Crappy Reporting

I'm not a news junkie. I was a newspaper junkie, then a webnews junkie and now I'm a blog junkie. Maybe that will change in the next few years, who knows. But I'm not a news junkie. The reason is I hate TV news and don't like radio news. It's somewhat due to quality, but mostly due to control. If there is a segment that I'm not interested in, I can't skip to the next segment. I have to sit there and wait for a new story to come on.

However, I'm not a purist. I'll find myself turning on MSNBC or even FOX News for the evening personality shows from time to time for amusement. And driving in the car to and from work, about 30 minutes, I'm stuck. I can tolerate waiting because my brain is just killing time. Another benefit is that it gives me a quick survey of general news, along with my Google News homepage. So that's the background.

Yesterday I heard two instances of crappy reporting. Well, not exactly reporting per se, but a lack of basic knowledge or effort on the part of the reporter. Yes, people are wrong in traditional media as well as on the internet - shocking. But these two mistakes were so basic and by people with such top level reporting jobs, that I had to vent.

Chris FarrellThe first I heard was on NPR yesterday morning, although I found out today that the show, Marketplace Morning Report is actually produced by American Public Media. In the segment "Unemployment: Cyclical or structural?", the Economics Editor Chris Farrell addresses that question. Given that dichotomy, it isn't too hard to predict that Farrell will go with false equivalency. Which he does:
RADKE: So I know the more liberal economists, the Paul Krugman's of the world, have been saying the government should spend more to bring back jobs.

FARRELL: Well that's right. They're saying this unemployment is cyclical. Now that's a fancy term for this dynamic -- the economy's weak, employees aren't hiring; if the government can stimulate the economy, the economy really starts growing, then employers will hire workers, the unemployment rate will fall. But here's the thing, Bill. There's some really respected economists, they're saying, "No, no no. Hold on. This high unemployment isn't cyclical, it's structural."

RADKE: Yeah, structural. What do they mean by that?

FARRELL: What they mean is companies have jobs, but they can't find the skilled workers they need. The workers want to work, but they don't have the skills to get the job. So think laid-off construction worker, Silicon Valley firm hiring programmers.

RADKE: So which is it, Chris -- cyclical or structural? And why is that so important?

FARRELL: Look, it's both and I mean that very seriously. On the one hand, this economy is very weak and therefore, if it starts growing, the unemployment rate will start coming down. But there's also a fundamental problem in our economy, Bill. That is we have too many poorly educated workers for the kind of jobs that are being created.
First, cyclical is not a fancy word. Second, the construction worker can't get the Silicon Valley job, seriously? That's your insightful example? So you know, Farrell is at the top of his profession. In addition to contributing to three different national APM shows, he's also a contributing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. And he has great credentials: "Among Farrell's many awards are a National Magazine Award, two Loeb Awards, and the Edward R. Murrow Award. Farrell is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Stanford University." Funny, he's not on any of these Edward R. Murrow Award lists. Wait a minute, he's not on the Loeb Award list either. Or the National Magazine Award. WTF! Do you really think he went to Stanford and LSE?

Paul KrugmanAnyway, he's got two great jobs. He should know his stuff. But this isn't just a garden variety left-said-this and right-said-this, the truth is therefore in the middle. Paul Krugman, the pundit extraordinaire mentioned in the report, wrote an article on this just 10 days ago, "Structure of Excuses." The opening:
What can be done about mass unemployment? All the wise heads agree: there are no quick or easy answers. There is work to be done, but workers aren’t ready to do it — they’re in the wrong places, or they have the wrong skills. Our problems are “structural,” and will take many years to solve.

But don’t bother asking for evidence that justifies this bleak view. There isn’t any. On the contrary, all the facts suggest that high unemployment in America is the result of inadequate demand — full stop. Saying that there are no easy answers sounds wise, but it’s actually foolish: our unemployment crisis could be cured very quickly if we had the intellectual clarity and political will to act.

In other words, structural unemployment is a fake problem, which mainly serves as an excuse for not pursuing real solutions.
Okay, given that everyone in economics journalism should have read that, and if they were going to do a story about it they should actually look for evidence to see if Krugman's right or not, Farrell gets an F. But it's worse, Krugman has done the research for him:
[T]alk to researchers at the Roosevelt Institute and the Economic Policy Institute, both of which have recently released important reports completely debunking claims of a surge in structural unemployment.
...
The National Federation of Independent Business has been surveying small businesses for many years, asking them to name their most important problem; the percentage citing problems with labor quality is now at an all-time low, reflecting the reality that these days even highly skilled workers are desperate for employment.
Wow. Epic FAIL. Btw, read the rest for the political explanation at the end. Farrell does get one thing right at the end of the segment, "Look, life is not fair." He's right, if it were, he wouldn't have any respect as an economic journalist.

The second example was on the drive home with All Things Considered, "Hungarian Toxic Sludge Reaches The Mighty Danube." As before, NPR gets off the hook because the mistake was by a New York Times environment reporter, Elisabeth Rosenthal. Can you spot the offending remark:
Ms. ELISABETH ROSENTHAL: Well, it's a huge amount of sludge, as sludge goes. I mean, it basically poured through these three villages like a tsunami.

People were just sitting there, getting ready for lunch, when suddenly they heard a rumbling and looked out of their windows and just saw this wave of red gook flooding through the village. So everywhere you look, there's this red goo on the ground. People's skin is stained. The animals are all red. It's really devastating in those places.

SIEGEL: Is the sludge toxic or not toxic?

Ms. ROSENTHAL: It depends how you define toxic, I guess. It's normally, under European Union rules, classified as a pollutant unless it contains high levels of heavy metals.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences said this particular batch doesn't seem to. The main problem with the sludge, though, is that it's very caustic. It's very alkaline. So by U.S. EPA standards, anything with a pH over 12.5 is hazardous waste, and this was measured as high as 13.

SIEGEL: It's like lye, you're saying.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: Right, this is way up there. Fourteen is the maximum. So this is really, really alkaline, and when it touched people's skin, that's why they got burned. It just basically eats away at things it touches, which is why they have to get rid of it in the villages and why they're trying to dilute it and wash it out.
It shouldn't be too hard, as it parallels the first error by not being willing to take a side: "It depends how you define toxic, I guess." Well, she's the environmental reporter, shouldn't she know how to define toxic? ["extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful" is one] sludgeJust on common sense, you'd call this sludge toxic: "It just basically eats away at things it touches." Including skin. Sounds like toxic to me.

But the bigger problem isn't defining terms or having common sense. She flubbed a perfect opportunity to actually do science education. I think she was thinking of the saying, "the dose makes the poison" or "toxicity is in the dose", which is attributed to Paracelsus. It's unfortunate, because the concept is an important one. Everything is toxic if the dose is large enough. You can die from drinking too much water. Especially since the sludge will get diluted by entering the Danube, the dose or concentration of harmful substances is a crucial part of the story.

Big Picture: Science and economics reporting in this country sucks.

Update: Unbelievably crappy interviewing from CBS's Morning Show. Carl Paladino said about children, "I don't want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option." Harry Smith leads with this quote, but then asks if Paladino can even bring up morality because he has an out-of-wedlock daughter (but without explicitly saying this). WTF! Throughout the entire interview, Smith never gets Paladino to answer for or even explain this statement, even though he contradicts it and other statements he made in the interview. It's atrocious interviewing.

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