Sourcing

October 6, 2011

Another day, another letter to the NYT Public Editor. I refer to:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

from this Deal Book column:

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/10/03/on-wall-street-a-protest-matures

Andrew Ross Sorkin has his way with NYTimes policies on anonymous sourcing in this column.

First, he demonstrates his complete disregard for NY Times rules. He grants anonymity to an incoming call. A bank CEO calls him up, and is apparently completely secure that he is (quoting Tim Russert’s testimony in the Libby trial) “presumptively off the record.” Here’s the official NYTimes policy regarding interviewing sources and anonymity:

In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source.

It’s hard to think of a way to more completely flout this policy. That he can be a prominent NYT columnist, on one of the most important beats in the country at this time, and considers the anonymity rules as something he need pay no attention to, is really something David Carr might want to report on, if he worked somewhere else.

Consider this:

we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.

It’s hard not to laugh out loud. “We who have sought out a source” couldn’t be more directly opposite to how sourcing works here. Glenn Greenwald doesn’t exaggerate when he calls the anonymous CEO Sorkin’s assignment editor. The Times policy makes anonymous sourcing an extraordinary event. Sorkin’s (presumably passing through two or more editors) column makes it an absolutely routine part of his daily intercourse with sources.

And you know what’s really newsworthy here? The identity of the source. What bank CEO calls up the New York Times and dispatches a major columnist off to write a story? Shouldn’t the Times get someone on that? Isn’t it in the public interest to know which money center bank (which is how I read “major”) has this kind of influence over Times reporting?

It’s not like the official policy doesn’t reflect this concern:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Can you please ask Sorkin’s editors how the story passed that bar? How else can you characterize the quoted conversation–other than “special pleading”? Isn’t the real story here the level of concern among “CEO(s) of major banks” about the demonstration? Wouldn’t the proper journalistic response be to call up the other CEOs and ask them about their level of concern? And get them on the record?

The hilarity continues:

Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.
We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

In this case, the source is engaging in information-free speculation–is he in danger from those people? He needs to know, and sends Sorkin off to engage in his own speculation, based on what information he can gather on the source’s behalf.

At the very least, could you please ask Sorkin’s editors why this source is anonymous, and to ask Sorkin to stop embarrassing the paper by flouting its anonymity rules? I really do think there is a story here as well–just as there was a Jayson Blair story and a Judith Miller story. Maybe one of your more journalistic business reporters, like Gretchen Morgenson, could take a crack at it.


Suppression

October 3, 2011

I write letters.  To the public editor, regarding Michael Cooper’s he said/she said article today on Republican voter suppression:

Michael Cooper’s article on new state voting laws (filed in the “politics” sub-section of the US section of the website, and IIRC on the front page of my subscription edition of the TImes) is a pretty stunning example of really bad “he said, she said” journalism. Consider the fifth paragraph:

Republicans, who have passed almost all of the new election laws, say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and question why photo identification should be routinely required at airports but not at polling sites. Democrats counter that the new laws are a solution in search of a problem, since voter fraud is rare. They worry that the laws will discourage, or even block, eligible voters — especially poor voters, young voters and African-American voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

And also consider the lede:

Since Republicans won control of many statehouses last November, more than a dozen states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives.

There isn’t a question of opinion or ideology here. These are questions of fact. Is it true that voter fraud can be prevented by requiring photo IDs at the time of voting, reducing the length of time balloting is open or making it harder for people to register? Is there any evidence, at all, that what the Republicans are saying to justify suppressing turnout is actually true? The rest of the article goes on to point out that the effect, the intended effect, of these measures is to suppress voter turnout among groups that tend to vote for Democrats. How can Michael Cooper, or his editors, write this up as “GOP says fraud” while “Dems say there is no fraud” and then leave it there?

The one actual quotation from someone who favors suppressing Democratic votes concedes there is no fraud taking place that is within 4 orders of magnitude of the planned suppression:

“The left always says that people who are in favor of this claim there is massive fraud,” said Mr. von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation. “No, I don’t say that. I don’t think anybody else says that there is massive fraud in American elections. But there are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you’ve got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections.”

In the first place, the suppression effort IS massive.  According to the article, it is meant to reduce turnout in the high hundreds of thousands to millions. If there is no massive fraud, then why does von Spakovsky support a massive effort to prevent citizens from exercising their right to franchise. Moreover, where is Michael Cooper here? Where are the questions: “What history? What recent events? How many instances of fraud, and of what magnitude? Can you document even a dozen cases of fraud caused by early voting, registration drives, or the absence of ID?”

The republicans are engaging in blatant attempts to suppress Democratic voters. This is newsworthy! It needs to be reported accurately, using actual facts, instead of presenting obviously disprovable lies as possibly valid.


Incidence

September 21, 2011

I hate the corporate income tax.  I hate it for a number of reasons, which I hope to post here over the next week or two.

The first reason I hate the tax is because it is hard to determine who, in the end, pays the tax. Economists call the distribution of the burden of a tax its incidence. Economists prefer taxes with a clear burden; public policy objectives can be inadvertently distorted if the distribution of a tax is not well understood.  The incidence is not necessarily apparent. Many economists believe, for instance, that the division of the payroll tax into an employee and an employer share doesn’t accomplish its end–of putting half the burden on the employer.  The employer doesn’t calculate his pay offer based on the base number. He or she calculates total compensation, including benefits and the payroll tax, and makes the pay offer accordingly.

In comparison, the corporate income tax represents a nightmarish problem of determining incidence.  The tax is aimed at the shareholders of the corporation, but depending on the price elasticities in both the product and the labor markets, the tax may be shifted to either workers or consumers.  The corporation’s goal is maximizing after tax profits.  Doing so may involve both evading/avoiding the tax, and attempting to shift the burden onto either consumers of their products (through price increases) or their employees (through wage cuts).

If a product is highly price inelastic–that is, if consumers are not sensitive to price increases–and the industry concentrated, tacit pricing agreements shift the burden of the tax to consumers. Tobacco is an obvious example. Likewise, if labor markets are slack, the corporate income tax burden can be shifted onto workers, in the form of lower wages or reduced benefits.

If the intention is to tax capital holders, then it makes sense to use a tax that does so more directly.  For instance, a stock transaction tax would be very difficult to shift onto any group other than stockholders.

In the end, though, Mitt Romney was right. Corporations may not actually be people, but in the end, corporations don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes. The trouble with the corporate income tax is that it’s hard to figure out who those people are.


Universal

September 21, 2011

September 22nd brings cosmologist Lee Smolin to Virtually Speaking.  His current work involves questioning the widely held view among cosmologists that our universe is one of many, many universes–that it is part of a mulitverse.

Three decades ago, talk of other universes was not seen by most physicists to be part of science. Most research in theoretical physics and cosmology concerned observable features in our universe and most papers and seminars referred to experimental results. However, since then there has been a gradual shift, during which it first became acceptable to work on theories that described not only our universe, but other possible universes, universes with less or more dimensions, or universes with different kinds of particles and forces. In the last few years, we have moved further away from theories of our one universe, as these other worlds went from being logically possible to hypothetically actual. It is now common to hear about the multiverse – a quantum cosmology that takes for granted that the visible universe at we see around us is just one of a vast or infinitenumber of universes.

Lee has come to believe that this view (that he shared) is mistaken, and the linked article explains why.  One of the more interesting problems with the multiverse point of view is that it implies (in the formal, logical sense of the word) that the multiverse is time-less, that time is an emergent property of a particular universe, and is not a fundamental property. In Lee’s view, this is a serious problem, nearly as serious as the difficulties the multiverse paradigm has in generating testable hypotheses.

We get better results, he says, if we operate with a model of one universe that includes real time as a fundamental property. The difficulty with this paradigm is it violates a fundamental assumption of experimental physics, that the universe’s laws are uniform everywhere, and throughout time.

You can read a summary at the link above, or watch a video of Lee and his co-author presenting their position.


Anniversary

September 11, 2011

Cliff Schecter wrote THE September 11 post. here.

We’ll talk about it tonight.

 

 

 


Monsters

September 6, 2011

Bill Keller lists them:

It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, “The Threatening Storm,” became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.

Worth noting they all have jobs, now.


Government

June 16, 2011

Aaron Bady blogs at zunguzungu.wordpress.com. This post, about Julian Assange, went viral in the Twittersphere among folks interested in WikiLeaks. We’ll talk about it tonight.


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