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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?

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Public Ignorance Polls August 23, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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News consumers are subjected to a daily deluge of polling data. Unfortunately, like much of today’s media coverage, this information is not leaving us better informed.

A conventional issue-specific opinion poll offers a choice between two valid responses.  For example, “Do you approve of the death penalty?”  This is an appropriate poll.  There is no right or wrong answer; there are substantive arguments to support both positions, and the poll attempts to gauge public support for a controversial policy that is directly relevant to our nation’s governance.

A regrettable distinction can be made between a prototypical public opinion poll such as that and the frivolous politically-charged polls we see more and more today.  I’m referring to polls such as, “Is Obama a Muslim?”

This question has a wrong answer.  The responses are not equally valid.  Such polls do not measure public opinion, they measure public ignorance.  Worse, they measure the successful pervasion of partisan misinformation.

These polls are everywhere, and the results are always shameful:

What angers me most about these polls is that the phrase “believe in” really means “understand that.”  These aren’t questions of choice.  There is only one right answer.  It’s indisputable.

The respondents in these three polls didn’t express their opinions, they betrayed their ignorance.  And that ignorance is not the innocent absence of education, it’s the sinister product of deliberate misinformation spread by well-funded special interests (for the polls above, evangelicals, big polluters and conservatives respectively…forgive the fuzzy boundaries between them).

Now, I am not saying that ignorance should be prosecuted like some Orwellian thoughtcrime.  To me, all these polls really show is that the media are failing. True, propagandists and politicians breathe life into these stories, but journalists are the ones who perpetuate this nonsense.

In the new era of “fairness and balance,” the media think they have to report every claim a partisan commentator makes without remarking on its truthfulness – because that would be “unbalanced.”  Think of birtherism, Obama’s supposed socialism, death panels…all these manufactured scandals started as baseless comments reported by the media without question merely because a partisan spoke them.  Apparently transcribing a press release or interview is now where a journalist’s obligation ends: We accuse, you decide.

Yet opposition does not confer equivalency.  Just because there are two sides to a story does not mean they’re necessarily equal.  For a journalist to automatically report them as such is misleading.

When a Wisconsin senate candidate says climate science is wrong and gives a scientifically disproven alternative “explanation,” it’s not partisan to say he’s lying – it’s accurate.  In fact, to merely parrot those proven lies isn’t balance, it’s active disinformation.

Real public opinion polls have obvious political value for politicians and advocates etc.  But what do public ignorance polls contribute to society?  Nothing.  They just validate the misconceptions they seek to quantify by presenting them on equal footing with actual facts.  This is another manifestation of the “bias of balance” in modern media coverage.

With one notable exception, today’s major media outlets are not trying to disseminate falsehoods, but they are succeeding nonetheless.  As long as we allow balance to trump accuracy in journalism, this type of ignorance will not only persist but continue to spread.

For Sale: The Fourth Estate April 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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In a classroom, if you present an argument, it is expected to be logically sound.  If it’s not, you can expect to be called out for that.  As a [relatively] recent college graduate, it has been disheartening to discover that those expectations do not extend to important places off-campus.  Like our government.

I now live in Washington, DC, the front-line of a polarized America.  And from the floor of the Senate to the op-ed page of the Washington Post, I am disgusted by the deliberate mistruths and toxicity that have polluted the national dialogue. Name your issue, they’re there.

I have taken to watching Fox News at the gym; say what you will about Glenn Beck, but I have yet to find anything that keeps me as fired up – provided I can overcome the urge to assure passersby that I am not a Tea Partier.  But if you actually watch the programs, it becomes clear that these talk shows are a cleverly wielded and dangerously effective political tool.

Listening makes me want to run harder. Looking makes me want to keep running.

It is true that MSNBC runs similarly structured programming and is guilty of some of the same partisan tactics.  Both “news” organizations should clean up their acts.  But MSNBC does not operate with Fox’s defiant shamelessness, and ideological opposition does not automatically confer equivalency.

Many people I’ve talked to argue that Fox News is irrelevant because it yells into its own echo chamber and thus does not affect moderate, independent or undecided voters anyways.  But even if I were to concede that premise, in the media’s current state, I have to disagree with the conclusion.

Last year, I lamented Fox’s apparent victory as the mainstream media embraced “balance” as their primary value, unseating objective accuracy.  Consider a linear spectrum from liberal to conservative.  As long as balance trumps accuracy, whenever conservatives dive to the right, no matter how outrageous the claim, media outlets must move at least half as far in that direction to stay in the center.  That taints everybody’s news.

Instead of trying to perfectly straddle that mobile center, media outlets have increasingly drawn upon punditry; pair each comment from the left with a comment from the right and you have ostensibly achieved balance – at the expense of the truth.  Case-in-point: CNN’s recent hiring of the despicable, foul-mouthed conservative blogger Erick Erickson.

If the news is just a soapbox for politicos and outlets are afraid to call out disprovable lies, the system has collapsed.

When the now infamous Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted President Obama, he didn’t yell, “I have statistical data that casts your theory into doubt!”  A baseless claim, “you lie!” now suffices as a political riposte.  And the solution to this behavior is not an equally extreme liberal demagogue like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL).  Just tell the truth!

The nastiness of our political discourse is unprecedented, but not inexplicable.  Our two-party system has had this all-out combative capability since Jefferson and Adams.  It has just been held in check by the media…until now.

With its financial survival threatened, American journalism has sold out and compromised its ideals.  Accusations of media partisanship have begun to stick partly because they’ve begun to be true.  And with its objectivity in question, one of our government’s most important safeguards has failed: the loss of accountability is to blame for our current political climate.

Politicians used to be restrained by unbiased fact-checking and investigative journalism.  Trusted, objective news coverage once held extreme rhetoric in check.  Today, American news outlets are either perversely partisan or utterly defanged.  And when the referees are biased or silent, the game quickly turns violent.

Knowing what we’ve lost is the first step towards replacing it.  But I’m not sure how to take the second.  Journalism didn’t fall from grace because it grew tired of protecting of our democracy, it succumbed to increasing financial pressure and failed to adapt.

There is money to be made in opinion journalism because we, the public, are demanding it.  So we must instead demand that news sources provide news, not spin or the political talking points du jour.  If that means stop watching MSNBC and Fox News, we must do that too – I once managed to motivate myself without staring at Glenn Beck’s curvaceous bod, I can do it again.

Fox News created the tea party movement. That isn't news reporting, it's news-making. That is not what media outlets do.

Even if we cannot sway the national media, we are not powerless to turn back this ugly tide.  We can’t pick the refs, but we can pick the players.

Believe it or not, it’s already another election year.  Many primaries are just next month, and in November many of us will be able to elect a new U.S. Senator and Representative.

So let me be the first this year to say, “please vote.”   As an official DC resident, I essentially no longer can.  It’s one of the many things I miss that I was able to do in college.

A version of this post appeared in The Chronicle at Duke University.

“Real” Diversity February 19, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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1 comment so far

Update:

My good friends at NextGenGOP are back!  They didn’t quite get the comparison I made below so I tried to help them understand in the comment section beneath their post.

Original Post:

This just in from a new study on civic literacy: poorly designed studies prove nothing.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute1 (ISI) recently released a poorly designed study hailed by conservatives as further proof of liberal brainwashing in American colleges and universities.  The study was bad, but Fox and Friends’ coverage was atrocious. Honestly, watch this.  90 seconds in, Tucker Carlson explains that it’s actually an “open question” whether it’s worth pursuing a college degree.

With student debt and liberal brainwashing on the one hand, Tucker admits that one can make a case for college because it offers the benefits of: “socialization, broadening of horizons, new experiences etc.”  I’m glad Tucker enjoyed (or more likely just witnessed) a sexual awakening in college, but that completely misses the point of higher education.  As does a civic literacy test.

It’d be nice if college graduates understood our government better, but unless you’re majoring in Political Science, that’s not what you’re being taught.  Using civic literacy to evaluate colleges is like judging high schools based on how well their students drive.  In other words, it’s stupid.

But the rest of the results are even more ridiculous.  The test went on to ask respondents about social issues.  Multivariate regression analyses between responses to social questions and the highest level of education attained showed a statistically significant correlation for the answers to five of their questions:

  1. Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry. (Agree)
  2. Public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in school. (Disagree)
  3. Abortion should be available at any stage and for any reason. (Agree)
  4. With hard work and perseverance, anyone can succeed in America. (Disagree)
  5. The Bible is the word of god.  (Disagree)

Interesting correlation.  But it appeared under the headline: “earning a bachelor’s degree influences opinions on five propositions.”

Um, WRONG.  All this study shows is a significant CORRELATION between education and these viewpoints.  I’m glad somebody took a statistics course, but if they’d paid closer attention or perhaps took some science classes, they would recall that correlation does not equal causation.  Even then, unless you track individual students during their college careers and watch their opinions change, this entire premise is hopelessly flawed.  All these data show is that better educated people tend to be less bigoted.  Who knew?  Also, Fox summed up Question 4 to as: “degrees make Americans less likely to support American work ethic.” Go to hell, Fox.

This study, and especially the Fox coverage, rattled off numbers of civically ignorant college students without presenting any kind of statistical context: ok, it’s bad that 30% of college students can’t name the three branches of our government, but how does that compare to the rest of the population?  I refuse to believe that “real” (uneducated) Americans score better on this test than do college graduates2.  Without that data, though, this study is literally inconsequential, and to use that single data point about college students to rail against our education system is a crime against logic.

The only reason Republicans remain a political force is because they are uncannily good at reframing Democrats’ strengths as weaknesses.  Quite possibly because their base is evidently uneducated and doesn’t notice the huge logical leaps that elicit “facepalms” among the rest of us (see picture below).

This is how this study makes me feel. But I’m trying to find the words.

When Republicans are losing the game and can’t hope to win, they just change the rules.  When ridiculous proposals and shameless hypocrisy earned them bad news coverage, they successfully demonized the “liberal media” and re-leveled the playing field.  When the science of climate change became conclusive, they instead attacked the scientists to make people question their credibility.  And now that educated citizens have rejected Republicanism in its low, corporate, self-serving form, conservatives have cast higher education as an actual negative.  Republicans today don’t campaign on their credentials, they run on their values.  Sen. Scott Brown’s greatest qualification for office was his truck.

So, what’s Tucker Carlson’s prescription to fix our “broken” education system?  “Diversity!  Real diversity!  Diversity of opinion.”  This is exactly what I’m talking about.  Having alienated (sorry) virtually all our country’s racial minorities, Republicans sought their own type of diversity because it’s a popular buzzword that can’t be spun.  But their homogenous base leaves them few diverse options. Last year, I had a young conservative accuse me of shunning the “diversity of intellect” that Republicans embrace (read the post if you want, but the relevant discussion is in the comments section).  WTF?

Racial and cultural diversity are desirable because they offer different histories and perspectives to our pluralist society.  These are equivalents, level on a horizontal axis if you will, none greater or worse than the others.  When applied to intellect, “diversity” doesn’t really work the same way.  Intellects vary on a vertical axis, where more is clearly better than less.  We celebrate racial diversity; one does not celebrate a slow child merely for being different.  We offer him extra resources to help him overcome his challenges.   That process of achieving against the odds is laudable, but wallowing in inferiority is not something to be applauded.  Especially when there are ways to train your mind.

The whole point of education is to better yourself and realize your full potential.  That conservatives would shun such endeavors is deplorable.  Republicans should be alarmed that an enhanced understanding of the world increases one’s likelihood to reject their platform.  Instead, they have decided to keep the minds of their supporters unrefined and fearful.  It may be easier to manipulate people that way, but that’s no way to lead a country.


1 For those of you wondering what the ISI is and how could they publish such nonsense, I looked into them a bit.  The group is self-proclaimed “non-partisan,” but in the paragraph before that claim, it identifies its goals as advancing within America’s youth “an appreciation of our nation’s founding principles – limited government, individual liberty, private property, a free market economy” etc.  Aka conservatism.  Of its 18 board members, 6 are from conservative think tanks, 2 are from conservative media outlets, 2 are from major investment banks, 1 served in President Jesus’s cabinet…sorry, I meant Reagan, 1 is from NAM (the National Association of Manufacturers, the biggest industrial lobby in the country)…you get the idea.

2 ISI did ultimately decide to test a “representative sample” of American adults for some of these questions to get a rudimentary baseline that might help contexualize their data.  Lo and behold, college graduates scored better than high school graduates, but by a small enough margin that ISI still finds fault with colleges.  Did surveyed college students take civics courses?  Is the purpose of a college education to explain civics?  These questions are irrelevant to the ISI and Fox.

Look at ISI’s lead-in on their own study (emphasis added):

Although 72% of Americans agree that colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching students America’s history, key texts, and institutions, earning a bachelor’s degree has no significant impact on whether a person believes America’s Founding documents remain relevant.”

What kind of logic is that???  Just because the public feels something that has in no way been communicated or asked of colleges, collegiate failing of that metric is supposed to be damning?  Come on.  Even if colleges did “prepare leaders” by teaching them about the founders etc., there’s no guarantee that students would reach the conclusion that the founding documents remain relevant.  So this statement would still be absurd.  Unless you support indoctrinating our youth, the accusation with which this study is being used to inflame the right.

Snowmageddon – The End of Global Warming? February 11, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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It’s cold here in Washington, DC.  By now, everybody knows we’ve had quite a bit of snow over the last week.  Conservative media outlets (and conservative pundits given a platform by mainstream outlets in the name of “balance”) offer these powerful blizzards as proof that global warming is a hoax.  In reality, however, all that these storms prove is that one cannot win an argument with a climate denier.

The term “climate change” was adopted because it is more accurate than “global warming.”  Even as the average global temperature rises, there will be some regions that grow cooler.  Yet taken as a whole, our planet is incontrovertibly warming.  According to NASA, the 2000s were the warmest decade on record, and 2009 tied as the second warmest year.  In fact, despite the chill here, last month (Jan. 2010) was 0.3 degrees warmer than the long term average.  Moreover, the recent storms don’t even counter the theory of climate change – they are predicted by it!

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies report of surface temperatures.

As a disclaimer, it should be noted that individual weather events (short instances not to be confused with the much longer trends of climate) neither prove nor disprove climatic trends.  That being said, it is established fact that warmer air can hold more moisture.  So it makes sense that we would see increased precipitation fall on a warming planet.  In summer, that means more rainfall.  In winter, that warmer air with its increased moisture cools and causes “Sno-verkill” (the most recent, annoying successor to “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”).

The Daily Show has a particularly good (and hilarious) segment demonstrating how ridiculous this denier logic is. One of my favorites to date.

The term “climate change” is also preferable because it helps to counter the annual lies that winter somehow disproves a demonstrable warming of our planet.  Regardless of the global temperature, the nature of our planet’s orbit and axial tilt in relation to the sun will always cause seasons of relative warmth and cold.  You knew this.  But unfortunately many people don’t.  And the media are allowing climate deniers to wield events that are literally explained by climate change as evidence of its failure.  This news story casts doubt upon the reality of climate change in the minds of the public, who are continually told by conservatives that we cannot act because scientists aren’t even sure it’s happening.

Climate change is not certain; it’s a theory.  But it’s a theory the same way that gravity is a theory: the best available explanation for a phenomenon, based on volumes of verifiable evidence, and tantamount to fact as long as there is no contradictory data or a better explanation.  The IPCC, over 2000 of the world’s leading climate scientists from around the world, has concluded with “at least 90% certainty” that greenhouse gases released by fossil fuels and other human activities are warming our planet.  That is more than enough certainty to act upon.

If an airline mechanic told you that the plane you were about to board had at least a 90% chance of crashing, would you get on that flight?  Definitely not.  Now let’s make the analogy a little more accurate: you are already on that plane, with that same at least 90% chance of crashing.  Don’t you think it’s about time we found a safe way to land?

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.

darwin

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.