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There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

Sunlight: The 2nd Best Disinfectant February 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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“Transparency” is tossed around Washington like the solution to all our problems.  But what good is a window if nobody is looking through it?  Citizens today are inundated by so much information that we must rely on others to sort and interpret the news that is actually relevant to us.  And in our politicized country, most of us receive governmental news from outlets at least slightly skewed towards our preexisting views.

I’m a liberal.  When a Republican says something outrageous, I know about it immediately thanks to Media Matters and the rest of the liberal blogosphere.  But when a Democrat makes an equivalent mistake, I may not even find out.  The big slips make national news, covered by the “balanced” mainstream media, but the more mundane mistruths fly under the radar.  The little lies about a particular bill.  The deliberately distorted talking points that obstruct well-intentioned legislation.  The average person does not hear about the everyday dishonesty that has crippled our democracy today.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  So we have multiple C-SPAN channels, the Freedom Of Information Act and more political reporting than would seem possible.  There is so much information available in the name of transparency that no single person could ever hope to monitor politics casually; that’s a full-time job.

How many ordinary people actually watch C-SPAN?  Virtually none*.  The cameras are almost always on, but nobody watches directly.  We all rely on dedicated observers to tell us if something of note happened in Congress.  So because we get our political news pre-spun and, more importantly, pre-filtered, few people get the full picture.

As a result, I would argue that sunlight is not the best disinfectant.  The blinding brightness of all this transparency has actually forced us to shield our eyes and turn away.  Too much of a good thing has had the exact opposite effect as intended.  It is true that sunlight stops the big schemes, like Watergate.  Yet more often, sunlight just provides fodder for the politically-hyped fake scandals, like “Climate-gate.”

There isn't really any useful imagery for this post, so here's a pretty picture of sunlight.

I’m not advocating for increased secrecy, I would merely like to point out that we have just witnessed the demonstration of a much more powerful force in the name of good governance: public viewership.

Despite its shortcomings, yesterday’s Healthcare Summit hosted by President Obama was something different.  Yes, it initially appeared to be an interlocking presentation of talking points, but 3-4 hours in, something interesting began to happen.  Unexpected areas of agreement appeared.  Sensible minority proposals met with majority support.  Progress was taking place.

In our toxic political climate, it is worth asking, “what was different?”  Why can’t such dialogue and rational policy debate take place in Congress, the body created for that express purpose?  Having the President there to babysit likely helped, but much more important was the fact that the country was watching.

Events that people watch in person are much less susceptible to spin because we form our own opinions on the spot. That is supposed to be the driving force of a free country: the will of the people, not the mantra of the shepherd with the largest, mindless flock.

I have no doubt that either side could strategically excerpt yesterday’s proceedings to make their opponents look foolish, and that almost certainly happened.  But when the public tunes in directly, politicians are once again restrained by a sense of accountability – the same accountability that objective media coverage, which is often necessarily “unbalanced,” used to provide.

The Healthcare Summit was not a turning point in our country.  The politics have not changed, even for healthcare, and the public is not about to become involved in everyday politics (nor, frankly, should they have to be).  But this did remind us, for a few hours, that productive political dialogue can occur – if we, the people, demand it of our elected representatives.

*Digging a little deeper, it appears that C-SPAN does actually have significant viewership.  That’s news to me, but I think my main point stands.

Balancing Act April 14, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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In February, Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a piece entitled “Dark Green Doomsayers.”  This column, joined by two others over the last three months, was littered with blatant mistruths and distortions about climate science.  For example, Will claimed that a study said global sea ice levels hadn’t changed in 30 years when in reality it documented a loss of 520,000 square miles.  Either painfully ignorant or deliberately deceitful, Will’s work has rightfully incited intense criticism of the Post.

Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, and global levels have definitely decreased.  Will claimed that no change had occurred while sea cover the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma disappeared.  Credit: NSIDC
Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, and global levels have definitely decreased. Will claimed that no change had occurred while sea cover the combined areas of Texas, California, and Oklahoma disappeared.    Credit: NSIDC

The paper has taken halfhearted steps to redeem itself.  The Post’s ombudsman responded, but really just defended the paper and its editors.  Then the Post ran two powerful letters to the editor debunking Will’s columns (one of them written by the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), whose work Will also misused)…only to allow Will to misrepresent WMO data again in his third column!

Newspapers have a responsibility to provide accurate information to their readers.  Permitting such thoroughly disproven material to be published, even in an opinion piece, undermines the journalistic integrity of the entire paper.  And clearly others at the Post agree.

Because the editorial staff so clearly shirked their duty, serious journalists at the Post have stepped in.  A week ago, Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan finally chastised Will – from the Post’s news section.  Their article on sea ice decline included a paragraph that reads: “The new evidence…contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will.”

This is unprecedented.  The task of fact-checking or retroactively correcting an errant columnist should fall to the editors or ombudsman, not to writers on page 3. And this incident skirts a journalistic issue of great importance to climate coverage in general: opinions in news.

News articles are supposed to contain facts, not opinion.  In this case, Eilperin and Sheridan were justified because Will has been so verifiably and even quantifiably wrong in his recent columns that the existence of his errors is fact.  But subtly opinionated news has plagued global warming coverage for years.

At the beginning of the year, I set out to examine the interaction between the media and the uninformed American public here on this blog.  And as I wrap up this endeavor, I am also putting the finishing touches on an honors thesis investigating bias in the print coverage of climate change.  To that end, I conducted a media analysis examining news stories (omitting editorial content) that mentioned global warming and how they portrayed the state of climate science.

I focused on measuring the “bias of balance,” which occurs when reporters artificially equalize two unequally supported, competing viewpoints (like climate scientists versus skeptics); essentially overzealous attempts at objectivity.  But the most interesting results appeared when I separated my data by source.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are among the nation’s leading newspapers.  And because writers for all three ostensibly strive for the same impartiality and cover the same set of climate-related events, one would think that their climate news coverage should be quite similar.

In my data sample, coverage in the NYT and WP was nearly identical in tone.  The WSJ was a whole different story.
In my data sample, coverage in the NYT and WP was nearly identical in tone. The WSJ was a whole different story.

And in the New York Times and Washington Post, it is.  In the Wall Street Journal, however, articles are fully twice as likely to emphasize caution and voluntary programs to address climate change (rather than immediate, mandatory regulation).  They’re also five times as likely to present with doubt the concretely established existence of anthropogenic (human-caused) warming.  That’s just in news stories, not opinion columns or letters.  This suggests that editorial voices can infiltrate into supposedly objective news articles to significantly influence coverage.

But even the most accurate climate coverage may be lost on many people.  A recent Gallup survey showed that a record high 41% of Americans now think that news stories exaggerate the seriousness of climate change (3x more Republicans than Democrats).  Yet the lessons of my thesis apply to threats that people actually comprehend and respect too.

According to Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, distinguished journalists now leading the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, “the primary purpose of the media is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”  And if that is true, today’s media are largely failing.

With pundits driving coverage and politicians’ sound-bites replacing expert analysis, real journalism is getting drowned out; we should be hearing from Joe the Economist, not Joe the Plumber.  And the fact that you can turn on different “news” stations and see completely different views of the world is a shameful indictment of our overly politicized country.

He may be thinking hard, but whatever comes out of his mouth will not better our country in any way.
He may be thinking hard, but whatever comes out of his mouth will not better our country in any way.

The media have collectively settled on a misguided notion of balance and “fairness” as their single-minded priority for journalism.  But what this country really needs right now is an emphasis on accuracy; viewers should not get to decide what facts are real.  There is far too much at stake for such foolishness.

Opinion journalism has its place, and that’s not on the cover or under a breaking news headline.  It’s at the back of the paper behind even the comics, opposite the editorial page where commentaries belong.

A version of this post ran in the Chronicle at Duke University.

Unfortunate Evolution February 24, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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On the cover of its November 2004 issue, National Geographic posed the question “Was Darwin wrong?”  But when you flipped to the article inside, the answer was printed in big, bold font: NO.  Even the main evolution page on Wikipedia doesn’t mention any controversy, and for all of the free encyclopedia’s faults, that’s saying something.  Yet just in time for Darwin’s 200th birthday, Gallup released a new poll showing that a scant 39 percent of Americans “believe in the theory of evolution.


That’s appalling.  This shouldn’t need explaining, but there is no substantive controversy about evolution.  There are still questions to be answered about some of its mechanisms and intricacies, but within the volumes of predictive, verifiable data we have gathered, there is not a single piece of evidence that refutes the theory.  And for clarification, that’s scientific theory, rigorously tested and tantamount to fact, like the theories of gravity and plate tectonics.  This differs from the colloquial “theory” you might use to guess how you made it home from the bar without remembering.  To paraphrase physicist Murray Peshkin, saying evolution is “only a theory” is like saying it’s “only science.”

Yet just last month, Dr. Don McLeroy (a dentist) led conservatives on the Texas Board of Education in a renewed crusade to wedge religion into the classroom at the expense of basic education.  This review of the state’s science standards will face a final vote next month, but similar battles have already been fought in at least ten states over the past decade, often buoyed by alarming levels of public support.  In Kansas, the most infamous case, teaching evolution was actually banned for two years.  Thank goodness we aren’t trying to pass any evolution legislation.

We are, however, expecting legislation on important science-based issues like climate change, and the outlook there is just as bleak.  In my first column this semester, I wrote about a May 2008 poll showing a partisan divide among Americans who understand that humans contribute to climate change.  A similar Rasmussen poll recently found that this rift has widened: now just 21 percent of Republicans acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, compared to 59 percent of Democrats.  As Stephen Colbert once said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias” (video in this previous post).  So it is understandable that Republicans have not exactly championed our nation’s academic pursuits.  But an anti-scientific sentiment can have dangerous consequences, especially if it goes unchecked.

Watching the major congressional battles since this summer (especially on offshore drilling and climate change) I have noticed a trend: the national media, particularly on TV, have largely abandoned their watchdog role and have been covering these debates without substantive fact-checking as “he said/she said” stories.  Facts and fabrications have been placed on equal footing to avoid “taking a side.” The election was covered the same way.  But this is a terrible journalistic paradigm.

Balance is nice, but isn’t accuracy a more important journalistic value?  Calling out a politician for lying is not partisan, it’s the media’s responsibility.  Obviously it would be best if people just told the truth, but that’s not happening.  And the stimulus coverage was more of the same.

Media Matters analyzed twelve cable news programs’ coverage of the stimulus debate. Of the 460 guests interviewed, only 25 of them – that’s 5 percentwere actually economists.  No wonder the potential impacts of the bill were so vulnerable to political spin.  And  Think Progress found that savvy Republicans were only too happy to exploit this opportunity, appearing on cable news programs twice as frequently as their Democratic counterparts.  But one network took coverage to a new low.

The following may shock you, so brace yourself: Fox News has a Republican bias.  And last week, they were as tactful as a skirted starlet stepping from a limo.  On Feb. 10th, anchor Jon Scott put up a graphic showing the costs of the stimulus package that was copied verbatim from a press release by the Senate Republicans Communication Center, same damning typo and all.  “Fair and balanced” my Democratic donkey.  Kudos again to Media Matters for “exposing” such a blatant attempt to disseminate partisan propaganda as reporting.  But at least Fox had the courage to apologize – for just the typo (video thanks to Howard Kurtz).

Um, yeah...not so much.

Um, yeah...not so much.

Our country is being steered by a misinformed public and polarized politicians unrestrained by accountability.  Science itself is under attack.  These are complex problems with varied causes.  Yet they have one thing in common: objective media coverage could combat them all.

But that’s not going to happen.  Believe it or not, journalism is evolving.  With the expansion to the internet and growing popularity of blogs, niche news is on the rise. People seem to want their news told from their perspective, and media outlets will provide what consumers demand; Fox News, the Huffington Post, even Jon Stewart are thriving.  And with newspapers experiencing serious financial difficulties, the days of the objective reporter could actually be numbered.  If you think bipartisanship is a myth today, try to imagine it at the bottom of this slippery slope (a logical fallacy, I know, but the point stands).

I wish I could end this column with a solution, but I honestly don’t see one.  It would be comforting to believe that some omnipotent, not explicitly Christian deity was guiding this media transformation, but judging from its current trajectory, this looks like anything but an Intelligent Design.

A version of the post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

If you can’t beat them, silence them September 10, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Senator Obama warned us that this election wouldn’t be a landslide, but once the party primaries sifted out, I confess that I did not believe him.  The Republican Party has been steeped in scandal, and it seemed like not a week passed without news stories on GOP corruption.  How could our country objectively look at the positions, candidates, and last 8 years and not elect Barack?  I realize this logic is naively flawed, but it has now been strangely validated – this week I discovered that the McCain campaign reached the same conclusion…and crafted a devious plan to compensate for it.

Anyone who tuned in the to Republican National Convention last week (or follows the news in any way) is aware of the recent escalation of “media bashing.”  Traditionally, the media have served as objective watchdogs of governmental power, reporting abuses to the electorate as they are uncovered.  With the consolidation of power under this administration and a GOP audaciously albeit creatively circumventing numerous laws, it is no surprise that Republicans have found themselves receiving increasing amounts of negative coverage.  As more scandals were uncovered, the national tone of reporting became increasingly anti-Republican.  This is not evidence of media bias, it is a result of unprecedented levels of illegality by GOP lawmakers and appointees.  The media calls out democrats when they misbehave as well, but that has been rare under this administration because there is only so much mischief a weak, powerless party can achieve.

In researching and following developments in environmental policy, I have been appalled by the blatant lies told by industry front groups and even brazen GOP lawmakers in their fanatical quests to sacrifice our country on behalf of the energy lobbies that fund their campaigns.  Of those politicians, my personal favorite is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who served as the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee for 5 years (and still serves as minority leader today) despite being the most outspoken climate denier in our government’s history.  This specimen deserves and shall receive his own post in the future.

But I digress.  The point here is that when politicians lie, accurate reporting will necessitate the refutation of the lie in question.  This is not partisan coverage, it’s the presentation of fact.  Since in recent years the Republican Party has chosen to wage a PR campaign of self-preservation rather than tell the public inconvenient truths (sorry), it has found itself increasingly at odds with the media.  Stephen Colbert summed up this mentality perfectly during his presentation at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 (which also happens to the best (read: funniest) speech I have ever seen – watch the first half, you’ll thank me). 

After mentioning Bush’s low poll numbers, Stephen complains: “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

So what does this have to do with the campaign?  Everything.  As Republican lies have become more outrageous (keep looking for my post on offshore drilling, I will get to it soon), the media cannot help but favor Democrats even while bending backwards over themselves to be “fair and balanced.”  And as investigative journalism increasingly gives way to the sensationalist coverage of ‘he-said, she-said’ campaign sound bites, it has become even easier to paint the media as biased.  Add Sarah Palin to the mix and I once again find myself begrudgingly blogging about the brilliance of McCain’s strategists.

Palin has two major strengths in this assault on the media.  First, because she was relatively unknown and so thoroughly unvetted, the media were completely scrambling to figure out who she was when her name was announced.  Her virtual anonymity left them asking unusual questions and even chasing down rumors.  This discredited and marginalized even the most trusted names in news.  McCain spokespeople expertly spun the situation, grouping mainstream outlets with the tabloids in their outraged denunciations so that they could level disgraceful yet not technically untruthful charges against the media as a whole.  Second, Palin is a woman.  Although the Daily Show demonstrated the humor of juxtaposing the Republican denials of sexism while Hillary was running with those same peoples’ now furious denunciations of sexist media coverage on Palin, I fear this opportunistic hypocrisy will be lost on much of the public. 

And this matters. The McCain campaign knows they could never win this election by the merits of their platform.  That is why they insist this election is not about the issues.  So in a deliberate stroke, they have masterfully silenced the media, effectively removing a crucial voice from the political debate.  Campaigns will always point out the flaws of their opponents, but even truthful charges from an opposing campaign will rarely pierce the dogma of a loyal supporter; we rely on the media to research and report what is true and what is false, particularly regarding negative campaigning.  Without the media to serve that crucial role of independent fact-checker, we are left simply with a shouting match in place of a debate. 

The Obama campaign has been accurately (if quietly) pointing out McCain’s lies and contradictions, but the elitist charge seems to have stuck and people are suspicious of a campaign’s statements about a challenger.  Now that the McCain-Palin campaign has successfully discredited the only other mouthpiece for their shortcomings, for many, the only remaining trusted narrative about that campaign will be its own – and they have nothing but nice things to say about themselves.