Saturday, July 28, 2018

Local knowledge contrasting with national journalistic campaigning

I have often mentioned Michael Crichton's description of the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Briefly, when you know something about a topic that is covered in the media, you note how wide is the discrepancy in accuracy between what you know and what is reported. And then you read the rest of the paper as if it were factual reporting.

I had that feeling reading this Time magazine report on the recently chosen Democrat nominee for Governor of Georgia in the November 2018 election, Stacey Abrams. From Stacey Abrams Could Become America's First Black Female Governor—If She Can Turn Georgia Blue by Molly Ball.

It is a highly laudatory puff piece, almost a contribution in kind to her campaign.
People tend to remember the first time they heard Stacey Abrams speak, and it’s easy to see why. On a Friday afternoon in May, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia is at a union hall in Augusta, telling a story about her father, a college-educated black man who was relegated by his race to working at a shipyard in southern Mississippi in the 1970s. The family had one car, so Robert Abrams would sometimes hitchhike home in the middle of the night. When he didn’t come home one time, the rest of the family set out to pick him up and found him half-frozen by the side of the road, having given his coat to a homeless man. They asked why he, a poor man on a lonely road at night, would do such a thing. And Robert said, “Because I knew you were coming for me.”
It is full of such stories of charming family lore contrasted with suffering from racism and exclusion.

It does not help that Molly Ball writes exactly as Ben Rhodes described the typical reporter he dealt with at the White House during the Obama years.
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
They literally know nothing. They know nothing and they don't know they know nothing. They aren't interested in the fact that they know nothing. And they don't know how to not know nothing. Google, apparently, is an unknown utility.

Take that sotto voce testimony to the honest poverty of the Abrams' household in the 1970s. They only had one car. Hmm. How many cars did the average household have in the 1970s? How would you find that out?

If you type "Average number of cars per household in the US in 1970" into that undiscovered web search engine, the third listing is the fairly definitive and authoritative Chapter 8 Household Vehicles and Characteristics and the third line on that page is Household Vehicle Ownership, 1960–2016 Census. The poor Abrams in the 1970s only had one car. How many cars did the average household have in comparison?

One. 20% of households had no car and 50% had one car. For all the poverty spinning by Abrams/Molly Ball, sounds like the Abrams household in the 1970s was pretty solidly middle class. But perhaps it is not spinning that Ball is doing. Perhaps she simply does not know enough history to detect misleading stories when they are told to her.

Molly Ball's class disdain is also inadvertently on display. "A college-educated black man who was relegated by his race to working at a shipyard in southern Mississippi in the 1970s" did not tickle her journalistic antenna? Give us some details.

I am fifteen years older than Abrams and have a friend who was college educated and worked in a navy shipyard. But he was white and his degree was in engineering and he did white-collar work in the navy shipyard. Is that what Abrams father did? The implication is that he had a college education but because of his race was doing blue collar labor. Fine. What was his college degree? If it was in engineering, then perhaps there is an injustice here. If it was in social work, then skilled blue collar work was still a pretty remunerative field in the 1970s, especially if unionized as was common in shipyards.

Perhaps in an era where we are accustomed to tens and hundreds of thousands of college graduates with low value degrees in gender studies and the like working as baristas in safe, quiet, clean and air-conditioned coffee shops, the prospect of skilled but hard blue collar work is inconceivable, but it was very much the norm back then. All Molly Ball has to do is ask someone in their fifties or older.

From the opening paragraph we get the sense of a subject who is telling heavily spun stories and an uncritical reporter who is happy to serve as a know-nothing, curious-about-nothing stenographer with a by-line.

While I think the odds are against Abrams, Georgia is sufficiently purple that some carefully hoarded late breaking news against her Republican opponent might conceivably tilt the race her way. She is a good speaker and has more of a common touch than most Democratic politicians in the state. But she is a Wisconsin born Mississippian in Georgia, an urbanite in a state with a strong rural electorate, a Democrat in a Republican state, an African American in a white state, and, most critically, an unashamedly hard-left candidate in a pretty solidly center right electorate.

There are four things Ball overlooks which betray her national ignorance on a local topic. She is spinning the tale as she would want it to be told rather reporting the facts as most her informed Georgia readers would understand them. Ball's lack of knowledge and context are telling. Her national story rings profoundly untrue and one-sided to local ears. On top of omitting key inconvenient facts. For example there is this sentence.
In a Democratic Party divided and desperate for fresh faces, Abrams is already becoming a national star.
Well, yes, the Democratic party farm team has been devastated by their electoral losses over the past decade so the bar for talent is pretty low and Abrams overleaps it by a good margin. But if you were paying a modicum of attention, you would know that the most recent mayor of Atlanta, bully boy Kasim Reed, FBI suspect, and subject of investigation for corruption in addition to an eight year drought of good governance and serial failures, was also described as a national star, a rising star in the Democratic party. He caught the eye of the DNC and Obama and favorable things were said of him before he caught the eye of the FBI.

Putting Abrams in the same league as Reed, does her a grave (as far as I know) injustice. It tarnishes her star. Let's also not forget the other recent national media acclaimed Georgia Democratic "rising star" Jon Osoff, who managed to lose a House race in 2017 by 4 points despite raising $24 million in mostly non-state money against his opponent's $5 million. Perhaps unknown to Ball from her national perch, the appellation of "rising Democratic star" from the national press is fairly tainted praise here in Georgia. Its a pity she didn't have time to do a modicum of internet searching.

The second area of blindness on the part of Ball is her desperate effort to tie Abrams' life hardships to structural racism. Despite Ball's efforts, Abrams' story is littered with instances where negative outcomes are tied to personal choices, inspiring though some of them might be. Her parents are poor but not solely, and perhaps not even significantly, because of structural racism. Choosing mid-life to become religious ministers might be spiritually inspiring but it does tend to wreck the personal finances.

Abrams herself has struggled financially, a not unnatural consequence of investing heavily for eight years in top-tier university education and then working low level legal jobs for the city and for the state. Low income jobs and high income tastes are not a good combination. It is hard to cry racism when you are working for the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia.

The third area of Ball blindness has to do with the local Georgia, and more specifically Atlanta, tradition of poor local politicians starting small companies to leverage minority contractor set-asides in between elections. So when you read:
She also wrote romance novels under a pen name and started several businesses. One, a bottled-water company for babies, led to another, a payment company that serves small businesses. The idea came from the experience of the water company, which couldn’t afford to wait for payment after filling orders. “People say, ‘Oh, that’s so obvious. Why didn’t anybody think of it before?'” says Lara Hodgson, Abrams’ business partner.
You might think - wonderful, a small business politician. Or you might think, based on all the other politicians grifting on this particular defect, "Oh great, another failed politician eking out special favors." These aren't real businesses. They are the survival ecosystem for down on their luck local politicians.

A bottled water company for babies? That didn't trigger your journalistic curiosity? Oh, dear. Any local journalist, offered this line, would ask "How much in revenue? How much in profit?" Ball thinks she is boosting Abrams reputation by positing some hidden entrepreneurial genius, and perhaps she is, to the uninformed unicorn lovers at the national level, but for those accustomed to local Atlanta politics, this is no praise at all.

Finally, and perhaps most egregious, Ball does not address perhaps one of the most locally discussed challenges to Abrams' candidacy. Her personal financial irresponsibility. Probably most thoroughly discussed in this Yahoo piece by Turner Cowles, but a topic of wide conversation in Georgia. Cowles's Florida State University degree might not quite match up to Ball's degree from Yale University, but he clearly did more detailed and accurate journalistic work on this topic than she did.

Stacey Abrams wants to be Governor of Georgia and wants to fund a massive number of social programs and yet, at mid-life of 44 years old, with no dependents, and the beneficiary of the best education our globally superior university system can provide, Abrams owes some $55,000 in back taxes, $100,000 in student loans, and $78,000 in credit card balances. That doesn't include car loan debt and mortgage debt on her three-story, very nice town-home.

Granted, many politicians are spendthrift or careless in their finances. But the contrast is still pretty strong in this instance. Here is a person with a degree from Yale Law school taking the position that she knows what people ought to pay more in taxes for, and yet does not manage her own finances well, makes poor life choices about her personal work income and investments, and, apparently, in contrast with most ordinary people, suffers no negative consequences for failure to pay taxes.

How likely is it that a tax increasing, grievance mongering, fancy Atlanta home-owning, tax-dodging, Yale law degree holding, left-wing, secular, debtor politician who can't pay her taxes or loans might actually win the election for Governor? It could happen. But it isn't, despite all the bubbly fluff by Molly Ball, highly likely. And it has nothing to do with race. There are plenty of other reasons not to vote for her.

But a friendly demeanor and a common touch can go a long way in the right circumstances. Its just that those circumstances are pretty uncommon. All of which you know locally and never discover from Molly Ball's poor effort at journalism. Bad journalism is a pox on our commonweal.

UPDATE: Ann Althouse has some related observations in WaPo covers the Wisconsin gubernatorial race and — in its effort to help Democrats — shows the awful problem they have.

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