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The Cult Of The Savvy Slays The Congressional Budget Office: Your Sunday Morning Conversation

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Just over a week ago, Philadelphia Weekly published a cover story about a local musician named Jordan White, premised on the notion that White -- an earnest singer-songwriter type -- was some sort of stealth superstar in the Philadelphia music scene. The headline in the print edition was insistent in pushing this zingy notion: "Jordan White may be the most famous local rock balladeer you've never heard of."

For Emily Guendelsberger, a reporter at the rival Philadelphia City Paper, it didn't add up. And it's pretty easy to see why: The opening paragraphs of the Weekly's piece describe White at a gig, playing '90s covers and a few originals in front of a couple dozen uninterested bar patrons. Not exactly the sort of scene in which you'd place a genuine underground phenomenon. With precise insticts, Guendelsberger identified the source of the problem. In the Weekly's original, comes this paragraph:

See, Jordan White has some 200,000 social media followers -- 185,000 on Twitter, 19,000 on Facebook. For comparison's sake, that's just as many as Philly's biggest current rock success story, Dr. Dog, and twice as many as critical darling Kurt Vile. In other words, if you were to go by the sheer social-audience numbers, you'd have to conclude that White is one of the Philadelphia area's top musical acts -- despite the fact that we mostly haven't heard of him.

Basically, the Weekly somehow ended up fixated on White's social media profile, decided this was enough to conclude White was "one of the Philadelphia area's top musical acts," and went on a far-flung flight of fancy. "That White has been able to build an audience of hundreds of thousands, with absolutely no support from a label, is indicative of the sea change in the music industry over the past decade," states the Weekly, authoritatively. And despite the fact that Mr. Sea Change For The Music Industry was stuck playing covers in local bars, the article's author, Max Ufberg, decided that he wouldn't trust his own eyes and ears. Instead, he chased that sweet, sweet buzz.

It was, as they say, "too good to check." But Guendelsberger went ahead and checked, for all intents and purposes re-reporting the Weekly's story. And what she found was that the entire premise of the Weekly's piece -- that White had amassed a legion of social media followers -- wasn't actually true. It was, for the lack of a better descriptor, a Potemkin social media presence. (I won't go into the details here, just go read her story -- she not only delivers the shoe-leather reporting, she treats White with great humaneness. It's a lovely piece of work.)

What the Weekly did, essentially, is decide that a meme (OMG TWITTER) was way, way better than the truth, and set about constructing a rickety house of falsehoods based on the perception they had formed of White, which they found to be way more exciting than the actual facts. Guendelsberger had some pointed words about that:

Music journalists, particularly younger ones, seem to be less and less confident in their own opinions, leading to increasing coverage of buzz rather than substance, or to mentioning that some band got a good review on Pitchfork or has a billion Twitter followers rather than trusting and explaining the judgment of their own ears and eyes.

Journalists suborning their sense of judgment to chase stardust? Now that hits me where I -- and the world of contemporary political reporting -- have been living this week. Only the people I've observed doing the same thing can't blame their youth or inexperience -- suborning their good judgment in the face of easily obtained facts in order to prop up the hawt, fresh meme of the week is a lifestyle choice they've made, to the detriment of America.

I speak, of course, of this week's report from the Congressional Budget Office, which among other things, made projections on how the Affordable Care Act would affect the labor market. The gist of the CBO's projections was that a not-insignificant number of workers would, because of incentives the law provides, choose not to supply the labor market. Which is to say: they'd retire, or reduce their hours, or start a business, or find a better job now that they weren't caught in the trap of "job lock" -- a situation in which you can't leave a job you don't like for a better one because you're too dependent on the health care the employer provides.

This isn't all upside, of course: See the third bullet point in this piece and the seventh paragraph here. But on balance, the CBO's projections were actually good news for the people who authored the Affordable Care Act, because they intended to provide this labor mobility, and labor mobility is good for ordinary people. This isn't a spike-the-football moment, of course -- these are, after all, merely data-driven projections, and the lingering question about Obamacare is whether it will successfully enroll the necessary mix of "young-and-healthies" and "old-and-sicks." But what the CBO had to say was, on balance, positive. (Unless you actually like people being stuck in crappy jobs and not starting new businesses!)

The problem is that the media totally ganked on the story. Opponents of Obamacare seized on the report, willfully conflated a decrease in labor supply with a decrease in labor demand (this is the difference between an employee leaving a job or the workforce voluntarily and employers eliminating jobs) and fed the "job killing" meme into the Wurlitzer. And so, if you were taking your time to read through to page 117 of the CBO report, by the time you'd absorbed the facts, the meme had laced up its track shoes and run twice along the block, waving a flag and making loud noises.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum was one of those people who took the time to study the matter. He describes the experience like so:

This is a debacle. I came into this story pretty cold, reading about the CBO report and then clicking on a link to take a look at it. At the time, I hadn't read any news accounts, so I just scrolled down to the chapter on Obamacare and spent about ten minutes browsing through it. And here's the thing: the CBO's conclusions were crystal clear. The report explained in simple language what effect Obamacare was likely to have and what channels it worked through. It even had a handy bullet list showing the most important causes of lower employment.

And yet, lots of reporters and headline writers got it wrong. It's crazy.

Indeed, it is. In separate posts, I cited two examples -- Politico's "Huddle" newsletter and Chris Cillizza -- that blew it especially badly. They were in possession of facts that they could see with their own eyes. But as with Philadelphia Weekly above, the shiny meme mattered more to them. It was just too good to check.

"How is it that so many folks blew it?" asks Kevin Drum. Well, part of the problem may have been that the CBO put a stripped-of-context graph labelled "labor force participation rate" on the cover page of the report, bold as all get-out, and you had to actually get through a number of pages to reach the facts. Another major problem is that "Obamacare is a job killing monster" is a more exciting idea that fits more easily on a bumper sticker than a few paragraphs of dull but detailed econ-splaining -- a condition that Stephen Colbert made sport of this week:

But the larger problem is that the vast swathes of political writing are akin to the nonsense that Emily Guendelsberger encountered with the Philadelphia Weekly story that "did not compute." The political media is shot through with people who'd rather chase memes, divine the mystery of perceptions, and leave the judgment necessary to simply grasp facts and properly inform people begging at the front door, like a cat left out in the rain. Jay Rosen describes these people as members of "the cult of the savvy":

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, "with it," and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or "belief system." They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme. The unsavvy get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry-fruitlessly-because they don't know how things really work.

So this is why the gut feelings that the CBO report generates are more important to Chuck Todd than the actual facts. This is why a Politico newsletter cites the facts and then dismisses them, because you'll never "win the morning" with an explanation, or evincing concern for ordinary people.

And this is why the unluckiest of all receive "the Full Cillizza." That thing where you acknowledge that facts exist, but insist that "perceptions" are more important to understanding the world. And then you go on to literally denigrate the work of those who attempt to trade in facts, and insist that the very notion of a media that trades in truth as hopelessly stupid and not even worth attempting. Per Cillizza: "I would say to those critics: You overestimate the media's ability to (a) cut through the clutter or (b) change peoples' minds about what's true and what's not."

Is it really an overestimation, though? As Kevin Drum points out, "This is policy 101, not some deeply technical report that you need a data sherpa to understand." This stuff is easy. What makes it hard is that too many people just find it more fun to perpetuate memes, pretend that they reveal a higher and better "truth," and then call that "the real world." (As Brad Delong noted in a post dated on Saturday, this is as if the idiots shadow-watchers from Plato's "Allegory Of The Cave" somehow got hired to report on American politics.)

It's big, it's bright, it's dumb, and it's just too fun to resist. The mindset that leads a person to suspend their own good sense and ability to explain acquired knowledge for the sake of marveling at the ways shadows dance on the wall is the same one that leads a grown man to lumber after Mitt Romney like an ungainly puppy, shouting "What about your gaffes?" as if that's the question that's going to yield a motherlode of important journalism.

The "What about your gaffes?" inquiry did not, in fact, yield anything of real-world importance, by the way. In fact, as Dave Weigel reported, political scientist John Sides "tried and tried to show the press evidence that the gaffes that captivated them didn't move the electorate."

Nobody cared. People tweeted about them, so they were important. And everyone who might have known better was too busy, drowning in a sea of mystification. Wow. Such shiny. Very truthy. So politics.

_____________________

If you've got a story you want to share on Sunday, feel free to drop me a line!

[You'll find more Sunday Reads and more on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

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