Tag Archives: Campaign 2016

Stepping Away From the Rage

You might be surprised that I went dark for a few weeks after the election, but now I am writing a flurry of posts. I’ve actually had some of these posts written in draft form for weeks. I wanted to wait out the circular firing squad that I’m seeing on left-leaning social media. Unfortunately, it’s December and the circular firing squad isn’t going away. The absurdity is getting a bit much, so I’ve got to say my peace and move on.

As someone who spent years studying how different news organizations gravitated towards different topics in the 2008 election, I expected the same in 2016. Candidates have different things they care about, different priorities for the country. They also gravitate towards issues that poll well for them. We saw this kind of asymmetry in the primaries. Bernie Sanders was all about income inequality and then added political reform to reflect his struggles under DNC rules and new followers’ anger towards the DNC. Hillary Clinton emphasized race and gender to try and capture Obama’s base along with her foreign policy experience. For Republicans, Ted Cruz emphasized local government and Christian values. John Kasich emphasized pragmatic experience. Donald Trump emphasized immigration, trade and being an outsider who could make better deals to clean up DC.

In the general election, both sides converged on the campaign agenda. Trump made his campaign about his own personality, and Clinton agreed to make the campaign about Trump. People talked about race and gender largely via reference to Trump’s behavior and critiques of Trump. That’s why it feels like he has a mandate and why many on the left feel so devastated. I think a lot of progressive put all their eggs in the “make this election a referendum on Trump” basket and it didn’t quite work out. The symmetry of Campaign 2016 is part of why it got so nasty.

I’ll get back to this idea of symmetry and how it is haunting Democrats’ attempts to process the election in a bit. First it is important to recognize just how narrow Trump’s victory was. As a sports fan, I know narrow championship defeats feel much worse than getting blown out. A whole bunch of things had to break in Donald Trump’s favor or against Hillary Clinton. This list is adapted from a longer list David Roberts offered at Vox of possible reasons for Clinton’s loss. I’m not always a fan of Roberts’ work, but he did a good job in the beginning of his essay laying out all the explanations that other progressives have offered:

  • An unpopular candidate in Clinton
  • Poor Clinton strategy on which states to focus on
  • Lack of Clinton outreach to white working class / rural voters
  • Too much emphasis on Trump’s character vs. Clinton’s economic plan
  • The FBI, Russian hackers, Wikileaks all worked against Clinton
  • The media emphasized Clinton’s e-mails over any other story
  • Voter restrictions in states like North Carolina
  • The electoral college made Trump votes more valuable
  • Voters may have disproportionately chose third party candidates over Clinton
  • Racial and gender politics driving at least some voters to Trump as opposed to disqualifying him in voters’ minds.

After giving his long list, Roberts offers one of the more insightful things I have seen any Democrat say after the election:

Like everyone, I buy some of these more than others. But there are bits and pieces of evidence for all of them. Some of them don’t hold up on their own — voter suppression probably didn’t swing the election, nor did third-party candidates — but all of them plausibly played a role or have some grain of truth.

Even before giving the list of what went wrong, Roberts explains what went right. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. By the time all the votes are counted, Clinton should have the second highest vote total of anyone who has run for President of the United States. Trump earned 2.4 million fewer votes and squeaked through the Electoral College. Since Trump had such a narrow victory, it’s easy to say that Clinton would have won if just one thing broke differently.

I think this is why there has been so much unproductive finger pointing on the left. Clinton came so close to winning that everyone can convince themselves “I held up my end! It’s that other part of the Democratic coalition that let us down!” For starters, here’s Bernie Sanders:

You may recall that Sanders’ biggest problem in the beginning of his campaign was emphasizing economics almost exclusively. He said racial inequality was secondary to class. Black Lives Matter activists targeted his rallies for protests, charging the stage a few times. Sanders moved towards the left on race for the primary. But now that the Democrats lost the general election, Sanders is saying he was right all along. He hasn’t exactly been received warmly by other progressives.

Roberts posted these tweets in his Vox piece and then piled on:

There isn’t a ton of evidence that an economically populist message — divorced of appeals to xenophobia or white resentment — moves the WWC. In fact, as Andrew Prokop notes, “In two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates [Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland] campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.”

Why is that?

Perhaps because politicians know, though won’t say, that appeals to xenophobia and white resentment work. If I may coin a phrase: It’s the white resentment, stupid.

I’m not sure I would want to build any kind of broad, sweeping theory over two data points. Feingold and Strickland were both politicians who tried to restart their careers after being voted out of statewide office. They both lost to incumbent Republicans. Defeating an incumbent is difficult! It’s hard to ignore incumbency and these Democrats’ previous losses unless you are so convinced race is the only answer that you ignore every other possibility. I have to admit, this is where I found Roberts very hard to follow. It feels like he’s ready to concede Ohio, Wisconsin, and every other state with a significant rural white population. Can that be right? Sorry, but I’m not one to throw in the towel.

Maybe there’s a weakness in the progressive coalition. Once someone is convinced that there is one best explanation, there’s a tendency to point fingers at every progressive who offers a different top priority.

Most of us have a wide range of priorities. If a pollster asked “what is the single biggest problem facing America today?” I could give a clear answer. Give me a minute and I can give issue #2 and #3. We prioritize how much we care about politics too. We can prioritize what kinds of things are dealbreakers on a first date and what we want most out of a career. Setting priorities is one of the basic things we do as people. It’s a basic thing for successful organizations as well. But when progressives say they care about one issue more than another, other members of the progressive coalition attack them for “selling out” part of the group.

The Republicans have their nasty fights too. How often has Ted Cruz accused someone of “selling out” conservative principles? However, the large Christian conservative faction embraced Donald Trump, a man who repeatedly worked with Playboy (should have checked his IMDB page). At the end of the day, most Republicans prioritized winning the White House over anything else, so they voted for Trump. After the election, Democrats are currently fighting a nasty battle about whether to prioritize broadening the party to win elections or ideological purity over race and racism. Anyone who wants to do any kind of political advocacy is going to face questions of how much to focus on ideological purity versus attracting a broad audience. These aren’t easy questions, and the answer probably depends on what you want to accomplish.

Progressives are currently fighting over one of the toughest issues they have ever confronted: how to argue against racism. There is no research that suggests calling someone a racist will cause them to say “aww, shucks, you were right!” Professors who study political persuasion tend to agree that immediately dismissing someone as racist, sexist or homophobic may be one of the least persuasive arguments out there. As I was writing this, this very premise of making political arguments that could persuade other people came under attack in certain academic circles:

Taking these tweetstorms at face value doesn’t add up. My hunch is that there is just enough of an unspoken difference in priorities for people to get angry with each other. Goff wants to focus on more active racists and define a set of behaviors or attitudes as unacceptable. Singal’s priority is thinking of how to best communicate with people who don’t explicitly endorse racism but voted for Trump anyway. Reading these back and forth tweets as an outsider, I think everyone is working with a different definition of what “persuasion” means.

When I taught students about political persuasion, I tried to move them away from the idea of flipping someone’s opinion on an issue. I knew the students who would care most about my lecture were people who felt very strongly on one side of an issue or issues, and they hated people on the other side. So I started the lesson by explaining that if someone is strongly committed, they are going to be incredibly difficult to budge. However, most people aren’t that strongly committed on most issues. The less committed can be nudged and prodded to care about the issues we care about. Instead of trying to convert the worst of the worst, I would try to prod the less committed to say “oh, ok, I’ll do it your way if I get a little something in return.”

There’s an interesting parallel to protests here. You might think protesters are all ideologues jumping up and down. It turns out that successful protests are focused on particular issues and tolerant of ideological differences. Setting priorities is critical. Positive priorities – explaining to people what you want to do – are far more successful than protesting just to critique someone. Effective protesters get friends and family in the door via social networks and worry about ideology later. Ziad Munson, who studied the pro-life movement, argued the right is far more successful at this. Think about all the sniping coming from different corners of the left. It’s a minefield! How many people do you think would look at the circular firing squad and say sign me up?

Other successful organizations tend to focus on their strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Let’s think of the Trump campaign. Trump excels at putting on a show, conveying emotion, and provoking people. He is weak at policy. He made his campaign about conveying emotions and provoking opponents to near constant distraction. To borrow from sports, Donald Trump set the tempo for this campaign. Hillary Clinton and other progressives were happy to play at this tempo, waging their own emotional campaign. I feel like I have to re-state this for emphasis. Donald Trump waged a highly asymmetrical campaign, but Clinton and other progressives decided to engage on Trump’s terms. It sort of worked too. Clinton was relatively weak at conveying emotion. She would have fared better if people focused on policy. And she still got more votes!

But Hillary Clinton is moving on. It’s time to think of Democrats’ strengths. This is more than a bit nerve wracking. Democrats’ main strength in this election was getting more aggregate votes for the presidency and the Senate, but Trump won the Electoral College and Republicans control the Senate. Republicans control the House and dominate at the local level. Yes, the electoral map favors the Republicans. But the only way to change the system is to get large majorities within the current system.

With all the anger surrounding the election and post-election squabbling, I started dreaming of a very different kind of government. Imagine a city where there were concerts outside city hall every week during the summer. It’s not a partisan rally. It’s not even a political thing. City Hall just happens to have a nice courtyard that makes for a great, low cost outdoor venue. Some people wander by for a few minutes before going to one of the local bars or movie theaters. Other people bring their lawn furniture. This is a regular summertime event next to one of my favorite coffee shops. When I dropped by to check out one of the larger concerts, I kind of got the feeling some people go every week. The band is great. Everyone feels welcome, like they belong in the community.

In 2016, the Democrats are the only major political party with the potential to imagine a society where everyone has the potential to make a valuable contribution, and everyone feels like they have the right to belong. Who wouldn’t want to live in a positive place where we all work hard to support each other and lift each other up?

Trump held a lot of rallies, but there was always suspicion and demonization of interlopers. He campaigned on the idea that no matter how much our neighbors have sacrificed to make America great, only a certain group of loyalists count as “true Americans.”

Our country was founded on an idea that people were created equal, with certain unalienable rights. We founded a democracy under the idea that giving people the right to choose their leaders was the best way to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean everyone was granted full citizenship right away. Every generation had its doubts about whether certain “undesirables” deserved the right to vote. Over time, we let more and more people vote and become full members of the community. There was fear. There was anger. But each time America emerged full of vibrant life, with liberty and happiness for more of our community.

I understand why people feel angry and outraged. I understand why people think resisting Donald Trump’s massive disregard for the Constitution requires picking fights at every turn. Remember, picking fights at every turn is Trump’s strategy. Are there progressives out there who think the best plan is to try and beat Donald Trump at his own game? If you oppose Trump’s attempts to deny Americans equality and unalienable rights, you can’t campaign on a message that many Americans are too stupid or biased to possibly be redeemed. Those emotions are too discordant. Democrats are the only political party that could imagine a future full of life, liberty and happiness for everyone currently living in the United States. That vision only works if everyone thinks they could be welcomed in to our community.



Glad I’m Not Covering Clinton

In the last day or so I have seen a number of contacts retweet the following:

It’s a provocative claim! Since I spent years working on how to count news coverage in different ways, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the methodology used here. Boehlert and his colleagues at Media Matters didn’t do the counting themselves. They picked up on “recent tabulations from Tyndall Report, which for decades has tracked the flagship nightly news programs.” I’ve never heard of Tyndall Report before. (The about page is extremely cryptic.) That not a good sign, but it could also be a good way to learn new things.

Boehlert wrote up this report as something groundbreaking, but he didn’t notice obvious red flags. He copies the Tyndall finding that 2008 was a high water mark for “issues” coverage with 220 minutes. Does 220 minutes for a year’s worth of news seem odd to you? Let’s do a little math. If we are looking at nightly news programs that only broadcast 5 days a week, that is approximately 220 weekdays from Jan 1, 2008 through election day. Which is more plausible: networks haven’t combined for more than one minute per day of “issues” coverage since 1980, or someone is using an awfully narrow definition of issues coverage.

Media Matters only offered the analysis, but I was able to quickly trace the link back to see the author(s) define their methodology:

Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.

The amount of time spent on issues coverage represents the attempt by television news to establish a political agenda that is driven by the perceived problems that the country faces rather than those talking points that the candidates select to promote their own causes.

This looks like an incredibly strict definition of “issues” coverage. The author(s) only include stories where the anchors sat down and said “we want to cover issue X” in detail. Bernie Sanders spent a lot of his campaign going from city to city, giving his stump speech. He talked about a lot of issues in his stump speech, like health care and the minimum wage. Certainly the progressives at Media Matters and their core audience remember this. But any media coverage of Bernie Sanders speeches or interviews with him talking about issues would be excluded from this count. Anything candidates say in a debate would be excluded.

The Tyndall Report isn’t counting how much time TV network news spends on issues. It is counting how much time TV networks spend on a very specific “where do candidates stand on the issues” type of feature. I’m not surprised TV networks have moved away from this feature. It works much better online. People can point and click to compare candidates or take interactive quizzes to see how their views line up with candidates.

I think people buy in to this report because it feels true. A study with more methodological rigor would probably find a decrease in time spent on issues. However, one of the main reasons for this is Donald Trump doesn’t spend as much time talking about issues. Hillary Clinton has responded by campaigning about Trump’s negative personality traits. As Boehlert notes, Clinton has 38 issues on her website and 112,735 words of policy fact sheets (he gives AP credit for these facts, which were published on Aug 29). This doesn’t mean Clinton has talked about each issue in detail or emphasized it on the campaign trail.

I could keep blasting “biased” media coverage if I wanted to – it’s an easy bell to ring. But I want to end on a different question. Let’s assume that out of the things coming from the Clinton camp, reporters currently consider her email server to be the most newsworthy. Could Clinton have done something different to change the narrative? Now I’ll explain why I think the answer is yes. When I studied the 2008 general election I found TV networks interest in a topic was somewhat contingent on candidates bringing up that topic. The national elite media organizations that had access to candidates followed the candidates’ agenda, while sites that lacked access were more independent.

Paradoxically, all the coverage of Clinton’s e-mails and the Wikileaks is an unintended consequence of how she chose to present herself for the general election. Clinton’s policies come off as technical, well-polished versions of fairly standard Democratic ideas for the most part. There isn’t much in terms of new thinking to capture people’s imagination. Instead, the way that Clinton has tried to capture hearts and minds is to emphasize personality traits: her experience versus Trump’s poor temperament. If both candidates want the race to primarily be about judgment, any “scandal” about Clinton will stick more.

When I was a reporter I liked writing the kind of stories that the author(s) of the Tyndall Report crave. But I would be bored out of my mind trying to write these stories in 2016. It’s not because Trump is vague on policy. I loved the challenge of trying to show when officials didn’t understand what they were talking about while still conforming to the norms of objectivity. What would bore me is writing about Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. It feels like a long list of ideas I have heard before. Don’t get me wrong – most of these policy proposals need to be repeated because they never got a fair hearing in Congress. I’m just saying as a former newsman I recognize the lack of new. I’d rather write in detail about a new Clinton policy proposal that shakes up the Democratic status quo, but it isn’t there. New policy ideas and policy differences would be a better topic for Clinton, they would benefit the audience, and they would give reporters a more well rounded diet of things to write about. It would have been to everyone’s advantage. But contrary to the assumptions of the Tyndall report, the only way to get coverage of new policy ideas is if a candidate emphasizes their new policy ideas.

As a national reporter I might be forced to write more about Clinton’s email as the least bad option for Clinton coverage. Then I’d cry and ask for a new beat. I’d rather do features on the voters or ballot propositions than be on the Clinton plane. Ideally I’d get to use Simpsons quotes! For all the attention being paid to the Presidential race, there isn’t a whole lot of actual news, particularly from Clinton.

So Many Ballot Propositions, I Need the Simpsons

There are 17 statewide propositions on my ballot, along with several local ones in LA County. If my job was selling commercials, I’d be thrilled! Some of these propositions can be big business. The opposition to Prop 61 has so much money that they bought national TV ads during Dodgers-Cubs playoff games. I almost feel like I have to apologize to my baseball watching friends in other states. The last thing we’d want to do is export a ballot booklet that is over 200 pages long once you include the text of all the propositions!


After spending some time reporting on state government a decade ago, I tend to vote against ballot propositions. One of the major ongoing stories I covered was California’s massive budget shortfall of 2003. Once Californians dramatically lowered and capped property taxes with Proposition 13 back in the 1970s, the state had to turn to income and sales taxes for its revenue. The tax base grew more volatile, and the state had little cash in reserve for a downturn. Prop 13 also meant that it took a 2/3 majority to pass a budget with any increased taxes. State government shut down for months while the two parties refused to compromise.

I doubt any of the voters from the 1970s could foresee how Proposition 13 would create more problems down the road and make it harder for the state to fix the new problems that emerge. The ballot proposition system is full of unintended consequences. Three strikes led to massive spending on prisons, then overcrowding, and eventually a successful lawsuit claiming cruel and unusual punishment for the overcrowding. Because of the way propositions are written, the only way to un-do the damage is with another ballot proposition. So we have Prop 58, on bilingual education, which mainly repeals a ban on bilingual education from the 1990s.

With that in mind, I thought I’d go ahead and give a quick summary of each ballot proposition. Along with explaining what the ballot proposition does, I will try to explain why the proposition exists, what may be lurking in the fine print, who backs the ballot prop financially, and whether it is partisan. To start off each proposition, I will turn to the wonderful Frinkiac for the most appropriate Simpsons quote:

Prop 51: School Bonds


What it does: Authorizes $9 billion in bonds for school construction. $7 billion goes to K-12 schools, $2 billion for community colleges. Estimated cost of $17.6 billion to eventually pay off the principal and interest over 35 years.

Why is this a thing? Construction is expensive and hard to finance by just saving enough local tax dollars in a piggy bank. Sooner or later we have to build and repair schools…unless we want to solve this like the people of Springfield did.

What’s in the fine print? Very little. The only catch (the state has to pay bonds back with interest) is in the basic description of the bill.

Is this partisan? Not really. Both the California Democratic and Republican Party organizations endorse a yes vote.

Who are the financial backers? Construction companies on the yes side. No campaign contributions on the no side.

Are there shady ads? Nothing on TV.

My take: This is how school construction and repair gets done in California.


Prop 52: Medi-Cal Hospital Fee Program


What it does: In 2009, private hospitals started paying a tax to help fund Medi-cal. This program is scheduled to end in 2018. A yes vote makes the current program permanent.

Why is this a thing? The only way to keep the status quo is by passing another ballot initiative. Without this fee, the state would have to cut back on health care for low income patients or find some other source of revenue.

What’s in the fine print? Very little if people vote yes, since it maintains the status quo.

Is this partisan? Not really. Both the California Democratic and Republican Party organizations endorse a yes vote.

Who are the financial backers? Management of various hospitals and health care providers on the yes side. Healthcare workers union on the no side.

Are there shady ads? Nothing on TV.

My take: There is some concern that without private hospitals paying in, public hospitals will face an even greater strain to covered the poor and uninsured. This was a huge problem in Los Angeles over a decade ago – the uninsured went to public emergency rooms who were obligated to offer care. ER services are more expensive. Having private hospitals pay in to Medi-Cal is one of the better public policy solutions the state has.


Prop 53: Revenue Bonds


What it does: Require most state bonds of $2 billion or greater to go on the ballot for a public vote.

Why is this a thing? A rich Republican thinks every large public works project is like the “Matlock Expressway,” so he wants to slow down major government spending on infrastructure.

What’s in the fine print? Not as much as there should be. The ballot measure is intentionally vague on why the “state” issues large bonds. Many bonds involve several cities and limited state government involvement. Any of these bonds would be subject to approval from the entire state if the total exceeds $2 billion in the project.

Is this partisan? Very partisan for politicians. California Republicans have a long history of trying to place limits on taxation and infrastructure spending. They urge a yes vote. The California Democratic Party is so opposed they are spending money on the issue. Outside of elected officials the opposition is very broad, ranging from firefighters to the Chamber of Commerce to the NAACP.

Who are the financial backers? Dean Cortopassi and his wife have donated all the money to the yes side. Jerry Brown has donated leftover 2014 campaign funds to the no side, along with construction companies and unions.

Are there shady ads? Nothing on TV.

My take: Prior Republican ballot propositions to limit property taxes have had tremendous unintended consequences. It’s why state revenues are so volatile and the state often needs bonds or other borrowing. Limiting bonds could make problems even worse. There’s a reason the California Chamber of Commerce, firefighters and police are breaking with Republican allies to oppose 53.


Prop 54: Putting Government Proceedings Online


What it does: Requires all bills to be posted online for 72 hours before a vote. Requires the state Legislature to record meetings and post them online.

Why is this a thing? Americans like to be able to keep an eye on legislators, and it is 2016.

What’s in the fine print? There are emergency provisions to allow the legislature to waive the 72 hour waiting period, but only if 2/3 of legislators publicly agree to do so.

Is this partisan? More than I suspected. The California Democratic Party urges a no vote, fearing that 72 hours will give special interests “new powers to block timely legislative action on key issues facing our state.” However, several prominent Democrats like Gavin Newsom have endorsed the proposition in the name of good governance. The Republican Party also urges a yes vote.

Who are the financial backers? Charles T. Munger Jr. has donated around $10 million to the yes side. The California Democratic Party has spent $27 thousand (not a misprint) on the no side.

Are there shady ads? Nothing on TV.

My take: State legislators can be like the minor leagues of government. Someone will make an embarrassing mistake that will go viral, beating football in the groin.


Prop 55: Tax Extension to Fund Education and Healthcare


What it does: In 2012 Californians approved a ballot measure to temporarily create new high end marginal tax brackets for people earning at least $250,000. That ballot measure was scheduled to end in 2018. Prop 55 would extend the tax brackets until 2031 and specifies how the revenue should be spent on education and health care.

Why is this a thing? It’s extremely difficult to raise property taxes in California, so the state relies heavily on income and sales taxes. Taxing the income of the rich is a way to provide more money for schools.

What’s in the fine print? The ballot measure maintains the status quo.

Is this partisan? Higher taxes, partisan? You don’t even have to ask: Democrats support and Republicans oppose.

Who are the financial backers? Hospitals and teachers unions say yes. They have raised $57.5 million, more than any other yes campaign and #3 overall in campaign contributions. The no campaign has raised $3000 (not a misprint).

Are there shady ads? Politifact rates the main “Yes of 55” ad mostly false for claiming that a no vote would lead to an instant budget shortfall. Most projections say there would still be a short term surplus. It could still diminish in the long term because California’s revenue stream is notoriously volatile.

My take: I remember covering the massive state budget shortfall of 2003. It would be nice if California didn’t have to rely so much on income tax, but we are stuck. Therefore, higher income taxes for the rich may be the best revenue source remaining.


Prop 56: Cigarette Tax to Fund Healthcare


What it does: Put an additional $2 per pack tax on cigarettes. The revenue mainly goes to treatment of tobacco related health conditions, with 13% going to anti-smoking initiatives in the state.

Why is this a thing? Proponents argue raising the sales tax is the best way to reduce smoking rates, particularly among young people. They are pretty up front about saying the tax is a means to an end.

What’s in the fine print? Nothing in the law itself, but remember any law with a blanket per use tax affects poor people a lot more than the rich.

Is this partisan? Higher taxes, partisan? You don’t even have to ask: Democrats support and Republicans oppose.

Who are the financial backers? There are a ton of ballot propositions this year, but Prop 56 is one of the big money ones. 23 percent of all the money raised for ballot propositions is being spent here. Big tobacco has raised $71.3 million for the no campaign. Hospitals are the main yes backers, with around $31 million.

Are there shady ads? Oh yeah. Big tobacco is running ads saying that this tax “cheats schools.” Politifact rates this claim as mostly false. There is a California ballot proposition that requires K-12 schools and community colleges to get a certain minimum percentage of the state’s General Fund. Prop 56 sidesteps this requirement, but this is commonplace in ballot propositions. They are also running a bunch of digital banner ads claiming Prop 56 is a vague tax hike without even mentioning smoking.

My take: I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, so I’m very anti-smoking. However, I also have a strong aversion to regressive taxes. Not sure how I’m voting here.


Prop 57: Criminal Sentences. Parole. Juvenile Criminal Proceedings.


What it does: Confuse people. Seriously. There are two separate laws that are stitched together in one Franken-bill. Most write-ups are bad at separating part A from part B, so let me see if I can help.

  • Part A: When people are convicted, there is often a primary offense and some secondary offenses like resisting arrest. If Prop 57 passes, nonviolent offenders will be eligible for parole after serving the full sentence for the primary offense. They can also earn credits for good behavior and other rehabilitation efforts.
  • Part B: California currently has a long list of violent crimes where anyone age 14-17 is charged as an adult unless they successfully petition to be tried as a minor. Prop 57 would start by placing these minors in family court and ask a judge whether they should be tried as minors or adults. This should make a higher threshold for trying juveniles as adults.

Why is this a thing? California lost a lawsuit and is under a court order to reduce the number of people in prison. Prop 57 is an attempt to do so by rewarding rehabilitation and keeping minors in the juvenile system with shorter sentences.

What’s in the fine print? Like I said above, this is two separate laws packaged together. The first part (about parole) is getting more attention. “Nonviolent” is a fairly wide range of offenses here.

Is this partisan? There are conservatives who favor criminal justice reform, but Prop 57 falls along traditional party lines. Democrats support and Republicans oppose.

Who are the financial backers? The California Democratic Party is a major backer of the yes side. Governor Brown has made this a personal priority. Los Angeles County Sheriffs have made a last ditch opposition effort.

Are there shady ads? Just about any campaign involving criminal justice seems to have scaremongering about a violent predator. In this case it’s the infamous Brock Turner case. Politifact rates the ad as mostly false, because the state Department of Corrections treats sex offenders as violent criminals with regards to parole even when California law is ambiguous about whether the offense counts as violent.

My take: When I covered California’s budget disaster of 2003, there was a month where the only time leading Democrats and Republicans got in the same room was a fundraiser for the prison guards union. The state built and built prisons but when legislators finally told the prison guards no more, they didn’t change laws that kept people in jail. In 2014 conditions grew so bad that they were deemed cruel and unusual punishment.


Prop 58: English Proficiency. Multilingual Education.


What it does: Repeals a nearly 20 year old ballot proposition mandating English only education. Schools will be allowed to use bilingual programs to help children achieve fluency in both languages. Parents choose whether to enroll kids in the program.

Why is this a thing? Bilingual education issue has broader cultural significance, which is why it’s on the ballot instead of being a technical decision. It takes a new ballot proposition to remove an old one.

What’s in the fine print? A wise acknowledgement that “bilingual” is more than just English & Spanish. (Los Angeles prints ballots and “I voted” stickers in 9 languages.)

Is this partisan? It’s fairly partisan, but not as strong as some other bills. Democrats support the measure. The state Republican party is opposed. However, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are urging a yes vote.

Who are the financial backers? The teachers’ union made a few late donations in support. No one has donated to the no campaign.

Are there shady ads? Nope, there’s little ad revenue in this one.

My take: Based on what I learned as a teaching assistant for a linguistic anthropology class, I’m voting yes here.


Prop 59: Corporations. Political Spending.


What it does: Tell legislators that we aren’t happy with Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that invalidated many campaign finance laws. This has no force or legal effect.

Why is this a thing? Symbolism?

What’s in the fine print? Remember this is just advisory.

Is this partisan? Yes. Democrats support and Republicans oppose. This ballot proposition has drawn considerable interest from progressives outside California as part of a way to build a broader movement.

Who are the financial backers? Only $317,604 in total donations, so basically no one.

Are there shady ads? I’m sure there are people on Facebook taking this way too seriously.

My take: There’s no way to get anyone to pay attention to this symbolic proposition with so much else on the ballot.


Prop 60: Adult Films. Condoms


What it does: Requires adult film performers to wear condoms during intercourse. Requires film producers to obtain licenses, pay for workers’ health care screenings.

Why is this a thing? California passed a law requiring condom use in adult films in 1992, but the law is rarely enforced. The ballot proposition is mainly about one activist’s crusade to create new enforcement mechanisms and a bunch of awkward conversations.

What’s in the fine print? Any California resident who witnesses a violation of the law can file a workplace safety complaint and then sue anyone profiting from the work if the complaint is not investigated.

Is this partisan? Surprisingly both the Republican and Democratic state party offices are urging a no vote.

Who are the financial backers? The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the sole backer for the yes side. The adult film industry is the main backer for the no side.

Are there shady ads? The no campaign is overreaching with ads worrying about a flurry of lawsuits. However, Politifact rated the ads half true because many adult film performers have a financial stake in the production and could be liable to lawsuits if the state investigation does not go forward.

My take: Apparently it is possible to get the Republican Party and LGBT groups on the same side of an issue.


Prop 61: State Prescription Drug Purchases. Pricing Standards.


What it does: Prohibits the state from paying more than the US Department of Veterans Affairs for prescription drugs.

Why is this a thing? One reason prescription drugs cost so much is because different states and the federal government can’t negotiate as one large buyer. In theory, passing this law would give the state tremendous bargaining power. But the state then has to go in to a new round of price negotiations.

What’s in the fine print? No one knows what will happen if this passes. Drug companies may increase the rate they charge the VA to technically comply with the law, instead of lowering prices for California.

Is this partisan? Sort of. The no coalition is pretty broad, combining the Republican Party and their traditional allies with the California Medical Association and some LGBT groups. Bernie Sanders appears in pro Prop 61 ads but the state Democratic Party officially takes no position.

Who are the financial backers? Drug companies have spent $108.9 million in opposition. That’s 24.66 percent of all funds raised for ballot propositions. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the sole financial backer on the pro side.

Are there shady ads? The no campaign bought national ads during baseball playoff games, so they get a special demerit here. The yes side is relying on Bernie Sanders in a late ad blitz. Sanders says this is great for taxpayers, but Politifact pointed out that this is a prediction and not a fact.

My take: This ballot measure makes me think of someone going all in when playing no limit poker. The ballot measure is a negotiating tactic. It’s a kind of a bluff, but the state can’t walk it back. What happens if pharmaceutical companies call the state’s bluff? I don’t see any scenario where drug companies agree to reduce prices for California, because then every other state will try to pass similar laws. California ballot propositions are notorious for voters approving risky ideas and not realizing the consequences until it’s too late. It takes a certain kind of naïve idealism to imagine this ballot proposition actually working as intended, which is why every newspaper recommends a no vote.


Linked Death Penalty Propositions: 62 and 66


What Prop 62 does: Repeals the death penalty. Everyone currently on death row gets their sentence commuted to life with no parole.

What Prop 66 does: Provides strict timelines and limits for how someone convicted and given the death penalty could appeal their sentence. Allows the state Supreme Court to appoint lawyers to clear a backlog of death penalty cases. Prevents any regulatory board (like the AMA) from revoking the medical license of a doctor who oversees an execution.

Why is this a thing? California reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, but executions have been on hold since a court challenge over the method of lethal injection in 2006. The state has 746 prisoners on death row, more than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

What’s in the fine print of Prop 62? Nothing

What’s in the fine print of Prop 66? Anyone sitting on death row will be required to work a certain number of hours each day until the day they are executed.

Is this partisan? Yes. Democrats support Prop 62 (repealing the death penalty), Republicans support Prop 66 (speeding up the death penalty). Everyone who supports one proposition opposes the other.

Who are the financial backers? Repealing the death penalty doesn’t have a specific organization as sponsor, but it has a number of wealthy CEOs making personal donations. Financial support to speed up the death penalty mainly comes from police unions and district attorneys.

Are there shady ads? The campaign to repeal the death penalty has its shocking but true facts and a big miss.

My take: I am stunned that I haven’t seen Black Lives Matter activists highlighting how it’s the police who financially support maintaining and speeding up the death penalty here in California. Maybe it’s just too hard to get through when people are still focused on Clinton v. Trump. BLM tends to have protests around the holiday season, so there’s plenty of time to use this.


Prop 63: Firearms. Ammunition Sales.


What it does: Requires a background check to buy ammunition. Bans large capacity magazines. Requires all state background checks on guns & ammo to line up with federal background checks. Requires people convicted of serious violent crimes to surrender their guns.

Why is this a thing? It is up to the states to regulate gun ownership. California has over twice as many licensed gun dealers as McDonalds.

What’s in the fine print? The full bill is 15 pages long.

Is this partisan? Yes, although the Democrats on the yes side seem louder than the Republicans on the no side. There are more anti-tax Republicans than pro gun Republicans here.

Who are the financial backers? The Democratic Party is the main supporter, particularly Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. The NRA has only donated $90 thousand to the no campaign (but may be running their own independent no campaign).

Are there shady ads? Opponents have claimed the law would prevent friends from sharing ammo while hunting or at a firing range, which Politifact rated mostly false.

My take: This seems a bit more plausible than Chris Rock’s idea for bullet control.


Prop 64: Marijuana Legalization.


What it does: Legalizes marijuana for personal use, similar to how alcohol is legal but regulated. Establishes a state agency to license commercial growers and inspect the product for quality control. Taxes marijuana.

Why is this a thing? Marijuana regulation has become a de facto state policy issue instead of federal policy.

What’s in the fine print? The full bill is 32 pages long. Anyone who wants to grow their own marijuana better read this closely.

Is this partisan? Yes, with one exception. Democrats generally favor the proposition while Republicans oppose it. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein opposes it as well.

Who are the financial backers? Supporters are largely funneling their money through vague 501c4 PACs. Opponents are making relatively few financial contributions.

Are there shady ads? I’ve never heard of a judge ruling against a political ad until I looked this up. The no campaign initially claimed Prop 64 would legalize marijuana advertising on prime time TV. The judge said this is false advertising and cannot go in the official ballot arguments. Opponents to Prop 64 were allowed to claim this could lead to prime time ads, although Politifact rates this claim as mostly false. Federal law banning marijuana ads on TV would still apply; it has in Colorado and Washington.

My take: Los Angeles botched its medical marijuana regulations so badly in 2009 that storefronts for both “medical” marijuana and doctors advertising easy access to proscriptions popped up across town. Marijuana was de facto legal on my side of town. I didn’t notice any real change in people showing up to work or school stoned.


Linked Plastic Bag Propositions: 65 and 67


What Prop 65 does: Allows grocery stores to keep using plastic bags. If stores charge people for any type of bag, that money must go to the state wildlife commission.

What Prop 67 does: Bans single use plastic bags at grocery stores. Stores can sell reusable bags. Paper bags would have a minimum charge of 10 cents per bag.

Why is this a thing? Special interests can use the ballot initiative system to block state law. Many cities (like LA) have banned plastic bags. Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing a statewide ban in 2014 but the plastics industry put that bill on hold. This gave them time to write Prop 65 as a way to undercut the state law.

What’s in the fine print? Prop 65 is largely designed by the plastics industry to limit various local ordinances and a potential statewide law. If both are approved, whichever gets more votes wins.

Is this partisan? Yes, Democrats support the plastic bag ban (67) and Republicans support the alternative measure (65).

Who are the financial backers? Prop 65 is funded entirely by the plastics industry in an attempt to keep the California market. Financial support for Prop 67 comes from grocery stores (who save money from not having to buy plastic bags and offer them for free) and environmentalists.

Are there shady ads? The plastic bag industry is trying to portray Prop 67 as a “bag tax” that doesn’t help the environment. Politifact calls this a half truth. Any fees collected from selling paper bags or reusable bags do not have to go towards environmental causes. However, Politifact says the “tax” label is wrong and misleading. I think Politifact let the no on 67 campaign off easy. People buy reusable bags once and then reuse them – the potential cost to consumers is drastically overestimated.

My take: Los Angeles banned plastic bags a few years ago. At first it was a little annoying because I couldn’t pick up a few groceries on the way home from campus. After a month or so I adjusted. Now it’s a lot easier to have reusable bags. There’s no trash, there’s much less risk of buying too much food and having it go to waste.

Debate Postgame Follies

After a night of reflection, most people who watched the second presidential debate seem to agree on which moment stood out the most. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked both candidates how the campaign has changed them, and specifically asked Donald Trump if he is a changed man since the 2005 tape where he talked about sexually assaulting women. In case you missed the debate and don’t want to watch all 90 minutes, here is the relevant eight minute segment courtesy of C-Span. Trump dismissed the tape as “locker room talk,” shocking a wide range of male athletes. Hillary Clinton criticized Trump’s broader record of denigrating groups of people. Then Trump tried to pivot to Clinton’s e-mails:

Trump: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.


So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been — their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

And then Clinton’s reply:

Clinton: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

Trump: [interrupts] Because you’d be in jail.

American televised presidential debates began in 1960. We have seen candidates who hate each other before. But there is no precedent in the United States for one candidate pledging criminal charges against their opponent if they happen to win the election. We’ve seen it in Ukraine, Congo and other nations conducting some of their first votes, but never in the United States. Some commentators immediately argued this was the most important part of the debate. On the other hand, CNN didn’t even mention this exchange in their first 20 minutes of post-debate coverage. What’s going on with CNN?

I happened to watch CNN’s post-debate coverage last night. They started with an A team of three correspondents giving their first impressions of the debate from the event floor. Then they went to a B team of pundits in a studio for their first impressions. After around 25 minutes they went back to the A team. Dana Bash was now focused on Trump’s desire to put Clinton in jail. The other commentators agreed that this was unprecedented in the United States.

Before the first presidential debate, Nate Silver said on his podcast that everyone should have to wait at least 30 minutes before giving any kind of on camera post-debate analysis. He has lived up to his word on FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate podcasts, even though he and his fellow podcasters know they will be losing members of the East Coast audience who can’t stay up after midnight for their podcast to finish. If CNN had waited 30 minutes before giving any post-debate analysis, they probably would have led with this threat or Trump rejecting his running mate’s views on Syria. (As of writing this, Trump rejecting Pence is one slot higher than threatening to jail Clinton on CNN’s website.)

Summarizing debates is hard enough as it is. A lot of things happen in those 90 minutes. Even if a debate is unlikely to change someone’s vote, we all have to sit down and prioritize what was the most important thing that happened, second most important, etc. I’m glad I never had to sit down and immediately crank out a story where I had to make those calls as a professional journalist. Among other things, I’d be very cranky about “style points” since I lost a lot of high school debates my freshman year strictly on “style points.”

Over the last year I’ve gotten re-acquainted with having to write on deadline, since I was recapping baseball games. Every sports game has a clear winner and loser. However, there are still some games where it is difficult to prioritize which specific play or strategy led a team to victory. Debates are much harder to summarize because different people may legitimately have different things as their top priority. People who care about Trump as a Republican standard-bearer may focus on any Trump statement suggesting internal dissension. Women who have survived sexual assault may place the greatest emphasis on Anderson Cooper saying “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” and Trump needing considerable prompting before he could claim he didn’t assault anyone. People worried about Trump violating the norms of American democracy may focus on his desire to jail Clinton.

It’s perfectly reasonable to pick out any of these moments as the most important thing to happen during last night’s debate. This isn’t an exhaustive list either. I just have to start somewhere. We all do. There’s a reason why the Washington Post put six stories next to each other at the top of their website a few hours after the debate. No single story can explain all the important things that happen during a debate. Of course there’s no way CNN commentators could do a good job going live right after the debate ends.

Can We Fact Check This?

During the Vice Presidential debate on Tuesday I saw a professor tweet that they wanted a fact check on whether the United States was the “greatest nation” in the world. It felt like an odd thing to complain about. Mike Pence used this once as a throwaway line. This statement was more forgettable than most of the debate, which is really saying something! On the other hand, I’ve been trying to write a post on what journalist can and can’t fact check for weeks. Pence provides a great example. Can we fact check a claim like the United States is the greatest nation in the world?

To start off I want you to ask yourself, how do you feel about the United States?

I love statistics, but that’s not the first thing that came to mind when I thought about the US. This is what makes fact checking a statement like Pence’s deceptively tricky. We can fact check specific outcomes. For example, if Pence said the United States has the best health care system in the world, we could look at the disproportionately high cost of health care in the US without a corresponding increase in life expectancy. There’s a lot of room for improvement. If Pence made a specific reference to America’s wealth, we could check both per capita income and inequality levels (I like this particular illustration from Pew). Whenever a politician says the United States is the greatest nation in the world at a particular thing, we can check whether that is factually true.

When US politicians say America is the greatest nation in the world, it’s rarely providing facts that America is great at X, Y and Z. It’s about giving people a feeling. If someone comes along and tells you that your feelings about the United States are wrong, that’s not a fact check. It’s a value judgment. We may have different feelings about the United States. After all, it’s a big country. That’s not the point. Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world is a great way to separate journalists’ role as literal fact checkers from how they handle moral judgment.

My guess is the professor who wanted a fact check of Pence disagrees with his broader moral values. Since Pence’s long record was barely discussed during the debate, it would be valuable for journalists to explain how Pence’s distinct moral values influence his public policy. You may recall how a wide range of Americans – including large corporations – disagreed with Pence’s support of a state law that discriminated against gays. Pence has also pushed for the strongest anti-abortion measures since Roe v. Wade and tried to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana. The first law was repealed after fierce protest from the business community; the other two have been ruled unconstitutional. Pence’s moral values led him to the Republican ticket. People will disagree on whether Pence’s policy is good or bad, but I expect both sides would largely agree with this description of Pence’s social policies.

Critical academics love to attack the caricature of journalistic objectivity, arguing that everyone has their biases. But journalistic objectivity has never meant being unbiased. Objectivity is a way for journalists to distance themselves from making moral claims in their writing (Tuchman 1972). Let’s say a reporter at an objective publication felt Pence is a religious extremist. They couldn’t put those feelings in print. However, they could keep calling Pence’s opponents until someone says Pence is an extremist. This form of “he said, she said” journalism is unlikely to satisfy critical academics. Publishing a back-and-forth on Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world isn’t the same as a reporter using their own moral authority to check Pence.

Since more and more of my academic contacts have called for journalists to impose some kind of moral sanctions in their campaign journalism, I wanted to tell you a story from my reporting days. I heard Robert Byrd was putting a hold on the DREAM Act. This was back in 2002, when the bill was initially up for Senate consideration. (Got to love how quickly Congress can move!) Anyway, I called Byrd’s office and a spokesman confirmed that the Senator was responsible for the hold. I asked why, and he said Byrd needed “more time to study the bill.” I was calling in August. I knew the Senate was on recess. So I asked the spokesman whether his boss would have had enough time to read the bill by the time the Senate reconvened. He said he wasn’t sure, which is awfully suspicious.

I was mainly concerned with whether or not Byrd’s spokesman was telling me the true reason why his boss put a hold on the bill. I didn’t consider the ethics of whether a temporary hold was legitimate public policy. I didn’t try to hold Byrd accountable on some moral level for blocking a “good” bill. To be honest, I had no idea whether the DREAM Act as it was written in 2002 was a good piece of legislation by the time I filed my story. I knew there were arguments for it and against it. I knew both sides made assumptions about what was morally correct and the long-term implications of the bill.

I did not want to give a moral stance on the DREAM Act when I covered it. It’s not that I was working for an objective news organization so I “had to” avoid taking a side. I sought out objective journalism so I could share a wide range of important information and viewpoints with my readers instead of sharing my own opinions. I grew up in a household where everything was portrayed in black and white. Being able to empathize with a wide range of sources – even politicians I vehemently disagreed with – was incredibly liberating. Not having to take a moral stance while I was covering political campaigns made it easier to advocate moral stances in my private life outside of the newsroom. This also made teaching more enjoyable for me and better for my students.

When I was a political journalist, I got lied to on a regular basis. A big part of my job was sorting through the lies. You’d figure political journalists and former journalists would be the strongest voice saying readers need a strong hand to guide them through the minefield of lies. However, I found journalists always showed the most confidence in the audience. They believed that if they laid out the facts, audience members could reach the appropriate moral conclusions. Of course, some audience members will back the politician and attack even the most neutral, fact-based journalist. If that journalist jumped up and down and said the politician is an awful human being, would that moral condemnation do anything to make their article more persuasive?

Sports Officials Get Outside Help. What if we Gave it to Debate Moderators?

A few weeks ago I posted about how moderating a debate or candidate forum is a losing proposition. It’s almost impossible to end with over half the audience happy with your performance. Moderators who challenge a candidate will be scorned by that candidate’s supporters. Moderators who don’t challenge candidates may come off as meek and lose face with partisans on both sides. Challenging a candidate tends to hurt the moderator’s future career, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of fireworks coming from Lester Holt later today.

Since I wrote that post, both campaigns have argued over whether the moderator should act as a fact checker. Trump laid some of the groundwork last week by claiming that Holt is a Democrat, even though he is registered as a Republican. Here’s Robby Mook, Clinton campaign manager, appearing on ABC’s This Week:

“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out. It’s unfair to ask that Hillary Clinton both play traffic cop with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people.”

As we might expect, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway disagreed:

“I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers and that these debate moderators should somehow do their bidding,”

Historically, the question of whether debate moderators should be aggressive fact checkers was not a partisan issue. Candidates and journalists favored staying out of the way and letting the candidates be the story. Janet Brown, head of the committee that organized the presidential debates, endorsed this view on CNN yesterday. For this election cycle, many journalists and pundits have argued Trump requires special rules (see this Slate interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, then see Jay Rosen here for a longer version of that argument). As a moral issue, I have favored moral aggressive fact checking since I first got the right to vote in a presidential election. However, I also felt confident in my ability to evaluate candidates’ ability to tell the truth without relying on the moderator.

The more time I spend studying journalism and then watching sports in my free time, the more I doubt whether any moderator could meet my fact-checking expectations. In the last week I saw a pitch right in the middle of the strike zone get called a ball. That umpire faced an easy, objective, technical call and got it wrong. I went to UCLA, which means I have seen a lot of Pac-12 sports. If you’re a college sports fan, you won’t be surprised that when I typed “pac 12 refs” in to Google the first auto-complete is “are the worst.” The conference’s officials are notorious for baffling and inconsistent interpretation of the rules for football and basketball. Then again, even the best officials in the sports world make mistakes. Why do we expect debate moderators to be perfect?

When I was a reporter, I made a bunch of mistakes in interviews. Sometimes I caught people lying to me right away. Sometimes I had to look things up afterwards. There were a lot of times when I looked back in my notes and didn’t have as much material as I thought I did, and I really wish I could have followed up on things. On a national stage, with less cooperative sources in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, catching all the lies is much harder.

As much as I care about sports, I think the risks of a “blown call” in live fact-checking of a presidential debate is much more serious. Sports leagues have universally adopted the use of supplemental off-field officials as a way to get calls right. Professional reviews from the league office help insulate the on-field officials from hostile crowds. It seems absurd to expect Lester Holt or any other moderator to do the entire job by their lonesome, with no help. Marvel’s latest superhero couldn’t achieve that feat, let alone a real person.

Simulating How a Jury of Fact Checkers Would Work

Since I am also a stats person, I decided to run a few very simple simulations to try and explain why moderator error is a bigger risk than people realize, and how a large jury of outside fact checkers could solve the problem. Let’s assume that if Clinton and Trump talked forever, they would each say 10,000 things that are fact-checkable and false. It’s probably best to call them the Clinton lying bot and the Trump lying bot, because this isn’t a simulation of how often candidates lie. This is a simulation of how well moderators could catch lying and what could happen when moderators are imperfect. (We could call them the ice bot and the fire bot instead of naming them after candidates; it makes no difference to Stata.)

I started by creating an aggressive, skilled, courageous moderator. This moderator will roll a six-sided die every time one of the candidate bots lies to them. On a 1, they don’t notice the lie right away. On a 2 through 6, they challenge the lie the next time they get to speak. No, I don’t expect a debate moderator to do any better than this while they also have to think about how to fit a large range of topics in to a small time frame.

(Sidenote: The limited time frame is another strong and largely unmentioned issue in the current fact checking debate. Political journalists will stop following up on a particular topic once it becomes clear that the president will not give a direct answer on topic X, because they might give good answers on topics Y and Z.)

Anyone who plays tabletop games or knows basic probability can guess what happens in the simulation. The aggressive moderator caught nine of the Trump bot’s first ten lies, and eight of the Clinton bot’s ten. Over the first 30 statements, this moderator is catching 83.33% of Clinton bot’s lies – the predicted mean. However, they caught 87% of Trump bot’s lies in this period. Over the full dataset the aggressive moderator would stay just as aggressive (it’s a simulation, not real life), catching 83.19% of Clinton bot lies and 83.27% of Trump bot lies.

Next I created a moderator who is really bad at fact checking. Maybe they have a very high threshold for challenging a politician. Maybe they really want to fact check but can’t focus on what a candidate is saying right now and the next question all at the same time. Either way, this moderator still gets to roll a six-sided die for every lie, but they only challenge the lie on a 6. This moderator challenged three of the Clinton bot’s first ten lies, while only challenging one of the Trump bot’s first ten. By thirty observations the poor moderator is catching one out of every six Clinton bot lies, but is still stuck at catching only one of ten from Trump bot.

Let’s imagine Lester Holt misses a lie during the real debate. Maybe he catches some but not others. There is a limit to how many lies a candidate can tell in 90 minutes – they are long winded and repetitive speakers. I wouldn’t expect a large enough sample of lies for a moderator’s forgetfulness to balance out. What are the chances that partisan audiences will tweet “Oh Lester Holt just made an innocent mistake. Things happen. Nobody is perfect.” I’m going to pan over to Holt’s colleague Matt Lauer and say the chance of Holt getting a pass is zero. We have no idea what’s going on in a moderator’s head. We don’t know if the failure to challenge a presidential candidate is an innocent mistake or a more serious attempt to influence voters. And I’m not sure we care, because even an innocent mistake can have real consequences.

What would happen if we had a room of 100 good fact checkers? I ran several simulations creating 100 fact checkers for each of Trump bot’s lies and Clinton bot’s lies. To start with, I rolled a six-sided die to set each fact checker’s evaluation for each political bot’s 10,000 lies. What I want to do here is show how different juries would make sense of those impressions and whether they would buzz the moderator saying “this response is a lie, you MUST follow up!”

Let’s assume we had a jury full of good moderators who catch a lie with a 2-6 on their die roll. With this large a group none of the 20,000 total lies in the database was red flagged by my entire group of fact-checkers. However, the crowd can pick up an individual’s mistake. Every statement was red-flagged by at least 66 fact checkers. If we could find 100 great fact checkers, they would be far superior to any individual moderator trying to fact check in real time. The converse is also true. If we got 100 of the bad fact checkers together, each needing to roll a six to catch the lie, they would never agree on whether to buzz the moderator.

In the real world, a lot of fact checking watchdogs are politically motivated. So let’s assume we have a fact checking jury of 25% Clinton supporters, 25% Trump supporters, 35% good fact checkers, 15% bad fact checkers. For this simulation the partisans will call out the opposing bot if they roll a 2-6. I also decided they would call out their own bot on a 6: partisans may hope a second question pushes their bot to a more acceptable answer. In this scenario the median is 57% of the jury detecting a lie. If it only took a simple majority to buzz the moderator and demand a follow up, this jury would be effective 95 percent of the time. If the jury acted like they had to break through a filibuster in the Senate, random error would be a much bigger issue. This partisan jury would start by buzzing in for three Clinton bot lies but only one Trump bot lie. After 300 statements the odds even out, but that’s a lot to ask.

I thought an ideal situation would be having a range of debate jurors. I made one last room with 15% dedicated Clinton supporters and 15% dedicated Trump supporters. Then I made another 20% who leaned to each candidate. They buzz in for an opposing bot’s lie on a 3 through 6 and their own candidate on a 5 or 6. The jury also has 15 percent good moderators and 15 percent bad moderators. It turns out the balanced debate jury was also the most unstable in simulations. The median result was a 50-50 deadlock. At this point it becomes rather philosophical. For debate juries to work better than a sole moderator, the key appears to be packing the jury with people willing (if not eager) to challenge both candidates if and when they distort the truth.

Why Journalists Fail

The first time I ever supervised workers could have been a disaster. I was hired to train and supervise a group of undergraduates who were reading news articles and then answering various questions about the content. It’s a common research method in communications, with well-established training protocols. You go over expectations, then give everyone a few articles to review individually. The supervisor (me) looks over initial work to see how well the new employees understand what they’ve been asked to do. I got a group of undergraduates who couldn’t even agree whether the article was printed on the top half of the page!

How could half the students get this question wrong? A lot of the questions in content analysis are subjective. For example, is this story portraying someone negatively? That’s why communication scholars require multiple coders to review the same article – they want to see how much coders agree. This story was printed at the top of the page. Every coder should be able to say so! Was I stuck with a group where half the students were lazy? Stupid? Unable to follow simple directions? Was I going to have to tell the professor supervising the project that he needed to fire some people?

The professor wanted me to meet with the undergrads as a group before I gave any additional individual feedback. I didn’t know the team, so I decided not to start the meeting by yelling and screaming. Instead, I asked them what their experience was like doing the work and answering questions in the online form we provided. The undergrads immediately brought up several problems with the form. Almost every question was on one long page, so they had to keep scrolling down. No one knew how to answer “is this coverage positive or negative?” for the story that contained both positive and negative portrayals of the featured politician. After 20-30 minutes I asked about the “is this story at the top of the page?” debacle. Everyone said yeah its at the top of the page. Then one student pointed out this question was one item in a series of checkboxes. It wasn’t a mandatory yes-no question, so they completely missed it.

By the end of the meeting I was convinced that these undergraduates all worked hard, but they were put in a position where dedication was unlikely to pay off with good work. I told the professor that the problem was with the form, and we came up with a long list of changes. The team’s attitude was a little worse for the second round of training – it’s hard to have as much enthusiasm the second time around – but they did much better work since now we put them in a position to succeed. There’s an important story here about how to lead and inspire employees to get the most out of them, particularly when working with a new team. (Of course, there are also times when it’s important to crack the whip, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus here.)

I think this story is also a powerful metaphor for how we tend to think of journalism. The easiest thing to do is to look at journalists’ final work product and then pick apart the failings. It’s easy to get mad because most journalism will have imperfections. But does this mean journalists themselves are lazy, stupid or immoral? Are journalists put in a position where it is hard to succeed? To see a columnist wrestling with both possibilities, let’s turn to Jim Newell of Slate discussing Trump’s press conference a week ago at the opening of Trump’s new hotel. Reporters expected direct Q&A about whether Trump was going to renounce his claim that Obama was born outside the United States, but got something different:

“It was about 10 minutes in, after two or three introductory speakers and an enthusiastic plug from Donald Trump for his new downtown property, that the cry of Admiral Ackbar began sounding in the core of my being. It’s a trapI’m an extra in a bad commercial.


Things went very differently. The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll—as everyone called it later—on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest thinkpieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.”

It’s the last line that gets me. Most of Newell’s piece is about the Trump campaign’s strategy and how they took advantage of a predictable opponent. Media criticism generally implies moral arguments about how journalists are doing a bad job and should have done something else. My friends who shared Newell’s story portrayed the event as a journalistic moral failure. But Newell’s main point is that journalists were set up to fail. He, along with every other journalist covering the event, eventually realized it. Then they got angry and tried “small” measures of revenge. In my experience this revenge isn’t always “small,” – if Newell is like I was then he’d want to do more to Trump’s team than just write this column.

As I’ve implied in previous posts, its very hard to get people to think strategically about journalism. Audiences want to see bad journalism as a moral failure, not a strategic failure based on journalists’ limited access to information. If reporters knew what Trump was going to do, they’d exclude him. But since there was a chance that Trump would give a major story, every national reporter had to take a chance on him. For all we know, if most media outlets anticipated the Trump trap and stayed away, Trump may have gone ahead with a straight-forward news conference to shame the media. It’s easy to put journalists in a bad position, particularly when audiences will just read the news story and then blame the media.

Maybe it’s easier for me to accept when journalists lose a competition with politicians because I’ve lost many times. Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan, and I know even the best major league baseball team loses at least 1/3 of its games. The other side has pros too, and sometimes they win. That’s why I taught students to look under the hood and think about how people work, not just the final product. If you want better journalism, don’t just yell and scream about it. Think of ways to put journalists in a better position. I think one of the most effective options would be to pay more for higher quality content – essentially paying journalists to be selective and not to write up every minor event to fulfill quotas and generate hits.