Friday, March 18, 2011

This Looks Really Cool

This project sounds really cool, and the website will be coming live tomorrow! Canada sent 39 musicians out into the wild with filmmakers to spend some time making art in Canada's 13 national parks. From

National Parks Project - Trailer from Ryan J. Noth on Vimeo.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Louise Radnofsky Responds to My Criticism of Her WSJ Article

In today's WSJ, Louise Radnofsky authored an article entitled "Big Payday for Some Hill Staffers." Here are the opening sentences:

"Departing members of the House of Representatives awarded millions of dollars in extra pay to aides as they closed down their offices, according to lawmakers' spending records.

The 96 lawmakers paid their employees $6.7 million, or 31%, more in the fourth quarter of 2010 than they did, on average, in the first three quarters of the year.

That's about twice as much as the 16% increase awarded by lawmakers who returned to the 112th Congress, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks congressional salaries.

The disparity suggests retiring or defeated members used remaining funds in their official expenses budgets to boost salaries for staffers before they left Washington, cash that might otherwise have been returned to the U.S. Treasury."

Did that second sentence bother you? It bothered me. So, on a whim, I wrote the author and questioned why she hadn't worded it differently. To me, it seemed like a subtle but important example of editorial bias.

I feel like during my internship with the Treasury Department during the fall I had a chance to really start seeing this better. Each morning I read the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as I prepared and delivered my daily news briefing to the US Undersecretary of International Affairs. I also skimmed the Washington Post and Politico.

Disclaimer, I begin preaching here.) Seeing where each paper placed their respective articles, how they headlined them, and how the authors described and analyzed the events showed very clear difference of world view and opinion. I was able to see the same story interpreted three, four or five times. It was fascinating. It confirmed my belief that none of us are completely objective, and neither is any paper. Recognizing these biases, both in the media we consume and within ourselves, makes us more careful analysts of world events.

But I digress. I was shocked to receive a response from Louise Radnofsky, only fifteen minutes after emailing her. Here is our conversation, in its entirety:



Thank you for reporting the recent pay raises that occurred in December of last year. Keeping track of this kind of thing is exactly the reason journalism is so important.

Why, though, in your second sentence, did you list the number of congresspersons, rather than the number of employees? It seems extremely misleading. The average reader sees $6.7 million being split among 96 people.

But the total number isn't very telling. How many employees was this spread among? At no point in your article did you say what the average salary bonus was, or the total number of outgoing staffers.

Here's the ironic thing: I agree that this is surprising, appalling and necessary to report, but I lose faith in your credibility when I glance back and realize the numbers aren't saying what I thought they were. Why not strengthen the case with the most descriptive statistics possible?


Michael Monroe


Thanks for your thoughtful note.

It's always hard to decide which stats to include and which ones to leave out to avoid overwhelming readers. The article focuses, rightly I think, on the elected officials who made the decisions rather than their employees. The examples indicate the average size of a Congressional office (17 or 18 staffers.) There's a second problem, though. It's not always possible to identify whether a particular employee received a bonus/ extra payment. What's very clear is that office payrolls jumped as a whole. So for the sake of accuracy, that was what we had to focus on.

I take your point though. I always want to make things as clear as possible and will continue to bear this sort of thing in mind. I think it seems clear on a first read to a lot of people in DC that we're talking about 96 member offices because nobody's bonus could be that big in a pool of $6.7 million. But in NY, and for people elsewhere who read about corporate payouts... that's the sort of thing they expect to hear. And I should remember that.

Hope this helps.



Thank you for your prompt response. I understand what you're saying, and as a student of economics understand how difficult it can be to provide descriptive characteristics for a nuanced set of data.

Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to respond to my email. Best wishes in all your work,

Michael Monroe


Louise defended herself well, but I still think that the math tells a slightly less dramatic story. If the 96 lawmakers average 17 people per staff, the &6.7 million turns into about $4,180.00 per person. Considering that many staffers take leave during the fall election time and put in extremely abnormal hours (working nonstop the weeks immediately before the election) maybe $4,000 on top of a $60,000 salary doesn't seem unreasonable.

Is it still an interesting and important finding that outgoing Democrats paid more than Republicans who were returning? Yes. This should be the focus of the article. As it is currently written, I think it overstates the point.

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

BYU, ESPN and the Honor Code

I, like many of my fellow students, am mourning the loss of Brandon Davies. It has been interesting to see the national reaction. Check out what some of the ESPN guys had to say: