Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Margaret Wente: Even if they come from the same place, the cute guy’s numbers are better than the Feminists’

Question: Why are statistics from the same organization (the U.S. Bureau of Justice) “the best there are” when Steven Pinker uses them, but “ridiculous” when used by the American Association of University Women?

A few things to add to this.

Of course, the question requires knowing that the figures are from the same body – something Wente doesn’t disclose when she again condemns the AAUW for “cooked up” stats.

Ethical? Professional? (“It is dishonest to base an editorial on halftruth”, says the code of conduct of the Ontario Press Council. “The Press Council supports free expression of opinion that purports to be based on statistics but believes that readers have the right to know where the statistics come from.”)

Maybe Margaret just likes guys better. In an interview on TVO’s “The Agenda”, Wente says she’s a ‘huge fan’ of Steven Pinker (who she also calls Stephen Harper). “First of all, he looks cute” (agreed - definitely cuter than Harper).

One other attribution question, highlighted by the TVO segment: In the Globe, Wente doesn’t clearly attribute an observation about a magazine ad found in Peter Singer’s NYT review of Pinker’s book. Instead, she presents it in a way that leaves readers wondering whether it’s her own observation about changing mores (like examples about a local team logo which follow).

Singer, NYT: “The final trend Pinker discusses is the ‘rights revolution’…. domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee”.

Wente: “It’s easy to forget how dramatically attitudes toward rape and wife abuse have changed. As recently as the 1950s, light-hearted magazine ads depicted husbands spanking their wives for buying the wrong kind of coffee. Police treated rape as a joke, too, and the victim and her reputation were routinely put on trial. The great rights revolutions that gathered steam in the second half of the 20th century put an end to all that”.

In the TVO clip, her seeming ownership is more pronounced. Paikin begins by asking Wente if any of the trends Pinker describes “have occurred to her” “before knowing about the book”.

They ramble on about Wente’s views. At about the 6 minute mark, with no reference to either men, Wente offers the same advertisement as one of her own examples of changing mores, saying, “within my lifetime…here’s how far attitudes have changed…within my lifetime, you could run a humorous magazine ad…(she goes on to describe the ad, and continue with “within my lifetime” examples).

Conclusion? I’m no expert, but it seems odd not to mention the source. But it also seems in keeping with the history of recent attribution errors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wente, the ‘Occupy’ protests, and a “John”

What kind of research did Margaret Wente do for this article? And is “John” really a “face” of the Occupy Movement?

Wente provides three “faces” of the protests, with a quote for each. First we meet Laurel O’Gorman from Laurentian U, at Occupy Toronto. Then Wente reproduces a quote from a Boston.com article to introduce us to Sarvenaz Asasy. But “John” is the most puzzling “face” of the Occupy protests.

Wente writes: “Then there’s John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law. He wants to work at a non-profit. After he graduated from university, he struggled to find work. ‘I had to go a full year between college and law school without a job. I lived at home with my parents to make ends meet.’ He thinks a law degree will help, but these days, I’m not so sure”.

She’s “not so sure” – sounds like she’s ruminating over the conversation she’s just had with the guy.

But there’s no evidence “John” has anything to do with the Occupy movement.

Who is “John”? John is one of those cardboard characters political parties put forward to flog policies. His existence appears to originate on an online Obama 2012 election page about student loans, from whence he was perhaps picked up by a blogger who is in turn picked up by blogger Kenneth Anderson, who Wente quotes and paraphrases in her article. Anderson at least identifies “John”, providing a link to the guy who links to the Obama site), but since Margaret doesn’t bother, you can meet “John” and his quote right here.

In none of these online incarnations is “John” connected to the Occupy Protests, so it’s hard to see why he should be one of three representative faces she provides. It seems that as a responsible journalist, if you’re going to crib a representative “face” for your argument, you should acknowledge that someone else invented him first in a different story. It’s apparently too much to ask that Wente leave the confines of her high priced condo to talk to a few actual ‘Occupy’ protesters.

Wente provides a lengthy quote from Anderson, and additional ideas from his article. She’d apparently also like us to believe that she has (independently) read Christopher Lasch (who died before many of the Occupiers were born) and that she’s offering an original insight about Lasch’s views in relation to the Occupy movement. But this observation also appears in Anderson’s article. And the words Wente attributes to Lasch - “They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the ‘new class’ of ‘therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy’” also seem to be misidentified. They actually appear in a September 22, 1995 article by the same Kenneth Anderson in the Times Literary Supplement. The words “therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy” are used by Anderson to describe his own interpretation of the late Lasch’s work.

Update: The following Editor's Note now appears at the bottom of the online version of Wente's column:

Editor's note: Clarifications: John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law, is not part of the Occupy movement.

The following sentence is a paraphrase, not a direct quote: They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of “therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy.”

Helpful, but does this fully address the attribution aspect?