Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Wednesday, July 03, 2002
How is Andrew Sullivan Like Ari Fleischer?

They both demand the very highest standards of truthfulness and integrity - from anybody who dares to criticize George Bush or the GOP. Their side, however, can say any lying bullshit it pleases.

Sullivan is crowing loudly today about TAP's revised and lowered traffic estimates.

TAP, and every other site, uses software to determine their traffic levels. The software gives an 'exact' number of visits, hits, page views, and various other stats, but in fact that number has very little meaning. Most try to count unique visitors by counting unique IP addresses, but that is unreliable for a variety of reasons.

One problem is that firewalls, which the vast majority of users coming from an office or school will be behind, generally hide the originating IP address and only give you the domain. It's the equivalent of trading a full street address for the name of a city. If you have 10 readers with 10 different addresses, you have 10 distinct readers. But what if all 10 addresses are just 'Chicago'? It could be the same reader 10 times, 10 different readers, or anything in between.

I personally access the web through DSL using Win 98. It crashes regularly and has other problems, so I reboot almost every day and often twice a day. Each time I go back to the web I go back with a new IP address. (If your ISP doesn't do this, you have a major security problem.) Without using cookies, the sites I go to have no way to know I'm the same person at a new address. Many surfers don't accept cookies, and even their use, for various reasons too boring to detail here, by no means ensures accuracy.

These are two problems with counts; there are others. At this modest site with 50 - 125 readers a day, almost all of whom go to the home page and don't access any others, I use two traffic counters. They consistently have different numbers. For reasons I don't fully understand, when I first installed both the discrepancies were large; sometimes the high number was almost double the low. Now they tend to be smaller.

All of this just means that the numbers given by a traffic counter should be taken with considerable skepticism. The counters can be deceptive for those who don't understand web traffic because a number like TAP released today, 161,025 unique visitors in June, looks so exact. But it's really an estimate, and without taking a very detailed look at exactly how the numbers are arrived at, you can't even say whether the estimate is likely to be low or high.

TAP ran into another common problem: they simply had a buggy counter. The counter overcounted, essentially because of miscounted cookies. TAP published the number their counter gave them; when they were challenged they checked with the company that produced the counter and found out it had a bug. They then installed the upgraded counter and reported the corrected, lower figures the following month.

Now look how heavily Sullivan has spun those facts to try to substantiate the claim that TAP was lying:

HOW IS THE AMERICAN PROSPECT LIKE WORLDCOM? You've probably read lots of articles in the American Prospect, bemoaning big CEOs fiddling numbers, inflating profits, engaging in all sorts of creative accounting. Well, Bob Kuttner's online magazine should know. In the Columbia Journalism Review, they claimed 450,000 unique visitors a month. Amazing traffic. Eric Alterman, always alert to factual accuracy, pointed out that this showed the hegemony of the Left on the web. Well, after the equivalent of a blogger SEC investigation, they've finally released their amended report. Their actual unique visitors for June was 161,025 - a little over a third of their previous claim. In classic fashion, they don't admit their error; they don't apologize; they barely explain; they release the news the day before July 4. More spin. And I thought Chris Mooney was a straight-up kind of guy. These guys fibbed about something as basic as their web stats. And you're going to trust them on the economy?

Worldcom deliberately misreported billions of dollars in formal filings required of all public companies in order to hide a lack of profitability. TAP released numbers in good faith, which were inaccurate due to an error by their supplier, and which they were under no obligation to make public at all. Even Sully can't possibly be serious when he pretends to see these instances as parallel.

And this isn't even his worst spin on the topic. On June 17, Sullivan posted the following smear:

Finally, some candor from the American Prospect. The Kuttner claim that they had 500,000 subscribers to their magazine has been reduced to 50,000. This discrepancy has been blamed on a reporter for the Boston Business Journal....Score one for blogging pressure: without me and Mickey on their asses, do you think they would have ever conceded error? Remember that when I first raised the question, they accused me of being a "creationist" because I couldn't care less for empirical data. I'm too hardened to expect an apology, but if they haven't reported real new numbers within a week, I'll keep at 'em.

Sullivan's fellow conservative Instapundit had the integrity to point out that TAP's 'claim' of 500,000 subscribers was only a reporter's typo, made by the jounalist writing about TAP and not by the magazine. He even posted her e-mail to him to confirm it. But 'blogging pressure' has never forced Sullivan to retract or apologize in any way for this outright falsehood.

On the plus side, I am pleased to note that Andrew is finally spinning and distorting with working permalinks. So he's made some progress on the technical end. Now he just has to clean up his content.