Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nine Ways Political Writers Miss the Mark

When I first started writing about finance and politics, my blood would boil from reading some of the arguments other writers made. But now, not much in the way of poorly constructed articles surprises me anymore. One must either adapt or suffer an early stroke.
However, there are a number of commonly used writing tricks and fallacies that continue to get me riled up. They are subtle ways in which the writer attempts to disguise reality to support his point or are oversimplifications of the issues that make no sense upon closer examination and only serve to misguide the reader. Everyone from the hardcore libertarian to the downright Marxist and everyone in between has used at least one of the techniques listed below:
1. One-Dimensional Characters. People are complex. They want all sorts of things: money, power, love, attention, respect, etc. Anyone's career and life motivations are comprised of an intricate web of factors. Yet in the world of political writing, there are apparently only two motivations: greed and altruism. Any issue where a side has money to gain is explained by greed, and every action which doesn't seem to involve money is explained by pure altruism.
If a billionaire wants fewer and/or lower taxes, he is immediately labeled a "greedy aristocrat." If another billionaire wants higher taxes and universal health care, he is praised for his selflessness. In reality, the first billionaire is probably hardly greedy and the second is hardly altruistic. Why should someone with a billion dollars be concerned with any tax rate? Even if the marginal rate goes to 95%, his life will not change much. In many ways, the guy earning $150K per year has a lot more to fear from higher taxes than the billionaire.
But what of the supposed altruist? He has much to gain from his political position. Yes, people are motivated by money, but also by a desire for attention, power, and/or respect. The limelight and political power are just as intoxicating as piles of money. And those who value them are getting exactly what they want with these "altruistic" positions. Framing any argument only in the context of greed for money distorts the complex motivations of most people.
2. The Single Source. The title of these pieces will often go something like this: New Study Shows Minimum Wage Has No Effect on Unemployment. From there, the article will relay how this new paper's statistical analysis disproves flaws in the law and how policy makers should react. Of course, the article also ignores a few hundred other papers with the opposite conclusion. In some cases, this sort of article is okay, but in areas where the research to the contrary is extensive and the topic is hotly debated in academia, a single source is not adequate evidence to proclaim a "slam dunk" for your argument.
3. Speeches as Policy. Let's start with an example. In a campaign speech, Obama boldly speaks out against the wars. Hence, a journalist concludes that Obama has an anti-war foreign-policy stance. The problem is simple: words are not actions, but political writers are somehow allowed to sidestep this very obvious point. Both sides of the aisle manipulate this on the same issue sometimes. There are Democrats who support Obama because of his speeches on the wars in the Middle East, while neoconservatives attack him for the same words. Yet his actual foreign policy should appeal to the neoconservatives and should disgust the Democrats. There's a difference between policy analysis and speech analysis. Many journalists apparently still have not figured that out.
4. Unnecessary Side Comments. Oftentimes, a writer will throw in an extra, unnecessary phrase in an otherwise objective piece to nudge a reader toward a particular view. For example: "Mitt Romney received 60% of the votes, Santorum 20%, New Gingrich 10%, and Ron Paul, with little chance of winning, 8%." The writer isn't saying something untruthful, but the Ron Paul aside isn't necessary. From the vote count, readers can infer the low chance of Ron Paul winning. Nonetheless, the writer adds an extra nudge to the reader which provides no beneficial value. This is a tactic of the writer to slyly insert an opinion while maintaining a veneer of objectivity. To a casual reader, this may not seem like a big deal, but as a writer who rereads and considers each sentence several times prior to publishing, I know that such jabs and unnecessary side comments are hardly circumstantial - or trivial.
5. Foreign-Policy Expertise. In foreign-policy pieces, a writer will often accuse someone of a weak or na�ve foreign policy. But how does one prove that one is good or not at foreign policy? A fund manager earns returns, Kobe Bryant scores points, a businessman makes sales, and a construction worker builds houses. All of these professionals can show their expertise through results. But how do we know that an "expert" such as Karl Rove is really any good at foreign policy? Certainly, he has many opinions on the subject, and others often agree with him. But where are his results?
Foreign policy isn't physics, business, or engineering with observable answers. There isn't a clear right or wrong way of doing something. It all comes down to subjective opinions, so in many ways it's dumb to say, "Karl Rove has a strong foreign policy, while Obama is weak." In such a subjective field, it's impossible to prove one's opinion is really any more valuable than the next person's opinion. Calling someone's foreign policy views "weak" is a completely vacuous statement. We're not talking about the strength of a bridge, but only an opinion, and opinions can't really be weak or strong in that sense.
6. Good Intentions. Everyone has heard this a million times: "The other side has good intentions; they're just misguided." Journalists are always encouraged to find some middle ground. Hence, this approach makes the article sound more objective. And yes, they're correct to an extent - almost everyone does have good intentions.
However, if someone presents me with mountains of evidence against my point of view, yet I continue to hold my position, am I really that well intentioned? Pride and unwillingness to admit being wrong have superseded good intentions at that point. If good intentions are such prime motivators, why is there so much partisanship in Congress? Political-party pressures and one's own pride will sweep good intentions under the rug any day of the week, even when the other side is clearly right. Yet - so that journalists can maintain an objective tone to their articles - we are to imagine Congressmen as altruists battling over the best solutions to the country's many problems.
What about realizing that people are petty? Anyone who has ever had a political argument via blog or email knows this. Many people are unwilling to change their minds no matter the evidence or the argument. They just don't want to admit being wrong. It's a hard pill to swallow, but your Congressman is no more open-minded than a disgruntled blogger.
7. Good Guys Versus Bad Guys. It's almost never a story of the good guys versus the bad guys in the political realm. A story along the lines of the good union versus the evil corporation or vice versa is likely the lowest form of journalism out there. Good versus evil may be a good theme in Lord of the Rings, where heroes battle orcs. But in the real world, such a strong delineation is rarely seen.
8. Using a Story Instead of Facts. In these cases, the article starts with a story. Usually it will be an example of the most destitute person possible. For example: "Betty Jean has seven kids, and she works four jobs. She got fired last week, and she's also mentally handicapped. How is she supposed to pay for [insert your favorite activist cause - school lunches, health care, medicine, car, gasoline, rent, whatever]?" The article doesn't ever say how many people are in her situation, nor how big  the problem might be. Instead, we're supposed to form national policy prescriptions based on a single, worst-case-scenario story, which usually also leaves half of the facts out.
9. Events Explained Through Personal Values and Characteristics. It seems the media must explain everything through personal values. Take for example the latest financial crisis. Greed is always blamed as the cause. Success stories are explained in the same fashion. Economic growth in Asia is often explained by the thriftiness of the culture. It certainly helps, but there are plenty of countries around the world with very thrifty cultures that aren't doing so well economically. A change in policy toward free-enterprise and greater business freedom is what has really propelled places such as China and Singapore. I can guarantee that North Koreans are no less thrifty than their South-Korean counterparts.
The same goes with the financial crisis. Maybe, just maybe, the policies of the Federal Reserve lead to boom-and-bust cycles instead of explosions of greed. The markets don't move because we're good or bad people. Are we really to believe that everyone was less greedy in the '90s, so things were better? Even if this were true, it would be impossible to prove that greed was worse now than in 1995 or 1950, or while we're at it, 2000 B.C. Maybe I'm wrong; perhaps people back then didn't like money, power, fame, or respect.
Is it unnecessarily harsh to complain about these tactics? I don't think I'm asking too much. Simply tell the story as it is without trying to guide the reader through it. If your points are accurate, readers are naturally drawn to the conclusion. Most important, represent politicians for what they really are - people just like us instead - of virtuous altruists deciding on the world's direction.

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