Sunday, July 31, 2005

Deconstruction in the Wild

I'm gonna take a quick break from the propaganda coverage to focus on a spot of critical theory that tends to confuse many people, myself included. Deconstruction is a critical method usually relegated to recondite side rooms down the halls of the world's foremost literary/academic institutions. In essence (and this is an extemely simplified distillation), its goal is to show the inherent instability of linguistic concepts and undermine the Aristotelian conception of metaphysics that postulates an ultimate external reality to which our knowledge aspires. In other words, one of its ends is to (quoted from the link above) "show how something represented as primary, complete & originary is derived, composite, and/or an effect of something else."

The following exchange illustrates the concept beautifully, even though neither party appears conscious of it. This brief New York Times op-ed piece looks at a recent Penn State study that genetically screened 90 students to determine the ethnic makeup of their ancestry. Here's an excerpt:
Ostensibly "black" subjects, for example, found that as much as half of their genetic material came from Europe, with some coming from Asia as well. One "white" student learned that 14 percent of his DNA came from Africa - and 6 percent from East Asia. The student told The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, earlier this year: "When I got my results I was like, there's no way they were mine. I thought it was just an example of what the test was supposed to look like. Then I was like, Oh my God, that's me."

Prof. Samuel Richards, who teaches a course in race and ethnic relations at Penn State, uses the test results to shake students out of rigid and received notions about the biological basis of identity. By showing students that they aren't what they think they are, he shows them that race and ethnicity are more fluid and complex than most of us think. The goal is to make students less prejudiced and more open to a deeper discussion of humanity. If the genetic testing fad pushes things in this direction, it will have served an important purpose in a world that too often thinks of racial labels as absolute - and the last word when it comes to human identity.

This study represents, roughly, a deconstruction of "race" that reveals it as contingent upon physical characteristics rather than irreducibly denotative. As an inherently unstable concept, it is unsuitable for use in serious scientific inquiry, since any conclusions based on it would be unreliable. This fact seems obvious until we read something like the following, taken from a reaction to the study by a DailyKos contributor:
What amazes me about this, as I was amazed by the remarks of Lawrence Summers, is that even if the racist nirvana could be achieved: that intelligence could even be reduced to a measurable concept, that it could be proven that there are genetic differences between the races and genders that lead to different intelligence aptitudes, etc. . . [emphasis mine]
What the contributor misses is the fact that the present research, along with the empirical consensus from anthropology and sociology, completely undercuts the rationale for using what we call "race" as a salient biological characteristic for any reason. If race has very little to do with genetics, as this and many other studies indicate, searching for significant differences in intelligence ratings between the races would be as fruitless as looking for (non-tautological) common public opinions across all democracies. Despite acknowledging earlier that "race is not an easily described concept genetically," the contributor nevertheless later conflates race and genes--the exact distinction the study strove to illuminate. A stronger understanding of deconstructive principles might have helped him avoid his error.

Someone call Eric Alterman . . .

. . . 'cause I just found conclusive proof that all (okay, ten or twelve) of the nation's newspapers slant right. Why did the newspapers that censored or redacted a recent pair of Doonesbury strips containing the phrase "turd blossom" not apply the same standard to conservative strip Prickly City's usage of "poo"? You make the call.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Praxywatch: Oxfam vs. Farm Subsidies

Ah, another day, another benevolent propaganda campaign . . . today's Praxywatch pits non-profit do-gooders Oxfam against government subsidies for American farms. For those who don't know how farm subsidies work, here's a grossly oversimplified rundown: the rise of international competition in the world farm products market has made it more difficult for American farmers to turn a profit. The powerful agricultural lobby has for years fought successfully to maintain a steady flow of subsidies (government checks, basically) to farmers who produce certain goods. These subsidies encourage farmers from the US and other rich nations with similar policies to overproduce and sell their crops at artificially low prices. This in turn creates a paradoxical situation in which floods of cheap agricultural products undersell third-world farmers in their own local economies and force them out of the market, wreaking havoc upon already fragile societies. The whole arrangement manages to be both starkly immoral and a colossal waste of money, making it one of the few economic issues on which the libertarian right and the progressive left almost completely agree.

But I digress. On to the orthopraxy:

In case you can't tell, that's REM frontman and well-known progressive Michael Stipe in the process of being doused in milk. He and other left-of-center celebrities have offered their services free of charge to Oxfam for the cause of putting an end to farm subsidies. The splash of cheap product (in this case, dairy) serves as a visual metaphor for the way farm goods from rich countries invade the markets of poor countries. That's what it says to me, anyway, but I already know how farm subsidies work and why they suck: I have no idea what the average Joe or Jane would take away from the imagery in this ad.

The Times article says that these ads are slated to run in fall issues of "national magazines," though it doesn't specify which. Farm subsidies as an issue is really tough to encapsulate in a single advertisement, and ad agency Benenson Janson definitely deserves points for effort, but I ultimately have to give this campaign low marks for efficacy. I hope I'm wrong and that the ads help laypeople understand the issue better, but I just don't see it happening. I guess it's possible that the sheer oddness of the images might spur some readers to scan the fine print and visit the web sites listed for more info, but it seems more likely that most people will simply shrug and move on to the next article instead. C- (sorry dudes; better luck next time).

Big agriculture is a formidable, entrenched force on Capitol Hill, so it's gonna take some damn shrewd PR to help sway public opinion back toward common sense. What we need is a strong viral sound bite, something that would work as well as "death tax" did for the anti-estate tax movement, to infect the language of news articles and op-ed columns and reframe the debate to our advantage. Even "Milk should grow bones, not crush lives" is too long and abstruse--it should be something short, sweet, and serrated like "fat-cat farmers" or "agricultural welfare" that's simple enough to be transmitted unaltered from person to media report to person. Thus the war of ideas rages on.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Unrelated

One might be forgiven for passing over an NYT "Most Emailed" piece sporting a headline like "All Ears for Tom Cruise, All Eyes on Brad Pitt," even with Nicholas Kristof's name attached. That's exactly what I did yesterday, so it wasn't until I later saw the column listed on Memeorandum that I discovered it's actually about the news media's pitifully minimal coverage of the crisis in Darfur. Kristof spends most of the column excoriating his colleagues for paying more attention to Messrs. Cruise and Pitt than to the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world today." Now this is obviously an issue of concern, but I was hoping for a more cogent analysis that explained the problem and extrapolated future developments. So it looks like I'll have to be the guy to provide it, perhaps with a little assistance from my friend Shanto Iyengar, chair of the Comm department at my alma mater.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I've neither met Prof. Iyengar nor taken any of his classes (though I did attend a guest lecture he gave for a class I was taking). But I have read two of his books, News that Matters and Is Anyone Responsible?, so I feel more than qualified to apply his theories to the current matter at hand. (I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that the more recent of the two books was published 14 years ago).

Anyway . . . Iyengar hypothesized that the news media (specifically TV news) exerts an agenda-setting effect that alters its audience's perceptions of issue relevance. The more often the networks broadcast stories covering a particular topic, the more significance the public imputes to that topic. But I don't think that Iyengar's deterministic account of media influence can adequately explain the media's stingy treatment of Darfur. Even the most committed celebrity voyeur would be hard-pressed to claim that the Michael Jackson trial was more significant, in an absolute sense, than what's going on in western Sudan. The agenda-setting hypothesis still holds true in that the media sets the agenda for Red American watercooler bull sessions, but it's not shifting anyone's sense of priority in this case.

The obvious explanation as to why Cruise, Jacko and Pitt are getting more airtime than Darfur involves turning the blunt end of the causal arrow toward the audience. Attractive white women in distress = higher ratings compared to depressing reports of African genocide and displacement. I was disappointed but not suprised that Kristof failed to raise this point; he explicitly subscribes to a romantic, Fourth-Estatish view of the press as a political advocacy collective whose primary purpose is to tell the people what they need to hear rather than what they'd like. But Americans have a lot more news choices today than when Kristof started writing for the Times in 1984, and money drives the game to a much greater extent than it did back then.

So what's gonna happen, then? Short of significant American (military) involvement in the Darfur conflict, the news media will probably continue to shortchange this deplorable situation. Kristof saves a few harsh words for the government, but he doesn't acknowledge that the fact that most Americans care only about their own means that international coverage by domestic media will predominantly cover those issues in which we play a major role (witness Iraq, the tsunami, North Korea, etc). The world's inherent ugliness fosters a need for mediated self-esteem reinforcement and escapism, and that's by and large what the networks and papers deliver. By the time news consumers reach adulthood it's long past too late to cultivate an interest in the outside world; conditioning a responsible citizenry will take concerted investments in education from the cradle up.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Doesn't Have Quite the Same Ring To It . . .

The New York Times reports that the Bush administration is abandoning the slogan "[global] War on Terror" in favor of the considerably more cumbersome "global struggle against violent extremism." The former, despite its undeniable durability, has been widely criticized for the way it oversimplifies the multifaceted international effort to intercept and prosecute political extremists. UC Berkeley linguistics prof George Lakoff articulates his objections to the phrase thusly:
There are two reasons [why progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror"]. Let's start with "terror." Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.

Next, "war." How many terrorists are there — hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.
Judging from this passage, it looks like Lakoff should be happy about this new semantic development. But for the rest of us, the question remains: will it make any difference whatsoever? My first guess would be no, simply because the article specifically indicates that the shift is strictly phraseological. Then again, the following quote makes it sound like the administration may think otherwise:
Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Mr. Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As a PR implement, the new slogan may be aimed at mentally conditioning the American public for a long-term ideological engagement with hostile forces on the scale of the Cold War. Perhaps it's an effort to discourage associations with the ill-fated Wars on Poverty and Drugs, the targets of which continue to resist defeat. It's also possible that by emphasizing the narrow methodology that defines the conflict, the phrase might ring more harmoniously in the collective ears of some of the populations that have found themselves under increased scrutiny since 9/11.

Or maybe the administration should spend more time formulating ways to prosecute a more effective war against terrorists and less time fine-tuning its public image with calculated language.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

I Just Got Back From A Local DSM "Party"

Chapel Hill's was held at a local Unitarian Universalist church, a little out-of-the-way parish to which I got lost on the way. I didn't quite know what to expect aside from the DVD on Rep. John Conyers' hearing on the memo, but it ended up being pretty cool. The Conyers hearing featured, among others, former CIA agent Ray McGovern; ambassador Joseph Wilson (who unfortunately pronounces "nuclear" the same way Bush does); John Bonifaz, a co-founder of; Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in Iraq; and a host of Democratic reps including Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Charles Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Most of the arguments and points the raised would have been familiar to anyone who's been following the DSM case, but it was stirring to see and hear its front-line advocates plead their case so emphatically.

After we (there were about 40 or 50 present) finished watching the DVD, it was time for discussion. Near as I could tell, the group consisted mainly of parishioners of the progressive/pacificist/Kucinich stripe, and the median age was probably in the mid- to late-40s. I was the sole African-American attendee, and I noticed only two people that looked close to my age (I'm 24). But it was a good little talk; I even spoke up myself on several occasions. People seemed generally amenable to my contention that we as progressives and liberals need to get serious about proselytizing, even though talking to conservatives and the politically apathetic can be like pulling teeth sometimes. But as I emphasized there, we're in the minority right now--so the onus is on us to show people why we're right and the right is wrong.

So overall, I'm glad I went. A couple people asked for my contact info, so I guess this blog might actually gain a few readers . . . imagine that. (Caveat emptor, UUs: I have no idea what I'm talking about.) I wish I had more opportunities to discuss politics with knowledgeable individuals, but I don't know about any left-leaning groups around here that have regular meetings. Also, I was disappointed that so few young people turned out. I was kinda hoping there'd be some eligible liberal ladies in the house, but there was only that one girl and I didn't feel like hitting on her because she didn't speak up at all. I like 'em lively, you know. If anyone knows of any other happenin' progressive groups or events in this area, I'd appreciate a heads-up in the comments.

Update: Seems my brother knows the girl I saw there and got to her first, so it's just as well that I kept my mouth shut after all.

Gotta Remember This One

Ran across a really apt quote last night cited in the essay "Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Healing of Social Wounds" by Richard Bernstein, a philosophy professor at the New School of Social Research. It's originally from a book entitled We Hold These Truths by noted liberal Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray and concerns the relevance of civil discourse. Since I imagine some might scoff at me for caring about something so supposedly trivial, I thought it'd be good to show that I'm not the only one who thinks it's important.
Barbarism . . . threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominanted by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other's argument only through the screen of their own categories . . . When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialogue.
Not to play the alarmist, but I've often wondered how badly the national discourse can deteriorate before people stop merely slandering and insulting each other and start getting violent. One of the things I like best about this country is that no matter how much we disagree with our political opponents, we generally don't take up arms against them unless provoked. And I keep harping on the significance of maintaining honest inter-ideological dialogue precisely because I'd really like that state of affairs to continue for as long as possible.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Praxywatch: ACLU vs. the Patriot Act

I'm starting up a new regular feature here on Orthopraxy called "Praxywatch" in which I plan on critically analyzing individual pieces of propaganda I run across. First on the chopping block is this little number from the ACLU that waxes paranoid about the Patriot Act (make sure you don't have Flash blocked; link doesn't work):

Oh shit, the government's gonna get all up in my bank account and hospital records and learn about that one time I huffed nitrous with Steve in the parking lot of Lollapalooza '93 Topeka in my 85 Dodge pickup . . . right? That looks like the implication. The ad points to the ACLU's anti-Patriot mini-site, which explains in further detail why we should be up in arms about this misguided piece of legislation. The front page warns us that it enables the feds to, among other transgressions, "COLLECT INFORMATION ABOUT WHAT YOU READ, WHAT YOU BUY, YOUR HOTEL VISITS AND YOUR MEDICAL HISTORY (Sec. 215)" (their caps). In the Talking Points section, the Act is compared to the Japanese internment during WWII and McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunts. This page proceeds to portray the law as inimical to freedom, with a subtext that there's some shadowy Big Brother out there just waiting to get his hands on your personal info.

But propaganda isn't necessarily false; indeed, in this country, it's rare to find a political ad that isn't strictly fact-based. Spinning technically-true information to one's advantage is the American propagandist's best tactic. Given this, how do the ACLU's claims stack up against unspun reality? It's tough to say. We don't have many specifics on how the Patriot Act has been applied, although our president assures us that law enforcement officials now rely on it as an essential tool on the domestic front of the War on Terror. So the ACLU's right on the substance when it asserts that the Act "give[s] the White House a lot more power at the expense of Congress and the courts and undermine[s] the structural checks and balances intended to safeguard our liberty," especially since Bush is calling on Congress for a wholesale renewal with no talk of potential revision.

The site talks a good deal about specific implications of the law without citing more than isolated fragments of key provisions. The ACLU's most alarming claims concern Section 215 (mentioned above), which probably inspired the Flash ad. But will the Patriot Act really allow the government to root through the reams of data that are out there in various databases about each of us and if so, will it use that power against normal citizens like us? We can't say much about the latter, but as for the former, let's go to tape:
`(a)(1) The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. (emphasis mine)
Okay, that does look pretty scary. But then again, maybe it is essential for maintaining national security; the overwhelming Congressional majorities that originally approved it in 2001 seemed to think so. So what it comes down to is this: Should you trust the government to apply this provision fairly and solely against credible security threats? The answer is left up to the reader, albeit with a healthy hortatory shove toward "No."

I give this propaganda campaign a B+ for sticking to the issues, appealing transparently to American values, and using a minimum of disinformation. The main suggestion I'd have for the site is to place a link to the full text of the Patriot Act prominently on the front page and make it clear that only certain provisions require repeal or modification.

Update: The House has just voted to extend key provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215. A similar measure is currently under review in the Senate.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

An Expert's Finely Articulated Take

NYU J-school chair Jay Rosen's latest blog post examines the Bush administration's anti-empirical tendencies and animosity toward the press. Here's a key pair of grafs:
No more honest brokers; claims take the place of facts. Disguised by the culture war’s ranting about media bias, these very things are happening all around us today. Limits on what liberties could be taken with the factual record without triggering a political penalty are being overcome. Joseph Wilson interfered with this, forcing the White House to pay a penalty: the so-called sixteen words in the State of the Union speech that had to be withdrawn after his op-ed. So he had to pay. And that’s how rollback, freedom over fact, culture war, and the naming of Valerie Plame connect to one another.

I should add that rollback intersects with trends in journalism that, as Tom Rosenstiel notes, are promoting a “journalism of assertion” (cheap, easy, safe) over the discipline of verification (expensive, hard, and certain to spur more attacks as the culture war wears on.)
It's pretty long, but mostly gold. Read it all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 4): Info-Enclaves

This'll probably be the final installment in this series, unless I feel like writing another, of course. In previous posts I've made reference to a recent ideological balkanization that has begun to manifest itself on the political landscapes of both the web and Washington. Is it real, or am I just seeing what I want to see? And if it is real, should we be worried about it?

David Weinberger of Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet and Society thinks not. He argues against the "echo chamber" theory in a Salon piece that ran shortly after Howard Dean's defeat in the Iowa caucuses last year. Weinberger's thesis seems to be that (1) people need places where they can collect their thoughts without dissent on the fundamental issues and (2) the real echo chambers are the news media and Bush himself. He certainly doesn't have a problem with the mutual exclusivity of the blogosphere's partisan provinces, as he makes abundantly clear here:
. . . we humans -- echo chamber participants or echo chamber castigators -- rarely engage in deep, meaningful and truly open conversation with people who fundamentally disagree with us. I have never debated a neo-Nazi, and if I did, I wouldn't do so with an open mind: No way is that son of a bitch going to convince me that he's right. No apologies. Being grounded in some beliefs is a condition for having any beliefs. And that has nothing to do with echo chambers.
A refusal to consider seriously the opposing argument is perfectly well justified when faced with such a dangerously illogical opponent as a neo-Nazi. But what of the implacable Democrat, or libertarian, or Marxist, or evangelical Christian, who looks at her opponents the same way Weinberger looks at his neo-Nazi? Are they as justified in dismissing my evidence and viewpoints out of hand? I mean, that's certainly their privilege, but is it good dialectic practice? Is it good for the nation?

Weinberger obviously has a lot of faith in the Internet as a uniquely empowering medium, so it shouldn't be surprising that he gets defensive when critics assert that it works the same way as other, less democratic media. He's absolutely right that the average person has more power on the Net than in any of the other major electronic media. But he too blithely dismisses the possibility that closed information enclaves may decrease their inhabitants' capacity for critical thought. Weinberger adduces the fact that blog and discussion site participants do not dwell exclusively within these enclaves as evidence that they enjoy a balanced media diet, but that's just opinion. Here's another interpretation: individuals who have constructed their informational worlds mostly from sources that overwhelmingly reflect their preexisting viewpoints may find that their critical faculties fail them in the face of convincing arguments & evidence from the other side.

Psychology teaches us that facts don't stand much of a chance against deeply-held beliefs, cf. the literature on stereotypes, cognitive dissonance, and group identification. Thus it's probable that to the extent that information enclaves guard against challenges to opinions, they will inhibit their denizens' ability to evaluate their opponents' arguments critically and fairly. The political implications of this theory are ominous. It suggests that ideologically sheltered populations should exhibit a disturbing insensitivity to their own team's misdeeds and downplay or even undermine positive developments on the other side. These people may get so caught up in combative ingroup/outgroup dynamics that they miss genuine opportunities to improve national policy for everyone.

As Weinberger says, the news media is an echo chamber whose masters care only for profit. And I'm not pining for the old days, but at least when we all watched the same three newscasts and read the same major dailies, there wasn't so much division over the facts themselves. Nowadays the Internet makes it easier than ever for people to believe what they want to believe. But lack of discretion in our informational choices may at some point drive the electorate to endorse policies that are atrocious on the merits for the sheer sake of contrarian indulgence. Some would argue this has already happened.

Monday, July 18, 2005


Turns out there's a blog on Blogger simply called "Orthoprax." It appears to cover issues of Jewish spirituality, philosophy, and the origins of the universe. Weighty stuff.

Also, thanks for not adding a "y" onto the end of your shit, dude.

Bad EPA. Bad!

Dan Drezner highlights an NYT article detailing a public relations plan by the EPA's R&D department to, among other things, pay PR firms to place "good stories" about it in scholarly publications. Donald Kennedy, former head of the Food & Drug Administration and current editor of Science magazine, rightly calls the idea "appalling." The issue here is the same as applies to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's video news releases that were formatted to look like news reports: public relations artifices should always be marked clearly as such and only appear in appropriate media. It should go without saying that scholarly publications are intended for scientific reporting and should be kept free of government propaganda. The EPA should stick to unambiguous advertising and leave the empirical work to serious researchers who don't have hidden political agendas.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 3): From Different Worlds

Via Kevin Drum, an encouraging experiment: the Washington Post Magazine flew two partisan bloggers, one liberal and one conservative, to DC for a day of tourism and polite debate. As one might expect, the article reveals them to differ in the facts they choose to emphasize (but they at least appear to acknowledge the validity of each other's evidence) as well as the lines of causality they see. The assumptions from which they proceed are obviously worlds apart, and they're both dyed-in-the-wool, so immediately the question arose in my mind: is there any point to inter-ideological conversation at all?

Many political junkies would say there's not, but not these two. One of the only points on which Barbara O'Brien and Betsy Newmark agree is the importance of high school debate teams. Of course, the bare fact that they both assented to the Post's request indicates that neither puts much stock in partisan insularity. The conversation stayed away for the most part from snark and mean-spirited jibes, hewing closely to the relevant issues at hand. And while many of their disputes are philosophical ("I've seen how poorly the government runs things" vs. "the Bushies lie, and we're screwed"), they don't neglect to back up their arguments with evidence (though the article wasn't as detailed as I would have liked in documenting this).

O'Brien and Newmark share many of the same political goals, including a better health care system, a successful government-administered retirement security plan, and the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. These shared goals are reason enough for honest, reasoned conversation between proponents of different strategies for achieving them. But what we tend to see all too often on the right and left sides of the blogosphere is the "echo chamber" effect, a process of concentration toward ideological extremes in the absence of significant dissent. In psychology this phenomenon is known as 'groupthink', and its often disastrous effects on group decisions are well-documented. Serious debate between true opponents helps reduce groupthink; given that this is true, so why is there so little of it on the Web these days?

Two of the most significant obstacles to honest debate are (1) the fact that many people simply don't enjoying reading foreign opinions, and (2) that collisions of opposing viewpoints on the Web too frequently turn nasty. The former is just something that people need to grow out of, but the latter is a less tractable and more widespread problem. Without impartial moderators to rein them in, inflammatory "trolls" can quickly turn a relatively polite debate into a partisan food-fight with heckles, slander, insults, and other childish behavior. Those who were formerly content to play by the rules begin to respond in kind, because they don't take kindly to being insulted or just can't help themselves or some other emotional excuse. At the end of the day, everyone leaves exasperated by their opponents' lack of reason and thus strongly (but unjustifiably) reinforced in their partisan identity.

It's possible that the ugly tone that characterizes much of the right/left conversation over the Web is a consequence of the Web's impersonality as a medium. Whether or not this is the case, I think that Barbara and Betsy set an example for all reasonable liberals and conservatives who are interested in troll-free discussion. Partisan sites such as DailyKos and have succeeded in keeping themselves free of trolls, but without dissent, they're little more than echo chambers themselves. A site committed to true debate between all sides would need a bipartisan team of honest moderators that would assiduously root out inflammatory commentary and leave the discussion areas safe for substantive talk. Maybe this is all a pipe dream and there's no audience for such a site. I know it'd be at the top of my bookmark list.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Krugman's down with the O

Check it out: Paul takes a stand against mendacity in today's NYT that's very similar to Part 2. But if you check the posting dates, I beat him to press . . .

AM (part 2, addendum): Government By Flattery

Last night I brought up the concept of "epistemological relativism," which I defined as an ideologically-driven pattern of selective attention to only those facts that support one's case. To stem any confusion between this concept and a normal disagreement with full consideration of all relevant information, a few detailed examples are in order.

(1) Citing established but inapplicable facts when the relevant evidence is inconvenient.
On Sept. 7, meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David, Bush told reporters: "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA -- that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

The IAEA did issue a report in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were denied access to Iraq for the final time, but the report made no such assertion. It declared: "Based on all credible information to date, the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material." The report said Iraq had been six to 24 months away from nuclear capability before the 1991 Gulf War.
Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2002

(2) Directing intelligence departments to find information that supports one's goals rather than to search for the truth.
SEPTEMBER 2001 – WHITE HOUSE CREATES OFFICE TO CIRCUMVENT INTEL AGENCIES: The Pentagon creates the Office of Special Plans "in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true-that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States…The rising influence of the Office of Special Plans was accompanied by a decline in the influence of the C.I.A. and the D.I.A. bringing about a crucial change of direction in the American intelligence community." The office, hand-picked by the Administration, specifically "cherry-picked intelligence that supported its pre-existing position and ignoring all the rest" while officials deliberately "bypassed the government's customary procedures for vetting intelligence." [Sources: New Yorker, 5/12/03; Atlantic Monthly, 1/04; New Yorker, 10/20/03]

Center for American Progress, January 28, 2004

On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq, the National Security Council staff put out a call for new intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs.
Washington Post, May 22, 2005

(3) Bullying, marginalizing, or firing subordinates for disagreeing with the party line.
Senators questioned Carl W. Ford Jr., former chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, about allegations that Bolton tried to have analyst Christian Westermann reassigned because the analyst did not agree with the undersecretary's views on Cuba.

Bolton had planned to say in a May 2002 speech to the Heritage Foundation that Cuba had a secret bioweapons program, but Westermann would not approve the language used until it reflected more ambiguous intelligence assessments.


Ford told the panel he later had a heated discussion with Bolton about the matter.

"I left that meeting with the perception that I had been asked for the first time to fire an intelligence analyst for what he had said and done," Ford recalled., April 12, 2005

Notice that there's no discussion, no weighing of contrary evidence followed by an informed decision--just directives to deliver only "helpful" evidence, "creative" interpretations of the facts, and removal of dissenters. This is not government by reason; it's government by flattery.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 2): Just The Facts

I'm gonna kick Part 2 off with another invocation, this time from the late noted senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY): "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Yes, yes, of course, Senator Moynihan. We all live in the same world, acknowledge the same sources of authority, and proceed according to the same assumptions. Further, the evidence drives us all to the same conclusions, and that's why we all agree all the time.

The point of view Moynihan espouses above has largely fallen out of favor in Washington over the past decade or so, and in its place a fractious epistemological relativism has blossomed. What I mean is that politicians have abandoned the commonly held factual landscape that used to guide bipartisan efforts in favor of sectarian "information enclaves" that are mutually incommensurable. I'm a fairly young guy, so any reminiscing I do about "the good old days" should be taken with a grain of salt, but what I've read on the subject suggests that past political eras saw much greater agreement on the basic facts of the issues at hand. And regardless of how things worked in the 20th century, we need more common ground to move forward as a nation.

I'm not just criticizing spin. I'm talking about disputes over the fundamental assumptions that determine legislative exigencies. Examples include the debate over whether global warming exists and if so, whether human activity contributes to it; the dogged insistence against all available information that Iraq is going well; the idea that Social Security is "in crisis" and needs immediate remediation; and of course, Saddam's vast arsenal of WMDs. Well, okay, I've gotta grant that some of that is spin; statements that a situation is going "well" or that an action was "justified" aren't really subject to objective evaluation. And all politicians spin to greater or lesser degrees. But too many of the current administration's opinions fly in the face of the preponderance of the facts, which tells me that they're at best being very selective about how they choose to weight various breeds of evidence.

Underlying this epistemological discrimination is an oppressive political philosophy which holds that the party in power alone decides which facts are relevant and which aren't. Now dominant political parties have always set the agenda in democracies, but they usually feel some amount of responsibility to adapt to the facts as they exist. What I'm seeing more and more in the executive and legislative branches is not so much outright mendacity as a sort of insensitivity to emerging evidence and a disturbing overconfidence in the power of ideology to reshape reality.

But ideology is particular to perspective, and perspective is relative. Adherents of this philosophy, therefore, believe that we all are, actually, entitled to our own facts, and that the facts dear to those in power are the most relevant to current political exigencies. In other words, who's "right" in an absolute sense matters far less than who's in power. I believe that such a view has dire consequences for democracy, some of which I'll discuss in part 3.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 1): Whatever It Takes

In the classic 80s corporate drama Wall Street, Michael Douglas's character summarized the core of libertarian philosophy in three simple words: "Greed is good." Strange as it may sound to our ears, the capitalist wings of the right insist the credo explicitly captures natural laws that have guided human behavior since we descended from the apes. He who acts in his own self-interest without regard to traditional ethics is rewarded by both nature and society; altruism is optional at best and counterproductive at worst. A recent economics study profiled in a CNN news report (which I can't locate on the web, unfortunately) offered quantitative evidence that most of the promotions and raises go to the ruthless and manipulative, while the nice guys and girls tend to underperform in comparison. Such are the unalterable rules of business, our Randian friends assert, and society as a whole profits when those rules are fettered as little as possible.

In the world of media and political communication, doing whatever it takes to win means a willingness to "play hard and fast with the truth," euphemistically speaking. Harvard's Harry Frankfurt labeled the products of this predilection "bullshit". Like most strongarm tactics, bullshit's incomparable benefits in the cutthroat world of politics come at the expense of credibility (should the indifference to truth ever be exposed) and moral debasement (damn, can't even type that with a straight face). One would be forgiven for believing that anyone with too much of an affinity for "the whole truth" wouldn't get very far in politics.

But what's the alternative for the news-consuming public, then? If "the whole truth" is too unpleasant, what takes its place? The answer, it seems, is overarching principle, leading to the old adage that sufficiently important ends can justify nearly any means. For example, a politician's constituents might give him considerable leeway in the type of rhetorical tactics they allow him to use in pursuit of his goals, on the rationalization that the goal (i.e. winning) is what's important, not how you get there. Ethical exceptions like these imply two traits among the citizens that endorse them: (1) a blind trust that their political representatives act in their interest, and (2) a tendency to presume that because the other side doesn't agree ideologically, they must be wrong factually.

But these aren't admirable traits in a democratic electorate, and that fact is one of the reasons why tactics matter. Willingness on the part of politicians to lie, cheat and conceal in the ostensible pursuit of noble goals only works as far as their interests coincide with those of the people they represent. But consider that a difference of power creates a difference of interest. As the driving force behind one's political career shifts from democratic representation to the procurement and retention of dominance, the needs of the represented inevitably defer to those of special interests and wealthy benefactors. Underhanded tactics that might have been originally employed in the service of "righteousness" can all too easily be adapted to more sinister ends. The same can't be said of honesty: when people habitually tell the truth, you might not always like what they have to say, but you know they're not likely to sell you out. Which isn't to say that their speeches and writings shouldn't be vetted for factual adherence whenever possible, but when the facts can't be immediately verified, a history of honesty can serve as a basis for the benefit of the doubt.

Trust is important in a representative democracy, but critical analysis is even more so. We must insist that our political representatives tell the truth on demand regardless of their ideological orientation. I have no comment as to whether greed and related vices are good for business, but the people of this country deserve better than 'benevolent' mendacity. Remember, the only reason they get away with it is because we let them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

An Attack By Any Other Name . . .

Chris Bertram of the academic blog Crooked Timber highlights a peculiarity of the British press that put the experimental designer in me to the drawing board. It seems the BBC's editorial guidelines strongly discourage use of the word 'terror' (among others) in straight news reporting because its emotionally charged tenor "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding." That got me thinking: to what extent do the words the media use to discuss events color our understanding of and policy preferences regarding those events? In other words, does the public distinguish in significant ways between mere "bombers" as opposed to "terrorists" or between "murders" and "assassinations"?

The fact that the American media use these terms interchangeably probably contributes to some degree of conceptual coagulation in the public consciousness. But it strikes me that one major difference between some of the loaded words the BBC eschews and their less controversial replacements is the former group's near-exclusive association in American minds with foreigners. The word "terrorism" is widely seen in this country as more of a shorthand for "violence committed by (usually) swarthy foreigners for no apparent commercial purpose" than a political method. One of the upshots of this theory is that the mainstream media in general neither labels Americans as terrorists nor does it connect politically motivated violence perpetrated by Americans to its foreign analogues. Another, I'd surmise, is that "terrorist" attacks against the government may stoke patriotism in a way that "kidnappers" and "insurgents" don't. Insofar as the perception of government as the metaphorical essence of a nation increases during times of international crisis, certain words may cause people to feel as if they themselves are being assaulted. Because of this, they may then form distorted opinions of the actual threat foreign extremists present.

It wouldn't be hard to set up an experiment in which two versions each of several news stories (printed or televised) were presented. One would use emotionally loaded words such as "terrorist," "liberator," and "execute," while the other would substitute words like "extremist," "military force," and "murder." I'd be interested in looking at differences in people's affective reactions, mnemonic impressions, and policy recommendations between the two conditions. My guess is that the loaded terms would inspire harsher reactions, stronger recollection of factual information tied to the terms, and more aggressive policy suggestions. These effects would obviously be moderated somewhat by participants' stated ideological and partisan orientations. To the extent that word choice in the news influences the electorate's political and economic decisions, it's a topic well worth investigating.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Estate Tax Legerdemain

And now to the estate tax repeal movement, that hardy exemplar of conservative disinformation. For those that don't know, the ET (aka the "death tax") is levied upon the highest ranges of inherited wealth as it passes from one generation to the next. Bush's 2001 tax cuts set the wheels in motion for the tax's permanent repeal by scheduling the exemption cap to increase gradually each year (right now it's at $1.5 million). This tax affects the richest 1% of Americans almost exclusively, and yet its rollback got through on the strength of a coordinated lobbying and PR push that was over a decade in the making. Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro detail this process in their book Death By A Thousand Cuts (which I haven't yet read, but will).

David Cay Johnston explains the general methodology of the anti-estate PR movement thusly in his review of Death by a Thousand Cuts from the May 2005 issue of the American Prospect:

One fundamental that estate-tax opponents grasped is that those who frame the debate also frame the assumptions that go into most news coverage. The reason is practical: Most reporters, especially political reporters, are generalists who rely on the popular symbolism of the moment to make their stories clear and accessible. Change the lens through which an issue is seen, reframe the terms of the debate, and presumption is on your side. Cleverly, and inaccurately, attacking the estate tax as the "death tax" was a key to success. There is no tax on death, though many Americans now believe otherwise. The estate tax, and the gift tax, are levies on the transfer of large fortunes.

President Bush frequently denounces the "death tax" as immoral double taxation. He has not made the same argument against Social Security, Medicare, gasoline, and excise taxes, which, combined with the federal income tax, can be seen as quintuple taxation of the same dollar.

The framing of the estate tax as a "death tax" was a calculated appeal to the intrinsic American value of fairness, as taxing earned wealth twice would clearly be unfair. Obviously many Americans and lawmakers alike found this piece of philosophical sophistry convincing, or at least compelling. But Johnston once again brings us back to reality in an article for today's New York Times that looks at a CBO study on the decline in the number of American farms subject to the tax:

The estate tax raised an estimated $23.4 billion last year. Repeal would shift part of the burden of taxes off the fortunes left by the richest 1 percent of Americans, some of whose fortunes were never taxed, onto the general population. The lost revenue could be made up in three ways: through higher income taxes; reduced government services; or more borrowing, which would pass the burden of current government spending to future generations.

I wonder how many of the "death tax"'s opponents would stick to their guns in light of this inconvenient factoid.

Some opponents advance the more pragmatic claim that the estate tax is a threat to family farms, sucking away money that should be used to keep the business running. Johnston cites an instance of this argument in the same NYT article:

President Bush, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have asserted that the estate tax is destroying family farms. None, however, have cited a case of a farm lost to estate taxes, although in June 2001 Mr. Bush said he had talked to such farmers.

Now, let's see what the Center for Budget & Planning Priorities has to say about that:

Farms and family-owned business assets account for less than four percent of all assets in taxable estates valued at less than $5 million. Only a small fraction of the estate tax is paid on the value of farms and small family businesses.

And that was written before the tax was repealed. Doesn't really sound like much of a farm-killer, does it?

Learning to Live With It

While I'm on the topic of terrorism, I want to highlight this excellent column by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria on what it will take to defeat terrorism. Here's a key quote:

America's political leaders continue to give their citizens the impression that victory means ensuring that there will be no other attack on American soil—as long as we go on the offense abroad, get perfect intelligence, buy fancy new technologies at home, screen visas and lock some people up. But all these tough tactics and all the intelligence in the world will not change the fact that in today's open societies, terrorism is easy to carry out. The British authorities, perhaps the world's best at combating terror, admit they had no warning about last week's attack. The American response to the London bombs has been a perfect example of U.S. grandstanding. We immediately raised the alert level, scaring Americans, with no specific information about terror attacks in America. Why? Because were something to happen here, politicians and bureaucrats want to be able to say, "Don't blame us, we told you."

Real victory is not about preventing all attacks everywhere. No one can guarantee that. It's really about preventing the worst kinds of attacks, and responding well to others. And on this score, America remains woefully unprepared.

This is absolutely correct. 'Terrorism' isn't an army or a nation that can be laid low through the proper application of guns, bombs, and security checkpoints. It's a method, and one that I fear won't lose its luster anytime soon. The administration has assiduously tried to tie freedom and peace together, but the mounting evidence is boring an ever-deepening hole into the idea that the two can truly coexist. When we finally decide to get realistic about what we should expect our government to do about terrorism, we'll remove the wind from the terrorists' sails ourselves.

The Media on London, 7/7: An International Perspective

Originally posted July 7, 2005
I'd like to begin today's post with an unequivocal denunciation of today's terror attacks in London. Regardless of the circumstances, the taking of innocent human life (taxpaying or otherwise) is always absolutely unacceptable in the furtherance of any goal. Al-Qaeda continue to prove themselves a threat to all those who disagree with them, a constituency which grows (I hope) with every new attack. My hopes and condolences go out to the British who lost their lives, limbs, and loved ones today, and I strongly urge them to remain vigilant against the influence of terror.

The story was all over the news today, so I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how different news agencies were covering the issue. The screencaps below were all taken between noon and 12:30pm EST today (July 7), some eight hours after the attacks occurred. On the right you'll see the home pages of six major US news outlets; on the left, those of several prominent foreign media.

(click for infographic)

Overall, the US coverage seems to me markedly more sensationalistic than the international. Note ABC, Fox, and MSNBC's short, shocking headlines compared to the generally lengthier titles of the foreign outlets. CNN features the most garish headline of all, a survivor's quote clearly calculated to deliver maximum emotional impact. Further note the significant amount of screen real estate devoted to imagery on ABC, Fox, and MSNBC's pages. The only foreign site featuring a comparably large image is France's Le Monde. The fact that those three US outlets are all TV stations may have something to do with it, as the other three American sites (all two of them newspapers) offer a more balanced text-to-image ratio. This may indicate a stronger willingness on the part of US TV networks to resort to the power of the visual, rather than the mere force of the story itself, to draw in visitors.

The above comments represent my own "first-glance" attempts to generalize media trends in the coverage of this tragedy. Again, a rigorous quantitative study would be needed to draw any credible conclusions. With that in mind, I invite you to add your own comments about what the table says to you.

Terrorism as Communication

Originally posted July 6, 2005
I don't know if this is a banal observation, but if it is, I certainly haven't heard it trumpeted very loudly in the MSM: Terrorism seems to operate more often as a form of communication, i.e. as an instrument of indirect influence, than as a force for direct change. The secondary effects of 9/11, for example, far overshadowed the 3,000 deaths of that day, tragic as they were. These effects included longer wait times at the airport, the color-coded terror alert system, the invasion of Afghanistan, and a long-overdue reorganization of the US intelligence services. But perhaps more significant than the political consequences were the changes wrought in the minds of the American populace. I'm talking about the vague sense that "the world has changed" for the worse, the mistrust and prejudice against people from the Middle East, and most importantly the climate of fear that fostered far and wide the opinion that terrorism is the most important issue facing America today.

Al-Qaeda undoubtedly anticipated many of these secondary consequences. I believe they chose to attack the WTC not because their ultimate aim was to maximize death and destruction, but because doing so was the best way to strike fear into the hearts of all Americans. But they couldn't accomplish that goal by themselves: they needed help from the media, which thrives on suffering and spectacle. And the media did its duty, reporting on every angle of the 9/11 story and permanently burning the image of the second plane colliding with the south tower into the collective American consciousness. They could hardly have done anything less; after all, 9/11 was probably the single most significant news story since the fall of the Berlin wall. But in depicting only the raw story of the 9/11 attacks with scarcely any context or interpretation, the MSM may have done the American people a grave disservice.

The goal of a commercial enterprise is to make money, and the goal of a democractic citizenry is to make the best decisions possible based on available information. When it comes to the media's coverage of terrorism, these two ends may be irreconcilable. The media rightly contend that they give the people what they want: the straight story, told in bloody, first-person detail; in short, what the people want is to be shocked, frightened, appalled. Media outlets are as beholden to the laws of the market as any other free enterprise, so their capitulation to their customers' wishes isn't surprising. But the lurid spotlight aimed at politically motivated violence is too bright; it creates a disproportionate impression upon the average citizen's mind. Taken together, the barrage of reports on terrorist activities generates the illusion that such activities are far more dangerous than they actually are. Without the benefit of contextual information about the history and likelihood of terrorist attacks, the motivations of terrorists, or other nations' experiences with terrorism, fear builds up to a fever pitch among the electorate. And when people are frightened, their ability to make rational decisions suffers significantly.

So it would seem, then, that under these circumstances the imperatives of democracy and free enterprise stand at cross purposes. I don't think this insight is trivial; we Americans like to believe that our values go together like peaches and cream. It's often been observed that the free market is strong while democracy is fragile, so I'm not surprised to see the former mop the floor with the latter. But if the media doesn't start shelling out a few bitter pills soon, we just might run our nation right over a cliff in our frenzied flight from swarthy, bearded, artificially inflated boogeymen.

More on Fox News . . .

Originally posted on July 4, 2005
Seeing as I've been blasted twice in the past 24 hours as a conservative mole for my previous post, I figure a spot of clarification is in order re: its reasoning. I have no special interest in defending Rupert Murdoch or his network, but as a fledgling social scientist I must be prepared to accept whatever conclusions the data point toward. Anything less would be anti-intellectual. What I found most surprising about my critics was that they seemed personally threatened by the very suggestion that Fox News might not be any worse than other major news organizations. Now bear in mind, this hypothesis wasn't anything I set out looking for. I first starting visiting for the express purpose of exposing myself to news with a conservative bent--and I was frankly quite surprised not to find it. But I was gracious enough to allow my experiences to adjust my opinion accordingly (a tendency I wish was more prevalent in the Bush administration). So, the moral of the story is: if you allow your preconceptions to blind you to the facts, you're no better than those idiots on the "Truth Tour."

But what "facts" are we talking about, anyway? Mom brought up the important question of how to operationalize journalistic bias when you, as a spectator, don't have access to all the facts of the case. I can think of several questions one might ask to ascertain bias:

*Who is interviewed? Are we getting multiple perspectives on the issue or just one? Is disproportionate attention paid to one side? Are the interviewees actual subject-matter experts with relevant opinions or just uninformed cranks?

*How is the article framed? Does its presentation (word choice, subject focus, etc.) cast an unduly positive or negative light on the subject? Have the official frames been lazily regurgitated, or has the reporter adequately investigated their validity?

*Are certain stories being systematically ignored or kept off the front page?

*Do the reporters editorialize inappropriately in straight news pieces? I.e., do the words they use and points they raise stick to the facts, or do they make a partisan argument?

*Do the perceived biases in articles from a given news outlet all operate in the same ideological direction? Do they seem to be driven by market forces or by partisan intentions?

*What parties might benefit from the alleged biases?

The above questions aren't specific enough to use in real experiments, but they work pretty well as a starting point for an informal guide. Plus, they can be extended into an operational framework that can serve as the basis for true experimentation. One day I'll have the institutional support and background knowledge necessary to make it all work correctly, but until then, this is all I got.

Fox News Might Not Be As Bad As We Thought

Originally posted July 3, 2005
Most of us liberals are pretty comfortable slinging, or at least passively accepting, the slur "Faux News" in reference to Rupert Murdoch's allegedly right-slanted 24-hour cable news network. After all, it is home to two of American punditry's most annoying conservative blowhards, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, and its newscasts have been criticized for consistently softballing the Bush administration (more egregiously than most other MSM outlets, I'm assuming). But I wonder how many of the people who condemn Fox News as a right-wing propaganda machine have actually visited the channel's web site and taken a look at some of its news items. I don't have the empirical data to back this up, but my own unscientific investigations lead me to conclude that FoxNews' web site at least (to say nothing of its TV content) is a bit more "fair & balanced" than many nonconservatives give it credit for.

Now as you might guess, I'm about to cite a few articles in support of my claim. But before you click over to the site to dig up counterexamples, remember that I'm excluding from my analysis all of Fox's op-ed writers, who I'll admit are not only ideologically bonkers but discursively pathetic as well.

So, with that caveat in mind, allow me to submit the following: (1) a recent article on the Federal Election Commission's debate over whether to regulate political blogging included interviews with two left-of-center bloggers (DailyKos's Markos Zuniga and Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox) and the executive director of no counterbalancing conservatives. (2) An article titled "Democratic Ranks Pleased by Dean Performance" proved remarkably well-balanced, covering a wide range of opinions from both grassroots organizers and beltway insiders (again, no Republicans). (3) And to my personal surprise, today's report on a gaggle of consevative talk-show hosts' junket to Iraq (cheekily dubbed "The Truth Tour") focused on their critics' charges of propaganda and shoddy journalism. Said critics, which included Joe Conason of the American Prospect and Peter Beinart of The New Republic, took the opportunity to duly castigate what they saw as a flagrant right-wing PR maneuver.

If you read the above and thought "this doesn't prove much," you're right. In the absence of a more systematic investigation, all I can do is cherrypick articles that support my theory. But I've at least shown that in covering several strongly partisan issues, the news reporters at aren't shilling quite as hard as some on the left assume. It's certainly not the Village Voice by any stretch, but it's no WorldNetDaily either.

Walmart's PR War

Originally posted June 30, 2005
Yesterday I learned that Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world. According to an article in Fastcompany magazine, "last year, 7.5 cents of every dollar spent in any store in the United States (other than auto-parts stores) went to [Wal-Mart]." Obviously, lots of Americans love everyday low prices, even though one of the dearest costs of providing such savings is an ever-increasing loss of jobs to less expensive overseas labor. But for other Americans, myself included, the retail giant's name conjures vague memories of ugly reports on its poor treatment of female employees, stingy health insurance plans, and ruthlessness in undercutting competitors.

The potential effect of these negative perceptions on the bottom line is the likeliest explanation for, a PR site intended to restore the retailer's reputation as a good (or at least acceptable) corporate citizen. Advertising on web sites and NPR, among other venues I'm sure, Wal-Mart seems intent on assuaging common fears among the more politically and socially conscious circles of its consumer base. A section titled "News Desk" promises to "set the record straight" with "facts, not myths." The site's "Community Impact" page touts a recent "Wal-Mart Day of Service 2005" initiative in which over 250 employees from 12 Kentucky stores volunteered four hours of their time for an urban renewal project. And the "Associates Center" offers firsthand voices from eloquent, satisfied Wal-Mart employees.

Most of the information provided on the site is probably true, if a mite slanted. But more important than that issue is what the public is likely to think of a corporation that feels the need to create such a PR vehicle in the first place. It seems likely that most people who would voluntarily visit a site like would be at least somewhat aware of its unstated yet fairly transparent purpose: to manipulate public opinion. What chance does the site stand of achieving its goal when that goal is so readily apparent? Might it not have the opposite effect of indicating to visitors that the anti-Wal-Mart allegations actually have some merit?

Bad press or no, people love to feel like they're getting a deal, so I don't think Wal-Mart has to worry much about falling revenues. But I do think the company needs to hire a PR firm with a bit more subtlety, because coming right out and saying "we're really a good corporate citizen! No, really!" probably sends up more red flags than it cuts down.

60s Mass Media Guru Title Bout: Ellul vs. Mcluhan

Originally posted June 5, 2005
Jacques Ellul and Marshall Mcluhan, as contemporaries both writing about media effects and using similar methodologies, arrived at many of the same conclusions. They both decided that the mass media of the '60s transformed those it touched into a 'mass audience'--a heretofore unseen species reared on information glut and an ever-present torrent of images, sounds and words. But there was one signficant point on which they differed--Ellul said that media alienated man and supplanted traditional social supports, while Mcluhan hailed its ability to turn the world into a 'global village', i.e. to foster connections between people. Scornful as they were of the scientific method (well, Ellul was, at least), neither provided much in the way of hard, unequovical evidence to support their claims. So who has history proved to be correct?

Of course, the answer is 'both'. Mcluhan's global village idea was rightfully deemed prophetic at the dawn of the Internet era, and the net certainly has connected like-minded, far-flung parties who never otherwise would have 'met.' But Ellul was correct in a crucial way as well, I think, in that telecom interfaces will always fall significantly short compared to facetime in the hierarchy of comm modes. The alienation created by technological societies can be mitigated but never entirely effaced by electronic interfaces. We instinctively crave tactile sensation, the immediacy of warm bodies in close proximity, the little perceptual  feedback channels so glaringly absent from media like chat and email. We can't escape our biology; thus the Internet, TV and even the phone should all be recognized and treated as mere simulacra of physical presence.

It's late; do forgive my grandiloquence.

pest toast

This is a test post for formatting purposes. I'll post more substance later.