The Pull-It Surprise
- J. Peder Zane, "The Crumbling Foundations of the Fourth Estate", Real Clear Politics, 7/21/2022
Skepticism is a bedrock principle of journalism. “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” the old adage goes. So is full disclosure (“the more information the better”) and transparency (“Always tell readers how you know what you know”).
The board that oversees journalism’s most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize, and many of America’s most prestigious news outlets violated all three of those values this week. This disquieting episode began on Monday when the board released a short statement saying that, “In the last three years, the Pulitzer Board has received inquiries, including from former President Donald Trump, about submissions from The New York Times and The Washington Post on Russian interference in the U.S. election and its connections to the Trump campaign – submissions that jointly won the 2018 National Reporting prize.”
The board said it had commissioned two “independent reviews” of the contested coverage, which “converged in their conclusions: that no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes. The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes in National Reporting stand.”
…I was eager to read those reports…. They were not attached to the statement. When I called the board, I was told that they would not be made public. …[C]an anyone believe that reports are being withheld even though they provided persuasive vindications of what the board had described in its prize citation as “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage”? This alleged reckoning smacks of a cover-up. …
I would love to know what the Pulitzer board’s two “independent reviews” made of these and other challenges to the accuracy of the work it honored. The larger question is why the Pulitzer board even bothered with this charade. It could, after all, have just ignored the complaints which would have dissipated over time. Its decision to declare vindication without any evidence should alarm even those who might say it’s not worth getting exercised over the actions of some prize committee.
Is anyone surprised by this? The Pulitzer board still hasn't pulled Walter Duranty's prize from ninety years ago, which was for much worse reporting than this. Speaking of which:
- David Folkenflik, "'The New York Times' can't shake the cloud over a 90-year-old Pulitzer Prize", National Public Radio, 5/8/2022
The New York Times is looking to add to its list of 132 Pulitzer Prizes—by far the most of any news organization—when the 2022 recipients for journalism are announced on Monday. Yet the war in Ukraine has renewed questions of whether the Times should return a Pulitzer awarded 90 years ago for work by Walter Duranty, its charismatic chief correspondent in the Soviet Union. … A new voice now adds himself to the cause: former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller—himself a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1989 for his own reporting for the Times on the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, as now, an autocrat's decrees led to mass deaths of Ukrainian civilians and relied on misinformation to try to cover it up. Reporters, including Duranty, were censored and threatened. (A U.S. diplomat once wrote that Duranty told him his reports had to reflect "the official opinion of the Soviet regime.") …
Duranty was The New York Times' man in Moscow, as the line went, with a cushy apartment in which to entertain expatriates and a reputation as a leading authority on the Soviet Union. Duranty had staked his name on the idea that Josef Stalin was the strong leader the communist country needed. … In return, Duranty won rare interviews with Stalin and wrote glowingly about Stalin and his plans. The Pulitzer board cited his "dispassionate interpretive reporting" in awarding him a prize in 1932 for a series of reports the previous year. … It is worth being clear on what Stalin's plans, called "collectivization," led to: the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and more than a million Russians, according to credible estimates.
"Activists from the Communist Party locally and nationally went house to house in Ukrainian towns and villages, confiscating food," says the journalist and scholar Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively on the period. "They took wheat, they took grain, they took vegetables, they took livestock. They took everything that people had. … People ate mice, they ate rats, they ate leaves, they ate grass," Applebaum says. "There were even some incidents of cannibalism."
She says Stalin used collectivization to crush any nationalist stirrings in Ukraine and to pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union. Communist Party officials had possible dissidents arrested, exiled and killed, especially professionals. "It's thought that between 3 and 4 million people died" in Ukraine, she says. …
In 1933, the Welsh writer Gareth Jones reported and spoke publicly about the famine after interviewing ordinary Ukrainians while he wandered by foot for 40 miles. … "Duranty set out to tear him down," Applebaum says. "And, of course, at the time, he succeeded because he was the famous Walter Duranty."
Duranty remained unwavering in his defense of Stalin and his policies, even as the famine unfolded. He used approved euphemisms like "malnutrition" instead of "famine." And in that March 1933 story, Duranty appeared to justify Stalin's use of force. "To put it brutally," Duranty wrote, "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
In August 1933, Duranty started another front-page story with these words: "The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." He acknowledged the shortages affecting Ukraine and other agricultural regions but added, "there will be more than sufficient [food] to cover the nation's food supply for the coming year and to justify the Kremlin's policy of collectivization."
Privately, a British diplomat recorded in September 1933 that Duranty had acknowledged to him that "as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the past year." Such an assessment never appeared in public.
Duranty died in 1957. As the Soviet Union cracked apart decades later, historians pried loose the full nature of the Ukrainian famine from censored archives. Scholars drilled down too on Duranty's role in deflecting attention from the humanitarian crisis and blame from Stalin. … The New York Times began to assess Duranty's work in increasingly caustic terms, starting in 1986 and 1990.
In 2003, public pressure led the Times and the Pulitzer Prize Board to conduct parallel reviews of Duranty's work and the prize. The board found no "clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception." It decided against withdrawing his award. …
There's plenty of evidence that Duranty knew exactly what he was doing, some of which is given in this article. In addition, the Pulitzer board in 2003 engaged an outside historian to review Duranty's work, and that historian recommended that the prize be "rescinded". The board chose to ignore the historian's advice, but his report was published and you can read it today1. Is it any wonder that the board now chooses to keep such reports secret (see the previous reading)?
Bill Keller had just become The Times' executive editor that summer. He tells NPR he looks back with some regret that he did not push harder for the award to be returned. He now says the Pulitzer board should rescind it. "…I thought the Pulitzer board's reasoning in not doing away with the prize was pretty lame. A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter's performance, and Duranty's performance was shameful." …
The Times still lists Duranty among its Pulitzer winners. Even so, as Keller says, the newspaper has distanced itself from what Duranty wrote in its pages. … The Times maintains that the decision on Duranty's honor rests with the Pulitzer board, which is overseen by Columbia University.
So, The Times passes the buck to the Pulitzer board.
[The Times] took a more active approach in the recent past regarding a separate controversy. In late 2020, it asked the Pulitzer board to take back finalist honors given to Caliphate, a podcast series that proved to be largely based on a hoax. The board did. The paper also returned a Peabody Award for the same series. …
The new administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, Marjorie Miller, says the board's new chairpersons have not changed the organization's stance on Duranty. She says many award-winning reports and many award-winning reporters would be seen differently in the years after they were recognized. "The board has never revoked a prize," Miller says. "The Times could certainly withdraw its support [for Duranty's work]."
And the board passes the buck right back. It seems clear that if The Times requested that the prize be revoked, it would be.
Also, the suggestion that Duranty's reporting was fine in his day but just doesn't meet current standards is nonsense. As the article mentions, both Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge reported the truth about the famine at some professional danger to their reputations. Duranty not only failed to report what he knew, but actively denied those truthful reports. Given the respect in which Duranty and The Times were held, partly due to Duranty's Pulitzer, those reports were ignored. As a result, the full truth about what happened in the Ukraine in the 1930s didn't come out until decades later.
In 1981, the Pulitzer board withdrew a prize from a Washington Post reporter after she confessed to her editors to having fabricated the subject of her award-winning story, a purported 8-year-old addicted to heroin2.
I have a question: Was the administrator lying when she said that the board has never revoked a prize, did she just not know about the Janet Cooke or Caliphate episodes, or is she using the word "revoke" with some Humpty Dumpty meaning? Personally, I don't care whether the prize is revoked, rescinded, returned, or withdrawn. Just pull it already.
It appears to me that the primary damage caused by this scandal is to the Pulitzer prizes, rather than to The New York Times. The damage to The Times' reputation was done years ago when the facts about Duranty began to emerge. The Pulitzer board, in contrast, does damage to its reputation every time it gives ridiculous excuses for not taking the prize back. Until then, the Pulitzers are a practical joke on journalism.
- Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003
- This refers to Janet Cooke; see: Mike Sager, "The fabulist who changed journalism", Columbia Journalism Review, Spring/2016
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.
Yes, We Have No Recession
Today, the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its scheduled report on the gross domestic product (GDP)1, and it announced that during the second quarter of this year it was −.9%2. In other words, rather than growing, the GDP contracted by almost a full percentage point. The GDP for the previous quarter was −1.6%, so this is the second straight quarter with a negative GDP. This is important because two consecutive quarters of "negative growth", as it's sometimes oxymoronically called3, is a sign that we are in a recession.
So, just what is a recession? As with many economic words, it has two meanings: a vague ordinary language meaning and a precise technical one. As is the case with the technical meanings of common words, it's meant to capture as much as possible of the ordinary meaning in a precise, measureable way:
- Ordinary Language: A recession is a bad thing, though not as bad as a depression, but both are periods of economic contraction and unemployment.
- Technical: A half-year period of economic contraction as measured by a negative GDP4.
So, by the technical definition, the U.S. is now in a recession since the economy contracted in the first half of the year. Whether it's a "recession" in the ordinary sense of the word, I'll leave for you to judge.
It had been anticipated for the last week or so that the BEA's report would show a contraction in the GDP for the last quarter and, unsurprisingly, the Biden administration and its apologists in the major news media have been scrambling to play down the technical meaning of "recession"5. They keep pointing out that "two quarters of negative GDP" is not an official definition of "recession", but then there is no "official" definition. The technical definition, however, has been widely used for at least the last twenty years, as indicated by its entry in the Routledge dictionary4.
Way back in 1980, William Safire wrote:
The Administration's chief word-fighters promptly called in [Alfred Kahn] and read him the Riot Act…. "[R]ecession" was frowned upon as a word for economists of good will. Mr. Kahn got the message. He announced he had never predicted any, uh, "that word", and, being a man of puckish humor, added that whenever he felt the urge to reflect on the possibilities of recession, he would substitute the word "banana." He has since been heard to mutter, "The worst banana you ever saw." …
Calling a recession a banana is better than calling it a "rolling readjustment," a "crabwise movement of the economy," or…"a soft landing." The problem is that editorialists across the country have already begun to characterize every knee-jerk, cheery Administration statement in the face of bad news as "Yes, We Have No Banana."6
The economy is contracting and inflation is at rates unseen since the days when William Safire wrote the above. Let's just hope that we're not headed for the worst banana we've ever seen.
Update (7/29/2022): In the quote from Safire, above, he mentions some doublespeak terms used in place of "recession": "rolling readjustment," "crabwise movement of the economy," "a soft landing" and, of course, "banana". William Lutz lists several others, including the oxymoron "negative economic growth", "suppression of economic activity", and "temporary interruption of an economic expansion"7.
The Biden administration's doublespeak term of choice appears to be that the economy is "slowing down". For instance, here's Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday, prior to the BEA's release of the GDP number:
Chuck Todd: Let me just start with this: Many businesses seem to be preparing for a recession. Should all Americans at home be preparing for a recession that many people think now is likely?
Yellen: Well, look, the economy is slowing down. … The labor market is now extremely strong. Even just during the last three months, net job gains averaged 375,000. This is not an economy that's in recession. But we're in a period of transition in which growth is slowing. And that's necessary and appropriate, and we need to be growing at a steady and sustainable pace. So there is a slow-down and businesses can see that. And that's appropriate, given that people now have jobs and we have a strong labor market. But you don't see any of the signs now. A recession is a broad-based contraction that affects many sectors of the economy. We just don't have that. Consumer spending remains solid. It's continuing to grow. Output, industrial output, has grown in five of the six most recent months. Credit quality remains very strong. Household balance sheets are generally in good shape. … Well, you know, I would say that we're seeing a slow-down. We're likely to see some slowing of job creation. I don't think that that's a recession. A recession is broad-based weakness in the economy. We're not seeing that now. … Growth is slowing globally.8
Yellen raises some good questions here about whether the current situation fits the vague, everyday notion of a recession. However, saying that the economy is "slowing down" mischaracterizes it. If GDP growth had simply become less than it was previously, it would be correct; if GDP growth completely stopped, it would be more accurate to call it a "halt" than a "slow-down". However, the situation is worse than that: economic growth is not "slowing", as Yellen said; rather, the economy is not growing at all, but shrinking. Making use of the metaphor of the economy as a moving object, that is not a "slowing down" but a "going into reverse". We're metaphorically losing economic ground.
- "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
- "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
- See, for instance: "US Q2 GDP shows 2nd quarter of negative growth", Reuters, 7/28/2022.
- Donald Rutherford, "Recession", Routledge Dictionary of Economics (2nd edition, 2002).
- See, for instance: Kate Sullivan, "Biden dismisses recession fears despite US economy shrinking again in second quarter", CNN, 7/28/2022.
- William Safire, On Language (1980), pp. 26-27. Paragraphing suppressed.
- William Lutz, Doublespeak Defined: Cut Through the Bull**** and Get the Point! (1999), pp. 101-102.
- "Meet the Press", NBC News, 7/24/2022.
I've added a new review of a not-so-new book to the book reviews page; see:
The book is not-so-new because it was published two years ago, that is, 2020 B.C. (Before Covid). I placed it on the separate reviews page rather than here because it's of more than passing interest. Check it out.
July 7th, 2022 (Revised: 7/9/2022) (Permalink)
1984 in 2022
Quote: "…[T]he tyrants of classical legend were merely opportunistic hooligans, altogether lacking the sophistication required to alter the shape of the past. The twentieth-century totalitarian, on the other hand…is engaged on a far more sinister project: not to tell a man that 2 + 2 = 5 and make him pretend to believe it, but to convince him that it is actually so."1
Title: On Nineteen Eighty-Four
Comment: This book is not about the year 1984, but about the novel of the same name published in 1949.
Subtitle: A Biography of George Orwell's Masterpiece
Comment: Oddly enough, this is the second book that I know of to call itself a "biography" of 1984. The previous one is Dorian Lynskey's Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, the New Book a few years ago2, which I'm ashamed to admit that I still haven't read. While Lynskey's book called itself "the" biography of 1984, this one is called only "a" biography of it, presumably because it's not the first.
As I remarked at the time, it's not literally possible to write a biography of a book, since books do not have literal lives, and it's only in a metaphorical sense that we can talk about the "life" of a book or its biography. Biographers usually wait until people die before writing their biographies, but books are different. As far as I know, no one has written a "biography" of Orwell's earlier novel Burmese Days, because few people read it today―I did, but I'm an Orwell completist―so that novel is figuratively "dead". The fact that there are now two "biographies" of 1984 just goes to show that it is still very much "alive". If anything, it seems more alive today than it was just a few years ago when Lynskey's book was published.
As I also remarked at the time, 1984 seems to draw increasingly close each year. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that totalitarianism had been discredited and democracy was spreading across the globe. Today, the totalitarians are on the march everywhere, especially in Russia and China but even in the United States, and democracy is in retreat. For this reason, we need to remind ourselves of the lessons of 1984 before it's too late.
Author: D. J. Taylor
Comment: Taylor is both a novelist and biographer of Orwell, so he has two credentials for writing a book about 1984, one literary and one historical. I'm afraid I haven't read his biography of Orwell, even though I've read more than one: there are too many for even a completist to have read them all.
Summary: Rather unusually, the book has no preface, foreword, or introduction, so I'm basing this summary entirely upon the table of contents and the first two chapters. The book is divided into three parts that cover the period of Orwell's life before he started writing 1984 (1903-43), while he was doing so (1943-49), and since the book's publication and his death (1949-the present).
Disclaimer: I haven't finished reading this book yet, so can't review or recommend it. However, its topic interests me, may interest Fallacy Files readers, and should interest everyone who cares about the fate of freedom.
Crack the Combination III
The combination of a lock is three digits long. The following are some incorrect combinations, each of which has one correct digit though it is in the wrong position:
Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?
Explanation: Both 2 and 3 can be ruled out since each appears in three of the incorrect combinations in each of the three possible positions. Thus, 8 must be in the combination, by clue 1, but it can't be in the middle position or in the last position, by clue 4, so it's in the first position. Hence, 6 can be ruled out, also by clue 4. By a process of elimination, this leaves only 0 and 5. 5 can't be in the last position, by clue 2, so it must be in the middle. This leaves 0 in the last position.
WARNING: May cause mind-boggling.
A Warning Sign1
Can you see what's wrong with the following sign? It took me a minute or two to spot it, so you might want to take some time to study it before reading on.
What is "visual damage"? Would it be damage to your eyes after getting squirted in the face with boiling water?
According to the sign, the "visual damage" would be to the "tap top assembly", whatever that is, rather than to your eyes. Presumably, what the sign maker meant was "visible" damage, that is, damage to the tap top assembly―or should that be the "top tap assembly"?―that is severe enough for you to see. Apparently, if the damage is not bad enough to see, you just shouldn't worry about it.
Surely, "visible damage" would have been a clearer and more precise wording, but is it actually wrong to use "visual" to mean "visible"? In general, "visual" as an adjective means "of or pertaining to vision"2, and visibility certainly pertains to vision. Some dictionaries give "visible" as one of the possible meanings of "visual"3. Moreover, none of the reference books on common errors that I usually check warns against confusing "visual" and "visible", though that could be because the confusion is uncommon.
One of the few dictionaries that I've found that argues against the "visible" meaning of "visual" is H. W. Fowler's dictionary of usage. Here's the entirety of Fowler's entry:
Visible means capable of being seen; visual means pertaining to seeing. The visual arts are concerned with the production of the beautiful in visible form, visually appreciated. This differentiation is sometimes obscured by the misuse of visual for visible, for which indeed dictionary authority can be found. But the differentiation is worth preserving. For instance the wrong word is used in the descriptive phrase Diagnosis by visual symptoms; the method of diagnosis is visual, but the symptoms are visible.4
Furthermore, while it's difficult to spot the mistake―if it is one―in the warning sign, in other contexts it's misleading to use "visual" to mean "visible". For instance, suppose that you were scalded by the hot water and complained that you couldn't see the sign because something obscured it. Would you say that the sign was "not visual" or that it was "not visible"? Surely, all signs are visual or they wouldn't be signs, but some are not visible because of obstructions.
Similarly, there's a recent movie called The Invisible Man, about a man who could not be seen. Could it have been titled "The Non-Visual Man", instead? That suggests to me a blind man, who cannot see, rather than one who cannot be seen.
Logically, the relation between "visual" and "visible" is that the former is the more general word, and the latter more specific. It may not be, strictly speaking, wrong to call damage to the hot water dispenser "visual", but "visible" is more specific, and thus more informative. So, whether or not it's a mistake to use "visual" to mean "visible", the distinction between the two words is worth observing.
- Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for calling this issue to my attention, supplying the photograph of the sign, and for versions of the examples I use.
- "Visual", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
- For instance, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives "visible" as the third meaning of "visual"; see: "Visual", Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
- H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd edition, 1965), revised & edited by Sir Ernest Gowers; under "visible, visual."