Comment/Hoisted/Monday Vanity Fair Smackdown: RW: http://www.bradford-delong.com/2016/08/comment-of-the-day-_shame-on-the-editors-of-vanity-fair_-rw-its-been-a-long-time-many-years-in-fact-s.html: : Shame on the editors of Vanity Fair: RW: "It's been a long time, many years in fact...
...but I do seem to recall a version of Michael Kinsley capable of writing cogent and, yes, even generous pieces; his long descent into incoherent, petty sniping has not been pretty.
And: Low-Tech Cyclist: "Kinsley is right that "all is not data" and "data will only take you so far", but...
...the problem is that most journalists are ignorant of a great deal of data that directly bears on the stories they write, and they misinform and mislead their readers as a result. Maybe data will only take you so far, but if you're going to be intellectually honest, you've got to go as far as the data will take you, before venturing off on your own. If you don't even know what the data is trying to tell you because you haven't bothered to examine it, then you have a responsibility to keep your worthless conclusions to yourself and your Facebook friends, rather than sharing them with the wider audience that speaking or writing for a media outlet gives you.
It really is quite simple:
Data so that you only highlight those of the striking anecdotes that you run across or that come to your mind that are in fact typical and representative.
Detailed case studies so that you actually understand what is going on at a deep level in the anecdotes the data tell you are typical and representative.
Anecdotes to check that you are properly interpreting the typical and representative patterns you see in the data.
And at all costs avoid becoming a lazy access-journalism tool, who spends his time sucking up to the plutocrats who pay him, the sources you leak to him, and the spinners who package up the story so he doesn't have to actually, you know, work.
The piece reveals to an extent that ought to have profoundly disturbed Vanity Fair's editors that Michael Kinsley has forgotten the importance of (1) through (4).
And so publishing the piece ought to have profoundly disturbed the editors of Vanity Fair: the only thing they have to sell is their reputation for filtering, so that if you read a story from Vanity Fair it will be smarter and wittier than what rises to the top of the algorithmic aggregation engines of Facebook and Buzzed.
That this piece was not sent back carries a bad message for Vanity Fair—the editors ought to have realized that, and the fact that they apparently did not sends a second bad message: that they do not understand that they are not supposed to douse their brand with gasoline and light it on fire.
Moreover, the editors of Vanity Fair have done a third bad thing in letting this piece through: they have failed in their duty to their writers to help them build and guard their reputations.
What is it we do when we read? We have a very strong human propensity to engage with other minds—to learn about the world in large part by listening to others, figuring out how they think, and then constructing our own Sub-Turing evocations of their minds to run on our own wetware and thus turn us, to a certain degree, into highly-imperfect anthology intelligences. And one of the chief ways we have of building such a sub-Turing evocation is through reading the things that a person has written, and over time building up a picture and model of the mind behind the keyboard.
In so doing, we tend to flatten into a single timeless image what is the changing and evolving mental flow of a single author. Only specialists who have devoted more time and mental energy into keeping them separate can distinguish reliably between their sub-Turing invocation of Karl Marx in his 20s and Karl Marx in his 40s, or John Maynard Keynes in his 30s and John Maynard Keynes in his 50s. We use all of what we have written of one author in order to construct the mental image we use to interpret and make sense of any single one piece written by the author.
90% of reading takes place, after all, between the ears. Print is, to a large degree, a sophisticated multimedia device. There were plenty of people who were disappointed when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies came out because the characters didn’t look or act anything like the characters really looked or acted like—that is, than the version they had created in their own minds. We take a very thin linear bit-stream chunked into patterns that form less than 100 different characters and build a large mental superstructure of argument, perspective, and tone on top of that. The enormous variety of even good faith readings that are possible from and that we see every day build on top of even a single text is very powerful testimony to that.
Michael Kinsley at his best was always... close to the edge:
- very smart but close to the edge of not being wise;
- very convincing but close to the edge of not being not philosophical but sophistic; very snarky but close the edge of being whiny;
- very quickly done but close to the edge of being knee-jerk.
You had to read his work with a bias toward understanding it as the product of a mind that was wise, philosophical, snarky, and quickly done... or it came across (as it always did to non-fans) as dumb, sophistic, whiny, and knee-jerk.
And so when Vanity Fair's editors publish something like this, they are, I think, being rather cruel...
 Niccolò Machiavelli on his library: Niccolò Machiavelli (1513): Letter to Vettori (December 10):
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them...
Niccolò Machiavelli, full text:
"Never late were favors divine." I say this because I seemed to have lost—no, rather mislaid—your good will; you had not written to me for a long time, and I was wondering what the reason could be. And of all those that came into my mind I took little account, except of one only, when I feared that you had stopped writing because somebody had written to you that I was not a good guardian of your letters, and I knew that, except Filippo and Pagolo, nobody by my doing had seen them.
I have found it again through your last letter of the twenty-third of the past month, from which I learn with pleasure how regularly and quietly you carry on this public office, and I encourage you to continue so, because he who gives up his own convenience for the convenience of others, only loses his own and from them gets no gratitude. And since Fortune wants to do everything, she wishes us to let her do it, to be quiet, and not to give her trouble, and to wait for a time when she will allow something to be done by men; and then will be the time for you to work harder, to stir things up more, and for me to leave my farm and say: "Here I am."
I cannot however, wishing to return equal favors, tell you in this letter anything else than what my life is; and if you judge that you would like to swap with me, I shall be glad to. I am living on my farm, and since I had my last bad luck, I have not spent twenty days, putting them all together, in Florence. I have until now been snaring thrushes with my own hands. I got up before day, prepared birdlime, went out with a bundle of cages on my back, so that I looked like Geta when he was returning from the harbor with Amphitryon's books. I caught at least two thrushes and at most six. And so I did all September. Then this pastime, pitiful and strange as it is, gave out, to my displeasure.
And of what sort my life is, I shall tell you:
I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their neighbors. And as to this grove I could tell you a thousand fine things that have happened to me, in dealing with Frosino da Panzano and others who wanted some of this firewood. And Frosino especially sent for a number of cords without saying a thing to me, and on payment he wanted to keep back from me ten lire, which he says he should have had from me four years ago, when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini's. I raised the devil, and was going to prosecute as a thief the waggoner who came for the wood, but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and got us to agree.
Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing, each ordered a cord from me. I made promises to all and sent one to Tommaso, which at Florence changed to half a cord, because it was piled up again by himself, his wife, his servant, his children, so that he looked like Gabburra when on Thursday with all his servants he cudgels an ox. Hence, having seen for whom there was profit, I told the others I had no more wood, and all of them were angry about it, and especially Batista, who counts this along with his misfortunes at Prato.
Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming.
Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men.
In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow.
Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost. And if ever you can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you; and by a prince, and especially by a new prince, it ought to be welcomed. Hence I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it; he can give you some account in part of the thing in itself and of the discussions I have had with him, though I am still enlarging and revising it.
You wish, Magnificent Ambassador, that I leave this life and come to enjoy yours with you. I shall do it in any case, but what tempts me now are certain affairs that within six weeks I shall finish. What makes me doubtful is that the Soderini we know so well are in the city, whom I should be obliged, on coming there, to visit and talk with. I should fear that on my return I could not hope to dismount at my house but should dismount at the prison, because though this government has mighty foundations and great security, yet it is new and therefore suspicious, and there is no lack of wiseacres who, to make a figure, like Pagolo Bertini, would place others at the dinner table and leave the reckoning to me. I beg you to rid me of this fear, and then I shall come within the time mentioned to visit you in any case.
I have talked with Filippo about this little work of mine that I have spoken of, whether it is good to give it or not to give it; and if it is good to give it, whether it would be good to take it myself, or whether I should send it there. Not giving it would make me fear that at the least Giuliano will not read it and that this rascal Ardinghelli will get himself honor from this latest work of mine. The giving of it is forced on me by the necessity that drives me, because I am using up my money, and I cannot remain as I am a long time without becoming despised through poverty. In addition, there is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone; because then if I could not gain their favor, I should complain of myself; and through this thing, if it were read, they would see that for the fifteen years while I have been studying the art of the state, I have not slept or been playing; and well may anybody be glad to get the services of one who at the expense of others has become full of experience.
And of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; and he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; and as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.
I should like, then, to have you also write me what you think best on this matter, and I give you my regards.
Niccolò Machiavelli, in Florence
The full, embarrassing, Kinsley Vanity Fair piece:
Michael Kinsley: Donald Trump and the Limits of Data Journalism https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/08/donald-trump-and-the-limits-of-data-journalism: "As the Internet changes journalism, one clear trend is a focus on data, championed by the likes of Vox’s Ezra Klein and The New York Times’s Nate Cohn. But not every Venn diagram contains something worth reporting...
...The establishment media have suffered two different shocks to the system in recent years, and they have responded in two different ways. One shock is the Internet; the other is Donald Trump. Let’s start with Trump. Journalists seem to be literally at a loss for words to describe how much they despise him. The words they ultimately come up with reflect a hostility so frank and so fierce that they will be studied at symposiums on press responsibility at places like Aspen for years to come, especially if Trump wins.
In the right hands, this newfound freedom of the press—freedom to reveal your biases, whatever the subject—can be a good thing. In June, a New York Times reporter named Jennifer Steinhauer wrote about Trump’s relations with John McCain, a predecessor as the Republican presidential nominee. McCain, of course, spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Commenting on Trump’s typically thuggish line about McCain’s not being a war hero (“I like people that weren’t captured”), Steinhauer went on to note—this in a news story—that, even though McCain said he’d support Trump anyway, “the episode sits with traces of bitterness, like old coffee grounds at the bottom of his cup, even if he says otherwise.”
That, I put it to you, is a nice bit of writing: fresh and vivid. It also implicitly contradicts its own source (“even if he says otherwise”)—a reminder that life is complicated and motives can be subtle. The personal and opinionated nature of Internet writing has rubbed off on the more traditional style of newswriting. The new apparent standards are a big jump away from “objectivity” as practiced—or at least aspired to—by American newspapers for the past century. They are a move toward the model more common in Britain and elsewhere, where bias is allowed to show and readers are allowed, indeed required, to discount accordingly.
So that’s one consequence of the Internet. There’s another. Internet news sites and their denizens love “data.” The literal meaning of the word “data,” in its modern sense, is simply “information.” What the young journalists of the Web mean by it is something closer to statistics: graphs, charts, diagrams, and so on—all of it (they claim) offering more information, more accurately, than, say, an interview, which is nothing more than a survey with a sample of one. And up to a point, and on certain kinds of topics, I think this claim is basically right. The two most prominent experiments in data journalism are the Upshot, an online Times column, and Vox, an independent online news site.
The rock star of this new kind of journalism is Ezra Klein, the leading founder of Vox, who has the gall to have been born in 1984. Klein believes, with some justice, that the current method of reporting the news is highly inefficient. If called upon to report on a rumor that the earth may be flat after all, a traditional newspaper would send a reporter out to interview a few scientists in order to quote their takes on the subject. The result would inevitably depend on whom the reporter talks to. On subjects other than Donald Trump, there will be a premium on “balance” and “objectivity”: making sure that the flat-earthers have their fair share of the quotes. By contrast, an Ezra, as we will call it (because that’s my middle name), will look for data. If the data point to the conclusion that the earth really is round, then that is what an Ezra will report. You won’t find any coffee grounds swirling at the bottom of the cup.
An Ezra also will shuffle the deck and summarize ruthlessly. This seems to be an inherent tendency of the Web: the search for ways to put the news, and analysis of the news, in some kind of new order—something more satisfying than the random cacophony and confusion you must plow through today if you want to pass yourself off as well informed. But there are so many Web sites summarizing and shuffling that in fact you feel you are falling ever farther behind. This process of summarizing and shuffling is called “aggregation.”
I believe it was Tina Brown—or was it Arianna?—who coined a fancier term for aggregation. (“Of course it was me, darling,” says Arianna. “I’m just much too modest to say so.”) The fancier term is “curation.” In this context, curation means applying your superior intelligence to the mountain of data out there and putting together a summary that no reader could be expected to assemble on his or her own. One imagines an editor wandering through room after room, as in a museum, planning a new exhibition called “Today’s News”—choosing a small war here, a mass shooting there, rejecting yet another meat-loaf recipe using popcorn and balsamic vinegar for the weekend magazine, and so on.
Some folks have yet another word for aggregation and related activities on the Web. They call it “plagiarism.” If aggregation is nothing more than stealing other people’s work, the perpetrators will have to pay in heaven because they will never be made to pay in the here and now. There is just too much of it going on, and too many people eager to try their hand at it. Though, in a sense, almost everything in the news media is borrowed and distilled from someone else’s efforts to do the same. It’s all aggregation. And the Ezras have found a true weakness to exploit in much of today’s journalism: the typical reporter is scared of math. He or she majored in English literature or creative writing. One day the publisher announces that he or she has hired an engineer or software programmer. Life is never the same. (Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated neither.)
Both Vox and the Upshot have plenty of interesting and useful material. They also have some problems. First, they can be somewhat pompous. You would think that they invented the Venn diagram. The Times says of the Upshot that it “provides news, analysis and graphics about politics, policy and everyday life.” If this one new column provides all of that, what is the rest of the Times supposed to provide? As for Vox: “Making complex topics easier to understand, Vox candidly shepherds audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science and everything else that matters.” This doesn’t narrow things down much, either.
All is not data. A Vox (or Upshot) analysis sometimes ends up looking a lot like an opinion column of the grandee period, which ran from Walter Lippmann in the 1920s through George Will, who may still be at it. The writer enhances his or her own importance by embracing the topic at hand. The author is personally “worried” about developments his typical reader may not even be aware of prior to reading the column. As a reader, doesn’t that make you feel small? Why aren’t you worried, too?
And sometimes data take you only so far, which may not be very far at all. If you want to see an example of a pure, unadulterated Ezra, I recommend one not by Ezra himself but an analysis in the Times’s Upshot last June by Nate Cohn (not to be confused with another Ezra, also called Nate, Nate Silver, who left the Times for ESPN). The headline was a bit opaque:
FINDING A WHITER ELECTORATE THAT OPENS A PATH FOR TRUMP.
This ran on page one of the paper with bytes and bytes of data on the Times Web site to back it up. Its purpose was to prove that, although Donald Trump “is considered to be a long shot to win the presidency,” in actual fact there is a “narrow path” by which he could win. Is this really news? The difference between “a long shot” (which Trump apparently has) and a “narrow path” (which he might have if a series of things happen which are not completely impossible) is not all that great. It’s like the difference between light blue and pale blue—but proving this small point requires mounds of data.
This is all introduced with a flourish and considerable preening: “New analysis by the Upshot” reveals that reliance on exit polls may mislead even The New York Times (in fact, may mislead even the Upshot). Cohn writes, “The problem is that analysts, including me, have treated the exit polls like a precise account of the electorate.” You can call this “new analysis,” or you can call it a mistake.
We all make mistakes. It takes data to turn one into an Ezra.