Wanted: News Smoothing

Back in the fall, I got all caught up in the election, like everybody else, and I added a bunch of blogs to my RSS feeds in Google Reader. I’m thinking that I might need to cut back to pre-election levels, if not lower, though. Following too many political blogs is giving me whiplash.

This has really been brought home to me as the progress of the stimulus bill has coincided with a busy patch, meaning that I’ve been sitting down in the evening to 60-80 posts worth of stimulus bill commentary. Going through a whole day’s worth of blog posts about the stimulus reads something like:

The bill’s in good shape… Reid has the votes… No he doesn’t… The bill is doomed… The Republicans have totally played Obama… No, Obama sold us out… Wait, maybe it’s all a double-bluff smokescreen… Obama’s a genius… The bill’s going to pass, and it’ll be AWESOME… Obama is Wizard FDR… Wait, the bill’s falling apart… Ben Nelson is the Antichrist… The Republicans are going to doom us all… Aiieeeee! A Balrog!

And that’s just one blog. And here’s the thing: if you sort out what actually happened during the day, the answer is: Nothing. A bunch of Senators and Representatives made faintly ridiculous speeches on C-Span, while others tried to work out some sort of compromise position.

I think that what I need is some sort of news smoothing algorithm. If I could get a six- or eight-hour running average of the political blogs I read, my life would be a lot better.

Of course, thinking about it a little more, the solution is obvious. The news smoothing algorithm already exists, and has for years. It’s called a newspaper.

What I really want is probably something like an old-fashioned daily newspaper, something that takes twenty-four hours worth of world events, and generates a summary of what happened. And then does the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next.

The fundamental problem here is that the list of events that really demand hour-by-hour news coverage and analysis is very short, and does not include the passage of legislation. The constant stream of hyperventilating articles about the last half-hour’s worth of hints and rumors and rumors of hints is exhausting, and serves no real purpose.

There’s really something to be said for the “old media” approach of producing news reports a few times a day, on a regular schedule. That’s a much better fit with the actual progress of events than the 18-posts-per-day blogging cycle. Most of the wild oscillations in the tone and content of blog reporting are just noise, and it would probably be better for everyone’s mental health if everyone would take a deep breath, back away from the keyboard, and do something else for a few hours.

(This is not, by the way, an endorsement of “old media” like 24-hour news channels, which are basically blogs with more pictures and fewer words. I’m talking old old media– newspapers and evening news broadcasts.)

That’s not to say that there isn’t some value added by the blog format– I like getting news and commentary from sites that have a distinctive voice. I also like the individual quirks that come through in blogs– Kevin Drum’s cats, Matt Yglesias’s weird fascination with the NBA, Ezra Klein’s foodie posts. The feeds that will get the axe whenever I get around to cleaning out Google Reader are the massive and indistinct group blogs, or the ones where the proprietor works extra hard to sound like a journalist, with no hint of personality.

Really, though, I’m starting to think that some of my older colleagues have the right idea: read the print New York Times in the campus center in the morning, check a few newspaper web sites around 4 in the afternoon, and call it a day. It’d certainly help lower tha ambient stress level.


  1. #1 Lethe
    February 11, 2009

    Listening to NPR in the car every day has much the same effect, for me, as reading the print NYT would.

    I’m never going to be able to read a hyperventilating, sky-is-falling blog post again without thinking, “Aiieeeee! A Balrog!”

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    February 11, 2009

    The fundamental problem here is that the list of events that really demand hour-by-hour news coverage and analysis is very short

    Amen to that. What tends to happen instead is a lot of spin and fatuous commentary. And on the handful of occasions when something noteworthy does happen, the 24-hour news channels tend to show the same visuals over and over and OVER AND OVER again until you want to scream. Nor has the proliferation of 24-hour news sources been all that good for journalism, as demonstrated by the fact that people who regularly watch Jon Stewart’s parody newscast tend to be better informed than people who use the 24-hour news channels as their primary news source. Most newspapers, unfortunately, have been similarly lazy.

    The problem is an old one. A while back Blake Stacey posted a video of David Frost introducing Tom Lehrer, in which Frost said that the purpose of news had become to disseminate newspapers and television programs. That would have been 1963 or thereabouts.

  3. #3 John Novak
    February 11, 2009

    I don’t know about news smoothing, but what I want is less news and more analysis of news, from informed sources who aren’t grinding axes. I don’t need a blow by blow of whatever damnfool thing Congress is up to today, I need to understand the larger picture– not just of the damnfool thing, but the damnfool things that have been going on for the last five years, the damnfool tihngs that are taking shape over the next five, and the damnfool things that the Executive and the States have been getting themselves up to.

    This sounds like what I want is punditry, but really, no. Every pundit out there thinks he’s an analyst, but pundits are really only opinion writers with inflated egos. I can’t even tell you where to find such a thing for political news– probably because the people capable of doing it are not interested in selling their analysis to the public when they can sell it to politicians, instead.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    February 11, 2009

    John: Are you looking for generalists (who know nothing about everything) or specialists (who know everything about nothing)? As you correctly imply, the overwhelming majority of existing pundits are in the former category. The reason they became so prevalent is that they had the confidence, and supporting bankroll, to pontificate on any and every topic whether they understand a thing about it or not, and sound smart enough while doing so to fool most of the people most of the time.

    What blogging has done is made it easier for people with expertise in some area to inform the general public about issues in their area of expertise. The short answer is that you can’t go to a single source for all of those things, but there are people who are good at focusing on their areas of expertise. Tanta of Calculated Risk (who unfortunately has gone to the Great Blogroll in the Sky) was a prototypical example of this: she knew enough about the mortgage business to keep readers informed about developments in the mortgage crisis, which was beginning to spread to the rest of the economy. Many of her posts explained how the latest development fit in to the picture of where we had been and where we were going. It will take some time to figure out who the equivalents in other fields are.

  5. #5 Rajesh
    February 11, 2009

    I had been in this predicament for a while. But I have now reduced by orders of magnitude the intake, while increasing the quantity and quality of the uptake, so to speak. I read the paper-based Financial Times for world coverage and in-depth analysis, a few blogs like TPM and Atrios, and few others for kicks, like Fafblog, Sadly No, and Instaputz. Once in a few days, Coates, Calcuated Risk, Econbrowser, DeLong, etc. Works out rather good, both for the brain and the bile.

  6. #6 John Novak
    February 11, 2009

    Eric: agreed about the reasons behind the rise of pundits on the internet– I shorthand it by saying that the internet decreased publication costs to near zero over time, glutting the market with insane babble.

    My scorn for pundits increases because for the most part, pundits are not hear to inform me, they are here to persuade me of something, and as such may choose not to inform me of something that goes against whatever their preferred argument is. These people, flatly speaking, do not have anything like my best interests at heart. (That leaves aside the abysmal track record that pundits have. Every study conducted tells me that they are completely worthless, possibly worse than a fair coin.)

    As for what I want, I’m not convinced that any one person can provide it, so I’d have to say, a little of both. At this point, I start thinking about the newspaper and related industries, except…. the news media doesn’t do analysis. When it tries, it fails, because the modern notion of analysis is, “Present both sides of an argument– because we assume there are only two sides– with equal force,” creating the impression that no one is right or wrong.

    That’s not analysis, that’s “balance” and is pretty useless.

  7. #7 blinker
    February 12, 2009

    Interesting point about analysis vs “balance” in #6. But your contempt for balance puzzles me, since you risk getting propaganda rather than the “analysis” that you covet. At lease with honest “balance”, you make the decision on who/what is right.

    Good point also on the pundits. Most people (as per the blogs and bloggers cited by Chad and others on this thread)rarely read anyone outside their ideological cocoon decidedly skewed “progressive” around here).

    I’ve gone back to reading Washington Post (online) as well as Time and Newsweek. These are not the perfect “smoothers” but they do (a more than) adequate job of keeping me informed.

  8. #8 chat
    February 12, 2009

    very good sites

  9. #9 emeris
    February 12, 2009


    if you just echo both sides you will always get nothing but propaganda when someone notices and starts to game the system.

    I think what John wants is a measure of how well pols statements match reality.

    see flap over religion in the stimulus
    see anything Mitch McConnel says

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    February 12, 2009

    But your contempt for balance puzzles me, since you risk getting propaganda rather than the “analysis” that you covet.

    In case you haven’t noticed, the MSM have been feeding us loads of propaganda in the name of “balance”. Too often a “balanced” story can be reduced to “X says P, Y says Not P.” It’s one thing to quote both sides of the controversy and then present the facts, as that allows the reader/viewer to evaluate whether each side is debating honestly. But that isn’t what we have been getting in the news lately. The grim joke of the decade is that if a prominent person (particularly a Republican–the “balance” canard has tended to give undue credence to Republican arguments) were to claim that the earth was flat, the story would be headlined “Opinions Differ Regarding Shape of Earth”. This is exactly the sort of news paradigm that John (as well as several prominent bloggers including Atrios and Bob Somerby) is complaining about.

    In addition to the examples emeris gave, see: political debates over global warming, political debates over creationism vs. evolution, or at least a dozen other political issues. Typically, one side’s view is supported by facts, and the other side is either making stuff up or persisting in using arguments that have long since been debunked. Without the context of knowing what the facts are, how is the reader/viewer supposed to know that one side is spouting nothing but propaganda?

    I don’t think it’s possible to avoid propaganda entirely, but if you have the facts in hand you can at least identify the propaganda as such.

  11. #11 John Novak
    February 12, 2009

    Blinker, #7:

    It turns out that Eric #10 has captured my scorn for “balance” (and I use the scare quotes with purpose) almost exactly. I could add a list of topics where the “balance” favors the nuttier branches of the Democrat party, but that’s not really my point. I think it’d be a shorter list, anyway. My point is that the kind of “balance” that Eric and I are talking about is useless at best and actively harmful at worst.

    Amusingly, Derek Lowe makes a strongly related point this morning– which I saw well after I started writing this response.

    On the issue of pundits, I’m not even necessarily talking about small time bloggers, I’m talking about the kind of talking heads that show up regularly on the news talk circuit, getting put forth as authorities. For example, a post from The Monkey Cage:

    When most practicing political pundits are called upon to forecast what’s going to happen, they typically answer so forcefully and self-assuredly as to produce a sense of certainty in the listener, whose attention span, in turn, tends to be so short that he or she never remembers to check up a few days later on whether the pundit’s prediction was borne out.

    Could it be that pundits are themselves dismal forecasters? Well, yes. That, at least, was the conclusion that Jarol Manheim, Susannah Pierce, and I reached several years ago in a study titled “Inside Dopes? Pundits as Political Forecasters” (abstract here). In that study, we assessed the accuracy of the predictions offered by members of TV’s noisiest shout-show, “The McLaughlin Group.” Those predictions turned out, in large measure, to be either untestable or, if testable, wrong.

    As for what I want… well, I’ll know it when I see it, which is another way of saying that I’m cranky about the state of news reporting, too, and have no real fix. But I ain’t seen it yet, nor do I believe it will grow out of the news media, because news reporting and analysis are just not the same things.

  12. #12 Eofhan
    February 13, 2009

    I hate to say it, but it seems to me that the porn-industry is leading the way to a solution of this problem. Free porn is available to anyone who can connect to the internet. But “the good stuff” (as I understand it, anyway) is all for-pay.

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