Thursday, June 28, 2012

Evolution Happens In The Unlikeliest Of Places

Caption: A rotary printing press that looks to be from the early 20th Century. It's now an exhibit in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in Paris.

Image credit: Carol Guillaume/Photopedia

Glenn Greenwald published an interesting article yesterday on an opinion piece by CNN reporter LZ Granderson. Granderson's essay extols the virtues of government secrecy, and the respect that journalists like him, apparently, have for it:

We are a nosy country.

Though to be fair, it's not entirely our fault. Between the 24/7 news cycle, social media and reality TV, we have been spoon fed other people's private business for so long we now assume it's a given to know everything. And if there are people who choose not to disclose, they must be hiding something. Being told that something's "none of your business" is slowly being characterized as rude, and if such a statement is coming from the government, it seems incriminating.

Times have changed. Yet, not everything is our business. And in the political arena, there are things that should be and need to be kept quiet.

Don't be nosy about Fast and Furious

Greenwald referred to this as a "self-mocking" column. What he meant by that isn't that Granderson is being sarcastic writing what he did. Rather, he thinks that Granderson really believes it. I've read the column in its entirety, and I have to agree that it looks like Granderson is serious. If what has actually happened here is that we've ventured into Poe territory, where it's impossible to tell the difference between an honestly expressed opinion and parody, then it probably makes little difference, because, as Greenwald points out, there are so many other journalists who clearly do believe this with all their hearts:

Recall that on the day that WikiLeaks began publishing diplomatic cables — revealing all sorts of deceit, corruption and illegality — CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was completely indifferent to the revelations themselves, but was furious that the U.S. Government allowed these disclosures to take place and thus forced him and his viewers to learn what the U.S. Government and its allies were doing in the dark. Or recall the debate I had with CNN’s Jessica Yellin and Fran Townsend in which both insisted that WikiLeaks should be criminally prosecuted for the leaks it enabled. Or just survey the bizarrely personal, unprofessional and falsehood-filled expressions of contempt for Assange that have been spewing forth from the British media class, many of whom (not coincidentally) were and are ardent, public supporters of the war policies he helped to expose and subvert and, more generally, religious believers in the inherent Goodness of the West and its governments’ conduct in the world.

CNN journalist: don’t be nosy

The sad fact is that journalists like Granderson, or at least, the LZ Granderson who wrote that column (see Afterword), are the successful products of the journalistic ecosystem in which they find themselves. They certainly are not an aberration, and given the way things work in DC and America generally, no one should be surprised.

To see why, let's sidestep for a moment into the question of what evolution really is. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that evolution was the spread of excellence. As this review of Prof. Gould's book Full House notes:

"All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning, our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence," says Gould. "This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average."

In Full House, Gould shows why a more accurate way of understanding our world (and the history of life) is to look at a given subject within its own context, to see it as a part of a spectrum of variation rather than as an isolated "thing" and then to reconceptualize trends as expansion or contraction of this "full house" of variation, and not as the progress or degeneration of an average value, or single thing. When approached in such a way, the disappearance of .400 hitting becomes a cause for celebration, signaling not a decline in greatness but instead an improvement in the overall level of play in baseball; trends become subject to suspicion, and too often, only a tool of those seeking to advance a particular agenda; and the "Age of Man" (a claim rooted in hubris, not in fact) more accurately becomes the "Age of Bacteria."

"The traditional mode of thinking has led us to draw many conclusions that don't make satisfying sense," says Gould. "It tells us that .400 hitting has disappeared because batters have gotten worse, but how can that be true when record performances have improved in almost any athletic activity?" In a personal eureka!, Gould realized that we were looking at the picture backward, and that a simple conceptual inversion would resolve a number of the paradoxes of the conventional view.

[Amazon] Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

For those who aren't sports fans, or aren't familiar with baseball, let me just try to summarize what Gould was talking about when it comes to .400 hitters. In baseball, a hitter's batting average, the number of times he's hit safely divided by the number of times he's been up to bat (See NOTE 1), is one of the primary ways a hitter's effectiveness is measured. The last person to hit above .400, which means that he hit safely in at least 40 percent of his at bats, was Ted Williams, who did it back in 1941.

For a long time, and possibly to this day, many sports writers and fans have taken this as an indication of declining quality of hitting in baseball. Yet, as Gould pointed out in Full House, it's actually the opposite. Major League Baseball today recruits from a much larger talent pool than it did in 1941, for instance. The population of the United States is three times bigger, and MLB also recruits from Latin America, Japan, Korea, and Canada, where baseball has been played professionally for decades. Training is also much better - players can play all year round if they want, and they usually spend the off season lifting weights and doing other forms of exercise designed to maintain their strength and agility. We know more about sports medicine, so ballplayers can now maintain their own health better, and recover more quickly from injuries.

The game itself has also become more specialized. Maybe the best example I can think of this specialization is from a game I saw on television last week. At one point, a first base coach was shown timing the pitcher's motion toward the plate using a stopwatch. He then passed this information on to his base runner, in an effort to make his attempt to steal a base more successful. A generation ago, this wouldn't have happened. Pitching has become far more specialized, and it is now rare for pitchers to be left to pitch an entire game (See NOTE 2). Thus, they don't get as tired, and their pitching is more effective.

All of that is to say that, in just about any way you can think of, baseball and baseball players are better at the game than they were in 1941. Yet there are no .400 hitters. Gould explained that this is because .400 hitters were an extreme - an outlier if you will. There are also far fewer career sub-.200 hitters (hitting safely 20 percent of the time or less) today than there were in 1941. Statistically, all baseball hitters have bunched up toward the mean. Players have become better at playing the game, in all its aspects. They are stronger, better cared for, and selected from a much larger talent pool.

So, the result is that there are fewer who excel at baseball, relative to the population. But they are better at playing the game than they once were. Whether that's as entertaining to the fans is another question, but on the basic question of being able to survive in the ecosystem they find themselves, individual baseball players are much better equipped to survive there. The weak and the myopic have been weeded out, leaving those who are best able to perform their function.

What Gould meant when he wrote about the "spread of excellence" wasn't excellence in some abstract or moral sense. He meant that the organisms that survive are better at surviving in the ecosystems where they find themselves. So it is with baseball players, and with professional sports generally, at least in America. But there are also fewer standout performers like Williams, Babe Ruth, or Grover Alexander.

Which gets us back to journalism as it's practiced in America.

Journalism in America also has rules, but in contrast to baseball, they have changed a lot in recent years. It used to be that journalism was done by many organizations that didn't have a profit motive. Of course, not all of them were unconcerned with profit, but there were enough that those organizations that needed profits, newspapers and other "dead tree" publications mostly, had to compete with them in quality. Over the years, those organizations have largely been replaced by for-profit corporations. What's more, the expectation now is that those for-profit organizations will show a better return on investment (ROI) than a competent company in an established market is likely to see. This has caused more than a little emphasis in those news organizations on fact-free opinion and entertainment in place of real journalism.

When profit and ROI are expected, and expected at levels beyond what is reasonable for a competent organization in its market, then something has to give. What has given over the years is quality, independent journalism. Not only do news organizations feel less inclined to pay reporters and other professional staff to take time investigating stories before they write about them, but they are also less likely to want to cross the government representatives who can make their companies less profitable. They also will be even less interested in honking off their paid advertisers, who in these days of runaway financial sectors includes some of the most egregious corporate entities in the country.

That journalistic ecosystem has changed from a place where Edward R. Murrow could take on government figures like Senator McCarthy with at least reluctant backing of his bosses at CBS, to a place where Dan Rather was fired largely because CBS News didn't want the hassle and potential lost business. CNN used to be a network where one could reliably catch up on the news. It was once a place for serious journalists like Christiane Amanpour, who covered war after war with integrity and courage. It's now a clown show for the likes of Wolf Blitzer, who wouldn't dream of missing the White House Correspondents' dinner, or other chances to be chummy with the folks who run things in DC.

If this column is any indication, LZ Granderson will fit right into the the new CNN. His excellence is in his ability to thrive in an environment that is about profit and entertainment, not journalism. He'll be a star someday, I'm sure. After all, the kid's got all the tools. He can write complete paragraphs, looks good on the tube, and as this column shows, he's not afraid to drive to the lunch bucket. The guy's got the motivation to succeed.

Trouble is, success has nothing to do with keeping you and me informed about the things the government doesn't want us to know.

It's sad that evolution isn't taught in public schools. At least, it's not taught like this, and I don't think it ever has been. I've discussed before how politics runs by its own rules of natural selection. So does journalism, and once you understand the ecosystem, it's pretty obvious what the likely outcomes will be.

If you want to change the people in a profession, you need to alter the system that shapes them. In the case of politics and journalism, that starts with their markets, which means us.

Afterword: The reason I have lingering doubts about whether Granderson was kidding is this paragraph from that column:

And maybe it’s better for us not to be so nosy, not to know everything because, to paraphrase the famous line from the movie “A Few Good Men,” many of us won’t be able to handle the truth.

Don't be nosy about Fast and Furious

Reading this paragraph, I can only wonder at how anyone could write such a thing without being sarcastic. Colonel Jessup was not in any way, shape, or form an example to look up to for someone who thinks of himself as a rational human being. Jessup was an autocratic fool who had given up trying to get in touch with either his own heart or his ability to reason a long time ago. As one of the characters in the movie put it, he had a young marine beaten up because the young man couldn't run fast enough. He did that despite the fact that there was plenty of evidence that the marine simply was not physically able to do what was demanded of him.

When Jessup delivers this line, it's pretty clear that while Jessup believes it, he believes it as much because it's convenient for his own sense of self as it is for explaining his opinions of his critics.

This is why I feel like I'm in Poe territory here. This is so crazy it's hard to believe that anyone could seriously think this is a good point.

NOTE 1: Some plate appearances are not counted as "at bats", which is the actual number in the denominator of a baseball average. If a player draws a walk (meaning four "balls", or pitches that he could not reasonably be expected to hit), or is hit by a pitch, the appearance is not counted as an at bat.

NOTE 2: In fact, it's also rare nowadays for a starting pitcher to pitch more than 300 innings in a season. That used to be fairly common, at least among the top pitchers in each league. The result is generally less wear and tear on pitchers' bodies over the course of a season, and they don't get as tired during the games they pitch, resulting in their pitches being more effective.


Bustednuckles said...

How you managed to not include the perfect example of which you write, David Fucking Brooks, must have been an intentional oversight.

Cujo359 said...

He was in at least one of the links, Bustednuckles. Try "in place of". That link discussed the nearly simultaneous announcements of a big new contract for Bobo, and the layoff of some support staff at the NYT.