Category Archives: media

The Gordian Knot of Democratic Politics

Gordian Knot 2 Yes, Democrats – there’s a problem.  A party which can haul out voters during presidential elections is having an obvious problem getting the citizens out during the off-year elections.   The GOP, which did an “autopsy” of its 2012 efforts and then proceeded to ignore the results, did quite well.  It probably did so by offering the ideologues what they wanted —

The Philosophical Knot

At the risk of getting a bit philosophical,  “political zealots are people who are  over-indulging their emotional need of hatred.”  And, “men adopt ideas, not because it seems to them that those ideas are true, or because it seems to them that those ideas are expedient, but because those ideas satisfy a basic emotional need of their nature.”  (Bruce Montgomery)

If one’s “basic emotional need” is to have someone or something to blame for one’s anxiety then the GOP offered up a veritable gourmand’s banquet of targets.  The Appetizer:  Demonized Democratic leadership – Don’t you want to hate those people like Senator Harry Reid? Representative Nancy Pelosi? President Barack Obama?  The Soup: A Beltway Press club which once having determined its preferred narrative is loathe to give it up even in the face of stark evidence to the contrary.  “The President won’t work with the Congress,” for example, as if the Republican congressional leaders didn’t meet in a D.C. restaurant in 2009 and determine that theirs would be a strategy of obstruction throughout the President’s term.   The Fish or Chicken:  Well publicized Republican whines when their positions weren’t adopted completely, re-defining what the term “compromise” initially meant.  The GOP got nearly everything it wanted in the Affordable Care Act, including the adoption of a proposal originating with the Heritage Foundation, and then voted solidly against it, after which they  whined to the gates of glory about the provisions.  The Palate Cleanser:  The careful packaging of otherwise radical Tea Party candidates so that their rough edges were camouflaged, see incoming Senator Joni Ernst.  The Main Course: Fear! Ebola!  — all one case of it. ISIS! Some 33,000 terrorists who would really like to kill Americans – the U.S. population is about 317 million.  The Salad/Fine Vegetable:  A lovely diversion from real issues and a delicate scattering of pure inventions such as the Democrats are going to take your guns, or Democrats are going to promote abortions.  And finally, the Hot or Cold Dessert:  The Republican assumption that they’ve worked the refs sufficiently, and ginned up the base enough to make Democrats run away from their own leadership, see Grimes in Kentucky.   There are ways to make this dinner come to an end.

The Structural Knot

There’s the predictable grousing about the efforts of DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  However, few have commented on the structural issues about her position.  She’s wearing two hats and both of them represent  full time jobs.  Did she not “do enough” in the last election – or was running her own campaign, running the DNC, and trying to represent her constituents just a bit too much to ask.  One way to untangle the leadership thread of the structural knot would be for the Democrats to employ a full time chairman.

Independent leadership is fine in concept, however there must be something to lead.  A national party which allows state and local organizations to wither won’t be national for long.  [DB

The Media Knot

How where the Republicans able to keep their seven course gourmand banquet going well into election night?  This strand has been long entangled in American politics.  The corporate media represented by the beltway journalists have used the cable news outlets to broadcast some well known and recognizable narratives.  There must be two sides.  Not when we’re talking about the implications of global climate change.  Not when we’re talking about the decimation of the American middle class.  Not when we’re speaking of the need to fund infrastructure elements in America. Not when we’re addressing the need to adequately fund taking  care of our veterans.

The national media has not served this nation well.  This frustration is altogether too common:

“Finding clear information about issues and candidates in this midterm was difficult, and I certainly didn’t find it on cable television. Lots of times I went and dug it out myself. Sometimes I relied on alternatives. It was often frustrating to have to dig around in the universe of silos that exist today on the Internet, particularly when those siloes are loaded with hate talk on the right side of things.”

To adopt the notion that there are two sides to every question means that both sides should be presented.  However, the cable news outlets are content to state the Democratic position, and then allow Republican/Libertarian critics air time for commentary after commentary after commentary to present their talking points.  This isn’t “both” sides – it’s purely corporate sponsored, corporate presented propaganda.  It’s especially not “news” when there is little attention paid to issues.

Chart News Issues

65% of what the viewing public got was “political speculation,” and they’d have to be lucky to turn on the set when the 35% appeared, to inform them of related issues.  Untying the media knot will require coordinated effort, based on an intelligent analysis of the current situation.

Little wonder the author of the excerpt above  on media news is frustrated with the silos.  The sources are drying up.  The number of black journalists working for daily newspapers has dropped by 40% since 1985, and the number of white journalists working for daily papers is down 34%, the number of Hispanic journalists is off 16%, and the number of Asian-American journalists is down 2%. [Pew]   What do they all have in common? Down.  How about the number of reporters covering state politics and governance?  Since 2003 the number of persons employed to cover state governance has declined by 35%. [WaPo]  In the interest of “shareholder value” we have accepted a diminished press corps from one end of this country to the other.   It is almost as it we’ve decided that the “product” created by the press should be “share value” and not “news.”  There’s always been tension between the business side and the production side in journalism, and it appears the business side has won.

What makes the problem a double whammy for American citizens is that while the number of people employed to cover state and national news is declining, the cable TV system still provides most of the national coverage of major national and international issues.  The American Press Institute explains, including the chart below:

Cable News Source

Note: People are going to the cable news outlets for an explication of news about foreign, international, national government, social, business and the economic issues, and they aren’t getting it!

Not only will Democrats have to calculate the best messages in order to reach voters they are going to have to figure out how to get those messages broadcast to the general public, in the face of business-referenced cable news decisions.   If the cable news networks aren’t the answer, will social media make a difference?  The answer is still a large “maybe:”

“…social media appears to be largely adding to, rather than replacing, other ways that people get news. At the same time that 4 in 10 now use social media, more than 80 percent of Americans say they also got news in the last week by going directly to a news organization in some manner—and that was consistent across generations.

Even for the youngest adults, age 18-29, social media and the web in general have hardly replaced more traditional ways of getting the news. Nearly half of the youngest adults also read news in print during the last week, 3 in 4 watched news on television, and just over half listened to it on the radio.” [API.org]

While the expressed hope that social media will help resolve messaging issues for younger voters who lean Democratic, it’s still important to incorporate a media strategy which includes a more robust use of cable television broadcasting.

The Messaging Issue

The Republicans have made a conscious decision not to play the role of a minority party in the traditional sense of the term.  Where Democrats played significant roles in the adoption of “no child left behind” and the Bush tax reforms, that dinner at the Washington D.C. restaurant the night President Obama was Inaugurated in 2009 left no doubt about GOP strategy:

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” [VF]

The call to Gridlock was as clear as Great Paul in London.  The strategy was simplicity itself.  Create gridlock, guarantee nothing important was done for Middle Class Americans, veterans, the infrastructure, employment, etc. and then blame the President “He won’t schmooze with us,” when nothing was accomplished.   The DC Press Corps dutifully picked up the narrative and ran with it, ignoring the fact that Boehner and the GOP were “frequent no-shows” at White House events.  Republicans refused to attend the “Lincoln Screening,” and turned down invitations to state dinners for Great Britain, South Korea, Germany, Mexico, and India. Senator McConnell even turned down an invitation to a White House event celebrating Kentucky and the UK NCAA basketball championship. [NJ]   So, of course, the DC Pundits declared the President to be “aloof.”

If the analysis of the media situation demonstrates it’s difficult to get the Democratic message out, then perhaps some adjustment needs to be made in the message itself.  For the sake of easy examples we might explore two possibilities.

Adjusted Messages

Democrats are for the Middle Class.  This should be easy because it’s true. Democrats are for increasing the minimum wage. Democrats are for organized labor. Democrats are for limiting corporate powers and for the regulation of banking institutions.  Perhaps not to the extent some on the left might require, but they are certainly more supportive of these issues than the Republicans of the Business Roundtable.   If the Republicans can attach the word “feckless” to every comment about the President, then why not have Democrats attach the term “economic elitist” to every comment about the GOP agenda?

Only an “economic elitist” would oppose the increase in the minimum wage. Only an “economic elitist” would oppose regulating the banks. Only an “economic elitist” would support repealing the Affordable Care Act.  Republicans have expended every energy defining the Democrats as a coalition of minorities – there’s nothing that says they can’t be defined, in turn, as supporters of a truly small minority in American life – the 1%.

Democrats aren’t afraid.   Democrats elected the man who got Osama Bin Ladin. Democrats aren’t afraid of a virus which really hasn’t done much in the U.S. Democrats aren’t scared of a few fanatical terrorists in the Middle East. Democrats aren’t afraid of spending some money on veterans, on our infrastructure, and on jobs for Americans.   Republicans are so busy being afraid of their own shadows – The Deficit (down) The Debt (down) The Terrorists (confined to the Middle East), Muslims (the bogeyman du jour) and every other issue – why not include “fear” in the running commentary.

Only a true Wet Pants Dancer is afraid of ISIL?  Only an obvious coward would be scared into a Hazmat suit over Ebola? Only the truly squeamish would be so frightened of The Debt that he couldn’t support more services for veterans, and only one so terrified of his own shadow couldn’t vote for more funding for infrastructure – want to be afraid of a real problem – think about most of the bridges in this country that are more than 60 years old. Our parents and grandparents weren’t afraid of spending for infrastructure, what’s the matter with us?

Another element which has been commented upon by those much wiser than I is that Democrats have allowed the Republicans to create the narrative, and the Democrats have acceded to the position of playing Defense.  There’s nothing wrong with going on offense, indeed, it would be helpful in sending the Not Afraid message.  For example, we KNOW the deficit has been reduced. However, how many Democrats talked about deficit and debt reduction in the last election?  Not enough.  But why was it a major topic in the first place? Because the Republicans decided it would be. 

Pew described “major” issues in the 2014 elections as: Terrorist Threat, Budget Deficit, Economy, Immigration, and Health Care.  We couldn’t make a list more in tune with GOP manufactured issues.   What was missed was the polling which showed 54% agreed with the statement: “The Democrats are more concerned about needs of people like me.”  What was also interesting is that the news organizations which sponsored polling also selected those issues to investigate. [TPP]   What would happen if some Democratic leaning organizations, not tied to the corporate media, would commission polling on the state of veterans’ services? Infrastructure projects? Civil rights? Banking reforms?  In short, the Democrats need to create their issues – not merely wait for the GOP to set the public agenda.

Or, to put it less elegantly – the Democrats can stop tying themselves in Gordian Knots trying to respond to the Republican obstructionist/fear based agenda and concentrate on what George H.W. Bush once called the Vision Thing.

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Filed under media, media ownership, Politics, Republicans

Have You Voted? Vote today, ignore the pundits tomorrow

ballot box Just asking!  For all the mega-money that’s been tossed into the elections, there is only one poll that matters…and that’s the vote count at the end of the day.   We might also want to give some consideration to a National Ignore the Pundits Day, which I’d not so humbly suggest be the day after any election.

Pundits are on my television screen because (1) they’re available – think Senator John McCain (R- Green Room) and (2) because the producers of the shows know that their contributions will either enhance or assault the Narrative of the Day.   Cable “news” doesn’t just happen – it’s produced.  Let’s take a look at the job description of a “producer:”

“Television producers make sure that television shows run smoothly in all details, and take responsibility for everything from coordinating writers and performers/correspondents right down to overseeing the fact-checking of credit names and titles.” [Princeton Review]

Note, the show must run ‘smoothly’ and the fact-checking is concerned with getting the credit names and titles broadcast correctly.  What the contributors and anchors have to say will be either ‘scripted’ or at least expected.  No one on the production end really wants any major surprises.

Pundits and anchors want to ask questions, but the production will determine the level and type of information made available.  There are a few, a resplendent few, anchors who will actually elicit information of use to the general public.  Because the sponsors of a production don’t care to pay for air time in which their interests aren’t supported, we’d be better off not to expect the national media to do a very good job of getting facts together in a coherent package – and for the most part they don’t.  Public television and local shows tend to do a better job in this department.

Back in 1994 Peter Anderson’s analysis of the press made an observation about the Perfect News Story.  A perfect news story had (1) a celebrity, plus (2) a scandal, which could be simply stated, and (3) engendered endless speculation.  Diving for ratings? Clicks? Hits?  Follow the formula.  And, following the formula requires a production that will fit a predetermined narrative (remember we don’t really want surprises.)  This situation, in turn, creates the vacuity of the national pundit/anchor shows.

Type A:  The what you said then and what you say now inquiry.  The late Tim Russert was a master at this form of vacuity.  A politician’s statement from deep in the archives would be resurrected, printed out on the screen and then form the subject of “Why have you changed your position?”  The question isn’t necessarily a bad one, IF the person answering the question is given sufficient time to respond, to explain why his or her beliefs have changed over time. However, the flip side of the coin is that the format, if carted along to its obvious conclusion, is that changing one’s position is a bad thing and demonstrates the weakness of a belief system.  The unfortunate result is that the only people who end up looking good are the ones who’ve never changed their opinions – often in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Other than taking carved-in-stone objurgate positions never to be moved a millimeter, the only alternative is do take so many positions on an issue that the quotation resurrection process is flooded with diverse and often self-contradictory opinions; see Senators McCain and Paul who’ve been on every side of every possible issue.

Type B: In this model the question is posed with a pre-determined answer.  “Senator Sludgepump, do you think the House Minority Leader’s proposal for increasing the minimum wage is a good one?”   If Sludgepump is a member of the opposing political party, then of course he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea.   For the sake of the example, let’s assume Sludgepump is opposed to increasing the minimum wage, and is only too willing to recite the talking points against the measure.  What’s lost in this conversation?  You’ve guessed it – it’s why the House Minority Leader supports an increase in the minimum wage in the first place.

Rather than truly offering both sides of an issue what the producers/anchors have accomplished is to offer the original idea, shorn of any context or background information, and to challenge it with the opposition’s argument complete with the appropriate talking points.  There’s nothing “balanced” about this.  For that matter, there really isn’t anything of much substance offered to the viewing public.  There is, however, a pernicious element inserted into public discourse in which only the opposition (to just about anything) is given precedence over the affirmative.

Type C:  This third type of format which abets the Perfect Story Formula is associated with the notion that human beings are herd animals.  If the story doesn’t have a celebrity, or a hint of scandal, or doesn’t lend itself to endless speculation, then it will be spiked in favor of that which does have all the elements.   The FACT that there is only ONE case of Ebola infection in the entire United States hasn’t discouraged the cable news channels from spouting off and encouraging that “endless speculation,” some of which has been downright loony.  But, if one network is focused on it then we’d better believe that at some point they will all be staring at that same shiny object.

In this instance the producer will line up all the usual suspects: the opposition leader(s) who have criticisms of the administration or their opponents; the ‘experts’ in the field, albeit some with highly questionable credentials; and, the ‘analysts’ who will explain (interminably) what some bit of minutia means.   What have we missed? We can use the Islamic State as an example.

Explaining the relationship of the Islamic State terrorists to other opposition groups in Syria is a complicated process; the mutations and permutations of the group are based in long simmering territorial, religious, and social disputes, some going back as far as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 19, 1916, and the diplomatic/military maneuvering during the First World War.  Modern history isn’t any simpler. The migration of the Islamic State terrorists from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq takes more than a twelve minute segment to explain.  Since the story doesn’t fit neatly into the Celebrity + Scandal + Endless speculation formula, and can’t be explained succinctly in sound bytes, it probably won’t be explicated by any major network.  The herd will continue to follow the shiny objects which are easier to explain.

The Type C, or follow the leader, Sunday show journalism – even if practiced on a Wednesday, has all manner of sources.  Want to guess what Fox News will promote – see Drudge?  Want to guess what NBC will promote?  See the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.  And so it goes. The danger of playing following the leader is obvious. If the Leader goes after a dramatic, if trivial, story then the other media outlets must follow lest they be shamed by charges of “ignoring” important news.  Thus the herd is rounded up, pointed in essentially the same direction, and those stories which truly affect people’s lives are demoted to the back pages and the “if it bleeds it leads” items head to the forefront.

We shouldn’t be surprised if this leads to endless palaver about the fizzling frantic ‘stories’ about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS or other attempts to create drama in the news room.   The formula is perfectly suited to this kind of reporting.

If we put A, and B, and C together the fiction that we are getting important news from our broadcast and major media outlets should be starkly highlighted.

Therefore, the Pundits will be Plentiful on November 5, each and every one seeking to please the anchors and meet the expectations of the producers.  They will be eager to speculate about Congressional leadership, anxious to speculate on matters of political priorities, and yearning to speculate about what these election returns mean for the next great Horse Race Season.  What do all three of these have in common – Speculation. Endless Speculation. The final element in the perfect story formula.

Speculation is cheap.  Any one of us can do it on a daily basis; we could probably keep it up for hours.  Speculation doesn’t require much research beyond what’s necessary for the “show to run smoothly.” Speculation doesn’t require much background information, “just set up the question and let Senator Sludgepump or Representative Mudmire rattle on.”  Speculation doesn’t require reporters on the ground doing journalism at the source.  Reporters cost money, and shows can be produced more cheaply if there aren’t so many of them.

There are precious few news shows which aren’t so over-produced that relatively little information can be gleaned from them.  Find them. Watch them. Support them.  The rest can be safely ignored on National Ignore the  Pundits Day.

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Curmudgeon Junction: Short Term Thinking Long Term Losses

Halloween Pumpkin Want something to be afraid of this Halloween week?  No, it’s not Ebola, nor is it ISIS, nor is it that some undocumented person will cast an “impersonation ballot” at some polling station… it’s Short Term Thinking.  Today’s rant from Curmudgeon Junction is a general grouse about the lack of foresight intrinsic in our economic and political institutions. 

The Economics of Myopia

The whole artificial edifice of Shareholder Value would collapse in a heap if the Management Interests would take a longer view of their corporate health.  When one’s interests are aligned with quarterly earnings reports, and the effect on stock market prices, then what we will get are executives who place cost cutting measures above the long term interests of the corporation.  It will be necessarily more important to lay off expensive workers than to promote long term corporate loyalty.  It will be necessarily more important to engage in stock buy backs than to allocate resources to research and development.  It will be necessarily more important to invent ever more exotic tax treatments and financial products than to invest in corporate expansion.  It will be necessarily more important to conflate the interests of trade with the interests of financial markets.  It will necessarily be more important to accumulate a profitable financial product revenue stream than to invest in modern plants and equipment.  And, this is a recipe for a witch’s brew for short term “results” and long term losses.

What U.S. steel industry?  Yes, U.S. Steel is still in business, but it’s no longer producing 67% of this country’s steel. [USX] Did anyone notice when U.S. Steel was removed from the Standard and Poor 500 Index? [NYT] Yes, the company has diversified, but it also moved in and out of some very risky propositions in the process, and simply surviving isn’t a particularly impressive item in comparison to actually thriving. 

VWonder Bread is back on the shelves, but why did the process have to be such a mess?  Let’s start with what financial writers are pleased to call a “highly leveraged capital structure with little room for error.” [Forbes]  And, we can add in an obsolete line of products – where was the investment in product research and development? And,  we can add in relatively high labor costs – which were cut in return for a promise (unkept) that the management would allocate resources into more efficient plants and equipment… So, the Twinkies got the axe, (rather later than perhaps that product line should have in the face of changing consumer trends), and the whole jerry-built private equity backed operation couldn’t take the strain of having to turn a mismanaged company around in the face of immediate capital needs.

Chevron made much of its prowess in developing alternative energy, it even created a renewable power group (CVX) and then shut the lights down.

“In January, employees of Chevron’s (CVX) renewable power group, whose mission was to launch large, profitable clean-energy projects, dined at San Francisco’s trendy Sens restaurant as managers applauded them for nearly doubling their projected profit in 2013, the group’s first full year of operations. But the mood quickly turned somber. Despite the financial results and the team’s role in helping launch more than a half-dozen solar and geothermal projects capable of powering at least 65,000 homes, managers told the group that funding for the effort would dry up and encouraged staffers to find jobs elsewhere, say four people who attended the dinner.” [Bloomberg]

The renewable power group created a net profit of $27 million in 2013, well above the $15 million target, so why did Chevron pull the plug? 

“When you have a very successful and profitable core oil and gas business, it can be quite difficult to justify investing in renewables,” says Robert Redlinger, who ran a previous effort at Chevron to develop large renewable-energy projects before he left in 2010. “It requires significant commitment at the most senior levels of management. I didn’t perceive that kind of commitment from Chevron during my time with the firm.” [Bloomberg]

Translation: OK, the renewables were making money just not enough money to get the attention of top management.  More translation: the Renewables group wasn’t making enough money in the short term to get management support in the long run.

How many investments banks are there in the United States? If you guessed Zero you got it right.  None, zilch, zip. We now have Bank Holding Companies, as the former high flyers on Wall Street sought the protection of the Federal Reserve to avoid financial oblivion in September 2008. [MotleyFool]  After running, ever so willingly, into the arms of the government in their debacle of 1002-2008, the bankers now want to revert to playing by their own rules – Repeal Dodd Frank – and re-engage in the same short term behaviors which brought on the collapse of the financial sector in 2007 and 2008.

The Politics of Myopia

There’s never been a shortage of self-serving myopia in politics. Ever.  Nor has there been a surfeit of times in which there was less costuming going on in political campaigns than there were little goblins out seeking confectionary items to put in their pillow cases.  However, turning the politics of fear into an art form, is to emphasize the fear and trivialize the long term prospects of hope.

So, we have politicians ginning up fear of a virus – of which we now have ONE case in the entire country  of 330 million people – to secure short term votes based on “Did the administration do enough?” Has the administration been strong enough?”  Probably – given that we have ONE case in a population of 330 million.   Notice, we’re not talking about (1) What should U.S. funding priorities be for the research and development of vaccines for relatively rare viral diseases which occur primarily in third world nations? or, (2) What should be the U.S. contribution to world wide efforts to eradicate viral infections?  Those would be long term questions – and we seem to have the attention span of fruit flies when it comes to politics.

The Media and Myopia

While we’re on the topic of viral diseases – has it occurred to anyone in the management end of public media that Wolf! is not to be carried to extremes, or have we missed that point from the kindergarten reading list?  How many times have we been told that Swine Flu!  Avian Flu! West Nile Virus! MERS! SARS! was going to be the End of Humanity! Or, close to it.   Now, it’s Ebola – and the media circus begins once more.  Has it not taken hold in the imaginations of media management that there may come a time when something like the Spanish Flu – a real pandemic – may creep up on us and because the “Wolf!” cry has been offered up so often and in such a dramatic way, that health care professionals will have trouble convincing the public that “This time it’s REAL?”  Are the monthly, or weekly, ratings really so important in the short run that we’d take this risk in the long run?

How many editors across the nation are assigning people to cover stories for which the reporter is simply unqualified?  That’s not ‘on’ the reporter.  If a reporter turns in a story about race relations in a mid-western city based on impressions made during a few nights of protest, with little or no background knowledge of the historic context, do we blame the superficiality of the reporting on the writer – or on the management which decided to cut back on the number of writers in order to “increase shareholder value?”  How many media outlets retain the services of several persons with a background in economics or finance to craft articles about our economy?  How many media outlets hire individuals with a background in history/sociology to write about race and ethnic relations?   How many can afford to?

It’s one thing to blast the banality of much political reporting – and another to remember that national pundits aren’t reporters.  The pundits are time fillers.  It’s expensive to send reporters to New Hampshire, Colorado, or Nevada. It’s more expensive to send them to Ukraine,  Burkina Faso, and China.  It’s cheaper to keep a pool of reporters in central locations and send “teams” out to cover events – whether or not the team members have any expertise in the regions to which they are sent.

In return for short term economies we get a long term prospect of sensationalized reporting on the dramatic and very little contextual information about subjects of greater long term impact ( such as, the efforts of Middle Eastern nations to come to terms with the historic impact of post World War I boundaries).  Are we hearing about what mega-studies of student learning models tell us about how children actually learn, or are we getting packaged news about how children in one city measure up against children in another on a high stakes standardized test?

Are we hearing about how most bridges in the United States are designed to last 50 years, and the average age of bridges in this country is 43?  Do we know that in just ten years one out of every four bridges in this country will be over 65 years of age, that would be some 170,000 of them. [BridgeReport pdf] Or, do we wait until another one collapses and more lives are lost? 

And so it goes. We’ll shove more and more eye-catching events with less and less context into the great maw of 24 hour news cycles until the information is granulized into particles about which the Time Fillers will offer interminable speculation because that’s what they’re paid to do – speculate. In the short term it’s entertaining – in the long run it isn’t conducive to a well informed electorate.

Worse still, we’ll probably keep doing this until the old song lyrics are true: “I get all the news I need from the weather report.”

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Filed under ecology, Economy, Infrastructure, media, Politics

3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

White House Press Room Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Fainting Couch) wants a muscular U.S. policy against ISIL before we’re all murdered in our beds.  However, before we get all pumped up from watching cable news and beltway media blathering it might be a nice exercise to know more pesky details about the situation, especially with regard to ISIL held territory in Syria and Iraq.

#1.  Beltway blathering demonstrates little understanding of the situation inside the area under consideration.  The White House Press corps, which is evidently so shallow they can’t concentrate on major policy statements if the President or speaker is wearing a suit made of any fabric not dark gray or dark blue, persists in analyzing the “optics” or “atmospherics” surrounding such statements without listening to what is being said.  Were they better informed about the political and military situation their opinion pieces would be significantly improved.  Here’s an example:

During the White House press briefing on September 12, the Press Secretary fielded two questions concerning the relatively quiet response from NATO ally Turkey on joining the alliance against ISIS (L).  After Mr. Earnest offered a very diplomatic explanation the second questions was:

But any disappointment that particularly Turkey, a NATO member, would not sign on to something like this?” As if the explanation required more explication.  It did, but had the questioner a bit more background it would have been understood why the Turks are reticent and the White House Press Secretary more diplomatic.  Here’s what the press missed –

On June 11 ISIS (L) captured Mosul, and in the process of doing so attacked the Turkish consulate in that city, taking 79-80 hostages. [WSJ] As of September 1, 2014 the Foreign Ministry of Turkey sought to alleviate concerns about the health and well being of the hostages expressed by some of their family members and sources in the Turkish press. “Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc talked on the latest developments regarding the Turkish hostages held by ISIS militants, claiming they were alive, their location was known and that contact with them was being maintained.”  The Ministry went one step further — “The accuracy and reliability of information in respect to the source is necessary,” Bilgic said. “Since the first day our staff were taken hostage, our government has been conducting extremely sensitive work through all relevant institutions.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to translate that statement as “We are working really hard with anyone who will cooperate to insure that our people from the Mosul Consulate are where we’ve been told they are, and are being treated humanely.”  After the grisly scenes of what has happened thus far to two American citizens and one British citizen, it is no wonder the Turks are less than enthusiastic about wanting to discuss their contributions to the “war on ISIS(L).”

So, the ill-informed member of the Press Corps asked a redundant and undiplomatic question, inferring that the Turks are not enthusiastic about defeating the ISIS(L) forces – perhaps a better question would have been something like – What are the allied nations doing to assist the Turks retrieve their consulate personnel?

#2The U.S. beltway media too often characterizes elements in complicated situations in simplistic terms.  Nothing illustrates this quite so well as in the case of the Syrian opposition.  There must be good guys and bad guys, and the U.S. should team up with the good guys!  However, what do we do when the coalitions and networks aren’t so conveniently classified? The Free Syrian Army, which some think we should arm, is actually a network of about eight large battalions and many smaller independent groups which are united in their opposition to the Assad Regime. [LATimes]

Consider for a moment the complications of arming the FSA, as described by the GulfNews organization:

“…equipment was in short supply and could not possibly match what the Syrian army had, or received from Iran and Russia. Moreover, Washington demurred when Riyadh readied shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank launchers, and vetoed such transfers. The FSA’s fighting hands were thus tied allegedly because Western powers were not sure if some of these lethal weapons would fall under extremist control. In time, sophisticated American-made anti-tank missiles reached the FSA, though Al Nusra and, more recently, Isil boasted more advanced weapons. Timidity towards the FSA, ostensibly because its leaders maintained correct ties with moderate Islamist factions, translated in an entirely different outlook for Syria.”

Notice the policy of the Iranian government in this brief description, it is aligned with the Assad Regime (Alawite)  against the rebels in Syria – but aligned with the anti-ISIS(L) (Shia)  forces in Iraq.  Also, remember that the U.S. is trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry [Reuters] and actions which align with Iran’s interests in Iraq may promote this project, but those not aligned with Iran’s interests in Syria could derail the negotiating process.  In this instance it’s not so easy to shuffle groups into the Good Guys, Bad Guys categories.

#3The D.C. media are seemingly eager to critique policy without much background, especially as it pertains to the Arab states.  Witness this question from the September 12th briefing:

“One is on the Arab states.  They said that they would be prepared to do their share, and they talk about “as appropriate, joining in many aspects.”  But this language is a little amorphous.  It’s hard to get your hands around it.  What are they actually saying that they would do, besides Saudi Arabia hosting the Syrian rebels for training?  Will they provide troops, for example?”

The Saudis have a problem.  In August 2014 they donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counter terrorism agency, but they rejected a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.  Why the half in, half out posture? “Amorphous” is simply another way of saying we have a really sticky issue here and we aren’t ready to crawl out on a branch.  Ed Husain, writing for the New York Times explains:

“This half-in, half-out posture of the Saudi kingdom is a reflection of its inner paralysis in dealing with Sunni Islamist radicalism: It wants to stop violence, but will not address the Salafism that helps justify it.

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.”

While the reporter might have wanted the Press Secretary to answer for the Saudi government, or explain its position, the question would be better addressed directly to the Saudi government itself.   The issue has profound implications for the Saudi government – and has tentacles reaching back to the 1744 treaty or Holy Alliance:

“Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.” [Frontline]

Thus the Saudis have a 270 year old agreement with ultra-conservative elements in Islam, who represent perhaps 3% of the total number of Muslims world wide, and which produces an ultra-conservative government with the means and intent to spread the ultra-conservative message – to ISIS(L) and other religious fanatics.  And we wonder why the response from the Saudis is “amorphous?

Drafting this post took approximately one hour and forty minutes, during which reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, one D.C. press briefing, and an article from the Gulf News were perused.   Unfortunately, the White House press corps seems not to have taken the time to accumulate background information, or if some members did, they weren’t the ones who were called upon.  And thus we get the Parsing Game, in which sentences are analyzed for political meaning without much attention paid to the underlying policy; followed by endless speculation about the meaning of utterances without context. 

Instead of enhancing our understanding of intricate issues with a myriad of policy options, the press corps is trying to offer us the perfect news story, one with drama (preferably bloody), a hint of mystery, and the capacity for endless speculation.  Sometimes the WH Press Room might as well be empty.

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Before You See The Sunday Shows: Thoughts on Broadcast News

Television Set AntiqueEvery time there’s a rumor about replacing hosts on the Sunday morning political shows, or when the dismal ratings are released, we can easily project another gazillion tweets, posts, emails, etc. about the demise of the broadcast media and it’s lack of imagination, depth, and ‘truthiness.’  Before declaring we live in the Worst Times Ever, or that the corporate media is an accessory to the diminishment of ‘real news,’ there are a few things to consider.

Advertisers in the Wasteland

We, the viewing public, aren’t the real consumers of television broadcasting — or the newspapers for that matter.  The people who pay for the productions are the advertisers.  Always have been.  And who is paying the freight?

In 2013 AdAge reported that “Meet The Press” had about 3 million viewers, and that approximately 55% of them had annual incomes above $100,000.  Who would want to speak to that audience?

“Boeing Co., targeting an audience of military executives, is the exclusive sponsor of the show’s online content as well as its apps; it is also a major broadcast sponsor. Other advertisers include the American Petroleum Institute, Citigroup, General Electric Co. and Xerox. “It’s a gray audience and exceedingly affluent,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media. “These people are interested in politics and decision-making, and how that can impact business.” [AdAge]

A gray, affluent, audience.  Does this help explain why Meet the Press rounded up all the usual neo-conservative suspects for its discussions about the renewed violence in Iraq?  [MMFA]  When you target “an audience of military executives” what might the preferred guests want to express?  A gray, affluent, (read: Republican) audience doesn’t particularly want to watch the debunking of the various and sundry myths about Benghazi, so Meet the Press didn’t have that exercise on offer.  [MMFA]  This is an audience which wants to hear about politics, so that’s what they get — politics, not policy. They want to hear about decision making — especially people making decisions which relate to their (oil, energy, financial, banking, military weapons and supplies) businesses.

NBC has done some tinkering with the Meet the Press format, smaller segments, more interviews, but when the target audience is ‘gray and affluent’ and ‘military executives’  the network shouldn’t be surprised that it’s still running third in the 25-54 year old (people who spend money) demographic. [MediaBistro]

Progressives, liberals, independents, and others of a more centrist bent may watch the program — but they’re well advised that they’re the minority in the statistical universe of the Meet The Press audience.

Where’s the audience who is not ‘gray, affluent, and a business executive?’  Remember this chart from the Pew Research publications in 2012?

Where Get News ChartThey’re more likely to get their news from digital sources than from print or radio.

Getting news from television broadcasters? That percentage has dropped from 68% in 1991 to 55% in 2012.

It’s not that journalism is necessarily dead, or dying, but it’s increasingly digital.  In 2011 about 8.6% of newspapers were digital, a number which increased to 14.2% only a year later. By 2012, the digital readership of the New York Times was greater than its print readership.  [SMH]  And it’s not just newspapers and major networks:

“…the regular audience for cable news also has aged. In 2006 and 2008, there were only modest age differences in regular cable news viewership. But in the current survey, more than twice as many of those 65 and older as those younger than 30 say they regularly watch cable news (51% vs. 23%).” [Pew]

Rather more than tinkering with the ‘product,’ NBC, and perhaps the other Sunday Morning Shows, may want to consider this analysis from two years ago, and at the same time give some thought to another question:  In your eagerness to please a specific set of deep pocketed advertisers have you already written off efforts to connect with, and grow, a wider spectrum of audience members?

The Perils of Partisanship

Red ChannelsWe’ve seen this movie before.  The power of some advertisers can be a hazard to our public health.  There are fewer people now who remember Red Channels.  Most people have some familiarity with McCarthyism, or with the activities of House UnAmerican Affairs Committee, but the pressure on major networks to cancel programs because of the political beliefs of the participants was boosted in June 1950 by the publishing of Red Channels.

“…the process (of Black Listing)  became public in June 1950 with the publication of Red Channels, a 213-page compilation of the alleged Communist affiliations of 151 actors, writers, musicians, and other radio and television entertainers. The book, which appeared three days before the start of the Korean War, was published by American Business Consultants, an outfit established in 1947 by a trio of former FBI agents who wanted to make the public aware of the information about communism that the bureau had collected. Initially funded by Alfred Kohlberg and the Catholic Church, the group became one of the anti-Communist network’s main enterprises, offering its services in exposing and eliminating Communists to corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Red Channels was a special show business supplement to the exposes of individuals and organizations that appeared in the group’s regular newsletter, Counterattack.” [Schrecker UPenn]

The pamphlet had enough clout with advertisers and networks that as prominent a celebrity as George Burns dropped a cast member from his show in 1951 because his name appeared in the list.  [NPR]  Film and television actress Marsha Hunt was offer shows by three networks, all of whom backed out when her name appeared in the Black List. [NPR]  There is more complexity to the Case of Sam Spade. Was the famous detective, voiced by Howard Duff, taken off the air by NBC in 1950 because Duff’s name was among those in Red Channels? Or, was the main problem due to continued litigation by Warner Brothers who clutched the Maltese Falcon, and the rights thereto, with an iron grip? [Wik] [ROKradioRadio Spirits concludes that the program staggered to an end when the sponsor, Wildroot (hair product) refused to renew its support if Duff remained associated with the program.

Even a Syracuse, NY supermarket chain owner, Laurence Johnson, made an impact.

“Johnson, an owner of six supermarkets in central New York, pressured CBS to stop employing comedian Jack Gilford and any other “‘subversive'” (p. 124). With the war against the Communists in Korea heating up, Johnson sent telegrams to network sponsors, in which he wrote: “‘Why are you helping to kill our friends in Korea?'”  Small-city radio stations resisted Johnson’s strong-arm tactics, but the national networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors often capitulated.” [HNetRev]

One of the obvious lessons of the Red Channels/McCarthy Era is that pressure on commercial broadcasting networks can work to exclude both participants and their ideas from public  news and entertainment.  The more participants and perspectives are excluded the more narrow the range of the discussion.  If the advertisers prefer, as in the case of Mr. Johnson, that no views other than that which appeals to the gray, affluent, and 100% American, then how does a network hope to attract a wider audience?  If the networks have to please such advertisers, while alternately insulting, misinforming, or dismissing the views of those not aligned with them, then how do they cope with this modern incarnation of McCarthyism?

It may be physically impossible for a person to manually strangle himself, but it might just be possible for network executives to accomplish this in a corporate context.

The Financial Stakes Race

The struggles of CNN may be a case in point.

On May 1, 2014 CNN announced another round of layoffs across several divisions. [TheWrap] In January 2001, the network laid off about 10% of its workforce.  There were to be smaller news-gathering teams.  They would be emphasizing “breaking news.” [LATimes]  Neither of these announcements, 13 years apart, should come as any surprise to those who have been following the corporate career of Time Warner.  It’s not enough to merely provide the best news coverage, or even the latest — it must be done with an eye toward the old and familiar Blunt Instrument, shareholder value.

None of the networks are immune.

The restructuring of news gathering, be it streamlining, pooling, or team creation, has meant there are fewer reporters in fewer places covering fewer stories. The unintended consequences of all this paring and scraping is fewer experts, covering fewer stories, in less depth.  Little wonder opinion and speculation are winning the competition for news and context during broadcasts.

Nor does it seem as though “Creativity” is running well on the inside rail in this race.  Television can all too often be a derivative medium.  Is there a successful comedy show — then expect spin offs — not really new.  Is there a successful news magazine, a 60 Minutes for example, then expect the competitors to launch their own — not necessarily a new form of show. If it is necessary to sell commercial time, then there’s a coterminous pressure to tell the advertiser: Look how successful “Party Time in Los Angeles” is! We can replicate that with “Party Time in Pensacola!” It would be nice if all new shows, both news and entertainment, were truly new — but that would be to ignore decades of derivative programming.

We Interrupt this broadcast…

To tell you what you already know.  We have a commercial broadcast news structure which is dependent on advertising for its existence.  The dependency on advertising means that those who purchase commercial air time have a profound effect on the type of fare served to the public.  In the best of times this can produce a wide range of diversified views, in the worst it can stifle the production and the producers casting them into an ever narrowing range of acceptable perspectives.  And, given the need to ‘sell’ advertisers on the safety of their investment in commercial time, the past will always have  a heavy hand on the present.

The ‘kids’ may already have the answer to this problematic situation; as long as they have their fingers (and thumbs) clutching their mobile devices — Surfing, Googling, and Networking their way into more information than any old time newspaper could put into print.  Meanwhile, the Gray & Affluent will attend to the comfort of their convictions, secure in their recliners that they will hear from their sympathetic advertisers the message they meant to receive before they even hit the power switch.

 

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DIY: Background and Context for the Crisis of Unaccompanied Children

Central America Map 2The cable “news” coverage of the refugee crisis on our southern border is such that I’ve surfed the channels to find other fare.  I am bored with the Theater Critics — Should the President go to the border? Yes, only if one believes that all the resources required for a presidential visit should be tied up providing security and facilities — while The Problem remains unresolved and staff time and effort is at a premium.   Of course we’re all aware that television broadcasts require pictures.  Therefore, it’s no surprise at all that the cable entertainment industry is clamoring for those Photo-Ops.  Their priority is to provide ‘content’ with pictures, preferably the moving variety, and covering the process by which we attempt to cope with refugees from terrorized areas isn’t full of those Sound and Fury moments beloved by broadcasters.

I am equally bored with the ‘political ramification’ speculation.  “What will this mean for the mid-term elections? Who is to blame? How will this affect the President’s poll numbers?  At this point — Who cares?  We have thousands of families and children from Central America waiting for processing, waiting in rather dismal conditions in emergency housing.  While children are sleeping on cots covered with survival blankets, the DC press pundits are offering endless, breathless, speculation, and the interminable erection of assertions presented as fact, contentions transformed into truth, and context reduced to arguments from authority.

A person could easily come to the horrific conclusion that since politics is about all they know, the pundits and chatterati are simply speaking to the only context they comprehend — everything is political.  To say this is shallow might be comparable to offering that DC Pundit X’s knowledge of the situation in Central America, the vagaries of U.S. foreign policy toward the region in the last 30 years, and the economic complications created by NAFTA and CAFTA, is about an inch up the trunk of a ceiba tree in Guatemala.

So, they chatter. They broadcast dueling talking points. They interview each other.  They offer little more depth than the Sea of Azov.

Little wonder ‘the kids’ aren’t getting their news from television.  Little wonder more people are using Internet searches to find relevant information and contextual analysis.   There are some good resources out there, but it will take some time and effort to find them.  Tired of the shrill sycophants? The shilling talking point distributors? The Made For TV Breathless Broadcasts?  Here are some antidotes to the toxicity, vacuity, or good old fashioned banality of the media:

Recommended Reading

 A good general article from the left perspective comes from Justin Akers-Chacon writing for the San Diego Free Press, in “Central American Children Forced on a Dangerous Journey.”  The author emphasizes the U.S. support for dictatorships and the instability that has created, and takes some shots at the effects of CAFTA on the economies of Central American countries.   An article by James North, writing for the Nation, provides some background information which centers on U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

A more specific essay, focused more intensely on the current situation, is from the Guardian, in an article by Jo Tuckman, “Flee or Die.”  One of the better statistical presentations on the immediate situation comes from Tom K. Wong’s “Statistical Analysis Shows That Violence, Not Deferred Action, Is Behind the Surge of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border,” for the Center for American Progress.  Brianna Lee’s piece for the International Business Times, “Are Central American Children Refugees or Economic Migrants?” inquires if we are asking the proper questions, and looks at how the questions shape the narratives.  Scarlett Aldebot-Green argues in her article for Foreign Policy that the children are refugees and should be treated as such.  Alan Greenblatt provides a short summary of “What’s Causing The Latest Immigration Crisis,” for NPR.   If you have the patience for the download, HUNC has an executive summary of “Children on the Run,” (pdf) which puts the problem in a more regional perspective.

One of the often cited, and least often thoroughly explained elements,  is the  child trafficking law which requires the processing of children from Central American countries. The New York Times offers a summary explanation, and a bit of the current political sniping about it.  Want to get into the text of the law?  Signed as one of the last acts of the Bush Administration on December 23, 2008, it can be found at the State Department website, and going to Congress.gov will yield information on the original bill, H.R. 7311, in the 110th Congress.  If you want just the text of the law, and no Congressional bells and whistles, search for PL 110-457, and a readable text is available from the Government Printing Office.

There is nothing simple about this issue — no single piece of legislation, nor one bullet point presentation is going to provide a quick and easy answer.  For example, the current situation with unaccompanied children isn’t an enforcement issue — the people who show up at the border stations are turning themselves in.  Nor did the issue begin this month — for all the alarmist tendencies in the press; it’s been going on since last October.   Allegations that the “cause” can be distilled down to rumors offering Central Americans hope for their children have to be tempered with information about the conditions in Central American countries which might in some cases have been part of a family’s decision to send children away from home.

Further complicating the situation is that as the children are being processed individual cases present very individual sets of circumstances — as many as 58% may be eligible for refugee status.   This figure must also be tempered.  As of 2012 only 536 immigrants from Guatemala were granted asylum, 222 were categorized as “defensive asylees,” along with 191 in the same category from El Salvador. [DHS pdf] Further, the refugee ceiling for 2012 was set at 5,500 for Central American and the Caribbean. [DHS pdf]

And, Americans should use every crisis to improve the level of their geographical information, it’s usually wars that teach us where things are.   The Department of State has summary profiles of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  We have a bureau for that too, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  The State Department also compiles an annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, and editions from 2001 to 2014 are available online.

Getting beyond the basic data, the situation becomes more complicated when we add the State Department’s Travel Warning issued last April 25th concerning El Salvador, which while not dire, isn’t exactly tuned to boost El Salvador on the Bucket List of places to see:

“A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only 6 of the 31 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions.  The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime.  El Salvador’s current criminal conviction rate is five percent.  While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street-level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited.  Equipment shortages (particularly radios, vehicles, and fuel) further limit their ability to deter or respond to crimes effectively.”

El Salvador isn’t alone, on June 24, 2014 the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Honduras too.

“Since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world. The Honduran Ministry of Security recorded a homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 people in 2013, while the National Violence Observatory, an academic research institution based out of Honduras’ National Public University, reports that the 2013 murder rate was 79 murders per 100,000 people.”

and this:

“Members of the Honduran National Police have been known to engage in criminal activity, including murder and car theft. The government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras. The Honduran government is still in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions.”

And, this is putting it diplomatically?

This is by absolutely no means an exhaustive list of what can be found in online sources. However, here’s hoping that the recommended reading and links can help mitigate the wasteland of information that is on offer from the networks.  This is a start. It is only a start.

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A Thought For the Day from Edward R. Murrow

Murrow QuoteEnough said.

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