Opinion

Jack Shafer

Hurricane Sandy by the numbers

Jack Shafer
Nov 9, 2012 00:33 UTC

People in high places are competing to put a dollar number to the deadly ruination visited upon the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy.

Today at a press conference, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated the damage done to his state by Hurricane Sandy at $33 billion and to the region at $50 billion. The governor’s estimate exceeded that of disaster modeler EQECAT, which put total insured losses at $10 billion to $20 billion and economic losses at $30 billion to $50 billion on Nov. 1. The EQECAT numbers dueled with the projections of AIR Worldwide, another risk modeler, which pegged insured losses at $7 billion to $15 billion at about the same time.

Given the densely populated area it struck, Hurricane Sandy may end up being the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. Of course, Sandy’s precise ranking isn’t likely to matter to those who directly experienced it, losing property, livelihoods — and in some cases loved ones. Upwards of 72 people died from the storm in New York and New Jersey. But as elected officials, risk modelers, the media, and others continue to quantify the storm, don’t be afraid to question the validity of the numbers—and to ask what purpose they serve.

Estimating disaster losses is an “imprecise science,” economist Kevin L. Kliesen wrote in a 1994 Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis article. As a disaster subsides, on-the-ground observers tend to overstate dramatically the damage done. “Some estimates in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Andrew put the damages as high as $60 billion, two to three times its projected final total,” Kliesen writes. The early estimates of damage done by the 1993 flood of nine Midwestern states and the 1994 Northridge (California) earthquake committed the same error, he points out.

Obviously, chaos and confusion reign during and after a natural disaster; we can’t be expected to calculate with any accuracy the damage done by a natural disaster as it winds down. This is not unique to disaster scenarios: chaos and confusion also tend to undo us when we attempt to make economic estimates during placid, windless spring days. Kliesen hypothesizes that we tend to exaggerate the damage done because buildings and infrastructure often appear to be complete losses at first glance. Later, when waters recede, some of these complete losses are found to be repairable. Also, he cites academic work, which argues that politicians have an economic incentive to overestimate losses because that gives them leverage over obtaining federal disaster dollars. That’s consistent with the report in Newsday today, which states, “Cuomo said he will press the Federal Emergency Management Agency to foot the bill for most of the Sandy cleanup.”

The battle over Benghazi

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2012 22:35 UTC

When Washington bureaucracies rumble, they often avoid directly savaging one another by using the press as proxies. By leaking selectively to news outlets they believe will give them the most sympathetic hearing, they hope to shape the news by making it. The strategy doesn’t always work. Sock puppetry revolts good reporters and some bad ones, too, because they know carrying tainted water for a source today may stain their reputations tomorrow.

The Benghazi story hasn’t turned any reporters into absolute dummies—yet—but as the tag-team match of blame being played by the White House, the State Department, a congressional committee, and the CIA escalates–and with the Romney campaign eager to pounce on anything that makes the administration look bad–don’t be surprised if unnamed sources start spinning the facts in a self-serving manner.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re confused about Benghazi and have no idea who should be sacked for not doing his job: Press accounts and comments from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all congealed into one murky, confusing stew. Now, clarity has arrived in a new ultra-narrative given yesterday to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, sourced to a “senior administration official,” “senior intelligence officials,” “a senior American intelligence official,” “a senior U.S. intelligence official,” and “U.S. intelligence officials,” respectively.

Is it ever okay for journalists to lie?

Jack Shafer
Nov 1, 2012 16:13 UTC

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover to test Washington lobbyists’ taste for sleaze. Using an alias, Silverstein created a fictitious energy firm that ostensibly did business in Turkmenistan and approached professional lobbyists to see if they could help cleanse the regime’s neo-Stalinist reputation. The bill for services rendered—newspaper op-eds bylined by established think-tankers and academics, visits to Turkmenistan by congressional delegations, and other exercises in public relations—would have been about $1.5 million. (Disclosure: I consider Silverstein a friend.)

But when Silverstein’s piece, “Their Men in Washington: Undercover With DC’s Lobbyists for Hire,” was published in the July issue of Harper’s, the resulting uproar had less to do with craven lobbyists than with journalistic impropriety. Various critics assailed Silverstein for his charade: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a CBS News blogger, an American Journalism Review writer, and other notables. Journalists shall not lie, the critics mainly agreed. Doing so diminishes their credibility and that of the entire profession.

The strange allure of disaster porn

Jack Shafer
Oct 30, 2012 21:52 UTC

Like me, you’ve probably been flipping from the Weather Channel to CNN with one hand and raking the Web with the other, searching for scenes of maximum destruction from Hurricane Sandy. Long after satisfying your basic news needs about the horrific body counts, power outages, travel advisories, school closings, and surges of tidal and river water to come, you’ve likely been loitering around your screens for more. Somebody tweets about a live video feed of a construction crane gone limp in midtown Manhattan, and we go there. Emails from friends direct us to videos of vehicles floating through lower Manhattan like derelict bumper cars and the shattering of the Atlantic City boardwalk into toothpicks. Next up, toppled trees, washed-out rails, flooded streets, subways, and tunnels, and the sinking of HMS Bounty.

Oh, the horror! Pass the popcorn.

Advanced voyeurs (you know who you are) understand that shame, rather than being a deterrent, actually works to reinforce both the urge to look and to share what we’ve seen. I’d have continued watching TV and scanning the Web until the early a.m., messaging to my friends and family what I’d seen, had not the pop and flash of a nearby transformer killed my electric power at 9:30 p.m. on Monday.

What impels us to watch, to hunger for more disaster and mayhem, and to keep on watching long after we’ve learned all there is to know? Wake Forest University English Professor Eric C. Wilson gathers some clues in his new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. We never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger, and calamity, Wilson writes, whether we experience it directly or at a televised remove, watch it dramatized in a movie, or read it in a novel. He cites a psychologist to theorize that our morbid curiosity has an evolutionary function: Being well-informed about dangers and potential dangers helps us survive; finding points of empathy through which we can connect with those who have suffered allows us to build lasting bonds. Wilson discusses the cultural appeal of fairy tales, horror films, and “documentaries” like Faces of Death; he recycles the now-standard view that gruesome and graphic stories prepare the young for adulthood; and he reminds us of how Aristotle schooled us in the value of catharsis to explain our fascinations with the perverse.

Mergers alone won’t save book industry

Jack Shafer
Oct 26, 2012 21:55 UTC

News of merger talks between book publishers Random House and Penguin has shaken loose alarmist responses from the book industry: howls from agents and authors that they’ll have fewer publishers to pitch to, and hence their incomes will fall; warnings that editors and marketers face huge layoffs; fears that reducing the number of big publishers from six to five will bestow upon the survivors unprecedented cultural hegemony.

Somewhere somebody must be describing the impending merger and the increased concentration of book power in fewer New York hands as an assault on democracy.

If the admonitions seem familiar, it’s because they’ve been sounded for a half century. The book industry has been consolidating steadily since the early 1960s, when independent publishers–many of them run by families–swarmed. A July 31, 1960, New York Times article (subscription required) chronicled that era’s merger-mania, as independent publishers Holt, Rinehart, and Winston had hooked up to create a new company—Holt, Rinehart, and Winston—that sounded like a law firm. In other transactions, Random House had acquired Knopf and Crowell-Collier had taken Macmillan, presaging the coming days when conglomerates would eventually swallow the industry’s major players.

The New York Times, the BBC and the Savile sex scandal

Jack Shafer
Oct 25, 2012 23:02 UTC

Before he has even had time to measure his office windows for draperies, incoming New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson is in the media crosshairs. No less a figure than Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, implored the paper this week to investigate what role, if any, Thompson had in a burgeoning scandal at the BBC, which he headed for eight years until late this summer.

The BBC scandal is so long-running, so multifaceted and so sordid that it could potentially injure everyone who has worked at the organization over the past 40 years—up to Thompson but including the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms—even if they’re guilty of nothing.

The scandal’s center is Jimmy Savile, the longtime host of a variety of BBC radio and TV programs for kids and young people (including the Top of the Pops), a celebrity fundraiser and friend to politicians and royalty. Late last year, shortly after Savile died, the BBC’s Newsnight program readied an investigative piece about Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls. But just as the findings were about to be broadcast, Newsnight‘s top editor gave it the spike.

Why we vote for liars

Jack Shafer
Oct 9, 2012 20:43 UTC

The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.

Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

The 0.3 percent hysteria

Jack Shafer
Oct 5, 2012 23:17 UTC

When was the last time the inhabitants of wonkville got so hot over a federal statistic dropping three-tenths of a percent?

This morning – after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report stating that the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September – everybody started shouting about the numbers. President Barack Obama used them as evidence of economic progress, challenger Mitt Romney swatted them aside and scoffed that this “is not what a real recovery looks like,” and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (and current Reuters Opinion contributor) tweeted that Obama’s “Chicago guys” had fudged the encouraging numbers to make up for the poor performance of their boss in the Oct. 3 debate. This prompted the proprietors at @PuckBuddys to tweet, “Truthers, Birthers and now Welchers.”

Ezra Klein, the mayor of wonkville, rushed to defend the integrity of the numbers in his Washington Post blog, pointing to a Mar. 9, 2012, Post story about the secret-agent measures taken by the BLS statisticians to prevent tampering with the data or the results. Computers: encrypted and locked. Office windows: papered over. Confidentiality agreements: signed each morning. Emails and phone calls from unknowns: unanswered during the eight days of lockdown preceding the job report release. Visitors: none permitted without security clearance. Trash cans: not emptied by custodians during the period.

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

Jack Shafer
Sep 21, 2012 22:53 UTC

New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.

Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”

Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.

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