Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Media Are Failing Us - Again

A story I saw on the Today Show yesterday morning illustrates the failure of so-called “news media” to do its job. While the main TV stars were either off in Ireland or off on vacation, the second-stringers back home in New York were trying to hold down the fort.

The main story of the day was the anger bubbling up about the huge bonuses being handed out by AIG. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said the leaders of AIG should follow the Japanese model: bow deeply, apologize to the public and their shareholders, and then either resign or commit suicide.

New York’s Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, was generating a lot of attention with his vow to track down the AIG bonus-ees, find out who got how much, and get the money back.
The developing AIG story knocked the Bernie Madoff story off the A-block, and moved it down to the C-block or lower.

Quick to attempt to capitalize on the moment, some 20-something producer for the Today Show had some 20-something news writer do a quick script on the AIG story for the second-string anchor in New York, grabbed some video for it, and then set off to “balance” the story by lining up an interview with some 20-something blogger for one of the New York daily papers, whose prime claim to fame was blogging that the AIG bonuses were - well, a good thing, and that the government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to re-write contracts.

Mr. 20-something New York newspaper blogger was allowed to opine to the second-string anchorette “the vast majority of these bonuses are around a thousand dollars”.


At this point, my instinct - after having done news interviews for 30-some years - would have been to ask the 20-something blogger “Where are you getting that information?” - or at least to have challenged his assertion. That’s what news interviewers are SUPPOSED to do.

Nope. The statement of opinion stood, unchallenged. Was the second-string anchorette not listening? Did she not understand what the 20-something blogger was alleging? Did she in fact know ANYTHING about the topic of the interview she was conducting?

The 20-something blogger then spent the next half-hour bloviating on CNBC, the bastard step-child of GE-owned NBC, where his opinions no doubt carried great weight.

Later in the day, when the real news people took over, we learned the scope of the AIG bonuses. 73 people, in the very division (derivatives trading) that sunk the company, got bonuses in excess of one million dollars. 7 got more than four million. One trader got 6.4 million. Many of them took the "retention bonus" money and quit.

There’s plenty of blame to go around here….politicians who posture for the TV cameras, after they gave away the house to these failed companies with no strings attached; robber barons who plundered their own companies and got away with treasure chests brimming with loot; and “news” people who didn’t have the common sense to ask a few questions about it all.

Oh, and by the way - - - CNN first reported the AIG bonus plan on January 28th. They had the number wrong…their sources told them 450 million…but it took me about one minute to find this out using tools that are available to anyone who has a computer and an internet connection. They had a big story and apparently didn’t even know it. Everyone is failing us!


  1. Colonel,

    I haven't been following this as closely as you have, but that "instinct" you talk about as a long-time interviewer dovetails nicely with another sort of "instinct" that your garden-variety news-fan-who-knows-some-math develops over time. After reading God knows how many news stories and opinion pieces with faulty numbers, the math-aware news follower isn't going to swallow just any old number pitched out into the ether or laid down in newsprint.

    An incredibly egregious example of that came from The American Thinker a year ago in January. -- WARNING TO THE MATH-CHALLENGED: Muchos Numeros in the following articles -- I wrote about it here ( and followed up here (

    That was a case of the author of the opinion piece firing off a series of numeric calculations with checking his math, and the editor of The American Thinker being too impressed by a piece that supported his own views to check the math. Where was when they needed them?

    (By the way, the American Thinker piece was modified to correct the final paragraphs...but there are still errors in the article.)

    Anyway, my larger point is this: Math Doesn't Suck, as the very cute Danica McKellar says in her book of the same name. A working knowledge of math helps us determine the truth, especially in supposedly authoritative news stories or opinion pieces.

    That working knowledge would have led my mind to fire off a series of synapses if I had heard “the vast majority of these bonuses are around a thousand dollars”. Given the original bonus figure of $450 million, "vast majority" implies...what? 70%? That means $450 million x 0.70 = $315 million handed out in $1000 bonuses. Lets see, $315 million / $1000 = 315,000. "Do you mean to tell me, Mr. 20-something New York newspaper blogger, that 315,000 AIG workers got bonuses of 'around a thousand dollars'"?!?!

    I don't know what was the actual figure for the bonuses. But even if it were off by a factor of 10 ($45 million instead of $450 million), Mr. 20-something's assertion would still mean that around 31,000 AIG employees got bonuses of "around a thousand dollars".

    So your nose for news, Mr. Former Award-Winning Noozman, would lead you to question the guy's source while my head for figures would lead me to question they guy's math. We wind up in the same skeptical space from different directions.


    Steve Erbach
    Neenah, WI

  2. I should have said "WITHOUT checking his math". Maybe I need a syntax checker, eh?

  3. Meanwhile, as the financial pillars tumble, the idea of "retention bonuses" is giving me a lunch-retention problem.