Now They Tell Us

It's fascinating that our local paper, after months of positive Obama coverage, manages to express its first printed criticism of Obama on ... the day after the election.

With President-elect Barack Obama promising tougher government regulations on some sectors, including the financial markets, a handful of business leaders expressed concern Wednesday.

"The key thing is to not choke us to death with regulation," said Ioanna Morfessis, an economic-development consultant and Greater Phoenix Economic Council founding member.

With the faltering of the financial markets and a massive federal bailout this fall, Obama and congressional Democrats, who expanded their majorities with an upset electorate, have called for more federal oversight on Wall Street. Obama also has called for more regulation in the energy and health-care sectors, and Democrats could more strictly enforce environmental rules....

Morfessis said before lunch Wednesday, she received phone calls from 11 entrepreneurs concerned there would be a "higher premium for taking risks or entering new markets."

Posted on November 5, 2008 at 09:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Don't Dance on the Times' Grave

Recent circulation numbers showing continued, substantial declines of traditional newspapers give me an excuse to make a point I have wanted to make for some time. 

I am a frequent critic of newspapers.  I think they have lost focus on the hard-hitting investigative journalism which used to be their highest and best calling, instead considering reiteration of an activist's press release sufficient to check the journalism box on some particular issue.  When investigative reporting does occur, it almost always is focused to support the dominant or politically correct outcome, rather than to really challenge conventional wisdom.   Media coverage of any technical issue involving science or statistics or economics is often awful, in large part because journalism is too often the default educational path of folks who want to avoid numbers.  Any time I have been on the inside of some issue receiving coverage, I have generally been astounded by how little the print descriptions matched reality.  Now that I am interviewed more as a source for articles, I never think my views are well-quoted (though that may be my fault for not talking in sound bites).  And, like many, I get irritated that the media's arrogance and self-referential reporting seems to increase in direct proportion to their drop in circulation.

All that being said, the world without healthy newspapers is a bad thing. 

First, we bloggers can blather on all day about being the new media, but with the exception of a few folks like Radley Balko, we're all editorial writers, not reporters  (I consider my role at to be more like journalism, but only because there is such a glaring hole on that topic in traditional media).  I couldn't do what I do here, at least on this particular blog, without the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I'm a remora feeding on their scraps.  I can't bring down the big fish by myself, I can only feed on the bits they miss.

Second, and perhaps more important in this world of proposed reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, print media is the mode of speech best protected by the First Ammendment.  This isn't the way it should be -- all speech should be equal -- but in reality goofy regulatory regimes for radio, TV, and even the Internet all offer the government leverage points for speech control they don't have with the print media.  It's why half the dystopic sci fi novels out there have a world dominated by TV -- because that is where government has the most control of speech.

So here's hoping you guys at the NY Times get your act together.

Posted on October 28, 2008 at 04:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Local Papers and the Growth of Government

In some sort of synergistic relationship I haven't fully figured out, local newspapers love to cheerlead the expansion of government programs.  Here is a great example, via Rick Perry.  The headline in the Detroit Free Press web site reads:

State venture capital funds starting to pay off

But then we go on to read:

Michigan's two venture capital investment funds are starting to generate results, state economic  officials said Monday.

Since their formation in 2006, the $95-million Venture Michigan Fund and the $109-million Michigan 21st Century Investment Fund have invested in six venture capital firms with either a headquarters or an office in the state. These firms have used the money and other capital to invest in 11 fledgling Michigan companies that have added 40 workers in recent years.

The two funds have made investment commitments of $116.3 million, or slightly more than half of their total capital.

So out of $204 million in taxpayer funds (why the state has entered the venture capital business with state funds is anybody's guess) the state has invested $116 million to create 40 jobs.  Given that the notion of the government venture fund was to create state jobs, its not clear how $3 million per job is a really good return.  Further, there is no mention of the government has gotten any kind of financial return from this investment, so I will presume it has not. So how can the paper possibly with a straight face say that the funds are "starting to pay off?" 

Eleven companies with an average of 3 employees each somehow each got $10 million in state funds.  I bet it would be fascinating to see just who these 11 companies are, and how their owners are connected into the political power structure. 

Posted on September 10, 2008 at 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

When Did the Media Stop Distringuishing Between Facts and Guesses?

The Associated Press has an article on how the demographics of New Orleans changed post-Katrina:

Those who have moved back to New Orleans in the three years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city are likely to have higher incomes and more education than people who haven't come back, demographic data shows.

New Orleans remains predominantly black, as it was before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. But people who have some college education, are above the poverty line, own homes and have no children are more likely to have returned to the city than others, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The city was 59 percent black in 2006, the most recent census figures available, compared with 68 percent in 2005. Census data shows 20.6 percent of New Orleans residents were below the poverty level last year, compared with 24.5 percent in 2005.

OK, the fact that the demographics of New Orleans have changed coincident with the Katrina evacuation  is a fact.  It is based on probably the best demographic data available, though it is not clear that Mr. Frey has the evidence at hand to separate the effects of economic growth in New Orleans from migration patterns in explaining the drop in people below the poverty line, but I will cut him some slack compare to this next statement:

"The people who have come back are the people with the best resources to come back," said Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has studied the demographics of New Orleans. "The people who have not come back are lower-income, minorities, largely renters. They were the least equipped to come back and have not been able to."

This is a guess.  The data Mr. Frey is working with sheds no light on the reason certain groups did not return.  His statement that they did not come back because they did have the resources to do so is an unproven hypothesis.  I could easily offer a counter-hypothesis, that the issue was that these folks did not have the resources or the knowledge to leave New Orleans to find opportunities to escape their poverty, and having been granted the unique opportunity by the Katrina evacuation to get out, they have found opportunity elsewhere and see no reason to return to the place where they were formerly impoverished.  I actually think my hypothesis is more likely than Mr. Frey's, but in the end both of us are guessing.

Posted on September 1, 2008 at 12:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Oh My God! 40% of Sick Days Taken on Monday or Friday!

I thought this was kind of funny, from the false hysteria department.  The Arizona Republic begins ominously:

If you're already mad about gas prices, prepare to get madder.  Besides paying prices at the pump that were unthinkable a few months ago, many consumers also are getting ripped off by the pump itself.

Uh, Oh.  I can see it coming.  The AZ Republic has smoked out more evil doings from the oil industry.  I shudder to think what horrors await.

About 9 percent, or about 2,000, of the 20,400 gas pumps inspected this fiscal year by the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures since July 1, 2007, failed to pass muster.

Oh my freaking God!  Every fill up, I have a one in 11 chance of my gas being measured wrong.  I just bet those oil companies are coming out in the night to tweak the pump so I get hosed. 

Half of those were malfunctioning to the detriment of customers.

See!  There you go!  Half are to the detriment of customers! 

Oh.  Wait a minute.  Doesn't that mean the other half are to the benefit of customers?  Why would those oil guys be doing that?  This sure isn't a bunch of very smart conspirators.  Could it be that this is just the result of random drift in a measurement device, with the direction of drift equally distributed between "reads high" and "reads low"?

As it turns out, I worked for a very large flow measurement instrument maker for several years.  For a variety of reasons, flow measurement devices can drift or can be mis-calibrated.  To fail the state standard, the meter has to be off about 2.5%, which is about 6 tablespoons to the gallon.  State governments have taken on the task of making sure commercial weights and measures are accurate, and though I think this could be done privately, I don't find it a terribly offensive government task.  Having taken this task on, it is reasonable to question whether it is doing its oversight job well.  But let's not try to turn this into a consumer nightmare by only discussing one half of the normal distribution of outcomes.

Post title stolen from an old Dilbert cartoon.

Posted on July 1, 2008 at 08:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Great Moments in the Traditional Media

A decent sized newspaper is doing a story on one of our campgrounds for their paper, which is great news.  However, they want some photos.  I directed them to our web site with links to Flickr, where they could view the photos and actually download full resolution versions of the images.  However, after some back and forth, it seems that no one at the paper is able to accomplish this.  So I am now downloading the images they want off the Flickr page they are looking at and sending the images to them via CD / snail mail.  Sigh.

Posted on June 17, 2008 at 12:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sorry for the Advertising Spam

The Arizona Republic has taken to embedding the code for their on-site advertising in the middle of sentences, sometimes in between two letters of a word.  This means that sometimes when I copy snippets from their web site, I end up with popups and spam on the blog, particularly since this stuff does not show up on the post preview, only when it goes to the site.  Sorry.

Posted on June 3, 2008 at 01:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

What is it With the NY Times?

As a libertarian, I don't really have a horse in the race, but what is it with the NY Times editorial page?  Apparently, the right doesn't like the conservative writers, and Kevin Drum makes it clear that the left can be embarrassed by the liberal writers there:

I generally try not to read Maureen Dowd's columns because, you know, they just don't pay me enough for that kind of hazard duty. But today's column about Hillary Clinton was a train wreck of epic proportions. I couldn't avert my eyes. Here's the final sentence:

As she makes a last frenzied and likely futile attempt to crush the butterfly [i.e., Barack Obama], it's as though she's crushing the remnants of her own girlish innocence.

This would be embarrassing coming from a 12-year-old. Shouldn't Dowd have an obscure blog, not a biweekly column in the greatest newspaper in the world?

Posted on May 7, 2008 at 12:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

If They Could Do Math, They Wouldn't Have Been Journalism Majors

Further proof that no one in the media is capable of even the simplest reality-checks when it comes to publishing numbers they get from activist press releases.  This whole concept below is a howler (the idea is that global warming causes volcanoes) but it is the last paragraph that really caught my eye:

So much ice in Iceland has melted in the past century that the pressure on the land beneath has lessened, which allows more of the rock deep in the ground to turn to magma. Until the ice melted, the pressure was so intense that the rock remained solid.

Carolina Pagli, of the University of Leeds, led research which calculated that over the past century the production of magma had increased by 10 per cent.

The research team, reporting their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said an extra 1.4 cu km of magma has been created under the Vatnajökull ice-cap in the past 100 years.

Since 1890 the ice-cap has lost 10 per cent of its mass, which has allowed the land to rise by up to 25m (82ft) a year. The volume lost between 1890 and 2003 is estimated at 435 cu km.

Leaving aside cause and effect (e.g. does ice cap melting cause more hot stuff in the ground or does more hot stuff in the ground melt ice), consider the statement that the ground has risen under the ice cap by 82 feet per year for 118 years.  This gives us a rise in the land of 9,676 feet after just 10% of the ice mass has supposedly melted.  Note that this is an enormous, totally non-sensical value.  It implies that a full melting of the ice might increase the land height by 10x this amount, or nearly 100,000 feet  (airplanes stay away!!)  As another check, 9,676 is more than the entire depth of the Iceland ice sheet (it is about the same as what scientists think the Greenland ice sheet depth is).  Another way of looking at this is this is about 1/8-inch land surface rise PER HOUR for the last century. 

I am not sure how any writer or editor on the planet could look at "82 feet a year for 118 years" and not smell a rat.

Posted on April 6, 2008 at 05:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (16)

Day Late, Billions of Dollars Short

The NY Times has finally published a comprehensive take-down on the insanity of biofuel subsidies here.  All well and good, but this is at least five years too late.  For years, while this and other blogs have tried to point out that the biofuel emporer's has no clothes, the NY Times has been publishing breathless articles in support of biofuel subsidies and mandates, in fact criticizing the Bush administration and Congress for not moving faster on them. 

So is this what we must expect from the NY Times and the rest of the media?  Shameless pandering to politically correct policy goals that make no scientific sense until it is virtually too late to halt their momentum?  If so, everyone should read the Times' coverage on climate with a jaded eye, because it would not surprise me in the least to see the Times publish the definitive article on why the global warming alarmists are full of hot air only after Congress has gutted our economy with new climate taxes and mandates. 

Posted on March 30, 2008 at 09:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

News Stories You Really Don't Want to See

I know there are people who take the position that all PR is good PR, but really, do you really want newspapers running a photo spread entitled "Hookers Made Famous by [Fill In Your Name]"?

Posted on March 27, 2008 at 07:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Numbers in the Media Are Almost Meaningless

Every time I dig into numbers in a media report, I typically find a real mess.  Russell Roberts finds the situation even worse than average in the recent Washington Post article on middle class finances.

The debt figure of $55,000 in 2004 (which supposedly is 151% higher than in 1989 to pay for day-to-day expenses) is actually ALL forms of debt INCLUDING mortgage debt. So how can that be? How can the median family have only $55,000 of all kinds of debt when there's $95,000 of mortgage debt all by itself?

That's because each line of the chart (other than the top line and the bottom line) is a subset of all families and a different subset.

So among families that have mortgage debt (maybe 40-50% of all families) the median mortgage debt among those families is $95,000.

But among families that have any kind of debt, (about 3/4 of all families) the median indebtednes including all kinds of debt is $55,000. That includes mortgages debt....

So you can't add up any of the lines of the chart or even compare them to each other. They're each for a different subset of the population, the population who have that kind of debt or asset.

Posted on February 29, 2008 at 12:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Extrapolating From One Data Point

I had a friend in the consulting business that used to joke that he preferred to only have one data point when he had a point he wanted to make.  "If you only have one data point, you are free to slam a line through it in any direction and at any slope you want.  Once you have two, you are more constrained."

I am reminded of that story reading Trevor Butterworth's fabulous take down of typically bad media "science" scare story, this one on fireproofing materials in mattresses.  He has a lengthy fisking, but concludes:

What CBS produced is an advertorial for ABC Carpets and Homes, more suited to a shopping channel. By failing to test any of the claims for a risk against the science, by using a sample of one self-diagnosed couple, by testing nothing, and not even bothering to interview someone from the CPSC, let alone an independent toxicologist, the viewer is left with the message: buy a bed at ABC if you want to be safe.

Posted on February 12, 2008 at 08:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Does Anyone Have A Feeling For Numbers Anymore?

The Boston Globe, in its usual blundering math-challenged media way, blithely published an editorial the other day that included this hilarious "fact"

Since June, Israel has limited its exports to Gaza to nine basic materials. Out of 9,000 commodities (including foodstuffs) that were entering Gaza before the siege began two years ago, only 20 commodities have been permitted entry since. Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent. Not surprisingly, there has been a sharp increase in the prices of foodstuffs.

OK, the Gaza has over a million residents, but do these 1.4 million people really require 1.36 million pounds of flour a day??  I find that hard to believe, and amazing that no editor even asked the question, much less checked.

Update:  Did a search.  Found this.  The Palestinian ministry puts consumption around 350 tons per day.  That makes a bit more sense.  Congratulations on missing the number by over 3 orders of magnitude.  You can bet they are doing a lot of quality fact-checking on those global warming estimates too.

Update 2: I agree with the commenter that the number they should have used was something like 680,000 pounds rather than tons.  I would have written it off as a typo, transposing tons for pounds, but the math was based on it being tons, not pounds, so it is not just a typo issue.

Posted on January 29, 2008 at 12:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

I Called This One

I made this prediction way back in February of 2005:

I resisted the call by a number of web sites at the beginning of the year to make predictions for 2005.  However, now I will make one:  We will soon see calls to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have....

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

So here we go, here are a few recent such calls for licensing of journalists.  The first via Hot Air:

Supporters of “citizen journalism” argue it provides independent, accurate, reliable information that the traditional media don’t provide. While it has its place, the reality is it really isn’t journalism at all, and it opens up information flow to the strong probability of fraud and abuse. The news industry should find some way to monitor and regulate this new trend....

The premise of citizen journalism is that regular people can now collect information and pictures with video cameras and cellphones, and distribute words and images over the Internet. Advocates argue that the acts of collecting and distributing makes these people “journalists.” This is like saying someone who carries a scalpel is a “citizen surgeon” or someone who can read a law book is a “citizen lawyer.” Tools are merely that. Education, skill and standards are really what make people into trusted professionals. Information without journalistic standards is called gossip.

But that one is downright sane compared to this, from Cleveland's Voice for Social Justice (have you noticed how "social justice" always seems to require forcefully silencing people?):

For every champion of journalism who write stories about Walter Reed or Extraordinary Rendition Flights, there are two reporters at Channel 19 who care very little about society. For every Seymore Hersh there are five Michelle Malkins or Ann Coulters.   With citizen journalists spreading like wildfire in blogs, we seem to have one Froomkin created, there are five extremist blogs proclaiming the assaults on homeless people everyday....

The Society of Professional Journalists must start licensing journalists or the government will start doing it for them. We need to start taking this practice seriously and separate the real journalists from the fakes. The decisions made by journalists have consequences for ruining people's lives or for causing grief, suicide or even murder. The genocide in Rhwanda were carried out using the radio commentators to urge citizens to kill Tutsis. If journalists want to be taken seriously they must figure out how to separate the real from the O'Reilly types. They must set up a structure to license journalists with an enforcement mechanism to strip bad journalists from practicing their craft.

This is from the weblog of a bunch of media students:

It scares me to think that the field I will going pursuing when I graduate might be confused with entertainment reporting – things like “Who Ben Affleck is dating now” and “Will Brad and Jen get back together.” Certainly, these things are news to a select few. I will not, however, get into the whole tabloid issue. I seems to have sparked some intense debate with that one a few weeks ago. But, I am worried that with the onslaught of weblogs and internet news, many readers and listeners will get confused and think what they’re reading and watching is actually news. I have nothing against web loggers, even though they are a threat to my future career. But, all of this leads me to question the professionalism of journalism.

Should we license journalists? This has been a question that has been debated back and forth for awhile. Many journalists are against the idea because they believe that that would mean licensing information and licensing free speech. But I think we need to look at the issues at hand right now. The news is getting out-of-hand. The public is being onslaught with an enormous amount of information due to our increasing rush of technology and it has to be hard for them to differentiate between real news and opinions being costumed as news. This is why we need to start seriously considering licensing journalists. It may be the only real hope for the future of journalists. With licenses, we can hold on to whatever ethical and moral characteristics we have left in the news business. There will be no more “parading reporters” and no more “video news releases.” Who thinks we should pursue this? Who thinks the entire idea is ridiculous?

Some countries are seriously considering it.  Brazil and Indonesia are looking into licensing their journalists.  Here's an article from Indonesia - even though it's agaist thh idea of licensing it's still a good example of how serious this debate is becoming

Its good we are taking lessons on free speech and the media from Indonesia and Brazil.  I probably should not make fun of the typos and grammar errors in this post by a "media student" since I make such mistakes all the time.  Of course, I am not a "licensed journalist."

This is not a new issue.  In the early 1980's, the US vigorously resisted attempts by the UN to implement a variety of euphemisms that boiled down to licensing requirements for international journalists.

Posted on December 14, 2007 at 12:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Bloggers are Tehwable

Sports columnist Stephen A. Smith fires off an over-the-top rant at bloggers:

"And when you look at the internet business, what's dangerous about it is that people who are clearly unqualified get to disseminate their piece to the masses. I respect the journalism industry, and the fact of the matter is ...someone with no training should not be allowed to have any kind of format whatsoever to disseminate to the masses to the level which they can. They are not trained. Not experts."

Despite its wackiness, we can still draw some useful observations:

  • Yet again, we have an industry incumbent calling for some sort of professional licensing, nominally to protect consumers, but in actuality to protect the incumbent's position in the industry.  Smith himself couldn't be more explicit about this:

"Therefore, there's a total disregard, a level of wrecklessness that ends up being a domino effect. And the people who suffer are the common viewers out there and, more importantly, those in the industry who haven't been fortunate to get a radio or television deal and only rely on the written word. And now they've been sabotaged. Not because of me. Or like me. But because of the industry or the world has allowed the average joe to resemble a professional without any credentials whatsoever."

He can't even complete the sentence with the window dressing justification that this is for the consumers before he gets to the real people he is trying to protect, ie traditional media personalities like himself.  You know, trained professionals.   You could subsititute attorneys, doctors, nurses, real estate agents, funeral directors, massage therapists, hair braiders, fishing guides and any other licensed or unionized professional and find the same speech given somewhere at some time.

  • People called me crazy when I said that the next step in the media wars with bloggers was a call for licensing (and here) Whose crazy now?
  • McCain-Feingold sent us a long way down this horrible path by establishing that there are such things as "journalists" who can be trusted to speak in public before elections, and everyone else, who cannot be so trusted.  This was the first time the debate over whether bloggers are journalists turned heated, because there was a legislated cost associated with not being a journalist.
  • Note the implicit disdain for the consumer, or in this case, the viewer or reader.  The unstated assumption is that the consumer is a total idiot, a dupe who mindlessly keeps tuning in to inferior news reports from untrained bloggers rather than watching pros like Stephen A. Smith as they should be
  • Finally, and this may be unfair because I am only partially familiar with Mr. Smith's work, but I will observe that he is an African-American who brings a kind of street style to his reporting.  A style that I might guess that a crotchety sports reporter from thirty years ago might easily have defined then as unprofessional.  Mr. Smith's career has benefited in part because he has differentiated himself with new style and approach, but now he wants to slam the door on others trying to similarly bring innovation and new approaches to the sports world.  Unfortunately, all too typical of professionals of all stripes, particularly since the government has set the expectation over the last 100 years that it is open to using its coercive power to enforcing professional standards in even the most trivial of professions.

I end such a discussion, as always, with Milton Friedman:

The justification offered [for licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Posted on December 4, 2007 at 08:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Taking Krugman to the Woodshed

My friend Brink Lindsey is usually pretty measured in his writing.  So it was entertaining to see him take Paul Krugman out to the woodshed:

How can someone as intelligent and informed as Krugman concoct an interpretation of the post-World War II era that does such violence to the facts? How can someone so familiar with the intricate complexities of social processes convince himself that history is a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys? Because, for whatever reason, he has swapped disinterested analysis and scholarship for ideological partisanship. Here, in a revealing choice of phrase, he paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s notorious line: “Partisanship in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

To be a partisan is, by definition, to see the world partially rather than objectively: to identify wholeheartedly with the perspectives of one particular group and, at the extreme, to discount all rival perspectives as symptoms of intellectual or moral corruption. And the perspective Krugman has chosen to identify with is the philosophically incoherent, historically contingent grab bag of intellectual, interest group, and regional perspectives known as postwar American liberalism.

Of course, over the period that Krugman is addressing, the contents of that grab bag have changed fairly dramatically: from internationalist hawkishness in World War II and the early Cold War to a profound discomfort with American power in the ’70s and ’80s to a jumble of rival views today; from cynical acquiescence in Jim Crow to heroic embrace of the civil rights movement to the excesses of identity group politics to a more centrist line today; from sympathy for working-class economic hardship to hostility to working-class culture and back again. Yet with a naive zeal that leaves even Cuomo visibly nonplussed at several points in the interview, Krugman embraces the shifting contents of this grab bag as the one true path of virtue.

Posted on November 4, 2007 at 07:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Worst Ever

One of the recurring themes in my climate video "What is Normal?" is that despite the fact that we have only observed climate for about 100 years, and have only studied it with modern tools like satellites for about 30 years, we want to insist on calling some condition "unusual."  My favorite example of late was when a number of news sources claimed "Arctic Ice at All-Time Low."  Really?  The lowest in the 6 billion year history of Earth?  Well, no, "all-time" means since satellite measurement began ... 28 years ago.  (By the way, the simultaneous story that Antarctic ice hit an "all-time" high on the exact same date failed to be mentioned in the press for some reason).

has a great post (mercifully unrelated to climate, for all of you with climate fatigue):…

As the price of crude oil approaches $100 a barrel, New Englanders are bracing for their most expensive winter ever.

May I suggest that the average family expended more hours of labor to procure their firewood in 1650, and more hours of labor to procure their coal in 1750, and more hours to procure their gas in 1850 than they are spending, today, to heat their (much larger, much better furnished) homes today?

I swear, whenever a journalist says the word “ever” I hear “since I was in high school, or since 1990, whichever was more recent…and I was drunk at the time, so I honestly can’t tell you which one that was”.


Posted on November 1, 2007 at 09:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Good News

The case discussed here and here has been dropped against the Phoenix New Times

At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas announced that all charges against New Times, its owners, editors and writers have been dropped — and that special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik has been dismissed.

Posted on October 21, 2007 at 09:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

It's OK to be Scared. Just Tell Us.

I agree with Eugene Volokh when he observes that the Opus comic rejected by the Washington Post is pretty dang tame.  I found the cartoon to be poking fun more at men and male attitudes than at Islam.  I don't think there is any way the Post can argue now that their editorial policy is symmetric across all religions.  They are tiptoeing around Islam in a way they never would with Judaism or Christianity.  If they are scared of violent reprisals, they should just say so. 

Posted on August 27, 2007 at 04:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

You Gotta Love NPR

You have to love NPR.  On Friday, I was on a lunchtime errand and heard the begging on Science Friday.  Apparently it was inventors week, and the intro promised the next hour might "change the life" of aspiring inventors in the audience who are struggling with getting patents and monetizing their inventions.

Then, after this intro, the show spent the next half hour interviewing an professor at MIT who specializes in non-profit development of low-tech solutions to 3rd world problems.  LOL.  The woman was certainly interesting, but had about zero to offer on the topic at hand.  I guees NPR just couldn't actually bring itself to talk about monetizing inventions in the good old capitalist US without first spending a good hunk of the show on selfless innovation to solve third-world environmental issues.

Posted on August 19, 2007 at 11:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Ex Post Facto Guilt

You gotta love those vaunted MSM fact-checkers.  I mean, I am all for criticizing George Bush, but this seems to be going a bit too far  (Guardian via Q&O):

Ministers insisted that British secret agents would only be allowed to pass intelligence to the CIA to help it capture Osama bin Laden if the agency promised he would not be tortured, it has emerged.

MI6 believed it was close to finding the al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan in 1998, and again the next year. The plan was for MI6 to hand the CIA vital information about Bin Laden. Ministers including Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, gave their approval on condition that the CIA gave assurances he would be treated humanely. The plot is revealed in a 75-page report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee on rendition, the practice of flying detainees to places where they may be tortured.

The report criticises the Bush administration's approval of practices which would be illegal if carried out by British agents. It shows that in 1998, the year Bin Laden was indicted in the US, Britain insisted that the policy of treating prisoners humanely should include him. But the CIA never gave the assurances.

LOL.  It seems like Bush has been president forever, but I am pretty sure that Hillary's husband was in the White House until early 2001.

Posted on July 31, 2007 at 08:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Pepsi Challenge

Many of us remember the old Pepsi challenge commercials, where blind taste tests vs. Coke showed people preferring Pepsi.  One of the interesting results of these commercials was that Pepsi gained market share, but Coke did not lose it -- much of the Pepsi market share gain came from other brands.  In essence, the commercials established in consumer's minds that the cola choice was Coke or Pepsi, and so it did as much for Coke as it did Pepsi.

So now take this experience to anti-smoking commercials.  It turns out that they may backfire:

The more anti-smoking ads middle schoolers see, the more likely they are to smoke, according to a study in the August issue of Communication Research. Hye-Jin Paek, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia's College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Albert Gunther, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, analyzed data from surveys that asked middle school students about their exposure to anti-smoking messages and their intention to smoke:

They found that, overall, the more the students were exposed to anti-smoking messages, the more inclined they were to smoke. The exception—where exposure to anti-smoking ads correlated with a reduced intention to smoke—occurred among students who said their friends were influenced by anti-smoking messages.

In the context of other advertising research, such as the old Coke/Pepsi campaign, this is not surprising.  It is even less surprising for this type of ad, where a certain amount of anti-authoritarian response can be expected.  In fact, I have seen a number of ads that use this anti-authoritarian streak and distrust of the government as a feature.  Ads that say "The government doesn't want you to know about X" or "What the oil companies don't want you to know."

I wonder when the first member of the plaintiff's bar will initiate a lawsuit against the tobacco companies for promoting teenage smoking by running... anti-smoking ads.

Posted on July 23, 2007 at 10:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Out on your ass, Jane Austen

Some frustrated writer apparently submitted a Jane Austin novel to a publisher and had it rejected.  The point being, I guess, that publishers are all screwed up and therefore the author in question can now whine a little louder about his work being rejected.  John Scalzi makes short work of this:

Honestly, you'd think newspapers would be bored of reporting this genre of stunt by now. You know, as an aside to this foolishness: If I were an editor today, and Jane Austen had not previously existed, and someone submitted Pride and Prejudice as a mainstream novel, I'd probably reject it. Because it's the 21st goddamn century, that's why, and the style is all wrong to sell a whole bunch of them (even if it were pitched as a mainstream historical novel). In point of fact, I'd probably reject anything written in a 19th century manner, with the possible exception of Mark Twain's work; for my money he's probably the only 19th century author whose writing style doesn't make me feel like I'm slogging through a morass of commas and odd language structure....

So, yes. Out on your ass, Jane Austen, until you can write in a contemporary way.

Yes, its a major pain to get published by a top house, and in fact I have yet to be successful, though I honestly think the current book I am writing has a good shot.  But there are lots of reasons a publishing house might reject a perfectly good book:  It may not fit the types of books they publish (you don't send a period piece to a sci-fi house); the publisher's pipeline might be full;  the author's synopsis or the first 30 pages might not be catchy enough (publishers cannot read every word of every submission they get); or the publisher could be missing an opportunity; or the book might, gasp, not be as good as the author thinks it is.

Posted on July 19, 2007 at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Schrödinger's Soprano

If I didn't know better, I would swear David Chase was actually a physicist creating an inside Schrödinger's Cat joke out of the last episode.  Quantum mechanics meets pop culture, Tony is both alive and dead simultaneously.

I know most people, while watching the last scene, were thinking of the restaurant scene in the Godfather.  I actually was thinking of the diner scene in Pulp Fiction.  I kept waiting for Jules to pop up with a gun and start talking about the blood of the righteous, or whatever (I bet Tony knew what was in that damned suitcase).

Posted on June 11, 2007 at 05:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

More Great Headlines

The great headline writers all seem to have moved to the sports page:

Wang provides lift for Yankees' staff

H/T to Fire Joe Morgan

Posted on June 7, 2007 at 08:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thanks for the Help, MSM

Well, thanks a hell of a lot, mainstream media, for doing such a good job of delivering the facts.   QandO, in discussing the issues behind my earlier post on testing for mad-cow disease (BSE) helpfully includes this link to the EU's BSE testing site (the home of the testing program supposedly so much more enlightened than ours):

No method will detect BSE early in the infection. BSE has an average incubation period of 4-6 years. Therefore the EU testing programmes are targeted at animals over 30 months. The PrPres has not been detected in bovine brain or other nervous tissue very early in the disease and infectivity has not been shown either. In experimental infection where very high doses were administered, infectivity has been found in the ileum, part of the intestine. This has not been detected in natural infections.

Robert Fulton, via QandO, supplies the one other missing fact:  Most US cows are slaughtered as two-year-olds.  So they can't have BSE, because you can't have a five-year incubation disease in a 2-year-old animal.  And further, even if the animal has latent BSE infection, which has never been shown to harm humans, it can't be detected by current technology!  Even those superior Euros only test at 30 months.  This is an issue for aging dairy cows sent to slaughter, not for most of the US beef supply.

Well, those facts certainly would have been good to know, though in reading at least 20 mad cow articles in the MSM over the years, I have never seen it mentioned.  And it certainly hasn't been mentioned in the current testing brouhaha. 

I stand by my statement that private companies should be allowed to compete on full testing if they wish.  Hell, most of the stuff that is labeled "organic" and sells at a premium price is probably no safer than normal stuff, but companies are welcome to try to profit from the public's perceived need for organic stuff.

Assuming this is the reason behind the administration's decision to test only 1%, for which they have been chastised for years, it is yet another example of Bush's ham-handedness on communication.  Why not change the policy from "1% of all steers" to "100% of all beef from cattle over 36 months old." The latter would not represent much more testing, but would sure calm people a lot more than the other statement.

Posted on June 6, 2007 at 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Lou Dobbs and Howard Beale

Is it just me, or does anyone else sense that, after years of being moderately normal on the air, someone took Lou Dobbs into the back room a few years ago and changed his outlook on life in a manner similar to Arthur Jensen taking Howard Beale aside in the movie Network?  He really seems to have turned into the first prophet of the secular religion of xenophobia and racial purity, much the same way that Howard Beale spread the religion of corporate feudalism before the network finally had to "take him out" for poor ratings.

Posted on April 24, 2007 at 06:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I don't think CBS understands the word "plagiarism."  Apparently, they are arguing that Katie Couric is not guilty of plagiarism because her on-air diary about her personal thoughts on her own life experiences was ... not written by her and she apparently never saw it or discussed it before she read it on-air.  It was those other writers who are at fault for wholesale lifting from a WSJ piece.  Apparently Couric's portrayal of other people's experiences written down by third-party writers as her own work and own life is A-OK.

Posted on April 11, 2007 at 08:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

I Can't Help But Laugh

I found this conjured up a terribly funny image in my mind.  JunkScience has a challenge to climate journalists to try the math to test for themselves whether current global warming estimates make any sense.  The challenge per se is not funny, but the picture of a journalist... well, read the challenge first:

We believe climate models are programmed with excessive climate sensitivity based on a flawed understanding of past ice ages. Moreover, climate models wrongly magnify potential warming to accommodate positive feedback mechanisms while comparison with empirical measure shows negative feedback dominates, reducing warming experienced to about half theoretical values.

The challenge is for you to actually check the numbers -- see for yourselves whether we are wrong or not. Look up Stefan's Constant or just use 5.67 x 10-8 (close enough for our purpose but look it up to be sure). The textbook derivation of globally averaged greenhouse, using Stefan's Constant, evaluates to roughly 33 °C and 150 Wm-2. The IPCC Third Assessment Report alt: Third Assessment Report (Equation 6.1) states: "The climate sensitivity parameter (global mean surface temperature response ΔTs to the radiative forcing ΔF) is defined as: ΔTs / ΔF = λ." A blackbody-equivalent Earth climate sensitivity parameter (λ) would be 33 / 150 = 0.22 °C per Wm-2. Real world measures (here) indicate Earth responds with only half the efficiency of a blackbody with a lambda (λ) value of just 0.1 °C per Wm-2.

Now use it to check the assertion: "Global climate forcing was about 6 1/2 W/m2 less than in the current interglacial period. This forcing maintains a global temperature difference of 5 °C, implying a climate sensitivity of 3/4 ± 1/4 °C per W/m2." Either consult your texts for Earth's temperature in Kelvin and any other numbers you need or see the numbers we've used here. Off you go -- we'll wait. If you can show us where we're wrong we'll retract and correct.

Can anyone out there picture your favorite journalist trying to do this?  Many journalists followed the tried-and-true career path of:  Avoid math altogether --> Become an English major --> Become a journalist as an alternative to playing the guitar in subway stations.  Who else would love to see Maureen Dowd taking on this analysis?

Posted on April 3, 2007 at 05:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

I'd Feel Much Safer If A Government Bureaucrat Was In Charge

Marc Hodak found this gem in a newspaper article about the new Grand Canyon Skywalk:

The Skywalk's builders have said repeatedly that the deck is extremely durable. It's essentially a huge steel horseshoe, capable of withstanding 100 mph (160 kph) winds and holding several hundred 200-pound (90-kilogram) people at a time.

I had no reason to doubt them. But out on the edge, my mind was racing: I tried to remember if any government regulatory agency had checked how well this thing was anchored to the cliff.

Hodak observes:

News writers are notoriously wary of private agents and their self-interests versus "the government," as if its agents were somehow endowed with a greater degree of expertise or caring for their fellow man. They often can't fathom that, even regardless of their economic interests, the owners and operators would be any less concerned about their guests tumbling down the side of the Grand Canyon than some bureaucrat with a tape measure and some forms to fill out. It kind of leaves me breathless.

Maybe they can bring in the government crew that built the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge.

Posted on April 2, 2007 at 10:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

You Gotta Love Snobs

And there is no better place to find them than in the NY Times:

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

Did that alleged joke make you laugh? I would guess (and hope) not.

Well, I laughed, and I was alone in the room.  I am fine if you don't think it is funny, so to guess that I did not find it funny is fine, but to hope so?

Posted on March 14, 2007 at 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

I Was Sortof Right

A couple of years ago I made this prediction:

We will soon see calls to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have....

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

Well, despite all efforts by John McCain, we still have free speech on the blogosphere.  But I was almost right, because another country is considering such a proposal -- In France:

The government has also proposed a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules. The journalists’ organization Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for a free press, has warned that such a system could lead to excessive self censorship as organizations worried about losing their certification suppress certain stories.

Posted on March 7, 2007 at 09:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Mohammad Cartoons, Redux

Google is a private company and can have whatever rules it wants for taking down videos at YouTube.  However, I finally watched the banned "anti-Muslim" video and boy was it a letdown, more so even than finally seeing the Mohammad cartoons.  It's literally a 9-1/2 minute video of music playing over text quotes from the Koran.  Period.  No voice over, no criticism.  Just the Koran in its own words, so to speak.  As I said, Google can do as it pleases with its posting policies, but it really looks like an ass for banning a user over this.  Particularly if it is true that similar videos profiling other religions in similar ways did not trigger a ban.

I would like to help Google by suggesting terms of use that are consistent and easily understandable and appear to reflect their current policies:

No video may be posted on YouTube that might result in a Middle Eastern man showing up at our headquarters building with a couple of pounds of C-4 strapped to his chest.

Posted on February 12, 2007 at 03:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Entry for Media Style Guide

Here is something I would like to see entered into every media style guide:  "Do not use 'hits' as a measure for web page traffic, except in quotations.  'Hits" has a specific meaning in measuring web traffic and should not be considered synonymous with 'visits.'" 

Posted on January 26, 2007 at 12:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eeek! Return of the Fairness Doctrine

QandO reports that Dennis Kucinich is trying to resurrect the fairness doctrine in media, reassigning the FCC the task of policing political speech in broadcast media:

The Presidential candidate said that the committee would be holding "hearings to push media reform right at the center of Washington.” The Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee was to be officially announced this week in Washington, D.C., but Kucinich opted to make the news public early.

In addition to media ownership, the committee is expected to focus its attention on issues such as net neutrality and major telecommunications mergers. Also in consideration is the "Fairness Doctrine," which required broadcasters to present controversial topics in a fair and honest manner. It was enforced until it was eliminated in 1987.

Usually, you can be sure that when a politician talks about the government intervening for "fairness" in free speech, it means that he wants the government to push his political point of view and squash others.  The only surprise is that Kucinich is totally up front about this:

Kucinich said in his speech that "We know the media has become the servant of a very narrow corporate agenda" and added "we are now in a position to move a progressive agenda to where it is visible."

So, having failed in the marketplace, and with well-funded entrants like Air America, Kucinich wants the government to force media companies to promote a progressive agenda on the airwaves.  Yuk.

Update: Q&O is on fire, with a great followup post here.

Posted on January 16, 2007 at 08:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

BMOC Doing Well on Amazon

Thanks to all those who have bought my new novel BMOC and sent such nice comments.  While the rank fluctuates up and down, we were doing pretty well late on Friday.


It's still not too late to buy a copy of BMOC for Christmas! 

Posted on December 3, 2006 at 11:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Greatest Onion Issue, Five Years Later

Few people in September, 2001 were willing to try to get us laughing again.  One notable exception was the Onion, which produced what was probably their greatest issue.  In particular, this is still dead-on five years later:

In a televised address to the American people Tuesday, a determined President Bush vowed that the U.S. would defeat "whoever exactly it is we're at war with here."...

Bush is acting with the full support of Congress, which on Sept. 14 authorized him to use any necessary force against the undetermined attackers. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the congressional move enables the president to declare war, "to the extent that war can realistically be declared on, like, maybe three or four Egyptian guys, an Algerian, and this other guy who kind of looks Lebanese but could be Syrian. Or whoever else it might have been. Because it might not have been them."...

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will be different from any previous model of modern warfare.

"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said. "Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."

"America is up to that challenge," Rumsfeld added....

Gramm said that the U.S. has already learned a great deal about the details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and that a rough psychological profile of its mastermind has been constructed.

"For example, we know that the mastermind has the approximate personality of a terrorist," Gramm said. "Also, he is senseless. New data is emerging all the time."

Posted on September 11, 2006 at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Waiting for My Disaster Relief Check

Phoenix hit with rains and flooding.  Where's FEMA?  Where's Bush?  Where's my $2000 Visa card?  The government is intentially ignoring us because, uh, we're all rich white people with plastic surgery.  I heard that tens of refugees were all trapped in a local Hooters for hours and hours with no national gaurd to protect them. 

Below is the Indian Bend Wash mentioned in the article, which is next to my house:


LOL, the whole town was laughing at the national coverage our morning rainstorm got.  Drive time DJ's were particularly mocking Wolf Blitzers breathless commentary.  They were interviewing people who had panicked calls from out of town relatives who had seen the coverage, only to meet with confused shrugs of local residents who may not even have noticed.


The rain lasted barely longer than an hour, and the streets were dry by the time I went to get the kids from school.  We did have flash flooding in our "washes" (what we call dry river beds) but that is to be expected since desert soil does not absorb water quickly and so you get a lot of water runoff.  Also, Phoenix has few storm sewers -- it accepts the fact that things flood once every two years or so, and accepts the costs involved as cheaper than building more infrastructure, which I think is correct.  The golf course is flooded (creating a new island-green) because that's where we put golf courses here - in the dry river bottoms.  The grass grows better there and the land can't be used for anything else and its only a couple of adays a year they get flooded out.

(By the way, yeah, I know I screwed up stitching together the panorama - some of the tree trunks don't match.  I was in a bit of a hurry)

Posted on August 24, 2006 at 10:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bankrupcy of Advocacy Journalism

I have never been one to wade much into the whole "media bias" issue.  Whenever I have discussed it, my main point of view is that journalists of whatever political stripe tend to suspend necessary skepticism when writing about an issue they are really passionate about.  That is why advocacy journalism can yield such crap.  I have never once dug into a strong advocacy journalism piece and not found any number of "facts" to be without attribution and often to not even make any sense.

Most people have now heard the origins of the now-famous "million homeless families" non-statistic, which was reprinted over and over but has been admitted to have been just made up by a leading homeless advocate.  And lets not forget Mary Mapes, who proudly describes herself as an advocacy journalist, and her now famous use of forgeries in her Bush-National Guard reports, leading to the classic "Fake but Accurate" meme.  People who believe in a cause, whether it be homelessness or GWB's fundamental corruption, suspend skepticism for "facts" and "statistics" that fit their point of view on the subject.  Usually they will shrug off challenges to the fact, saying "well, it may not be exactly X but we know the problem is a really big number."  In other words, fake but accurate.

Angela Valdez has a nice analysis of one such advocacy journalism effort, in this case the Oregonian's over-one-hundred part series on the "meth epidemic".  For example, she writes:

On Feb. 20 of this year, columnist S. Renee Mitchell wrote, without offering data to back up her claim: "The number of meth addicts—and the crimes they commit to support their habits—is exploding."....

In fact, meth use during the past four years has either declined or stayed flat, according to two major national drug-use studies. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that meth use did not increase at all from 2002 (two years before The Oregonian started its carpet-bombing coverage) through 2004, the last year for which there is data. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study, which examines drug use among youth, actually shows a decline in meth use among high-school students from 1999 to 2005....

Despite The Oregonian's reliance on this figure, there is no good evidence that meth causes 85 percent of the property crimes in Oregon.

Portland State University criminology professor Kris Henning says the number just doesn't make sense. Department chair Annette Jolin says the unsupportable statistic has become "something of a joke"among statistical researchers in the department.

For one thing, Oregon property crimes are much lower than they were 10 or even 20 years ago, the time period of the supposed meth "epidemic."

"If meth causes property offenses, and meth use has gone up," Henning says, "then property offenses should have gone up. And they haven't. It's either that, or all the people who commit property crimes have disappeared and been replaced by a small number of meth users."

I looked at the silliness of meth hysteria statistics here.  But my point is that this is not a meth issue - this is an advocacy journalism issue.  You could write the same article challenging any number of articles in the paper every day.

PS-  But on the subject of meth, I will make one prediction:  I predict that the meth hysteria will do more to create legislation and police practices that will undermine civil liberties than did 9/11.  In fact, much of the Patriot Act is already used more to fight the drug war than to fight terrorism.

Posted on March 22, 2006 at 11:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

More LA Times Ignorance

Would it be at all possible that the LA Times assign people to the business section that know something about business?

Over the last several weeks of the Lay-Skilling Enron trial, the prosecution has been putting on witnesses to testify that Enron management managed their earnings in quarterly releases by adjusting accounting reserves to increase reported income.  Here is an example:  Many companies, when they book sales, keep a reserve for noncollectable accounts.  Let's say that if a company books $1 million in sales, they might book 3% or $30,000 as a reserve against noncollectable accounts.  This reduces reported income by $30,000.  But the 3% is fairly arbitrary.  What if the bosses suddenly called down and said, you know, I think its only going to be 2.5%.  Then the entries would be changed and suddenly the company has $5000 more income.  And, if they retroactively changed the 3 to 2.5 for the last several quarters, tens of thousands of dollars might be added to this quarter's income.  Of course, in Enron's case, these entries and reserves were orders of magnitude more complicated and arcane.

So what's my beef against the LA Times?  They headline of their story on the activity I just described is:

Witness Says Enron Raided Fund

Orders to dip into reserves to inflate profit violated accounting rules, a former company accountant testifies.

What fund?  They make it sound like Lay and Skilling went into some bank vault somewhere and took money.  These reserves are not wads of cash sitting in accounts - they are accounting entries providing estimates of future expenses to be booked against current revenues.  What is undisputed is that management changed their estimates of these future expenses, which caused these paper reserve accounts to be reduced, increasing paper earnings.  You might reasonably argue that the only purpose for changing these estimates was to manipulate reported earnings in an unlawful way, and that is what the jury has to decide.  But how can you describe this as "raiding" a "fund", unless you want to portray the defendants in the worst possible light.

My guess is that the people who wrote this at the LA Times are the same ones who keep writing about the "Social Security Trust Fund" as if it is an actual pile of cash in a bank vault somewhere, and not money long ago spent by Congress.

Posted on February 28, 2006 at 12:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

A Few Other Thoughts on Danish Cartoons

I am running a three-day off-site for my managers this week, so I am pretty tied up.  I do, however,  want to take a second to observe that the NY Times should be embarrassed by their stance on these cartoons.  Their lame-ass explanation that the immediate cause for a wave of world-wide violence and rioting is not really newsworthy is so transparently bullshit as to be unbelievable. 

And to argue that the cartoons are somehow too inflammatory is just pathetic.  As I posted earlier, these cartoons are nothing.  Hell, check out stuff like this, syndicated by the NY Times.  Clearly the cartoon shown is inflammatory against the US military (as is their right under the 1st amendment), so the issue of being inflammatory is a dodge too.  Hell, the NY Times has run multi-part series designed specifically to inflame people against the rich and successful, or more recently to inflame people against oil companies.  To to say they avoid being inflammatory as a policy is a bald-faced lie.  The fact is that there is an unwritten code today among the intelligentsia as to who it is "OK" to be inflammatory against and who it is not.  It is OK under the code accepted by the NY Times to be inflammatory against rich and successful people, white males, women and minorities who are not Democrats, Christians, the military, and the US in general.  It is not OK to be inflammatory against Muslims, suicide bombers, women's groups, most academics, advocacy groups, or the leader of the NAACP.  In the case of the cartoons above, it is OK to blame Islamic terrorism on the US military, but not OK to blame Islamic terrorism on the teachings of Islam.

This is a symptom of the same disease that inhabits politically correct speech codes at universities.  Specifically, institutions are increasingly banning speech that is "insulting" or "degrading" or "offensive", and then allowing some (but not all groups) of listeners to set the definition of when they consider themselves offended.  Muslims argue that these cartoons are hateful - so the Times reaction is "oh, we are so sorry, we won't publish them."   Can you imagine the NY Times giving executives at Exxon the same ability to define certain speech as insulting to them and therefore out of bounds of publication?  Sure.

I got several emails to my first post that boiled down to the following, "Coyote, what you don't understand is that we in America may not think there is anything out of bounds with those cartoons, but Muslims really are offended by them."  This is exactly my point - what other groups do we allow to effectively get a veto on the press coverage they receive?  Do we give the military the right to say "gee, that cartoon is hurtful to us, don't publish it".  No, and in fact this was just proved recently with the Tom Toles cartoon.  We give military leaders the right to say the first part, that they think is wrong for such and such reason, but we don't give them a veto over publication.  Nor, of course, should we give such a veto to anyone.  So why do we make an exception for people whose idea of political discourse is to burn down some embassies, kill a few priests, and set off a few bombs?  I would love to see the WaPo explain why it published (I think rightly) the Toles cartoon in the face of vociferous objects from the Pentagon and American veterans, but won't publish the Danish cartoons in the face of vociferous objections from violent Islamic totalitarian extremists.  Especially when the Muslim reaction to the cartoons is only serving to demonstrate exactly those qualities of Islam that the cartoons were meant to highlight.

At the end of the day, this whole episode I think will be very useful, in finally putting to the forefront the bizarre speech code many of America's intelligentsia have explicitly adopted, a code that absurdly defines exactly the same speech as alternately "healthy" or "offensive" depending on what specific groups are the target of such criticism. 

Earth to Muslims:  Grow up.
Earth to the NY Times:  The time is long overdue for a serious self-awareness episode.

Postscript: Another bit of irony:  The media often criticizes the administration as being the enemy of free speech, when the very fact of the frequent publication of this criticism without any government intervention tends to blunt the force of the argument.  On the other hand, when the group being criticized actually does respond with violence meant to suppress publication, the media decides that the targeted group is not really worthy of criticism.

Update: Here is a compiled excuse page from major US newspapers as to why they are not publishing.  Read it to enjoy the spectacle of supposedly smart and principled people twisting themselves into ethical pretzels.

Update #2:  Those of you who mainly rely on the TV and print media for news probably haven't seen the actual cartoons.  Here they are.  Internet to the rescue again, printing the news that the NY Times deems not fit to print.

Posted on February 7, 2006 at 11:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

I Finally Saw the Danish Cartoons...

...And boy were they a letdown!  Hell, I have had members of my own immediate family portrayed far worse than this in political cartoons.  I have just about lost all patience with those who try to "understand" and "explain" and "sympothize" with the violence that has erupted, ostensibly due to the publication of these cartoons.  There is no excuse for the recent violence, and I am tired of tiptoeing around the sensibilities of Muslims who are quick in their own turn to denounce anything Western in the most inflammatory and grotesque of terms. 

I am particularly flabbergasted that those who lead the charge to soften the criticism of Muslim violence are the same people who are most flipped out about the influence of fundamentalist Christians in this country.  I'm not particularly thrilled with the legislation that some of the Christian right tends to propose, but my God even the often egregious Pat Robertson is a bastion of secular reasonableness when compared to many Middle Eastern Muslim leaders.

Anyway, the controversy may at least serve some purpose, in forcing Western media to confront its own double standards in criticizing or not criticizing religions  (as a note, let me make clear that I am for having an open season on anyone believing anything, as long as one has his facts straight).

Jeff Goldstein is always a good read, particularly on this topic:

even now you have Kos commenters contorting themselves into positions of self-righteous progressive onanism that are a wonder to behold—suddenly, free speech is not a universal right worthy of the crafting of puppet heads and the defacing of Starbucks’ windows, but instead is a culture-specific gift that needs to be filtered through the religious precepts of the culture of the Other.  Unless, of course, that “Other” happens to be, say, Evangelical Christians.  In which case, such extremists MUST BE SHOUTED DOWN with free speech.

Pretzel logic, clearly—and the dilemma that is at the root of an incoherent philosophical system that favors the sociology of group identity over the universality of individual rights.  Ironically, George Bush, each time he argues that freedom is universal, is acting in a manner far more progressive than self-styled progressive activists.

Again:  note the crux of the debate, as framed by the voices for Muslim protest, and take care to listen for the broad-stroked rhetoric—usually this kinds of gambit is more carefully crafted by those who have, through years of experience, perfected its vocabulary, cadence, emotional appeals, and key words—of the “tolerance” movement, the justifying force that cynically underpins all identity politics:

"The 12 cartoons ... have caused an uproar in the Muslim world and drawn a new cultural battle over freedom of speech and respect of religions."

Translation: “Free speech is good so long as it tolerates our right, as an identity group, to dictate which free speech is authentic and allowable. Otherwise, y’know, we get to torch shit.”

But of course, freedom of speech—reduced (for purposes of this debate) to its core, animating mandate and protection—is PRECISELY the ability to look religion in its pious face and flip it the bird. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to criticize religion, just as freedom of religion is supposed to protect the rights of the religious not to have their religion established for them by a government—a counterbalancing right that is lacking in theocratic states and in religions where pluralism is denied legitimacy.

Posted on February 5, 2006 at 08:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Journalists and Enron

Remember Enron?  One of the aspects of the Enron case that the media latched on to was the document destruction at Arthur Anderson, destruction AA claims was routine but prosecutors and many in the media tried to classify as obstruction of justice.  So I thought this bit from Reason was interesting:

For decades, newsrooms have shredded or thrown away notes some time after using them both to save space and to prevent prosecutors like Fitzgerald from demanding them as part of an investigation. This “routine expungement is a longstanding practice in many news organizations,” says Sandra Davidson, a professor of communications law at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Hmmm, sounds familiar, huh?  The article goes on to point out the obvious - that the Sarbanes-Oxley provisions rushed into law and cheer-led by most journalists may come back to bite the media:

And for the press, the “obstruction of justice” provision [of Sarbanes-Oxley] may cover more than just withholding notes from the government once an investigation has begun. It may also endanger the common practice of routinely destroying notes to protect anonymous sources.... Sarbanes-Oxley, because it covers document destruction even “in contemplation” of a federal investigation, could apply to the press’s “routine expungement” practices, scholars say. “If you’re destroying documents to prevent them from being subpoenaed,” says Rotunda, “you have a risk that a vigorous prosecutor will think of that as obstruction of justice.”

Posted on January 16, 2006 at 09:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

I Have Mixed Feelings on This

Via Instapundit, comes this story of the Pennsylvania legislature declaring vendetta on local media:

Team 4 has a voicemail recording of Democratic State Rep. Tim Solobay, of Canonsburg, saying that state lawmakers are preparing an all-out assault on the media. Solobay hints that the first volley is a bill that would start charging sales tax on all advertising in Pennsylvania.

Solobay left the voicemail message for editor Cody Knotts, who works at The Weekly Recorder, in Claysville, Washington County.

In the message, Solobay says, "But you know, for the most part, the majority of the legislative feeling about the media right now is if there's something they can do to screw them, you can imagine it may occur."

Apparently, the legislature is pissed the media embarrassed them last year over a pay raise:

Like many newspaper editors in Pennsylvania, Knotts wrote prolifically last year about the 16 percent pay raise that lawmakers took, and then gave back under heavy media pressure.

Then, last month, he learned of a bill in Harrisburg that would hit the media hard -- lifting the sales tax exemption on advertising, along with some other services.

If true, this is clearly a disgusting abuse of power, but probably only unique because someone was willing to actually admit the tit for tat.

However, I am left with mixed feelings.  The media generally cheer-leads every tax increase, and is the first to join the bandwagon of slamming corporate profits and poo-pooing corporate "fat-cats whining about tax increases that cut into their huge profits" - you know the drill.

So I am less than sympathetic when I hear a media guy saying this:

Knotts said the plan would cause some businesses to stop advertising.

"We don't have a big profit margin," said Knotts. "We're sitting at around 3 or 4 percent, maybe, and it's going to cut that down to where we're losing money and then how can we stay in business."

Media executives in Pennsylvania, including those at WTAE-TV, have been lobbying lawmakers to kill the advertising tax.

Guess what - my profit margins in camping are thin as well, and my customers get hit not only with the 6-8% sales tax you are probably facing but also lodging taxes as high as 14%.  I have never ever seen a media outlet in any city or state in which we operate oppose a lodging tax increase.  Or take oil companies, who media companies revel in slamming.  Oil companies make average margins in the 5-8% range, but get hit with sales and gas taxes as high as 30% or more.  Or what about Wal-mart?  Wal-mart has margins in the 3-4% range - have these media companies ever opposed sales taxes at Wal-mart? (hah!)  So after supporting every tax you saw come along and slamming every other business as greedy profiteers, excuse me if I don't cry many tears when you get hoist on your own petard.

Posted on January 14, 2006 at 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Press Getting Upgraded to Elite-level Citizenship

Congress is again on the verge of conferring new Constitutional rights to a narrow subset of American citizenry.  Already the recipient of speech rights that the rest of us don't enjoy, the major media organizations are also about to receive a special pass from cooperating with law enforcement and criminal investigations.  The reason for granting these new rights is in part because the media, with their business model in tatters, has learned a lesson from the steel and airline industry about running to Congress for help.

First there were special speech rights for the Press:  McCain-Feingold

This special treatment began with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act, which gave journalists unique speech rights during elections by taking away the speech rights of every other non-media-credentialed American in the 30-90 days prior to an election.  Of course, those of us who don't work for the NY Times or CBS were kind of confused about how we had somehow lost our constitutional right to political speech.  Reasonably, many of us in the blogosphere wanted our speech rights back, and campaigned to be called journalists (i.e. to get the media exemption from campaign speech restrictions).  As I wrote back in June:

These past few weeks, we have been debating whether this media exemption from speech restrictions should be extended to bloggers.  At first, I was in favorThen I was torn. Now, I am pissed.  The more I think of it, it is insane that we are creating a 2-tiered system of first amendment rights at all, and I really don't care any more who is in which tier.  Given the wording of the Constitution, how do I decide who gets speech and who doesn't - it sounds like everyone is supposed to...

I have come to the conclusion that arguing over who gets the media exemption is like arguing about whether a Native American in 1960's Alabama should use the white or the colored-only bathroom:  It is an obscene discussion and is missing the whole point, that the facilities shouldn't be segregated in the first place.

Now, Congress is Considering Enhanced "Shield" Laws

Now Congress is ready to take another step in the same direction of giving the media special enhanced platinum-level Constitutional rights with the proposed Federal Shield Law.  No doubt inspired by the whole Valerie Plame / Judith Miller mess, this is yet another example of Congress feeling like it has to "do something" with a half-assed solution to a non-problem that no one at this point, except perhaps Ms. Miller, even really understands.  The Federal Shield Law, named in typical Orwellian fashion the "Free Flow of Information Act", would make reporters the only citizens of the United States who can evade subpoenas and legally stand in contempt of court, a right we have determined that not even presidents have.

These shield laws, which I have criticized before, are often justified as necessary supports for the First Amendment.  Beyond the fact that the press in this country has functioned for centuries quite nicely without such shield laws, and have toppled President's without these extra rights, they are somehow now "necessary to help the United States regain its status as an 'exemplar' of press freedom", according to bill sponsor Richard Luger  (a statement made without explaining either why this was true or even how or when the US stopped being an 'exemplar' of press freedom).

Luger is not even shy about admitting that this law effectively creates two classes of citizen in the United States:

Lugar acknowledged that the legislation could amount to a "privilege" for reporters over other Americans.

"I think, very frankly, you can make a case that this is a special boon for reporters, and certainly for their role in freedom of the press," he said. "At the end of the day what we will come out with says there is something privileged about being a reporter, and being able to report on something without being thrown into jail."

Um, reporters can already report things without being thrown in jail.  Judith Miller, the explicit reason for the bill's existence, according to Luger, was thrown in jail not for her reporting, but her refusing to participate in an investigation.  An investigation that her employer the NY Times cheer-led the government into starting.  She was put in jail for refusing to testify about a source who had in fact already given her verbal permission before she went to jail to reveal his name.

Glenn Reynolds has a nice quote about the proposal:

ONE CHARACTERISTIC OF THE TITLED NOBILITY was its immunity from some legal rules laid on the commoners; that's why such titles were an important boon that the King could bestow on favorites. Reading this statement by Richard Lugar on the proposed journalists' shield law, which probably won't cover bloggers, I wonder if we're getting into the same territory

The Licensing Issue:  Who is a Journalist?

This new special privilege afforded to journalists, when combined with the special speech rights conferred in McCain-Feingold, increases the importance of the question "So who is a journalist and who qualifies for these unique privileges?" I predicted way back in February that I thought some type of official licensing program was going to be proposed for journalists.  Well, here it is in black and white in the aforementioned article on the new shield law:

A key reason some journalists oppose the popular federal shield proposal is fear that giving Congress the power to define who is and isn't a journalist could lead effectively to the licensing of journalists.

Back in February, I predicted that the effort at licensing would fail, but now I have changed my mind.  After all, you can't have all of us unwashed folks who actually got good grades in math so we didn't have to default back to a journalism degree in college getting hold of these special privileges.  Only elite people who have proved themselves worth of being beyond legal accountability, folks like Dan Rather or the Katrina reporters, can be trusted with these extra rights and privileges.

Whenever the government by legislation gives a group of people special powers, it always leads to licensing.  It HAS to, else the courts would forever be bogged down with fights over who is in and who is out.  It is much easier to say "the only people who have the right to evade subpoenas are people with this piece of paper."  Using medicine as a parallel example, once you decide the average person can't be trusted to educate themselves enough to make their own medication decisions, you end up with a process where only licensed MD's can issue prescriptions.  The same will be true in journalism.

What is Really Going On Here

To understand what is really going on here, think "steel industry" or "airline industry".  When technology or markets or customers or competition changed in industries like steel, the last desperate defense of the US steel industry was to run to the government begging for import restrictions and price supports and subsidies and pension bailouts and god-knows what else.  Boy-oh-boy wouldn't the steel industry in the US love to have a law that says only licensed steel makers can sell steel in the US, and by the way, the current steel industry participants will control the licensing board.

Think that is a ridiculous exaggeration?  It can't be any more stupid than this form of licensing (or this one;  or this one).  Here are the various trade-specific licenses you need here in Scottsdale - I would hate to see the list for some place like Santa Monica.  My favorite is the one that says "An additional license is required for those firms which are going out of business."  Or for an exact parallel to my steel industry hypothetical, try this law from Ohio to liscence new auctioneers:

Besides costing $200 and posting a $50,000 bond, the license requires a one-year apprenticeship to a licensed auctioneer, acting as a bid-caller in 12 auctions, attending an approved auction school, passing a written and oral exam. Failure to get a license could result in the seller being fined up to $1,000 and jailed for a maximum of 90 days.

And my commentary on it:

Note that under this system, auctioneers have an automatic veto over new competition, since all potential competitors must find an existing auctioneer to take them on as an apprentice.  Imagine the consumer electronics business - "I'm sorry, you can't make or sell any DVD players until Sony or Toshiba have agreed to take you on as an intern for a year".  Yeah, I bet we'd see a lot of new electronics firms in that system - not.

This is exactly what is going on with the media.  The world, at least for the US media, is changing.  Subscriptions and ad revenues have been falling year after year after year.  People either giving up this media all-together or switching to new competitors, such as online media, in large numbers and there is no indication that this trend will stop.  As a result, the traditional media finds itself with its back against the wall.

What to do?  What every other industry has done - run to Congress!  Major media groups were extraordinarily strong supporters of McCain-Feingold, knowing that by limiting speech of everyone else, it added to its own influence and power come election time.  Over time, Congress will continue to add new privileges for the media, like the shield law, in part because it knows that it needs to stay in good with the only group of people who have full speech rights come election time.

The one thing I disagree with in the quote above about licensing is the notion that many in the press oppose it.  They are right to see the prospect as scary (see unintended consequences below) but once a licensing system is in place, I GUARANTEE that the licensed press will be huge supporters of licensing.  Just like lawyers and doctors, the press will find a way to take control of their own licensing and use it to keep out competitors they don't like.  Those pajama-clad bloggers irritating you - well, just make sure that they don't get licensed.  Come election time, they will all have to shut up, because only licensed journalists will have the media exemption in McC-F.  Milton Freedman described this process years ago:

The justification offered [for licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

And as I said here:

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

Hit and Run described how doctors use the licensing process, and even hazing of interns, to keep their numbers down and therefore their salaries (and their fees to us) up:

When Kevin Drum commented on the New England Journal article, he said that the system's defenders "sound like nothing so much as a bunch of 50s frat boys defending hazing after some freshman has been found dead in an arroyo somewhere."

Hazing is the right metaphor. The system serves the same purpose: It's a brutal initiation to a privileged club. Medical hazing is part of the set of barriers that limit entry to the profession; whatever other reasons there are for it, it's ultimately a byproduct of occupational licensing. Those long shifts don't just undermine public health. They drive away qualified men and women, reducing the supply of doctors and allowing those who survive the trial to charge more for their services.

Unintended consequences

Of course, all this has unintended consequences, as does any government meddling in individual decisions, limitations of rights, or attempts to pick industry winners. 

The first unintended consequence, or more accurately I guess I should call it the first irony because I am not sure that it is unintended, is that laws meant to keep the elite from having undue influence vs. the little guy in politics (via spending limits) have done just the opposite - concentrated political speech in a few elites in the media and squashed the one medium, blogging and the Internet, that hold the promise of giving individuals like myself new, inexpensive ways of influencing politics.

The second unintended and really scary consequence is that in attempting to remove a lever of government control over media - the subpoena power - Congress is potentially creating a larger one - that of licensing.  Of all the news-oriented media in the world, which is the most bland?  I would answer local TV and radio (by this I mean their local programming, not the syndicated stuff they air).  Why?  Because they are already subject to government licensing that to this point other media, such as newspapers, have not.  Local broadcast outlets are VERY self-conscious about protecting their license, and tend to keep their programming bland to avoid irritating some government bureaucrat.  Just look at how many rolled over immediately and dropped Howard Stern when the government started looking cross-eyed at Stern's raunchiness.  Do we really want all the media subject to this kind of pressure?

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Posted on October 13, 2005 at 12:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

British Censors Rewriting... the Future?

Government censors often try to rewrite the past, but Reason's Hit and Run passes on this funny story of British attempts to rewrite the future:

Britain's Meteorological Office has instructed forecasters to describe the country's damp, dismal, seasonal-affect-disorder-inducing, godawful weather in Bob Rossian terms:

Prolonged sunshine is expected under new "positive" forecast guidelines issued by the Meteorological Office...

There is no need to dwell on a "small chance of showers" when "mainly dry" tells a better story. If there are "localised storms" then it must be "dry for most". Clouds over Manchester mean generally clear visibility for motorway drivers

I don't know what the Brits are complaining about in a forecast such as "small chance of showers".  In the States, the same forecast would be communicated as "huge, civilization ending storm approaching - details at 11".  When I lived in St. Louis, I remember that the local news successfully predicted 11 of the last 3 snowstorms.

Update:  I appears that the media has also been reporting 11 of the last 3 murders:

Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some local, state and federal officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims.

Claims of widespread looting, gunfire directed at helicopters and rescuers, homicides, and rapes, including those of "babies" at the Louisiana Superdome, frequently turned out to be overblown, if not completely untrue, officials now say.

The sensational accounts delayed rescue and evacuation efforts already hampered by poor planning and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal agencies. People rushing to the Gulf Coast to fly rescue helicopters or to distribute food, water and other aid steeled themselves for battle. In communities near and far, the seeds were planted that the victims of Katrina should be kept away, or at least handled with extreme caution.

I had my own commentary about media malpractice here.

Posted on October 6, 2005 at 10:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Media Malpractice

Kevin Drum passes on this Times-Picayune story that apparently, New Orleans in general and the Superdome in particular were not quite the post-apocalyptic-mad-max killing zone they were portrayed as:

"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them....It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."

....The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. [Mayor Ray] Nagin told [Oprah] Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."

Drum has an odd way of introducing the story, saying that "conventional wisdom about the Superdome and Convention Center was wrong" and introducing the story as an "urban legend".  Conventional wisdom? Urban legend?  This isn't a story that was created around water coolers, this is a story that was reported like this by the major media.  If the Times-Picayune story is right, then a better lead would be "Major Media Greatly Exaggerated Deaths and Disorder at Superdome". 

What Drum is so coy about pointing out is that this is yet another example of the media falling in love with a story line and selectively choosing facts, and where necessary, suspending disbelief, to support that story line.  First, the media wanted what it always wants in a disaster:  the big story that will draw viewers  (Did anyone else notice last week during Rita that when the hurricane went from category 3 to 5, all the media said it was much more dangerous at 5, but when it went back down to 3, they all said its just as dangerous at 3 as 5).  As the days progressed, the media fell in love with a new story, the story of a racist administration that was abandoning blacks to chaos.

OK, well here is my new story line:  Its about a media that won't even trust General Honore when he announces the location of the hurricane Rita evacuation site without peppering him with 20 useless questions but is willing to believe, without evidence, that a mostly black population would in a period of two days descend into Lord-of-the-Flies level violence, murder, and yes, they even mentioned cannibalism.   Message to blacks from the media: The elite media types feel your pain, support litmus test issues like affirmative action, but they will assume that at your heart you are all murderers and cannibals.   Who are the freakin' racists here, anyway?   Heck, a black "social justice advocate" started the cannibalism rumor in print.  With leaders like these, do African-Americans need enemies?

And, by the way, there is a second really interesting story line here about how the major media's desire to portray the situation in New Orleans as bad as possible, even if the facts did not support it, actually slowed the pace of help to victims.  Any number of volunteers shied away from entering the damaged area, afraid for their own safety.  Many more were turned away from the area by authorities who were afraid they could not protect them.  There is no doubt in my mind that the media's fact-free coverage, skewed to make things look as bad as possible, made things worse for victims in the early days after the hurricane, all in the name of higher ratings.  If Walmart or Haliburton had done something to impede the rescue in the name of higher profits, they would be hung out to dry.  OK, I am waiting for a similar outcry against ABC and CNN and FOX, because it seems that that is exactly what they are guilty of.

Update:  From the LA Times:

"If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people," [New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor] Amoss said, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."

A lot of the blame, though seems to also fall at the footsteps of the Mayor and Chief of Police:

Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."...

Some of the hesitation that journalists might have had about using the more sordid reports from the evacuation centers probably fell away when New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.

Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.

Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.

Mayor Nagin has for some reason chosen the strategy, which seems insane in retrospect, of hoping that making the situation look as bad as possible would somehow enhance his personal reputation.  This strategy seems nuts, but I will say that it is one that has worked well for black politicians for years, making political hay by pointing out how bad their black constituents have it because of outside racist forces and powers outside their control.  In this case, though, the chickens come home to roost as Mayor Nagin has been unable to shed that nasty, nagging question that African-Americans should have been asking of their black leaders for years: "Uh, but in this case weren't you the one in charge?"

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Posted on September 26, 2005 at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Birth of a Meme

Its not very often that you can tell, right at birth, that a new meme or catchphrase has been created, but General Honore's "Your Stuck on Stupid" seems to be such a case.  Radio Blogger has the context and transcript.  I will quote the key part, but its good to read the whole thing. 

The General had been trying to explain the evacuation approach so the press could get the message out to citizens who needed to know where to go.  Actually, the mayor had been trying to do that first, but was getting eaten alive by a press who were less interested in getting information out on the new storm than with scoring points** about the last storm. Both the mayor and the general kept getting peppered with questions like "why didn't we do that last time" and "That didn't work before".  At this point, General Honore was clearly frustrated with reporters who wanted to have a political finger pointing discussion when he was trying to communicate evacuation information.  So then there was this:

Honore: ...Right now, to handle the number of people that want to leave, we've got the capacity. You will come to the convention center. There are soldiers there from the 82nd Airborne, and from the Louisiana National Guard. People will be told to get on the bus, and we will take care of them. And where they go will be dependent on the capacity in this state. We've got our communications up. And we'll tell them where to go. And when they get there, they'll be able to get a chance, an opportunity to get registered, and so they can let their families know where they are. But don't start panic here. Okay? We've got a location. It is in the front of the convention center, and that's where we will use to migrate people from it, into the system.

Male reporter: General Honore, we were told that Berman Stadium on the west bank would be another staging area...

Honore: Not to my knowledge. Again, the current place, I just told you one time, is the convention center. Once we complete the plan with the mayor, and is approved by the governor, then we'll start that in the next 12-24 hours. And we understand that there's a problem in getting communications out. That's where we need your help. But let's not confuse the questions with the answers. Buses at the convention center will move our citizens, for whom we have sworn that we will support and defend...and we'll move them on. 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. And if you don't understand, maybe you'll confuse it to the people. That's why we like follow-up questions. But right now, it's the convention center, and move on.

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.

Awesome.  The press does a great job, and I couldn't do what I do as a blogger without them gathering the basic facts on which I comment***.  However, I think a lot of people are tired of their self-righteous shtick.

**  While I am convinced that reporters seem more interested in scoring points in these press conferences than obtaining facts (have you ever watched a White House press briefing?), it is interesting to ask "score points with whom?"  With each other?  With CSPAN viewers?  Are either of these really a sustainable constituency?

***  Vodkapundit has a great analysis that I think is dead-on about the NY Times putting their editorial copy behind a paid firewall.  The WSJ charges for news, but puts out opinions for free.  The NY Times does the opposite. 

Look. I usually suspect any New York Times story to be biased - but I can expect it to be researched and fact-checked. And in this day and age, I can rely on some smart blogger somewhere to tell me exactly what the NYT got wrong. But what I can't expect blogs to do - at least not yet - is to do the dreary, day-in-day-out work of getting the news in the first place. For all its faults, the MSM is still far better than blogs at reporting.

Given all that, do recent decisions at the New York Times make any sense? They're forcing people to pay for opinions they can get most anywhere else for free, while cutting back on doing the one thing they can still do better than anyone else.

Posted on September 21, 2005 at 09:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Racial Profiling in the Media

A pretty cynical bit of racial profiling going on here.  White people are borrowing needed food, black people are looting (though there is an interesting contrast here in how each person goes about their carbohydrate intake, lol)

Posted on August 30, 2005 at 10:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Parochialism from the NY Times

I was reading the NY Times' International Herald Tribune today here in Paris, and saw something funny at the end of an article about the crazy process underway to select the 2012 Olympic venue.  By the way, this is the big issue in Paris right now - you can't walk anywhere without finding yourself in the middle of some sort of Paris promotional event, presumably being simulcast back to the selection committee in Singapore.

Anyway, the IHT had this funny line:

The last days of the race drew the president of France, the prime minister of Russia and the queen of Spain here.  New York City pulled Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton away from a busy schedule to lend her star power.

Uhh, you mean the president of France and the prime minister of Russia don't have busy schedules?  And wouldn't a more correct formulation be "while other cities were represented by their head of state, NY City could only muster a junior member of Congress"?  I hope any city but New York wins, because, given past history, NYC will likely get themselves into some financial hole hosting the Olympics that the rest of the country will have to bail them out of.

By the way, apparently in a bid to head off past corruption, the International Olympic Committee has banned its members from actually visiting host cities and their facilities ahead of the selection.  This seems kind of extreme - you have to pick between cities but you can't learn anything useful about them.  Its depressing that the members of the Olympic committee are so untrustworthy that the only way to prevent them from collecting bribes from potential host countries is to not allow them anywhere near the country.

Posted on July 6, 2005 at 01:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Not the Comfy Chair! (Updated)

Well, Newsweek has admitted that it screwed up.  Big time:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Newsweek magazine said on Sunday it erred in a May 9 report that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and apologized to the victims of deadly Muslim protests sparked by the article.

Editor Mark Whitaker said the magazine inaccurately reported that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that personnel at the detention facility in Cuba had flushed the Muslim holy book down the toilet.

The report sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.

On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Whitaker wrote in the magazine's latest issue, due to appear on U.S. newsstands on Monday.

It is not Monday morning quarterbacking to say that they should have known better -- many observers noted the danger right off the bat of posting such an inflammatory story based on only a single anonymous source.

The point I want to make is a different one than the obvious MSM-continues-to-slide-into-the-abyss observation.  That is:  We really, really seem to have dumbed down the whole "torture" thing.  When I grew up, torture was pulling out someones fingernails or whacking their genitals with a stick while they were tied to a cane chair or maybe starving them in a pit for a few weeks. 

Here is my fervent hope:  If I ever find myself imprisoned by hostile forces, I pray that they will torture me by sitting me in a chair and having me watch them flush books down the toilet.  The toughest part will be acting like I am really suffering watching a copy of some document I respect, maybe the US Constitution or Atlas Shrugged or the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, swirling down the pipe.  Then, if that does not work, I hope and pray that they then resort to stripping me naked and taking pictures of me in a human pyramid with other prisoners.  I just hope they don't find out that I already did something similar in college.

By the way, while we are inventing a kindler-gentler torture, can we also tone down our dedication to icons?  I have never understood the need to ban Koran flushing or American flag burning.  Both the Koran and the flag are symbols that have meaning to each individual.  If someone wipes their butt in public with the American flag, my  respect for the US and what it stands for is in no way tarnished - only my opinion of the flag-wiper has changed.

UPDATE:  WOW!  How did I miss this one?  I really, REALLY hope they choose this torture for me:

One female civilian contractor used a special outfit that included a miniskirt and thong underwear during late-night interrogations with prisoners, mostly Muslim men who consider it taboo to have close contact with women who aren't their wives...

The female interrogator wanted to "break him," Saar adds, describing how she removed her uniform top to expose a tight-fitting T-shirt and began taunting the detainee, touching her breasts, rubbing them against the prisoner's back and commenting on his apparent erection....

In November, in response to an AP request, the military described an April 2003 incident in which a female interrogator took off her uniform top, ran her fingers through a detainee's hair and sat on his lap. That session was immediately ended by a supervisor and that interrogator received a written reprimand and additional training, the military said.

Please, no.  Anything but that.  Las Vegas better watch out or it may start losing visitors to Gitmo.  I wonder if this is going to cause a problem for the ACLU, which has been opposing these interrogation techniques at Gitmo.  After all, doesn't this woman have a right to free expression?

Postscript:  By the way, I am serious that I think the media has purposefully dumbed-down the definition of torture to improve their story, and in the process has hurt the US internationally.  However, while I find most of the torture accusations a joke, I still absolutely oppose the whole Guantanamo Bay indefinite detention camp concept.  I don't like allowing US authorities to set up a civil-rights-free zone, and I think it is an incredibly slippery slope that we are climbing on.   And yes, I say this with full knowlege that some bad folks could be released back into the wild.  Guess what -- the American justice system does this all the time.  We have 200 years of history of preferring to let guilty parties go free rather than letting innocent parties rot in jail, and I am not ready to overturn our pretty succesful precendent on this matter.

UPDATE: And to be clear, this is torture, or close enough.  Its good these folks are being brought to justice.   I encourage the media to keep up the pressure on true misconduct -- the gratuitous "wrapped-them-in-the-israeli-flag non-tortures just dillute our focus.  I guess I would also encourage those of you who want to extrapolate from these events to a condemnation of the US military as a whole to inform yourself.  The US military, like any institution of human beings, has criminals in it.  However, that being said, our military has been by far the best behaved occupying force in history, bar none (And, if you don't think they should be occupiers at all, well, blame the politicians that sent them).  For every story of atrocious behavior by a US soldier are 20 stories of soldiers being fair and kind.  The fact that these 20 other stories don't make the paper doesn't make them any less true.

Posted on May 15, 2005 at 10:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thank Goodness for Those Editors

Its good that unlike us poor, mistake-prone bloggers, the major media outlets have multiple layers of editing.  Otherwise, they might make mistakes even worse than putting Tbilisi, Georgia near Atlanta, as did our "worldly" local paper, the AZ Republic.  (Hat tip:  WSJ Best of the Web$)

Posted on May 12, 2005 at 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Enron and the UN

I was wondering if anyone else noticed this.  Greg Scoblete (hat tip: Instapundit)  points out the very different treatment that the Enron and the UN Scandals have gotten in the NY Times:

Notice the care this New York Times editorial takes when treating Kofi Annan today, all hedged bets and mild condemnation. It's only Kojo, after all. Confined to those shifty Swiss. Not a big deal, besides the only people who care are the warmongers angry that Kofi wouldn't sign on to the Iraq war. Just do better next time.

In other words, par for the Kofi course.*

Now, Enron.  Hang 'em high! Trust no one. Spare no one. Cast the net wide! Wider! The root of all evil. Crush all Imperial CEOs. Ken Lay - why wait for the trial? Even named a disease after it.

They are different:  The UN scandals are much worse:

  • The UN is a far more important institution -- at the end of the day, Enron is just a pipeline company, and no one, except their hosed employees, really has missed it
  • The UN has overseen a far larger amount of corruption in $ terms.
  • Enron enriched some twits in Houston.  UN enriched a brutal dictator who used the money to cement his totalitarian power over his country
  • At least as far as I know, Enron employees were not guilty of mass rape.

Disclosure: When I was a first year associate at McKinsey & Co., I worked on a study team led by Jeff Skilling (it was at McKinsey that Skilling developped many of his ideas for the gas-trading business that catapulted him into a senior position at Enron).  I had great respect for Skilling's off-the-chart intelligence and ability to synthesize tons of detail.  If that causes the reader to be suspicious of Skilling's Congressional testimony , well, I will leave that to the reader's opinion and future court decisions.  Remember, though, that the I-was-too-dumb-to-know-what-was-going-on defense did not even work for Bernard Ebbers, and Skilling is a lot brighter than Ebbers.

Posted on March 30, 2005 at 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Broadcast Speech Limitation from Left and Right

We libertarians are often argue that both the left and the right are equally guilty of stepping on key freedoms.  We currently have an excellent example of that in the case of freedom of speech in broadcast media (radio and TV).

From the RightNew initiatives to crack down on "bad language" and sexual content in broadcast media, most famously driving Howard Stern to satellite.

From the Left:  While bent out of shape about the right's crackdown on immoral speech, the left turns around and attempts a crackdown, via renewal of the Fairness Doctrine, on political speech.  See hapless John Kerry decrying loss of the Fairness Doctrine here, and a more coherent history here.

Can't we just agree to allow everyone free speech and turn off what we don't want to hear?

Posted on March 16, 2005 at 08:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

More on the Press and Revealing Sources

In a previous post, I wrote:

There were two interesting court decisions today that each can be summarized as "the press does not have rights or legal privileges beyond those granted to any ordinary citizens"

A number of readers were confused by this, as we have always seen the brave reporter on TV or in the movies protecting their information sources under a "shield law".  Many states, but not all, do in fact have shield laws that give reporters some protection against revealing their sources of information under subpoena.  However, there is no such law at the federal level, and any state laws that exist do not apply to federal courts or subpoenas.

However, despite this lack of an explicit federal shield law, most media organizations argue that the Constitution confers such privilege on them anyway.  Per the NY Times, some judges agree:

[Judge Robert Sweet] explained that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York recognized a qualified First Amendment privilege that protects reporters from being compelled to disclose their confidential sources

This confuses me - I have read the first amendment many times.  I see the stuff about freedom of the press.  I always naively assumed this meant that they had the freedom to publish any old bonehead thing they wanted, including criticism of the government, without any limitations by the state.  I never realized that this meant that they also had the freedom to evade subpoenas and cover up evidence of crimes, things the rest of us would go to jail for (e.g. Martha Stewart).  Does the fact that the same amendment refers to freedom of religion mean that priests can legally cover up wrongdoing?  Do freedom of speech protections mean that bloggers can hide sources from subpoenas?

I find the judge's logic, as reported by the Times, to be scary:

The judge, Robert Sweet, reasoned, correctly, that the subpoenas for the phone records were the functional equivalent of demanding testimony from the reporters themselves, and he took note of the important role of confidential sources in news investigations of the Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky and Abu Ghraib scandals.

In other words, the Judge thought that allowing the press to hide their sources was useful in some cases historically, so he created a new first amendment privilege.  This is the kid of action that irritates the heck out of me.  What the judge just did in this case is legislate.  He saw a need in society and created a new privilege for a class of citizens based on that need.  You may even agree with his logic - in fact, I may even agree in part with his logic - but it is not his job!  He should be saying: "I'm sorry, as useful as such a protection may be, I see no basis for it in federal law or in the Constitution.  If you think you need one, write your Congressman but for now, there is no such privilege".  UPDATE:  If judge Sweet needs an example, here is one from an unrelated case:

U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd ruled Monday that the president of the United States does not have the authority to order Jose Padilla to be held indefinitely without being charged.

"If the law in its current state is found by the president to be insufficient to protect this country from terrorist plots, such as the one alleged here, then the president should prevail upon Congress to remedy the problem," he wrote. (hat tip LGF)

Sounds a lot like my suggestion above, huh?  This strikes me as a good judicial practice - rule on the law as it is, rather than what you think it should be.  We actually don't know whether Judge Floyd thinks that it is a good idea for the President to be able to order terrorist suspects held indefinitely, nor should his opinion matter.

Another Update:  Professor Bainbridge has a good post on yet another case of legislating from the bench.  I am lukewarm on the death penalty in general and am opposed the death penalty for minors, but I still think the Supreme Court is dangerously overstepping its bounds here.  The majority opinion talks about practices in other countries and public opinion - what does that have anything to do with Consitutionality? Those are arguments for legislation banning death penalty for minors in the legislature, not for the Court.

By the way, the Times wants to be able to keep secrets, but gets pretty huffy when other people have the same privilege:

Some judge may have looked at the issue, but we have no way of knowing, given the bizarre level of secrecy that still prevents the reporters being threatened with jail from seeing the nine-page blanked-out portion of last week's decision evaluating the evidence.

I found one other point in this same NY Times editorial to be hilarious.  I have not really commented on the Plame affair, because I found it to be pretty boring.  In fact, it is telling that most discussion of the affair ended the day after the elections.  Anyway, I found this note by the NY Times pretty funny:

Meanwhile, an even more basic issue has been raised in recent articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere: the real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, while an abuse of power, may not have violated any law. Before any reporters are jailed, searching court review is needed to determine whether the facts indeed support a criminal prosecution under existing provisions of the law protecting the identities of covert operatives.

There is nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself - in fact, I agree.  Its funny only because the Times was the one reporting that it was in fact a crime committed:

Officials are barred by law from disclosing the identities of Americans who work undercover for the C.I.A. That provision is intended to protect the security of operatives whose lives might be jeopardized if their identities are known.

Among those who have cried foul are several Democratic senators, including Charles E. Schumer of New York, who have said that if the accusation is true and if senior administration officials were its source, law enforcement authorities should seek to identify the officials who appeared to have violated the law. Mr. Schumer has asked Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to look into the case.

The Best of the Web pointed out this even more telling statement from a 12/31/04 NYT editorial.  Note the complete lack of uncertainty as to whether there was any crime committed (emphasis added)

The change was announced by the newly appointed Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who turned the case over to a respected career prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago. Mr. Fitzgerald is charged with finding out who violated federal law by giving the name of the undercover intelligence operative to Mr. Novak for publication in his column.

Interesting to see how their perspective changed when the subpoenas landed at their door.  "Law enforcement needs to get to the bottom of this as long as, err, they don't ask us to help".

Posted on February 27, 2005 at 09:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

My Experience Today with Newspapers and the Web

Its been a frustrating day dealing with the Arizona Republic.  The day began pretty exciting as they had a beautiful article in the style section today featuring the handbags my wife creates.

Our first disappointment was the fact that the paper forgot to include my wife's web site in the article, giving readers no contact information in the article if they are interested in the purses.  Then we found that the link to her article in the style section of the Republic online was wrong, and only produced an error.  Now, mistakes like this happen - I actually messed up a link to my wife's web site in this article, but I quickly fixed it when an alert reader noticed.  So I emailed the webmaster at the Republic, and, several hours later, I got an email saying something like "here is the correct link".  But the link online is still broken!  In the time they sent me the email with the correct link, they could have just fixed the link online.  Six hours later, it still is not fixed.  This strikes me as classic dead-tree journalism, thinking in terms of making corrections days or weeks later rather than in real time.

UPDATE:  Yea!  Link fixed.  Wonder if my sending them this blog post helped or if they were doing it anyway.

Posted on February 25, 2005 at 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

I Was Right

I predicted just a week ago that recent media credibility issues would lead to (misguided) calls for tighter credentialing and licensing of journalists:

I resisted the call by a number of web sites at the beginning of the year to make predictions for 2005.  However, now I will make one:  We will soon see calls to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have.

Hah, it didn't take a year - it only took a week.  Several commentators point out that those jumping all over the Jeff Gannon affair are effectively arguing for tighter credentialing.  From Glenn Reynolds:

I also think that the people who are trying to inflate this into a big issue are making a dreadful mistake. I eagerly await the reaction when the White House responds to this criticism by requiring everyone who attends a press briefing to make a full financial and sexual disclosure, and starts rating news outlets as "real" or "fake" according to bias. (If I were Rove I'd make some rumblings about this to the press corps, and I'd explicitly cite the lefty bloggers by name, just to stir up trouble . . . .)

David Corn warns:

There is a need for professional accreditation; space is limited. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with allowing journalists with identifiable biases to pose questions to the White House press secretary and even the president. And if such a reporter asks a dumb question--as did Gannon/Guckert (which triggered this scandal)--the best response is scorn and further debate. Bloggers should think hard when they complain about standards for passes for White House press briefings. Last year, political bloggers--many of whom have their own biases and sometimes function as activists--sought credentials to the Democratic and Republican conventions. That was a good thing. Why shouldn't Josh Marshall, Glenn Reynolds, John Aravosis, or Markos Moulitsas (DailyKos) be allowed to question Scott McClellan or George W. Bush? Do we want only the MSMers to have this privilege?

Posted on February 24, 2005 at 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Media Does Not Have Extra Rights

There were two interesting court decisions today that each can be summarized as "the press does not have rights or legal privileges beyond those granted to any ordinary citizens"

The first case is the DC Circuit's decision to allow subpoena's of reporters about their sources in the Valerie Plame affair.

Appellants counter that Justice Powell could not have meant what the United States argues, as this would have given reporters no more protection than other citizens. However, they never make it clear why they are convinced that Justice Powell must have intended to give reporters more protection than other citizens. The Constitution protects all citizens, and there is no reason to believe that Justice Powell intended to elevate the journalistic class above the rest.

Much more here at Beldar.  I can't resist one quote from him:

And on its own, the DC Circuit's lengthy decision today is absolutely fascinating for hard-core law wonks, especially ex-judicial clerks. Indeed, I feel the urge to write several thousand words about it — dry quotes from the written opinions, connected by an over-extended football metaphor, leavened with dollops of snark.


The second case is in Maryland, where the state court determined that two Baltimore Sun reporters do not have the guaranteed right to a level of access to government officials and information beyond that given to a private decision.  As a citizen of that state, I might want to punish my elected representative at the polls if I thought they were trying to stifle criticism by managing the press poll too much; however, I agree with the court that the paper is not owed any legal redress.

I am sure we will hear cries tomorrow from editors about growing threats to the first amendment.  Don't be confused: These decisions are about press privilege, not press freedom.  Neither you nor I can ignore a federal subpoena, and neither should a reporter.

If you want to worry about the first amendment, read this:

The survey of 112,003 students finds that 36% believe newspapers should get “government approval” of stories before publishing.


Posted on February 15, 2005 at 09:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Prediction: Media Insiders Call for Liscencing

Note:  the following post grew out of an update to this post -- I have not pulled it out into its own post.

I resisted the call by a number of web sites at the beginning of the year to make predictions for 2005.  However, now I will make one:  We will soon see calls to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have.  As Milton Friedman said:

The justification offered [for licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

Fortunately, this effort will fail, in part because it is fighting the tide of history and in part because constitutional speech protections would probably invalidate any strong form of licensing (I wish there were similarly strong commerce protections in the Constitution).  Be careful, though, not to argue that this proposal will fail because the idea is stupid, because it can't be any more stupid than this form of licensing (or this one;  or this one).  Here are the various trade-specific licenses you need here in Scottsdale - I would hate to see the list for some place like Santa Monica.  My favorite is the one that says "An additional license is required for those firms which are going out of business."

Posted on February 15, 2005 at 10:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

I Don't Understand "Off the Record"

I haven't blogged at all about the whole Eason Jordan thing, partially because blogging on it would be like adding one extra reporter to the Superbowl, and partially because his comments, while way out of line for head of a journalism organization, didn't seem to be much worse than all the other things he has said over time.

Anyway, I mention it here because whether his comments were "off the record" seems to be an important part of the controversy.  I can't think of any ethical justification for this distinction.  I can understand when comments are "private" (say with my family around my house) or "confidential" (say with my managers about what we are paying someone) or even "anonymous" (such as when a source might be blowing the whistle on their boss).  What, though, does it mean if public comments in a public forum are "off the record"?

The only practical, rather than ethical, justification I can come up with is that someone wants their remarks to be "off the record" when they are telling one audience something different than another audience.  Such as when a politician speaks radically to his/her hard left or right base, but doesn't want moderate voters to hear the extreme positions they are advocating.  Or such as when a US news director makes anti-American comments to an anti-American audience and doesn't want his US viewers to hear.  There is nothing very pretty about either of these situations - why does the media continue to enable this behavior?

The only other argument I can come up with is that the media tends to be so incompetent that they can seldom summarize a speaker's remarks correctly or quote them in context, and speakers know this, so they use "off the record" to protect themselves from the media's incompetence.  But if this is the true justification for "off the record", it is ironic and funny to see the head of CNN news using it.  He is basically saying that "I know in advance that my own organization will get my remarks wrong so I won't allow them to quote me".

UPDATE and PREDICTION:  I resisted the call by a number of web sites at the beginning of the year to make predictions for 2005.  However, now I will make one:  We will soon see calls, from media insiders, to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have.  As Milton Friedman said:

The justification offered [for licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

Fortunately, this effort will fail, in part because it is fighting the tide of history and in part because constitutional speech protections would probably invalidate any strong form of licensing (I wish there were similarly strong commerce protections in the Constitution).  Be careful, though, not to argue that this proposal will fail because the idea is stupid, because it can't be any more stupid than this form of licensing (or this one;  or this one).  Here are the various trade-specific licenses you need here in Scottsdale - I would hate to see the list for some place like Santa Monica.  My favorite is the one that says "An additional license is required for those firms which are going out of business."

Posted on February 14, 2005 at 01:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AP Defends Photo as "Fake but Accurate"

Release from the Associated Press:

Photo of Kidnapped Soldier Fake, But Accurate

London:  We are working hard to authenticate the photograph of the American Soldier we reported kidnapped by Islamic terrorists freedom fighters.  A number of extremist right-wing reactionary bloggers have accused the AP of being duped by a photo of an action figure propped against a cement block.  Bloggers point to differences in clothing vs. standard US combat gear as well as a similarity in appearance to the "Cody" action figure.

The AP stands by its story.  We have engaged a world famous collector of 1970's Barbie dolls that we met in an eBay chat room who has assured us that no action figure clothing ever made could possibly match what is shown in the photo.  We are meeting with our expert next month at the Houston rodeo to review his findings.

Even if the photo is eventually determined to be fake, we still believe it is an accurate representation of our need to find a negative story in Iraq to counterbalance the positive press President Bush has gotten after the recent elections. 

And, in a related story... well, not really related, except it is also about Iraq... OK, actually its related only because I am too lazy to start a new post:

UN officials reacted strongly to the attacks on its recent blogads taking credit for the recent Iraqi election.  Critics called the ads rank hypocrisy, given the fact that the UN funneled over $20 billion of food money to Saddam, opposed the overthrow of Saddam, and cut-and-run from helping to rebuild Iraq at the first sign of violence.  The UN said that the ads were perfectly consistent with its policy, since it "was against elections before it was for them."

Interviews of Iraqi citizens on the street showed strong support for the UN's lack of support.  Said one Iraqi who asked to remain anonymous, "given the UN peacekeepers terrible performance in Kosovo and their serial rape and white slavery in the Congo and their sanctioning of genocide in the Sudan, we haven't really missed them."

Posted on February 1, 2005 at 09:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Great Moments in Media Fact Checking

Via Wizbang, who helped point the finger at the CBS forged memos, comes this story about an AP Report of a American service man supposedly held hostage:

Iraqi militants claimed in a Web statement Tuesday to have taken an American soldier hostage and threatened to behead him in 72 hours unless the Americans release Iraqi prisoners.

The posting, on a Web site that frequently carried militants' statements, included a photo of what appeared to be an American soldier in desert fatigues seated with his hands tied behind his back.

A gun barrel was pointed at his head, and he is seated in front of a black banner emblazoned with the Islamic profession of faith, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His prophet."

It even is accompanied with this picture:


Only problem is that this is actually a photo of a GI Joe doll. 


The "professionals" at the AP were taken in hook line and sinker, leaving it to "amateurs" on the web to debunk the hoax in about a half and hour.  Read all about it at the Wizbang link above.

Update:  CNN has caught up on the story

Posted on February 1, 2005 at 05:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dan Rather Replacement

Apparently, CBS is still mulling over candidates to replace Dan Rather.  Apparently, they have reduced the candidates of a "short list" of the people who might improve ratings over those garnered by Rather.  Unfortunately, this criteria has limited the list to ... just about everybody.  While this and other articles bandy about candidates, I still think my list was pretty good:

Improve ratings approach #1:  Finally get rid of the pretense that anchors are journalists rather than pretty talking heads.  Hire Nicolette Sheridan, or maybe Terri Hatcher.  Or, if you feel CBS News deserves more gravitas, in the Murrow tradition, how about Meryl Streep?

Improve ratings approach #2:  Go with comedy.  Bring in David Letterman from the Late Show to anchor the evening news.  "Tonight, we start with the growing UN oil for food scandal.  Uma - Anann.  Anann - Uma."  Or, if you want to segment the market differently, how about Tim Allen and the CBS News for Guys.  Or, if CBS wants to keep hitting the older demographic - what about Chevy Chase - certainly he already has anchor experience from SNL.

Improving Credibility Choice:  No one in the MSM really has much credibility left after the last election, but there is one man who would bring instant credibility to CBS News -- Bob Costas.  CBS should hire him away from NBC, like they did with Letterman.  Make him the evening news anchor.  Heck, if Bryant Gumbell can make the transition to the news division, certainly Costas can.

Become the acknowledged liberal counterpoint to Fox:  Hire Bill Clinton as anchor.  Nothing would generate more buzz than that hire, and he is at loose ends anyway (and think about all those wonderful business trips away from home...)  If Bill is not available, try James Carville.  I might even have to watch that.

Let the public decide:  Forget making a decision, and just create a new reality show like ESPN's Dream Job to choose the next anchor.  Each week the 12 finalists can be given a new task.  In week one, they have to pick up incriminating evidence about the President at a rodeo.  In week 2, they have to forge a believable set of documents from the early 70's, and survive criticism from about 10,000 bloggers.  They can kick one off the island each week based on the viewers votes.

CBS, and in fact all the network news programs, have a problem which caused me to rename them from the Tiffany network to "the Buick network":  Their median age news viewer was born while Hitler still ruled Germany.  As I wrote in that article,

It turns out that the network news programs have exactly the same problem, though none of them profess to be worried, despite the fact that the networks are losing share to competitors at a much faster clip than are US auto makers. reports that the median age of an ABC News viewer is about 59, of an NBC News viewer is 60 and of a CBS News viewer is over 61.  Everyone who is younger has switched to cable, switched to the Internet, or switched off altogether.

More here.

Posted on January 19, 2005 at 03:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is CBS For Executive Accountability or Against It?

Its amazing to me that Andrew Heyward still has his job at CBS.  Many others are asking the same question, including Ernest Miller, Rathergate & Captains Quarters.  The overriding question is this one:

The report clearly shows that the head of the embattled news organization did not perform as one would expect the head of a news organization to perform. Though Heyward clearly realized that there were problems with the reporting on the segment and issued a directive to clear up the matter, he does not appear to have provided sufficient overview or leadership to ensure that his directive was followed promptly and systematically. Instead of focusing on good reporting, as the head of a news organization should, he seems to have been primarily interested in damage control and not following up on his own directive.

Here is CBS's opinion of Heyward's performance in this matter, from Les Moonves:

But Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS NEWS during this challenging time

OK, so their position now is that the subordinates are at fault, and that the leader is not responsible for their actions or for the climate and controls in the organization that allowed the problems to occur.

This is really, really different than CBS's editorial position on OTHER organizations and leaders.  Check out the CBS editorial here on Enron.  Should Ken Lay be held accountable or was he an innocent dupe?  Hah, the editorial jumps right past this question, moving up a notch and asking why the board of directors weren't being held accountable. 

Ken Lay argues that he was duped and didn't know what was going on.  Note that this is his criminal defense - which may or may not work - but it certainly would not have worked to keep his job, even if Enron were alive today.  In Heyward's case, he admits he knew what was going on, but didn't get things fixed.  Heyward had his chance in the first 24 hours to save the credibility of CBS News and he blew it.

Posted on January 11, 2005 at 09:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

How the Media Supports Big Government

I have always thought that the media tends to support big government.  I have never understood if that is because the media is dominated by big-government liberals, as conservatives claim, or if there is some shared self interest between media and a large government, since so much of what is newsworthy flows from the government.  After all, look how dull the news gets in August when Congress lets out.  Anyway, I have always been frustrated by the unhelpful media coverage of budget debates.  In particular, the media seems to systematically want to call a slowing of spending growth a "cut".  Patterico's Pontifications has an example.

Posted on January 7, 2005 at 12:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Europe and Free Speech

Europe has never had the strong tradition of or protection of free speech and press that we enjoy in the US.  For years, I have criticized the use of libel laws in Europe to stifle speech -- similar things are attempted in the US, but seldom get very far in the courts.

Now comes this proposal (courtesy of Captains Quarters):

The Council of Europe has called on its 46 member-states to introduce legislation on the right of reply to correct false information on online media.

It said the Committee of (Foreign) Ministers, executive of the European human rights watchdog body, had adopted a recommendation on the right to reply for online Internet media.

This recommended that members consider introducing legislation on the "right of reply or any other equivalent remedy, which allows a rapid correction of incorrect information in online or off-line media......"

Fortunately, our government does not have any legal or constitutional right of reply in any media, though the implications for the Internet are interesting since about 20% of my readers are in Europe, if you can trust my referral logs.  So lets give it a test:  the EU is a bureaucratic, statist nightmare.  There, lets see if that gets a response.

Posted on December 17, 2004 at 12:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Its Time to End Licensing of Broadcast Media

Television and Radio have always had a very different regulatory regime than any other type of media.  Unlike, say, newspapers or cable TV companies or satellite providers, television and radio companies have to get and continue to renew licenses and are expected operate in the public interest, whatever the heck that is.  TV and radio stations get access to what has become very valuable bandwidth for free, the only cost being that they have to give regulators what amounts to a veto over their content.  Because of this regulatory structure, you get goofy stuff like this:

The Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau has asked NBC for tapes of the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, apparently in response to one or more indecency complaints.

Its fun to laugh at this stuff, and it drives me crazy, but at the end of the day the problem is not the FCC or Bush or red states or fundamentalists.  The problem is the first-amendment defying concept that the Feds should have any say in media content.  Period.  The FCC is actually in a difficult spot - by law, they have to enforce decency standards, but when they do so, they look like moralistic thugs.

I do not know the history here, but for some reason the US government, perhaps because it was in the throws of the socialist/fascist New Deal era, abandoned all of its traditional and successful models for allocating a newly discovered or accessible resource (in this case, parts of the spectrum) in favor of this public service liscencing approach.  I can think of at least three different models that the US government has used in similar circumstances and that have all worked much better:

  • The Homestead Act:  This established the principal of being the first to stake out and improve a resource (in this case parcels of land) in allocating government lands in the west.  Perhaps the best piece of legislation in the history of the country.    Could have easily followed this principle in the broadcast spectrum - an individual or company would have to broadcast continuously on a certain frequency for 2 years to gain permanent ownership
  • Mining Law: In some ways similar to the Homestead act, again it grants ownership of a resource to people who add value to it (in the case of mining, to the people who prospected for it and discovered it).
  • Outright Sales:  The government does this all the time, including land sales, mineral lease sales (e.g. offshore oil) and more recently cell phone spectrum sales.

Lets end this regulatory structure now:

  1. Grant all current licensees ownership of the spectrum they are currently using.  Drop all content-related regulation. 
  2. There are many non-licensed outlaw low-power stations operating.  Create a set of homestead requirements that they can get access to their bandwidth if they meet certain requirements within a certain time frame
  3. Acknowledge that technology today allows more of the spectrum to be used than channel spacing of the 1950's allowed.  Open up more of the holes in the spectrum for use.
  4. Sell the newly available spectrum

Posted on December 13, 2004 at 10:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

CBS News: The Buick Network?

For years, any of the network news programs would love to have been referred to as the "Cadillac" network, implying high-class quality in a similar way that the "Tiffany" Network always did.

However, it appears that NBC, ABC, and CBS news have something else in common with Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln:  Their customers base is aging. Rapidly.

The median age of the average Buick owner is 67, for Cadillac is 65 and Lincoln is 63.  Excepting Escalades and Navigators, when was the last time you saw anyone in one of these cards who did not have gray hair (and perhaps a handicapped tag)?  This aging has the auto makers panicked.  Unless it is reversed, in 20 years these brands will be history.

It turns out that the network news programs have exactly the same problem, though none of them profess to be worried, despite the fact that the networks are losing share to competitors at a much faster clip than are US auto makers. reports that the median age of an ABC News viewer is about 59, of an NBC News viewer is 60 and of a CBS News viewer is over 61.  Everyone who is younger has switched to cable, switched to the Internet, or switched off altogether.

In some sense, the network news problem is worse than the auto makers'.  If the auto makers can find compelling new designs to appeal to younger folks, younger buyers will come back - the brands are tarnished, but the basic business model is OK.  In the case of the networks, not only are their brands tarnished, but it is not clear that the business model of 30 minute evening news broadcasts can ever be revived in the face of a huge proliferation in news sources.

But, it is still entertaining to see who will replace the current anchors, the single best tool the networks have to reposition their broadcasts.  I wrote about Dan Rather's potential replacements here.


What is it about the previous generations and the number 3?  Three big networks, three major automakers, Avis-Hertz-National, McDonalds-Burger King-Wendy's, etc.  Has there been a technology change to break up these oligarchies and provide more choices, or was there an inability by a couple of generations overwhelmed with change to digest more than 3 choices?  Update to the Update:  Virginia Postrel actually has a related post here about choice.

Posted on December 5, 2004 at 08:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Sanctity of Grand Jury Testimony

I know this will come as a shock to many people, but grand jury testimony is supposed to be secret and stay that way.  I mention this, because lately, "sealed" and secret court records seem to inevitably end up in the media.  The most prominent example is yesterday's leak of Balco grand jury testimony, though the Clinton-related grand juries seemed to be sieves as well.

There are real reasons for secrecy in grand jury proceedings.  The most obvious is that grand juries have often been used to build cases against organized crime figures, and those testifying may be risking their life to do so.  More recently, with the enormous power of the press to convict people even before they go to trial, sealed testimony can help protect reputations as well as the presumption of innocence.

Now, I am not a lawyer, and I would love to hear what Volokh has to say.  I suspect there are those who would argue, as they did in the (admittedly different) case of the release of Jack Ryan's divorce records, that transparency in the legal system is more important than individual privacy.  This may or may not be true legally, but I think it would hurt the grand jury process, and anyway, I don't think this is what happened here - the Balco testimony looks to have been leaked illegally.  By the way, I am tired of the notion that journalistic privilege stemming from the first amendment trumps legal compliance with any other laws.  I know the press loves having this, sortof like the double-O license to kill, but I don't buy it.


Hey, maybe I can be a lawyer.  Here is Eugene Volokh talking about journalistic privilege today!


I forgot to mention that there is an exception to secrecy - the witness may publicly discuss their own testimony.  Again, however, I do not think this is the case here.  I don't think Giambi released these details about his own testimony, and the format of the article - with both sides of the Q&A, is pretty clearly from the transcript of the hearings.  Besides, if Giambi were going to voluntarily go public with this admission, he is much more likely to get paid $10 million to tell it to Barbara Walters than he is to anonymously leak it to the SF Chronicle.

Posted on December 2, 2004 at 10:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CBS has lost it, part II

OK, Uncle Walter no longer does much for CBS other than act as their sort of hood ornament, but his statement on Larry King, via Drudge, is even wackier than Dan Rather:

Former CBSNEWS anchorman Walter Cronkite believes Bush adviser Karl Rove is possibly behind the new Bin Laden tape.

Cronkite made the startling comments late Friday during an interview on CNN.

Somewhat smiling, Cronkite said he is "inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing."

Um, right. I am sure Bin Laden is sitting in his spider hole waiting to do everything the Bush Administration asks him to do. And, if Bin Laden is in custody, why would Bush use that fact only to generate this tape, and not just trumpet to the world that the US has, in fact, captured Bin Laden, which would have far more impact. It is incredible to see Cronkite saying things that Michael Moore might even think twice about. And, to have Larry King just let it slide - no followup question or anything, as if Cronkite's statement was the most natural and obvious thing in the world.


It was pretty funny to watch Dan Rather last night during the election coverage. Brokaw at the end of the evening looked like he was going to cry, but Dan really lost it a couple of times. He really lost all pretense to objectivity. I wish I had a transcript. It would be hilarious to put up a montage of video clips from network anchors from 7PM EST (when exit polls were signaling a big Kerry win) and midnight when it was pretty clear Bush would win. I know the differences in body language and demeanor would be startling, and would go well beyond what is explainable just from being tired.

Posted on November 1, 2004 at 11:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)