Facts Don't Muddy Columnist's View

Sports Writer Apparently Untroubled by Historical Accuracy, Nonexistent Sources

by David Kopel

Jan. 17, 2004

Political columnists can be divided into two major classes: the "meat and potatoes" types (e.g., David Broder, George Will, Jim Armstrong) who write temperate articles meant to persuade and inform, and the "raw meat" types (e.g., Paul Krugman, Anne Coulter) who write in a shrill and antagonistic voice, delighting their partisans and aggravating everyone else.

Sports columnists, too, fall into these categories. The current king of red meat is Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla. As Kiszla illustrates, there comes a point at which the drive to say the most extreme things becomes preposterous.

For example, after the Broncos suffered a humiliating 41-10 defeat against Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs, Kiszla announced: "Since 1960, this franchise has never smelled more rank." You might say that Kiszla was just offering an opinion, but it's such an absurd opinion - akin to claiming that "Brian Griese was the worst quarterback in the history of football" - that it makes the Post and its sports editors look foolish.

For the record, from the Broncos' first season in 1960 through 1972, the team never had a winning record. They never made the playoffs until 1977. If you want to rank the low point in Broncos history, how about the 1963 and 1964 seasons, in which the team compiled back-to-back records of 2-11-1? And the 1967 season, with a 3-11 record, was pretty low too, including a 51-0 loss to Oakland and a 52-9 loss to Kansas City. Any rational person would have to call those seasons more "rank" than the 2003 season, in which the Broncos won the majority of their games, and got into the playoffs.

Nor is Kiszla always factually reliable on other issues. A Jan. 11 column claimed that "According to a national study that bears repeating, U.S. citizens gamble more money every year than they spend on groceries."

Kiszla never cited the "study," but the source of the statistic appears to be a lengthy January 1999 letter by Focus on the Family President James Dobson, who served on the federal gambling commission.

Dobson's letter cited two sources for the claim: Page 769 of the 1997 Statistical Abstract of the United States, and an article by Eugene Martin Christiansen titled "The New Entitlement" from Page 3 of the August 1998 issue of the trade publication International Gaming and Wagering Business.

The Statistical Abstract shows that in 1996, Americans spent $400 billion in grocery stores.

As for the article in International Gaming and Wagering Business, it doesn't exist. I spoke with Stephen Gibbs, the Marketing Manager for Ascend Media Gaming Group, which publishes IGWB. The August 1998 issue has no article by Eugene Martin Christiansen. Page 3 - where the article supposedly begins - is simply the table of contents for the issue.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I found the data that Dobson (and by extension Kiszla) might have cited with proper research: Since the mid-1990s, total annual wagering in the United States has exceeded $500 billion. But here's the catch that Kiszla and Dobson omitted: When you gamble, you sometimes win, and when you do, you get more money back. In the long run, players get back about 90 percent of what they wager. The rest is the gaming company's profit.

So, for example, in 1995 gamblers in America wagered $550 billion. Of that money, the gaming industry took about $44 billion, and the rest went back to the gamblers. Thus, the total amount of money actually spent on gambling was about 10 percent of the money spent on groceries.

In December, the FBI warned local law enforcement to be on the lookout for persons carrying almanacs with strange notations. The Post (Jan. 8) ran a snide Washington Post story by Linton Weeks pointing to all the harmless items (e.g., aromatherapy, dentistry) in the Old Farmer's Almanac, and claiming that the almanac's publisher "can't figure out the warning. Neither can we."

Well, The Washington Post (and by extension, The Denver Post) were deliberately playing stupid. The FBI didn't warn about the Old Farmer's Almanac, but about almanacs in general.

I looked at my copy of the World Almanac and Book of Facts, and found a list of hundreds of U.S. bridges, and the list detailed each bridge's span and type of construction (suspension, twin concrete trestle, etc.).

The almanac supplied the address of every college and university in the U.S. and the number of students at each, plus the addresses of hundreds of tall buildings and their exact height and number of stories, and a list of major U.S. dams and reservoirs. There were excellent details on which nights were easiest to operate under cover of darkness (when the moon is new), and the times of sunset.

Of course all this information can be obtained elsewhere. But if a police officer were conducting a traffic stop, and noticed an open almanac with lots of Arabic notations on the pages supplying data about the bridges, don't you think the policeman should make some additional inquiries?


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