From Baghdad to Bloomberg

November 5th, 2008 → 12:49 pm @

After a good stretch without any stories in VF, I have two in this month’s issue: a piece on the American public’s (and the American media’s) waning interest in Iraq and one on the fairly remarkable success of Bloomberg News. Capsule descriptions have never been my strong suit, so I’ll use the magazine’s sub-heads to do the job for me…

The New York Times’s Lonely War

With most of the U.S. media withdrawn from Iraq, only The New York Times seems determined to stay the course. From inside the paper’s fortified Baghdad bureau, Seth Mnookin reveals the psychological and physical dangers that have faced the likes of John F. Burns, Dexter Filkins, and Alissa J. Rubin as the dramatic headlines of 2003 turned into a complex, difficult story that no one wants to read.


Bloomberg Without Bloomberg

With its ruthless competitiveness, its singular business model, and its bizarre editorial culture, Bloomberg News has continued to expand even as the media business shrivels. Under the new stewardship of former Time Inc. chief Norman Pearlstine, reports Seth Mnookin, the brainchild of New York’s mayor is poised to become the most consulted news source in the world.

It’s still well worth it to spend the five bucks for a hard-copy of the issue itself–the photos on both pieces are stunning. Except, of course, for the left half of this one…

Post Categories: Bloomberg News & Iraq & Media & Media reporting & New York Times & Vanity Fair

This profession be murder

September 27th, 2008 → 2:38 pm @

I’m a week late linking to my own review of John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over. Don’t get bogged down in the seeming solipsism of the whole thing — I’m an author who has written a book about the Times writing in the Times about a book by a former Times reporter that’s about a set of murders that takes place in a fictional New York newspaper modeled after the Times — it’s a great book. And a pretty well-written review, if I don’t say so myself.

Post Categories: Book reviews & John Darnton & New York Times

Times story shows, yet again, that the national media should stop ripping off Walter Robinson

February 25th, 2008 → 10:17 am @

Some of you may have heard that the New York Times recently ran a piece about John McCain about how his, um, close relationship with Vicki Iseman, a female lobbyist, worried his 2000 campaign staff and raised questions about his judgment.

It was an odd little number for a whole mess of reasons, including (protestations to the contrary) that one of the main reasons the story ended up in the paper when it did was because Gabe Sherman of the New Republic was about to file his piece detailing the pissing matches concerning when (or whether) the Times’ many thousands of words would ultimately run.

Since then, there’s been a general consensus that without the implications/allegations of an affair with Iseman, it would have been a decent piece. That view is neatly summarized by Clark Hoyt, the Times’s public editor: “The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain…recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman…”*

Clark does acknowledge that much of this story has been written before, and at points, the Times made unspecific references to previous reporting.

From what I can tell, almost all of it had been previously written about, and the vast majority of that writing was done by Pulitzer winner Walter Robinson, current Northeastern U J-school professor/former investigative reporter for the Boston Globe, that little daily up in New England that the NYT Co. owns. A couple of the big differences between the pieces are that Robinson’s stories weren’t done with a team of other reporters and researchers; he didn’t get in trouble by invoking sex; and his piece didn’t get all of this attention.
To wit:

Boston Globe, “McCain Pressed FCC in Case Involving Major Contributor,” January 5, 2000: “McCain’s close ties to Paxson were abundantly clear on the key dates surrounding the FCC decision. The day before he sent he Dec. 10 letter, McCain used Paxson’s het for a trip from New York to Florida. The day after the letter, he took the company jet from Florida to Washington.

New York Times, “For McCain, Self Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risks,” February 21, 2008: “Like other lawmakers, [Mr. McCain] often flew on the corporate jets of business executives seeking his support, including the media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Michael R. Bloomberg, and Lowell W. Paxson.”

Globe: “It is a paradox that underlies McCain’s quest for the presidency. As he savages special interest from almost every podium, those interests, ever pragmatic, have lavished attention and donations on the powerful chairman of a committee that has vast reach of the rapidly evolving and often regulated commercial marketplace. If anything, many of the special interests are underwriting McCain’s campaign for president – and his rhetorical war against them.”

Times: “But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.”

Globe: “McCain pressured the Federal Communications Commission to vote on an issue that cleared the way for a major contributor to his presidential campaign to buy a Pittsburgh television station. McCain, in his bluntly worded Dec. 10 letter to the FCC, did not urge a vote favoring the contributor, Paxson Communications. But he acted at the request of the company’s lobbyist, during a period when he used Paxson’s corporate jet four times to travel to campaign events – where he almost always attacks monied special interests. McCain’s intervention in the case drew a speedy, scolding response from William E. Kennard, the FCC chairman, who deemed the Senator’s letter “highly unusual” and suggested it was inappropriate. The House Commerce Committee, which McCain heads, oversees the FCC.”

Times: In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson. … [Mr. McCain] sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.”

In an online chat last Friday, Robinson was asked about the stories’ similarities when a reader wrote, “Hi, Walter, I read that 2000 article you wrote and you really uncovered all the dirt. Are you mad that The New York Times pieces didn’t give you credit in their report?” Robinson, seemingly agreeing with Hoyt, responded, “Given the focus of the Times piece, which I think obscured the real issue, I’m not unhappy that the Globe was not mentioned.”

This isn’t the first time a national news organization has gotten in trouble re-reporting a story Robinson had already written about. The infamous Dan Rather-60 Minutes story on Bush’s National Guard service that ran in 2004—and ultimately led to Rather’s dismissal from the network—had, for the most part, been covered by Robinson in another series of 2000 stories. That February, Robinson uncovered a trove of military records which showed that Bush had “received credit for attending Air National Guard drills in the fall of 1972 and spring of 1973—a period when his commanders have said he did not appear for duty at bases in Montgomery, Ala., and Houston.”

Robinson also discovered that Ben Barnes, the speaker of the Texas House in 1968, had recently given a sworn deposition given as part of a civil lawsuit in which he said he had made calls to National Guard officials on behalf of Bush after a friend of Bush’s father asked Barnes for help. Robinson’s stories caused a small stir at the time—at one point, a group of Alabama Vietnam vets offered a reward for anyone who could vouch for Bush’s claim that he served in a Montgomery unit in 1972—but it wasn’t until four years later, when CBS aired unverified documents that purported to show the exact same thing, that the story really got any attention.

* Incidentally, I do think the Times story was worthwhile, and not because it highlighted the extent to which McCain’s post-Keating career has been less unspeckled than most think. On this point, I’ll defer to Slate’s Jack Shafer, who defended last week’s piece thusly: “The Times doesn’t have to produce photographic evidence of the hot dog meeting the bun to cast suspicion upon the McCain-Iseman intimacies. If McCain were as close to a male lobbyist as he is Iseman, I’d want the Times to report it.” Shafer also, incidentally, realizes that much else in the story wasn’t all that new: “Much of that story has been reported over the years, but it was still worth pulling together to help voters in 2008 better understand the John McCain who might be their next president…”

Post Categories: 2008 Presidential Campaign & Boston Globe & John McCain & New York Times & Walter Robinson

How to lie with statistics, academia edition: Here’s what your $40,000 a year is paying for

December 23rd, 2007 → 12:57 pm @

In yesterday’s New York Times, a pair of academics — Columbia professor of sociology Jonathan Cole and University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler — published an article titled “More Juice, Less Punch,” which aimed to ask the question: “Do [PEDs] make a difference sufficient to be detected in the players’ performance records?” Their answer, not surprisingly, is no (otherwise there wouldn’t have been any point in publishing their story in the first place): “An examination of the data on the players featured in the Mitchell report suggests that in most cases the drugs had either little or a negative effect.”

I feel sorry for the students that are forced to sit through these boobs’ courses.

Cole and Stigler try to prove their point by comparing stats from before and after a given player is accused of using roids (or HGH, or whatever). They explain their methodology thusly: “For pitchers identified by the report, we looked at the annual earned run average for their major league careers. For hitters we examined batting averages, home runs and slugging percentages. We then compared each player’s yearly performance before and after he is accused of having started using performance-enhancing drugs. After excluding those with insufficient information for a comparison, we were left with 48 batters and 23 pitchers.” The results, they say, show no net gain in performance.

This in itself would seem to intuitively demonstrate that PEDs do, in fact, work – baseball players, like mathematicians and physicists – show a dramatic tail-off at a very young age (for the geeks, their best work is usually done in their 20s; for ballplayers, the peak years usually come between 28 and 32) and if players with extended careers don’t show any decline in performance, that would indicate an unusual pattern.

Anyone who had any slight degree of sophistication would also realize that it’s next to meaningless to compare raw data – you need to make sure you understand what the data you’re looking at actually means. In this case, that means realizing that comparing stats like ERA or home runs or OPS or anything else tells you much less about a player’s relative performance than ERA+ or OPS+. (OPS+ normalizes OPS for the park and the league the player played in; ERA+ shows the player’s ERA in relation to the league’s ERA. This explains why Pedro’s 1.74 ERA in 2000, when the league ERA was 5.07, earned him an ERA+ of 291, while Sandy Koufax’s 1.74 ERA in 1964, when the league ERA was 3.25, only garnered him an ERA+ of 187. It also helps show why Pedro’s 2000 season was arguably the best ever. It resulted in the highest ERA+ since 1880, and the second best ever. Koufax’s top season ranks as 56th.)

Let’s drill down a little more. Cole and Stigler write, “The Roger Clemens is a case in point: a great pitcher before 1998, a great (if increasingly fragile) pitcher after he is supposed to have received treatment. But when we compared Clemens’s E.R.A. through 1997 with his E.R.A. from 1998 on, it was worse by 0.32 in the later period.” As I pointed out last year, the salient point here is how Clemens performed in his late 30s compared to his mid 20s. In the 12 years from Clemens’ breakout year in 1986, when he was 23, he had an ERA+ above 180 twice; in the 10 years from age 35 to 44, he had two more. Compare that to other Hall of Fame pitchers from this era like Greg Maddux, who had four years with an ERA+ of 180 or higher before age 35 and none afterwards, or Tom Glavine, whose five best years all came before age 35. Heck, compare it to Tom Seaver, the guy who was voted into the Hall with the highest percentage ever: his six best years all came before age 34.

Cole and Stigler are just as ignorant when it comes to hitters. “What should not be overlooked,” they write, “is that Bonds’s profile is strikingly like Babe Ruth’s high performance level until near the end of his career, with one standout home run year — a year in which other players on other teams also exceeded their previous levels.”

Actually, what should not be overlooked is the fact that Bonds has put up an OPS+ of greater than 200 in three out of the last six years, compared with comperable numbers in three of his first 14 years in the bigs. Ruth also had an OPS+ higher than 200 in three of his final six years…and another eight in the previous 14. (Another thing that should not be overlooked: Bonds has played the majority of his career in a home ballpark that has a spacious right field, unlike Ruth, who got to hit in Yankee Stadium.)

I know it’s not a shocker than a pair of academics don’t really understand baseball; it has taken autodidacts like Bill James to help illuminate the game. What is shocking is how little Cole and Stigler — professors who not only deal with numbers but teach at elite institutions — seem to understand about analyzing data.

Post Categories: Jonathan Cole & New York Times & Statistics & Stephen Stigler & Steroids

The Times‘s stubborn addiction to sloppiness reaches new heights: The Andersen files, Pt. 5 in an ongoing series

June 11th, 2007 → 8:05 am @

In what must be some kind of record, it only took 177 words of this morning’s Times story on Random House for the paper to muff the spelling of Kurt Andersen’s last name…and they did it in the same paragraph in which they spelled his name correctly:

“Random House is also expected to announce today that Kurt Andersen, the author and the host of “Studio 360,” has been named editor at large, where he will suggest new nonfiction books. Last week, Random House, which published Mr. Anderson’s best-selling novel, ‘Heyday,’ announced a two-book deal with him.”

Thank god the Times has new public editor to keep the paper in line. I don’t have the energy to keep at it for much longer.

Post Categories: Kurt Andersen & New York Times

It’s true: I’m sticking up for the Times. (Obviously, this isn’t about Murray.)

April 11th, 2007 → 11:07 am @

Those of you steeped in the minutiae of baseball should appreciate the extent to which an obsessive can drill down when dissecting his subject of choice. For folks who’s bete noire (or object of affection) is the media and the New York Times, there’s no amount of detail that could ever seem trivial. (Trust me: I know.) That’s why a columnist in Los Angeles is writing about the bad review the Times gave to a play written by one of its former staffers.

The reason I’m writing about a column about a bad review of an Off-Broadway play is because, well, the media habit can be a hard one to break. (I want credit for avoiding all “Brokeback Mountain” puns.) So without further ado, I’ll unpack this whole thing…and then point out who patently absurd it all is.

* Bernie Weinraub, the former staff in question, was, for years, married to a movie executive at the same time that he was covering Hollywood.

* As he acknowledged in a grimace-inducing story he wrote upon his retirement, Weinraub not only saw nothing wrong with this, he thought it small minded of those who would dare raise questions about the propriety of a reporter living with one of the top people in an industry he’s reporting on.

* When Weinraub’s play came out, the Times farmed the review out to a freelancer to avoid any conflict of interest.

* The freelancer didn’t like the play.

* Now Weinraub is complaining and Nicki Finke, who says right off the bat that she’s “one of Weinraub’s closest friends,” is giving those complaints some legitimacy. Weinraub seems to think the Times is unhappy because his play criticizes the the paper’s Holocaust coverage. (There are plenty of lifers at the paper…but there’s nobody there who was patrolling the newsroom in the forties.)

My reaction? Man, Bernie Weinraub is a whiner. (Given his history, there’s some irony that he’s the one calling the Times “unprofessional.”) There’s no way in hell the Times could have given the play to one of their own writers. And once they decided to assign it elsewhere — to David Ng, the Village Voice‘s theater critic — they couldn’t very well have demanded the outside reviewer soft-pedal his opinion; that would have been a clear sign of meddling.

As befits this whole mess, Finke’s column doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “I am not suggesting any sort of conspiracy theory,” she writes, “[e]ven though I happen to know that Weinraub and [Times theater editor] Lyman, who took over the Hollywood correspondent beat from Bernie, never got along and didn’t like each other.” She goes on: “I am also not maligning the choice of Village Voice theater reviewer David Ng for the assignment nor impugning his integrity as a reviewer,” although she does feel obliged to point out that “this does appear to have been not just his first theater review for The Paper Of Record but his first piece on anything for the NYT since I could not find his byline there either in Nexis or the NYT‘s own online archives.” So what’s Finke’s beef? Unclear: “What I am doing is simply drawing attention to what I consider to be a gross unfairness.”

I’ve drawn the shit end of this particular stick in the past: in 2004, when the Times reviewed Hard News, my book about the paper’s full-scale meltdown, Slate‘s Timothy Noah has tapped to do the honors. He wasn’t impressed. It was virtually the only bad review I got: the Washington Post named Hard News one of the best books of the year; the Los Angeles Times compared it to a Greek tragedy, and EW gave it an A-. Unfortunately, the Post, LA Times, and EW don’t carry as much weight as the Sunday Book Review does. If anyone had cause to suspect the Times was deliberately sabotaging his work, it would have been me — Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher and CEO, told me to my face he wished the book hadn’t been written. But there wasn’t a conspiracy going on; there was just a writer who didn’t care for my book. That’s life. And it’s a lesson Weinraub could certainly stand to learn.

Post Categories: Bernie Weinraub & Hard News & New York Times & Nicki Finke

All I can say is wow: ol’ Murray impresses once again

March 28th, 2007 → 11:32 am @

He’s taunting me. That’s the only explanation I can possibly come up with.

The “he,” of course, is our old friend Murray Chass. He’s finally moved on from his Ahab-esque obsession with the J.D. Drew signing. (At least Moby Dick was an actual whale; Chass appears to have come up with the object of his obsession in his own muddled mind.) But he has not, to absolutely no one’s surprise, been able to move on from the Red Sox.

To wit:* today’s gem, titled “Boston Got What It Wanted, Or So It Seems.” Give Chass credit for one thing: he is consistent…in his ability to use odd, unnamed sources to prove a point, even when it’s contradicted by both the evidence and any number of people who are willing to be quoted on the record. Today, he writes that the Sox’s main motivation in bidding for the rights to negotiate with Dice-K was that they wanted to keep him from the Yankees. How does he know this? Well, supposedly one of the Henry-Werner-Lucchino trio told “a person who works as a consultant in Major League Baseball that had they been unable to sign Matsuzaka to a contract, they would still have considered the enterprise a success because he wouldn’t be on the Yankees.”

This remarkably thinly sourced item — and to call it sourced at all is generous — is apparently worth a column. Despite the fact that John Henry told Chass this was “malarkey” and “utter nonsense.” So to review: someone who is a “consultant” to MLB told Chass the Sox wanted to keep Dice-K out of New York. Not a consultant to the Red Sox, mind you. Not an MLB official. A “consultant.”

That’s not even the best part of the column. Check this out: “The Red Sox, according to the account that Henry is denying, figured that they would get the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka but would probably be unable to negotiate a deal for him with his agent, Scott Boras, who can be particularly tough to deal with in high-profile bargaining.”

This would seem to be a problematic formulation, and does nothing so much as to refute the entire premise of Chass’s column, because, of course, the Sox did sign Dice-K. How to explain that? According to good ol’ Murray, “[a]s the negotiating progressed, the Red Sox grew intrigued, and they offered more than the $5 million to $6 million a year they had originally planned as their ceiling.”

Wow. This is a player the Red Sox spent years scouting. For most of last season, there were two team employees who followed Dice-K more or less full-time. Never mind all that; Murray’s convinced, on the basis of absolutely nothing, that it was only as the negotiating progressed that the Sox grew “intrigued.”

A couple of weeks ago, Murray got some attention (and not just from me) when he bragged about his insistent ignorance regarding baseball. Now, once again, he’s come up with a column that is contradicted by all the facts and has no real sourcing. And so once again, I’m left wondering: why does the Times print this dreck? And will they ever get sufficiently embarrassed to pull the plug? Past history doesn’t give us much reason to be optimistic. But I’m holding out hope…

(As reader scotthp49 points out, I left out the best part of the article, where Chass points out that Wakefield “had a losing record last season that might have made the difference between the Red Sox making and not making the playoffs.” The Sox finished 11 games behind the Yankees and nine games behind Detroit for the wild card; Wake, who started 23 games, ended the year with a 7-11 record. (It’s worth noting that his peripherals weren’t that out line with the past couple of years…but we know Murray doesn’t much care for “numbers.”) Which means, assuming Wake got the same number of decisions in his starts, he would have had to put up a 15-3 record. (It’s 15 wins and not 16 because one of those losses was to Detroit, meaning if Wake won that game, the Sox would only need to make up 8 games total.) Clearly, the fact that Boston didn’t make the playoffs in 2006 was Wakefield’s fault.)

* Nevermind…

Post Categories: Daisuke Matsuzaka & Murray Chass & New York Times