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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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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.