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Environmental News Aggregator September 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Everyday, I monitor literally hundreds of posts from dozens of environmental news outlets and commentators.  Instead of just using this wealth of information as fodder for the occasional blog post (which I will continue to do), I would also like to offer my services as an ersatz environmental news aggregator.  Kind of like a Drudge Report for environmental news/politics…but without the conservative slant.

To that end, I have created a Twitter account through which I plan to send out links to stories that people should know about even if I don’t have time to write a full post – just a few of the very best that day.  I will also link my posts when I do write them.

If you’re interested, you can follow this account here. I don’t yet know what sort of daily volume I will push to this account, but if anyone has preferences, I would love some feedback here.  Especially while this is as small as it is right now, I am trying to satisfy a small group of followers, so your voice will carry a lot of weight.



Democratic Energy Agenda Outmaneuvered by Hypocritical Republicans August 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In these difficult times for the mainstream media, many traditional outlets are shying away from calling out politicians for obvious contradictions.  Overzealous attempts to avoid accusations of media bias have muzzled the watchdogs that a healthy democracy requires.  In this political free-for-all, the Republican minority is dishonestly yet deftly outmaneuvering the reform agenda.  This is readily apparent in an examination of the oil spill response bill.

I actually pity Sen. Reid right now.  He has an impossible task.  Look at how this mess played out:

The oil spill presented a rare political opportunity to advance the long obstructed climate agenda.  Despite a successful bill in the House, it was clear the Senate was not ready for a similar plan.  So Reid dropped the climate initiatives and pushed an energy bill.

In order to attract even a single Republican vote, the more ambitious and indeed necessary energy solutions were stripped.  As time went on, it became difficult to even call it an “energy” bill.

Still, Republicans and their industry allies demanded that the oil spill response bill contain only provisions pertaining directly to oil spills (a short-sighted strategy that treats symptoms instead of the disease).  Without a supermajority, Reid was forced to remove all but the most uncontroversial energy provisions.

The only remaining contentious item in the bill is the oil spill liability cap.  Democrats want to make oil companies actually pay for the damage they cause.  Republicans are protecting the liability cap on behalf of smaller members of the oil industry.  This should have been a slam dunk.   So what happened?

It is no secret that the larger Democratic tent includes some oil state senators who protect Big Oil, not unlike their Republican colleagues.  One would like to believe, however, that these senators, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), want to help their party advance the minor energy reforms in this bill and prevent future spills.  Indeed, these two senators are now crafting a liability compromise to remove that roadblock.

In order to strike while the iron was still at least warm, Sen. Reid tried to push the bill through before the August recess.  So Senate Republicans shrewdly prevented Democrats from negotiating, even among themselves.

Republican staffers made it clear that if the bill were opened to amendments, they would hijack the debate and use the opportunity to file divisive, partisan amendments, purely to score political points and drag out the process.  They said their amendments would attack the broader Democratic energy agenda, including cap-and-trade and the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

This is blatant hypocrisy.  After insisting that Sen. Reid’s bill focus narrowly on oil spills, Republicans threatened to derail the oil spill response bill by injecting broader energy issues.  But did the mainstream media call them out for this political duplicity?  No.

Knowing that Republicans would surely back up their amendment threats, Reid was forced to advance the bill without accepting amendments, a process known as “filling the tree.”

Because Reid wasn’t accepting amendments, Republicans attacked Democrats for shoving through another “partisan” bill without accepting any minority input – a lie, because many of the bill’s provisions were actually coauthored by Republicans!  Additionally, the necessary parliamentary maneuver angered centrist Democrats*.

Democrats lost this round decisively.  Republicans hit the bill from all sides.  To me, it called to mind an image of Sen. Reid as a little boy, trapped in a circle of Republican bullies shoving him back and forth between them.

With the compromise in the works, this bill may pass after the recess.  But without media referees, the reform agenda will continue to struggle.

*To be fair, there was concern that more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), might also take advantage of the amendment opportunity to limit EPA authority on greenhouse gases.

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.

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.

“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.

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.


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.