Nancy Gibbs for the Higgy

April 6, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”

So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.

Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:

@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.

That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.

Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:

There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.


Enlow: It’s Bailout v. Vouchers

May 25, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Need an antidote to Whinegarten in the Journal? Try Robert Enlow in USA Today:

If this president and Congress really wanted to help children and benefit teachers, it would emancipate students so their parents could use their own tax dollars to obtain educational services wherever they wanted — at charter schools, virtual schools or with a voucher to transfer to the private school of their choice. But that’s not really what they want. Instead, they want to maintain a status quo that is designed to benefit the adults rather than brighten the future of children.

It’s not just this $23 billion bill, it’s the whole stinking system that’s one big slow-motion perpetual bailout. What are the odds you’ll get serious change without school choice? 3,720 to none.


USA Today on Freedom from Responsibility

July 2, 2009

6a00d83451b46269e2011570a731b4970c(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

USA Today has an editorial piece on Victor and Miguel Mendoza, two American servicemen in Iraq who become United States citizens on July 4th.

The Mendozas represent the best of what the nation is celebrating this Independence Day weekend — liberty, freedom and the sacrifice it takes to keep them strong. They symbolize what’s right with America, a nation of immigrants that was built by opening its doors. And they speak to what could be so much better. At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment has swept through great swaths of the nation, much of it focused on those from Mexico, it’s worth recalling that more than 65,000 immigrants serve in the armed forces, about one-third of them legal residents but not yet citizens. Military service can shorten the usual five-year wait.

We should all be joyful and proud to welcome the Mendozas to our nation. USA Today notes that this contrasts starkly with the performance of Arizona high school students:

Immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens have to pass a test, and the Mendoza brothers aced theirs this week in Baghdad. That’s more than you can say for a group of Arizona high school students who were surveyed recently on their knowledge of U.S. history and civics.

Just in time for Independence Day, the Goldwater Institute, a non-profit research organization in Phoenix, found that just 3.5% of surveyed students could answer enough questions correctly to pass the citizenship test. Just 25%, for example, correctly identified Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we drew the title of this study from an Edward Gibbon quote:

In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.

That quote certainly does not apply to the Mendoza brothers. Can we say the same for young Americans born here in the United States?  The United States was the first nation established not on the basis of ethnicity  or tribalism but upon a set of ideals.

If you don’t the basics of American history and government, what chance is there that you are committed to liberty and self-determination?  The pathetic level of ignorance displayed by this an other surveys are more than an indictment on our schooling system (and yes I’m looking at you too charter and private schools) but also an indictment of our entire society.

Consider the Gibbon quote and watch the above video. We have not been providing the type of education that the founders believed was essential to maintaining a system of ordered liberty.

It would be the height of folly to continue to do so.


USA Today Notices Cracks in the Dam

May 13, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

USA Today, the newspaper of American business travelers, has noticed the cracks in the Democratic dam.

You know what I’ve noticed? The blob isn’t just losing more Dems. It’s losing the MSM.