Can Someone Please Introduce Clive Thompson To Frank Bruni?

carneyClive Thompson makes a rather strange critique of the idea of “social contagion” in a long article published in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday.  Is Happiness Catching?” is a look at the the work of Nicholas Christaki and James Fowler on social networks within the venerable Framingham Heart Study that has been running since 1948. They find (as Steve Sailer aptly sums up) that “happy people tend to have a lot of happy friends, unhappy people tend to have few and not very happy friends, fat people tend to have fat friends and get fat together at about the same time, smokers tend to hang out with other smokers, and so forth.”

Thompson is perplexed by the mechanism for social contagion. But the root of his perplexity seems to be an ignorance of the way people live.

Here’s the crux of his challenge:

“But how, exactly, could obesity or happiness spread through so many links? Between one immediate peer and another, some contagious behaviors — like smoking — seem pretty commonsensical. If lots of people around you are smoking, there’s going to be peer pressure for you to start, whereas if nobody’s smoking, you’ll be more likely to stop. But the simple peer-pressure explanation doesn’t work as well with happiness or obesity: we don’t often urge people around us to eat more or implore them to be happier.”

If Thompson really believes we don’t urge others to eat, he should go down the hall and chat with Frank Bruni, who has just written Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater,  that is partly about the social contagion of eating. Or, I guess, Thompson could just pick up the New York Times Book Review to get the quick version:

Bruni’s self-consciousness about his weight — and his fixation on food — began early, during a childhood in New York’s Westchester County. “I was a baby bulimic.” His mother’s WASP reserve crumbled “in the face of Grandma Bruni’s spicy, fatty, Italian sausages.” Cooking became the center of his mother’s life; “she cooked with a ferocity.” Bruni describes himself as a lazy boy who loved to read and avoided physical activity. His mother worried about his weight, but any diet she imposed was stymied not only by her need to feed everyone, but by Grandma.

The problem was simple: food was love. “You love Grandma’s frits? … Then you love your Grandma!” The chapter about Adelina Bruni, who came to New York as a 17-year-old in 1929, is pitch perfect; he captures the ethos expressed around countless dinner tables of a generation of Italian-American immigrants before World War II. Grandma Bruni is a force of nature, and you can’t help falling under her spell. She provides the title for the book with her favorite maxim: Born round, you don’t die square.

Part of the problem is that Thompson seems to expect social contagion to work along the lines of rational argument, as if we’d be persuaded to eat or be happy. But that’s the kind of theory of human behavior held by hermits and mad men. In reality, we tend to mimic peers and parents, pick up their signals, learn from them without explicit instruction.

If all this is foreign to you, you might want to reconsider whether you are the best person to judge sociological theories.

John Carney is Managing Editor of Clusterstock. This piece was originally published at Rise If You Must, his personal website.

Everything I Know About Journalism I Learned from a Summer of Cable News

newsimageFall term is in full swing and J-students are tweeting toward degrees.. But in the golden age of ratings-wars and infotainment, who needs J-school to learn journalism? A summer of cable coverage taught us all we need to know:
1. Reporting 101: The Art of the Obituary
Profiling the deceased is a standard j-school exercise and a tedious task typically assigned to bottom-rung reporters – But as we learned this summer, when the departed is famous, the obit is only the onset to the endless story possibilities! You can breathe new life into any death-story for days, even months on-end, by following the MSM’s Michael Jackson death-coverage model: report until there’s nothing left to report…and then continue reporting. The King of Pop was dead seventy looooong newsdays before his burial last week. And in those seventy days we learned that even after burning through all of the tabloid fodder, there is always memorial traffic to survey and unpurchased property to tour and creepy conincidences to uncover – anything to advance the story! And when that gets old? Time to go meta and cover the criticism of the coverage. And when all else fails, you can always slap on a “BREAKING NEWS” alert-banner to remind viewers that while the dead is still dead, news of the dead is very much alive…and breaking. A lesson in comprehensive coverage indeed. 

2. Foundations in Journalism Ethics
Each semester universities pay notable media-types big bucks to speak to students about journalistic integrity. But even non-j-schoolers lucked out this summer, because ethics-expert Sarah Palin graciously guest-lectured us all for free! Herself a journalism B.S.-recipient (and certifiable B.S.-artist), Palin used her farewell address to provide the press a parting lesson in principled coverage, issuing her final executive order: “Quit making things up!”…And there you have it, the first rule of reporting- don’t make things up…Because making things up is unethical…and unwise…And as we learned from this summer’s coverage/ogling of the Sarah Palin, making things up is also unnecessary.  After all, even when the facts are foggy there are credible experts to provide analysis. Sure, the 19-year-old-drop-out/ex-future-son-in-law might have more ulterior motive than political prowess, but he’s got the scoop and he’s speaking out—key credentials of a cable news expert.

3. Advanced Technique: Finding the Angle
From time to time every journalist gets stuck covering a seemingly mundane event. But when you’re dealt an assignment with no obvious narrative, it’s important to remember that there are no uninteresting stories, only uninteresting write-ups– the trick is to find the right hook. This summer, for instance, we learned that one soundbite can transform a boring wonkish policy presser about the economics of “red pills” and “blue pills” into a racial controversy and a subsequent beer summit!
Another prime example of creative coverage was of Secretary Clinton’s 11-day, 7-nation visit to Africa…you know, her longest foreign trip as SoS to date and the earliest of any administration…the one where she pledged aid to victims of wartime rape, threatened sanctions on terrorist-harboring governments and addressed issues from economic vitality to free elections. Seems like a non-story, right? Of course. BUT clever producers successfully cut through the dregs of historic significance and bypassed the distracting diplomatic overtures to uncover the crux of the story: Hillary is a snippy biatch! The takeaway: leave the cameras rolling and you’re sure to find a controversial snippet to eclipse the otherwise insignificant bore-tour.

Having it Both Ways: O’Reilly Backs Public Option While Declaring it Dead

fnc-20090817-oreillysocWhen I saw this item at HuffPo, declaring that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly backs the public health insurance option, I immediately thought “There has to be a catch.”

The clip at HuffPo was only about a minute long, so I figured there must have been a walkback later in the interview. I found the full interview at the Heritage Foundation’s website. There’s no walkback, but the clip has some great moments. Not only does O’Reilly nail why the public option is necessary, he also makes several comically half-assed stabs at pronouncing long lost Janeane Garofalo twin Nina Owcharenko’s name:

While O’Reilly doesn’t back off from his support for the public option, he does preface his remark by saying it’s not going to happen. Aside from my own reporting to the contrary, O’Reilly might take heart from this widely-circulating clip from yesterday:

While media accounts of the death of the public option may have created the impression that public support for it may have waned, perhaps repetitions of this scene, along with some actual facts, will help to turn that tide in favor of O’Reilly and “the folks.”

Social Media & Religion: Even The Pope’s Online!

october 2007 012A rabbi, a priest and God walk into a chat room…sounds like the setup to a joke 2.0-style, but in fact, there is a growing and natural movement for religious officials to become involved in social media. Wait – natural?

Actually, yes. Religion has always been one of the places (besides the local inn/pub) where people are inherently social. The rites and rituals at a religious function are, for the most part, community-driven and the church or shul or mosque serve as the meeting house where people brag about their kids, lean on each other during tough times and of course, pray. In other words, this is where we interact.

Also, religion has always been at the forefront of new communication technologies; think Martin Luther and his 95 Theses that were printed with the newfangled printing press; think Jerry Falwell and his use of the newly-launched cable satellite system.

“It’s a way of being involved in people’s lives and meeting them where they already are.”

As many of the clergy I spoke with noted, social media has become the new public square. Over the course of millennia, religious officials would have informal conversations with congregants at the ‘Five and Dime’ or the soda counter — now much of this is happening online. As Rev. Timothy Schenck, an Episcopal Priest who is the Rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York, described it: “It’s a way of being involved in people’s lives and meeting them where they already are.” So it would make sense for the ultimate social network – religion – to be a part of the digital social network.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI decided to officially get the party started: The Vatican launched, which will be linked to Facebook and an iPhone App, in the hopes that users can spread the word of God to their friends. We’ll call this Ministry2.0.

But the pope is only the most recent religious entrant into the vast world of the social web. Synagogues and churches all across the U.S have been using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to spread the Holy word.

Rabbi Irwin Kula is the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and uses tools like Twitter “to offer quick accessible nuggets of Jewish wisdom”, Facebook “to connect community members, find past members, help people find resources for life passages, create affinity groups, inform people about interesting events and connect people who can help each other through life,” and YouTube, StumbleUpon and “to offer teachings and to share favorite clips.”

He says that the core purpose of every religious and spiritual tradition is to help people understand life by being more truthful, more compassionate, and more loving.

Kula notes, “To do this effectively we – religious and spiritual leaders – need to communicate and connect using whatever is the contemporary media architecture and technology of the day. In one era that may be offering sacrifices at a Temple, in another orating on a soapbox in the town square, at the city gates or on an altar or pulpit in a grand cathedral, in another writing articles and books, in another using radio, television or film. Today it is social media.”

>>>Next: What Would Jesus Tweet?

Roger Ailes Is The Most Powerful Political Figure In America

ailes Earlier this week BusinessWeek reported that Roger Ailes earned almost $24 million last year in total compensation. The reason? Fox News’ complete and total dominance in the ratings (a story we’ve covered extensively). But while that’s certainly an impressive figure, it takes focus from the much larger and underreported story:

Roger Ailes is the most powerful political figure in America today.

In discussing the power and influence of Ailes, one has to start with the ratings – as we reported this Monday, FNC is consistently beating all other networks combined. Prime time has long been the province of Fox’s dominance, but now that Glenn Beck is getting O’Reilly like numbers at 5pm, it’s safe to say that they are just getting started.

But the power of Fox News goes beyond total eyeballs — their influence is actually shaping policy and taking down federal officials in an unprecedented manner. First, there is the Health Care debate – no outlet has had more influence than Fox, who went so far as to claim that the Obama Administration was attacking FNC.

Then there’s the resignation of Van Jones as “Special Advisor for Green Jobs at the Council on Environmental Quality,” almost entirely as a response to the investigations and allegations of Glenn Beck, who also lead thehe “9/12 Project.” This not only made a lot of news (which lead to a weekend ratings win), but it forced its competitors to cover the event in a way that didn’t also mention Fox News or the event planner Glenn Beck.

Most recently, of course, there is hidden camera video capturing ACORN employees behaving in ways that are not befitting of any organization – particularly one that receives so much federal funding. Nonetheless, the continued (some might say relentless) airing of that video tape effectively convinced the US Senate to vote overwhelmingly to discontinue millions of dollars of funding to ACORN, just within a week based of that hyped-up video.

Perhaps the best example of the influence of Fox News is this: on the day after Obama’s Health Care speech, all other networks and news outlets were talking about Joe Wilson’s outbursts. Fox News, however, was introducing the ACORN video. Which issue is a bigger story today and actually lead to legislation?

In a profile that appeared in New York Magazine in 1997, Ailes was described as “a newsman with a pronounced disdain for newsmen, and Fox News is being promoted as an anti-network, a news channel designed to appeal to people–from disaffected Gen-Xers to Limbaugh’s dittoheads–who don’t trust the Big Three news divisions.” This was written right about the time that he was launching the Fox News Channel, and this mission has proven to be far more successful than any Manhattan sophisticate would have predicted.

In some circles its commonplace to dismiss Fox News because of their perceived poltical bent. But to pigeonhole the FNC viewership as only comprised of “right-wing nutjobs” is wrong, as so many self-defined “tolerant” media consumers often do. The sheer ratings dominance of Fox strongly suggests that the breadth of their audience crosses over the aisle to both moderates and liberals alike. Why? Precisely because of their incredible influence on the debate, and frankly, the programs on FNC are very well produced and entertaining, regardless of where you stand on the issues.

President Obama has long spoken about  renewing sense of civility in the policy debate and developing a bi-partisanship approach as goals for his administration. Yet, his administration made the odd decision to not include Fox News in an effort to drum up support for his Health Care agenda. Perhaps the smartest thing he can do is engage with FNC, since they seem to have all the power right now. Thanks to Roger Ailes.

Panel Nerds: Tom Daschle Introduces Civility to the Health Care Debate

panelnerds-i-disagree-sir1Who: Tom Daschle in conversation with Bob Kerrey

What: The New School’s President’s Forum: An Evening with Senator Tom Daschle

Where: The New School

When: September 16, 2009

Thumbs: Up

If you talk for any period of time with a politician, they say you’ll walk away thinking he or she shared a lot only to find, in hindsight, that you don’t recall him or her saying much at all. That’s twice as true when you listen for 90 minutes to a politician explaining, analyzing and speculating about the complicated subject of health care.

Through writing about health care and speaking about it at town halls this summer, Daschle reached the conclusion that the public option, in some form, is inevitable. His argument hinges on the failures and pitfalls incremental health care reform has produced over the past decade. A sweeping, comprehensive change, Daschle argued, is the only way left to go.

To make his points stronger, Daschle fervently cited statistics to back up his beliefs and claims. These statistics sounded impressive and convincing. In response to Daschle’s umpteenth statistical example, though, Kerrey quoted Larry the Cable Guy (of all people) that 71.2 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.

Daschle was not only vocal about health care itself, he focused also on health care coverage. Daschle said that media irresponsibility turns up during controversial eras. It turned up at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam era, and during the war in Iraq. Public policy debates breed misinformation and hyperbole.

Daschle shares the dissatisfaction that many Americans feel about how talk shows and newspapers have covered health care. He said that at one town hall meeting this summer he found people to be both rational and respectful. Yet the local newspaper the next day ran images from protesters outside the building, barely touching on the substance of the meeting in the story. The town halls were intended to drive public opinion in the direction of support, but wound up proving to be destructive.

It’s the confusion over the issue that makes health care so hard to understand, Daschle said. He did an incredible job outlining and identifying risk pools, the trigger option and more, putting it all in language for the layman. We may not actually have learned more about health care, but we do know that people would feel more confident if they heard more often from Tom Daschle.

What They Said

“We ask the generals ‘What do you think works in Afghanistan?’ but nobody thinks to ask the doctors what works in hospitals.’”

- Tom Daschle hopes to make doctors advocates, not adversarial

“I live in Greenwich Village now. The longer I live here the more left-wing I get on health care.”

- Bob Kerrey’s nightlife experience in the West Village might be atypical

“Starbucks spends more on health care than they do on coffee.”

- In one swoop, Tom Daschle explains what’s wrong with health care and Starbucks coffee

“God, I wish you were HHS Secretary.”

- Bob Kerrey presents the most awkward moment of the night

What We Thought

  • Before serving as president of the New School, Bob Kerrey was a senator and a governor of Nebraska. Kerrey recalled experiences he had, shared stories about dealing with constituents, and expressed frustrations that ultimately led him away from government service. While he acknowledged that the health care discussion eludes him at times, Kerrey brought an “insider” perspective to the talk. Still, he made sure to assume the role of a concerned citizen with a heap of questions.
  • Daschle spent an astounding 40 minutes fielding questions. He began most of his responses addressing the crowd with phrases like “That’s a great question.” Daschle seemed to recognize that civility and congeniality were things that had been lost during ongoing health care debate. It was nice to see those qualities restored to the debate.
  • We appreciated that Daschle left the panel listing some helpful web sites people can visit in order to answer whatever questions remain about health care. They are, Kaiser, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund.


Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Cocktail Partiers

Having the right to ask anything you want under the sun comes with a certain level of responsibility. Although you may be interested in getting the panelist’s opinion about a particular legislative rule, the rest of us may not care as deeply as you do about the ins and outs of the system. You’re not engaging in a private dialogue with the panelist; you should think about the rest of us around you. Unlike a party, we can’t find another group to talk to.

Panel Nerds Etan Bednarsh and Danny Groner are New York-based writers and avid panel-goers. Want them at your panel? Email them here:

In NJ, You Might be the Anti-Christ if…Your Name’s Obama

obamadevilA new poll by Public Policy Polling shows some fascinating attitudes among New Jersey residents, particularly conservatives. The most stunning result is that 35% of NJ conservatives think President Obama might be the Anti-Christ (yes, he hyphenates, and with a maiden name like Anti, wouldn’t you?), with 18% being sure that he is.

What the poll doesn’t tell you is that being the Anti-Christ in New Jersey doesn’t even qualify you to play on our hockey team.

The poll also finds a whopping 68% of conservatives entertaining the idea that Barack Obama is not a natural-born US citizen. I wish there was a way to find out how extensive the overlap is, as I would love to interview the people who think he’s the Anti-Christ, but have no problem with his citizenship.

While Jimmy Carter’s remarks about the “intensely demonstrated animosity” toward the President have been morphed and dismissed by the White House, results like these certainly do indicate that there’s something different going on here. If it’s not racism, perhaps it is “Rapture-ism” or some such. In any case, the belief that the President is literally an illegal immigrant from Hell seems to have little grounding in policy or ideological differences.