The Myth of Objective Journalism

Mainstream MediaThe primary difference between Fox News and MSNBC is not ideology; it is that Fox pretends to be objective. Yes, in general, MSNBC does a better job of reporting actual facts and doesn’t go out of its way to mislead. But they are both advocacy groups: one for the Republican Party and the other for the Democratic Party. But no one ever claims that MSNBC provides the Truth that the other networks don’t want the people to know.

Other than this fact, I have no problem with Fox News. I believe strongly that news organizations should have an explicit political inclination because they all have an implicit inclination. But even worse that Fox who any reasonable person can see is just GOP-TV, I’m concerned about the middle of the road media outlets. I’m visiting my sister and I just overheard some reporting on the TV from a local station, KTVU. They were covering information about the company who did Edward Snowden’s background check. It was anything but objective. The coverage was akin to the coverage of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial.

This has long been a thorn in my side: the idea that centrists are not ideological. They are—every bit as ideological as those of us on the left and the right. It is just that their ideologies are usually incoherent. Let’s think about my favorite centrist example: Nazis. On one side you have the Nazis who want to kill all the Jews, on the other you have people who don’t want to harm any Jews, and in the middle you have those who just want to give all Jews life in prison. It’s clear than the centrist position is ideological.

Similarly with Edward Snowden, the centrist position that he did something dangerous that put us all in danger is just as ideological as my position that he did the American people a great favor that did not put us in any danger. Matt Taibbi wrote an excellent article yesterday about this issue, Hey, MSM: All Journalism is Advocacy Journalism. It is basically a defense of Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald is explicitly an advocate. Andrew Ross Sorkin is not. He’s an advocate, but he isn’t upfront about it. Recently, he got into trouble by saying that he would “almost arrest” (whatever that means) Glenn Greenwald for publishing the Snowden revelations. But Taibbi highlights a more important passage from that same article:

I feel like, A, we’ve screwed this up, even letting him get to Russia. B, clearly the Chinese hate us to even let him out of the country.

Whatever happened to a press that was an adversary of the government’s attempt to hide things? This is right out of Pravda: we’ve screwed up by letting Snowden get to Russia? In that sentence, he indicates not that he’s an American (I do that all the time) but that he is an arm of the government. Clearly, he is advocating—and in a way that is dangerous to democracy because he isn’t explicit about what it is he’s doing. In fact it is worse: he’s claiming to be an objective journalist.

The hidden assumptions are always the ones that harm us. That is why I would rather discuss politics with a right wing extremist than a centrist. Most centrists really have convinced themselves that they aren’t ideological just because most people they know agree with them. But that’s just silly. If everyone you know thinks that Man of Steel is the best movie ever, it doesn’t mean that it is objectively the greatest movie ever; it means that you don’t know a very diverse group of people. With silly superhero movies, it hardly matters. When it comes to US foreign policy, it does.

Helen Keller Saw Clearer Than We

Helen KellerFrench composer Napoleon Coste was born on this day in 1805. Check out his Andante in D-Minor for a good example of his work. The anarchist political philosopher Emma Goldman was born in 1869. And poster artist Paul Colin was born in 1892.

Social activist Grace Lee Boggs is 98 today. Ross Perot is 83. Meera Syal is 52. She played Sanjeev’s over-sexed grandmother, Ummi on The Kumars at No. 42. It is a great show that not many people know about. And note: Syal is married to the actor who plays Sanjeev, Sanjeev Bhaskar. Here is a funny clip that is entirely typical of the show:

Director J. J. Abrams is 47. And actor Tobey Maguire is 38.

The day, however, belongs to “that deaf, dumb, and blind” girl, Helen Keller who was born in 1880. She was a remarkable woman. Her thinking was far ahead of its time and our time too. She really didn’t like war monger Woodrow Wilson. She was a socialist, a pacifist, a feminist, and a proponent of birth control. Of course, she was also a big advocate for the rights of the disabled. She was in a unique position to understand both the difficulties suffered by the disabled and their value to society. Here she is with Anne Sullivan from a 1930 newsreel:

Happy birthday Helen Keller!

Immigration Reform Still Unlikely

Pathway to CitizenshipI’m sure you’ve heard that the Senate managed to pass their little immigration reform bill with a vote of 68-32. Let’s think about that for a second. That means that 32 of the 46 Republican Senators voted against the bill: 70%. This is what passes for a huge bipartisan compromise. And notice: the bill itself is extremely conservative. Bernie Sanders voted for it, but with a great many misgivings. Yet despite giving in on all kinds of issues, the Democrats only managed to get 14 Republicans to vote for it. And these were Senators: the more moderate of the congressional Republicans.

Now it moves to the House where many of our liberal friends in the pundit world are cautiously optimistic. Somehow, they think that winning 30% Republican support in the Senate will put pressure on the House to pass the bill. Maybe! Stranger things have happened. But Dylan Matthews wrote an article this afternoon that made me think it is highly unlikely, Immigration Reform Has Passed the Senate. Here’s How it Passes the House. In the article, he provided three ways that the immigration reform might make its way through the House.

The first way is that the House “Gang of Seven” bill might be able to get majority Republican support. But it contains a path to citizenship, so that isn’t going to happen. The second way is for one or more of Bob Goodlatte’s proposals—none of which include a path to citizenship—might be able to pass. Then that bill could go to conference with the Senate. If the resulting bill had a path to citizenship (which is hardly certain), it would only allow the Republicans to vote for a path to citizenship once. This is down right funny. Does Matthews really think that Representatives are going to be able to sneak one vote past their constituencies? They would be primaried as much for one vote (especially the one that caused the bill to become law) as they are for a dozen votes. The third way is for the House to get a discharge petition and force a vote. The problem here is that they’ve tried to get discharge petitions before and have failed. There would be hell to pay by Republicans who signed it.

For the umpteenth time: nobody, including me, knows what is going to happen. But this just doesn’t look good for the immigration bill. I’m not wedded to it either way. I think it would be good to provide a path to citizenship for all of these people. It is the right thing to do. But the bill has a lot of baggage and the path to citizenship is ridiculously long and punitive.

Rand Paul Thinks Dog Marriage is Next

Rand PaulAs you all know, I have major problems with real libertarians—to a large extent because most of them have a good understanding of the problems of governing and I don’t see why they don’t recognize their very clear blind spots. But people who claim to be libertarians who don’t understand the philosophy and just throw the word around because it sounds cooler than “conservative” are another matter. I hate them.

The most prominent pretend libertarian is Rand Paul. This doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with him from time to time. Hell, I agree with Rick Santorum now and then. One nice thing about real libertarians is that you can usually predict where they stand on any given issue. But not so with Paul. He is anti-abortion, for example. Now I understand that some libertarians are anti-abortion. But I don’t get it. A 16-cell zygote has equal human rights to the mother? Really?!

But there are many more clear examples. He isn’t, for example, in favor of drug legalization—just cannabis. Now, I’m all for legalizing cannabis. But at this point, the argument isn’t the libertarian one that people should be allowed to make their own choices. It is the (true) conservative argument that cannabis is no more dangerous than other legal drugs. At least Paul’s father, Ron Paul, acts like a true libertarian in this regard.

And now, Rand Paul is making the media rounds to complain about the Supreme Court’s overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. He was on Glenn Beck’s show (another pretend libertarian) warning that same sex marriage would lead to polygamy. I actually agree with him that this ought to lead to polygamy. I’m very much a libertarian on this issue: people should be able to enter whatever contracts they want with each other. But Paul brought this up as a note of caution: polygamy is bad.[1] This is clearly not a man who believes that people’s lives are their own.

Of course, Paul didn’t stop there. He said that soon marriage equality proponents may ask, “Does it have to be humans?” Well, as a matter of fact Dr. Paul, yes, it does have to be humans. This is a settled issue. Humans can’t marry dogs for the same reason that they can’t marry children. Marriage is a contract. It requires that all parties being legally able to consent. This is Rick Santorum level “man on dog” thinking. As low as I’ve thought of Rand Paul, he’s actually reached a new quantum level.


[1] I am concerned about certain aspects of polygamy—mostly pushing young girls into marriage before they are old enough to make an informed choice. I could imagine it becoming a form of slavery. But I’m sure these issues could be dealt with.

Lessons of Zimmerman’s Defense

Trayvon MartinIt is said that the Florida “stand your ground” law is confusing. And I can see why based upon the little that I’ve seen of the George Zimmerman trial. Today, Rachel Jeantel, the girl who was talking on the phone with Trayvon Martin moments before he was killed, was on the stand. The defense were really pushing on the fact that Jeantel couldn’t say who had thrown the first punch. All I could think was, “Really?!” Is that all this comes down to?

By that interpretation of this confusing law, one could use a very simple process to murder any number of people. Go up to a guy in a bar; really get in his face; tell him that his wife or mother is a whore; when he punches you, pull out a gun and shoot him in the face. If this is what this law allows, it is an evil law.

In the months since this incident, I’ve come up with what I think is a pretty reasonable sequence of events. Zimmerman was following Martin. Eventually, Martin noticed and said something like, “Why are you following me?” This quickly escalated from words to pushing to an all out fight. Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman. So Zimmerman pulled his gun and killed Martin.

To me, this means that Zimmerman is culpable. But according to the defense, and apparently even Florida law, the first person to hit the other is in the wrong. That’s outrageous, but hardly surprising. There is a lot of law like that in America, because we don’t dig on ambiguity or complexity. But this strikes me as an egregious example of this.

There are three things that are clear. First, the Florida “stand your ground” law needs to be changed, or even better, repealed. Second, wannabe cops like Goerge Zimmerman should not be allowed to carry guns around. And third, George Zimmerman (based upon justice and not the details of Florida law) should be convicted of manslaughter and given five to ten years in jail. But I suspect if anything, we will see the law stay as it is, nothing will be done to limit fools carrying guns, and Zimmerman will be acquitted.

It is tragic that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I fear we will further disrespect him by providing no justice in this case and no justice in the law generally moving forward.

Sean Trende is Right: Republican Is a White Party

Sean TrendeThere have been a number of articles responding to Sean Trende‘s articles over at Real Clear Politics where he has been arguing that Republicans don’t need to make any changes; they just need to get more white people out to the polls and get a larger percentage of the white vote. For example, yesterday, Ed Kilgore wrote Doubling Down on the White Man’s Party. But I think that Trende’s basic idea is right, although I would put it in a different way. Given that the Republicans have backed themselves into an ideological corner and are unwilling to change any of their positions, their only choice is to go all in on their white strategy.

Until yesterday, I would have said that this is a clear loser, however. The problem is that Trende is fooling himself in thinking that the Republican Party can get 70% of the white vote. In 2012, they managed to get 60% of it and that is pretty much the limit to what what they can get. Let’s remember that by and large, whites do not vote Republican for racist reasons; they vote for the party because they are older and thus richer. Poor whites still vote for the Democratic Party overall. These whites have not been waiting to join the Republican Party until it got even more racist and elitist.

Along these lines, Jonathan Chait wrote an article that showed how white demographics go against Trende’s idea of getting a higher percentage of white voters. Younger white voters tend to split over Democrat and Republican preferences. It is only as they get older that their preferences turn hard toward the Republicans. Now this could indicate that the young white voters will move more and more toward the Republicans as they get older. Certainly this will happen to some extent. But most of the difference between the old and the young is the legacy of the Great Compression. Now we see ever greater income inequality, so far fewer of today’s young white people will be affluent when they get old. Thus far fewer will turn Republican as they get older.

But what Trende is right about is that the Republicans may indeed be able to grow the percentage of the white electorate. And that became a whole lot easier yesterday when the Supreme Court effectively abolished Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans probably don’t want to increase the raw number of whites who vote. Those who tend not to vote probably tend to vote Democrat anyway. Much better is to keep the current white vote and simply suppress all the other voters. And Republican state legislators are working hard to do just that.

It is wrong to think of Sean Trende as some kind of loon who can be dismissed. He is a smart and knowledgeable guy. I wrote about his debunking of the six-year myth a couple of months ago—the best discussion of the issue I’ve ever read. And given what the Republican Party is willing to do in the next couple of elections, the “maximize the white vote” strategy is the only one that could conceivably work. As long as there is hope, the Republican Party will hope. They will only change when there is no other option.

Say it now, and don’t be tardy
Republicans are a white party!

No Conspiracy on Inflation

Poor RetireeThere is a line of argument that I hear all the time from conservatives. It states that inflation is totally out of control but that it isn’t taken into account with regular measures because they weed out volatile items. In other words, “Have you seen what is happening to the price of milk?!” This is nonsense. There are two kinds of inflation measures: headline and core. Headline inflation is the inflation of all products—including things like food and energy that are highly variable. Core inflation is the inflation without these highly variable products. The government estimates both kinds of inflation.

Here is a little graph that I put together with the help of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data tool. The red line is the headline inflation and the blue line is the core inflation. What it shows is that there isn’t much of an effect. It also shows why we use core inflation: headline inflation has a lot of ups and downs that economic policy should not respond to. Note also that since the financial crisis, the headline inflation was generally less than the core inflation.

Long Term Gold Prices

This belief among conservatives that inflation is terrible and that the government is hiding it from us is part of a larger belief that monetary policy at the Federal Reserve is destroying our economy. These people have been screaming for years that all of our efforts to stimulate the economy are going to lead to inflation. That hasn’t happened. So all they can do is claim that we really do have high inflation, it is just that the government is lying to us. (Note: other non-government estimates of inflation agree with the government numbers.)

Recently, Bernanke announced that he will start cutting back quantitative easing (QE) as soon as we get to 7% unemployment and that he thinks the unemployment rate target should be the unreasonably high 5.5%-6%. Since then, bond prices have risen modestly. This should not happen. In fact, it hasn’t happened the last two times that QE programs were ended. According to Elliott Orsillo at Season Investments, this is just an irrational blip in the market. Bond prices are not on the rise because the economy is not on the rise (not much, anyway).

But back on the main point: food prices are not increasing. In a blog post this morning, Paul Krugman provided two graphs that show a time series of prices for bread and milk since the financial crisis. Bread prices are basically flat whereas milk is down significantly. The problem is that people focus on every up tick in milk and gas prices. These just don’t represent a large part of one’s expenditures. What’s more, we note increases much more than decreases. But if you are looking for a reason to justify thinking that the Federal Reserve is destroying the American economy, they provide a plausible (but incorrect) explanation.

Ingrid Michaelson Will Love Me When I’m Sixty-Four

Ingrid MichaelsonSomewhere in my Pandora listening, I came upon the Ingrid Michaelson song “The Way I Am.” I had never much paid attention to the lyrics. I think it shows up on my Jacques Brel station, and so most of the songs are in French, and I don’t know much French. I do, however, find some songs are so compelling that I stop and translate the lyrics. But most of time, I just enjoy the music and emotional impact of the songs. So it isn’t too surprising that I never really listened to the lyrics of this quiet, jazzy tune.

This morning, I was talking to my older sister about it. She doesn’t like the song because of the lyrics. She seemed to have a problem with the line, “I’d buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair.” So I decided to listen closely to the lyrics.

But before I get to them, let me explain something about myself: my personality is such that most of the outside world seems distant to me as though I were interacting with it through a bubble. I never remember faces or pretty much anything physical about an event. What I do remember is my subjective experience of the event. But that means that I am often completely clueless about things that are obvious to other people. So I am not exaggerating when I say that I can listen to a song many times without having more than the vaguest of ideas about the lyrics.

The song is shockingly simple:

All she is saying that she will love me forever, even as I start falling apart. What strikes me about the song is that it is a response to The Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four.” In that song, Paul McCartney asks if his girlfriend will still love him as he gets old and feeble:

So Paul McCartney asks the question and Ingrid Michaelson answers in the affirmative.

Drug War Martyr

Kathryn JohnstonOne this day in 1817, Branwell Bronte was born. He was the underachieving brother of the Bronte sisters. But he was accomplished in his way. He was apparently addicted to alcohol and opium at various times and had a bit of a gambling habit. All of that hard living is usually said to be responsible for his death at the age of 31. But there are a couple of things to think about. First, he outlived both Anne and Emily; Charlotte only beat him by 7 years, as did his mother. His father, for whatever reasons, lived to be 84 years old. As Charlotte might have said, “He was tenacious of life.”[1] The second thing to consider is that Bronte died of tuberculosis.

His painting is not at all bad for an amatuer; he clearly had the talent to become a fine artist if he had focused on it and lived longer. And I rather prefer his poetry to that of his sisters. It combines lyricism with great clarity that is not at all typical of the poetry of the period. It’s sad that he is now thought of as nothing more than the drug addicted brother of his famous sisters. He is much more than that.

The author of The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck was born in 1892. Peter Lorre was born in 1904. He is one of my favorite actors. He’s always interesting—regardless of what he does. Here he is in his breakout roll as Hans Beckert, the pediophile serial killer in the film M. This is his confession scene:

The Black Stallion author Walter Farley was born in 1915. Composer Jacob Druckman was born in 1928. Here is bassist Lisa Dowling performing Valentine. It is quite interesting, with a sound that owes a lot to prepared piano. I’m afraid that only more serious listeners and those with open minds will enjoy it:

Mick Jones of The Class is 58 today. Chris Isaak is 57. Basketball player I always reminded for his work ethic, Jerome Kersey is 51. Star of one of my very favorite films, My Best Friend, Dany Boon is 47. And dog fighter Michael Vick is 33.

The day, however, belongs to Kathryn Johnston who was born in 1914. Rather than explain myself, I’ll just provide the Wikipedia description:

Kathryn Johnston was an elderly Atlanta, Georgia woman who was shot by undercover police officers in her home on Neal Street in northwest Atlanta on November 21, 2006, where she had lived for 17 years. Three officers had entered her home in what was later described as a ‘botched’ drug raid. Officers cut off burglar bars and broke down her door using a no-knock warrant. Police said Johnston fired at them and they fired in response; she fired one shot out the door over the officers’ heads and they fired 39 shots, five or six of which hit her. None of the officers were injured by her gunfire, but Johnston was killed by the officers. Police injuries were later attributed to “friendly fire” from each other’s weapons.

One of the officers planted marijuana in Johnston’s house after the shooting. Later investigations found that the paperwork stating that drugs were present at Johnston’s house, which had been the basis for the raid, had been falsified. The officers later admitted to having lied when they submitted cocaine as evidence claiming that they had bought it at Johnston’s house. Three officers were tried for manslaughter and other charges surrounding falsification and were sentenced to ten, six, and five years.

She is a symbol for everything that is wrong in our Drug War. She is a martyr in the name of the philosophy that there really isn’t anything worse that consensual drug use. She could be alive today if it weren’t for the corruption, incompetence, and vilainy of our “justice” system.

Happy birthday, Kathryn Johnston!


[1] That is a quote from Jane Eyre. Rochester says:

Eight years! you must be tenacious of life. I thought half the time in such a place would have done up any constitution! No wonder you have rather the look of another world. I marvelled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse: I am not sure yet.

That’s brilliant dialog because without being explicit he has said that he loves her.

Glenn Greenwald is a Pornographer!

Glenn GreenwaldIt looks like a couple of newspapers are interested in Glenn Greenwald’s past. In particular, they want to know about his history as a pornographer. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But that’s not true. This is exactly the kind of thing that I write: the intrepid journalist breaks a major story and all anyone cares about is the fact that he once was co-owner of a business that distributed adult movies. If I wrote it, I would set it in the future where pornography was illegal to set up the tragicomic ending where a prostitute is lionized for murdering him to get money for a fix.

Anyway, the whole thing is nonsense. I am an admirer of Glenn Greenwald and regardless of anything else, I am grateful to Edward Snowden for the revelations. But when did this story become about them? There is a real story that few in the media seem particularly interested in. Maybe it is just that it’s a lot easier to dig into Greenwald’s decades old business dealings or Snowden’s chatroom musings about the gold standard. Looking into the NSA is hard. Of course, that’s why people should be so grateful to Greenwald and Snowden.

In another Greenwald column, he discussed the Espionage Act. That law goes back to the bad days of World War I. It was what Oliver Wendell Holmes was defending when he said that one couldn’t shout “fire in a crowded theater.” That law was never about espionage and always about silencing critics of United States foreign policy.

I hadn’t given it too much thought, but it is remarkable that until Obama—over 91 years—the Espionage Act had only been used three times total and in the last 4+ years, Obama has used it 7 times. I’ve heard the stat before, of course. But given that I didn’t have much hope for Obama anyway, I didn’t think much about it. But it is important to put this into context. James Goodale recently said, “President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom.” Obama might want to think about that. In the long run, his great legacy may not be Obamacare but rather a major move backwards in government transparency and individual privacy.

It seems to me that the forces of darkness are winning. I’m sure that to some extent, this is just an indication of my frame of mind. But it does seem that Obama is winning in those areas where he is wrong and the conservatives are winning in all the other areas. I will not give up the fight, but it weighs heavily on me. And the consolation prizes like same sex marriage aren’t nearly enough.

TV Machine

Rachel MaddowI just saw an article over at Maddow Blog, Rachel Maddow on the TV Machine All Day. “TV machine”? I thought that was my phrase. I thought that I had come up with it independently. It is, after all, my kind of jokey philosophy. The Luddites, after all, were the Android programmers of their day. So I like to push the idea that devices are just clunky machines. It’s good to remember that nothing we do is really hard. Heart transplants are downright trivial, although we did have to kill a lot of people before we perfected them. But I’m sure that was true of the secret of fire too.

But “TV machine” also sounds very Rachel Maddow. So I guess I must admit that I just stole the phrase from her. But I doubt she has all the great Luddite and secret of fire subtext that I do. Yes, I was never a Rhodes Scholar, but that doesn’t mean I can’t out pretense her.

Environmentalism Good for Economy Right Now

ObamaI’m glad to see that Obama made his big speech and that he is now going to take executive action on climate change. I do, however, wonder why it took so long. The standard answer is that the president can only do so many things at once. While that is certainly true of me, I don’t think it applies to him. He has an enormous staff. He could hire more people if he needed. Why didn’t he, on day one, tell some people, “Put together a report on what we can do on climate change.” That would have taken 4 seconds. Or six if he had added, “Make it so.” But it’s all good and I am eager to see what actually gets done. A big part of it will depend upon the Senate getting past the Republican filibuster machine.

As I’ve been arguing for the last four years, now is the time to clean up the environment. Conservatives (and sadly, many liberals) claim that we can’t do that because it will hurt the economy. That seems like a logical complaint. But the situation is exactly the opposite. Right now, we have a huge amount of unused capacity. There are lots of people sitting around because they can’t find jobs. Corporations are sitting on piles of money they can’t find uses for. Now is the time to require companies to become energy efficient. If we wait until the economy is booming, then such regulations really will hurt the economy.

But you see, when conservatives claim that environmental regulations will hurt the economy, what they mean is that it will hurt corporate profits. And that’s true. But keeping corporate profits high is not the business of the government. That’s especially true when unemployment is high. Pollution is what economists call an externality. All of us pay part of the production costs of a polluting company through reduced quality of life (and often also quantity of life).

All economists agree that externalities are bad. They distort markets. Let me give you an example. Suppose you are making a dress at home. After you are done, there is a lot of trash: paper, thread, cloth. If you clean this up it will cost you time, thus increasing the cost of the dress. Or you could just throw it all on the floor. That wouldn’t cost you any time, but it would make your house messy, which would harm everyone in the house. By “polluting” the house with your trash, you’ve just made your housemates pay for part of the cost of your dress, even though they get none of the benefits.

We have lots of externalities in our economy and we should eliminate them as much as we can. So forcing companies to use less and cleaner energy is not depriving the company of freedom. Their actions are depriving all of us of freedom. As the companies get greener, they are taking responsibility for their actual costs of production. And now is the time for them to make the necessary changes. Not only can they afford it, it will act as a stimulus for the economy, putting unused capacity to work.

Environmental regulation during bad economic times is a win-win situation.

Update (26 June 2013 9:31 am)

Matt Yglesias reports on some of the details of regulatory stimulus. It’s good, although what he says about power plants is obviously the way that it would work.

Update (26 June 2013 9:36 am)

Paul Krugman provides a standard economics discussion of what I wrote above. He doesn’t mention dresses at all!