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The most clueless political column ever—I think this Easterbrook dude has the journalistic equivalent of “tenure”

I don’t know when I’ve seen political writing quote so misinformed as this. It’s a bizarre mixture of cliches, non-sequitors, and outright mistakes.

The author is Gregg Easterbrook and he’s writing for Reuters.

First, the cliches:

Right now Romney seems to be the frontrunner, which, of course, is a mixed blessing. His aura of experience and reasonableness could prove quite appealing to voters. Perry continues to have the potential to light a populist fire. . . . Of all the 2012 candidates, Huntsman is the one who is Not Just Another Politician.

And now the errors.

At this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 percent approval rating. . . . Clinton beat a popular incumbent with a fantastic approval rating. For the 2012 election, Barack Obama is just as vulnerable as the elder Bush, if not even more so. Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent.

This is all fine, except that:

1. It’s not true that at this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 percent approval rating.

2. It’s not true that Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent.

Now let’s move from Easterbrookworld to reality.

1. According to Gallup, on 13 Oct 1991, George H. W. Bush’s ratings (data from the Roper Center) were 66% approve, 28% disapprove, 7% no opinion (not adding to exactly 100% due to roundoff error, I assume).

2. Gallup estimates Obama’s job approval as of 11 Oct 2011 as 38%.

So where did Easterbrook get his numbers? 89% was George H. W. Bush’s highest approval rate ever, and it was at the beginning of March 1991. As for Obama’s 23%, this comes from a Rasmussen report that Easterbrook linked to but misread: 28% “strongly approve” of Obama’s job performance but about 45% approve in total, according to Rasmussen’s own graph.

But wait, there’s more!

Easterbrook continues:

But don’t sell Huntsman short because he is low in the polls – Obama had been at that point, too.

That would be interesting—if true. But at this point Easterbrook is 0 for 2 on truth, so I’m not inclined to trust him. Instead, I’ll look the numbers up myself. Luckily I have an internet connection:

As of 14 Oct 2011, Gallup gives Huntsman 2% support among Republicans. That puts him behind the leaders: No Opinion and Mitt Romney (tied at 20% each), Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachman. Rick Santorum is ahead of Huntsman, for chrissake. Google that, pal!

What about Obama? How was he polling in October, 2007? He was in second place with 21% support (compared to Hillary Clinton at 50%). So, yeah, anything could happen—but there’s a big difference between 21% and 2%.

The real mystery here is how this got published by Reuters. They’re a reputable news organization, right?

Easterbrook is listed as “a contributing editor to The Atlantic, The New Republic and The Washington Monthly, a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and distinguished fellow of the Fulbright Foundation, and writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN.”

He’s ok at a football writer but I think his editors should keep him away from the politics.

P.S. I found the George H. W. Bush approval ratings by Googling **george h w bush approval**. Google. It’s a great trick. Maybe one of Easterbrook’s editors at Reuters could tell him about it.

P.P.S. Why do I waste my time commenting on this stuff? We spend so much time gathering and understanding these data, it’s just depressing to see people just make poop up and then spread it around like this.

I guess it’s like tenure in academia. A tenured professor can do (almost) anything he wants and still get paid to teach classes. Similarly, Easterbrook is so well-connected that he can continue publishing forever in top outlets. I can only assume that nobody edits his pieces for content, just as nobody sits in on my classes to check that I’m actually teaching what I say I am. All Easterbrook has to do is show up on time and he gets the job.

I know some people criticize Thomas Friedman (say) on the same grounds, that he can just publish whatever half-baked ideas he wants and get it in the New York Times. But I think Easterbrook is much much worse than Friedman. Friedman’s speculations are often interesting, whereas Easterbrook is just spouting cliches that would make Theodore H. White spin in his grave. And supporting it with numbers that are so wrong as to be beyond garbled. Can’t Easterbrook do like a real journalist and interview some cab drivers or something?

P.P.P.S. If all Easterbrook wanted to do was make the point that Obama might well lose in 2012, he could’ve just pointed to this graph that Doug Hibbs posted in May:

P.P.P.P.S. When I attack someone too hard in a blog post, commenters often have the natural reaction to defend the poor guy. So for strategic reasons I probably should’ve been super-polite to Easterbrook here and then let the commenters rip him to shreds. But I just don’t have the patience right now. This guy’s column is just so abysmally bad, it has nothing to offer.

52 Comments

  1. actually says:

    He is also a terrible football writer and an anti-semite.

    • Casey says:

      Anti-semite? Let’s take it easy here, guys. Keep it reasonable. At least support such accusations if you actually believe them. I have been reading his stuff for years and haven’t detected any anti-semitic sentiment thus far.

      • Doug says:

        The anti-semite stuff comes from an article he wrote where he said that the Hollywood movie moguls who are Jewish should be more reticent to greenlight violent movies, given the violence that was visited on the Jews throughout ancient and more recent history. Not exactly tactful, but hardly what I would consider anti-semitic.

  2. James Moore says:

    Clearly the guy’s not competent, but at this point you need to cut him some slack and work on the the fools who hired him and continue to print his work. Given what you wrote, I think it’s entirely possible that he’s not capable of realizing that he’s useless as a nonfiction writer. Blame the people who put him in that position; perhaps he deserves your sympathy and a glass of warm milk in place of a writing job.

    • Andrew says:

      I assume he used to be a good writer and then got lazy. Regarding the publications that hire him: my guess is that a place a very high value on the ability to churn out a column of specified length at a specified time.

      • Gabe says:

        You assume correctly. Up until about 2005 or 2006 his TMQ columns on ESPN.com were interesting and thought-provoking. Lately he’s just been a coming across as a whiny old codger who’s yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.

  3. noahpoah says:

    I just came to say that his football writing is awful, as well, but I don’t buy the charges of anti-semitism.

  4. Tim Lambert says:

    I have a category on my blog titled Gregg Easterbrook is an idiot. And I do get criticism for being so rude. But he really is an idiot.

  5. […] I can at least understand why Reuters went ahead with the farcical Soros conspiracy theories — money is money and a Drudge link is a Drudge link.   But what possible reason could there be at this late date to hire Gregg Easterbrook to write a political column? […]

  6. Brad says:

    Ironically, this post includes a factual error. i think you mean 14 Oct 2011 (rather than 2001). Otherwise, a great post.

  7. Jim Shirk says:

    Plus, he’s a climate change denier. No cites (too lazy), but if pressed I could dig some out. That’s a biiig hurdle for a supposed science writer.

  8. Jim Shirk says:

    My mistake. Shoulda checked “greatest hits” for some fine man on climate action.

  9. Åse says:

    About 10 years ago, me and one of my online buddies ripped apart a piece he had in The New Republic on happiness and money. A few years later I also read a piece of his in Wired on research on the effect of prayer (from a distance, not known to the recipient, oh, and it involved glioma also), which I found deeply… irresponsible. Because it spends page after page after page (ok, perhaps I’m exaggerating – I was 4 months pregnant at the time) as if there actually were reportable effects, before – towards the end, talking about the problems and non-effects and crappy methods.

    So, since then, he is the boy who cried Wolf to me, and I immediately dismiss anything that has his byline regardless.

    This is kind of how I feel about Slate these days, too.

  10. Mobute says:

    Easterbook is an abysmal football writer, but he makes up for that by being an abysmal political and science writer in his football columns. TMQ weekly features huge barely tethered digressions about politics and science underpinned with loosely supported linkage. It’s almost a breather from the tendentious nonsense of his football writing.

    As for that, he makes a wonderful case study in both lazy narcissism and blind confirmation bias. Easterbrook celebrates non-star personnel — viz. anyone who wasn’t drafted in the first round and expected to be a world-beater — and singles out their contributions, irrespective of the draft position of their teammates and contributions made by them to a game. If a nobody walked out of a grocery store to start for the 49ers and make one tackle, Easterbrook will celebrate that tackle as validation of his GRITTY, GUTTY, CHARACTER-GUYS theory of football and never mention that, say, #1 Draft Pick quarterback Alex Smith threw for multiple touchdowns that game.

    Similarly, he’s spent years emphasizing plays in which blitzing teams get burned for deep passes or runs as confirmation of his grandly unsupported theory that blitzing does not work, yet his columns are thunderously silent on the topic of the routine success of good blitzing teams. Last year’s Super Bowl featured two very talented blitzing teams, whose defenses often provided scores and good field position from blitzing coverage. The previous Super Bowl also featured Easterbrook’s blitzing bête noir, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, about whom Easterbrook fulminates wildly, except for all the times Williams succeeds.

    Basically, he’s a smugly disingenuous ass, and the fact that he continues to draw a paycheck from anyone expecting wit, insight or, at the very least, brevity, is a total mystery.

    • Mike says:

      Actually, one of his points is that teams often have a reputation for blitzing out of proportion to the number of blitzes they actually run. Pittsburgh specifically mixes things up so you don’t know who’s coming. Good blitzing teams blitz effectively, not always and not on long downs and almost never with 7 or 8 guys. For years, he would track blitzes in the playoffs and show they had poorer performance (an analysis Football Outsider confirmed). As for Gregg Williams, he specifically talked about him and how he’d dialed down the blitzing to become an effective coordinator.

      • Dave says:

        Moreover, it’s important not to fall into the trap of assuming a cornerback, linebacker, or safety involved in the pass rush necessarily indicates a blitz. LeBeau and Capers are both credited with creating the so-called zone blitz scheme. In these cases, the defensive team frequently employs multiple potential pass rushers (aside from down linemen); however, in the case of both Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the total number of actual pass rushers on a given play is typically 4 and rarely exceeds 5. This requires very athletic linemen and linebackers (that can cover receivers and tight ends down field) to execute properly and superb timing to be effective; however, it isn’t a blitz (except in the case of 5 rushers) as Easterbrook would define the term. A blitz, by Easterbrook’s definition, is a pass rush incorporating 5 or more individuals, and a big-blitz requires a minimum of 6 pass rushers.

    • Casey says:

      Grandly unsupported? Um, I know PLENTY of well-respected football people who are right there with him; excessive blitzing is a bad idea in today’s game. What you just did is a great example of what you’re attacking Easterbrook for. Anyway, you’re also way off-base about the all-unwanted list. Sure, he doesn’t mention the accomplishments of the #1 picks in his “All-Unwanted” section – but the whole point is to call out unwanted players’ achievements. That’s like saying they didn’t invite Obama to participate in the BLoomberg Republican Debate. If you don’t like it, then that’s fine and you have a right to your opinion. But you provided no real argument against the All-Unwanted list or his anti-blitz position. By the way, speaking of the 49ers, they rushed 4 or fewer guys on all but one play against the Lions, and has a GREAT defensive performance. How are your fancy Packers/Steelers defenses doing so far this year?

      • Mike says:

        The Steelers defense is #1 in total defense this year and hasn’t finished out of the top 5 in total defense since 2006.

        I agree that Greg Easterbrook is about the worst football writer in America. If you don’t like Easterbrook I highly recommend you read Drew Magery’s (of deadspin.com) Football Jamboroo column every Thursday. In it he has a section titled “Gregg Easterbrook Is A Haughty Dipsh*t” every week.

  11. BB says:

    Thanks for doing this. Honestly — it’s a pain-in-the-ass, but, ultimately, really valuable. So next time you worry that it isn’t worth all the trouble, please remember that it is, and lots of us are very grateful. Thanks.

  12. Pinko Punko says:

    I feel like I have to post this for Easterbrook haters that aren’t familiar with his insane and rhetorically confused defense of Michael Vick. Truly, it is cloud yelling at its finest.

    But his true greatest hits are about anything science related. He is beyond the fabric of our universe.

  13. Drew Tyre says:

    And now for something completely different – I’m curious about the notional prediction in Hibbs figure. Shouldn’t it include some kind of prediction limits – the 95% interval of the next observation?

  14. […] Andrew Gelman on The most clueless political column ever–I think this Easterbrook dude has the journalistic equivale…: […]

  15. EmilyKennedy says:

    To your P.P.S.: I’m glad you comment on this stuff. I follow the blog Retraction Watch for similar reasons. Watchdogging (is that a verb?) is an important element of public discourse.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I read one of Easterbrook’s column on a physics topic, and the guy was “fractally wrong”. (As all Dunning-Kruger incompetents behave.) You could only tackle the largest errors, and then he replied with another crapload of bullshit.

    I think of it as Easterbrooks “pompousness to bullshit P = BS^2″ model.

  17. William says:

    Is is really any wonder that people have such a low opinion and trust toward journalists and media? This type of stuff abounds in the field. Don’t these “writers” know that the internet allows people to verify (or vilify) what they’ve written.

  18. […] The excellent Andrew Gellman tears the execrable Gregg Easterbrook a new one. Easterbrook writes: […]

  19. DougJ says:

    Great catch, keep it up.

  20. Robert Waldmann says:

    I have read all of the comments above. One almost 100% reliable rock solid rule is that every comment thread includes someone who contests the blogger’s claim no matter how overwhelming the evidence presented in a post e. The commentosphere isn’t unanimous on anything. Except it seems Greg Easterbrook.

    I can’t recall ever reading a defense of Easterbrook. Now, since he evidently can’t read, this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. People don’t agree on anything else.

    And yet he is published. Some intrepid reporter should try to discover why he is published. Of course that reporter would really have to be courageous (and inclined to find a new line of work) since exploring the utter irresponsibility of editors is not a good career move.

  21. GFW says:

    “it’s just depressing to see people just make poop up and then spread it around like this”

    That makes two mentions of Santorum in your post … but you already knew that.

  22. Rich Horton says:

    I think it is much more likely that he was using, and mis-indentifying, Rasmussens Approval Rating Index number which was -23 as of October 9th.

  23. TTT says:

    Back in the ’90s, Easterbrook wrote an unforgivably lazy, slipshod, and ignorant “environmental optimism” book full of industry shill talking points about how those dirty treehuggers are wrong about everything. He was predictably wrong when he was parroting Big Oil, but he was UNPREDICTABLY wrong when giving his own opinions: his book concludes with a confident prediction that mankind will truly save the environment by genetically engineering all wild predators into being vegetarians, thus re-creating the Garden of Eden as it really actually existed in the past.

    I’m glad newspapers are dying. They should take the punditocracy down with them.

  24. The quality of his journalism aside, it is interesting that John Huntsman is only at 2% in the polls. He seemed like a decent candidate but just cannot seem spark any interest. Few people would have thought that Herman Cain would have so much more support.

  25. Time to dump that Easterbrook and get to a much more wise one – Steve Easterbrook – he is sort of a computational climate scientist http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/

  26. A journalist doesn’t have to be right. A journalist has only to be read.

    As long as Easterbrook stimulates people to read his pieces for whatever reason, he’ll always have an outlet ready to pay him for his musings.

  27. LDM says:

    “He’s ok at a football writer…” Wrong! He is terrible at that.

  28. TGGP says:

    Dennis Mangan thinks Pat Buchanan must have tenure.

  29. Mike from Ottawa says:

    “Watchdogging (is that a verb?)…”

    If it wasn’t before, it is now, as I expect everyone understood what you meant. Even if, as Calvin said ‘Verbing weirds language.’

  30. […] at Reuters Posted by Andrew on 20 October 2011, 9:19 amDear Reuters editor:Thanks for reading my blog and correcting the erroneous numbers in Easterbrook’s column from the other day.I’m […]

  31. […] on Gregg Easterbrook Posted by Andrew on 20 October 2011, 2:42 pmI don’t want to make a habit of this, but . . . I was curious what Easterbrook would write as a follow-up to his recent Huntsman […]

  32. […] Andrew Gelman tears into Gregg Easterbrook for poor poll reporting. […]

  33. […] a Samantha Power or a David Runciman, or Michael Barone-style confusion or Gregg Easterbrook-style cluelessness or even Tucker Carlson-style asininity. No, I’m talking about flat-out lying by a […]