By Brendan Loy
On Twitter yesterday, Melissa Clouthier and I had another one of our epic back-and-forth tweet-debates, complete with multi-part tweets (mostly by me) and rhetorical fireworks. Melissa is on record as calling me her “blog husband,” so is it any wonder we bicker on Twitter like an old married couple? Heh. Anyway, this time, the topic was “unexpectedly” bad economic news — something there’s seemingly been a lot of lately (see below) — and conservative mockery of the notion that it’s perpetually “unexpected.”
It all started with this tweet by me. Melissa responded. I responded back. Eventually, @PoliticalMath joined in (kinky!). The rest is history… history which I’ve decided to reproduce here. As I did last time, I’ve re-organized the tweets into paragraphs — combining multi-part tweets where appropriate (for instance, at one point I “say” three paragraphs in a row; that’s actually eight consecutive tweets) and moving things around a little bit in temporal order, so that the conversation will make sense to a reader. But again, I haven’t done any substantive retroactive editing. This is a faithful, and for the most part verbatim, representation of the conversation we had:
Me: I can’t decide whether I think this burgeoning conservative meme mocking the “unexpectedness” of “unexpected” economic news is dumb or not.
Melissa: I focused on the “unexpected” deal a couple months ago. The whole orientation is shock. If Republican it would be “expected.”
Me: See, it’s that argument that makes me think the meme is dumb. The “expectations” are coming from experts, not journalists. Or [from] market expectations. Economic news always has to be filtered through market/expert “expectations” because those are already priced into market, so bad news that’s unexpectedly good is “good,” and good news that’s expectedly bad is “bad.”
To claim this has something to do with media bias is, I’m sorry, absolute paranoia. Media bias exists, but this isn’t it. The media-bias analysis doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Media seeking to help Obama would PLAY DOWN expectations.
For the meme to have value, it must ask whether markets & experts (not MSM) are consistently too optimistic, and if so, why. You also need to look at instances when economic indicators have been “unexpectedly” GOOD, which has happened plenty of times during the Obama Administration, though less so in the last few months. It’s partisan tunnel vision to pretend otherwise.
Melissa: Quite simply: you’re wrong. I suggest that you go through the main newspapers’ interpretation of economics. When something bad happens, it’s always a shock, unexpected, downplayed.
Me: This is facially nonsensical. In news terms, “unexpected” is the OPPOSITE of “downplayed.” To downplay something, one must posit that it was “expected.” If bad news was expected, it can be downplayed. If it’s unexpected, it’s a bigger deal.
[Moreover,] I can recall plenty of times in ‘09 when we were hearing about “unexpectedly good” economic news, when trend line was going up.
Melissa: Were President Obama a Republican, the headlines would be: “Worst economy ever” and there’d be stories about street people.
Me: That may be true, Melissa, but it’s a separate issue from the nonsensical & factually false claim that all bad economic news is ALWAYS reported (if under a Dem prez) as “unexpected,” and all “unexpected” news is ALWAYS bad news. That’s just false.
Melissa: You’re being logical and assuming the press is the same. They are emotional & surprised at any failure.
Me: No. This is nonsense. “Expectations” come from markets and experts, not the media. Your MSM obsession is blinding you. You are prone to lazy thinking about certain issues when you see a “media bias” angle. Not everything is about the media.
Political Math: I think @brendanloy is right on “expectations”. They come from economists, not the media. But I think @MelissaTweets is right, media is “downplaying” the economic situation, although that is mostly by omission.
Melissa: I disagree. It all depends on the economists questioned and the press chooses whose expectations get attention.
Me: You’re wrong, @politicalmath is right. MSM may well be “downplaying,” but that is a separate issue from “expectations” meme.
Melissa: You get 10 economists in a room, 10 opinions. The press picks a favorable economist & is surprised when wrong.
Me: Again: nonsense borne of lazy, MSM-obsessed thinking. There is an expert/market CW consensus, that’s what’s reported.
Political Math: The “expectations” come from the BLS… pretty well respected & non-partisan http://bit.ly/caGvWX
More after the jump.
Me: Now, let me be clear. (Heh.) I’m talking about “expectations” as reported in things like AP articles. I don’t doubt that cable news commentators say ridiculous things about the economy. I don’t watch them. I don’t consider them news. If I want smart economic commentary, I don’t go to Olbermann or O’Reilly, I go to NPR or WSJ.
Melissa: Correct and I go to Maxed Out Mama and Calculated Risk. Also WSJ. But I watch the MSM and see the non-stop shock. Annoying.
Me: Your memory is distressingly selective. In the second half of 2009, there was lots of “unexpected” GOOD news. You should be criticizing the popular media for *shallowness* in economic coverage, not bias-driven “non-stop shock” over bad news.
Melissa: It’s all the same. The shallowness/shock deal.
Me: No, it’s NOT the same, because shallowness is nonpartisan, whereas you make EVERYTHING about partisan/ideological bias. “Shallow” reporting is not consistently pro- or anti-Obama, but it’s always a disservice to the public. THAT should be focus. Your obsession with the “bias” angle, which is but one part of the dysfunctional media picture, obscures that reality.
Indeed, in a way, making EVERYTHING about “bias” lets MSM off the hook. Journalism’s problems run so much deeper than that. And viewing all MSM issues solely through the lens of “bias” is just as “shallow” as the shallow reporting you’re criticizing.
Melissa: Perhaps, but the first step is recognizing the filter through which all of the news is portrayed.
The next part of the conversation was actually a separate thread that was happening, in part, simultaneously with the above, but it made more sense to break it out separately:
Political Math: That we have a lot of “unexpected” stuff happening if more due to the fact that this really is a very weird recession.
Melissa: It is a weird recession but there have been some people consistently getting it right.
Political Math: But people have only gotten it consistently right in the “things are going to get better & then worse” way. I don’t think anyone has been consistently right in a “We will lose 125K jobs next month” way.
Me: Hmm, so instead of going with broad-based consensus, reporters should hand-pick experts they think have best track records? I thought hand-picking favored experts was what you *oppose*.
Political Math: I’d like to see the press report in a “higher/lower than estimates” rather than “expectations” Using “estimates” reveals we can’t tell the future. “Expectations” implies we can.
Me: I’m @brendanloy and I approve @politicalmath’s message in the last several tweets :)
Melissa: I would like a pure economists “stock market”, see their predictions and see who is consistently right.
A bit later, Melissa tweeted, “So, I’m being told that @brendanloy wins this round. ;) Win some. Lose some.” Political Math replied, “I enjoy it when you & @brendanloy go at it :)” to which Melissa responded, “Well, @brendanloy has been a longtime blog-friend and I respect his opinion even when he calls me names. ;)” Meanwhile I wrote, “LOL! I was going to make this into a blog post again, but if my victory is being conceded, that feels like rubbing it in,” to which Melissa replied, “Ha! Well, I’m not sure you entirely understand where I’m coming from.” I responded, “That’s very possible, if not probable. Impossible to convey nuance in 140 characters. Hence my constant multi-part tweets :)”
Meanwhile, there is talk of Political Math and I being on a Melissa’s podcast sometime in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Comments on "The soft bias of high expectations?"
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