of an effect on coverage than reporters’ ideologies and partisanship, but I can see the reasoning, which I think roughly goes like this: journalists are trained to not let their partisanship get in the way of their reporting, but they don’t have that same constraint with respect to personal like/dislike. Thus a liberal Democratic reporter who personally liked Bush and disliked Gore might slant the news toward Bush and even feel good about such a slant in that it represents a bending-over-backwards to not simply follow the partisan cue.

As noted, I remain skeptical of this story—-I’d think that, when it comes to a national election, partisanship would trump personality—-but it is a coherent argument, supported by data. Which satisfies the request, posed at the top of this post: “I’d like to see Paul Krugman’s evidence for this.”
There are some potentially interesting side questions here about the cultural differences between the sides of the spectrum ( "I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat."), but time is limited so I'll jump straight to the Cialdini.

If you'll flip to the liking, reciprocation, consistency, and social proof chapters of Influence, you'll find lots of evidence to support this story, much of it from peer reviewed papers. Here are some of the relevant points.

Many people have noted Bush was capable of considerable charm.

Many influential reporters had a long standing and well documented dislike of Gore.

The Washington press corp is small and cliquish, prone to convergent behavior.

Because of the image of a liberal bias and because the GOP is known for pushing back, there are generally fewer consequences for a story that puts a Democrat in a bad light. Admitting you've backed down tends to cause cognitive dissonance which is resolved by convincing yourself you meant what you wrote.

The written word is particularly noted for affecting attitudes. People who put beliefs in writing are much more likely to embrace those beliefs.

Bush literally wined and dined the press corp. (Google "lobster ravioli" and Bush). This kind of gift is big enough to make an impression but not large enough that the reporters could justify a lapse in ethics (if I give you a million dollars to do something bad, it is easier to justify and creates less dissonance). Once again we get reciprocation, cognitive dissonance, modification of attitude.

Finally, we know that people tend to greatly underestimate how easily they can be influenced by any one of these things, but it's when they start reinforcing each other that you can get people to do truly startling things.

So, we have a scenario right out of a social psych book, fairly well documented examples of biased coverage, and an election so close that a major change in the tone of coverage could very probably have changed the result.

I think this one goes to Krugman.


  1. "goes to Krugman" is putting it a bit mildly. Gelman never presented any evidence or claimed he had any evidence to present. He just tells us what he would guess a priori about what is likely to happen in 2000.

    Krugman didn't present evidence either, but that's just because anyone who has ever paid any attention to the debate knows of the massive evidence which Gelman ignores.

    Also "google" as in Gelman doesn't appear to have googled at all before typing.

    Finally we see the separate realities in separate ideological bubbles. Many many lefties, progressives and liberals are familiar with the overwhelming evidence that political reporters treated Bush more equally than they treated Gore. I think this evidence is as close to proof as one can find in historiography.

    But Gelman hasn't even heard of the fact that many people consider the question settled. Krugman perceived no need to link to evidence, because he assumed that the fact that his claim is supported by massive evidence is well known. Gelman assumed that Krugman was just speculating, because he is completely unaware of a huge detailed literature.

  2. Robert,

    I think you might be focusing more on Andrew's original post rather than the post-script that I was discussing.

    In the PPPS, Andrew concedes that there's evidence of bias but wondered if personal distaste could trump partisanship. My point was given the situation and the reinforcing mechanisms in place, intense bias was likely. Furthermore, what we observed closely matched what the theory predicted.

    The bigger story here is that, as journalistic standards decline, these group dynamics are playing a larger and more destructive role.