Friday, December 02, 2005

Press the issue

Josh Marshall:
If only we had a group of professional information-gatherers and disseminators in the capital whose job it was to follow stuff and report to the public.

What would we call these people who report, I wonder?

It wouldn't be bad if, whatever we call them, these folks would adopt the motto of the 1940's New York newspaper, PM, as quoted by James Fallows in Breaking the News (1996):

We're against people who push people around.

Now there's a succinctly expressed progressive and populist ideology.

Is it ironic that just at the historical moment when unmediated media has made it possible for people to receive more unfiltered news, or news filtered according to their specific desires, the mainstream news media has to a signficant extent abrogated its responsibility to act as a watchdog on government and those in powerful positions, and has instead allowed itself to be coopted into being the tools of the strong and elite? Is the media's new stance a response to the rise of blogging etc., or vice versa? (Given the historical record, I'd say the media's complicity came first.)

Ed Fitzgerald | 12/02/2005 12:48:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

First-class (plus) citizens

I'm currently in rehearsal (for a contemporary adaptation of Aristophanes' "The Birds" called "Aristophanes in Birdonia"), so blogging may be sporadic for a while. One thing I like to do during these periods is troll through my quote files and post some of the interesting things I find there. Here's one:
Who Will Tell The People?Corporations ... enjoy an anomalous status not available to anyone else ... They may regularly violate the law without surrendering their political rights -- committing felonious acts that would send people to prison and strip them of their citizenship. This contradiction is crucial to what has deformed democracy; the power relationships of politics cannot be brought into a more equitable balance until citizens confront the privileged legal status accorded to these political organizations ... A corporation, because it is an "artificial legal person," has inherent capacities that mortal citizens do not possess. For one thing, it can live forever. For another, a corporation, unlike people, can exist in many places at once. Or it can alter its identity -- chop off its arms or legs and transform itself into an utterly different "person" ... Above all, a corporation by its nature possesses political resources that very few individual citizens can ever hope to accumulate- the wealth and motivation to influence political outcomes directly and continuously. Thus, if corporations are to be regarded as citizens, they are equipped to hold the front rank in American politics and nearly everyone else will invariably become citizens of the second class. But the corporate claim to citizenship raises a crucial contradiction: When corporations commit crimes, they do not wish to be treated as people, but as "artificial legal entities" that cannot be held personally accountable for their misdeeds. If an individual citizen is convicted of a felony, he automatically loses his political rights - the right to vote, the right to hold office -- and sometimes his personal freedom as well ... When corporations are convicted of crimes, they lose none of their diverse abilities to act in politics. Corporations are "citizens" who regularly offend the law- both in the criminal sense and in the civil terms of flouting regulatory statues. Yet their formidable influence on political decisions goes forward undiminished, as well as the substantial financial rewards they harvest from government.
William Greider
Who Will Tell The People? (1992)

For a twist on the Supreme Court decision that established the legal personhood of corporations under the 14th Amendment, take a look at this Straight Dope column, which claims that such a decision never took place, and the entire concept can be blamed on an overreaching court reporter inserting in the record the verbal remark of a single justice. (A more conventional analysis of the by now long-standing precedent of corporate personhood can be found here.)

Whether it was a legitimate decision, or a fluke, it can be argued that Santa Clara County v. Southern Pac. R. Co. may be one of the worst precedents ever created by the Supreme Court. Certainly its effects on contemporary society are far-reaching, and in many ways negative.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/30/2005 05:07:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Kos speaks:
Republicans aren't stupid. They're corrupt, craven, opportunistic and generally unpleasant, but they aren't stupid.

Well ... sometimes.

Here's the thing, if they were smarter they might see the ways in which their policies and ideology are damaging the country, threatening to rip apart the very social fabric that enables them to be corrupt, craven and opportunistic. (They could be generally unpleasant even in a post-apocalyptic society.) That they can't understand that continuing on their current path is dangerous, makes them stupid in at least one way.

I suppose that might not be a failure of intelligence, but a failure of empathy, and that derives, in large part, from a failure of imagination. They really don't have the ability to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes and make allowances. It's as if they're missing a "there but for the grace of God go I" gene.

A post on Mahablog about Alito a while back delves a bit into the typical mindset of those on the right:

Let it not be forgot that O’Connor is more conservative than anything else; just because she expressed a more liberal view in some opinions doesn’t erase the fact that her worldview is more rightie than leftie. In essence [Sandra Day] O’Connor tends to veer left in those cases in which she might have had some personal experience (such as sex discrimination) and therefore “gets it.” But like most righties, when she wanders outside the realm of her personal experiences the real world becomes a foreign place for her, a place she can’t even imagine.

We see this pattern over and over again, and it explains many atypical outburts of liberal behavior among prominent conservatives: a personal experience allows them to understand and empathize with people in a particular situation or circumstances that they would not otherwise normally understand. That their efforts also are beneficial to themselves or their loved ones is incidental, since they honestly appear to be altruistically motivated, which expresses itself in acts that are more consonant with liberalism than with conservatism. Their experience allows them to overcome what is otherwise their general failure of imagination.

It was a similar failure of imagination which struck me so strongly on reading the testimony of the "intelligent design" advocate Michael Behe. He clearly has no feel at all for "deep time" and cannot conceive of what natural selection can achieve over the course of millions of years -- therefore, there must be an Intelligent Designer. A similar fallacy underlies a lot of right-wing ideology.

So yeah, Republicans and right-wingers are smart, in one way, but in another they're pretty deficient, and full of failure.

(And yes, for those wondering, I see liberals as having a different kind of failure they get caught up in: they sometimes allow their humanistic impulses to overwhelm the hard-nosed skepticism necessary to grok the realities of the world, instead of letting the former provide the goals, and the latter provide the means to achieve them. They let their empathy run amok, and attempt to do what cannot be done given the nature of things.)

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/29/2005 02:00:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Addictive non-reading

Kevin Drum touches on something that I've noticed myself, that the more I read online, the less other kinds of reading I do, especially of books. Part of it is that I only have a certain amount of time to read, and surfing the web takes up a bigger and bigger chunk of that time, but I've also experienced the effect noted here:
As Jeanne d'Arc writes today:
I find that the more I read online, the less I read off. I don't think it's even a matter of using up my reading time. It actually destroys brain cells or something, because if I've been doing too much online reading, I lose the patience for following a sustained or subtle argument, or reading a complex novel.
The same is true of me. It's not just that I spend less time reading books, it's that I find my mind wandering when I do read. After a few paragraphs, or maybe a page or two, I'll run into a sentence that suddenly reminds me of something — and then spend the next minute staring into space thinking of something entirely unrelated to the book at hand. Eventually I snap back, but obviously this behavior reduces both my reading rate and my reading comprehension.

Is this really because of blogging? I don't know for sure, but it feels like it's related to blogging, and it's a real problem. As wonderful as blogs, magazines, and newspapers are, there's simply no way to really learn about a subject except by reading a book — and the less I do that, the less I understand about the broader, deeper issues that go beyond merely the outrage of the day.

That I am barely able to keep up with a few magazine and newspapers (right now, the Sunday New York Times, The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books) is probably mostly due to reading time being shifted over to Web time, but my concentration for reading books is also just not what it used to be, and my reading pace (which I used to track pretty closely) has decreased dramatically. Fifteen years ago, in 1990, I read 103 books, ten years ago, in 1995, I read 41 books. This year, I'll be lucky to have read 16. (I don't have data for five years ago, due to a hard-drive crash.)

Now, there are probably other factors involved here. Obviously, I'm 15 years older, I've slowed down, I had a heart attack about a year and a half ago, and I now have a full-time 6 year old child (instead of a part-time 3 year old [joint custody]), but my increased online time seems to me to be a significant part of it as well.

I've also noticed that I'm loathe to stop my surfing, even when it's really clear that I've run out of things to do for the moment. It's similar to my dogged unwillingness to turn off the TV until I've gone around the dial three or four times and convinced myself that there really isn't anything even remotely interesting on -- I click on links that I know aren't going to be fruitful, and which I'll almost immediately click out of, or I'll sit in a semi-dazed state thinking up new search terms for Google.

Seems like addictive behavior to me.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/29/2005 01:19:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE



PZ Myers on Pharyngula comes across an example of a Christian persecution complex:
The site admin has this warning up on the front page.
Being a Christian in modern America is becoming more and more a dangerous thing. Christians in the workplace, children in our schools, leaders in our community, are penalized (Some times prosecuted) for standing up for their Christian held beliefs. This trend is growing faster and faster.

We know dark days are ahead for Christians, the bible tells us this. That does not mean we cannot be active. It is not hard to envision, near in the future, when publicly discussing issues of deeply held biblical belief, that Christians will be arrested for "Hate Crimes".
It seems to me that self-proclaimed Christians are being prosecuted for corruption and incompetence, not their religion; that it is a betrayal of purported Christian values that angers people. It looks like professing a love of Jesus has become a catch-all cover to conceal atrocities, cronyism, and failure. We aren't interested in prosecuting Christians, but when Christianity becomes the facade behind which cockroaches lurk, try not to conflate the vermin with your philosophy. And hey, maybe it would be a good idea to clean your own house rather than blaming your neighbors, who are beginning to see you as the source of much pestilence.

Of course, no one in the U.S. is being persecuted for being a Christian, or for following Christian religious beliefs. (It's virtually impossible to imagine a plausible scenario where that could happen in modern America, and quite easy to see precisely the opposite coming about, given the ferocity that some bring to furthering thir faith.) What is happening is that some Christians are being prevented from forcing their specific religious beliefs on others, Christians and non-Christians alike.

I have no desire to force my beliefs on anyone, but if I attempted to do so, I guarantee the response I would get in many parts of this country in attempting to spread atheistic or secular humanistic ideas would put any alleged example of Christian "persecution" to shame. (I once merely suggested to a correspondant who was detailing her search for the right religion that she might want to consider no religion as an option, and I was immediately slammed for trying to proselytize my abhorrent ideas -- she then quit the discussion group in protest over the way she was treated.)

Addenda: Somewhat related -- Pascal Riche has an interesting post on TPM Cafe about Apocalypse TV. (Read the comments as well.)

More: PZ Myers, via Skeptico, notes that Fundies Say The Darndest Things:

Only a retard would try to use science to determine the ultimate reality of our existence.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/29/2005 12:55:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Enemy Within

Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, in "The Enemy Within," the second part of a two-part essay on the current state of the press (part one, "The End of News?," is here):
In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, went to St. Louis to write about Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000, the Justice Department later found, many of the city's black voters had been improperly turned away from the polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats were charging the Republicans with preparing to do the same in 2004, and Silverstein found evidence for their claim. Republican officials accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, but their case seemed flimsy by comparison, a point that even a local Republican official acknowledged to him.

While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned that the Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to several other states to report on charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his findings were going to be incorporated into a larger national story about how both parties in those states were accusing each other of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States," described
the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the final days of the presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and other key states, Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the election.
The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims of Democrats and Republicans.

Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a memo outlining his concerns. The paper's "insistence on 'balance' is totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge," he wrote. In Missouri, there was "a real effort on the part of the suppress pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP complaints, by contrast, "concern isolated cases that are not going to impact the outcome of the election." He went on:
I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters working on long-term projects are often given leeway to "pile up evidence and demonstrate a case." During the last year, he has written articles on the ties between the CIA and the Sudanese intelligence service; on American oil companies' political and economic alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to political coverage, though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are too often "afraid of being seen as having an opinion." They fear "provoking a reaction in which they'll be accused of bias, however unfounded the charge." The insistence on a "spurious balance," he says, is a widespread problem in how TV and print organizations cover news. "It's very stifling."

As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on American journalists—one whose effect has been magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and radio talk-show hosts. One reason journalists performed so poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be branded as hostile to the President and labeled as "liberal" by conservative commentators.

The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the relation between the journalistic and political establishments. It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White House and a key architect of the administration's push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to have spoken with him regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president. A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial article about Libby—a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the The New York Times about his novel The Apprentice.

Blind adherence to "balance" is just one of the many structural defects Massing reports on that are sapping the ability of the news media to effectively perform its necessary and vital function in American society.

[More: part 1, part 2]

Update (11/29): Atrios tackles a related subject, the effect of unmediated information sources, such as blogging, on traditional "Gatekeeper" media (those mediated by professional editors who act as gatekeepers to information, thereby, supposedly, assuring its quality):

However, it isn't blogs that destroyed the Gatekeepers. It wasn't blogs that put Rush Limbaugh on as an election analyst. It wasn't blogs that gave Bill O'Reilly the flagship show on a major cable news network. It wasn't blogs that gave Michael Savage his own television show on a cable news network. It wasn't blogs that put Ann Coulter on the cover of a major national news magazine. It wasn't blogs that created all of the various and often fact free screaming heads shows. It wasn't blogs that gave syndicated columns to numerous conservatives with little or no experience in journalism. It wasn't blogs that devoted the summer of 2001 to Gary Condit (uh, ok, well, maybe Josh helped a bit)and the summer of 2005 to a missing girl in Aruba. It wasn't blogs that invented the New York Post or Washington Times. And, it wasn't blogs that were responsible for all of the errors that this wonderful organization tracks on a regular basis.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/28/2005 01:30:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Ed Fitzgerald

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Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


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2003 koufax award
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the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


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but credit all you take.

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