Saturday, July 4, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Predictable, A Member of The Media Elite

Another in our Saturday Sellebrity series, even though we are posting past midnight, local time.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Saluting Our Allies

Tomorrow America will celebrate her Independence from England. It is a good time to remind ourselves that in the centuries since then, the two countries have grown together as allies inseperable. The day before the nation's birthday might be a good time to reflect on the friendships that endured the test of time.

Courage has never gone out of fashion in the UK. They consider themselves European but they are a people apart from the continent in geography and to some degree, they are still culturally autonomous. In the UK there are still people who will live and die to promote what is right and to resist what is wrong.

Today, this lowly website salutes two fine Englishmen who nobly gave their lives resisting the evil, vile, putrid Taliban. They gave their lives. The least we can do is give them our thanks.

Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe and trooper Joshua Hammond, we salute you and honor your work and your contributions to freedom. May you rest in peace.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Threefer Thursday




Monday, June 29, 2009

The Three Universal Biases of The News Media

Note: I wrote this a while back for another website. It is as pertinent now as it was then. Unlike Mike Barnicle, I disclose my recycling.

Note: I use the terms press and media interchangeably. Press does not necessarily refer to print. It can also refer to talking heads.
There are three universal biases of the popular press. They are:
1.Bias for Simplicity.
2.Bias against Dissension.
3.Bias against Resistance.

Of the three biases, bias for simplicity is the most significant. That is to say that news media, whatever political viewpoint they profess–or more likely deny—are biased in favor of the viewpoint that can be expressed in the fewest words.

Before we return to the bias for simplicity, let us briefly discuss the other biases. First, I will say a few words about the bias against dissension. Journalism is still a club chock full of colleagues. This is not the only profession that uses the term ‘colleague’ but it is perhaps the only profession that overuses it. Being a good colleague means not taking pot shots at your neighbor’s work. “Sixty Minutes” doesn’t report on the inaccuracies of “Dateline” and vice versa. “The Los Angeles Times” does not check facts of other newspapers; Nor do “USA Today” or “The New York Times.” Fabricators like Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and Patricia Smith were brought down by internal controls. When Dan Rather’s bogus expose on George Bush’s National Guard absenteeism was revealed, it was amateurs who exposed the hoax.

The best microcosm is presented by Michael Fumento, author of “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS.” This is not one more “AIDS theory” book. Fumento critiques the press in their reporting of AIDS. For questioning his colleagues, Fumento faced personal and professional attacks and was terminated from his job as reporter for “making too many phone calls.” He was banished from the fourth estate but resurfaced as a freelance columnist and reporter. His ongoing criticism of the news media has made him a lightning rod for controversy.

The reason for bias against dissension is very pragmatic. If we check their facts, they might check our facts. The house of cards would topple. There have been newsletters and magazines, and blogs dealing with the accuracy of reporting. None of these have been very successful. Maybe the web will change that. Maybe there will be a place for media heresy. We’ll see.

One more comment about the bias against dissension. Yes, talk radio stars do sometimes question the accuracy of the media. For that, they often pay a heavy price. You don’t usually see the stars of talk radio in round table discussions. At least you don’t see those who have the gall to question the veracity of anointed colleagues. You might also see efforts to get these people banned from the airwaves. Weapons like The Fairness Doctrine have been threatened against these brutes. It is one thing to question the government. But questioning the press, that is a different matter.

The second universal bias is the bias against resistance. Like a lot of us, journalists want to chart the course of lesser resistance. They also seek the approval of others. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Yes but…One could make the case that truth is always inconvenient. Journalists are not advertisers. Should they not be willing to allow chips to descend at random?

Should is moot. The fact remains that the press kowtows to any group with large megaphones or deep pockets. Journalists too, are usually on the side of the large battalions. Bias against resistance is no revelation. It’s common sense. Children understand it. Joe Sixpack understands it. We calculate resistance in the media in much the same way a duffer factors the wind into his tee shot. It is something worth exploring in detail but it is certainly not a revelation and I won’t say much more about it.

Simplicity is the most significant bias. It is through this prism that events become news. Whenever I hear critics say that the press has this wing bias or that wing bias, I want to blow a whistle and throw a flag. The mainstream media—network news, the Associated Press and its subscribers, the newspapers, and most of radio—promote the same bias all of the time. They promote the bias of simplicity.

We should note that simplistic is not the same as simple. Simple means uncomplicated. Of fewer variables. Simplistic means a contrived simple. Or in the words of American Heritage, “The tendency to oversimplify an issue or a problem by ignoring complexities or complications.”

The most popular application of simplicity is expressed in the press’s bias for the status quo. School vouchers, health care, transportation, environmentalism, energy, and taxation are all subjects where the media default to the status quo.  Let us consider taxation. A lot of people have proposed simple systems of taxation such as the flat tax or a national sales tax. These suggestions are met coldly by the press. No matter how simple the proposed system, it cannot be simpler than ignoring the subject altogether. To compare the advocated system to the present system would involve dredging up the complexities of the current system and then performing tedious comparisons. Thus, the USA has the most complicated tax system humanity has ever seen.

School vouchers are not rejected for their merits or flaws but are shunned because they challenge the status quo. The press might complain there and here about the US health care system but one can detect a bias for the status quo. It’s not that the current system is wonderful. It’s that health care is an amazingly complex topic. There are lots of facets to the issue. When one considers that the third leading cause of death is medical error, it might be better if some people don’t receive state of the art treatment. One must also examine the exorbitant salaries Americans pay doctors, nurses and administrators. And of course, tort reform cannot be left out of the discussion. Too much work. Thus we have a system where the motto of every news organization could easily be “More of the Same.”

When we get past the bias for the status quo we are met with four simplisms that sometimes overlap. Journalists pledge loyalty to The Four Givens before they can be dubbed a colleague. The Four Givens are:
1. The government should help people.
2. The government should “do something.”
3. Regulation is inherently good (and more regulation is inherently better.)
4. Prohibition is inherently good (and more prohibition is inherently better.)

Are The Four Givens simplistic because they are givens or are they givens because they are simplistic? That enigma has more depth to it than its chicken or egg appearance. I will save exploration of that topic for another time. For now though I will say this. Be it the chicken or the egg, The Four Givens share a common trait. That is, the case for their application can be stated with lesser verbiage than can the case against their application.

When housing subsidies or heating subsidies or farm subsidies, or some other welfare program that is no longer allowed to be called welfare are discussed, the press usually applies The First Given. When a rube shouts his objections from the balcony he is dismissed with something like “these are people who need help.” The rube is at a significant disadvantage. He’s not on the stage, he doesn’t have a microphone and his refutation requires more than a sentence. The rubes lose another.

A few considerations are omitted when The First Given is applied. Foremost, the cost inflicted upon others in the form of taxation in helping others. We hear about people who lose their houses or their farms and their loss is blamed on shady lenders, or offshore employment or whatever the flavor of the day happens to be. The 40% to 60% of lifetime earnings forfeited for x number of years is never mentioned as a contributing factor. Why muddy the waters?

The First Given emphasizes the short term over the long term. Don’t check back in a few years to see if the housing project is now a war zone. Don’t check back in a few years after the neighborhood has been loaded up with Section 8 tenants. The Robinsons are moving into their new home today. Smiles all around.

Use of the First Given also precludes the discussion of counterproductive results. Who knew that if we gave unmarried mothers money, single-parent families would increase? Who knew that if New York awarded arson victims cash, their city would smolder in the background during the World Series? There were reports of third generation welfare recipients way back in the 70’s. Who knew that it would become a way of life for millions of people? The government has to help people.

The Second Given, that the government has to “do something” has far-reaching effects. We are bombarded by news stories of public employees boldly defying common sense. School kids are forbidden from playing tag. School administrators treat drawings of weapons as if they are real weapons. They punish school kids who pretend that their fingers are guns in an identical manner as if they had possessed a real gun. And it’s not just the schools who are shamelessly stupid. Homeland Security disallows people from fishing near dams. They have restricted or eliminated field trips to power plants. And of course, you cannot ride Amtrak without a valid state-issued ID. This last grievance hit home recently. A friend of mine was returning from Boston. She could ride the MTRA as far as it ran in Massachusetts, where no ID was requested. But to ride an Amtrak all the way to New Hampshire required a state ID, which she did not have. Same rails, different policies. I ended up picking up her and her companion in Massachusetts. It’s not like she could have hijacked a train. But they had to do something.

If we were appointed defense counsel to the imbecilic in the court of public buffoonery, we would have to point our fingers at the closest press correspondent and shout “There is your real culprit. Yes. It was he who asked repeatedly in public, ‘What are you doing about the problem?’ Members of the jury, our client had to do something.”

Because of the mandate “to do something” courts sentence people to 12-step programs that are about at effective as no treatment at all. The courts sentence all sorts of people to counseling with not an iota of evidence that talking to a social worker is beneficial to anyone. They force people to things like anger management and parent training even though these programs have never been proven safe or effective. “They have to do something.”

The media are now telling us there is a mortgage crisis and they remind us that the government has to do something. This is the classic non-problem turned into a crisis by the alarmists who wield microphones. The fact of the matter is that this so-called crisis is a fictional construct. Imprudent lenders will lose money on loans they never should have made. Imprudent speculators (hapless homeowners if you listen to NPR, et al) will lose money on their bad investments. Some investors will do well by buying foreclosed properties. And the speculators got to live well beyond their means for a couple of years. The guy who loses a bundle on soybean futures does not get to lounge in a three bedroom ranch while he awaits his margin call. But most people will go unaffected. And the band plays a familiar tune: “What are You Going to do About the Latest Crisis Boogie?”

Members of the media are pro-regulation. And why not? Don’t we want to regulate the heat in our bedroom? Don’t we want to regulate our serum cholesterol? Don’t we want to regulate the channels of our TV set?

The word regulation is appealing. It’s a good word. It’s inviting. But governmental regulation—which usually refers to regulating business practices—is premised on the notion that regulators are cut from a different cloth than the rest of humanity. If not super human in judgment, then certainly more fair, less partial, more objective.

I don’t know how it is in Equador but in the USA regulatory bodies are headed by political donors, cronies and the sons and daughters of donors and cronies. From the outset their fairness has to be questioned (but rarely is.) Their wisdom has to be questioned (but rarely is.) Nonetheless, the case for regulation, when its status as Given is challenged, can be expressed in fewer words than can the case for free enterprise. That is all that matters in the press.

The media are radical prohibitionists. The more the better. As well, they assign the moral high ground to the prohibitionist position. This is unfortunate. It is also lazy. The prohibition of just about anything brings with it a set of problems. Frequently the cure is worse than the sickness. But the press does not want to be bogged down by details. Better to say nay or better yet to fall back on the tacit application of The Given.

An aside. In the past 50 years the press has acted as cheerleader for the prohibitionist on all but two activities: homosexuality and abortion. One could say that this is evidence of a bias beyond the three universal biases but I disagree. I believe it has more to do with the advocacy groups formulating more concise messages. I will address this in more detail at a later time.

Simplicity pervades the press. It is on the sports page as well as the society page. It is certainly on the business page. Newscasters love to assign the upward or downward movement of the stock market to the latest economic data. They will tell you the market rose because of declining unemployment. But if you listen often enough you will you will hear the same broadcasters tell you that the market rose because of increased unemployment. And they will tell you the market fell because of declining unemployment and another day tell you that it rose because of rising unemployment.

It’s not just the unemployment rate. The market’s rise or fall is attributable to the declining dollar. In better days, the market’s rise or fall is attributable to a thriving dollar. So too, oil prices, inflation rates, interest rates, etc. They have a dozen or so indicators that they shuffle around to explain everything you need to know about the stock market.

One of my favorite simplisms is the oft-repeated “The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.” Hold on. Is that a bad thing? If everyone’s wealth doubles overnight, won’t the gap between the rich and the lesser rich increase? If a man with a million dollars double his money, won’t the gap grow that separates him from the thousand dollar guy who also doubled his money? If you are really bad in math, I will give you the answer. Yes, universal prosperity will cause larger gaps in wealth.

Another simplistic facet of the above simplism is that it does not take into account the variable that defines the rich. Built into the statement “The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow” is the assumption that we are talking about the same set of people. Often, today’s rich were yesterday’s middle class. Most of the dotcom fortunes were made by people raised in middle class homes. So, in accounting for the gap between the rich and the poor should these nouveau riche be classified with the already rich? Isn’t it highly significant that some of our wealthiest families have been overtaken by middle class and sometimes even poor people?

The simplism also assumes that relative wealth is more important than absolute wealth. It also sidesteps the discussion as to whether the advancement of relative wealth is compatible with the advancement of absolute wealth. We could look to places like North Korea and Cuba and the former Soviet Bloc countries for an answer but I don’t think colleagues care to do so.

The press, for all of its privileged existence, is not without dissonance. Sometimes, The Givens conflict with their bias for the status quo. What happens when these worlds collide? Usually they defer to the status quo. It’s so much simpler. Sure, the government should do something about climate change. But then the press encounter the radical who says that meat production produces more greenhouse gases than SUV’s and they return to simpler topics.

This column is not my final word on the subject of the three universal biases of the news media. I will revisit this subject and share my analyses with you. Some of you might ask if the bias for simplicity favors one political camp over another. Again, the answer is not simple. The media are arch-conservatives in that they are rigidly loyal to the status quo. But that status quo is woefully collectivist, in large part because collectivism lends itself to sloganeering and arguments for collectivism can be made with lesser verbiage than say, arguments for individualism. The media like collectivism and they don’t like change. The media like candidates who share these values.

Pretty simple, huh?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Welcome to Sunday Worship


Let's proceed with a couple of hymns of worship.