Ron Fournier, computational linguist

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I think it's turning into a trend — journalists are becoming linguists. Really bad linguists, but any sort of interest in the analysis of language and communication ought to be a good thing for the field, right? Unfortunately, in this case, it's a bad thing for the nation.

A couple of days ago ("Does CBS News mean it?", 8/27/2008), the CBS News Morning Show enlisted an ex-FBI gesture analyst to support the now-standard narrative about Clinton ego and Democratic disunity. There was one small problem: his analysis was based on vague but checkable assertions, which 20 minutes of investigation sufficed to call into question.

This morning, I'll subject another journo-linguistic analysis — of the same speech by Hillary Clinton — to a few minutes of empirical and logical scrutiny.

According to Ron Fournier, "A perfect night for Clinton, Obama?", Associated Press, 8/27/2008:

Standing before thousands of delegates, almost half of them her backers, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared it time "to unite as a single party with a single purpose" and urged her followers to help elect once-bitter rival Barack Obama. [...]

Barack Obama is my candidate," she said. "And he must be our president."

But did she mean it?

Well, Mr. Fournier explains to us, not really. Part of his evidence — and the only piece of evidence that is a matter of concrete, like, fact — is a bit of lexical statistics:

Behind the scenes Tuesday, the Obama and Clinton camps struck a tentative deal [...]

But she did extract her price.

The bill came due Tuesday. The crowd. The applause. The promise of a vote Wednesday, and a speech laced 17 times by some variation of the pronoun "I."

As Media Matters pointed out, Mr. Fournier counted wrong: there were actually 21 instances of "I", not 17. (And neither Fournier nor Media Matters seems to have counted "me", "my", "mine" — but never mind). Media Matters argues that "contrary to Fournier's suggestion, Clinton's focus in most of those instances was not on herself, but on Obama and the election".

I only have a few minutes for blogging this morning, which is not enough time to evaluate their arguments. Instead, I'll offer the simplest Breakfast Experiment™ ever.

Hillary Clinton's DNC speech used "I" 21 times in 2269 words, for a rate of 9.26 nominative ego-references per thousand words.

Joe Biden's DNC speech used "I" 42 times in 2404 words, for a rate of 17.5 nominative ego-references per thousand words.

And Mr. Fournier's point was … Sorry, I forget. Was it something about how delivering a speech with an unusually large number of self-references was Senator Clinton's "price" for endorsing Senator Obama?

Whatever Fournier's point, I believe that we can confidently conclude that the logical relationship between his evidence and his conclusions belongs, like so much current journalistic commentary, to the category for which the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has proposed the technical term bullshit.

[Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been arguing for some time that Ron Fournier, who is the AP's Washington bureau chief, has poorly-hidden political motivations. Marshall's take on this particular article:"In CIA-speak, they'd call him a NOC". I wasn't familiar with this acronym, but a bit of web search reveals that it stands for "non-official cover", the idea being that Fournier is a covert operative for the McCain campaign. That's supposed to be a joke, I think, rather than an accusation; but on the evidence of the story that's the subject of this post, it would be hard to tell the difference. ]

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10 Comments »

  1. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    As long as I can remember, the national conventions, like other major political events, were surrounded by bullshit. Whatever happened, the two sides would have their people poised to buttonhole reporters to provide their side's spin. The key to this has always been that "whatever happens". The spin is independant of actual events, and therefore bullshit.

    Back in the day, the fact of the spinning was itself reported. The press had enough detatchment to stand outside the spin cycle and observe it. The difference today is that major media outlets have largely abandoned the ideal of objective reporting, and cable news in particular has hours of air time to fill, regardless of whether or not they have anything to say. The result is grim.

  2. Bruno said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    Are people still wondering why we need to teach more about epistemology and the scientific method in schools… I know, I know, preaching to the choir…

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 11:50 am

    Bruno: Are people still wondering why we need to teach more about epistemology and the scientific method in schools…

    I suspect that the problem in this case is not Mr. Fournier's education, but his motivation and perhaps his ethics. But maybe you were talking about his readers. Anyhow, better education is surely a Good Thing, whether or not it would lead to a better press corps.

  4. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    I am very sympathetic with Mark's critique. However, let me suggest a more charitable interpretation. Perhaps an otherwise defensible, at least in part, interpretation of Clinton's speech is misattributted to her use of the first person pronoun. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Clinton foregrounded herself in the speech inappropriately. (I do not claim that this is so.) That might explain the misimpression that Clinton explicitly referred to herself inordinately.

  5. felix culpa said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    In fact I think her use of the personal pronoun was in fact a way of driving home to her more notoriously pugnacious supporters that she could stand tall and proud, and had not taken her defeat as humiliation, and fervently counseled them to support the candidate. I’ve heard enough self-serving speaking in my longer-than-yours life (mostly aging famous preachers) to know and be appalled by it, and she was not indulging any such imagining.

    Mr. Fournier, on the other hand, is so transparently practicing advocacy journalism, that he is building an impressive archive of thumbs-down pieces on Democrats and thumbs-up pieces on McCain and his team. Under his leadership the AP has become the private wing of the Republican publicity machine.

  6. JJM said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 8:03 am

    "Mr. Fournier, on the other hand, is so transparently practicing advocacy journalism"

    "felix culpa":

    The tone and content of your last item there would seem to suggest you're engaging in much the same thing.

    Takes one to know one, I guess.

  7. Rick B said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    Someone needs to check out Ron fournier's religious practices. Is he a servant of the Council for National Policy?

    See Max Blumentahal's explanation for why Sarah Palin was chosen as Veep nominee by McCain. This is also what John Kerry was talking about on Stephanapoulos's show Sunday morning when he characterized the Palin pick as showing that "What John McCain has proven with this choice is that John McCain is the prisoner of the right wing, not a maverick."

  8. The New AP - Publishing 2.0 said,

    October 8, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    [...] of what, in my work as a wire editor, I came to think of as AP's house style: voiceless (the Ron Fournier Effect notwithstanding), incrementally updated, process-oriented, one sentence of [...]

  9. The New AP | Global News Tonight said,

    May 23, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    [...] of what, in my work as a wire editor, I came to think of as AP's house style: voiceless (the Ron Fournier Effect notwithstanding), incrementally updated, process-oriented, one sentence of [...]

  10. The New AP « Matic said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    [...] of what, in my work as a wire editor, I came to think of as AP's house style: voiceless (the Ron Fournier Effect notwithstanding), incrementally updated, process-oriented, one sentence of [...]

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