Article 25

Flash: God Helps a Student Cheat

In Uncategorized on 01/23/2016 at 1:01 pm

Media column

By John Nerone

 

With less than a year to go to Election Day 2016, maybe it’s not too soon to start paying attention to the presidential campaign.

All the candidates think the media have it in for them. And they’re all right! The news media, or at least the professional news reporters who cover campaigns, clearly don’t have the candidates’ best interests at heart. Political reporters want to see campaigns explode. Why? Because it’s news when they do.

This election cycle promises to be one of the best for watching campaigns explode. There are so many candidates, and they can’t all win. But not all the losers will lose in a newsworthy fashion. Already worthies like Scott Walker on the Republican side and Lincoln Chaffee on the Democratic have exited with an undramatic fade to black – they simply lost all support in the polls. Reporters like poll collapses. Reporting on polls is dull but safe.

Reporters are happier to report lies, gaffes, and contradictions. It’s news when a candidate tells a whopper, or when a candidate reverses a position. Candidates complain that reporters love to play “gotcha!” And they’re right again!

Of all the things to report, why do reporters choose these things? I’ll tell you. First, they let a reporter seem neutral, not biased – polls especially. What can be more neutral than reporting that Ben Carson, say, was overtaking Donald Trump, say, in November in the polls in Iowa? Second, they let a reporter demonstrate superiority. Pouncing on a contradiction or pronouncing a post mortem on a candidacy gives the reporter an opportunity to show off the accumulation of knowledge or conventional wisdom that living on the campaign trail is supposed to produce.

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Polls used to be few and far between. Now they are constant, so numerous that it’s possible to do a poll of polls to get a really dynamic view of a race. Ubiquitous polling gives the impression that there is a living, breathing public that’s constantly talking and thinking and cares about what candidates are doing and saying. But that public is a fiction. Most telephone polls, for instance, have a response rate of around 10 percent. You have to call 10,000 numbers to get 1,000 people to answer your questions. Poll results aren’t fictions: pollsters work hard to weight responses to predict how people will actually vote, and they do pretty well. Polling is pretty scientific. It’s the talking, thinking, caring public that is a fiction.

Remember this when you read about the surprising resiliency of Trump and Carson in the polls. Their staying power comes partly from reporters reporting that they have staying power. News organizations focus their attention on leaders, so a lead gets reinforced.

But news likes novelty, so more attention follows rising and falling candidates than the ones who are just maintaining. That’s why we heard a lot about Carson “surging” and not a lot about Bernie Sanders, even though Carson had “surged” to 20 percent and second place, while Sanders then stood at 32 percent. And second place. (According to pollster.com on 16 November.)

When you add the rise of polling to reporting’s addiction to neutrality, you get a toxic compound of idiotic media content. Campaign events are judged on whether they will move the polls; debates are judged on who will rise or fall in the polls; gaffes and stumbles are emphasized because they might have an impact in the polls. You can get worn out, waiting for reporters to commit an act of honest journalism.

One way they could do this would be by reporting more on what we could call the other kind of poll. The polling of public opinion is, well, public. You can follow these polls easily, on your phone even, by logging into pollster.com or realclearpolitics.com. You don’t need reporters for this. A more arcane poll is the poll of deep pockets. One reason why there are so many candidates this cycle is that each one has at least one deep-pocketed backer. Never have so many billionaires given so much to so many, etc. The deep-pocket poll lets losers in the public opinion polls stay in play much longer than in the past. They hang around forever, waiting for the moment when the spotlight hits them, and they can say or do something that will let them register in the other kind of poll.

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November was the season of Ben Carson. That’s Dr. Carson to you. So what is that all about?. That’s Dr. Carson to you. So what is that all about? Carson has been a celebrity for quite a while, both as a famed neurosurgeon and as a politically outspoken evangelical, but his presidential campaign is his first attempt at elected office. “Political novice” is the way reporters report this.

For a long time, Carson was taken seriously only in the Fox News neighborhood of the national media. The reporters who consider themselves more professional than Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly paid attention to him primarily when he said something daffy, like suggesting that he would use drone strikes to control the border with Mexico. Then Politico did a drive-by piece on an anecdote in Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands. Politico aims to be the most muscular and independent of the Washington, D.C., news organizations, and is proud that it routinely pisses off both Democrats and Republicans. A critic might say that it is a loud voice of D.C. consensus, amplified by the admiration of the reporters who work for ordinary newspapers and TV channels. Politico’s Kyle Cheney committed what is supposed to be an act of journalism by questioning Carson’s claim that he had been offered a scholarship to West Point (in a report posted on 6 November). Cheney quoted a spokeswoman from West Point saying they had no records that he’d applied.

The reaction of Carson supporters – which I share, by the way – was “so what?” Dig deep into this controversy, and a fair-minded person would call it at most an exaggeration, and most likely a case of imprecise diction. It’s hardly on my list of the top 10 questions about Ben Carson.

My top question is why he appeals to people. He had a following before the candidacy. Gifted Hands is a popular book, and when I looked for it in Cincinnati’s excellent public library, every one of its dozens of copies was checked out. And his accomplishments as a neurosurgeon are unquestionable. The parts of Gifted Hands that discuss specific cases really impressed me. This is a very smart guy.

But there’s smart, and there’s smart. He sure has the kind of intelligence it takes to do brain surgery. But even he says that his great gift there is hand-to-eye coordination. Presidents can get by without that. He also apparently has fine visual intelligence, and he’s extraordinarily calm and methodical, which looks good standing next to Trump.

Outside his area of expertise, Dr. Carson is not very smart. As a man of science, he doesn’t believe in evolution or in global warming. He has weird ideas about pyramids. He’s most compelling as a man of faith. The most bizarre story in Gifted Hands is about his freshman chemistry final. After slacking through the semester, he realized the night before the final that he was doomed to fail. He tried cramming, but ran out of steam. Then he prayed and went to sleep. He dreamt that a mysterious figure – God! – was solving chemistry problems on a chalkboard. When he woke up, he wrote down everything he could remember. When the exam was handed out, he saw that those dream problems were the exact questions. His interpretation is that God answered his prayer by teaching him chemistry. Another interpretation is that God helped him cheat by giving him the questions ahead of time. An honest student would’ve just said no.

The political reporters tend to give candidates a pass on religion, at least when it’s Christianity. If Carson doesn’t explode soon, they might have to recalibrate. If a president believes God will save his ass on the chemistry final, what else might he believe?

John Nerone is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

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