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May 31, 2005

Monolithic Media

This report on bias at the BBC (tip to Instapundit) strikes me as a bit like reporting that rain is wet. The real value, perhaps, is the first-hand look at how bias is implemented in a modern newsroom. For the most part, it seems, the selection of stories and the assignment of priorities are the big problems. Stories that don't interest the editors are ignored or buried. Even those stories that are covered suffer the effects of the writers and editors politics, however. I especially liked this quote from MikeM in the comments:
The chief problem is that the art of the “narrative” has taken precedence over fact reporting.
But the overwhelming issue is the lack of balance and variety of viewpoint. The BBC is a defining example of the media monopolist, committed to the proposition that there is a single view of the truth that only the paid experts can discern.
What we are talking about, ... is a sort of unconscious, institutionalised Leftism. And when so many people working together share a particular world view, groups who do not share it are bound to be marginalised.
I was struck by how the reporter-turned-author was marginalized throughout his career but was unable to find a better place to ply his trade. Too few options, it seems. The need for a "new media" is clearer, perhaps in the UK than in the US.

Posted by Jay on May 31, 2005 at 10:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 30, 2005

A real test for the Blog Culture

We've several examples of where blogs, working as a "wolf pack" can be very effective. The issues have tended to be ordinary, partisan political struggles. Blogs sort themselves into the usual political camps, with a few of us in the center trying to stay out of the cross-fire. This is a natural role for a citizen punditry. But a much more challenging test is underway right now. The familiar right vs. left camps are strained, and the issue is emotionally charged.

Discussion of American use of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the War of Terror has been simmering for some time. A lot of bloggers, myself included, have hesitated to get deep into the conversation, nether blogging on it or reading much of what others write. The issue is too painful; we want to support our troops in combat and we'd like to trust our leaders, but its very hard to cast oneself as a supporter of torture. I simply cannot. The most I can do is hope that the worst accusations are false or at least overstated. It is hard to tell, honestly. (The critics of the US military do their argument a disservice when they toss around exaggerated and unsubstantiated stories too easily. We tend to tune it out, like the infamous pronouncements of "Baghdad Bob", and place our trust in the official announcements from the Pentagon). A few bloggers have done the work of digging through the reports and accusations. They are presenting a well-reasoned case that deserves all of our attention. Sadly this issue is not fading away. There is more at work here than a "few bad apples."

Greg Djerejian, who I've been reading a lot this week to stay on top of the news from Europe, has been on the torture and mistreatment story from the start. He links this week to what he describes as a "judicious post" from the NeoLibertarians at QandO. Glenn Reynolds linked to the same, calling it "both non-hysterical and well-documented." I'm in full agreement. If those two fine bloggers were not enough to get you over there, will my additional urging do the trick?

The many comments range from insightful to insufferable. Skim over them quickly and pick out the gems. There is also a later post at QandO you should see. Among the comment here was one from a friend and fellow Bloginator, Eric Cowperthwaite...

Torture, abuse and murder, whether of prisoners or non-combatants, by members of the military is corrosive and destructive to the morale of the military. It breaks down military discipline. Soldiers become thugs and worse. These soldiers involved in the systematic abuse, torture and murder of prisoners are just as bad as the men of the SS who guarded the concentration camps and formed the Einsatzgruppen and no military organization should tolerate their behavior or presence within their ranks.

Eric is a veteran of 18 years service and Desert Storm, so he knows of what he speaks. I am not a military man, having missed out on a trip to Vietnam by one year, but being old enough to remember the home front battle of that time I sense some parallels. The public made a terrible mistake back then, one that is widely recognized today. The blame for the ugliness and horrors of that conflict fell on the troops. Blame for the overall conduct of the war fell on the political leaders in Washington. The largest problem was between those two, the military leadership. Vietnam veterans like Colin Powell and Norm Schwarzkopf have written about the tragic weakness in the US military hierarchy at that time.

We are a long way from the sorry situation of 35 years ago, but the same error is before us. Somewhere between the East Wing at the White House and the guards at US prisoners facilities, some bad ideas have taken hold. Turning away from the problem out of a sincere but misplaced patriotism or loyalty to the troops will ultimately harm both the war effort and the honor and respect due the troops. Eric puts it well.

I’m proud of my service, proud of the military and proud of what this country stands for. The men, women and units that have behaved in this abominable fashion neither deserve the appellation of soldier nor to continue their military service.

Eric doesn't mention the leadership explicitly, but earlier in the thread, McQ at QandO puts it clearly:

We’ve argued that the occurrences are more than random and speaks to a very apparent lack of leadership or at least emphasis by leadership. That’s not an indictment of all of the leaders, or the administration, or even most of the leaders. It’s an indictment of those leaders charged with the custody of prisoners in various locales. They’ve not done the job. And they’ve either disregarded guidance or ignored it. They’ve also either been ignorant of the activities or implicitly condoned them. That’s unacceptable.

"Unacceptable" I'll add, not because some "lefty" bloggers or European bureaucrats like it, but because it brings undeserved disgrace on the rest of our military and the country and ultimately hurts our overall political effort. Someone made a strategic error, placing the potential for short-term intelligence gain (which is suspect, imho) over the long-term strategic effort and over the fundamental principals for which Americans have always fought. We like to think that blogs are a big deal, and will become even more so, but we need to demonstrate that we can handle a tough issue without dissolving into overly politicized noise. Unquestioning loyalty to a political administration, over the best interests of our war effort and the troops, is what gave us the tragic result in Vietnam. If intelligent and thoughtful bloggers can help steer the national discussion away from political witch hunts, blind defensiveness, towards a sober and focused investigation and response, we'll have demonstrated that the citizen media can matter on the big issues too.

Posted by Jay on May 30, 2005 at 11:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 27, 2005

The unfortunate aspect of this "victory for the moderates"

It great to see anything declared a "victory for the moderates" these days, but in this case the real downside, at least from a centrist perspective, is the particular cast of characters who have become the public face of centrism these days. Peggy Noonan doesn't mention how she feels about the deal, but she leaves no confusion about her feelings toward the deal-makers.

I know they're centrists, but there is nothing moderate about their self-regard. And why should there be? I personally was dazzled by their refusal to bow to the counsels of common sense and proportion, and stirred that they had no fear of justified insult ("blowhard," "puffed up popinjay") as they moved forward in the halls of the United States Senate to bravely proclaim their excellence.

I managed to avoid seeing the announcement and interviews, but based on what I've read, I'm glad I did. Noonan, usually the most smooth of writers, is refreshingly biting on the subject of these over-inflated egos. Read the whole essay. she doesn't, thank goodness, ascribe their behavior to their centrist politics, but rather to the influence of the culture in general.

I think everyone in politics now has been affected by the linguistic sleight-of-hand, which began with the Kennedys in the 1960s, in which politics is called "public service," and politicians are allowed and even urged to call themselves "public servants." Public servants are heroic and self-denying. Therefore politicians are heroic and self-denying. I think this thought has destabilized them.

People who charge into burning towers are heroic; nuns who work with the poorest of the poor are self-denying; people who volunteer their time to help our world and receive nothing in return but the knowledge they are doing good are in public service. Politicians are in politics. They are less self-denying than self-aggrandizing. They are given fame, respect, the best health care in the world; they pass laws governing your life and receive a million perks including a good salary, and someone else--faceless taxpayers, "the folks back home"--gets to pay for the whole thing. This isn't public service, it's more like public command. It's not terrible--democracies need people who commit politics; they have a place and a role to play--but it's not saintly, either.

I don't know if politicians have ever been modest, but I know they have never seemed so boastful, so full of themselves, and so dizzy with self-love.

No matter how difficult these Senators tell us it was to negotiate this deal, there is nothing here that was truly "hard." In other industries, with fierce competition breathing down their necks, people cut much tougher deals that risk their own jobs and investments, as well as the lives and livelihood of many other people, and they get it done quickly and get onto the next deal. These guys have little at risk and only their own egos to overcome. Was that not the big barrier in this case, the stonewall egos of both party's leadership?

As for the gang of 14, some are familiar centrist ans some are a bit suspect. Before the deal was announced, David Brooks wrote about how the Centrists are doomed to failure in these sorts of efforts; " Here's an example of why moderates never accomplish anything in Washington" is how he opens. He was wrong about their failure, but made some cogent observations nonetheless.

Contemplating the likely scenario if the nuclear option was triggered...

The leaders of both parties sound like the cheerful generals at the start of World War I, who had their own happy fantasies of victory before Christmas. Neither party is prepared for the quagmire and for how the public will react.

He's got that right. This deal has not made everything nice and friendly in the Senate, so this observation still stands.

As for the centrist negotiators...

I'm all for valiant efforts, but why do the independent types always have to be so ineffectual? Why do they always have to play their accustomed role: well-intentioned roadkill?

The answer, to be blunt, is that some of the moderates are moderates out of conviction. They do have courage. But many moderates are simply people who feel cross-pressured by different political forces, and their instinctive response is to shrink from pressure. They lack spirit to take risks, to actually lead.

Sadly, he's right about this too. In talking about centrism as I like to define it, I must always differentiate between centrism as a conviction, even a "radical" conviction, and the accidental moderate politics of those Brooks describes above. They don't want to be out fighting in the middle, but the ended up there more or less by accident. The strong-form of centrism is likely to scare them half to death.

At least Brooks was wrong about the outcome. This time, at least.

Posted by Jay on May 27, 2005 at 12:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 26, 2005

The ideology of Chillin'

As you may know, Mark Coffee at the Decision '08 blog caught fast rising meme by the tail yesterday. He proposed a "Coalition of the Chillin'" and got an immediate response, including one from me. The Coalition as Mark created it is a reaction to the hysterical over-reaction to the filibuster deal. Personally, I think "Chillin'" ought to be an ongoing commitment. In the case of this particular issue, to be "Chillin'" means not losing faith and bailing out at the first bit of rough water. As Mark indicated in this post today, it can also mean keeping the screaming down to where we can hear one another a bit.

I won't pretend that I had a great agenda behind the Coalition of the Chillin' - it was a goof that happened to (luckily for me, and I hope for you, as well) tap into some low-level frustration. It occurs to me, though, that it accidentally serves a pretty important purpose. To put it as simply as I can - nobody digs the Daily Kos but the Kossacks. If that's the model we emulate, right or left, then blogs will lose their influence quickly. Shrill histrionics and apocalyptic rhetoric, blogger triumphalism, all of these things appeal only to the faithful. Let us stand for our principles, yes, but we don't have to shout all the time, that's all. If we become completely indignant about every issue, how will we differentiate the TRULY terrible from the mildly annoying?...

Music to my ears, Mark.

If you want to join in with those who are keepin' cool these days visit Mark's blog and let him know.

If you want to post the Chillin' blogroll, Ryan James has created one. I didn't see the script code for the blogroll anywhere handy so I grabbed it from his page source. Just paste this into your template in the appropriate place.

<script language="javascript" type="text/javascript" src="http://rpc.blogrolling.com/display.php?r=ef29fcf0a59f0076c2bccd8b4039bccc">

Ryan created a slightly smaller version of the logo which is available here. I created an even smaller and cleaner version for my blogroll. If you want to download it and use it feel free. Do me a favor, however and don't hotlink it. Thanks.

Posted by Jay on May 26, 2005 at 11:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

How to Know When to Stop Listening - "Anonomous Sources"

I was trying to find an old post on "How to know when to stop listening," but it appears it was posted to my old site which is no longer archived. Rather than resurrect it I've decided to create a new series of posts in the same spirit. There are moments when a speaker signals that you may not stop paying attention to what they are saying. Once you learn to recognize these signals you will find it much easier and quicker to read the news each day and scan the blogs.

This is not the most important signal but it presented itself in this post by Dean Esmay. Dean links to an even better post on Neo-Neocon tracing the use of anonymous sources in news reporting. I posted my thoughts back when the Eason Jordon scandal was topic #1, but I lacked neo-neocon's excellent research to back it up. Now we know. According to the old masters of the journalistic art, a source who will not or cannot be quoted on the record can be useful as a tip for the enterprising young investigative reporter, but is not to be quoted in the story. Anonymous tips can be very helpful to police detectives but they are not admissible in court. The police and prosecutors, guided perhaps by the anonymous tip, must find other confirming sources.

A reporter who is quoting the anonymous source directly either could not verify the story or didn't make the effort. In either case, you can be sure that what you are hearing is not worth the mental bandwidth you are investing. Some (few) anonymously sourced stories will turn-out to be both true and important, but not many. News that is both true and important can generally be verified with a little effort. A few, like the Watergate story, take more than a little effort, but the overwhelming majority of stories that cannot be verifies are trash. You don't want to clutter up you head (or your blog) with trash.

Seeing as how the editors of the major news outlets are no longer demanding verification from their reporters, we , the readers must do that job. When you come across a story hinging on an unattributed source, sop reading and say out loud, "bring me some corroborating evidence!".

Posted by Jay on May 26, 2005 at 01:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Everybody wants to be "Mainstream"

I wasn't going to quote this NY Times editorial, but they close with a line I just couldn't pass up.

There is absolutely nothing unfair about allowing a minority that actually represents more American people to veto lifetime appointments of judges who are far outside the mainstream of American thinking.

I don't now where to start... this is a very highly-refined class of confusion. In fact, I'm just going to bypass the fairness stuff and focus on the ritual recitation of the "mainstream" phrase. For both Republican and Democrats, anyone they oppose is "out of the American mainstream." It's one of those overly focus-grouped phrases that get tossed into a sentence in the hope that readers will respond in some subliminal way. I burst out laughing imagining the editors of the New York Times trying to fathom the American mainstream. No doubt they would be careful to observe it from a safe distance. The New York I once knew was quite sure it was nowhere near the mainstream and quite proud of it. Has Manhattan become Middle-America since I left?

I'll be honest here and admit that I myself am "far outside the mainstream of America." As best I can tell, the Mainstream of American Thinking these days is concerned with nothing beyond a television show featuring overly-emotive singers (I'll come clean, I've never watched it.) It has never been my goal to be average or ordinary. I don't even like the label "moderate"; I'm attracted to centrism partly because it is such a lonely spot these days (probably why I'm so juiced to see headlines about "renegade moderates".) I try hard to be exceptional and ask the same from my children; is it too much to ask of federal judges?

(Seriously now, I have no doubt that the judges nominated by the president are far more "exceptional" as individuals than I'll ever be. Rather I'm amused that the Times is convinced that judges ought to be "mainstream", or that they (the Times) could even recognize mainstream American thinking. )

Posted by Jay on May 26, 2005 at 12:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 25, 2005

More on political theater in the Senate

(Yes this is All-Senate-Deal week at Radical Centrist. Anytime the papers are covering a "centrist breakthrough" on page one I have to go to full-time coverage)*

The lead editorial in todays WSJ expresses a theme I raised a few days ago here; much of what we saw from the Senate this week was a carefully stage directed bit of theater.

Judging by all of the self-congratulation, you'd think the 14 Senators who reached a deal Monday on judicial nominations were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. "We have kept the Republic," declared Democrat Robert Byrd, with all due modesty. "The Senate won" and "the country won," added Republican John McCain. All 14 are apparently destined for Mount Rushmore, as soon as Mr. Byrd can stuff the money for the sculpture into an appropriations bill.

What a charade. This ballyhooed "compromise" is all about saving the Senators themselves, not the Constitution. Its main point is to shield the group of 14 from the consequences of having to cast difficult, public votes in a filibuster showdown. Thus they split the baby on the most pressing nominees, giving three of them a vote while rejecting two others on what seem to be entirely arbitrary grounds, so Members of both parties can claim victory. Far better to cashier nominees as a bipartisan phalanx, rather than face up to their individual "advice and consent" responsibilities.

Aww, let 'em bask in it for a brief while. Sure its all theater, but these folks, with a few obvious exceptions, are accustomed to being in the background. What the Editors see as cynicism is actually...well it's cynicism, but of the old-fashioned political sort. Attempts to define this question as a serious test of the Constitution, or as the end of consistent, excogitative consideration of judicial qualifications, are unconvincing. I don't like the filibuster on principle, but the Constitution seems to allow the Congress wide latitude in determining its own rules, including what constitutes "consent." It's an interesting question that perhaps some scholars of the law will pursue, but this weeks deal is not rejection of the Constitution. And as for the cynicism of a deal that approves some nominees while rejecting others, in what appears to be an arbitrary selection, well, welcome to Washington, folks. Is anyone surprised that Senators can be shocked by the radical positions of a judge one day (actually for four years), and voting in their favor the next? This is the U.S. Senate for goodness sake; thee guys are so nuanced in their politics that they have become poison in a presidential campaign. These judges will manage, as will the country.

Who can say how "critical" a particular judge will be to the conservative or liberal agenda. Priscilla Owen has been approved and that appears to be a victory for conservative forces, but Ed Whelan in NRO's Bench Memos blog reminds us that judges can be hard to predict. Whelan quotes Senator Ted Kennedy on the "troubling" and "alarming" record of Supreme Court nominee David Souter. Kennedy voted against him, convinced he would "to turn back the clock on the historic progress of recent decades." Souter didn't turn out quite the way Ted expected. Kennedy did not prevail and Souter was confirmed, a victory for the Republicans, or so it seemed at the time. Time alone will tell us how big a victory the Republicans have won this time.

Finally, some are saying ** that this deal just pushes the debate into the future. That, of course, is entirely true, and not, in my thinking, such a bad thing. This is all about the Supreme Court, correct? And the Supreme Court concern is largely (not quite "all") about the future of Roe v. Wade. Why engage in an ugly battle over an issue that has not yet come into view? We don't know who President Bush will nominate to the court, We don't know how that nominee will stand on the abortion question. We don't even know if this president will have a Supreme Court vacancy to fill, or when. Rehnquist might recover his health, or hang on until after the 2006 election; things could look different then. (I know that it's very likely that Bush will have one or more seats to fill, but don't count your seats before they're vacant.) Rather than engage in a death-match now, over the expectation that a Supreme Court battle is around the corner, why not just wait until the big fight arrives?

* But I'm ready to call a moratorium on "Gang of 14" posts and turn to something worth getting worked-up about, like Europe...

** Link connects to a NYTimes editorial containing some typically twisted Times thinking. Be warned...

Posted by Jay on May 25, 2005 at 10:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Coalition of Cool Heads

Blogs are great for ranting, and great for those who are prone to loud ranting. An angry outburst is usually rewarded with readership and linkage. As a result the "conversation" amongst the blogs can get a bit... heated. Kudos to Mark Coffee at Decision '08 for declaring himself the founding member of the Coalition of the Chillin'. Already many bloggers, both great and not-so-great, but all cool-headed, are boldly admitting that they are not inflamed over the collapse of Republican discipline (The Republicans should be proud that they even have any discipline to lose.) I too remain cool-to-the-touch this week, as I did in early November, when my many Democratic party friends and neighbors burst into full flame. I nearly lost it, I admit, this spring when a young woman I'd never met succumbed to dehydration, but I recovered quickly and hope to remain among the chillin' right through this globally-warmed summer.

Update: Mark has posted a manifesto. Points one and five are my favorites.

Posted by Jay on May 25, 2005 at 01:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Let's remember, the Senate does have other business

I like James Taranto's assessment of the filibuster compromise. He seems to remember a few things that others, in their emotional shock and disappointment, seem to forget.

First there are costs associated with the "nuclear option" for both sides. The Dems would have something to rally the troops with, but they would be forced to defend their obstructionism. The Republicans would have a few more judges of their choosing, but they would have stepped right into the role of "cheaters" ready to manipulate the rules of the Senate (and perhaps the recent elections?) in order to do the bidding of the religious right.

Secondly, the Senate has other business that is important to both sides, especially the Republicans. They bear the burden of leadership. The Republicans hold the White House and both ends of the Capitol, if little or nothing happens in this Congress it will be very tough to pass the blame off to obstructionist Democrats (even if its true.) Taranto points out one immediate effect of a compromise.

Why not humiliate the Democrats? Well, here's one reason: "Democrats agreed on Tuesday to clear the way for the Senate to vote on the controversial nomination of John Bolton as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which was expected to pass mainly on party lines," Reuters reports. Had the Senate gone nuclear yesterday, Bolton's nomination would be suffering from the fallout.

What Taranto doesn't mention but others have, is that some of those Republican Senators have warm feelings for the filibuster, not perhaps in this latest application but in general; its a weapon they would like to retain in their arsenal.

Being the political contrarian that I am, I would have preferred a deal that killed the filibuster and some of the judges. I want to see votes on everyone, and I want them to be votes that mean something, not unthinking party-line headcounts. But this deal will do. As I mentioned above, there are costs as well as benefits to the nuclear option for both sides. The costs, however, are felt most painfully by those who want to move their respective parties toward the center (in other words, those who want to win majorities.) The benefits accrue to the ideological pure of heart on either wing. As Taranto notes, the leadership, perhaps unwittingly, had become publicly committed to the hard-line course ( I have an easy time believing that these leaders behave "unwittingly".) The deal allows both sides to back away from a painful conflict with some saving of face.

Everybody has something to feel good about. The Democrats can claim that the filibuster has been saved, carefully forgetting that the whole point was to sink "extremist judges". Meanwhile one of those extremists sailed safely to approval today, and more will follow. How things shake out down the road will be very interesting. I hope (actually "expect") that the Democrats will be very hesitant to resort to a filibuster of a judicial nominee, and that the Republican Senators will feel more free to vote against a judge who they cannot in good conscious support.

Posted by Jay on May 25, 2005 at 11:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 24, 2005

The burden of leadership

Skimming through blogs to check reaction to the Senate deal last night, I came across one anguished conservative blogger (can't find it now to link. Sorry, I'll add it later if I find it) who wondered aloud, "what's the use of being in the majority?" The answer is clear to those Senators who have been in the minority. Holding the majority is not a license to rule by fiat. Sen. Frist is the leader not the dictator of the Senate. The Republicans enjoy the considerable power of the chair, in the committees and the full Senate, which means that they set the agenda and the timing. Having the White House as well they get to debate conservative judges, and will have a significant effect on the judiciary despite losses on a handfull of nominations. The operative word is "leadership". I agree with many right-wing blogs that Frist is a weak leader, but it is skilled leadership that is needed, not fratricidal discipline. The Republicans are running a democracy, not a company or a military unit. Best to remember that.

Posted by Jay on May 24, 2005 at 01:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack