Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An example of pretty good journalism with a funny kind of bias

I pick on journalists a lot.  Not in the way that Trump does because I'm not a pathological liar pissed off about getting called on those lies (nor do I call for violence against them...).  I'm just a pissed off math geek and pedant who still can't even deal with it when people use "data" as singular.  (Fuck you, Randall Munroe).  Still, journalists piss me off.

Sometimes, though, they do their jobs pretty well.  I still have to mess with them, though, to see how they handle it because I'm me.

A little over a week ago, I was contacted by a guy who works for "Lifezette," which is an operation run by a far far far-right talk radio personality (Laura Ingraham).  But, the guy actually wanted to ask me about redistricting.  That's kind of my thing.  I made my career on redistricting, making the counterintuitive argument that drawing competitive districts is paradoxically bad for democracy.  The writer wanted to ask me about my research.  As a general rule, I talk to journalists when they ask.

The guy, Brendan Kirby, wanted to write a piece about the conventional wisdom that gerrymandering caused polarization.  He was skeptical, and wanted to talk to some professors about it for an article.  He called me, Tom Brunell and Boris Schor (good choices on the topic).  He asked the right questions and knew his stuff!  But, I kind of wanted to mess with him, knowing the operation for which he worked.  So, once we got through some basics about how redistricting doesn't cause polarization, I steered to conversation towards the basics about what polarization is now, which I think is the... elephant in the room.  I don't think you can talk about polarization in Congress today without addressing the fact that the GOP is more extreme than the Democratic Party.  It's just true.  Facts are facts, and, well, check it out.  This is actually important for debunking the gerrymandering argument.  If it were about gerrymandering, the process wouldn't be as one-sided as it has been for decades, or if it were, the asymmetry would be in the other direction.  The real extremism wouldn't be in the Freedom Caucus, which doesn't represent the most homogeneous districts, but the real extremism is in the GOP because of its rightward movement, most evident in the Freedom Caucus. Kirby just barely touches on this in his article without coming out and admitting it, but this is important stuff, and you just can't talk about polarization in Congress without addressing its asymmetric nature.  So, I did.  A LOT, and at every turn in our conversation, I steered my comments towards it.

We chatted a lot about the asymmetric nature of polarization, and I talked about how we, as scholars, really don't have a handle on why it is asymmetric.  I was kind of testing him.  Would the asymmetric polarization stuff make it into his piece?

You can read his piece here.  On its own, it is actually pretty good.  Kirby is a smart guy, and he does a good journalistic job of debunking the gerrymandering nonsense.  But here's the thing-- he is writing for a fundamentally right-wing website that can't talk about the fact that polarization is so asymmetric in the way that it is.  Ingraham's fans want to hear about how the Democratic Party is a communist fifth column within America, not that the Republicans are the extremists.  If anything, to Ingraham's fans, they're cucks.  When I talked to Kirby about the asymmetry, the dude knew about NOMINATE scores!  When I threw those scores at him and talked about where Freedom Caucus members were compared to CBC members to show how asymmetric everything was, he knew what I was doing.  He knew that I was showing  that redistricting isn't responsible for polarization by showing that the GOP is more extreme than the Democratic Party rather than the other way around.  He just couldn't write it directly.

And you'd never know about what he excluded if you didn't read this.  Read that piece on its own and it looks like a guy who just talked to some professors about their research debunking conventional wisdom and bullshit.  And it kind of is.  The right-wing bias is hidden by what he excluded.

And of course, I was testing him because I do that.  It's finals season.  As a lesson to you, the reader, though, sometimes the bias is what you don't see.

And no, I don't particularly care about how many times he mis-spelled my name in that piece.  I'm accustomed to people mis-pronouncing it, or doing the Ben Stein thing.


  1. Ah, but do you care about how many times you mis-spelled Boris Shor's name in your blog post?

    1. Oh, did you c that?
      Was that intentional? Or, did I just accidentally type "Schor" because it was the last name of my college roommate, and it just made for a happy accident that looks hilarious in retrospect? I'll let you wonder about that.
      Nice to see you taking an interest in the major issues, though.

    2. Spelling errors make me mildly nauseous.

    3. A phrase that always indicates perfect sincerity...