The current news of the Russian doping scandal at the Sochi Winter Olympics made me think back to Shirley Babashoff at the 1976 Olympics. Young Shirley had been swimming up a storm in pre-Olympic events breaking world records and generally exuding a youthful exuberance and spontaneity. She was a great catch for reporters looking for quotes. The East German swimmers excelled in the pre-Olympic events as well, setting up a showdown at the Olympics.
Shirley did not win any
individual gold medals, winning just the one gold medal in the relay.
She only lost to East Germans who set world records.
Only years later was the massive use of hormones steroids by the East German team confirmed.
All of the reasons for suspicion were there.
The East Germans had improved dramatically from 1972 to 1976, actually from 1972 to 1973.
-East Germany, with a much smaller population than West Germany, won every swimming gold medal, but for the one relay
-Teenage girls with deep voices who looked more like men
-Races were being won by large margins
-Marked improvement since the prior Olympics
-Nearly uniform body types, unlike the variety on other teams
Yet when Shirley complained about overhearing voices in the locker room
that sounded like men, looking up, and realizing these were the East
German women, she was branded a poor sport in the press.
the ingredients for a dramatic pro-American story based on the truth
were there, yet the press mostly got it wrong. We have all heard of the
"big lie", that is, a lie that is so outrageous that belief is prompted
by the presumed improbability of anyone telling such a big lie and
expecting to get away with it. Here we had the " big truth", that is, a
fact that is so outrageous that special caution is considered necessary
before granting it credibility. Even that summer, some news articles
presented an evenhanded treatment, quoting the likes of Willye White who
weight trained for five years straight and stated flatly that women
never look like the East Germans unless they are using chemicals. Rod
Strachan, the swimmer, was blunt, saying "If you look at the East
Germans, they don't look exactly like girls. They're quite a bit bigger
than most of the men on the American team. They could go out for
football at U.S.C."
The press was not prepared for the
newness of the story of widespread use of performance enhancing
substances in 1976. It did not fit their existing model for the
Olympics. Any challenge to the model needed to be proved beyond a
reasonable doubt to be believed.
Many in the press
failed again in 1998 at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Throughout the summer, there were many Presidential approval polls that
fluctuated slightly. The fluctuations may have been random noise, but
the more Kenneth Starr appeared to be persecuting President Clinton the
higher his approval rating rose toward 70% approval. Yet many in the
press (Cokie Roberts, for one) viewed a precipitous drop in the approval
ratings as only a matter of time. Like Nixon, a president can only
withstand so much scandal before he needs to resign for the good of the
country and public approval will drop in lockstep.
the history of the Trump approval ratings throughout 2015 and into 2016
with a press in denial are the mirror image of the Clinton approval
ratings experience in 1998. For Nate Silver, the working model for Trump
was that this was just like Giuliani or Gingrich in 20xx with high
approval ratings prior to actual primary voting. Anything can happen
before the primaries, so ignore all of those polls. The press went along
with this because just like the 1976 Olympics or the 1998 Monica
Lewinsky scandal, if something new is happening the press can not see
What is new about Donald Trump?
thing, some of Trump's supposed missteps, comments that were supposed to
get him into big trouble with the Republican primary voters, were
flatly true statements. As Jeb Bush repeatedly said that his brother
"kept us safe", Trump said no he did not, which was a plain fact. Sure
he could make excuses and say why he could not keep us safe and prevent
the 9/11 attacks, but in political terms, it works better if you preempt
all of that defensive discussion and just claim "he kept us safe".
Trump's challenge to that becomes refreshing. Then there was the
statement about McCain and prefering people who do not get shot down.
Sure that is deeply offensive, but in a roundabout way, that is a
challenge to the "our heroes/your traitors" mentality of the Republican
campaign tactics where John Kerry could be portrayed as a liar about his
heroic service in Vietnam while George Bush got a free pass for all his
free passes home while in the National Guard.
problem is a press that plays a role reporting the facts, the who, what,
when, where, and why with limited ability to interpret new phenomena.
Interpretation is left to opinion writers whose expertise is taking
facts and forcing them through their worldview. Those opinions are
thrashed about by commenters and other opinion writers, then it is on to
the next story. New patterns in the data, changes in existing models
used to explain political and social phenomena, can be easily missed.
the case of Donald Trump, reporters who do not correctly interpret and
understand his appeal to voters will be scratching their heads in
November if he wins. Ironically, those same pundits who misunderstood
his appeal from the beginning will likely look back and come up with the
wrong explanations for his victory.
Trump may lose if
the Clinton campaign figures out why he has been successful, how to
beat him at this game, and executes on an effective strategy unlike any
seen from Democrats in presidential politics. Scott Adams, of Dilbert
fame, blogs about Trump's success and the reasons for it, including his
persuasive skills and appeals to the irrational in voters. While his
arguments are well outside the mainstream, it is refreshing to hear
other than the usual arguments being considered.
So here we are.
Shirley Babashoff was cheated out of four gold medals in 1976,
receiving the silver. Then she was cheated again when portrayed as a
spoilsport in the press. Her book Making Waves: My Journey to Winning
Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program will be
released July. Those East Germans still have those gold medals. Last I
checked, she had never heard back from those reporters who got the story
wrong - maybe because they could not bear that while she was doing her
job so well she was also doing their job better than they were. Of
course, it wasn't only Shirley Babashoff, but all of the other swimmers
who were cheated.
2. The Clinton approval ratings
sustained at such high levels in 1998 were explained by pundits as the
American people being so happy about the economy. It couldn't be that a
large majority thought that impeaching the president in these
circumstances was unfair and maybe even damaging to democratic
3. Donald Trump's success and what does it mean for November?
It's (a) the process and (b) the man.
(a) Process: The increasingly substance-free primary process on the Republican side cleared the path for Mr. Trump.
(b) the man:
start with George Lakoff and add only a sprinkle of Scott Adams. From
Scott Adams we accept that people can be irrational in many ways and
yes, Trump has skills at persuasion associated with his blanket
statements, voice and demeanor.
From George Lakoff:
March 16, 2016 post
of Lakoff's observations have been out there in the press, but not
always systematically as a cohesive model. Lakoff's model is basic, but
there is more to the story which next week's post will explore.