Dog Bites Man (Woman): Palin is Lying Again/Basic Arithmetic edition

Amazingly enough, when Sarah Palin got her Couric do-over in the friendly confines of Fox News, all of sudden she remembered some stuff she “forgot” when talking to someone who actually asked follow up questions.

Her court case nonesense is probably better eviscerated by someone who actually knows something of the law, but I want to take a whack at her claim that, oh yes, she does read the newspapers…or as she put it:

CAMERON: Well, what do you read?

PALIN: I read the same things that other people across the country read, including the “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal” and “The Economist” and some of these publications that we’ve recently even been interviewed through up there in Alaska.

Oh yeah?

Think Progress has already questioned the probability of Palin reading The Economist.  But the idiocy goes deeper than the mere likelihood that Palin was simply parroting a list of approved elite-friendly titles a leader of the free world would be expected to read.

Think about this with an eye toward real life.  In Palin you have a governor of a state who also happens to have five children still at home.  She is a moderately busy person.

She also has a certain media list she needs to monitor. She has a direct political and governance interest in reading local newspapers, especially that or those of record for her state; she would also, being a skilled thoroughly modern politician, have her eye and ear on local political TV and radio.

She is also a human animal, subject to the same physical constraints that anyone with this basic biology must face.  In this context, that means she is subject to the same limits on reading speed that anyone faces.  The reading speed for comprehension has a range of 200-400 words per minute; skimming can be accomplished at rates as fast as 700 words per minute.

So let’s confront The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  What follows is a mix of real data and inferences; the idea is to get a broad sense of the scale of the task Palin has set herself without spending half a day on the analysis.  It’s a first order “does this make sense” pass, nothing more.

On average the Journal is 96 pages long. A single broadsheet page of a newspaper, even in its modern, slightly shrunken form, can deliver roughly 3,000 words (actually more — the page used for this number is the Times’ op-ed, which typically runs three – four pieces c. 800 word pieces with some art).   Clearly art (in the newspaper sense) and advertising cut into the news hole available for words — and lets be conservative here too; say only one quarter of the average issue actually contains words to be read.

That would leave someone reading the WSJ cover to cover with something like 24*3000= 72,000 words to take in.  Give it another hair cut to acknowledge the ongoing constraints of print journalism.  So two national newspapers today could offer a dedicated reader 100,000 words (and quite possibly much more).  At 400 words per minute — fast for comprehension, slow for skimming, that many words would occupy someone for 250 minutes, or just over four hours every day.

Give it another haircut.  Throw out half the paper. Sarah Palin does not need to read the company news pages of the Journal or the New York Region report in the Times.  We’re still talking two hours (and we haven’t even touched the drag on the day that The Economist hits her in-tray.

In other words…all this is nonsense.  Palin does not read these papers in any meaningful way. Nor should she, in fact.

She’s the governor of Alaska, not of New York.  She needs to read her local stuff, and her staff should be flagging what she needs to get from the national media; certainly it would make sense if someone in Juneau prepared a digest of stories relevant to state-state issues and those national ones that impinge on her decision-space.

Palin could have said something like this during the Couric interview; she could have made this basic point to Fox — that she stays up on the information most relevant to her job, and relies on her staff to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.  The moment would have passed unnoticed.

Instead, she committed herself to an impossibility; that she as governor and mother still finds the time to read the papers for several hours per day.

Two last points:  First:  Once again we see in Palin someone willing to lie at any moment to reinforce the image she or her handlers think she needs to display.  I know that what you have just read is overkill — but there is something about the contempt in which Palin and her keepers hold their audience that makes me want to stomp each moment of stupidity until its cries “uncle.”

Second:  The running scream of this blog is that simple quantification exercises are essential for making sense of the world around us.  Journalists and everyone need to count.  I know that Fox News is not a journalistic enterprise; it’s Pravda with better graphics.  But as I hope the above back of the envelope exercise suggests, it would help the rest of us a great deal if we turned the niggling feeling, “but-does-it-make-sense,” into a reflex animated by a habit of quantification, approximation and inquiry.  Here the lesson endeth.

Image:  Johnny Automatic Children Reading Newspaper.  Source:  Clker.com.

Explore posts in the same categories: Arithmetic, journalism, numbers, Palin, political follies, Politics, Republican follies, Republican knavery, ridicule, Stupidity

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2 Comments on “Dog Bites Man (Woman): Palin is Lying Again/Basic Arithmetic edition”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    I think your calculations are a bit unfair. I might claim to “read” several newspapers a day but what I mean by that is that I look through all of the news items in one of the broadsheets, bothering only to read thoroughly those that engage me, and that I consult analysis and op-ed pieces by columnists of interest in that and the three or four others that lie around the office. I guess I read only a small fraction of the words in any paper but who does more than that? What constitutes “meaningful” reading for a newspaper doesn’t strike me as being as demanding as you suggest.

    I found some UK data on this at:
    http://www.nrs.co.uk/time_spent_reading/TSRTablesJan-Dec2007.xls
    The median time spent reading a weekday quality newspaper looks like it is about 30-40 minutes and I’ll bet that time spent per publication falls sharply with the number of newspapers “read”.

  2. Spiv Says:

    I have to agree, I “read” the WSJ in about 15 minutes in morning before I head out to work. I probably actually read 2-3 articles, the rest I either skim for data or totally ignore because the topic is of no interest to me.

    The difference though, is I’m reading for my own benefit. If I were to be reading to gauge the state of things with intent to oversee the country, I imagine I’d spend a great deal more time on individual articles. Still, not enough so to make the ‘lying’ judgment just yet.

    It might be slightly unfair to question her sincerity here, but then again I think it might also be a little relevant given her apparent lack of curiosity to these things up until a week before the VP debate. Frankly someone ought to just ask the paperboy when these publications started hitting her doorstep.


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