February 18, 2006

A hunting accident ends up being a story about the media

I don't hunt and I'm neither a Cheney advocate nor Cheney hater, so this hunting accident story doesn't grab me much, except as it has developed into a story about a "meltdown" (as some have characterized it) among some of our nation's more self-exulted egos. All this has served to remind me of the low regard I feel towards the Washington press corp and the major media outlets. I am thankful that I have learned to avoid them. I have not seen any of the reporting on this story itself. Indeed, I have not set eyes on a television news broadcast in a while, and am a happier, and I think better informed man because if it.

Some blogger who's post I have misplaced (I'll add a link if I can find it) noted that this media has determined that cartoons which have brought deadly riots to much of the world are not newsworthy, but an accident on a private ranch is the sort of news that cannot wait a few hours. Just as in the cartoon story, we can see through the words to the true motivation. The insult in Denmark was not to a prophet but to the authority of the Muslim leaders who forbid the publication of the cartoons, and the anger in the press is not that an important story was suppressed, as there is no important story here, but that they were circumvented.

Listening to them makes me angry and sad. A vigorous, honest and free press would be a wonderful thing at the moment, but we are not so fortunate.

Posted by Jay on February 18, 2006 at 03:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 01, 2005

Pretending to be stupid

The most significant problem with blog-style punditry, whether in a true blog or in a traditional column, is the tendency to drift into cynical snarkiness. Most of the high-readership bloggers agree that punching up the "attitude" level will drive up your readership. I have to admit, as I look at my feed-reader, that I too seem to drop-in most regularly with those writers who can toss off a quick quip. It fits with the "blog reader lifestyle", I guess; a quick mental break between tasks at work.

One of the best of the "quick-quip" writers is James Taranto, well known for his "Best of the Web" column at Opinion Journal. I get his email version daily and look forward to it; it's a nice break, and often informative and insightful. That's the good news.

The not-so-good-news, as I said above, is that repeated snarkiness can lead to foolishness. Every so often I see a clearly intelligent and informed writer "pretend to be stupid" or perhaps, "dense" is the better word. Now that Sen. Kerry has poisoned the word "nuance" for political use, I worry that the concept of nuance is similarly off-limits. True, sometimes people can nuance themselves into delusion and illogical thinking, Sen. Kerry is an excellent example, but there is a proper role for nuance and there are many processes and phenomena in our world that cannot be reduced to soundbite-simplicity, at least not without wringing out most of the useful understanding.

So sometimes one can over-nuance things, and other times one can over-simplify. Intelligent people ought to be able to handle this. Remember how Einstein put it? "Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler." Usually this is not hard, but then sometimes it is hard. Most things are "not rocket science," but some things are "rocket science."

Getting back to "pretending to be stupid." If a subject actually does contain a smidgen of nuance or complexity, there is a temptation to exploit that for purposes of making a snarky comment or rejoinder. The writer pretends to not get the subtle point, in order to make his opponent's position look silly. Most everything President Bush says is grabbed by his opponents and repeated in an absurd simpification. It makes for jolly jokes on liberal blog sites. On the other side, some folks seem unable to hear any critisism of the war effort without shouting back, "Oh, so your support the murder of Iraqi children?" This is purposely not getting the point; a deliberate dense-ness. Sadly it works well in a blog. We would be better off if we lost this habit.

Taranto slipped over that line today, imho, in this little comment:

The New 'Fake but Accurate' "Some climate experts have said the potential cooling of Europe was paradoxically consistent with global warming caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping 'greenhouse' emissions."--New York Times, Dec. 1

The 'clever quip' is in the title, "The new Fake but Accurate." Clearly there are things that are "fake" but accurate, but the obvious meaning of the reference is to the "Rathergate" episode. It implies that a "potential cooling in Europe" is something that must be explained away through subterfuge and illogic; the embarassment of reality breaking in. That sort of thing happens all the time; it happened to Rather, but this strikes me as something very different. I have always thought Taranto intelligent and informed, so I perceive this as a deliberate failure to get the point, He's being dense in order to sound witty.

When there is a blizzard in New York or Washington, or, as in this case, when scientists see risk of cooling climate in Europe, those who wish to make climate scientists look foolish will jump at the chance to wonder how things could be cold in a world that it supposed to be warming. One might similarly wonder how scientists can describe the birth of the Universe as the "Big Bang", when there can be no transmission of sound in space. "How could there be a 'bang!' and who heard it?" Few would take such a critisism seriously. We recognize that the term, "Big Bang" is just a name, not an attempt at a scientific description. Similarly, "Warming" is an unfortunately misleading term that has become a handle for a much more complex and dynamic set of climate changes.

People who aspire to some understanding of national economic issues should have no problem with a conceptual understanding of climate issues. Almost the whole of the Republican Party's position on the economy is dependant on understanding the economy as a dynamic system of flows. Democrats take full advantage of this "nuance" by pointing out that it seems absurd, on the surface, to claim the tax cuts for investors could ever benefit the poor. In simplistic terms, the only way to help the poor is to take money away from those who have it and give it to those who don't. Economies don't actually work that way, and many Demorcrats realize this, but that doesn't stop them from appealing to the overly simplistic view when it suits political posturing.

This climate debate is closely analogous. There is plenty to debate, discuss and further research, just as there is on economic issues, without falling back on misleading oversimplifications. I wish we could avoid appealing to ignorance and misunderstanding, even when they are politically useful.

It took me long enough to prepare this post that another example has popped up. Ian Murray, writing on The Corner, this morning comments on a recent court decision regarding regulation of Carbon Dioxide emmisions with this aside:

...it had no authority to regulate carbon dioxide (which is a natural and vital part of the atmosphere) as a pollutant.

There are many compounds which are "natural and vital" to the human body which, if consumed in excess, will kill it. The statement in parenthesis is another example of being deliberately dense in order to mislead. Carbon dioxide can and does kill people directly. On any submarine, the management of carbon dioxide is of vital importance. In the overly simple view of the world, some things are "good for you" and other things are "bad for you." I assume, however, we are all adults here and capable of understanding that many things can be good for us in one context and bad for us in another. This is one of those "not rocket science things."

PS: If you're interested, hre's a down-in-the-details discussion of the new scientific findings that started this rant.

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Posted by Jay on December 1, 2005 at 12:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 17, 2005

A flashback moment for the baby boomers

Bob Woodward is forever linked in history, and in the memories of folks over 45, with Richard Nixon. Congrat's to Hugh Hewitt for spotting the almost spooky way Woodward is echoing Tricky Dick in these comments.

Woodward as Nixon: "I hunkered down. I'm in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn't want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed."

There must be come great meaning or lesson here, or perhaps some deep insight either psychological or philosophical, but I admit that I can't see it. It's just one of those things that make you go "hmmm", a coincidence to good to be a coincidence.

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Posted by Jay on November 17, 2005 at 01:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 22, 2005

"Stuck on Stupid"

That's the phrase General Honore has been using with the press that has caught so much attention. Here's the link to Radio Blogger with a transcript.

The General is trying to get the press to report how people can evacuate from this storm, and they are unable to stop talking about the last storm. Here are a few excepts (Gen. Honore speaking)

Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight.
Male reporter: General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and did not have that last time...

Honore: You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita. This is public information that people are depending on the government to put out. This is the way we've got to do it. So please. I apologize to you, but let's talk about the future. Rita is happening. And right now, we need to get good, clean information out to the people that they can use. And we can have a conversation on the side about the past, in a couple of months.

The point he makes about the public communication role of the press is a very good one. A lot of the preventable suffering after Katrina was the result of misinformation and confusion. The press ought not to be contributing to that confusion. They are very much "stuck" as the General says, but stuck, I fear, on a good deal more than "stupid." They are stuck in their role as professional expressers of outrage and placers of blame. They cannot get their minds into the reality of the situation, seeing instead the chessboard on which political forces are always maneuvering for position, and dodging responsibility. While they are trying to parse blame for one disaster they are ready to contribute to confusion about the next one.

I don't know if "stuck on stupid" is a common expression in the General's line of work or home region, but it is certainly apt for this application. he press will very often "play dumb", and ask a question that they very well know the answer to, just to get a reaction out of the interviewee. The General, faced with a second major hurricane in a month, finally said what needed to be said. There is a time for the press to stop pretending to be stupid, as stupid as they think their audience to be, and get with the program. Like it or not they have a role to play as well.

...but the "stuck on stupid" line is here to stay. As Radio Pundit put it:

I think the General just started a movement, and he may not even realize it. Every time a reporter, in any situation, starts spinning, or completely misses the point, they need to be peppered with, "Don't get stuck on stupid." ... I can see the bumper stickers now. I can even see those stupid rubber wristbands with DGSOS etched in them.

I love General Honore.

I think a lot of people are feeling that way.

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Posted by Jay on September 22, 2005 at 12:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 13, 2005

Writers who can dish it out.

Most writers, when they write in anger, degrade into ranting and bluster. A precious few, like these two, become brilliant when aroused. Both these links come via The Corner. Enjoy...

George Will is unimpressed by the sudden realization in America that there are poor people among us. I'm with George on this. I've seen dead people on America's streets, and it was not in the aftermath of a great hurricane. Pay attention to what happens everyday in cities like New York, Washington, or any major city. Imagine the shocking scenes if Washington D.C. was ever to flood. If Congress wants to be embarrassed by scenes of poverty, they need only drive a few miles from the Capitol.

On the subject of Congressional embarrassment, here's Will:

The idea that Hurricane Katrina would change the only thing that matters - thinking - perished even more quickly, at about the time Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a suitable symbol of congressional narcissism, dramatized the severity of the tragedy by taking a television interviewer on a helicopter flight over her destroyed beach house. "Washington rolled the dice and Louisiana lost," she said in a speech on the Senate floor that moved some senators to tears. You can no more embarrass a senator than you can a sofa, so the tears were not accompanied by blushing about having just passed a transportation bill whose 6,371 pork projects cost $24 billion, about 10 times more than the price of the levee New Orleans needed.

I haven't had much exposure to George Galloway, but what little I have seen leads me to dislike him quite a bit. I've noticed that many smart people seem to dislike the man quite a bit. Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be very familiar with Galloway, dislikes him in a breathtakingly vigorous way that I cannot excerpt without losing the effect. Pop over to Slate and take it all in.

BTW: The article's intent is to announce that Hitchens will debate Galloway tomorrow in New York. The event will be broadcast on radio, which I believe those of us in other locations can hear over the internet. You won't want to miss this one!

Posted by Jay on September 13, 2005 at 10:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 28, 2005

Why is Helen Thomas still covering the White House?

In the wake of the Jeff Guckert mess, why is Helen Thomas considered an impartial journalist?

She's saying that if Dick Cheney runs for president, she will kill herself. She doesn't strike me as a particularly credible source, so I don't believe this statement either, but how can someone pretending to be a journalist make these comments?

Additional comment in The Corner on NRO here.

Posted by Jay on July 28, 2005 at 11:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 16, 2005

Noonan wants honesty about, and on, PBS

Good stuff over at the Opinion Journal today. Peggy Noonan, for example, looks at the controversy over funding for PBS. It may surprise you to learn that she supports continued support for PBS. It will surprise you less that she would prefer the network without the politics.

You know what would be fun, and actually helpful? If in the latest struggle over funding for public television, people said what they know to be true.

The argument, once again, is about whether PBS has a liberal bias. There are charges and counter charges, studies, specific instances cited of subtle partiality here and obvious side-taking there. But arguing over whether PBS is and has long been politically liberal is like arguing over whether the ocean is and has long been wet. Of course it is, and everyone knows it.

Conservative argue that in a 500-channel universe the programming of PBS could easily be duplicated or find a home at a free commercial network. The power of the marketplace will ensure that PBS's better offerings find a place to continue and flourish.

This I doubt. Actually I'm fairly certain it is not true. And I suspect most people on the Hill know it is not true.

We live in the age of Viacom and "Who Wants to Be a Celebrity," not the age of Omnibus and "Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts." A lot of Democrats think that left to the marketplace, PBS will die. A lot of Republicans think so too, but don't mind.

Noonan would like PBS to focus on the things it does best. These are also the things that no one else in the broadcast industry will touch. Things like the arts, classic drama, history.

Does all this sound rarefied, a ratings loser? PBS is supposed to be rarefied. As for ratings, let's imagine this. PBS mounts a production of "Hamlet." No one will watch it? What if Brad Pitt takes the role? He'd be happy to do it; he gets a high-class venue in which to show he can actually act, and in return he earns the gratitude of those who care about culture or say they care, which is most Americans. He'd get points for doing it for scale, which of course he'd have to. Young people would watch. They would thus imbibe Shakespeare, still the jewel in the crown of Western culture. PBS would be thanked for doing a public service. Conservative congressmen would find themselves in the unexpected and delightful position of being called friends of the arts, and liberal congressmen would be able to say "I told you PBS is worthwhile."

And so on. Symphonies. A study of the work of George Bellows. A productions of "Spoon River Anthology." David McCullough on George Washington. A history of the Second Amendment--why is it in that old Constitution? Angelina Jolie as Juliet, Kathleen Turner as Lady Macbeth, Alec Baldwin as Big Daddy when you get around to Tennessee Williams. It will keep him away from politics. Sean Penn as Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh." There are far more great actors than there is great material. Mine the classics, all of them, of the theater and arts and music and history.

It is true that if you tell PBS producers they are now doing a play series they will immediately decide to remount "Angels in America." How about a rule: It takes at least 50 years for a currently esteemed work to prove itself a work of art, a true classic. It proves this by enduring. Do plays that have proved themselves to be enduring contributions--i.e., art. Look to the permanent, not the prevalent.

PBS should be refunded, because it does not and will not exist elsewhere if it is not. But it should be funded with rules and conditions, and it should remember its reason for being: to do what the networks cannot do or will not do, and that somebody should do.

I was once watched and listened to Public Broadcasting a lot. I have reduced my PBS viewing along with all television viewing, but we still have a family membership. PBS has sold itself to donor organizations and its psuedo-advertisers, with the premium-quality demographics of it's audience. The network was founded, however, to bring the fine arts and educational content to people who could not otherwise afford it, but the market for such programming tends to be a pretty upscale crowd. If people don't avail themselves of the fine arts they are the losers but can only blame themselves. But if the Arts and education are not available to all then the society is to blame. Some find the underlying assumption behind PBS offensive. Who is to say that the artistic tastes of the educated elites should be funded by the general public? Well, Peggy Noonan seems to think its OK, and I'm going to agree with her. She is careful to focus on art and history that has demonstrated its worth over time, and these become elements of the culture that are otherwise available only to the elites.

Genuinely open and impartial news and analysis is something we lack and need, but PBS is not the organization to provide it.

Posted by Jay on June 16, 2005 at 04:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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 26, 2005

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

May 23, 2005

Okrent gets in a few last words about the NY Times

Daniel Okrent is leaving the NYT "Public Editor" position. His farewell column offers 13 things he "meant to write about but never did." I'm glad he got a chance to at least mention them in departing. Good stuff, such as...

...my thoughts on journalism and the First Amendment have changed considerably. I still cherish the First; I still think it's the cornerstone of democracy. But I would love to see journalists justify their work not by wrapping themselves in the cloak of the law, but by invoking more persuasive defenses: accuracy, for instance, and fairness.

That the press has a right to print something does not mean it should. Freedom of Speech also means the freedom to keep silent, and it implies the responsibility to speak with care.

Calling on the individual man or woman on the street to make conclusive judgments is beneath journalistic dignity. If polls involving hundreds of people carry a cautionary note indicating a margin of error of plus-or-minus five points, what kind of consumer warning should be glued to a reporter's ad hoc poll of three or four respondents?

That's an old trick that needs to be called-out more often. Grab a couple of quick quotes and call it a "movement". A really lazy reporter will just drop in an unattributed quotes and say, "local people say..." A journalist with a point to make can shop around the bystanders looking for a good quote. I have personally seen and experienced reporters "helping" an interviewee get the quote right. All the journalism pros and professors assure me that such a thing isn't done, but it does. I watched a TV news producer coach a hapless demonstration organizer once while I ate lunch. Turnout for the protest was laughably disappointing, but with the producer's stage management and careful camera angles the 10 or 15 people there were made to look like a large crowd (lots of shots of marching feet, most of them headed for sandwich shops). The story made the news that evening, I watched for it. No mention of the tiny turnout.

Okrent also has some last words for Dowd, Krugman and Safire, including the line, "I didn't give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist."

Posted by Jay on May 23, 2005 at 10:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack