Right-Wing Hit Men

Scott AtlasWhen I was in graduate school, it used to drive me crazy to see newspaper headlines like, “Ozone Depleting Methyl Bromide Levels Rose by 10% Last Year.” The reason that it was growing so much was that the concentration of the gas was really small. In other words, “Concentration of Unimportant Gas Rising Quickly Relative to Low Current Level.”[1] Basically, such articles were just the result of a reporter not knowing what he was doing. He saw a paper in Nature, so he wrote an article. It’s deceptive, but not malicious. There is no conspiracy. In general, it is no big deal.

But I see this kind of thing in conservative political reporting all the time. And it isn’t just a question of ignorance. It is rather a specific attempt to deceive the reader. And I think the reason that it is mostly seen in the conservative press is because politics in this country is already so tilted toward conservatism that there is rarely anything for conservatives to complain about. The supposed liberal president gave the country as conservative a healthcare reform plan as is possible. So it isn’t surprising that liberals have actual evidence-based articles they can write. In order to complain, conservatives are stuck with cherry picking data.

David BrockI remember reading David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right. The book tells the story of his life as a conservative hack writer and how he came to write pernicious propaganda like The Real Anita Hill. In his telling of it, it wasn’t so much that he meant to be a propagandist, it was just that he was never trained in how to do journalism properly. I’ve always found this contention a little hard to accept.

Maybe my problem is that I was trained as a scientist. So I have a great focus on the truth. Sometimes, while writing an article, I will find that the numbers don’t back me up. So I try to figure out why that is. It changes what I write. Sometimes, I don’t write about the issue at all if I can’t figure it out. But that clearly wasn’t the case with Brock.

The best case scenario was when Brock started with his conclusion and then went searching for facts to back that up. And he’s a smart guy and was good at this kind of thing. But there were times when he knew that he was lying. For example: when an article attacked the Anita Hill book claiming that Clarence Thomas had rented pornographic video tapes from a local video store. This was important because one of Anita Hill’s main claims was that Thomas would force her to listen to him describe the plots of pornographic films he had seen.

This was during the very earliest days of video rentals. Brock checked with Thomas and asked him if the video store rented players. If they didn’t, then how could Thomas have watched the films? Checkmate! The problem was that Thomas told Brock that he didn’t know if they rented players, because he owned his own. He also admitted that he did rent pornographic films. Brock knew, as clearly as any investigator ever does, that Thomas was guilty and that Anita Hill had been telling the truth. So what did Brock do? He just ignored the issue and wrote his defense, which was generally accepted.

What Brock did would be perfectly fine if he were Clarence Thomas’ lawyer. But as a journalist, what he did was malpractice. It was not even ethical propaganda. He could have apologized for the information he had and presented it in the best possible way. But instead, he just buried it. In his defense, I think that was the beginning of the end. I think that was the point that he realized that he was playing for the wrong team and that his position was, as he said, “a right-wing hit man.”

But the thing is, Brock is absolutely the rule in the world of conservative “journalism.” Michael Hiltzik found a recent example of it, The Latest Bogus Attack on Obamacare: It’s Anti-Innovation! It is about a Wall Street Journal article by Scott Atlas, ObamaCare’s Anti-Innovation Effect. Atlas started with the title and then found whatever data he could to support it.

Hiltzik dismantles Atlas, piece by piece. It is all about how the medical device tax is killing innovation. The whole idea of this tax is that with the increased spending in healthcare because of the law, medical device companies are going to get more sales and thus more profits. That isn’t right, so the idea is to offset this unfair windfall. So even though the medical device industry has made a lot of noise, the tax doesn’t change anything.

But one part of the whole thing stood out to me. It was Atlas’ claim that the Obamacare tax on medical devices was causing companies to move production overseas. There is no doubt that medical device manufacturers are moving production out of the country — just like all manufacturers. But there is absolutely nothing in Obamacare that would encourage them to do that. The tax applies to all companies on their sales inside the United States. But this is part of the cherry picking — in this case putting in information that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Unlike the reporters who so annoyed me in graduate school, reporters like Scott Atlas are malicious. They are trying to deceive. And this is because their positions are untenable. And note that Atlas is the David and Joan Traitel Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His specialty is “domestic and global health care policy, particularly the role of government and the free market in pricing, quality, access, and technology innovation.” So he’s got to know what’s going on. But his purpose isn’t to inform — it is to push a particular policy. So he’s no reporter and certainly no scholar; he’s a right-wing hit man. My understanding is that it is a very well paying position.

[1] Methyl Bromide does harm stratospheric ozone. But it is not much of a problem. It always bugged me that farm workers had been trying to get rid of this chemical for years because it is a carcinogen. No one cared. But then it posed a tiny threat to the ozone layer and suddenly people cared. There has always been a bit of a class problem with environmentalism. I don’t think we give enough consideration to this. It just doesn’t cost that much to take care of coal miners at the same time that we regulate coal. We already have the corporations dumping on the American worker, we environmentalists shouldn’t do it. We environmentalists and workers should be in league.

Israel as Conservative Funding Ideal

John Bolton Israel Survey

This image was part of a John Bolton “promoted tweet” on Twitter that I saw. Basically, it is just a way for you to give Bolton your email address so he can ask you for money for the important work that he does on behalf of protecting corporate interests in the name of ending abortion or saving the Israelis. I know this is the case because the only thing I could do with it was click on a button that read, “Vote Yes for Israel!”

One person replied to it, “Israel is justified. Anyone who says no…let them have rockets sent to them & smile…” It strikes me as being funny. It isn’t a real question. I think the whole situation is a muddled mess, but I think Israel has a right to self-defense. And I think the Hamas rocket attacks are self-defeating, although I’m not sure exactly what the Palestinians are supposed to do. As they are oppressed in silence, the world just ignores them.

The question is, are these rockets really a question of self-defense? I understand that they are terrible for individual people. But they certainly are no kind of an existential threat. And the question has never been whether Israel has a right to respond. The question is whether their response makes sense. And the question for us is just how long are we going to support Israel. One would think that with all their advantages, they would be the “adults in the room.”

By this, I’m talking about coming to a reasonable settlement. But instead, Israel seems far more interested in making the situation worse. They seem to see the Israel-Palestine situation the way that King Richard III would have. The people don’t like rockets fired at them, but I’m not at all clear that the Israeli leadership doesn’t. The rockets give them more political power, just as they give the Hamas more political power. Meanwhile, the people on both sides lose.

But the John Bolton ad is a good example of why we can’t have a reasonable discussion about Israel-Palestine. The framing has less nuance than a Marvel superhero comic:

There is Hamas — a terrorist group. They have absolutely no reason for anything they do. Then there is Israel — the poor country with the eleventh most powerful military in the world that has nuclear weapons and the largest military in the world (ours) as its staunchest ally. They have never done anything that would upset anyone. They just mind their own business and people hate them for no reason whatsoever.

Do even the biggest supporters of Israel think this? Actually, I think not. The problem is that the average American who barely thinks about sees it this way. And people like John Bolton are more than willing to use that fact. His tweet now has 1,948 retweets and 1,259 favorites. And again: he isn’t interested in helping Israel. This is just a way to get people on his mailing list so he can make money.

Sputnik 1 and the Birth of the Space Age

Buster KeatonOn this day in 1957, Sputnik 1 was born. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity. Americans tend to forget about it the same way they forget that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis. (Americans think George C Scott did it.) But proud and patriotic Americans are not so insecure that they cannot admit that someone else did a great thing. And Sputnik 1 was a very great thing.

It was on this day 57 years ago that the space age started. And if that wasn’t cool enough, the launch of Sputnik 1 made America go crazy — but in a good way. It’s not that we didn’t have rocket scientists doing great work. But it took this national embarrassment to get the government to properly invest in space exploration.

The history of Sputnik 1 on both sides is filled with government silliness. They were both most interested in its military applications. Sputnik 1, for example, was funded by the Defense Ministry. What’s great, of course, are the scientists and the others involved in the actual work. The project was headed by Dimitrij Sergeevich Mordasov, and it was outfitted with four radio antennas that transmitted measurements of “the density of the atmosphere, its ion composition, the solar wind, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays.” These were critical to future space exploration, but it also yielded important information of general interest.

Right now, the human race (and not just the United States) has two vehicles roaming around Mars. And I’m sure that part of that is each government is still afraid that one country might learn something that might give them a military advantage. And indeed, I was very displeased when the conflict in the Ukraine was used by the United States to cut off scientific collaborations with Russia. But mostly, I think the space program is motivated by our best impulses. If species are judged by what they are at their best, humans do very well, because all you have to do is point to the international space program.

In a big way, that is thanks to Sputnik 1. It only operated for three months. It lived fast and died young. But it has had a great a positive impact on the world for the last six decades. In the flash of this moment, it is the best of what we are.

Happy birthday Sputnik 1!


I really like the following image that I created for last year’s birthday post. I wrote, “There are four artist birthdays today in as many countries and centuries. First, there is Lucas Cranach the Younger, a German Renaissance painter, who was born in 1515. Second, is Francesco Solimena, an Italian Baroque painter, who was born in 1657. Third, is Jean-Francois Millet, a French Barbizon painter, who was born in 1814. And fourth, is Frederic Remington, an American artist of the old west, who was born in 1861.”

Four Painters