Friday, September 30, 2005

Happiness, American and Saudi

Yesterday Al-Jazeera reported that Saudi Arabian women (specifically, several university students who met with US diplomat Karen Hughes on her ongoing Middle East PR junket) resent being depicted in American media as downtrodden subjugates and want the world to know that they are "happy." During the course of the Q&A session, one student insisted that "I don't want to drive, because I have my own driver," while another asserted that "[there] is not an absolute wall" between men and women in Saudi society. These young women's concerns about the media are understandable but misdirected: the lens through which Americans perceive Saudi norms is heavily colored by a deep incommensurability between the two nations' respective cultures. At the crux of this incommensurability is the question of whether happiness can be had without freedom.

Most Americans, I think, would identify freedom as a necessary condition for happiness. The belief that people have a "natural" right to do as they please as long as their actions don't harm others is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that we tend to think of it as universal. I'm no exception--I simply don't see how social restrictions on attire, occupation, and association could possibly enhance happiness. While some might be satisfied with such a limited existence, there's a part of me that believes, rightly or wrongly, that there must be some contingent of women in Saudi Arabia who think differently, wanting to dress, work, and socialize however they please. If someone asked me whether I thought the women quoted in the article represent the majority female opinion in their country, my first instinct would be to answer no.

The attitudes expressed in the article make me wonder how blacks living under the heel of Jim Crow in the 1930s and 40s would have reacted in an encounter with some prominent European opponent of segregation. Would they have claimed that everything was fine against all logic, or would they have agreed with the anti-segregationist--in full mediated view of their oppressors? The obvious answer is that most would not have risked violent reprisals just to show solidarity with a privileged outsider who probably wouldn't be able to offer them much real help anyway. And perhaps that's the case with these women. Maybe publicly repudiating the Saudi social order carries with it the risk of expulsion, social ostracism or worse. A few women made token overtures to eventual cultural change, but they took care to reject all outside assistance and to stay away from concrete details. It looks to me as if there's a good chance they could be faking the "right" opinions for pragmatic reasons, but that belief may just reflect my Western cultural orientation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

NOLA != Lord of the Flies

The LA Times reports today that media stories concerning rapes, murders, and other sociopathic behavior in Katrina's wake may have been slightly exaggerated and/or based on unconfirmed rumor. I for one am absolutely shocked; I can't believe that news outlets would ever blow unsubstantiated, sensationalistic hearsay out of proportion to increase ratings or sales. But seriously, we all should have seen this coming. The fact that things weren't as bad as initial reports indicated is unequivocally great news--it's a testament to the intestinal fortitude of those who were left behind that neither the Superdome nor the convention center descended into a Hobbesian "war of all against all."

Couple points: first, I don't know how prevalent this sentiment is around the blogosphere, but at least one commenter to Kevin Drum's recent post on the topic (John H.) was quick to hurl allegations of anti-Bush bias at the networks and papers who propagated reports of epidemic chaos. I suppose if you've already decided in advance that the media is hellbent on sinking the president, you start seeing evidence of it everywhere--even when more logical explanations, such as a generalized media disaster bias, explain the given phenomenon better. Besides, as the American Journalism Review noted a couple years back (emphasis mine):
A July report released by the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government examined the first year of three presidential administrations--Ronald Reagan's, Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's--and concluded that coverage was predominantly "negative" for all three. "Bush is being treated normally for a president, which is to say negatively," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent group that conducted the study. "The media are tough on presidents."
Yeah, no shit. Some conservatives these days seem to be suffering from amnesia--they can't recall how tough the press was on Clinton in the late '90s or the meaning of fiscal conservatism.

My second point involves the predominantly "proestablishment" effects of news framing. Painting blacks as amoral savages just barely reined in by the rule of law panders to the unconscious (at least I hope they are) prejudices and fears of middle-class white society, which (so the theory goes) boosts sales and ratings among that demographic. The opportunity to run with such a sensationalistic, stereotype-consistent story may have superseded normal journalistic fact-checking protocols, especially if editors were counting on viewers and readers not to care too much if the reports later turned out to be overblown or even completely false. True, NOLA's demolished infrastructure prevented information from circulating as quickly as it normally would, but the media nevertheless shouldn't have shirked its duty to distinguish sharply between verifiable facts and rumors buoyed by the widespread confusion.

UPDATE: Obsidian Wings' Hilzoy has a far more cogent and insightful piece on this topic than mine. We cover similar bases but she also talks about how unconscious racism might have affected news reports as well as the federal, state and local responses. Great stuff.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Chinese (media) Democracy

China's political and economic systems stand famously at cross-purposes, constantly stepping on one another's toes like two dancers who can't agree to move in tandem. The former imposes strict rules on what can be said and by whom, while the free-market economic reforms that started in the late 1970s have given rise to the most diverse media landscape the nation has ever seen. Digital communication technology in particular has taken the country by storm; its 100 million+ Net population is second only to ours (which is 185 million strong) in size, and its mobile phone user base is over three times larger than that. These trends, along with the brisk expansion of the Chinese economy in general, will eventually overturn the old single-party system of Communist rule which they have already made obsolete.

The Chinese government's censorial practices on the Internet include blocking access to foreign websites deemed offensive, pornographic, or "against national security and public interest"; searching for and deleting bulletin board posts that foment dissent; and forcing participants in online discussion groups to register using their real names. But, as you might think would be obvious, such top-down restrictions clash with the basic nature of digital communication networks: a more effective solution would be to ban mobile phones and the Internet entirely. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the new media order as it cites the danger of "harmful foreign thinking or culture" to justify its repressive regulatory actions. As we have seen here in the US, the law offers pitifully inadequate protection against spam and music piracy--so the Communist Party will discover is the case with political dissent and unpopular opinions.

The Internet cannot replace an entrenched political hegemony by itself, of course. But it can make people curious about the world outside their nation and lay bare the government's attempts to conceal or whitewash sensitive political and social issues. As the middle class continues to grow, it will demand more rights, more access to currently restricted communication channels, and more accountability in government. And the digital technologies that are spreading rapidly in China only fan the flames of these developments. The Chinese Communist party has been known to engage in some fairly ludicrous rhetorical gymnastics to reconcile its Marxist underpinnings with its economic liberalization policies, but I don't think they're gonna be able to rationalize their way out of this latest challenge.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Upgrading Our Media System

After reading last night's post today, I realized that the final paragraph doesn't really answer the question posed in its first sentence. What I want to know is, "how can the news business stop hemorrhaging consumers and release the economic pressure that drives them to 'dumb-down', in Dan Rather's words, their content?" This is important because news is the chief conduit through which most of us learn about real events in the world outside of primary and secondary experience. It shapes our opinions and helps guide our choices about how to vote, where to live, whether and where to travel, and what to consume, among other things. A downward trend in Americans' interest in the news augurs a sharp disconnection from the outside world, which could increase our vulnerability to external manipulation and sociopolitical decay.

To stave off this possibility, I'd recommend rethinking the entire manner in which news is presented. The current paradigm of a staid reporter or news anchor presenting the news robotically has dominated print and TV journalism for decades, and it's clearly beginning to fail. One suggestion might be to start punching a few holes in the wall between news reporting and punditry. Under the system we have now, journalists do the legwork, go on location and try to remain objective in their writing, while columnists and talk show hosts for the most part simply read, watch, and opine from their armchairs. But an ideologically diverse press corps could dispense with the fiction of "journalistic impartiality" and offer interpretation along with their hard news--stridently enough that the reader or viewer would be able to separate the two. Pairing two reporters with opposite political viewpoints on a given story would allow spectators to decide for themselves which conclusion made more sense to them.

The more I read and watch, the more I start to feel that "objectivity" and bloodlessness in news reporting are on the wane. If it's the case that Katrina boosted the ratings of the 24-hour news networks and the profits of newspapers, it was probably in large part due to the indignant tone that many anchors and reporters adopted in their stories, most notably CNN's Anderson Cooper. I don't think Rather would call the coverage of Katrina "tarted-up", and I don't think that style of reporting applies only to times of crisis. Everyone--from liberals to conservatives, blacks, whites, politicians, citizens, the savvy and the ignorant--is upset at the news media right now. And I think a great deal of that ire has to do with an unattainable ideal of impartiality that goes unfulfilled in one way or another every day. Inserting more opinion into "straight" news pieces may not be the solution, but something really needs to change--journalism serves too significant a function to die.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hard Choices for Old Media

Just a day after rolling out its op-ed pay service TimesSelect, the New York Times Company yesterday announced a 4% workforce cut that will send 500 employees packing, including well over 100 from the Boston Globe. Also on Tuesday, Knight-Ridder's Philadelphia division unveiled plans to cut 100 jobs from the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. An Editor & Publisher article on the downsizings blames "sluggish advertising results and higher newsprint prices," but NPR's David Folkenflik cited a more troubling factor in a report on today's All Things Considered:
Knight-Ridder, like many of its competitors, is publicly traded, so it also seeks to satisfy investors and the stock analysts who advise them. The way to drive up the price of the stock is to make sure profits grow each year.
As I've been saying all along, uncontroversially I hope, the focus on profits as the bottom line for news organizations tends to degrade journalistic integrity. Their once-generous margins have been eroded, Folkenflik reports, by "television, satellite radio, Internet sites, and apathy," so many papers/channels/radio networks have responded with the kind of "tarted-up" coverage that brings elder statesmen like Dan Rather to tears. Looking back, it seems as though the newspaper industry's bygone commitment to "serving the community," in the words of former Daily Camera executive editor Barrie Hartman, was underwritten by a dearth of competition--it flourished in a world without cell phones, Tivo, and the Internet, when people actually had time to sit down and read the paper every day. Now that these new media have made the bottom line a bigger deal, paper staffs and ultimately the industry's shrinking audience are feeling the pinch.

These trends cannot be stopped. Industry analyst John Morton put it perfectly in the E&P piece: "
the most likely scenario over time is that newspapers are going to have to be happy with lower profit margins." Given the rise in competition and in the cost of basic resources such as newsprint, what other alternative is there? Unfortunately, as economic pressure ratchets up, the industry will see profit-based incentives continue to increase in strength and prominence, thereby furthering the downward spiral of news quality.

Is there any way to break this vicious cycle? My only answer right now involves the Internet, which, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, has risen dramatically in popularity as a news source as newspapers have fallen. Both trends are particularly marked among young people (18-29), and there's no indication of any future reversals in either case. If the Internet represents the future of news consumption, usurping the traditional role of newspapers, news organizations' continued viability will depend on convincing users to pay for content. Ads alone won't keep them afloat. But since we already know that most web users are pretty averse to online subscriptions, someone's going to have to develop one hell of a business model to get this to work. In comments to my TimesSelect post, "Sarah" suggests a co-op subscription model, in which a large group of news providers would allow access to their entire network for one subscription price. That's the best idea I've heard so far, but I expect to be surprised by whatever new purchasing scheme(s) eventually ends up dominating the web news market.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Rather vs. the NJO

Dan Rather's upset, and rightly so, at what's become of the media since the 70s. In a speech Monday to Manhattan's Fordham University School of Law, he blasted what he dubbed the "new journalism order"--a recent, inopportune convergence of political and economic pressure against quality reporting:

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the intervening years, politicians "of every persuasion" had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a "new journalism order."

He said this pressure -- along with the "dumbed-down, tarted-up" coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition and the chase for ratings and demographics -- has taken its toll on the news business. "All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms," Rather said.

Sentiments such as Rather's and Jon Stewart's reflect an enduring belief in journalism as more than just another consumer product. According to this view, the media has a responsibility to act as an independent conveyance for knowledge and understanding, beholden neither to government priorities nor public prejudices. But it seems to me that if the unbridled free market remains the only determinant of which media outlets succeed and which fail, we'll soon find ourselves in a media environment wholly calibrated to pander to our preexisting views.

But, I could be wrong. It's possible that the largest US media outlets may have a degree of 'journalistic determinism' on their side; that is, people may give CNN, the NYT, Newsweek, and NBC Nightly News a great deal of latitude on their content without absconding in droves. After all, there aren't many organizations that have the necessary human and technological resources to produce incisive reporting on national and international issues. If this is the case, change could come with the ossification of a little editorial backbone in the big news boardrooms. And if sources start clamming up because of it, well, it might be time to pull out an encyclopedia and look up "investigative journalism."

So yeah, I dunno who's wagging what here. But it looks like top-down analyses of the ways in which news is selected, reported, and framed comprise a more realistic solution than relying on the American public to effect change by demanding better news coverage. People are already doing that; just look at any vaguely political blog. I'm hoping that the perspicacity of the Katrina coverage turns out to be contagious, but for that we'll just have to wait and see. Maybe the media only doffs the kid gloves in times of national crisis, but I hope not.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Why TimesSelect Won't Work

Web-based political commentators from all schools of thought are united in their disapproval of the New York Times' new fee-based service, TimesSelect. For 49.95 39.95 (special limited-time offer) a year, subscribers get exclusive online access to the Times' op-ed pieces, a news archive back to 1981, and assorted other fluff no one cares about (does anyone actually use personalized email alerts for anything?). Many bloggers have pledged to stop linking to the NYT altogether until it abandons TimesSelect as a protest against the service. E&P's Steve Outing offers a good breakdown of the issues and rationales behind the paper's controversial decision to go directly for its readers' wallets. It seems the chief driving force behind TimesSelect, according to New York Times Digital president Martin Nisenholtz, is that the print edition just isn't paying the bills anymore:
For the Times to continue to be able to afford to do quality journalism in the future, a way must be found to make the digital operation more profitable -- reflecting the inevitable move in the coming years away from print and toward online. As more readers -- especially younger people -- shift their reading habits to the Internet and move away from print, the digital side must bear more of the weight in paying the costs of the Times' journalism.
I understand the need to turn a profit, but is it feasible for a paper to rely on the Internet to provide a significant fraction of its revenue? It's well-known that web users don't like to pay for online services, but the Wall Street Journal has been bucking that slice of conventional wisdom since 1996 by operating the world's most popular subscription news site (712,000 customers as of Q4 2004). Of course, there are a couple differences between the two papers: for one, the WSJ has been charging its users from the start, so it engendered no feelings of commercial 'betrayal' among its online audience. Secondly, the Journal pays a hefty price for running a closed shop: Google doesn't index its subscription-walled pieces, and very few bloggers refer to them. In fact, the only section of the paper that's widely blogged at all is its opinion page--because it's free.

Also, I'd opine that the Wall Street Journal's subscription model only works because it's the only major national daily that makes its readers pay for online content. Serious news consumers may be able to handle one annual subscription to a high-quality paper, but what if the NYT, the Washington Post, and the LAT all decided to start charging? We aren't at that point yet, obviously, but because the financial considerations noted in the quote above aren't particular to the New York Times, we shouldn't be surprised to see various subscription models popping up at other big papers' sites in the near future. On the web, however, most people don't read entire papers--they might read perhaps one or two articles per paper per day, and that's not enough to justify a subscription to any one site.

For all these reasons, my guess is that TimesSelect will go bust pretty quickly. Note well the following, again from the E&P article:
The goal won't be met with TimesSelect subscription numbers in the tens of thousands, Nisenholtz says; it needs to be in the hundreds of thousands in the early years, and even more over the long term.
Barring a dramatic shift in online news consumers' spending habits that's completely at odds with all past behavior, the NYT's never gonna reach those numbers. It took the WSJ eight years to build up their 700k+ subscriber base, and that represents a best-case scenario. Newspapers all over the country are struggling to adapt to their new online presences, atrophied staffs, and lost market share to TV, radio, and the Internet, all of which underscore the urgency of seeking out new revenue streams. But direct subscription models won't do much more than ice the profit cake at best, and that's only for the largest national dailies. Without genuinely fresh ideas about how to extract money from Internet readers, the old gray papers will fade and perish quickly.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Death of Limited Gov't -- addendum

As noted below, my recent TPMCafe post entitled "The Death of Limited Government" outlined three pieces of evidence that the Goldwater faction of the GOP has lost indefinitely the internecine struggle over the party's direction. However, I believe I failed to clarify that I am not passing judgment one way or the other upon a strong federal presence, but simply predicting that for better or worse, it is our political future. No longer will voters be asked to decide between big or small government, but between two different brands of big government. It is therefore crucial that libertarians and others who categorically insist that "government is the problem" figure out a way to work within the new political paradigm, or their dogma will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the federal government grows increasingly irresponsible with decreasing taxpayer oversight.

Great Minds

This is kinda neat, if you're me: Compare Max's post proclaiming that "the era of limited government is over" to mine discussing "the death of limited government." Then check the post dates. Maybe if I'd finished mine up 13 minutes earlier, it'd actually have a few comments.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Operationalizing 'Partisanship'

If there's one constant I've noticed in my travels across the political Internet, it's that commenters from all quadrants of the ideological map love hurling charges of partisanship at one another. Whether left against right, right against left, or middle against both ends, it's a perennial favorite in both major camps' insult arsenals, right up there with "Bush-lover" and "right-wing noise machine" for liberals and "Bush-hater" and "liberal media" for conservatives. But since few of its users seem to hold any reliable concept of what exactly constitutes a "partisan," the term becomes in practice more of a synonym for "person whose ideas I disagree with." These people are better off sticking to coarser slurs like "Rethuglicans" and "Dummocrats," since they capture their inchoate ire somewhat less ambiguously.

How, then, are we to distinguish spurious charges of partisanship from more meritorious ones? defines the present sense of the adjective thusly: "Devoted to or biased in support of a party, group, or cause: partisan politics." If partisanship could be determined by any single decision, vote, or declaration, the term would be indistinct from "judgment" or "discernment." Charges of bias in any direction thus require hard evidence of consistent support or opposition based solely on party or ideological commitment. Viewed in this way, partisanship looks less like a strict dichotomy than a finely graded continuum, across which some individuals prove themselves more partisan than others by the frequency with which they hew to or inveigh against different causes.

So, if we wanted to measure partisanship in elected officials, we might start by looking at how closely their votes tow the party line (i.e., compare the number of votes that skew in the hypothesized partisan direction against the total number). We could add to that the percentage of media appearances and interviews in which the official categorically supports his own side or rails against the opposition vs. those in which he or she does not. Third, we could take into account how frequently the official publicly disagrees with members of his own party or ideological orientation. Empirical measures like these would lend scientific heft to garden-variety accusations of partisanship and allow voters to see in concrete terms whether their representatives are motivated more by the public interest or political advancement.

The point of the above discussion is this: in the absence of a strict, preferably quantifiable definition for 'partisan,' it's just another insult. But if you're gonna get into callow name-calling, it's best not to confuse your audience with terms that have actual meanings. Moreover, if there's one thing this nation's political discourse needs less of, it's empty rhetoric--a significant reason why Americans continue to support weak candidates in election after election.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Shout it from the rooftops so that all who don't follow the news assiduously can hear: Bush finally broke his 4 1/2-year streak of never admitting any mistakes yesterday when he made the following statement at a White House press conference:
Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.
I'll admit I was dumbfounded, unrepentant liberal shill that I am, to discover that Bush had violated one of his dearest-held implied PR imperatives. I guess there's just Something About Katrina--throughout his presidency, Bush hasn't seen fit to allow himself any errors on 9/11, Iraq, GSAVE, Social Security, or anything else aside from "appointing people." Other liberal bloggers are mostly either expressing complete incredulity or calling for criminal indictment, as expected. But what really surprised me was NYT columnist David Brooks' revelation on the Sunday edition of NBC's Chris Matthews Show (analyzed by MediaMatters) that that he has long been aware
from private conversations with Bush officials who "represent" what "Bush believes" that from its earliest days, the Bush administration adopted a policy of shielding itself from political damage by never publicly admitting any mistake -- even if it meant lying to the media and the American public.
Oh. Looks like the whole acknowledge-no-mistakes PR directive was a little more than 'implied.' And as the MediaMatters article notes, it's well worth considering the consequences of this media strategy. I can think of several off the bat: one, it further stokes Republicans' already strong inclination to take the government at its word since one of their own is in charge. When Bush blames others, or insists that no mistakes have been made, his followers don't bother to question him but aren't afraid to paint his opponents as knee-jerk naysayers. I find it rather odd that so many in the former party of limited government would be willing to adopt such a credulous stance vis-a-vis its traditional bugbear.

Two: psychologists have long known of the basic human tendency for people to blame their own failures on situational influences while blaming others' failures on dispositional factors. The phenomenon is reversed when attributing successes, and the psychological mechanism itself is called the fundamental attribution error. When Bush refuses to admit any mistakes, his followers' natural tendency to commit the FAE at the political level is enhanced. In other words, they view Democratic failures as indicative of inherent wrongheadedness, while Bush's failures are all caused by factors outside his control. Democrats do this as well, but without the assistance of an active FAE-enabler in the White House.

Third, Brooks outlines one of the reasons for the White House's policy of publicly insisting on an error-free record. In his own words:
. . . what [Bush] believes . . . is, if you admit a mistake, you get no credit from your enemies, and then you open up another week's story, because the admission of a little mistake leads to the admission of big mistakes and another week's story. It's totally tactical and totally insincere.
What this shows is that Bush is more concerned with maintaining his political image than doing the right thing for the nation at all costs. While the more politically cynical among my readers will surely sigh a collective "duh" at this apparently banal observation, I think it raises the question of why this man still commands so much loyalty in the absence of a single unequivocal public policy success in 4+ years. The answer is unsettling: voters just don't seem to care about competence anymore, preferring to focus on superficial aspects of personality and 'character'. It's a trait that ill befits citizens in a democracy, and if shared too widely could bring on the nation's premature downfall.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Take-Home Lesson

So, was race a factor in how the Katrina drama played out? NBC's Brian Williams, despite his desperate attempts to remain impartial, said as much on Thursday evening's Daily show. Howard Dean agrees. Yet according to a recent Pew survey, 77% of whites believe that the government's response would have been the same if the majority of the victims had been white, and 56% believe that Katrina did not reveal that racial inequality is still a significant problem in America. The respective numbers for black respondents were 66% and 71%. My opinion on these two questions could not have been adequately assessed by Pew's survey methods, and I expect that that was probably the case for many of the poll's more intelligent participants. If nothing else, Katrina did show is that race is still a major elephant in the room for many whites, and that many blacks are predisposed to view racial issues as driving forces in adverse situations.

Before I begin, I'd like to commend certain of the foreign press, among them France's L'Humanite, Italy's La Stampa, and Germany's Der Spiegel, for not sweeping racial questions under the rug. You could argue that it's always easier to criticize racism outside one's own country, but nevertheless, credit should be given where due.

Now let's talk about white people. It's glaringly obvious to me that many, perhaps most, white Americans really, really want to believe that racism is a thing of the past. Some Katrina commenters took to blaming the victims, some preferred to focus on class issues, and many others donated to the Red Cross and moved on to other concerns. But stories like this strongly contradict the contention that race is irrelevant, as many commentators on the right would have us believe. Whites also need to understand that recognizing race as relevant factor in today's world does not indict them as racist--it simply means that there's more work to be done.

At the same time, I'm a little disappointed in some of the black allegations and assumptions regarding race. "What if" scenarios are not admissible as evidence of racial bias; they're simply not falsifiable. And while, as I mentioned above, there has been some evidence that racial factors were at play, the assertion that they were paramount in importance cannot be proven without specific evidence of blacks and whites being treated differently. There's a strand of pragmatist philosophy that holds that it's possible to acknowledge correctly a certain cause as contributing to an effect, but that it's impossible to know exactly to what extent the cause in question influenced the effect. I think that's what's going on here--race and class were both factors, but until we can experimentally manipulate the two independently, it's impossible to know how significant they were relative to each other. What if the hurricane had hit a mostly affluent black municipality? What about a poor white community? All speculation is academic.

In answer to my leading question: Yes, racism still exists, and yes, it probably was a factor in the government's response to Katrina. But I don't think that's the most important lesson here, though many of my fellow African-Americans disagree. What everyone should be concerned with is competent governance--can the government adequately handle the security tasks we have entrusted to it? The current administration, thoroughly infested by cronyism as it is, is now at 2 and 0 for major national crises. And if poor choices rule the day, it won't much matter how fast the feds arrive. This is one of the biggest reasons why you don't want your amiable drinking buddy running the country.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Kanye West vs. Jon Stewart

Yeah, I know I promised I wouldn't make another post about Katrina. But this one's not about Katrina; it's about media coverage thereof, so ha. I'm specifically interested in the contrasting views of the media championed by Kanye West and Jon Stewart: the former infamously blasted negative newspaper portrayals of blacks in a passionate rant on live TV, while the latter last night declared that that commendations were in order for TV reporters. West referred to the notorious "looting"/"finding" dichotomy that had some of the less critical members of the blogosphere freaking out last week, while Stewart highlighted the trenchant criticisms issuing from the cable networks' normally complacent talking head brigade: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann excoriating Mike Chertoff, Jack Cafferty of CNN ripping the feds a new one, Anderson Cooper giving Trent Lott 360° of accountability, etc. So who's right; were the media villains or heroes in this tale of tragedy?

Both, obviously. One of the media's principal effects, intentionally or otherwise, is to maintain the status quo. As Shanto Iyengar wrote in Is Anyone Responsible?,
Since television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces, and hence the ultimate political impact of framing is proestablishment.
Iyengar is talking about TV news here, but news framing doesn't get more episodic than starkly depicting one or a few people taking what they need to survive. As everyone knows by now, the "looting" picture was taken by an AP reporter, while the "finding" pic came from the AFP. Maybe 'looting' was an accurate description of what the AP photographer saw occurring--or maybe his caption reflected unconscious prejudices that made the word seem more appropriate to a black man's behavior. The Associated Press would certainly have us believe the former, but it's impossible to prove either way. In any case, the juxtaposition of this pair of instances looks to me more like an unfortunate coincidence than anything else--the media may pander and reinforce stereotypes through its daily functions, but it's tough to cite this case as a strong example of systemic denigration. People sometimes forget that "media" is a plural term.

Jon Stewart offered a rare round of congratulations to the media last night, lauding its overall steadfastness in the face of flagrant government spin. I have no more quantitative evidence for his conclusion than I have for West's, but judging from all that I've seen on Crooks and Liars (who are usually just as hard on the media as Stewart), TV news has generally done a pretty good job (even Fox News, shockingly enough). The question is: why does it take a catastrophe to resurrect the spirit of real journalism in the media? Why can't we get this brand of acerbic reportage as the rule rather than the exception? I mean, where were these newfound balls during the run-up to the Iraq War? I bet the 24-hour networks could drastically increase their audiences if their reporters started injecting a little more passion and energy into what they do and eased up on the passive regurgitation of administration talking points and PR frames.

We'll see where the media goes from here, but I expect the usual suspects will lapse back into their old habits before long. Shame really; I was genuinely enjoying this fleeting foray into quality reporting. Ah well, I suppose one can dream.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Praxywatch: Mohammad Sidique Khan

On Thursday, Sept. 1, Al Jazeera broadcast a video tape featuring suspected 7/7 London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan attempting to justify his actions to the world. Like Osama Bin Laden's well-publicized video messages, Khan's tape should be considered enemy propaganda and analyzed accordingly.

There's nothing too remarkable about the way Khan presents himself: he wears a headscarf, sits before a red-and-white striped quilt hanging in the background, and speaks with a distinct Leodensian accent. The quote most of the papers and news sites like to reproduce is this one:
"Your democratically elected governments continually perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. Your support makes you directly responsible. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation."
Um, okay. Let's begin with a little elementary moral philosophy: are you telling me, Mr. Khan, that all citizens in a democracy are capitally culpable for the actions of their leaders? That justification would border on the absurd if its consequences weren't so deadly serious. In fact, I'm not even sure he's being honest here--a more likely story is that this particular method of political communication was chosen strictly for its expediency and newsworthiness.

We all know the moral case holds no water; so what else does this tape tell us? What is Khan trying to get us to do? On the face of things, it would appear as though he's trying to get Britons to elect a government that won't "perpetuate atrocities against [his] people." But a moment's reflection is all it takes to realize that a nation full of citizens weak-willed enough to be cowed by terrorist attacks isn't long for this world. I wasn't able to locate a complete copy of the recording, so I don't know whether Khan enumerated his grievances specifically. But if he didn't, how was his audience supposed to know how to vote even if they wanted to appease him and his ilk? It's extremely disheartening to think that Khan might have thrown his life away without thinking more than a single step down the chain of consequences stemming from his attack.

Khan's statement dovetails with Fred Kaplan's brief review of three contemporary research studies on suicide bombing: the studies all agree that the young al-Qaeda-inspired footsoldiers are predominantly fighting to expel Western democracies from their native lands. In the case of Iraq, it's interesting that Khan doesn't seem to realize that the US military is all that's standing between that nation's current state and all-out civil war, which would certainly entail great losses of Arab life. And if by "atrocities" he's referring to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, few people in the public or the governments of the offending nations endorsed the abuses perpetrated there.

The Western citizenry finds Islamist violence inscrutable enough as it is, and people like Khan only make things worse for his fellow Arabs and Muslims. By giving his audience no incentive, let alone prescription, for action, he further confirms the logical and moral poverty of his movement. His designs on trying to sway public opinion have come to naught. Even as an Islamist war opponent, Khan could have done his cause much better as a living, nonviolent activist.

Friday, September 02, 2005

I Don't Often Agree With the Folks at the VC . . .

. . . but Orin Kerr nails what I was trying to say last night far better than I did:

First, I have absolutely no interest in assigning blame. My sense is that the crisis is sufficiently great that we need to be forward thinking right now. Assigning blame looks back; it's something you do when the emergency is over, and you have time to reconstruct what happened and see how you could do better next time. I don't think we're there yet. So for example, while I strongly agree with the many commenters that this should have been a state and local issue, the fact remains that the state and local governments seem to have been overwhelmed by the crisis and are not providing any kind of effective leadership. The key question is what to do next.

All I can add to this is that the best way to put real accountability into effect is to think very hard about who you vote for in 2006 and 2008.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Only Post I'm Gonna Make About Katrina

And the orthopraxy goes on. Right and left continue their eternal dance of mutual disdain, pausing for an imperceptible moment to call for civility before stepping right back into the groove as usual. I'm guessing this guy's not too aware of the irony of what he's saying. It seems that when there's nothing really to say, when you've made your token donation and redirected your readers to every charity you can think of and still don't feel any better, falling back into partisan hackery must have a calming effect.

Is Bush at fault? Probably not. New Orleans probably would have been fucked no matter who was in the White House. If you have to point the finger at someone, blame Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. We're looking at the 3rd world in our own backyard, and there's really no other explanation than "sometimes bad things happen." There is no reason, and that's why everyone who tries to impute one to this tragedy ends up sounding ludicrous. How incredibly horrifying is it to see the the fragile societal supports undergirding our society suddenly ripped from under people just like us? Nothing compared to what it must actually be like for those people, I'd imagine.

Islamic and Christian extremists alike celebrate the destruction as a manifestation of God's righteous fury, while the rest of us desperately try against all hope to make sense of it all. But again, sense doesn't apply to situations like these. All we can do is accept, mourn, do what we can to help, and move on. It's what we always do in the end, but never without spewing a whole lot of pointless commentary first.

Oh, wait . . .

If there's anyone out there reading this that hasn't already, please donate to a Katrina charity if at all possible. I gave to the Mercy Corps, but there are lots of others out there. The refugees will appreciate it.