Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Shirley Babashoff and More Luck + More Skill

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.
All of 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.

Ironically, 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 it.
What is new about Donald Trump?
For one 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.

The 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.

In 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.

1. 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 institutions.

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:
Let's 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

Some 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment