Monday, October 29, 2012

Birds of a feather

I've been reading Nate Silver's book, "The Signal and the Noise," lately. You might know Silver's work lately from his New York Times blog that came over from, although there's still a link that way and I think you can avoid the paywall that's usually up. But I've been a fan since his days when he worked for Baseball Prospectus, the geniuses that come up with some of the most innovative writing in the business as they match statistical research with innovative projections and good writing.

Silver made his political reputation in 2008 when he called 49 of 50 states right as well as all the Senate races. His new book is on the science of predicting and forecasting, as he goes through a variety of areas. For example, weather forecasting has gotten much better in recent years. Weather experts a few decades ago used to need a day before determining a city such as New Orleans would get pounded. Now they have the same chance of predictive success three days out. How many lives has that saved in recent years?

In the early part of the book, Silver makes a great point about the state of information in this country, and that leads to an even better point about where journalism in this country right now. In fact, this whole idea could turn into another book for someone.

The starting point centers on how the amount of information available to the average citizen these days has simply exploded. That's mostly due to the Internet, of course, although the rise of cable television in the 1980's and the ever-expanding number of books that are published in one form or another factors in as well.

But here's the catch - it doesn't mean the audience is learning anything. In fact, we're probably learning less, at least in terms of information worth knowing.

That's because we now can pick out who is delivering the news to us, and make sure the point of view matches our own. You don't have to hear an opposing position, unless it's almost by accident.

We have to give Fox News credit for starting this trend, for better or for worse. Conservatives for years have claimed that most of the media has a liberal bias, dating back I guess to Nixon and Agnew. Personally, I don't think it was as big as claimed, but most journalists I know are a little more liberal than the population as a whole because they have a bias for action. Doing nothing, in the conservative tradition, doesn't create much news.

The group at Fox perceived an opening in the political dialogue by hiring conservatives in their prime-time commentary role, and then mixing in points of view during the rest of the day (although liberal guests usually get double-teamed by the conservative anchors). Viewers flocked to it. MSNBC tried the same approach to the left, but hasn't been as financially successful - perhaps due to demographics, perhaps due to the fact the outlet doesn't do bias as well as Fox.

But that's not all. There are conservative and liberal web sites. For every Drudge Report there's a Huffington Post. It keeps getting easier not to read a discouraging word about your side. And I'd have to guess that has made people much more likely to accept ridiculous points of view that are self-generated and promoted but which have no basis in reality (see the whole Obama birthplace matter). That sells more books by authors from the fringes, because the points of view have a better chance of being accepted.

That leads to the question of what this all means for journalists. Can't say I like it.

Our training is to try to figure out what's accurate, sort out the facts, and come to some conclusions. If candidates lie in political speeches or ads, this profession is the one that's charged with calling it to everyone's attention. It's taken very seriously, at least on this end. But to take one example, Mitt Romney apparently feels free to say and place in an ad the implied fact that Jeep is moving a product line to China without fear of being shouted down by responsible third parties.

At this point in the political cycle, I could use some good, objective information on what's going on. There are plenty of good journalists who are trained to think that way. Sometimes I think I'm one of the few who appreciate that sort of approach. Most people seem to want to only hear from their side; any other opinion is part of the "lamestream media," to quote noted philosopher Sarah Palin. 

And is there anything worse than listening or reading to someone put an obvious spin on events, even if they don't care about facts? I can appreciate the fact that office holders have to spout the party line on television and in print interviews, but I could do without these relatively anonymous unnamed party strategists.

My guess is that all of this tends to harden political positions. That leads to strict party conformity, a feeling that the other side is filled with idiots (we've been bashing Presidents since Reagan in one form or another), and a sense that compromise is death politically.

None of this is good. The process is headed in the wrong direction, and I'm not sure how we turn any of it around.

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Monday, October 22, 2012


What's the most uncomfortable situation in the sports world these days?

How about being introduced to Lance Armstrong?

He's had a tough year. Armstrong has lost all of his Tour de France titles, as well as, I assume, a few other championships that no one really cares about. He's lost his main sponsors, such as Nike. Armstrong has left his charity, Livestrong. Everyone he ever met, seemingly, during his racing career has testified that he was a cheater and a bully.

Oh, and on Monday, the New York City Marathon took his name out of its archives of finishers. Mary Wittenberg, the head of New York Road Runners and one of my favorite interviews in the running business, is always on top of things.

I've written before about the effects of a letdown. It came earlier this year in the context of the Sabres missing the playoffs when hopes were so high about a Stanley Cup the previous fall. We're seeing more of it in Buffalo with the Bills, who supposedly had upgraded their defense with some topnotch acquisitions. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstadt is the current choice of local fans to be the scapegoat, although you have to think the players bear a good-sized share of the responsibility for all of this.

But Armstrong isn't a case of losing a few football games. This is a special level of disappointment. Ben Johnson let down all of Canada when his doping story broke hours after he won a gold medal in 1988. The Armstrong case centers on someone who had been admired for more than a decade, and now he's been firmly identified as a cheater and a liar.That's crushing.

Armstrong was such a good story. He was a promising cyclist who was moving up the ladder in the world rankings when he was diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong wasn't expected to live, let alone compete again. He beat the disease, came back better than ever, and starting winning Tour de France titles i 1999 ... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

How could you not root for a guy like that? And more to the point, how could you not consider donating to his cancer-fighting foundation? A lot of people did write those checks, and $500 million was raised by Livestrong. That's a half-billion dollars, which sounds even more impressive.

While all of this was going on, the sport of cycling continued to be hit with scandals involving drug use. It seemed that no one could ever reach the podium in Paris without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.

Except Lance. He kept passing the drug tests, one after another. Armstrong defiantly pointed that out whenever there was the hint of an issue with those tests, or his involvement with a doctor who was known to "help" cyclists with their needs at the nearest pharmacy. In hindsight, how easy must have it been for people to dodge positive test results? Better living through chemistry, indeed.

Eventually, the wall all came down, and in an unconventional fashion. Rather than rely on tests, the USADA instead turned to testimony from Armstrong's teammates. The wall of silence didn't just fall, it crashed into a zillion pieces. Today, those pieces were swept away and put into the dustbin of history. Lance Armstrong no longer exists, as least in the history books.

Cycling has worked hard to clean up its image in the last few years. It's tough to say if this episode is another step forward in that direction, or one last huge blow to the sport's reputation. Maybe both.

Armstrong hasn't commented on any of this, merely saying at one point a while ago that he chose not to fight the charges any more. His web site as of this writing still recognizes his Tour de France wins, and still says Armstrong "has become one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era." Well, at this point, it's half-right.

What do we do with such people? Some sort of public apology is the usual first step, no matter when it comes. I suppose at some point he'll write a book, explaining the whole sorry episode. Pete Rose did it after years of lying about his gambling on baseball. Remind me not to buy either of them.

In fact, Armstrong and Rose have plenty in common. As the Beatles sang, they are real nowhere men, sitting in their nowhere land, making all their nowhere plans for nobody.

Hope I don't bump into them.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sound bite of the year

It appears that we have a winner for the best interview answer of the year. And in a Presidential election year, it's a small surprise that it came from an offensive tackle.

Last weekend, Chiefs' quarterback Andrew Cassel was injured during a game with the Ravens. Some of the fans in Kansas City, apparently frustrated by the team's inability to generate any offense this season, cheered. The exact number was impossible to guess, but the message came through clearly.

Cassel was later diagnosed with a concussion. After the game, Chiefs' tackle Eric Winston -- one of those generally anonymous players except in the places where he played -- was ready to address the media, and ready to rip his own fans. Listen to the words, and see how well he expresses himself.

This might raise a larger issue regarding football. I've written before about how NFL games are no place for the timid, how many fans who sit in the stands will hear and see vulgarities that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. And this sort of attitude from fans is one of the end products of that atmosphere.

This postgame speech by Winston reminded me of Phil Esposito's remarks after Team Canada was booed during a loss in the 1972 Summit Series. It's now considered one of the great speeches in Canadian history:

I'm not so naive to think that Winston's remarks might generate a few more feelings of civility in sports events. But I can hope.

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Friday, October 05, 2012

Drive-by sighting

Ever see something on the road that makes you feel like rubbing your eyes in disbelief, although you don't because you are going 70 miles per hour on an Interstate and you have no desire to get into a major accident over a billboard?

This was such a time.

Earlier this week I was driving on Interstate 95, headed north in Georgia. When I got into Camden County, this billboard was on the side of the road. If you click on it, the image gets bigger. It was definitely a "Did I just see what I thought I saw?" moment.

I eventually went on line to see what was going on. I found this link to a story explaining that the billboard was indeed placed by the Republican Party of Camden County just north of Jacksonville. (Yes, it's a Mother Jones story, but the background story isn't up for question, and I couldn't find the one from a local paper through the search engine.)

Now let's forget the obvious implication of the billboard that you either vote Republican or you get your marching orders from some corner of the Kremlin that didn't hear about the fall of the Soviet Union.

Somebody thought it was a good idea for the Republican Party of the county to spend a lot of money to rent space on a billboard on an Interstate. That's probably expensive, and the sign would be seen mostly by people who are passing through Camden County to get somewhere else. So that's rather inefficient. Something on Main St. might have been better.

Some of those cars might be filled with people looking for a place to eat or stay. Last I looked, Democrats spend the same brand of money as Republicans. Wouldn't those Democrats be tempted to keep going into the next county instead of getting off at an exit?

Those who depend on tourism dollars in Camden County, even on a small basis, must be really thrilled about now.

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