Friday, June 5, 2015

The internet has made historical revisionism so much easier

[UPDATE: Brad DeLong found an arguably more embarrassing example from the National Journal.]

This may be the best example of New York Times political reporting you will see you all day.

It started as a standard narrative journalism/puff piece. Amy Chozick and Trip Gabriel used a handful of anecdotes and a couple of well-received speeches to build a breathless account of political underdog Carly Fiorina surging toward the lead.

Hack political writers love this narrative. They also gravitate toward positive stories about candidates with whom they are comfortable. When I say "comfortable" I am talking about culture not politics. I will try to back this up in future posts, but I have long argued that left/right biases are far less common than more significant biases involving class, race, religion, region, education, etc. While the New York Times probably disagrees with most of Fiorina's politics, they are more than comfortable with almost everything else about her, from her prominent family to her CEO background to her wealth and extravagant lifestyle.

So far, all of this is just another day at the office for the New York Times election beat. Soon after the piece ran, however, people started to notice that the writers had really buried their lede. Deep in the story, it was revealed that Fiorina's surge was not quite as substantial as the headline suggested.

From paragraph 8 (as pointed out by Duncan Black):
While supporters in Iowa noted that she had doubled her standing in state polls, it was a statistically insignificant change from 1 percent to 2 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released May 6. (That may seem piddling, but the same poll had Mr. Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, also at 2 percent, while 5 percent supported Mr. Bush.)
It is one thing to have a paragraph in the middle of your story that completely undercuts your premise; it is quite another to have people point out a paragraph in the middle of your story that completely undercuts your premise. A quick rewrite was definitely in order.

The resulting headline doesn't make a lot of sense -- if the polls are a reflection of the state's voters, Iowans appear to be swoon-shrugging over Fiorina -- but it does partially inoculate the story from further mockery.

Of course, the NYT has standards. They don't just rewrite a published story without even acknowledging it. The original headline is right there at the bottom of the page.

In small print and pale gray letters.

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