David R. Henderson  

Mark Thoma's Selective Edits

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In a post titled, "Are the Rich Coldhearted?," Mark Thoma writes:

Why are so many of the rich and powerful so callous and indifferent to the struggles of those who aren't so fortunate?

He then goes on to quote from an op/ed in the New York Times:
Are the Rich Coldhearted?, by Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi, NY Times: ... Can people in high positions of power -- presidents, bosses, celebrities, even dominant spouses -- easily empathize with those beneath them?
Psychological research suggests the answer is no. ...
Why does power leave people seemingly coldhearted? Some, like the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, have suggested that powerful people don't attend well to others around them because they don't need them in order to access important resources; as powerful people, they already have plentiful access to those.

I wondered what the original op/ed said. I was surprised. It wasn't titled "Are the Rich Coldhearted?" It was titled "Powerful and Coldhearted." Here are the first three paragraphs:
I FEEL your pain.

These words are famously associated with Bill Clinton, who as a politician seemed to ooze empathy. A skeptic might wonder, though, whether he truly was personally distressed by the suffering of average Americans. Can people in high positions of power -- presidents, bosses, celebrities, even dominant spouses -- easily empathize with those beneath them?

Psychological research suggests the answer is no. Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Edogg writes:

So, I believe you've discovered that the New York Times changed a headline.

Your insinuation that Mark Thoma selectively edited the article to push some political point seems pretty bizarre. How is the article misrepresented by the edits?

I am guessing your interpretation of the article would be something like,

"Why are so many of those with political power indifferent to the struggles of those they burden with government regulations?"

but that has nothing to do with how Thoma edited the article.

Nacim writes:

If you google the 'edited' headline you'll see plenty of other sources referring to it in the same manner. It's not uncommon for headlines to change as Edogg mentioned, or for print and web editions to have wildly different ones.

Nacim writes:

In fact, you can find the old headline in the old URL that still works. See here: www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/are-the-rich-coldhearted.html

You jumped the gun on this post.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

Yes, on the editing point Henderson's complaint is better lodged with the New York Times. If the original title was "rich" rather than "powerful" that was a very strange (but somehow predictable) original heading to this piece. The piece is all about power and not wealth (or being "rich", whatever that means), despite the correlation between the two. The editing issue is a matter for Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the Times.

With respect to the latter, I think it also demonstrates the power of (misleading) headlines (as this, one they are also often pretty "rich"). Headlines get the most attention and for most readers it is the main message, even if it's not supported by the body of the article itself. Commenter Nacim actually points out the pernicious effects of a misleading headline, particularly from a widely-quoted source such as the NYT: Those headlines get spread around widely and quickly, most often without the main body to check the accuracy of the headline. Most probably don't even follow the link provided and those snippets even get quoted without hyper-links (Thoma linked).

I'm thinking also of the Clinton's and the fact that Hillary recently bemoaned the fact that they left the White house nearly broke. A good example of how "power" is the key factor behind that study and not wealth (I'm of course, assuming that they were actually nearly broke, and besides, they probably were "rich" by Obama standards, but I'm sure there are many other examples, particularly among politicians).

We've gotta give Thoma the benefit of the doubt on this one. Whether he would have run that in his blog with the revised (more accurate) headline is something only he can know for sure, but it certainly does not appear to be the case of "selective editing" on *his* part. I do, however, fault Thoma for his own intro to the text of that quote (as noted by Henderson and that, suspect was his main quibble):

"Why are so many of the rich and powerful so callous and indifferent to the struggles of those who aren't so fortunate?:"

Notice here that Thoma *himself* describes the article being about "the rich and powerful" and not merely the "powerful". That might not be selective "editing", but it strikes me as taking liberties with what he's summarizing. Is he justified from taking that liberty due to the fact that the word "rich" appears in the headline but not the text? I don't think so. "Power" was clearly the purported source of purported "lack of empathy".

I can also understand Henderson's confusion: "How *could* that article have borne the headline "Rich" rather than "Powerful"?

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

Another point about headlines:

It's commonly understood that in major news outlets, headlines to articles are created by the news editors and not by the author. This appears not only the case with contributors, but also articles written by the in-house journalists. Given the importance that headlines have on the interpretation of a piece, I question the wisdom of that practice. Perhaps the journalism profession should come up with a new protocol: The original author or authors of a piece should either create or approve the headlines to their own pieces. Perhaps, even, there should be a subscript to each article, much like political ads, stating:

"I am the author of this piece and I approve the headline that appears above it".

David R. Henderson writes:

@Commenters,
You ALL missed the more-important point. Look at what he left out.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

David, I get your point about what he left out. I was responding more directly to the previous commenters who, rightly I think, thought you were making a point about the title of the piece. What he left out is entirely consistent with my view that he didn't accurately summarize the piece in his introductory sentence. The fact that the first three commenters seem to have had the same impression, should tell you something other than that your readers can't read or comprehend what your real point was.

I'm not sure what the rules are on "fair use", but I don't think it is reasonable (or perhaps even legal) to quote the entire article. Where to draw the line on this one would have been a difficult decision. I still think the main objection should be to his own *express* summary as reflected in the intro sentence, and not his alleged defective "editing", which is a much more passive and subjective thing.

The fact that he may have left out a quote about Clinton is less relevant than the fact that *nothing* in the article was about "the rich" per se.

MG writes:

What is being missed is the change form Powerful, what the NYT article appears to address, to Rich.

Although one would hope that the social scientists who conducted the studies (and Prof Henderson) should care about the difference (what was actually tested)...Mark, other commenters and I suspect for the NYT rich and powerful are the same. And they did not even qualify the Powerful = Cold with a question mark, like Mark did.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

Yes, on the editing point Henderson's complaint is better lodged with the New York Times. If the original title was "rich" rather than "powerful" that was a very strange (but somehow predictable) original heading to this piece. The piece is all about power and not wealth (or being "rich", whatever that means), despite the correlation between the two. The editing issue is a matter for Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the Times.

With respect to the latter, I think it also demonstrates the power of (misleading) headlines (as this, one they are also often pretty "rich"). Headlines get the most attention and for most readers it is the main message, even if it's not supported by the body of the article itself. Commenter Nacim actually points out the pernicious effects of a misleading headline, particularly from a widely-quoted source such as the NYT: Those headlines get spread around widely and quickly, most often without the main body to check the accuracy of the headline. Most probably don't even follow the link provided and those snippets even get quoted without hyper-links (Thoma linked).

I'm thinking also of the Clinton's and the fact that Hillary recently bemoaned the fact that they left the White house nearly broke. A good example of how "power" is the key factor behind that study and not wealth (I'm of course, assuming that they were actually nearly broke, and besides, they probably were "rich" by Obama standards, but I'm sure there are many other examples, particularly among politicians).

We've gotta give Thoma the benefit of the doubt on this one. Whether he would have run that in his blog with the revised (more accurate) headline is something only he can know for sure, but it certainly does not appear to be the case of "selective editing" on *his* part. I do, however, fault Thoma for his own intro to the text of that quote (as noted by Henderson and that, suspect was his main quibble):

"Why are so many of the rich and powerful so callous and indifferent to the struggles of those who aren't so fortunate?:"

Notice here that Thoma *himself* describes the article being about "the rich and powerful" and not merely the "powerful". That might not be selective "editing", but it strikes me as taking liberties with what he's summarizing. Is he justified from taking that liberty due to the fact that the word "rich" appears in the headline but not the text? I don't think so. "Power" was clearly the purported source of purported "lack of empathy".

I can also understand Henderson's confusion: "How *could* that article have borne the headline "Rich" rather than "Powerful"?

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

I don't know why that last comment appeared, but perhaps your moderator can delete it as a duplicate.

David,

Again, I think "ALL* comments prior to your response were focused on this statement of yours:

"I wondered what the original op/ed said. I was surprised. It wasn't titled "Are the Rich Coldhearted?" It was titled "Powerful and Coldhearted."

I think you have to agree that that might not be completely accurate. If the *original* title *was* "Are you Rich and Coldhearted", then I think you need to acknowledge that.

Someone with more technical expertise than I have might confirm (or not) that when someone links to an article at the NYT and that on-line article changes, the link to the prior article automatically reverts to the newer version. The link from the Thoma article goes to the newer headlined version, but I don't think that suggests he had accessed the newer version when creating his blog post or the link.

Again, it is Thoma's failure to correct that misleading title in his intro that is most objectionable. It leads to comments among his readers like this one:

"The rich CAN AFFORD to be cold hearted."

Nacim writes:

If your main point isn't that he changed the headline, I don't understand to which omission you're trying to draw our attention to. I read and re-read the excerpts you posted and the only thing missing is the story being skeptical about Bill Clinton's empathy. Is that what you mean by "selective edit"? I don't think it's reasonable to expect someone to quote articles in their entirety, and the omission is not misleading from the overall point.

Like Vivian said, your commentary centered around being "surprised" implicitly was tied to the change in headline. The only other interpretation is for your readers to understand you were "surprised" that Thoma omitted the Clinton anecdote. Is that what you meant to say?

Thomas Sewell writes:

This reminds me of the people who talk about how Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor... with the implication that therefore we should have the government take from the rich to give to the poor.

Forgetting that in the popular stories, Robin Hood actually stole from the government (The Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, who had taxed the people into being poor) and gave it back to the people the government had unjustly taken it from.

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