Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscars and the financial crisis

The documentary "Inside Job", a recounting of the financial crisis of 2008, last night won the Oscar for Best Documentary. I have no comment on whether or not it was well-deserved - I assume it was - or on the movie itself, which I haven't seen. But I would like to note the reaction the victory produced in director Charles Ferguson.

Ferguson started his acceptance speech by noting that "three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong." Well, he can make the case they committed crimes and deserved to go to jail, if he thinks there's legal reasons for it. But that's not really the point, because of course he's not a lawyer or law professor or even a scholar of finance. He's a movie director who successfully produced a winning film about the subject. It may be highly educational, but that doesn't mean Hollywood has any particular political expertise - all of their protests to the contrary. Politics isn't entertainment - it's dead serious.

The best news service you never heard of

Brought to you courtesy of the CIA.

Great coverage of the Libyan revolution

Thanks, New York Times!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A strange scandal

Well, here's a scandal that's.... unusual, shall we say. David Wu, a Democrat representing Oregon in Congress, seems to have done some strange things during his campaign for re-election in 2010. He "borrowed" prescription painkillers, got so angry at staff members that 7 of them resigned, and sent around a photo of him dressed like a tiger to his supporters. He has been seeking mental health treatment, but claims "there are personal things, even for a congressman." Do you think the media shouldn't be reporting on this story?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Helen Thomas strikes again!

Helen Thomas, once considered the dean of the White House Press corps, is back at it again. For those of you who may have missed it, she was forced to resign her position after this video appeared last year:

Now she's claiming that Jews had no reason to leave Europe after the war, "because they weren't being persecuted anymore." Right, so I guess the pogroms in Poland that my grandparents barely escaped didn't actually happen? And the Germans didn't continue slaughtering Jews for as long as they could? Unbelievable.

She went off the deep end during George W. Bush's presidency. It's hard to imagine anyone ever took her seriously.

Rolling Stone as watchdog?

Some of the best watchdog reporting is coming from unsual places. Rolling Stone magazine, for instance. Check out this story about a U.S. general who used psy-ops on visiting Senators to try and convince them to increase funding and troop levels.

UPDATE: Maybe not.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The importance of New York Times v. Sullivan

Yesterday in class we discussed the case New York Times v. Sullivan and the change it effected in American libel law. Some people were disturbed by how far the case extended, giving the press almost complete freedom to publish anything they want.

Well, this story in today's paper shows why the case is so important. Can you imagine someone in the U.S. suing just because their book got a bad review?

Monday, February 21, 2011

The "horse race"

This is a great example of what I've been talking about today: a story in Politico that reports on a story in the Washington Post that discusses some reasons why Mike Huckabee might not run again for president. Or maybe he will. That's some hard-hitting reporting!

A post about nothing

OK, about something: just go and take a look. My favorites is Einstein trying to explain relativity to President Harding.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Journalists in war zones

The disturbing news about the assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan raises the question of how far journalists should go to cover a story. The presence of people like her gave audiences a viewpoint unattainable without their presence; but is it worth the risks? Kim Barker's editorial in today's New Yorl Times argues that despite the dangers hearing female voices is especially important from dangerous places.

Meanwhile, it seems that Al-Jazeera, despite the kudos it's been receiving for how it covered the Egyptian revolution, refuses to discuss the assault on Logan. I guess cultural taboos are still infiltrating their coverage.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Palin and the "mainstream media"

Conservatives have been complaining for a long time that the so-called "mainstream media", i.e. everything non-Internet, is biased against them. Now it turns out that a potential Republican presidential candidate you may have heard of is thinking of running an entire campaign centered around the assumption that avoiding traditional media outlets is the key to victory.

According to Ben Smith, yesterday she said: ""How else does the public know me though, than through the press?" she asked, complaining that the press "reports things that have really misrepresented my record."

"I look at those poll numbers and I say if I’m going to do this then obviously I have to get out there," she said. "I can’t rely on a liberal leaning press to do that for you. That’s why social media is going to be so important.""

If at first you don't succeed, try to avoid the scrutiny altogether.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Iraq and the media as watchdog (UPDATED)

This story in today's New York Times highlights the problem of the media acting as a watchdog. Back in 2002 and 2003, when the debate over whether or not to invade Iraq was heating up, one of the single strongest pieces of evidence against Saddam Hussein was the testimony of an Iraqi defector going by the code name of "Curveball." Curveball told the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Hussein was continuing to stockpile weapons of mass destruction, specifically mobile bioweapons labs.

Today, Curveball, aka Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, admitted that he made up the entire story in order to convince western governments to overthrow Hussein. Along with other Iraqi exiles, al-Janabi's fake testimony led to an invasion under false pretenses (no significant amounts of WMD's were ever discovered).

But here's the big question: did the media fail the public in the run-up to the war? Few media outlets at the time questioned whether the WMD story was true, and few questioned the wisdom of an invasion. Reporters seemingly went along with a herd mentality, accepting whatever information the Bush administration leaked to them without seriously investigating those claims. The media is supposedly a "watchdog" - looking out for the public's interests. Here, they failed miserably in that job.

UPDATE: Donald Rumsfeld admits that without the WMD claim the U.S. "probably" wouldn't have gone to war.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Going public" revised

In his well-known book Going Public, political scientist Samuel Kernell argues that modern presidents have the ability to move legislation by appealing to the people directly rather than negotiating with members of Congress. This strategy of "going public" has its limitations, as he acknowledges, but it can also be a powerful strategy for forcing Congress to move along with the tides of public opinion.

A story today on ABCNews points out that President Obama is using social media tools, such as Youtube, Flickr, and Facebook to sidestep traditional media outlets and speak directly to the public. This seems to be a new sort of "going public" that not only ignores Congress but ignores the media, too. How effective this strategy will be remains to be seen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Agenda-setting and the Obama budget

We'll soon be discussing the agenda-setting functions of the media - how the stories the media cover and the ways in which they choose to report on them can set the agenda for politicians and the public at large. An interesting way to start thinking about this is to look at two different stories out today on President Obama's new budget proposal.

The New York Times story starts by highlighting the shift in Obama's priorities, from stimulating the economy through spending projects to the new emphasis on budget cutting and deficit reduction. Jackie Calmes writes, "The budget reflects Mr. Obama’s cut-and-invest agenda: It creates winners and big losers as he proposes to slash spending in some domestic programs to both reduce deficits and make room for increases in education, infrastructure, clean energy, innovation and research to promote long-term economic growth and global competitiveness." So based on this story, we would assume that the issues at stake are where to cut and how much.

But look at how the Washington Post reports on the same event: "President Obama drew fire Sunday from congressional Republicans and independent budget experts for his reluctance to advance a plan that would tackle the nation's biggest budget problems in the spending blueprint he will submit to Congress on Monday." Lori Montgomery has already pressed you into a corner by arguing that Obama hasn't faced up to the big issues at stake. Her version begins by biasing you against his plan - before you have read one single fact about it.

The power of the media here is demonstrated by their ability to set the terms of debate. In this case, the Times and the Post are providing their readers two completely different versions of this event, and each set of readers will therefore start their day with different beliefs about what the president is trying to do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tweet your way to a better president!

OK, so this story doesn't go quite that far... but it feels like that's the direction we're heading in. Pretty soon presidents will have to make sure all of their important objectives can be explained in 140 characters or less.

This dumbing-down of our political discourse is one of the primary themes of the recent book by Elvin Lim, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency. Lim demonstrates that presidents have consistently been downgrading the intellectual level of their rhetoric since the time of Woodrow Wilson. The implications of this for our civic discourse are disturbing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The press and the First Amendment

Here's something we'll be discussing soon: how far does the First Amendment's protection of a free press go?

Monday, February 7, 2011

In which Glenn Beck and Bill Kristol recreate the past

This story exposes a deeper fissure within present-day American conservatism. It's more than Beck saying controversial things (though it's certainly that, too). Beck has now become the best exemplar of what historian Richard Hofstadter termed "the paranoid style."

Along with Sarah Palin, Beck can lead his followers to believe the most outlandish theories - perhaps Bill Ayers really is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood and bin-Laden and the Iranian theocracy! Like the John Birch society before it, this conspiracy-minded way of thinking probably comes with an expiration date, because of the harm it does to mainstream conservatives who are trying to fashion a rational alternative to President Obama.

Kristol and Lowry, representing the William F. Buckley, Jr., wing of the movement, are doing their level best to save conservatism from itself.

Friday, February 4, 2011

FOXNews and Biblical translation

I guess FOXNews didn't get the memo that there are several dozen translations of the Bible (including one in Klingon!).

The New York Times makes me say, huh?

I don't understand the point of this article at all. The title of it, "For Tucson Survivors, Health Care Cost is Concern," makes it sound like the survivors of the shooting attack are facing large medical bills that they can't pay. But the third paragraph says, "But despite the fears of some victims, it does not appear that the shooting will ruin anyone financially. Interviews with victims as well as advocates assisting them suggest that most, if not all, of the 13 people wounded that morning had health insurance, and health care providers say they expect insurance companies to cover the bulk of the medical costs."

And: "On top of that, the fact that federal charges have been filed against Jared L. Loughner in the shootings means that state victim-compensation money will be supplemented by federal help. Private charitable efforts to aid victims have also been created."

So I guess the headline was just a way to scare people?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Being a governor is hard work...

... but that doesn't mean you have to make it harder. Rick Scott, Florida's new governor, has decided that open warfare with the state's press corps will help him. How, I don't know. Since we all know that the media is made up of people, why tick off the people who are the medium through which your message will be carried to the public?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Al-Jazeera in America; or, who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Since this story was in the business section of the New York Times, I suppose it means people know that Al-Jazeera is, you know, a business. People are worried that it has a bias - which of course it does - and that all it gives them is propaganda.

To which I say: where have you been? It's not shocking that media outlets have a bias. Figure out what the bias is and try to filter it out. If the station is providing a useful service, in this case coverage that no one else has, watch it and think about what you're watching. Be a discerning consumer and decide for yourself what is and is not true.