How Partisanship Makes Pundits Untrustworthy

Healthcare down

Ezra Klein is a relentlessly progressive Washington Post reporter. He’s obviously also a smart guy, and it is a shame that he has allowed his total immersion into pro-Democratic politics render him incapable of seeing current events in  anything but political combat terms. But that is what he has become, and as a result, his analysis of any issue must be considered pre-poisoned by the lack of any objectivity, and a rooting interest in “his side.”

Here is an instructive paragraph from his Post blog, in a post that was also re-written slightly as a column this weekend. He was nominally criticizing the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act website:

But the Obama administration did itself — and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up — a terrible disservice by building a Web site that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans. They knew that the only way to quiet the law’s critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce Web site is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other. Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law isn’t ready for primetime more ammunition for their case.

Amazing, isn’t it?

No, Ezra, the disservice wasn’t that the incompetent website didn’t quiet the law’s critics. The disservice was that the Administration wasted hours of hopeful citizens’ time when they, for some inexplicable reason, still trusted the government to be able to deliver on our President’s grandiose rhetoric, and discovered that after three years of preparation, Obamacare still wasn’t ready, and, if they are of an analytical bent rather than blind worshipers at the throne of Big Government (like you), they might also have been given good cause to wonder whether placing the government in charge of core private decisions like whether or not to have health insurance is such a good idea after all.

All Klein can see is that this is a setback for his side in the political wars, that a party that says that the government is too big and  isn’t capable of taking over one-sixth of the economy without making a mess of it wasn’t put in its place by a shining performance. That’s why he wants the website to work? How about wanting it to work because the law promised to make things better, not lead Americans to online, Soviet-style queues, excuses and frustration?

Klien’s article is pure spin, when what is needed, by the President as well as the public, is for him to join the critics, not just of the website but of the government that produced it. Rather than bemoaning the fact that his ideological foes’ criticism will be seen as having been validated, why doesn’t he concede that based on the evidence so far, they may have a point? That’s what any objective observer would do, if there is such a thing in D.C.  Ah, but a true loyalist can’t speak the truth while the team is in trouble. Here’s the non-spinning journalist take on last week’s fiasco, by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

“An embarrassment for the administration, Hopefully, they’ll get all those glitches out of the way by Monday, if possible. They’ve only had three years to get ready for this roll out.”

Not unfair, not political, just factual: an embarrassment, and there’s no excuse for it.

Klein, of course, argues that there is an excuse, and it’s a good thing, when you think about it: the website collapsed because demand was higher than the the administration anticipated. See, you stupid conservatives? People want Obamacare after all!!! That is not the takeaway from this, and no trustworthy pundit should pretend it is. The takeaway is apparent in the Saturday Night Live query: How can you claim millions of Americans don’t have  health care and be surprised that millions of Americans don’t have health care? The takeaway is that poor planning and execution of the roll-out of a massive, expensive and life-altering health care program requires care, expertise, planning and competence, and the early indications are that the government is not up to the task, as opponents of the law have been saying all along. That should be a concern to everyone, not just critics, and supporters of the law should be thinking more than “Oh, no! Now critics have ammunition!”  They should be thinking–“Oh, oh. Maybe we don’t know what we’re doing after all.”

Klein, as I said earlier, is a smart guy. His progressive orientation should inform his analysis and opinion,  not dictate it; it should give him perspective, not blindness. When analysis turns into partisan spin, it is neither journalism nor punditry, but dubious advocacy, and we get too much of that already.


Sources: Washington Post, Pat Dollard

21 thoughts on “How Partisanship Makes Pundits Untrustworthy

  1. Being critical of the ACA and a website are two different things. Websites crash all the time because of demand. As someone who works in the tech space, I can attest to that. Just because the site could not handle the initial demand does not mean that the ACA is doomed to fail because of poor planning. Similarly, a smoothly operating site with no delays does not mean that the underlying product/service is top notch. Sometimes there are bugs that just need to be ironed out.

    • Exactly, Beth—all Klein wants to do is to criticize the website in isolation, as if those responsible for the website have nothing to do with it, choosing who sets it up, exercising oversight and quality control. There are bugs, and there is “the damn thing didn’t work for days.” Three years is ample time to test volume and find bugs. How can you excuse that, or pretend it isn’t significant? If the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and didn’t go off, would your response be, “Well, these things happen—it’s not the military’s fault?” When the Challenger exploded, was that the response at NASA? The whole program was shut down for years.

      • Jack — Facebook crashes, AOL crashes, major merchant websites crash. This happens every day. And these companies live in the space. You can only do so much prep for that.

        • Sure Facebook and other websites crash—but not often. That is one reason why we complain so vociferously when they do: it is an unexpected, and therefore unpleasant, surprise. But I have seen government websites crash with some regularity. It never seems to occur to the nitwits who administer those sites that, if on a normal day they can expect 10,000 (I’m pulling figures out the air, here, so as to deal in round numbers) hits, then it might be wise to add some extra capacity to the site, because just as sure as on some days you will get significantly fewer hits, on other days you will get significantly more. But, no, they never do. Most privately run sites, in my experience, do that sort of planning routinely. But then, their customers have choices, unlike those looking for answers from their government.

      • I build websites for a living, and I spent almost ten years on healthcare enrollment systems. It’s pretty common for sites to fail under initial heavy loads, and it’s not necessarily a significant problem. Performance testing is difficult: Synthetic test loads have different characteristics than real-life loads, and performance problems can come from interactions with things outside the system. Beyond a certain point, you really just have to deploy the system to see how well it works and learn what breaks down. Then you make adjustments and add computing and network resources where you see they’re needed. With the down-time over the weekend, it sounds like they’re doing just that.

        I’m not saying there aren’t larger and more permanent problems. could be an awful mess. But scaling problems during the initial roll-out are not necessarily an indication of anything more than scaling problems during the initial roll-out. On the other hand, if it doesn’t significantly clear up in another week…

        • Well put—but it doesn’t exactly dispel the suspicions or worries of the doubters, nor should it. Everyone knew the roll-out was going to be heavily watched and a big deal…that’s what principle bothers me. Knowing this, the gang should have taken extra pains to make certain this didn’t happen—since it did, it is fair to ask 1) did they not make the effort, and 2) if they did, what does it say about them that it was so ineffective?

          The default position seems to be that the break-down is meaningless. That’s like the official reaction when the climate change models fail, as they have regularly. When Facebook’s IPO was a fiasco, there were fines and heads rolled—I don’t recall journalists accepting a “See? Look how many people wanted to buy our stock!” explanation.

          After all, Mark, it’s not just the website, is it? It’s hidden provisions, and delays of certain requirements, and waivers, and more, all of which tells me 1) you should read bills before you pass them, and 2) Jurassic Park—that is, at a certain level of complexity—2000+ pages of bills and 10 K pages of regs qualifies—failure is likely, and maybe inevitable.

          • Yes, with that much complexity, a larger systems problem seems almost inevitable. Verification and validation would have been really difficult. I’m pretty sure it will soon be discovered that some enrollments are being permitted — and others being denied — in ways that are not in compliance with the detailed ACA regulations.

            Actually, if I had to guess, I’d assume that one of the reasons the roll-out’s scaling requirements didn’t get more attention is that they were still working on functional correctness up until the last minute. They may even be counting on the scaling problems to slow things down so they can get in a few last-minute fixes before a lot of enrollments have been processed.

            By the way, almost no one does commercial roll-outs this way (unless they’re very, very experienced). If you can, you demo the system to volunteers. Or you roll the system out piecemeal to early adapters and testers, and then ramp it up to full capacity. For example, they could have stood the state sites up one at a time as the census and plan pricing data came in over the last few months. Or they could have invited people to beta test the system, or had people register to receive invitations, or picked certain small demographics to register early.

            Government programs have less flexibility than that, but it could have been done if Congress would pay more attention to the needs of software systems that they define requirements for. (They’re famous for jerking around tax software companies by changing the regulations at the last minute. Sometimes they jerk around the IRS in the process.) Of course, if Congress had been functioning for the last year or so, they could have tweaked the requirements and adjusted the schedule to make this all happen more smoothly…

  2. Jack, you may want to try applying to yourself the following quote from your posting today. “When analysis turns into partisan spin, it is neither journalism nor punditry, but dubious advocacy, and we get too much of that already.”

    • I always do. You have the burden of proof to show me what’s partisan about stating the obvious. I am not a partisan in any way, and my record is pretty public. Where is the advocacy in that post? What is it that I am advocating, other than honesty, transparency and competence?

      • Well, Jack, you aren’t falling into lockstep with leftists on this, then by leftist definitions, you’ve taken a stance that potentially besmirches the image of the messianic savior of our republic. This automatically means you are advocating for evil right wing agendas. You’re also a racist.

        • Tex has it exactly right. It’s very easy to criticize anyone on the other side, or the side not in power, as simply a partisan hack out to derail a government that’s just trying to do its job, and that criticism predates all of us here. You just happen to be criticizing the folks in power because they are the ones in charge of policy and have to take the hit for bad policy. You did not pull any punches when criticizing the last administration’s lapses.

          Further, as has been pointed out a few times, the parties have gotten further and further apart, and the trope “conservatives think liberals are stupid, liberals hink conservatives are evil,” is extremely strong now. The default position of a criticized conservative is to scoff and say anyone who criticizes him is a fool since anyone with a brain can see the liberal way is never going to work, while the default position of a criticized liberal is to scoff and say the criticizer is some brand of hater, since anyone with a moral compass can plainly see the liberal position is the right one.

          All of the above goes double and triple when pet causes are involved, and Obamacare is the highest pet cause on the left right now. It has been, in one form or another, since 1994 when Hilarycare was shot down and lost them congress. They finally got their chance, pushed it through, got it upheld by SCOTUS, now the final victory is within their grasp, so they are rolling out every argument in their arsenal to make sure it doesn’t slip away.

          In all fairness, the right was in a lot of ways just as rabid regarding the war in Iraq, attacking anyone who disagreed with it as a non-patriot or a partisan hack or whatever, even those who legitimately said the intelligence is questionable, we need a plan for occupation, what if we aren’t welcomed with open arms, etc.

          In further fairness to both sides, the use of non-official attack people in the media, in think tanks, in NGOS, etc., to go after the other side, sometimes with decidedly low tactics (James O’Keefe’s unethical “journalism,” Cindy Sheehan’s unrsearched and vitriolic speeches against everything American), has eroded trust both ways and the American people are perhaps reluctant to trust anyone to be neutral. What is more, I think the media knows the American people don’t think they are neutral, so they don’t even try to be.

          I think it’s only going to get worse from here, particularly if default is next. I cannot envision any previous Congress or President acting like this.

        • Well, Jack, you aren’t falling into lockstep with leftists on this, then by leftist definitions, you’ve taken a stance that potentially besmirches the image of the messianic savior of our republic. This automatically means you are advocating for evil right wing agendas. You’re also a racist.
          I don’t know why Jack is even pondering the website.
          You don’t even have to think a little bit about Obamacare.
          It’s a no-brainer, it’s guaranteed:
          If Obama is behind it, it will be a failure.
          A big, steaming pile of failure.
          Now I must get back to my Klan meeting.

          • I physically spat my tea out of my mouth coming to the end of the first paragraph.

            Jack Marshall is an ethics blogger…..

            • There were some really stupid typos in that post—thanks to you, I re-read the post and spit out MY coffee, though for a different reason. I apologize for the carelessness. (To my beloved typo-spotters…you skipped this one, didn’t you?)

  3. I do not think that any pundit is under any ethical obligation to avoid partisanship. Nor is any one of the media, or any one of the voices in a particular medium, of the classical “press,” academia, entertainment, business, or modern infosphere, etc. similarly obligated.

    The problem isn’t the partisanship; the problem is with how the partisan handles his partisanship. I don’t see partisanship itself as an enemy, or as a basis for holding someone untrustworthy. I do see certain persons and parties, with their particular manners of exercising their partisanship, as enemies of all, including themselves. It’s the mishandling of partisanship, not the partisanship itself, that fosters untrustworthiness.

    The blog post following this one, about confirmation bias, illustrates my point, I believe. So does the video that AblativeMeatshield links to, in his October 7, 2:26 pm comment.

    I said this to one of my kids recently:
    “History is non-partisan; its survivors are not.”

  4. The news is now coming to the conclusion that the site problems were not due to traffic, but problems with coding and flaws in the basic architecture of the system. After repairs last weekend, it reportedly still isn’t functioning properly. Plans are already being made in case the site cannot be made fully functional by November.

    This is now,obviously, more than just a case of initial traffic. I say it IS fair to criticize them. This is an area where the Obama administration should shine. With their close ties to Google, they should have the expertise to design and implement a web-enabled database and e-commerce site. Actually, if they can do ANYTHING, it should be this. They made the deadlines, they made the software, they designed the enrollment methods. Who else is there to blame if this turns into a total fiasco? If they can’t plan this, then why should the country trust them to plan everyone’s health insurance?

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