Bad reporting: bias, or post-literacy?

A candidate who makes a subtle speech can count on being misreported. That’s a bad thing.

The big problem with political reporting in this country isn’t bias; it’s ignorance and intellectual laziness. The journalistic mandate for simple writing easily morphs into a mandate for simple-minded thinking. A candidate who tries to say something subtle will be largely unable to do so effectively if his words get filtered through the distorting lens of dimwit reporting before they reach the public.

Take, for example, Barack Obama’s speech to the Hampton Institute. Its central metaphor, and its central argument, aren’t really hard to grasp.

The metaphor is that the social dysfunction of an urban ghetto is like a riot happening in slow motion. The argument is that the “quiet riot” gets ignored, and that as a nation we should insist on ending it just as we insist on ending noisy riots.

Instead, AP reporter Bob Lewis decides to treat the speech as a Jesse-Jacksonesque “no justice, no peace” threat that noisy riots will break out again unless inner-city problems are dealt with.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Tuesday that the Bush administration has done nothing to defuse a “quiet riot” among blacks that threatens to erupt just as riots in Los Angeles did 15 years ago.

Not a syllable of the speech supports that interpretation. Obama’s whole point is that the “riot” is already happening. But that won’t help him with the people who read the AP story, as opposed to the much smaller number who heard the speech or read it for themselves. Again, I don’t think the problem is bias; it’s just post-literacy.

Footnote If you want to see bias, try the reliably-racist Steve Sailer. Obama’s speech, made to an overwhelmingly black audience, mentions race only twice: once referring to the appalling number of African-American men in prison, once in denying the claim that the failure of post-Katrina reconstruction was the result of Bush Administration racism:

Look at what happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit. People ask me whether I thought race was the reason the response was so slow. I said, “No. This Administration was colorblind in its incompetence.” But everyone here knows the disaster and the poverty happened long before that hurricane hit. All the hurricane did was make bare what we ignore each and every day which is that there are whole sets of communities that are impoverished, that don’t have meaningful opportunity, that don’t have hope and they are forgotten. This disaster was a powerful metaphor for what’s gone on for generations.

Nowhere in the speech does Obama ask for any sort of policy directed at blacks as blacks. The big policy initiative is nurse home visits. Yet Sailer keeps asserting that Obama practices “racially divisive politics.” Can you say “projection”? I was sure you could.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: