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The aura of numbers-crunching superstar Nate Silver was diminished by Donald Trump’s victory. He was seen as among the many missing the boat. Old media chortled at stumbling by a paragon of big data.
Now comes Silver’s pre-inaugural revenge.
He returned after what sounds like a geek’s version of a cleansing spa retreat in Northern California. He’s spent several months stepping back and mulling what happened during the campaign. Apparently leaving even few stray thoughts on a digital cutting room floor, he unveils the first of a 12-part occasional series on how the press screwed up, understatedly titled “the real story of 2016.” (FiveThirtyEight)
And that does include him, at least somewhat, though a certain defensiveness makes Silver underscore that he gave Trump a greater chance (about 30 percent) than most. The arrogance that courses Big Data’s universe can easily be inferred here, but similarly clear are accurate judgments about a journalism disaster.
His series, he says, will largely focus on the news (not investigative or blogging) coverage of The New York Times, a recent (and not harmonious) home for his FiveThirtyEight. He believes that its influence remains substantial and that its coverage encapsulates the basic press errors in maintaining that Hillary Clinton would win.
“Why, then, had so many people who covered the campaign been so confident of Clinton’s chances? This is the question I’ve spent the past two to three months thinking about.”
The answers, he contends, are “more instructive for how to cover Trump’s White House and future elections than the ones you’d get by simply blaming the polls for the failure to foresee the outcome. They also suggest there are real shortcomings in how American politics are covered, including pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective from the longer arc of American history.”
In his mind, overconfidence in Clinton’s chances had more to do than just placing inordinate faith in polls. “The most obvious error, given that Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, is that they frequently mistook Clinton’s weakness in the Electoral College for being a strength. They also focused extensively on Clinton’s potential gains with Hispanic voters, but less on indications of a decline in African-American turnout.”
His view of the accurate assessment of Trump’s win, which he feels the press missed, consists of these elements: The background conditions were pretty good for Trump all along; demographics actually gave Trump a big advantage in the Electoral College; voter preferences varied substantially based on news events, and the news cycle ended on a big downturn for Clinton.
“This is an uncomfortable story for the mainstream American press. It mostly contradicts the way they covered the election while it was underway (when demographics were often assumed to provide Clinton with an Electoral College advantage, for instance).”
“It puts a fair amount of emphasis on news events such as the (FBI Director James) Comey letter, which leads to questions about how those stories were covered. It’s much easier to blame the polls for the failure to foresee the outcome, or the Clinton campaign for blowing a sure thing. But we think the evidence lines up with our version of events. And if almost everyone got the first draft of history wrong in 2016, perhaps there’s still time to get the second draft right.”
There’s far more to come. Far more. One just hopes that ego doesn’t displace analytical concision, as bright as Silver may be. He’s already detailed his conclusions rather clearly here.
How Google hawks its products
“A Wall Street Journal analysis found that ads for products sold by Google and its sister companies appeared in the most prominent spot in 91 percent of 25,000 recent searches related to such items. In 43 percent of the searches, the top two ads both were for Google-related products.” (Wall Street Journal)
“The analysis, run by search-ad-data firm SEMrush, examined 1,000 searches each on 25 terms, from ‘laptops to ‘speakers’ to ‘carbon monoxide detectors.’ SEMrush ran the searches Dec. 1 on a desktop computer, blocking past web-surfing history that could influence results.”
“The results show how Google uses its dominant search engine to boost other parts of its business and give it an edge over competitors, which include some of its biggest advertising customers.”
Trump’s petty revenge
Jonathan Salant, Washington correspondent for NJ Advance Media who has covered every presidential inauguration since 1989, informs me of the following:
“The presidential inaugural committee imposed a blackout on regional newspapers with Washington correspondents. They never returned emails, never responded to requests and denied everyone credentials to cover the Trump inaugural events but never told anyone so reporters had to wait on lines to pick up non-existent credentials.”
They wouldn’t even let reporters pick up their already-approved Secret Service credentials, Salant said.
“The Regional Reporters Association email list was buzzing the last two days as Washington reporters from papers across the country traded stories of not being told anything about their credentials, and being turned away when they showed up to try to find out anything,” he said.
Salant has “never seen such disdain for the media,” he said.
“It costs nothing to send out an email saying you don’t have credentials, or even less effort to hand out the already-issued Secret Service credentials to reporters spending more than an hour trying to find out whether they had been accredited because the inaugural committee didn’t have the common courtesy to respond.”
As President-elect Trump would tweet, ‘Sad!'”
A brief chill at Perry hearing
Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who’s nominee for Energy Secretary, confronted lots of special pleadings from members of a Senate committee yesterday. Everybody has a program they don’t want cut, or more money they want him to find if confirmed.
And Chairman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, used a journalism staple to make her case: a weather story. It’s important that Alaskans get heat, she said. To that end, she held up a newspaper story with the headline “Frigid Fairbanks” above a photo of a gas station’s digital signage announcing the temperature: minus-52 degrees. (Daily News Miner)
Damning or just flawed?
The media gave enormous attention to a Justice Department (DOJ) report on the Chicago Police Department. “Chicago Police Routinely Trampled on Civil Rights, Justice Dept. Says” in The New York Times was typical.
But, as a rather acute assessment of the report notes, “The reader never learns how many incidents of allegedly unconstitutional behavior the Justice Department found, nor how those incidents compare with the universe of police-civilian contacts conducted by the Chicago Police Department.” (City Journal)
“No clue is provided regarding why the DOJ lawyers concluded that the alleged abuses reached the mysterious threshold for constituting a pattern or practice. Instead, the report uses waffle words like ‘several,’ ‘often,’ or ‘many’ as a substitute for actual quantification. This vacuum of information hasn’t stopped the mainstream media from trumpeting the report as yet another exposé of abusive, racist policing.’Excessive force is rife in Chicago, U.S. review finds,’ read the headline on The New York Times’s front-page story, which went on to note that the excessive force was ‘chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.'”
In defense of White House briefings
Amid rumors that Trump may curtail the tradition of failing press briefings, Julie Mason, host of a SiriusXM show on the media, writes, “The briefings exist not to serve journalists’ vanity, although that too, but the briefings also are closely watched around the world and serve an important messaging function for the White House.” (U.S. News & World Report)
“The existing practices are important symbols of American democracy, handy when U.S. officials prod other nations to step up their own press freedoms and civil rights. No president rejoices at the work of its captive press corps, but most understand why it’s necessary.”
Meacham on Bush v. Trump
With former President George H.W. Bush hospitalized, I tracked down journalist-historian Jon Meacham to compare Bush with Trump. (U.S. News & World Report)
It was a reminder of how increasingly ideological the political and media environment became around the time of Bush’s term. There wasn’t just the rise of Newt Gingrich, his congressional rabble-rousers and freelance partisanship. There was the arrival of Rush Limbaugh on talk radio and the then-mainstay cable shows like CNN’s “Crossfire” and syndicated fare such as “The McLaughlin Group.”
Bush couldn’t fathom or stand any of it, said Meacham. He’d look at transcripts and shake his head. He was decorous and, increasingly, out of sync with the times and, now, all that Trump represents and practices.
Investigating The Daily Beast
The Daily Beast hammered Reed Cordish, a new Trump adviser, for involvement with a company accused of racially discriminatory practices. (Daily Beast) Now Dan Abrams’ Law Newz checks it out and says the tale is wildly inaccurate.
“None of these cases resulted in a court finding that Reed Cordish or Cordish Companies engaged in racial discrimination, and statements claiming that they did have racist practices have come under significant doubt. So why run a story about it?” (Law Newz)
Now comes an “Editor’s Note” atop the Daily Beast opus: “This story has been updated with a statement from the Trump transition team and clarified that Cordish himself was not sued and that two plaintiffs lost in summary judgment.”
Annals of media self-absorption
“Riding Metro to DC for the inauguration, the 7th I’ve been part of covering,” New York Times reporter Michael Shear tweets this morning. “Always an amazing moment in democracy.” Thanks for the transit update. More telling is his solid overview of the cabinet nomination hearings so far. (The New York Times)
Prowling a party
Last night’s pre-Inaugural festivities included the DeploraBall, a not-quite-alt-right inauguration party at the National Press Club. Didn’t make it? “Don’t feel bad: Neither could much of the media, though we certainly tried.” (BuzzFeed)
“Of the more than 200 requests for press passes the organizers of the event received, they granted only 20.” Said one party planner, ““Otherwise, it would have been one reporter for every fifth person.”
Financial get of the week
“How Deutsche Bank made a $462 million loss disappear” (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) It’s a tale of a financial sleight of hand that goes ethically well beyond being ingenious.
The morning babble
With New York transplanted to Washington, Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” opened at 6 a.m. Eastern with his upbeat sense of history about the day’s events. Trump, he said, is “a real estate guy and a builder, and this is the most valuable real estate, figuratively and actually, in the whole wide world and that’s where he’s going to be living.”
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” opted for a bar, not the usual glass-encased outdoor set overlooking the Capitol. There, Joe Scarborough declared the need for calm and not pre-judging the guy since, he informed, there’s a disjoint between the rhetoric of the public Trump and the one who’s been on the phone with world leaders. Or so he claimed before turning into a lecturer and getting preachy on the need for the press to be “fair,” avoid “snarky tweets” and “tell the whole story.” Thanks.
CNN exhibited a rather firm grasp of the obvious, with Salena Zito, a Washington Examiner reporter deemed an astute chronicler of Trump, underscoring the importance in Trump’s address of “tone” and “body language.” She noted, too, that Obama’s daughters had largely grown up in the White House. Yes, we know.
Wayne Barrett was among a cadre of fabulous reporters who were the soul of The Village Voice during its alternative weekly heyday in New York City. Growing up there, I found intoxicating his frequent unveiling of a netherworld of double-dealing, corruption and hypocrisy. His were the stories behind the stories.
His handiwork was alluring in no small measure because of its passion and exhaustive precision in dissecting the frequent complexity of deceit. Mayors, council members and, yes, a developer named Donald Trump were all unmasked by him. His files used for a Trump biography, and his collegiality, “made his Brooklyn home a mecca for investigative reporters during the recent presidential campaign.” (New York Times) He was really good. (The New Yorker)
Barrett, 71, who passed away, was a mentor to many, including Glenn Thrush, a fine reporter most recently at Politico and now at The New York Times. He tweeted, “Wayne Barrett’s lessons: 1) F–k cynicism 2) If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention 3) people want to confess their sins.”
I found this lede of his: “Ed Koch and I were inaugurated on the same day in 1978. He became mayor and I became his weekly tormentor.” (Village Voice)
Since I’ve got at least three soccer games to get to this weekend — one at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, another at 7 a.m. Sunday — I will make sure to check out the Barrett archive included in the Voice’s own obituary. (Village Voice) So might you.