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The [Friday] Papers

I want to talk a little bit more about that story in the Sun-Times yesterday about how Chicago had the third most Twitter users in the world because it has a larger relevance, as I hope to show.

The story placed Chicago behind just London and Los Angeles on the list of most Twitter users - and ahead of New York City.

Now, on the face of it, this is absurd. The population of New York City is 8.2 million. The population of Chicago is 2.8 million. Even setting aside the fact that New York City is the media capital of the world, does it make any sense at all that we could possibly have more Twitter users than NYC?

As I wrote yesterday, I went to the source of the story and found this at the very top: "Note: Rankings are by total number of twitter users (based on the 'Location' setting). This only works for users whose locations we could actually parse."

Scrolling through the list of top 50 cities, I found "New York" ranked fourth - and "Brooklyn" ranked 19th.

Clearly Chicago does not have the third most Twitter users in the world.

After receiving a call from a TV reporter, I dug in a little more. I found a "State of the Twittersphere 2008" report from the same folks who put out the rankings in question. On page 8 you can see that location settings include "New York," "New York City," "NYC," "Brooklyn," etc.

Now, is this the biggest deal in the world? Of course not. But it says something not only about the state of reporting, but the state of editing. Nobody thought, "Gee, that doesn't sound right?"

It's also on the small end of the same spectrum that, dare I say, leads the media to fail when it covers topics as large as a nation preparing to go to war. I don't think that's a stretch. Here's why.

Bob Somerby - a progressive Democrat who supports Barack Obama - wrote a post on his Daily Howler yesterday titled "MISSISSIPPI YEARNING! Obama embraced a ridiculous claim. The New York Times rushed to endorse it."

"It's odd when someone who's basically smart starts saying things which basically aren't," Somerby wrote. "We got that odd feeling when we read certain parts of Obama's speech on education, the one he delivered on Tuesday. For example, what does the highlighted statement mean? This passage comes from an important part of Obama's speech. But we had just the vaguest idea:

OBAMA (3/10/09): Let's challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the 21st century. Today's system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming - and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.

"That whole paragraph is impressively murky. But let's look at the highlighted statement.

"According to Obama, fourth-grade readers in Mississippi 'are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming - and getting the same grade.' Does anyone know what that actually means? Mississippi kids are scoring 'seventy points lower' on what? (Seventy points can represent a very large or very small difference in achievement, depending on the measure in question.) And what 'same grade' are both groups of kids getting? This was a very important speech - and this was a central contention within it. And yet, this statement makes no sense at all."

Somerby is right. By what measure is this statement true? And if it's true by some measure - Somerby was only able to find a 17-point gap in one particular, not necessarily worthy, set of test scores - how is it explained? Somerby takes a crack.

"Why are Mississippi's deserving kids scoring lower than Wyoming's? Because we aren't the world's dumbest people, we'll refer you to a measure on which these two groups of kids don't 'get the same grade.' Duh. In the educational world, what follows is the standard measure for poverty:

Percentage of public school students eligible for free/reduced lunch:
Wyoming: 29.7 percent
Mississippi: 67.5 percent

Racial composition of public school populations:

Wyoming: 84.5 percent white/1.5 percent black

Mississippi: 46.5 percent white/50.8 percent black

"Given what we know of American history - the history which extends right up to this day - could those data help explain the gap between those states' reading scores? Or must the gap be 'explained' by the measure your bloodless elites have picked out?

"Might we spend a few brief moments lingering here, out in the real world? In one of these states, forced illiteracy was official state policy, for several centuries, for what is now its largest student racial group . . .

"By the way: There's also a substantial difference in per pupil spending. In the 2005-2006 school year, Wyoming spent $11,392 per pupil - almost sixty percent more than Mississippi's $7166 . . .

"Does anyone think that this reading-score gap would flip if these two states swapped 'standards?' Does anyone think the difference in these states' reading scores is really determined by those 'standards?'"

Now, Obama is a politician and he can say whatever he wants for whatever purposes. But it's the media's job to vet what pols say. What really gets Somerby's ire - and rightly so - is the lack of critical thinking that went into reports of the president's speech.

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (3/12/09): Mr. Obama spoke in terms that everyone could understand when he noted that only a third of 13- and 14-year-olds read as well as they should and that this country's curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nation's schools have recently been engaged in "a race to the bottom" - most states have adopted abysmally low standards and weak tests so that students who are performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers come test time.

The nation has a patchwork of standards that vary widely from state to state and a system under which he said "fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming - and they're getting the same grade." In addition, Mr. Obama said, several states have standards so low that students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.

"Good God," Somerby writes. "The Times goes out of its way to quote Obama's claim about Mississippi. (They're scoring nearly seventy points lower!) But then, that last statement is incoherent too. In some states, 'students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe?' To state the obvious, some students will score quite low in every one of the fifty states; that is the nature of large populations. In this incoherent paraphrased statement, Obama says that 'students' (we aren't told how many) could end up 'on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.' Does that mean that this unstated number of students will match the average score of that forty percent? Does it mean that they will score below the world's fortieth percentile? This paraphrased statement is doubly incoherent."

Now let's move on. The lead story in today's Tribune is splayed across the top of its front page: "Big State Income Tax Hike? Sources: Quinn considers 50% increase to deal with budget gap."

A 50 percent increase!

On the other hand, the story states that the increase being discussed would increase the tax rate from 3 percent to 4.5 percent. Hey, that doesn't sound so bad!

And yet, it's the same thing. But you see, percentage increases always sound bigger when you are dealing with small numbers. If that state tax rate was 1 percent and it was going to increase to 2 percent, that'd be a 100 percent increase! Crime rate doubles! Four burglaries in Mayberry instead of two.

So you can see that up and down the spectrum, our nation's newspapers quite simply don't do a very good job.. And they are thousands of times better than our broadcast outlets.

What gives?

Oldstream journalists like to complain that the digerati doesn't understand journalism nor appreciate how hard reporting really is. In some cases that is true, but I've found that people in newsrooms don't understand journalism or what real reporting is. A veteran journalist in town once looked around the Trib newsroom and said to me, "A lot of people think they have 10 years of experience, but what they really have is 10 years of one year of experience."

The last thing I want to do is inflame another war with Eric Zorn, but he shows a basic misunderstanding of how to report on people in power - and especially in elected office - when he writes that "When I suggest that Rhodes show us how it's done, I mean, for example, that instead of carping about how City Hall reporters don't ask the right questions of Mayor Daley at news conferences and are letting him off the hook, he should come on down to one of his very frequent press availabilities and show the rest of those poor slobs the way to cut through the bull and force the mayor to admit everything."

This reminds me of a reporter at my college paper who couldn't understand why, as the managing editor, I wouldn't allow his interview with the college president go forward because he had sent his questions in writing ahead of time. "C'mon," he said, "it's not like you're going to trap him."

Really? I mean, "trapping" someone isn't really the goal, but experienced reporters have files full of stories in which interviews were quite revealing. Our job is to ask questions. And yes, it takes savvy and experience and forethought to ask the right questions the right way at the right time. It's called "interviewing." There are books about it.

Now, as far as the mayor's press conferences go (and apparently my body of work - as well as that of thousands of journalists far better than I - doesn't satisfy Zorn that I'm not just issuing "airy proclamations"), I'm not sure I would send a reporter to them in the first place if I was running a paper.

Is that really the best way to cover the mayor? Why let him determine the agenda and environment under which he can avoid accountability? Those press conferences are a tool the mayor uses to get out his message without having to face reporters individually. I'd be more satisfied having my every interview request (or that of any reporter working for me) denied and saying so with every story published.

(This is also why Barack Obama accepted invitations to appear before the newspaper editorial boards here to answer questions about Tony Rezko, in rooms packed with onlookers, instead of facing, say, David Jackson and/or Tim Novak alone in a quiet room. Who lets their subject off the hook by granting a group interview/hug?)

The point isn't to force Daley to admit his crimes - though Daley is certainly the kind of person most susceptible to doing just that. He wants to say he did it! He's dying to say he did it! The point is to ask him real questions in a real conversation - and not just to capture some offhand sentiment so you can write a story like Fran Spielman so often does proclaiming that "Mayor Daley said Thursday that he is 'very concerned' about such-and-such" or that "the mayor is 'not happy' about this-or-that or that "he said he will 'review' the situation."

Now it's true that Spielman is an aggressive questioner at Daley's press conferences. But to what end?

Yesterday Spielman tried to get in a question about the ongoing Al Sanchez trial when the mayor preferred to talk about the stimulus money coming our way. He stiffed her.

"At least she tried," Rich Samuels said on Chicago Tonight, where I saw the videotape.

Yes, but is that really the best way to do it? (Especially when the mayor knows he can find another questioner to tack in a different direction, or just shut down the press conference and go home.) The mayor, like others in power, spends oodles of dollars and his staff boatloads of time strategizing about how to deal with the media. How much time does the media spend strategizing about how to deal with the mayor?

Press conferences are not your friends.

And then it's how you write the stories. I didn't see a story today that led with "Mayor Daley once again refused to address testimony in a federal trial that City Hall hiring was rigged for his political benefit . . . " with a description of said refusal. Why not? One could have added that "the mayor's refusal to comment on yet another federal corruption trial that could send high-level aides to prison for work they did on his behalf comes just a day after Daley falsely claimed he could not answer questions because of trial rules. There is no such constraint on him."

Asking questions, of course, is an art. If you saw Jon Stewart's interview of Jim Cramer last night, you saw a supreme act of journalism. It required research and forethought - it wouldn't have been nearly as devastating without the video that Stewart used to call out Cramer on his weasely claims.

Jon Stewart is a comedian, but has anyone conducted a journalistic interview better than that in the last year?

Chicago has the third most Twitter users on the planet. Income taxes are going up by 50 percent. Fourth-graders in Mississippi are scoring 70 points lower than those in Wyoming. We are at the mercy of Mayor Daley's "bull." And a comedian is this generation's Walter Cronkite.


In the Tribune today I see this: "Chicago Olympic boosters are scrambling to increase taxpayer support to shore up a fundamental weakness in their bid just weeks before international officials arrive to evaluate the strength of the city's pitch."

We all know that taxpayer money has already been spent on the Olympic bid, a lot more will be spent if we get the bid, and that the city and state guarantees put the taxpayers at greater risk than has adequately been reported. Do we have to be clever enough to get Pat Ryan to admit it, or can we play on our own field and let him into the game only on our terms?


Jon Stewart was incredulous that Jim Cramer was surprised his "friends," the CEOs of the nation's most prestigious financial institutions, lied to him. First, you cannot be friends with these people - and that goes for elected officials and political strategists too - because you will be surprised when they lie to you. Second, as Stewart noted, the fundamental function of what we do is to independently verify what people (and particularly people in power) tell us. It's not to trust them. If TwitterGrade says it, check it out. If the president says it, check it out. You are not obliged to be the conduit for the mayor or anyone else.

Editors used to ream reporters who were afraid to ask tough questions. I remember like it was yesterday the time when the managing editor of the paper I worked for in Florida stormed into the newsroom one day upset because my partner on the police beat hadn't gotten an answer from the police chief about the value of a take-home police car program he was proposing. "Why can't we ask a question around here!" he bellowed. Asked and answered by the end of the day.

And I can fondly say that when I was the managing editor of the Minnesota Daily lo these many years ago, I stole a line from a source I don't recall and included it in my one and only memo to the staff: "When conducting an interview, always be asking yourself in the back of your mind, Why is this bastard lying to me?"

It's not about playing gotcha. That's not my thing. It's about thinking what your goal is every day, and having a strategy in your reporting. And it's about perspective. If TwitterGrade says your city has the third most users in the world, your reaction as a journalist in Chicago ought to be, "That can't be right. And if it is, who cares? Now, what are we going to do with the mayor today . . . "

In Today's Beachwood
* Liar's Poker. Calling all Bush officials.
* Fibers and Wax. In TrackNotes.
* Jockeys gets sudsy. In What I Watched Last Night.
* The Five Dumbest Ideas of the Week. And the people who had them.


The Beachwood Tip Line: On the rail.


Posted on March 13, 2009

MUSIC - December In Chicago Drill.
TV - Don't Weaken Media Ownership Limits.
POLITICS - Another SRO Crisis.
SPORTS - TrackNotes: Mom.

BOOKS - How Stereo Was Sold To A Skeptical Public.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Chicago Footwork King's Bail Battle.

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