Metro Suicides and the Press

Here’s the latest from WMATA on the most recent “Metro Suicide.”

A 50-year-old woman from Kensington, MD, who was struck by a Red Line train at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metrorail station at 11:36 p.m., on Monday, Jan. 4, died this morning (Tuesday, Jan. 5) as a result of her injuries.

The Metro Transit Police continue to investigate, but preliminary information shows that the woman intentionally placed herself in the path of the train.

She was hit by a six-car train traveling toward Shady Grove.

Beyond the disruption these cause to thousands of people, consider the emotional trauma experienced by train operators who find themselves unwitting suicide accomplices. Imagine opening a door to discover it had been tied to the trigger of a gun and simply by going about your daily business, you had played a direct role in ending the life of another human being. It’s a horrible thing to force to upon someone else.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain experienced by someone who sees fit to take their own life or the anguish that their loved ones and friends must experience in the wake of a such an event, but we ought to do whatever we can to prevent these types of things. It’s really quite difficult to prevent suicides structurally, but the WMATA, DCPD, and local press really ought to read these recommendations from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as there is a demonstrated effect of “suicide contagion.”

…between 1984 and 1987, journalists in Vienna covered the deaths of individuals who jumped in front of trains in the subway system. The coverage was extensive and dramatic. In 1987, a campaign alerted reporters to the possible negative effects of such reporting, and suggested alternate strategies for coverage. In the first six months after the campaign began, subway suicides and non-fatal attempts dropped by more than eighty percent. The total number of suicides in Vienna declined as well.

Taking Reality’s Temperature

When one is a regular consumer of cable news and mainstream media, it’s easy to be misled by deferential policies towards “even handedness” that cast political controversies into dead even heats. Almost any cable news program will offer two talking heads from opposing ideological stripes to duke it out and virtually all newspapers and wire services tend to follow the “on the one hand, on the other hand,” style of reporting. The result is a hyper competitive news cycle that revolves around unadjudicated bombast and unresolved “debate.” That’s why it’s sometimes useful to just tune it out and check out some polling (via Washington Post/ABC).

Overall, 57 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president and 40 percent disapprove…. Despite those mixed reviews on domestic priorities, Obama continues to hold a big political advantage over Republicans.

Poll respondents are evenly divided when asked whether they have confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future, but just 19 percent express confidence in the Republicans in Congress to do so. Even among Republicans, only 40 percent express confidence in the GOP congressional leadership to make good choices.

Only 20 percent of adults identify themselves as Republicans, little changed in recent months, but still the lowest single number in Post-ABC polls since 1983.

Of course, watching cable news or reading mainstream press, you’d really have no idea this was the case. For example, in the same Kaplan Test Prep owned Washington Post, we learn that despite “clear majorities back[ing],” the public option and the individual mandate, these policies are somehow “controversial,”  because a highly unpopular group of legislators that the press must nevertheless indulge dislikes the idea.

While of course it’s disappointing that the press plays such an instrumental role in misleading the public, it’s also frustrating how this type of coverage provides political cover for politicians who want to avoid making difficult decisions. Whether Max Baucus doesn’t support the public option because he’s in the back pocket of the entire health care industry or because he has some airy commitment to “bipartisanship,” we’ll never know for sure.

Horse Race Journalism Is Not Our Fault

There’s been a little buzz lately over the Washington Post‘s ombudsman piece the other day criticizing the Post for too much “horse race” coverage of the health care debate. Putative causes have cited political obsession among reporters and editors, profit maximizing behavior, and competitive necessity, but Kevin Drum offers this explanation.

This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselvesThe mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better. Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

I’m not so sure about this. First, with respect to the town halls specifically, coverage in the mainstream media and cable news was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fact that lunatics and their cynical agitators knew that nutty behavior would drive coverage spawned more and more nutty behavior, and more and more coverage of nutty behavior. If the media decided that accurate reporting of events meant not giving disproportionate attention to a minority of people, it’s unlikely things would have played the way they did. But this is all secondary.

My memory could be flawed, but I’m pretty sure most of people I read on the blogosphere spent their energy debunking some of the absurd claims made in the town halls or talking about animating factors, not bloviating about political strategy. Even if the general topic was the same, the conversation was totally different. Whereas people with blogs would address statements made in town halls and expose them as ludicrous fantasies, the mainstream media would report the events and discuss the ramifications for certain political actors. The former is helpful from a standpoint of informing the public, the latter is not. I’ve said it a million times, but the point of politics is governing, not winning debates, but the mainstream media seems to disagree with me. And certainly, not all discourse in the blogosphere was informative, but it was certainly better than coverage in the mainstream media.

Anyway, it’s hard to see how this improves. As Kevin noted earlier in his post, horse race coverage partially stems from the need to report news, and twists and turns in legislative sausage making happen far more frequently than policy proposals. However, that doesn’t mean coverage of politics has to be removed from the policies being discussed to the absurd extent they often are. For example, if reporters feel compelled to report that a gun-toting loon opposes a “government take-over” of the health care system, the reporter could at least mention that no such thing is under consideration, the unctuous blabbering of GOP operatives notwithstanding.

NYT Succesfully Differentiates Between Truth, Lies

Since I’m usually pretty quick to bash the media for its epistemic agnosticism, I feel I have to give props where it’s due. This is from today’s New York Times, with the undeniably strong headline, “False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Familiar Roots.” It doesn’t make sense to quote segments, because the piece’s mere existence is the most important part, but to just make a side point, this line in particular shows the power of simply lying about legislative proposals.

Still, one proponent of the euthanasia theory, Mr. Neumayr, said he saw no reason to stop making the claim.

“I think a government-run plan that is administered by politicians and bureaucrats who support euthanasia is inevitably going to reflect that view,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s a crazy leap.”

I mean, you just can’t argue with that.

The World’s Worst “Fact Check”

I didn’t watch President Obama’s press conference last night, so I read some reports this morning. And, being someone who both knows a bit about health care policy and also missed the press conference, I thought I’d want to check out Robert Pear and Peter Baker’s “Experts Dispute Some Points In Health Talk.” If Chery Gay Stolberg turned in a shoddy performance  yesterday, this was probably one of the worst fact checks I’ve ever seen. First of all, without exception, there were no “experts” who disputed a single policy point in the entire talk. Instead, we got things like this:

Mr. Obama said doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug companies and AARP had supported efforts to overhaul health care.

While it is true the American Medical Association has endorsed a bill drafted by House Democratic leaders, a half-dozen state medical societies have sharply criticized provisions that would establish a new government-run health insurance plan.

Wow — I mean, I know Robert Pear isn’t dense. But seriously? What’s inconsistent here? President Obama said doctors support “efforts to overhaul health care.” He didn’t say, “every single doctor and every single doctor’s group in the entire country supports every single proposal on the table.” What’s more, it’s still not inconsistent to say that doctors have supported health care overhaul efforts even if they disagree with certain proposals. To be specific, here’s a statement from the Michigan State Medical Society in which the group espouses support for health care reform but voices concerns about the public option. Ugh. But wait, there’s more.

Of the proposed new cost-control agency, Mr. Obama said: “It’s not going to reduce Medicare benefits. What it’s going to do is to change how those benefits are delivered so that they’re more efficient.”

Hospitals say the cuts could indeed cut services in some rural areas and from teaching hospitals, which receive extra payments because of higher costs.

First of all, note the pernicious use of the word “could.” But that’s beside the point. Reduced benefits — which would be a reduction in services available — are simply not the same thing as reduced reimbursement rates for certain procedures that occur in a certain order. They’re just not the same thing. Also, this particular criticism assumes that the IMAC would deem it in the best interest of Americans to make rural and teaching hospitals infeasibly expensive to run. I think it’s a safe assumption that’s not going to happen. But moving on…

In seeking to portray health legislation as bipartisan, Mr. Obama said that 160 Republican amendments were adopted in a bill approved last week by the Senate health committee. Republicans said many of the amendments involved technical provisions and did not alter the fundamental features of the bill.

Again, the title of the piece is “Experts Dispute Points In Health Talk,” not “Republicans bitch about process.” Moving on…

The president said that health insurance companies were making “record profits.” America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main lobby for insurers, contends that “for every $1 spent on health care in America, approximately one penny goes to health plans’ profits.”

Classic non-denial denial. And we’re still going…

Mr. Obama said he was not proposing to ration care, but just wanted to coordinate it better. For example, he said, he wants to eliminate repetitious tests ordered by different doctors for the same patient.

Again, nothing inconsistent here. What the administration has actually said is that they want to limit incentives for repetitious tests. You will still be able to pay for whatever services you want.

Electronic medical records and health information technology, championed by Mr. Obama, could reduce such duplication. But, under his plan, it is not clear who would take responsibility for patients and coordinate care in traditional fee-for-service medicine.

First of all, who’s plan is “his”? As far as I know, there are three primary options here (not including Wyden-Bennett): Senate Finance, Senate HELP, and the House Tri-Committee. None of them are final pieces of legislation, and what’s more, even if they were, they’d have to be worked out in conference. Roughly speaking, they are rought drafts. It’s like criticizing a manager for bullpen mismanagement in the 5th inning.

The piece ends with a fair criticism on deficit reduction, but I think over all, this piece was total execrable.

Shameless Self-Promotion

So I recently attended an event at the New America Foundation called “Who Pays for the News?” which as you can imagine, paid a great deal of attention to the newspaper industry. A put up a post on FH’s Public Affairs blog on it. Please go check it out in full. Here’s an excerpt:

While panelists and other observers have enumerated a number of reasonable causes of the newspaper industry’s woesad revenues lost to the internet, poor quality of reporting, the debt burden of news conglomerates – these problems fail to grasp the broader context by incorrectly conflating symptoms and disease. This mistaken reasoning was best characterized by Sen. Cardin, who offered an elegiac declaration that the business model of a traditional newspaper is “dead,” a fact Sen. Cardin believes to imperil democracy as we know it. Although the temptation for drama can be hard to resist, this particular diagnosis suffers from the incorrect assumption that traditional outlets are inextricably tied to the news they report. To be fair to Sen. Cardin, newspapers have themselves enthusiastically embraced this assumption, helping foment a process wherein media companies have wandered haphazardly into a parallel, but nonetheless entirely distinct industry. The question then, pace Sen. Cardin, isn’t whether the print business model is “dead” in the digital age, but rather why it was ever presumed to work.

Interesting stuff! Check it out!

Gross Revenue Is Not The Same As Profit

Walter Pincus has a mostly excellent take on the newspaper industry in Columbia Journalism Review, and his analysis on the transmogrification of journalism in to a public relations channel is both trenchant and regrettable. But I think this graf on the business of internet news is faulty.

Meanwhile, most consumers of online news do it from roughly 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are at work, and what they have time to see primarily are headlines. They don’t pay for what they see and probably won’t. And because the daily readership numbers are relatively small and the audience often geographically dispersed, the advertising hardly covers the cost of gathering the original stories. As Washington Post President Stephen P. Hills said recently, the Post newspaper is a $600 million business; its Web site is a $50 million business.

Maybe so — but as Pincus points out himself, there are still an enormous number of readers who get their news in print. There are obviously a lot of factors that reduce newspaper profits, but the fact that publishers devote large sums of money to running the brick and mortar aspects of the news business is inextricably tied to the fact that the “newspaper is a $600 million business” and the “Web site is a $50 million business.” As more and more readers transition to online sources, the growing scarcity of alternative advertising avenues will drive web revenues while the physical costs of running a business plummet. So perhaps gross revenue will decline, but so will total costs.

How the Sausage is Made

Apparently, Politico hating is now all the rage. Don’t forget you felt the hate here first. Anyway, an internal memo outlining the institutional formula referenced in Gabriel Sherman’s piece on the publication is now available on TNR. Some snippets:

Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating–we don’t have the luxury of running stories folks won’t click on or spend several minutes with in the paper.
a) Would this be a “most e-mailed” story?

b) Would I read this story if I hadn’t written it?

c) Would my mother read this story?

d) Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?

e) Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?

f) Would a specialist learn something from this story?

g) Will my competitors be forced to follow this?

IN MOST CASES, THE ANSWER WILL BE “YES” TO SEVERAL OF THESE QUESTIONS IF THIS IS A STRONG POLITICO STORY. If you are not certain that several of these are “yes,” you can reframe your reporting and analysis so people will say, “POLITICO is reporting…” or “The way POLITICO put it is…”

If your friends or source are buzzing about something related in any way to public affairs, don’t ask yourself WHETHER it’s a Politico story. Ask yourself HOW you can make it a Politico story, to capture built-in traffic and mindshare.

There you have it — how the sausage is made.

More on Politico

Truevcu says this about my post on Politico:

As much as I enjoy(ed) politico as a source of news I find myself gradually more and more unable to refute the argument that, while not as hopelessly biased as FoxNews, are drifting into a very bad place.

Actually, I disagree — the primary reason Politico is egregiously terrible is precisely because of its assiduous adherence to neutrality. Because the publication emphasizes balance uber alles, disingenuous arguments and talking points exist, unqualified, next to legitimate — or at least, more legitimate — good faith arguments. This is compounded by Politico’s obsessively political focus, so policy gets even shorter shrift than it might in other publications. It’s worth noting that this problem is endemic to all traditional media coverage to varying degrees.

I also hate Politico because it feeds and purveys the notion that political considerations drive governance. Of course, there will never be complete seperation of politics and policy, but Politco covers government like fantasy sports. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who won? Who Lost? These questions should obviously be of secondary importance when considering matters of public policy, but jackals like Jim VandeHei, Chris Matthews, and Maureen Dowd spin — indeed relish spinning — governing into a giant soap opera, and becuase of their outsized voice, amplify the importance of political posturing in governance. The “narratives” they so dispassionately report become obtuse self-fulfilling prophecies, which quite unlike soap operas, have real impacts on real people. Like “balance”, this is hardly Politico‘s affliction alone, but for my money is arguably the most pernicious force in politics.


I’m too lazy to find a link at the moment, but during the presidential campaign there was some discussion about how McCain used to refer to the press as his “base,” and also that McCain’s communications strategy relied heavily on shaping the 24-hour news cycle. Conversely, it was widely accepted that Obama employed a long term communications strategy that did not expressly concern itself with the whims of the news cycle, understanding that a vast majority of voters do not follow every political mini-scandal, and moreover that the archetypal “average voter” whom news networks target, does not in fact exist. Anyway, apropos of yesterday’s polling data, here’s Joe Scarborough admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.