Posted tagged ‘Bad Pundits’

What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming

January 18, 2014

By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.”  Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)

Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead.  She writes:

In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.

In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.


I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills.  A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*

At this point, a bit of housekeeping:  I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow.  Take the blog off your RSS feed.  There.  Was that so hard?  (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)

I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine.  The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.


The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe.  The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell.  The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly.  There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations.  (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)

But all of that and more has been amply discussed already.  What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:

As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.

A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

And therein lies the nub:  (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.

That is:  Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections.  They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis.  He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life.  He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.

And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care?  What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?

Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.


Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.

There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %.  It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!).  The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality.  The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene.  Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything.  But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness.  How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds?  Too easy?  Get me rewrite!

Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.

So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.

*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:

I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

Softly, softly…

Images:  Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515

As Long As We’re Cataloguing Intellectual Failure On The Right: Heeeere’s Davey!

October 2, 2012

So, Megan McArdle spits the bit in her inimitable (thank FSM!) style, and George Will adds complaining about not being able to say N*clang! like the black kids do to his list of analytical and moral failures, when along comes David Brooks to remind us that he is a truly dreadful author of fiction.

Charles Pierce has gone medieval on today’s column soon enough, and work continues to do a tap dance on my butt (in these shoes, I’m guessing), so I’ll keep my fisking as telegraphic as possible.  Which is hard, as the fecking hopeless Brooks has outdone himself this time. [ETA:  I failed at this even more conspicuously than usual.  You have been warned.]

What Brooks offers is his fantasy of the real Mitt Romney, along with the speech that David Brooks is somehow convinced would save the nation that this goateed Romney could deliver at the debate tomorrow.

Let’s view the carnage.  Brooks begins:

I’d like to say that I wish everybody could have known my father, George Romney. He was a great public servant and I’ve always tried to live up to his example.

Uhno.  And that doesn’t even begin to get into the racist dog-whistling by the son that his father, on the evidence, would never have tolerated.

I’m a nonideological guy running in an ideological age, and I’ve been pretending to be more of an ideologue than I really am. I’m a sophisticated guy running in a populist moment. I’ve ended up dumbing myself down.

Easy for you to say, Mitt…er David. And at first glance a hard claim to engage, much less refute.  How do you know what’s in someone’s heart, when all you have to go on is what they say and do?  Except that we do have some indications of the private Romney’s real character.  The essential significance of the “47%” speech is that in both text and delivery it offers a glimpse of what Romney says among his peers and when he believes he can unburden himself outside the glare of public notice.  And just as a reminder, this is what the actual, flesh-and-blood (probably) RomneyBot said:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.. [via]

There’s nothing of sophistication there — no understanding either of the tax code or of the human experience of the old and the young, those in uniformed service and those with disabilities and no cash for a dancing horse to aid them in their difficulties.  Then there’s a metric tonne of ideology to compensate for that willed — I assume — ignorance: no-income tax = mooching and looting victims.  Right wing commitment to claims not in evidence doesn’t get more distilled than that.


 It hasn’t even worked. I’m behind. So I’ve decided to run the last month of this campaign as myself.

I do not believe the dear FSM loves me enough to make this true.

Or rather, as Brooks is loathe to admit, there’s been plenty of talk out of Boston [Warning! Politico link] about the problem with the client already.  And, you know, there’s a truth about presidenting.  It’s hard, and micromanagers fail.  If you haven’t already, go read Michael Lewis’ piece on what Obama actually does with his time — and then having done so, come back and tell me whether a CEO type used to deference to any damn stupid idea is really the right choice for the job.

With that, Brooks/Goateed Romney go onto substance. Or, as I like to call it, “substance:”

The next president is going to face some wicked problems. The first is the “fiscal cliff.” The next president is going to have to forge a grand compromise on the budget. President Obama has tried and failed to do this over the past four years. There’s no reason to think he’d do any better over the next four.

Errrr.  Whatever you feel about the terms of the various proposed grand compromises (I think they suck, and that they miss the crucial point that it’s the policy, stupid, but that’s for another post), there’s this published just yesterday in the very newspaper for which Mr. Brooks sucks his thumb.  More on point, the two concepts — the fiscal cliff and some large budget deal are not necessarily paired; there is no need either in law or in principle to forge a giant deal to confront the specific questions of taxes and savings coming up on deadline. Brooks knows this, I’m sure, but chooses not to engage it because he is wholly committed to the demand that the US transfer more money to the best off at the expense of the old, the sick and the poor, no matter how many times the failure of the economic claims for such a transfer have been batted back into his face.


He’s failed, first, because he’s just not a very good negotiator. …

Which, of course, is why his administration has been the most legislatively successful in memory, despite sustained and unpatriotic opposition by a party that has values power over country.

Furthermore, he’s too insular. …

See above.

The second reason there’s been no budget compromise is that Republicans have been too rigid, refusing to put revenue on the table. I’ve been part of the problem. But, globally, the nations that successfully trim debt have raised $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts. I will bring Republicans around to that position. There’s no way President Obama can do that.

This is, of course, just wankery.  Even worse, it ignores the basic arithmetic of the largest public commitment the Romney-Ryan campaign has made, to pare tax rates below the Bush tax cut levels, to be offset by closing unspecified loopholes — a proposal that, as President Clinton famously pointed out, fails the test of arithmetic.

Let me just jump on this one again:  The Romney budget proposal if taken at face value must blow up the deficit, blow up government, or raise taxes on middle-earners — or some combination of all three.  Brooks has to know this — I’m pretty sure he can count to five (trillion), and that’s really all this one takes, for that is the amount of lost revenue from the top line of the Romney-Ryan tax plan that will go on the deficit that has to come from somewhere.  That Brooks knows this and still pumps out this garbage is a measure of the ethical and moral quality of the man.  Just sayin.

Or, the shorter:  if you think Republicans cut tax rates and raise revenues, you haven’t been paying attention for over thirty years.  Truly, we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve got the T-shirt, and we can smell bullshit when folks like Brooks are kind enough to dump a trainload of the stuff on our doorstep, thank you very much.

Oh dear FSM, there’s more:

The second wicked problem the next president will face is sluggish growth. I assume you know that everything President Obama and I have been saying on this subject has been total garbage. Presidents and governors don’t “create jobs.” We don’t have the ability to “grow the economy.” There’s no magic lever.

Instead, an administration makes a thousand small decisions, each of which subtly adds to or detracts from a positive growth environment.

Dude, if I were writing propaganda in this day and age, I’d avoid references that recall “a thousand points of light” even in passing.  Just saying.

The Obama administration, which is either hostile to or aloof from business, has made a thousand tax, regulatory and spending decisions that are biased away from growth and biased toward other priorities.

And those would be?  Look, it is asking a lot of a putative public “intellectual,” but it is worth remembering (and I know this sounds like a broken record) what an abandonment of the principle of public regulation left us with in late 2008.  Banksters may not like financial regulation — but there is ample evidence (dating back to 1720, btw) that you damn well need it if you don’t like global financial collapse every few years.

More to the point, recent history is a pretty good guide here.  It’s a very flawed instrument, but the fact that the stock market consistently, over many, many years, does better under Democratic administrations that Republican ones is a signal that business may grumble, but does not actually suffer under greater scrutiny.  The reverse, in fact, which surprises no one who understands the concept of “market failure” — whose numbers seem not to include Mr. Brooks.

American competitiveness has fallen in each of the past four years, according to the World Economic Forum. Medical device makers, for example, are being chased overseas. The economy in 2012 is worse than the economy in 2011. That’s inexcusable.

This chart, please.  Also, too, if you look at the cited report (but not linked–always a Brooks tell) you find that the US is now ranked fifth internationally for competitiveness, behind such economic heavyweights as Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden and Finland.  Yup.  Brooks is a hack, but this is particularly hacktackular.

Also: please note that the leading reason cited for the US’s lagging behind these engines of the global economy is  that “the business community continues to be critical of public and private institutions…”  which raises at least the hint that perhaps GOP intransigence on things like the debt ceiling may have taken a toll. But I digress…

My administration will be a little more biased toward growth. It’ll treat businesses with more respect. There will be no magic recovery, but gradually the animal spirits will revive.

Ahh! The confidence fairy! It’s worked so well in Britain.

Seriously — this has gone beyond embarrassing to the point of an insult to Brooks’ readers.  We should vote for Romney because Mitt of all people will unleash the beast within us?  Implausible (and actually kind of icky) sexual innuendo aside — does anyone over at the Times remember what happened the last time we let the animal spirits run free?  Again, global financial disaster anyone.  Words fail me (and a good thing too, considering the heroic length of this screed).

The third big problem is Medicare and rising health care costs, which are bankrupting this country. Let me tell you the brutal truth. Nobody knows how to reduce health care inflation….

This is basically wrong.  Bluntly:  other countries get better outcomes for much less.  Their costs have been rising, to be sure, but there is no doubt that there are plenty of models out there that would reduce US medical costs in ways that would make the phrase “bankrupting the country” simply bullshit.  That there are possibly intractable political obstacles to emulating any other model or cherrypicking from several might be true.  But if so, that’s in part because compromised members of the media use the platforms of great influence to obscure the basic international facts of medical care.  One more thing:  following up on a recent slowing of medical cost inflation in Massachusetts (with its Romneycare prototype of the national system) we now have an ongoing attempt to capture some of the insights that have allowed other countries to contain costs here in the home of the bean and the cod.  We are not so ignorant as the writing of David Brooks would leave us.

The first, included in Obamacare, is to have an Independent Payment Advisory Board find efficiencies and impose price controls. The problem is that that leaves the painful cost-cutting decisions in Washington, where Congress rules.

This is simply incoherent.  An independent board is not of necessity a pawn of Congress, which is why the Republican party has tried so hard to limit the power of IPAB.

Congress wrote provisions in the health care law that have already gutted the power of the advisory board. The current law allows Congress to make “cuts” on paper and then undo them with subsequent legislation. That’s what Congress always does.

Which is why you raise the bar to Congressional attempts to reduce the independence of the board, rather than lower it.

The second approach, favored by me, is to scrap the perverse fee-for-service incentives and use a more market-based approach. I think there’s ample evidence that this could work, but, to be honest, some serious health economists disagree.

Evidence like this.

Again, I cannot help but believe that Brooks knows about the Medicare Advantage experiment in market-competition vs. single payer (Medicare) deliver of health services.  Health care is famously an example of a market prone to failure, and it should have come as no surprise that the program did not achieve the fantasies of those for whom the words “free market” are as potent an incantation in this worls as Expecto Patronum! would be.  Brooks is such a deluded creature, but still, the numbers aren’t even close.  That he writes this stuff is, again, a measure of his essential intellectual contempt for his audience.

Almost done… I promise

I’m willing to pursue any experiment, from any political direction, that lowers costs and saves Medicare.

No.  A vouchers are not insurance; the choice of Ryan shows what votes in the House have already confirmed:  the GOP approach to health care has nothing to do with cost containment and everything to do with shifting costs from the entire nation to the individuals confronting the need for care, many of whom will, most likely, be priced out of critical segments of the health care delivery system.  Whatever else Romney proposes, it is not “saving” Medicare

Democrats are campaigning as the party that will fight to the death to preserve the Medicare status quo. If they win, the lesson will be: Never Touch Medicare. No Democrat or Republican will dare reform the system, and we will go bankrupt.

No.  See above. Democrats, including those in my and Mitt Romney’s home state (sort-of, in his case) are currently touching medical care delivery in ways that do carry risk.  We can count, unlike our Laffable GOP friends.  The difference is we actually attempt to construct policy to do something about the numbers.

All right.  I’m done.  So much for telegraphy.  Did I mention how much I loathe the condescension of David Brooks?  It’s not the assumption that we’re dumb enough to buy this that gets me in the end, though.  It’s that he continues to use his very bully pulpit to advance ideas he has to know are based on bullshit that if enacted would harm so very many people.  I do not wish physical harm on him.  A year or two in a Trappist monastery would satisfy me just fine.

Images: Anthony van Dyke, Portrait of a Commander in Armour, with a Red Scarf,  before 1641.

Johann Heinrich Füssli, detail from The Fairy Queen Titania, 1793-1794.