How Many New York Times Experts Does It Take to Multiply 2 Numbers Together?

My question is:  How many New York Times experts does it take to multiply 2 numbers together?  I wondered this after a recent foreign press briefing.

Our State Department has 2 Foreign Press Centers, one in Washington, DC and one in New York City.  As they state on their website, “We provide foreign-based journalists with a variety of services to help them report on American society, politics and culture.” and “Our Goal is to promote the depth, accuracy, and balance of foreign reporting from the U.S.

One of the services is briefings by “experts,” attended in person and by satellite connection from overseas by foreign reporters.  On October 22, the topic was The Tea Party.  To further the goal of “depth, accuracy, and balance,” the speaker was Kate Zernike of the New York Times.

Ms. Zernike is a long-standing and outspoken critic of the Tea Party, tying it to racism, calling members hypocrites, and portraying them in general as extremists, slow-witted, and you name it.  She wrote a book entitled Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. That’s what makes her the “expert.”  I’m not sure what qualified her to speak with “accuracy and balance.”  The same “depth, accuracy, and balance” could be achieved if the topic were Climategate and the expert were Al Gore, or if the topic were why many Americans oppose the Ground Zero Mosque and the expert were Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.  (Oh, yeah, that was the State Department, too.)

When the choice of speaker was announced, the State Department was questioned by as to why they would choose a critic of the Tea Party to brief foreign reporters on the movement.  Nicole Thompson, a spokeswoman for the State Department, responded in writing with a whole bunch of gobbledygook about the Foreign Press Centers’ noble goals and aims, such as the fact that they want to “deepen foreign journalists’ understanding and comprehension of the complex political, economic, and social contexts which make up American society today.”  She stated with respect to the choice of Ms. Zernike, “I don’t think she’s there to push a certain [agenda] -– I’m sure she isn’t.  We would have never chosen a journalist to push a particular political agenda or perspective to the group.”

I read the transcript of the briefing.  I was surprised.  I actually thought that perhaps up to 10% of the time, Ms. Zernike had a grasp on reality.  For a New York Times reporter, that is amazingly high.  She accurately represents the Tea Party as a movement rather than a political party, and represents it as having its roots in “economic and fiscal conservatism.”  The other 90% of her shared “knowledge” was pretty much opinion.  She is entitled to her opinion, although I don’t think that our government should entitle her to share it as official “knowledge” approved by the US Department of State.

I also think that it would have been nice for her to substitute a multiplication of two statistically valid numbers for her “opinion” of the number of Tea Partiers.  In her upfront speech, she states, “The New York Times did a poll in April of tea party supporters.  These results have been backed up.  We found that 18 percent of Americans describe themselves as Tea Party supporters.  A more recent survey of the Times found it at 19 percent.  But it’s held fairly steady.  I think Gallup has found it at 30 percent, but again, it’s somewhere in that range.  Those are people who say they’re Tea Party supporters. They’re not necessarily people who have gone to a rally or have given money to the movement or to any of these groups.  People who had gone to a rally or given money to a Tea Party group was a much smaller percentage, it was four percent of Americans. ”

Later on, in the question and answer portion, the following interchange occurred:

“My name is Toru Takei of Kyodo News.  A Japanese wire service.  A quick question, would it be possible to say how many Tea Party members are out there?  Can you give us a number?”

Ms. Zernike replied, “That is a good and difficult question.  Tea Party Patriots claim, I think I saw somewhere they claim 15 million members.  That would be hundreds of groups in each state with 2000 members each, and that’s just not possible.  Not that it’s not possible, it’s unlikely.  I don’t know.  Again, I guess I would encourage you to do the math.  Eighteen percent of Americans call themselves tea party supporters, four percent say that they have been to a meeting or a rally or have given money.  So it is a fairly small percentage.  I think it’s probably maybe millions, but certainly not 15 million.”

With all due respect, any “expert” who had written an entire book on the topic of Tea Parties and was worth her salt would have already done the math.  She has had one of the numbers needed from a poll done by her newspaper for six months, and access to a computer to look up the other.

The New York Times had a poll number of 18% in April and 19% from a later poll.  She says that a Gallup poll puts the figure at 30%.  Gallup’s business is polling; if they don’t do well, they go out of business.  Therefore, I would trust the Gallup’s figure more.  However, it would devastate me to be accused of discrimination against the New York Times, so I will use their poll number of 19%.

The other number needed for the calculation is the number of “Americans,” which can be found at the US Census website.  They estimate that there are 310,233,000 (about 310.2 million) Americans now, of which 235,016,000 (about 235.0 million) are adults.

I don’t know if the 19% New York Times figure is based on all Americans or just the adults, since infants are obviously not Tea Party members.  It is common sense to use only adults to do the calculation, and I will give them credit for that much sense.  Also, this is the more favorable number to use to attempt to make Ms. Zernike correct in her guess.

So, Ms. Zernike, 19% of 234,016,000 is 44,463,040, or about 44.5 million people.  That is the number you should have given the Japanese journalist.  (If you had been broadminded and used the Gallup figure of 30%, it would have been 70.2 million.)  So, you can see that 44.5 million Tea Partiers is obtained by using the most conservative values in your favor (so as not to offend your liberal sensibilities).  You questioned a figure of 15 million Tea Party members as being too high with, “. . . and that’s just not possible.  Not that it’s not possible, it’s unlikely.”  Guess again.

There is a chance that this mathematically challenged expert will claim that she was thinking of counting only the 4% that had “gone to a rally or donated money.” That would mean that there are 9.4 million Tea Party members, which is more in line with her guess of “maybe millions, but certainly not 15 million.”  However, the number of democrats (small d) or republicans (small r) or independents or conservatives or liberals is not limited to only those who have “gone to a rally or donated money,” so there would be a consistency problem to explain.

So, how many New York Times experts does it take to multiply 2 numbers together?  I still don’t know.   At this point, all I can say is more than one.

The next Foreign Press Center will include the topic:  Pork, Its Importance in the American Political System.  The speaker will be Miss Piggy.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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