Category: Media

Longing for President Bartlett

Washington Post political columnist Kathleen Parker — one of the keenest observers of the American political scene — brought a tear of nostalgia to my eyes this morning with this comment in a well-reasoned piece on Trump’s future:

A single episode of “The West Wing” would have taught Trump more about his new job than he seems to know — or care.

Ah, Jed, we hardly knew ye!

Read the entire column here. And if you’re not watching her regularly, and you’re a political kin to me, you should be.

Semantics Matter: It’s Climate Change, Not Global Warming

Global-Climate-ChangeAmong other research techniques, I have created a Google feed that brings me every day supposedly top news in the field of global climate change. This feed includes items both from the scientific community and its supporters, as well as links to what the climate change deniers are saying these days. I must admit I often find the latter disconcerting and confusing, but it’s important to know what the other side is thinking, even when they appear not to be. Thinking, that is.

For some reason, I noticed in today’s feed a significant number of headlines that use the phrase “global warming” instead of the vastly preferable “climate change” which is not only more accurate, but less arguable. In fact, four of the nine items offered by the Google feed use the words “global warming” in their headlines.

As a writer and as an observer of the human condition, I have often commented on — some would say railed against — the improper labeling of political positions in particular. Most of my friends are by now tired of hearing from me when they use the phrase “pro-life”. I maintain that I don’t know anyone who isn’t pro-life. The issue isn’t life or death, it’s choice or force. So I prefer calling those on the conservative side of that argument “anti-choice,” simply because it seems to me to be more accurate depiction of their overall philosophy. But I digress.

Not all climate change manifests as increasing temperature. Even though that is the underlying cause of climate change at the atmospheric and oceanic levels, the experience of it on earth often takes the form of extreme weather, much of which can be utterly cold. The use of the term “global warming” gives cover to those opponents — I should say disbelievers — of climate change when they want to talk about it at a time when there is a great snow storm brewing. I still have a picture in my head of United States Senator on the floor of that once-august body offering a snowball from outside the capital as evidence that global warming was a hoax.

The imprecision and even inaccuracy of the term should by itself be enough reason for professional journalists and concerned bloggers to avoid it. We are experiencing climate change, on a global scale, greatly exacerbated by the behavior of us humans as we go about our business in unsustainable ways. It does no one any good to confuse the issue with outdated terms.

 

Enough With the Freaking Polls Already!

My favorite news commentator, it will come as no surprise to learn, is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. While there are some things about her show and her delivery (enough with the frigging 39 teases to get us to stay tuned, Rachel! We’re watching already!) that I find annoying, she is, for the most part, a really bright, articulate, insightful journalist. She has a clear viewpoint and she doesn’t make any bones about it. I don’t view her show so much as news as sharing with us her views about what the news means.

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC Commentator

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC Commentator

But she has been part of — perhaps even leading — the parade of otherwise competent journalists who insist on spending hours and hours of air time analyzing absolutely meaningless polls. She has a “hair on fire” approach to anything that shows the Republican Party in general and conservative Republicans specifically in a bad light. So she reports on the presidential preferential polls taking place more than a year before the election and months before any actual voting in primaries, treating them as if they were the Ultimate Truth, the Perfect Prognosticators of what the election results will look like.

She knows better and once in a while she admits as much. But still she cranks up the polling siren every night. “Donald Trump very well could be the Republican Party’s nominee” is red meat for her core followers but it’s (as she likes to say) bullpuckey and she damn well knows it. These polls are meaningless and their results, if correctly interpreted, don’t really tells us what she (and so many others) keep telling us they mean.

Just look at the latest numbers.

CBS News/New York Times GOP Poll Dec 10, 2015

CBS News/New York Times GOP Poll Dec 10, 2015

The most recent CBS News/New York Times poll data has Trump at 35%, which is more than double his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who came in at 16%. This means, according to Rachel, that Trump’s numbers are “through the roof.”

No, it doesn’t.

Let’s take a calm, sensible look at this data.

First, notice who is being polled here. It’s “Republican Primary Voters” (see the label across the top?). Actually, digging a bit deeper you’ll find that all of these early polls focus on likely GOP primary voters. This means that the pollsters filter out anyone who won’t say they’re even likely to vote in the primary. But there’s no indication of how many such voters are being discounted, many (perhaps even most) of whom may well vote when their turn comes. So this is a smallish sample of a smallish sample.

Second, notice who’s not represented. There is no slot for “I don’t know” or “None of the above.” Which leads to the conclusion that it’s likely that option isn’t on the surveys and/or is being removed from consideration because, after all, what this poll wants to do is to test these candidates against one another.

Third, even if you ignore those two points, if 35% of all GOP voters can be said to be pro-Trump, that means 65% are not. Now, tally up the totals of the remainder of the field. The other 14 GOP candidates have a combined total of just over 55%. This means two obvious things.

First, the “not Trump” portion of the field has a clear majority even when it’s broken down in this overly simplistic and largely meaningless way.

Second, Something around 10% of the “GOP Primary Voters” aren’t represented here at all since the sum total of all the candidates is around 90%. With a margin of error of 6 points, we may be looking at an even smaller actual percentage.

So how can Rachel — or any other thoughtful observer — conclude that Trump’s candidacy is real and serious when this fairly simple digging reveals those kinds of insights? I contend that one cannot; that Rachel is simply engaging in the other half of her job (besides intelligent commentator), which is ratings flogger. If she did The Right Thing, she’d either ignore these polls or she’d present them in a broader and more appropriate context and give them much less air time.

Now, just for grins, let’s take the whole issue of polling in its broader electoral context. Even assuming that all of my observations above — and several I didn’t take time for — are wrong and that these poll results are accurate and have real meaning in some context, what is that context?

If you’re a political junkie (and I can only assume you are since you’ve already read almost 750 words of this piece), you can remember the 2012 race. During the course of that race, even once actual voters had cast actual ballots producing actual delegates, the lead for the GOP nomination changed hands a dozen or more times. And sometimes, the leaders’ margins were as high or nearly so as Trump’s are currently. The polls in 2012 were historically wrong. Over and over.

Take a look at this excellent graph over at RealClearPolitics.com. It’s interactive; drag your mouse along the graph and you can look at any point in time from February 2011 through to the concluding point in April 2012 when Mitt Romney sewed up the nomination. Notice the incredible jumble of lines that occupies the vast majority of that time until — wait for it! — late February 2012. By then, several state primaries had been held including Super Tuesday, and the chart finally sorted itself out.

Slice this another way. Assume Trump carries the Iowa caucuses in a landslide as the fake numbers so far suggest. (The caucuses aren’t held until Feb. 1, with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary eight days later.) Care to take a guess when was the last time the winner of the GOP caucuses in Iowa went on to get the party nomination? If we consider only years in which the party had multiple nominees, it was 2000 when George W. Bush carried the state with 41% of the vote. The last two rounds went to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, neither of whom survived to the conventions.

So if Trump is indeed somehow deemed a “prohibitive favorite” to win Iowa, maybe that should be a cause for relief and rejoicing since it likely means he won’t be the party’s nominee.

Then if you’ll indulge me just one final observation, there is the two-headed question of who these likely primary voters are and what their level of political awareness is at the moment.

How many people do you know who are not political junkies like us who are even paying attention to the presidential races at the moment? I thought as much. And of those, how many are thoughtful, considerate semi-partisan observers as opposed to committed progressives and conservatives whose personal party platform is pretty well set and whose preference you could predict with near certainty? Yep. Given that we are almost 90 days out from the first actual voting (if you can call Iowa straw polls and caucuses an actual vote), the upcoming holidays, the hundreds of distracting events in the news and the completely disastrous economy facing almost everyone you and I know, it’s not surprising that most of our friends — even those who are politically motivated in season — are just not focused on the 2016 election.

Within that context, thinking only about the GOP field, who has the best name recognition by far? Donald trumps them all. (Sorry, had to get one of those in before I was done.) And he’s an absolute master of the arts of propaganda and public relations (which are often difficult to distinguish). So the real shock would be if, in these specific circumstances, anyone but Trump were leading the polls.

Now, take a deep breath, brew up a nice cup of chamomile tea, put on some of your favorite relaxation music, and chill. The real pursuit of the nomination will come soon enough.

And, Rachel, please consider giving us less meaningless polling and more discussion of the actual issues your audience worries about now and for the foreseeable future? You’re not adding much light to the discussion these days.

Thanks everyone. You can go back to putting out your hair now.

Add the New Yorker to the List of Publishers Proving Content is King

new_yorkerWeb traffic and subscriptions at NewYorker.com are way, way up ever since the magazine put up a new paywall a few months ago. Editor Nicholas Thompson attributes the sudden increase in eyeballs and dollars to the simple fact that, “The main strategy for growing audience is to publish more, better stories.”

Columnist Benjamin Mullin takes the New Yorker’s success apart today on the Poynter Web site that monitors global journalistic trends and news.

Web publishers have always fallen into two broad categories:

  • those who publish great content, often, and draw attention by the quality of their thinking and writing;
  • those who try to game the system with SEO gimmicks, phony keywords, and disingenuousness

I suppose you could add salaciousness to the list but I prefer not to include that category under the rubric of “publisher.” They are more purveyors.

So the pay-to-read model continues to gain traction and momentum, as good writing, reporting and insight is rewarded once again. It’s not quite a trend yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on. At least it’s no longer appropriate to knee-jerk reject any suggestion that paying for content is a viable business model.

Way to go, New Yorker!

Of Course the GOP Debate Outdrew the Dems: No Clowns!

Everyone knows a circus isn’t a circus without clowns. Political debates are largely circuses of various kinds.

trump_clownSo it came as no surprise to me that CNN reported an average of 15.3 million viewers to last night’s Democratic Presidential Debate compared to the 23 million who watched the Republican debate last week. The GOP has multiple clowns and one terrific clown-in-chief. The Democrats have at best one clown-in-training, Jim Webb (who actually probably belongs in the GOP anyway).

With the Democratic race viewed broadly as largely decided (I disagree, but it’s the majority view) and the Dems’ tendency to debate, you know, issues and policy and other boring stuff instead of screaming and shouting and seeing who can make a bigger ass of him or herself, combined to make the Democratic debate far harder to hype and less “interesting” to watch. Unless you’re a policy wonk (guilty), there was no contest.

The question the American people will decide next November is whether to back the candidate from the more entertaining party or the one from the more thoughtful one. I’m afraid we already know the answer.

 

My Quick First Take on Democratic Debate

I thought:

  • Martin O’Malley helped himself the most
  • Jim Webb did himself the most damage
  • Lincoln Chaffee was oratorically unimpressive
  • Hillary Clinton did what the front-runner needs to do: avoid mistakes and not take any hard direct hits
  • Bernie Sanders was Bernie Sanders, which is just fine, but I don’t think he helped or hurt himself much
  • Anderson Cooper did a very credible job moderating

The debate was far more substantive and watchable than either of the GOP debates, by a pretty long way.

 

Obnoxious Auto-Running Noise is Pissing Me Off!

I’ve had it.

There has been a significant increase recently in the number of Web sites I encounter that begin playing audio and video ads without my requesting it. These in-your-face-and-ears idiots are making my experience of the Web less and less enjoyable. It’s bad enough to have popups obscuring content, slide-ins distracting reading, and full-screen video “hero blocks” behind the top portion of Web pages that keep you from even trying to understand how to get around on the site…or sometimes what the site is even about.

This crap needs to be stopped. Starting now, I’m boycotting any site that uses this intrusive, unacceptable and objectionable tactic to get my attention. No content on the Web is worth putting up with this garbage.

First boycott target: Salon.com. (Ironically, I got my start on the Web as the site’s first Webmaster when the Web  was an embryo) Today, I was trying to listen to an MSNBC clip of Chris Hayes talking about a possible Joe Biden candidacy when a second audio channel kicked in with blaring, pounding music and some ghastly voice-over. I couldn’t find a video on the page to match it. I couldn’t understand what the ad message was, so that’s wasted money. But the damn thing kept re-playing. After the third time, I closed the page and went directly to the content at MSNBC.

Later, I went back to a piece on Salon.com and had the same experience. This time there was no video playing but the blaring, ugly, disruptive and definitely not-enjoyable music was in my headset again.

So I’m done with Salon. I’ll post the identities of other sites that are pulling this same stupid trick. Maybe more of you will join me and maybe, just maybe, we can get the Web back to a marginally sane place again.

Probably not, but what the heck. I can dream, right?

Charlie Hebdo, Satire, Religion and the Banning of Books

The recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a bitingly satirical French magazine, and the slaying of a number of its cartoonists and editors drew worldwide attention. The attack was carried out by terrorists hiding behind the Quran who objected to the magazine’s use of drawn images of the Prophet Mohammed. While there is no question many of the images the magazine published of the Islamic Prophet and Founder were intentionally insulting, the deeper question raised by conservative Muslims is whether all depictions of the Prophet are to be prohibited.

That is apparently not necessarily found in the Quran; the teaching relies on Hadith, a collection of stories about the Prophet’s life and teachings assembled during the first century or so after his death. And while Islam teaches that the Hadith are subordinate to the Quran, many Muslims, particularly those of a radical persuasion, have elevated Hadith to a level equal or nearly equal to that of the Quran. (See this good piece from the BBC on this subject.)

In the broader social context, the issue here is censorship, specifically a form of censorship called “prior restraint.” And while the term is generally limited in legal terms to rules and laws imposed by a government on a society, censorship of the more informal kind is no less real. So in some circles the argument surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s publication of images of Mohammed centers on whether it was inappropriate and insensitive for the magazine to do so in light of Muslim sensibilities.

Part of the reason it is difficult for us in the United States to identify with those who oppose the magazine’s right to print content that is insulting to another person’s religion is that we don’t have such a prohibition. In our country, freedom of speech and of the press is nearly absolute. So when Pope Francis opined that, ““You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” New  York Times columnist Timothy Egan begged to differ. “In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule.” As Egan continued, “A faith that cannot withstand ridicule is no faith at all. And a faith that cannot laugh at itself is a faith that defies human nature.”

But we Americans are holier-than-thou when it comes to the freedoms we’ve enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Unless, of course, their exercise results in Power being offended. We are a country that has, over the centuries, banned some great literature on the grounds that it offended the pure eyes and ears of our more conservative people. And although much of this censorship took place during historic periods, it is worth noting that James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.g., was barred from the United States as obscene for 15 years, and was seized by U.S Postal Authorities in 1918 and 1930. The lifting of the ban in 1933 came only after advocates fought for the right to publish the book. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published in 1749 but until 1966, its legal status as uncensored was unclear in the United States! That year, the U.S. Supreme Court had to declare its censorship to be unconstitutional.

So where does all this take me? Censorship is and always has been more of a social issue than a legal one. Sex is very often at the root of attempts in this country to censor or challenge books and most censorship in recent years has taken place quietly at a local level where librarians and school boards and teachers have been urged to remove books from reading lists and bookshelves because one or another minority of parents or citizens was offended. So perhaps before we are too quick to judge the condemnation of many conservative Muslims of allowing images of their Prophet to be displayed, we should think about the sensibilities Americans show with respect to the display of books and other artifacts that offend someone.

In recent decades, we Americans have become more sensitive to what we brand as “hate speech.” There are even laws against it which make speaking your opinion on many subjects illegal. I’m not condemning such laws, but we seem hypocritical when we question other nations’ right to pre-censor certain kinds of publication or speaking when their basic goal is to protect people from offensive encounters in the public arena.

The violence must be condemned. Its perpetrators must be pursued. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo must be viewed in the broader social context of offensive speech and in the social milieu in which it occurred. France has laws against speech which offends people based on their religion. That very un-America shouldn’t be surprising; France (and several other European nations)  has a law punishing people who deny the Holocaust. Tolerance is relative.

Conspiracy Theories, False Beliefs and the Echo Chamber

Today’s news brings a report about a study of political beliefs and conspiracy theories conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. The poll finds surprisingly high levels of belief in conspiracy theories and other false beliefs about politics. According to the poll, Republicans and Fox News viewers are more likely to hold false beliefs about topics like the President and the Iraq war.

For example, a majority (51%) of Republicans and a surprising minority (42%) of all those polled believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We didn’t. You can read a story about the poll here and the entire poll report here.

Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll, said, “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”

And that’s the problem. People who “want to believe something” not only twist facts, they deliberately isolate themselves from contrary facts, as I’ve written about here before. The echo chamber of the Internet and 24-hour partisan cable news means it is not only possible, but easy, for anyone who wants to hold a particular opinion regardless of its accuracy to find plenty of “facts” to support them and a complete absence of contradictory evidence.

This is precisely the same problem as that caused by government propaganda, only its origin is not the government so much as it is private corporations driven by greed and unenlightened self-interest.

I don’t think this problem has a solution. But I think it has far-reaching and almost entirely negative repercussions. We are all forced to live in a world where most of our fellow citizens are intentionally uninformed or misinformed about the important issues of the day, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. Having discovered that blurring the line of distinction between facts and opinions draws loyal viewers and readers, the media are certainly not going to go on a diet of objectivity. The death of objective news reporting and factual information being readily accessible to and understandable by the average voter marks, I suspect, the beginning of the end for the type of democracy that ha been our governing principle for more than 200 years,

What comes next, I can’t even imagine.