Political Geometry

{{myquote|Modern politics has become an exercise in bending over backwards to bend your opponent forwards.}}

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It’s a reporter’s worst nightmare

You finally just run out of cliches.

(More from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)

“News writing is English with its shirt sleeves rolled up.”

I don’t know who said that originally, but it was in my high school journalism textbook, and it stuck with me.

The best news writing, I was always told, was simple, direct, and unadorned. Think of Hemingway, or Ernie Pyle’s war dispatches.

The first news director I ever worked for had two exercises he insisted reporters practice. One was to look at notes, then turn them face down, and write from memory. That encouraged conversational writing. The other was to look at every word in a sentence, especially adjectives and adverbs, and try saying the sentence aloud without them. If the meaning remained the same, the word was unecessary. That encouraged concise, accurate writing.

The Modifiers Strike Back

But three or four news directors later, the trend had begun to go in the opposite direction. I worked for a guy who used what I called the ‘grease gun’ approach: he’d pick up his mental ‘grease gun’ of adjectives and adverbs — most of them ridiculously hyperbolic — and start injecting them into sentences. Accidents became ‘tragic.’ Increases became ‘alarming.’ Developments became ‘shocking.’

The trite writing I had worked so hard to avoid was now not only desirable, it was mandatory.

The purpose of newswriting was no longer to inform, nor even to entertain; it was to scare the bejeezus out of the viewers. Then, we could hold ourselves up as the only thing standing between them and their families, and the certain, violent chaos we were warning them lurked right outside the door.

Cold Comfort?

I still hear from people about the story I did, on assignment, about the fatal risks homeless people faced sleeping out in the autumn chill, on a night when the temperature was in the low fifties.

“But there is something else on the street tonight,” I wrote — or at least something very near to that. “Its name is death, and it waits in every alley, in every open doorway, in every vacant warehouse.”

Although it was crap — certainly no one was going to die of exposure in that kind of weather — I like to think it was a loftier level of crap. I had created an ominous, scary scenario without using a single overblown adjective. I had stuck to the plain, direct writing style of Hemingway and Pyle.

Ernie, not Gomer

Eventually, though, as I began to work with ever-younger producers and editors — people who assumed Pyle was that ‘gawwwwlll-leeeeeeeeee’ guy from Mayberry — even that kind of writing wasn’t enough. They suspected that what I was writing might simply be the truth — that I was taking the easy way out and just reporting what was actually happening.

They needed to see some ‘shockings’, and ‘devastatings’, and ‘terrifyings’ from me — sort of proof of good faith effort on my part that I was sincerely trying to sensationalize the news.

Dressed Down for not Dressing Up

The weekend news team of which I was a part was once scolded by our consultant for not ‘winning the lead’ of a six pm newscast. We had failed, the consultant said, because our chief competitor (who regularly inflated even the most trivial of stories to Hindenberg-esque proportions) had started its newscast with the line, “It’s a mother’s worst nightmare!”

I don’t remember what the ‘worst nightmare’ was — for the consultant’s purposes, it didn’t matter — but I remember that I went back into our own computer script archive, and discovered that we had diligently employed the ‘worst nightmare’ cliche ourselves about fifteen times in the previous twelve months.

We’d had a ‘mother’s worst nightmare,’ a ‘police officer’s worst nightmare’, a ‘firefighter’s worst nightmare’ — hell, we’d even had a ‘state budget official’s worst nightmare,’ whatever that was.

But we hadn’t ‘lost the lead’ because our story was weak. We had failed because we hadn’t used a cliche.

News writing used to be English with its shirt sleeves rolled up.

Now, it’s English dressed up in a Hallowe’en costume.

(originally published by Michael Carpenter, republished with permission.)

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A Lesson on Worth

logo_usatoday

I recently ran across one of those messages about how our nation needs to get its priorities in order, because we pay professional athletes so much more than we do teachers.

On the surface, it seems a difficult point to argue, because obviously teaching is important.

This is where an understanding of marginal utility comes into play.

The Difference is the Difference

We recently put our fantasy baseball league together, and guess who one of the top draft priorities was? A catcher for the Minnesota Twins named Joe Mauer. Statistically he’s as good as anyone in the game, but he’s even more valuable as a catcher because of the scarcity at his position.

The numbers will tell you that Albert Pujols is the best pick in the game, but I might bypass him for Mauer because the next guy down in First Base eligibility is not as far a drop as the next catcher beneath Mauer. So it’s not just a game of raw numbers, it’s how much of a marginal difference you get from the swap.

The difference in value (either in the fantasy game or in the real world) is a function of the difference you bring. Major League players are where they are because there is an appreciable difference between hitting a curve ball one out of every four tries instead of one out of every five. Do it one out of every three and you’ll go to All-Star games and the Hall of Fame.

So, why are teachers paid so much less than professional athletes?

Wait, are they?

Statistics Are Mean

We assume we know what teachers make, because on a year to year basis the answer is “not enough.” Teachers are always asking for raises, and in that regard are no different than the rest of us. However, many of the teachers I interviewed during my time in television news were shocked to find out that a starting TV reporter made far less than a starting teacher – and depending upon the station had to drive their own vehicle to cover the news.

We also assume we know what professional athletes make, because we see the vapor trail of zeros in the headlines of the sports page. And if there are enough zeros, it goes in the business pages as well. The USA Today has a salary calculator for the major sports leagues. Here are the stats for median salary for Major League Baseball teams for 2009.

New York Yankees $ 5,200,000
New York Mets $ 2,612,500
Philadelphia Phillies $ 2,500,000
Detroit Tigers $ 2,237,500
Chicago Cubs $ 2,200,000
Cleveland Indians $ 1,950,000
Los Angeles Angels $ 1,800,000
Boston Red Sox $ 1,625,000
Kansas City Royals $ 1,600,000
Houston Astros $ 1,550,000
Arizona Diamondbacks $ 1,500,000
Baltimore Orioles $ 1,500,000
Milwaukee Brewers $ 1,347,500
Tampa Bay Rays $ 1,290,000
Los Angeles Dodgers $ 1,250,000
Atlanta Braves $ 1,237,500
Chicago White Sox $ 1,112,500
Pittsburgh Pirates $ 1,062,500
Cincinnati Reds $ 970,000
St. Louis Cardinals $ 950,000
Toronto Blue Jays $ 932,500
Colorado Rockies $ 800,000
San Francisco Giants $ 661,250
Texas Rangers $ 555,000
Minnesota Twins $ 525,000
Washington Nationals $ 500,000
Seattle Mariners $ 480,000
Florida Marlins $ 470,000
San Diego Padres $ 466,200
Oakland Athletics $ 410,000

It pays to be a Yankee.

Remember, this isn’t the average (or mean), but the median.

Average indicates you dumped the whole payroll together and divided by the number of people who got the paychecks. Median means you picked the person right in the middle, where half make more and half make less. If you put Bill Gates in a room with 100 teachers, the average salary of the room would be a lot higher, but it wouldn’t affect the median all that much.

Still, the guy in the middle of the pack for the lowly Oakland Athletics makes decent money.

Play around with the calculator. The median salaries for NFL teams ranged from $1.3-million for the New York Giants down to $541K for the St. Louis Rams. In the NBA, the “middle-man” in the New York Knicks pecking order gets over $6-million a year, while the median for the Miami Heat is a cool $1.1-million.

But is this the applicable comparison for educators?

Perception is not reality

Again, you look at the headlines and the dollar amounts and compare that to what you see in the classrooms. Look at the parking lot of your nearest public school, and you’ll not see limousines (but you’ll see better cars than you might think.)

What you don’t see in the comparisons is the salaries of all the professional athletes who never made the major leagues. You don’t see the stats on their average career, which ranges anywhere from 2-5 years for the top sports.

You occasionally run across the profile of the minor-league baseball player who is trucking it in Single-A ball for near-minimum wage. Or a reference to Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who worked stocking shelves at a grocery store for $5.50/hour to supplement his income while in minor-league football.

I won’t do the math. Researchers at Penn State already did. In 2004, the median salary for a professional athlete was $48,310 per year.

That same study, when you looked up public education, median earnings for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was between $41,400 to $45,920, based on location. Same range for teachers at junior high and high schools.

Shocking, but not in the way you thought.

Marginal Truths

There is a distinct difference between the guy who hits .280 and the guy who hits .240. It is a statistical measurement that can be correlated to a team’s chance of success.

Many of the factors that make for successful teachers are harder to quantify, so it would seem they are “punished” for dealing with so many intangibles. But there are a couple of other factors to consider.

How much of that lack of measurement is the fault of the teachers’ unions?

The unions typically fight against any standards-based testing, and I can understand why. When tests are administered across a broad area, some will perform better because of external factors. Kids with rich parents who provide additional tutoring and resources, and kids with two parents at home who care about education tend to do very well in school. Children in districts that are poorer and have more fractured home lives are not going to perform as well.

But who says the measurements have to be about raw performance? Why not measure students at the beginning of a year, and again at the end? And we can see how much improvement particular teachers provide, with apples to apples comparisons.

The unions likely won’t stand for that, either.

To Market

As it is, there is a very limited amount of performance-based incentive for teaching achievement. In some states, you’ll get a certain bump for having a Masters degree, or some type of certification in your subject. But most of the compensation is determined by a ladder system based on seniority.

The unions don’t want that level of disparity, though, because it would lead to the kind of income disparity we see in professional sports. For every Alex Rodriguez or Joe Mauer, there are many has-beens and wanna-bes who toil away for “the love of the game,” or some other homily designed to get their minds off their tiny paychecks.

And when it comes down to it, if you are engaged in a vocation where there are so many intangibles – so many factors of value that defy measurement – is one teacher really that much more valuable than another? Well, yes. If given a choice I wouldn’t want to just be thrown in at random.

But I don’t have a choice. There’s no free market for schools (at least not in Alabama.) And the teachers that excel – that really bring additional value to their profession and to the students they reach – they don’t have a free market either. A free market for teachers would provide the basis and incentive for finding a way to measure those intangibles. It would also mean some would end up as rock-stars (as much as their marginal utility would allow,) and some would end up bagging groceries next to young Kurt Warner.

And deep down, I’m not so sure that’s what they want.

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Where there is smoke, there is breaking news

Whether you know what it is or not.

(More from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)

It was seven or eight minutes to air, and a thick tower of black smoke had just plumed high above the east side of the city. We could see it from a camera, installed in our transmission tower, 600 feet up.

“That’s our new lead,” the producer announced. “Just ad lib something off the top. We’ll roll the breaking news animation, and then take the tower camera live.”

“What’s burning?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Is the fire department there yet?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ambulances? Anybody hurt?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has anyone here called the fire department?”

“I don’t know.”

“Police?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay,” I replied, somewhat confused. “What am I supposed to say about it?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “We’ll just have to go with what we know.”

(originally published by Michael Carpenter, republished with permission.)

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Antique Snark

oldtrashtalk

A couple of months ago I wrote about the art exhibit on loan from Yale that spent some time here in Birmingham. The so-called “emerging behaviors” (snide snark) that we attribute to blogging and impersonal technology were on display even then, in the pamphlets that were indeed the blogs of their day.

I didn’t know they also had Angie’s List and Yelp.

Found by my friend David McElroy:

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The Rocky Beginnings of a Frustrated Reporter

bookshelf

I wrote before about what you might expect to get from this site, as a way to help me focus. The right focus can bring together some amazing conversations, as Venessa Miemis has been able to do.

Maybe a little personal backstory is in order.

I was/am a science and math nerd. In a big way.

I likely disappointed a number of my teachers by not pursuing a Ph.D of some sort, where I could make a real contribution to society. But there were two realizations I had about myself that played into that decision:

  1. I have a wide variety of interests among the sciences, and
  2. I have a distinct knack for explaining things.

Put those together, and you have a nice starter kit for a budding Science Journalist. (Lord knows there aren’t enough people making science interesting, exciting or tangible.)

The Path Denied

By the time I was to the point in college where you have to declare a major, I figured the best way to pursue this dream was to go through Geology. It has a little bit of physics, a little bit of chemistry, and a little bit of biology. It makes for a nice nexus across the disciplines.

In my year as a Geology Major, I was asked by professors and graduate assistants where I would specialize. After all, you can’t just get a degree in Geology. That’s useless! You must get a Ph.D, and that means focusing on either vulcanology, paleontology or petro-chemical geology. In other words, put myself in one of those silos. I had two professors in one semester who had neighboring offices, yet couldn’t even hold a conversation with one another because they were too deep in their own little worlds.

Very Important Science happens deep in those silos – but for me, the interesting science happens at the intersections of disciplines. Which meant even more school. And no guarantee I’d be able to exercise those whims of interest.

So — already working at a television station — I ditched the whole effort and got my degree in Broadcast Journalism, with a minor in Political Theory. Also graduated with 40 hours in hard sciences and calculus, which didn’t come very handy in a profession that is repulsed by math.

I am who I am

My very nerdy bookshelf

In the murky depths of my soul, though, lurks the unfulfilled destiny of the frustrated science reporter. One who keeps abreast of the new and interesting and exciting — which also might just be too complex for instant understanding. My bookshelf is proof.

My impetus to write and to share comes from a need to help others understand. And maybe I’m drawn to the things others are not explaining very well, because if others are doing the job on certain topics then I don’t need to.

Maybe I am in the right place at the right time. Journalism as a whole is imploding under the weight of outdated distribution models that aren’t cost-effective. “Specialty” writers are even more rare on staff, and are almost exclusively found in the freelance market. Maybe the service I provide here is a model for… well, something. I don’t know what.

But I do know that I enjoy writing. And explaining. It’s the bedrock of who I am, no matter what I am paid to do.

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The Crowdsourced Looking Glass

We don’t really need a Reason to Be, but it certainly helps to occasionally step back and look at a larger picture.

What is Occam’s RazR?

What do I want it to be?

It’s not what we saw from the first incarnation of the “personal weblog.” I don’t share everything here. I have Facebook, and a Twitter account that I use for short thoughts. (I even started a “My Quotes” category to archive the witty pieces that shouldn’t be so ephemeral.)

I have a Posterous site, “Ike’s Online Scraptacular,” for the pieces that don’t fit in other places.

I occasionally contribute at Media Bullseye and Calling John Galt, so as not to litter this space with thoughts in niches.

So if I am segmenting my online output, what goes here?

Bucket needs a label

I suppose I need to refocus and answer that.

Or I can take the lazy way out and say “It’s whatever the heck I want it to be about, on any given day.” But that doesn’t help the reader develop a consistent expectation. And even if I don’t have a purpose for this audience, it doesn’t mean I ought to waste its time with scattered meanderings.

So, this is what I will try to live up to:

  • Occam’s RazR will be a site about exploration and explanation.
  • Occam’s RazR will be a site about communication and cognition.
  • I want to write about thinking, and how we can strip away assumptions to arrive at truth.
  • I want to write about writing, and how we can more clearly enunciate what we mean.
  • I want to write about process, and how we delineate what we can understand from what we can’t.
  • I may write about football, or politics, or economics, or television, or any of a host of topics that might seem to emerge from nowhere. But I will always aim for the spirit of revealing the hidden truth, the missing link or the unsupported assumption.
  • I will do my best to bridge from knowns to unknowns.

What am I missing?

I know I am missing elements, but I want them to be explicit and not implicit.

I worked for a news manager once who got a lot of mileage out of sending me to places where news was happening, with the gameplan of “Send Ike there, and let Ike be Ike.”

That’s not enough. I want the outsiders’ perspective of what that means.

So tell me…

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