Archive | Media

Political Science and The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is a truly incredible movie that I strongly recommend to everyone. The movie portrays several Indonesian mass murderers who have tortured, executed, pillaged, and raped at large scales and now wish to re-enact their past behavior in a movie. Reviews are here, here, and here. I concur with Roger Ebert Steven Boone who calls it the “the smiliest atrocity documentary” he has ever seen and notes that:

There’s never been a shortage of dark, grim documentaries that catalog life’s cruelty, horrors and banality of evil. Thanks to the documentary genre, I have watched hundreds of hours of war crimes, genocides and miscarriages of justice carried out by unremarkable men with dimly lit souls. “The Act of Killing” bids to outdo them all.

The movie engages questions that have long occupied political scientists: why do people participate in systematic mass killings? And how can/should they be held accountable for it? I suspect it will become a staple in the classroom. Sometimes film is an incredibly effective medium to communicate ideas and stimulate the brain.

There are several ways the movie speaks to the political science literature. For example, the perpetrators are imminently aware of what Kathryn Sikkink has labeled the “justice cascade:” the idea that throughout the world perpetrators of war crimes and other human rights atrocities are increasingly being held accountable for their acts through trials. They know about Pinochet, the ICC, and so on.

Yet, they seem completely unfazed by this trend, presumably because many people affiliated with the paramilitary organization on whose behalf they acted are still in power. One of them even professed his eagerness to be sent to The Hague so he could become “famous” (of course the ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed in the 1960s). Still, at least based on the evidence portrayed here the deterrent effect of the cascade is not obviously present. The Indonesian vice-president is filmed giving a public speech to a paramilitary organization with 3 million members in which he argues that they will sometimes need to use their fists. The answer to the question why the children of murdered “Communists” are not seeking justice at a larger scale is invariably that they would be crushed.

The movie is quite consistent with the literature on mass killings: individuals do not usually participate in mass killings because they are intrinsically evil or because they are blinded by hatred of a group of others (in this case Communists).  Instead, these killings are usually part of some organized efforts by elites to strategically eliminate opponents. A good place to start may be Benjamin Valentino’s Final Solutions, which offers a comprehensive analysis of mass killing and genocide in the 20th century.

On the other hand, I was also struck by the organization of the mass killings through a loosely organized paramilitary organization. These were really gangsters who shifted back and forth between “regular economic crime” and politically motivated crimes. The link with the military government was there but it would be an exaggeration to say that the government had clear control over the proceedings (the precise links here are not investigated as thoroughly as I would have liked in the movie). The role of a (past and current) newspaper publisher is especially disheartening. This industrial organization of violence (as Robert Bates would call it) seems important and I am not sure if it is well covered in the literature. (Correct me if I am wrong though as I am not a specialist in this area.)

Anyway: don’t be deterred by the dark subject of this documentary and go see it.

ps. Several people have pointed out to me that the maker of the documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer, is the son of retired University of Maryland political science professor Joe Oppenheimer.

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Partisan Bias in Media Coverage of Political Scandals

We study the coverage of U.S. political scandals by U.S. newspapers during the past decade. Using automatic keyword-based searches we collected data on 32 scandals and approximately 200 newspapers. We find that Democratic-leaning newspapers—i.e., those with a higher propensity to endorse Democratic candidates in elections—provide relatively more coverage of scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democratic politicians, while Republican-leaning newspapers tend to do the opposite. This is true even after controlling for the average partisan leanings of readers. In contrast, newspapers appear to cater to the partisan tastes of readers only for local scandals.

From this piece by Riccardo Puglisi and James Snyder, which is ungated for the next two weeks.  Enterprising researchers can update the study by comparing, say, New York Times and New York Daily News coverage of Carlos Danger.

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New issue of Symposium magazine

Symposium magazine (“Where Academia Meets Public Life”) has some fun stuff this month:

Learning to Read All Over Again
Lutz Koepnick
What produces better students – reading in print or reading on-line? The answer is both.

The Elusive Quest for Research Innovation
Claude S. Fischer
Much of what is considered “new research” has actually been around for a while. But that does not mean it lacks value.

Science Journalism and the Art of Expressing Uncertainty
Andrew Gelman
It is all too easy for unsupported claims to get published in scientific publications. How can journalists address this?

A Scientist Goes Rogue
Euny Hong
Can social media and crowdfunding sustain independent researchers?

Still Waiting for Change
Sylvia A. Allegretto
Economists and policymakers alike are ignoring a huge class of workers whose wages have been effectively frozen for decades.

One Professor’s Spirited Enterprise
Bob Benenson
A burgeoning distilling program has successfully combined science and business at Michigan State University.

Slow and Fast Learning in the Digital Age
Linda Essig
The proliferation of online learning tools requires us to take a closer look at how we think, teach and learn.

The authors of these articles include a professor of German and film studies, a sociologist, a reporter/novelist, an economist, a food writer, and a professor of arts management. Enjoy.

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The New Journalism: Same as the Old Journalism

As a result, most Americans still get news that is largely filtered through the debates happening among political elites in Washington. To be sure, this process is more complicated today. But the content of political news has not been revolutionized. Journalists, whether in the new media or old, still play a game according to very similar rules as did their 20th-century predecessors. In some ways, those “old times” the president referred to are right now.

That is Danny Hayes over at Wonkblog, pivoting off of Obama’s comments this week.  See also this Brendan Nyhan post linked therein.

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One Irony of Nate Silver’s Leaving the New York Times

Nate Silver’s imminent departure from the New York Times to ABC and ESPN —see details in the links within this Jack Shafer post—has elicited stories of hostility to Silver within the Times newsroom.  The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writes:

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.


I had a similar experience the night of the Iowa caucus in 2012.  Lynn Vavreck and I were in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott talking to a senior Times reporter when the subject of Silver came up.  The reporter went on a rant about how Silver did not know things because he hadn’t been in the field as reporters are, about Silver’s “models,” and about how Silver could talk about polls that did not meet the Times polling standards (a fact that the Times polling editor Kate Phillips also referred to as “a problem” in a Twitter exchange with political scientist Daniel Smith).

The problem with this critique of Silver is that, if you follow his work closely or read his book, he’s extremely cautious about what data and modeling can accomplish.  Moreover, if you read his book closely, he is quite clear that the kind of data reporters (or baseball scouts) often gather—which is qualitative, not quantitative—is exceedingly valuable for doing what he does. This is a point about the book that hasn’t received much emphasis in the reviews I’ve read, even though the potential value of qualitative data in quantitative forecasts is well-established (see, for example, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s approach).

For example, although Silver developed a quantitative system, PECOTA, for evaluating baseball players, that you might think was the natural antagonist of qualitative data-gatherers like scouts, his book chapter on this has a section called “PECOTA vs. Scouts: Scouts Win.”  Silver writes:

Although the scouts’ judgment is sometimes flawed, they were adding plenty of value: their forecasts were about 15 percent better than ones that relied on statistics alone.

He has the same view of quantitative election forecasting.  In a section of the book called “Weighing Qualitative Information,” he lauds the value in the in-depth interviewing of candidates that is done by David Wasserman and others at the Cook Political Report.  Silver uses the ratings that Cook and others have developed in his own House forecasts and finds that they also add value.

So the irony, as I see it, is that Silver faced resentment within the newsroom even though his approach explicitly values the work that reporters do.  Although I suspect that Times reporters wouldn’t like to simply be inputs in one of Silver’s models, I could easily see how the Times could have set up a system by which campaign reporters fed their impressions to Silver based on their reporting and then Silver worked to incorporate their impressions in a systematic fashion.

In short, even though it may be impossible to eliminate the tension between Silver’s approach and that of at least some reporters, I think there is an under-appreciated potential for symbiosis.  Perhaps Silver will find that at ESPN and ABC.

[Full disclosure: In 2011-2012, I was a paid contributor to the 538 blog.]

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Symposium Magazine

Symposium is a new online magazine subtitled “Where academia meets public life.” You can think of it as a sort of Slate magazine without Mickey Kaus, or as the Atlantic without the stylish writing.

Here are the articles in the first issue, which has just been posted:

Why Write the History of Capitalism?
Louis Hyman
A new generation of scholars is rewriting the story of capitalism by shaking off the old assumptions of both the Left and Right.

Sorry, Wrong Number
Andrew Gelman
How do bad numbers get into circulation in our political discourse, and how do they stay there, even after being refuted?

Historians and the Problem of Miracles
Scott K. Taylor
Historians, like most academics, are a secular lot. Is this a bias that prevents a deeper understanding of religious history?

The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure
Jill Dolan
By taking a fresh look at popular culture, students are breathing new life into feminist theories of a generation ago.

Game Theory is Useful, Except When it is Not
Ariel D. Procaccia
Despite its booming popularity, a clear understanding of game theory requires that we understand the limits of its utility.

Gospel’s Many Ancestors
Chuck McCutcheon
A Yale professor documents the ancient origins of religious singing — and causes a debate over the roots of gospel.

Memoirs Take a Daring Turn in South Africa
M. Neelika Jayawardane
Personal accounts of the apartheid and post-apartheid years take on a therapeutic role that is both painful and necessary.

The War on Social Science
Rick K. Wilson
Congress is heading into dangerous territory as it decides what basic scientific research should be.

Is the popularity of game theory really booming? I had no idea. My impression is that game theory peaked in the late 1950s. Two classics from that area are Solar Lottery and Luce and Raiffa’s Games and Decisions. The latter is charming in its retro attitude that all that remained were some minor technical problems that were on the edge of being solved. And then there’s my own paper from 2008 (most of which was from 1986), “Game theory as ideology: some comments on Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Cooperation.’”

P.S. After reading my article in this month’s Symposium, I’m afraid David Brooks is going to say something like, “I must say you certainly live down to your reputation.” What does that mean, I wonder? Do I have a reputation as a mean guy? I think I’m pretty nice. In any case, I’m completely serious in that article. As a statistician, I don’t like seeing wrong numbers quoted by respected sources, and I really don’t like it when people refuse to correct their errors. I don’t think this is about my reputation at all, it’s just something I feel strongly about. I have no desire to make enemies with Brooks or anyone else. I think we’re all on the same “side” of trying to figure out the world, we just have different immediate priorities, and none of us has time to look into everything at once. I understand that.

P.P.S. Just to be clear, I was just kidding about Slate and the Atlantic. Symposium is explicitly a different sort of publication in that it is all about academic researchers communicating with the general public. The writing in Symposium might well be as stylish as that in the Atlantic (and perhaps even as contrarian, at times, as what appears in Slate) but it is coming from a different, more openly academic, perspective. Which I think makes it a useful addition to public discourse.

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My theory: Nate Silver is paying those Politico guys to say these silly things

The question is, how could these guys at Politico say such foolish things (see John’s discussion here of some examples)? The usual explanation for smart people acting stupid is love, religion, or political ideology. But in this case I don’t see John Harris and Jim VandeHei being motivated by love or religion, and it seems to be part of their shtick that they don’t have much of an ideology.

So here’s my theory. Nate Silver is immensely successful. Nate Silver is a god. But overexposure goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. That is: to stay on top, Nate needs to be continually contrasted with easy-to-hate enemies. But this isn’t so easy. There are no more polls to unskew, and at this point even the fools know to be careful not to tangle with Nate.

So what does Nate do? He has to create some enemies. He’s floating high, so the enemies can’t be any bottom-feeding bloggers. The solution is brilliant. He pays off the staff at Politico to pick a fight with him. And this reminds us of what we all love about 538. Nate cares about the truth, not about sound bites. Nate’s secure in the knowledge that his site gets the hits. So he can just sit there smiling while the Politico guys take swings at him. It’s brilliant, really.

And what do the dudes at Politico get out of this? Beyond whatever Nate is paying them under the table, they get some short-term attention (as in this blog post!), also maybe they get on the short list for being hired by whatever new venture Tucker Carlson might be planning. Win-win-win.

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The Harris-VandeHei Interview Sells Even Politico Short

Following up on David’s post, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the New Republic interview with Politico co-founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei.  What struck me about this interview was that Harris and VandeHei seemed to acknowledge a role that some in the news media do not: that of participant, not observer.  Here is Harris’s response to TNR’s Isaac Chotiner:

IC: You say you “cover” Washington. Does Politico consider itself merely an observer of Washington or a participant?

JH: If you look at Washington as an ecosystem, we obviously play a role in that ecosystem. The media generally plays a role.


But then in nearly the very next breath, Harris and VandeHei understate the implications of what it means for the media to be a participant in the political ecosystem.
IC: If Washington, on a given day, is caught up in total nonsense, is there real value in covering total nonsense? If you give nonsense a microphone, that might lead to more nonsense. If you are a politician and you get covered for saying outrageous things, there is some incentive to say more outrageous things.

JVH: No doubt.

JH: There is also the chance that someone will call you a buffoon.

JVH: For people who have lost faith in politics, the market has corrected. If you think about people who became the Freak Show, the bombastic celebrities on the right—Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Michele Bachmann—they all had their rise, they all got their fame, and they all flamed out because voters rejected them.


What VandeHei seems to suggest is that, no matter if Politico gets caught up in promoting “total nonsense” or “the Freak Show,” everything will work out because “the market” (or maybe “voters”?) will correct things.  I think this is wrong.  There is no invisible hand here.  If the market corrects itself, it’s because the media does the correcting.

Herman Cain will illustrate this point.  As Lynn Vavreck and I show in this chapter of The Gamble, Cain rose to fame precisely because he got media attention after he won the non-binding and largely irrelevant Florida straw poll.  His victory also hastened Rick Perry’s exit well before Perry said “oops” and all of that.  This is because news outlets framed Cain’s “win” as Perry’s “defeat.”  “Cain Upsets Perry at Florida Straw Poll,” declared USA Today. “Cain Upsets Perry in Florida Republican Straw Poll,” declared Reuters. “Herman Cain Upsets Gov. Rick Perry to Win Florida GOP Straw Poll,” declared Fox News.  This is how “narratives”—which media outlets like Politico report on as if they are disembodied tales—are actually created by these same media outlets. That’s not me on my “high horse,” to quote Harris on Nate Silver.   I’m not being critical.  I’m just stating an empirical fact.  Narratives about politics are mostly written by the people who, well, write professionally about politics.

Lynn and I also provide some statistical confirmation of what happened to Cain.  That is, we do what VandeHei might call “trying to use numbers to prove stuff.”  We show that more prevalent and favorable news coverage appeared to drive Cain’s poll numbers (although the reverse was not true).

So what happened then?  How did the “market” correct itself?  It wasn’t because of what voters did.  It was because of what the media did.  Indeed, it was—at least in part—because of what Politico did:

During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to Politico.

And we know how the rest of the story goes.  So the end of Cain’s campaign was not brought about by “the market” or by voters.  Voters needed new information to “correct.”  Who provided the information?  Journalists doing their job and vetting the candidates.  VandeHei doesn’t appear to see this or believe this, even when his own publication was doing the work.

This is one reason why it surprised me that Harris and VandeHei were snarky about investigative reporting like the New York Times’ series on corruption at the Long Island Railroad, and ultimately articulated an emaciated conception of newsworthiness as simply what is “interesting.”  VandeHei:


We have an obligation to be interesting. We don’t think of ourselves as the electric company or the water company: “Well, we have a responsibility …” That was a mindset in a previous generation of journalists.

It doesn’t seem to me that even Politico operates exclusively under that belief.  Their Cain reporting managed to be both interesting (“Ooh, sex scandal!”) and responsible at the same time (because I believe that knowing whether someone settled suits for sexual harassment is important information when that person wants to be president).


If Harris and VandeHei believed that “market corrections” were at least partially their responsibility, they might put “responsible” more at the heart of their news-gathering and reporting.  I would find a “responsible Politico” even more worth reading.


P.S. There was also this small, but fun, moment in the interview: apropos of a question about the contretemps between Nate Silver and some Politico reporters (mainly Dylan Byers) in the fall of 2012, John Harris avers that he didn’t read 538 during the election.  Silver quickly noted that Harris had listed 538 as one of his favorite blogs as of November 2010.  Alas, this doesn’t bode well for The Monkey Cage, since we were on that list too.  Former Politico reporter Ben Smith suggested that he may actually have written that list for Harris.  Our thanks to Smith, in that case!

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Demographics != destiny

Louis points to this news article by John Harwood, “Dissent Festers in States That Obama Seems to Have Forgotten,” which has this bit:

Whites make up 90 percent of its population, which is fewer than one million people and mostly in rural areas. Its proportion of people 65 and over exceeds the national average. There was never a chance that North Dakota would give Mr. Obama its three electoral votes.

Louis writes:

The conclusion might be true, but the reasoning is bad, right? New Hampshire is 95% white, population ~1 million, largely rural, and proportion of people 65 and over exceeds national average. New Hampshire gave Mr. Obama its four electoral votes. (Same applies for Maine and Vermont.)

I agree.

Also, as a side note, I see no reason to trust Donna Brazile about any of this stuff. Just from the outside, I haven’t ever seen any evidence that she’s much of a “strategist,” even though that’s what she’s labeled as in the newspaper.

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