Thursday, December 29, 2005

2005 Public Opinion Wrapup

All Things Considered featured an interesting story the other night on the top 10 public opinion trends from 2005, which are listed on the NPR website along with capsule summaries for each. From Iraq to Katrina to Schiavo to private accounts, most of the year's big stories are represented, and the approval and disapproval numbers should generally look familiar to anyone who keeps up with the news. One item that continues to befuddle me is the American public's continued rejection of evolution, a phenomenon that is seldom reflected in the rarefied air of the political blogosphere (even its conservative provinces). It's clear from the most cursory of analyses that Intelligent Design has no intellectual legs on which to stand, yet 55% of adults support teaching creationism, ID, and evolution in public schools, presumably as a part of the biology curriculum. All three are certainly worthwhile subjects to discuss in school—but only one belongs in any kind of science class.

The other factoid that jumped out at me was this:
No Media Meltdown –- The credibility of both TV and print press came in for criticism on several fronts, and perceptions of political bias in the media continued to rise. But, by wide margins, the U.S. public still gave more favorable than unfavorable ratings to their daily newspaper (80 percent-20 percent), local and cable TV news (79 percent-21 percent) and network TV news (75 percent-25 percent).
And those are pretty solid plus-ratings given all the reports of media bias and declining newspaper circulations that flew around this year. So it looks like rumors of the MSM's demise may be slightly exaggerated; the fact that I would have guessed differently just highlights one of my blind spots as a close observer, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bias Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, pt. 2

Not surprisingly, Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo's media-bias study took a thorough, mostly-deserved drubbing in the prickly provinces of Left Blogistan, while pundits in right field mostly devoured the results with little critical commentary on its methodology. The final instance of the former I'll be looking at comes from Media Matters, who make it their business to police conservative media spin and misrepresentation. After briefly stating their position on G&M's findings and mentioning the study's appearances in the MSM, they serve up a bit of ad hominem with a side of red herring:
None of the outlets that reported on the study mentioned that the authors have previously received funding from the three premier conservative think tanks in the United States: the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), The Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Groseclose was a Hoover Institution 2000-2001 national fellow; Milyo, according to his CV (pdf), received a $40,500 grant from AEI; and, according to The Philanthropy Roundtable, Groseclose and Milyo were named by Heritage as Salvatori fellows in 1997. In 1996, Groseclose and Milyo co-authored a piece for the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, titled "Lost Shepherd," criticizing the then-recently defeated member of Congress Karen Shepherd (D-UT) and defending her successor, Enid Greene (R-UT); when the piece was published, Greene was in the midst of a campaign contribution scandal and later agreed to pay a civil penalty after the Federal Election Commission found (pdf) that she violated campaign finance laws.
The fact that G and/or M may have formerly been on the take from conservative think tanks may tell us a great deal about their motivations and expectations, but it has no bearing on the validity of their current research. Partial parties can still conduct worthwhile scholarship as long as they maintain their intellectual honesty. Moving on:
Any quantitative study of this sort must take a complex idea -- in this case, "bias" -- and operationalize it into something that can be measured. But given its rather odd operationalization of "bias," it is perhaps unsurprising that the study's scheme leads to some categorizations no observer -- on the right or the left -- could take seriously, including the following:
  • National Rifle Association of America (NRA) scored a 45.9, making it "conservative" -- but just barely.
  • RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization (motto: "OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS. EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS.") with strong ties to the Defense Department, scored a 60.4, making it a "liberal" group.
  • Council on Foreign Relations, whose tagline is "A Nonpartisan Resource for Information and Analysis" (its current president is a former Bush administration official; its board includes prominent Democrats and Republicans from the foreign policy establishment) scored a 60.2, making it a "liberal" group.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), bête noire of the right, scored a 49.8, putting it just on the "conservative" side of the ledger.
  • Center for Responsive Politics, a group whose primary purpose is the maintenance of databases on political contributions, scored a 66.9, making it highly "liberal."
  • Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank whose board of directors is currently chaired by former Representative Dave McCurdy (D-OK), scored a 33.9, making it more "conservative" than AEI and than the National Taxpayers Union.
We leave to the reader the judgment on whether anyone could take seriously a coding scheme in which RAND is considered substantially more "liberal" than the ACLU.
This interpretation is incorrect, because the numbers cited are not ADA ratings for the think tanks but rather average scores of legislators who cite each group. Thus, G&M avoid the rather elementary error of officially categorizing the ACLU as right-of-center or RAND as solidly liberal. However, what the list above does show is that citation information from the congressional record does not always coincide with the "conventional wisdom" about a policy group's ideological slant. (Indeed, it supports the contention that operationalizing bias in the news media may very well be impossible.) If this is true for think tanks, it probably also holds for news organizations as well.

(As a brief side note, I was surprised at how little space the authors devoted to defending the logic behind using think tank/advocacy group citations as a measure of media bias, especially considering some of the non-intuitive think tank ratings it generated. They seem to treat their method's relevance as self-evident, an attitude I find unwarranted given its novelty.)
But this is not the only problem with Groseclose and Milyo's study; they lump together advocacy groups and think tanks that perform dramatically different functions. For instance, according to their data, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the third most-quoted group on the list. But stories about race relations that include a quote from an NAACP representative are unlikely to be "balanced" with quotes from another group on their list. Their quotes will often be balanced by quotes from an individual, depending on the nature of the story; however, because there are no pro-racism groups of any legitimacy (or on Groseclose and Milyo's list), such stories will be coded as having a "liberal bias." On the other hand, a quote from an NRA spokesperson can and often will be balanced with one from another organization on Groseclose and Milyo's list, Handgun Control, Inc. (Nonetheless, this reference is somewhat confusing, since Handgun Control was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence on June 14, 2001, and there is no reference to the Brady Campaign in the study or clarification of the name change; therefore, it is impossible to determine from reading the study if Groseclose and Milyo's score reflects post-2001 citations by legislators and the media of the group under its new name.)
This point is related to the WSJ's complaint about comprehensiveness that I cited in my previous post, but I would like to make one comment. I'm not sure if MM is correct about the NAACP above (one could imagine a story in which an NAACP representative alleges systemic anti-black profiling behaviors among police counterbalanced by a conservative think tank's research suggesting that the problem is isolated), but let's assume for the moment that they are; the same argument could also be applied to certain conservative groups. Journalists often cite Citizens Against Government Waste (average legislator score: 36.3) just for the pork-barrel statistics it maintains. Since there are no pro-pork think tanks, it's conceivable that the group's name could be found in an article without a liberal counterweight. Conceivable, but not particularly likely (or unlikely) in the absence of corroborating evidence.

A little further down, we encounter a variant of another argument the WSJ used:
Groseclose and Milyo's discussion of the idea of bias assumes that if a reporter quotes a source, then the opinion expressed by that source is an accurate measure of the reporter's beliefs -- an assumption that most, if not all, reporters across the ideological spectrum would find utterly ridiculous. A Pentagon reporter must often quote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; however, the reporter's inclusion of a Rumsfeld quotation does not indicate that Rumsfeld's opinion mirrors the personal opinion of the reporter.
I examined this view in my previous post but somehow neglected to mention its most glaring flaw. The reason that G&M restricted their purview to think tanks and not all sources is because in most cases reporters get to choose the think tanks they cite in articles. They cannot refrain from mentioning the views of Donald Rumsfeld or Al-Qaeda if the story demands it, but they can pick which think tank(s) will provide the analysis. This concept is so obvious that I have a hard time interpreting its omission as anything other than willful obtuseness.
Although the authors seem completely unaware of it, in reality there have been dozens of rigorous quantitative studies on media bias and hundreds of studies that address the issue in some way. One place the authors might have looked had they chosen to conduct an actual literature review would have been a 2000 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Communication (the flagship journal of the International Communication Association, the premier association of media scholars).
No argument here; G&M's lit review was rather skimpy, but that may be partly because they come from a political-science tradition and were not familiar with the relevant communication studies (not that that's an excuse).
Finally, of particular note is the way the study's authors toss about the word "bias" indiscriminately. We at Media Matters for America are particularly careful to make no accusations of bias, since saying a journalist or news outlet has a "bias" assumes that the one making the charge knows what lies within another's heart or mind. For this reason, most claims that the media are "biased" are problematic at best.'s definition 2a for the word "bias" reads as follows: "A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment." Bias doesn't have to be conscious or intentional; merely pervasive (and demonstrably so). But MM do raise an important point; namely, that bias is an extremely difficult concept to quantify, and scholarly attempts to do so require thorough review and justification. The fact that the media research canon has failed to offer any consistent answers on the issue of bias invites the observation that we are perhaps asking the wrong question. It may be more fruitful to ask the people on both sides who accuse the media of bias whether objectivity in the 21st century is even possible. We should remember above all that although certain reporters may not always be objective, it does not follow that the organizations they work for are biased. As always, keeping a critical eye on the news and constantly seeking independent corroboration are the best safeguards against whatever hidden biases may be present in any given news source.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Bias Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Well, it looks like there's been plenty of back-and-forth over the conceptual assumptions behind the UCLA media bias study, which was released in an earlier form a couple years ago. What follows is my attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. First on the chopping block, the Columbia Journalism Review:
Nevertheless, their methodology still falls short of the ideal bias-detecting machine. To date, their method involves hiring a bunch of college students to comb through some (but not all) of the archives for some (but not all) American news outlets and then counting up some (but not all) references to some (but not all) think tanks and then comparing some (but not all) of these references to the amount of times certain members of the U.S. Congress refer to some (but not all) think tanks. Suffice to say, it's a bulky bit of bias-detection and quite primitive. But with a few tweaks, this new quantitative approach to media criticism will undoubtedly soon replace all the old tools of the industry -- from analogy and analysis, to insight and wit.

The writer's chief quibble appears to be one of comprehensiveness, with the implication that the study failed only through the insufficient diligence of its data collectors. While more data certainly would have helped, that's hardly Groseclose and Milyo's biggest problem, as subsequent entries will make clear. Also, contra the last bit, I don't think they ever claimed that their work should be considered the end-all-be-all of media bias research. At best, it offers one measure of bias that should be evaluated against the rest of the media research corpus. But the author was clearly engaging in a spot of gratuitous hyperbole, so perhaps I'll let that one go.

Next up, the Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal's news coverage is relentlessly neutral. Of that,
we are confident.

Oh, that settles that then. G&M obviously should have just polled news organizations on whether or not they consider their own coverage biased; that certainly would have been cheaper and easier.

First, its measure of media bias consists entirely of counting the number of mentions of, or quotes from, various think tanks that the researchers determine to be "liberal" or “conservative." By this logic, a mention of Al Qaeda in a story suggests the newspaper endorses its views, which is obviously not the case. And if a think tank is explicitly labeled “liberal” or “conservative” within a story to provide context to readers, that example doesn’t count at all. The researchers simply threw out such mentions.

Oh, come on. Al-Qaeda isn't a think tank, and anyone foolish enough to believe that mentioning the group's name constitutes an endorsement of its views has no place on the faculty of any accredited university. The conceit of imputing a think tank's overall ideological bent to the media outlets and politicians that cite it poses significant difficulties, but propping up Al-Qaeda as a strawman muddles the issue needlessly. I suspect that the Journal recognizes this and is intentionally mischaracterizing the scholars' methodology for its own benefit. Not only does such a false portrayal reflect poorly on the paper's intellectual integrity, it's also completely unnecessary—both the study's concept and execution are susceptible to plenty of honest criticism. We continue:

Second, the universe of think tanks and policy groups in the study hardly covers the universe of institutions with which Wall Street Journal reporters come into contact.
This is the comprehensiveness argument again, but with a slight twist—the Journal correctly points out that think tanks aren't the only organizations referenced by media outlets, and that focusing exclusively on think tanks may exclude other important sources of bias (granting the authors' basic thesis as a given).
Third, the reader of this report has to travel all the way Table III on page 57 to discover that the researchers’ "study" of the content of The Wall Street Journal covers exactly FOUR MONTHS in 2002, while the period examined for CBS News covers more than 12 years, and National Public Radio’s content is examined for more than 11 years. This huge analytical flaw results in an assessment based on comparative citings during vastly differing time periods, when the relative newsworthiness of various institutions could vary widely. Thus, Time magazine is “studied” for about two years, while U.S. News and World Report is examined for eight years. Indeed, the periods of time covered for the Journal, the Washington Post and the Washington Times are so brief that as to suggest that they were simply thrown into the mix as an afterthought. Yet the researchers provide those findings the same weight as all the others, without bothering to explain that in any meaningful way to the study’s readers.
This is an excellent point that I haven't seen underscored in any other response to the study. One of the key pieces of evidence that must be shown to properly substantiate allegations of bias is a long history of systemic favor given to one side over another. Four months is clearly not sufficient to support any conclusions about bias, which raises the question of why the analyses of the three newspapers mentioned above were included as anything more than a footnote.

I'll consider one more critic's response in my next post; I'm predicting boatloads of fun in a similar vein.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

UPDATE: MSM No Longer Liberal

As it turns out, that UCLA media-bias study I recently blogged about was scathingly critiqued by a far more qualified authority than myself about a year and a half ago. UPenn linguist Geoff Nunberg took aim at the study's two major problem areas ("its concept and its execution") and exposed serious flaws in both. The whole thing is worth a thorough read, as is Groseclose and Milyo's response.

Although Nunberg's analysis was excellent overall, I found one aspect of his approach slightly troubling. Early in the post, he excoriates the study's authors for operating under the assumption that value-free research is impossible:
In fact, their method assumes that there can be no such thing as objective or disinterested scholarship -- every study or piece of research, even if published in so august a scientific authority as the New England Journal, can be assumed to have a hidden agenda, depending on which side finds its results congenial to its political purposes.
As I understand it, considerable debate still rages over the question of whether or not scholarship can be separated from the values held by the individuals who generate it. I would say that it applies particularly to the current research given the subjective nature of media bias issues. Nunberg appears to agree with this perspective throughout his investigation of G&M's work but then adds the following blanket dismissal to the end of his post:
It seems a pity to waste so much effort on a project that is utterly worthless as an objective study of media bias.
I interpret the above statement as implying that Nunberg believes the objective study of media bias to be impossible (i.e., that any study on the subject would carry the indelible taint of its authors' ideological predilections). If this is true, not only does it render his foregoing analysis irrelevant, it also virtually obliterates the point of discussing media bias at all. Groseclose and Milyo's research was from its inception doomed to be riddled with fatal errors, and no one else should bother trying to correct them because the general enterprise is flawed to the core. Moreover, both sides of all media bias debates can from now on be summarily repudiated as inherently subjective and partisan guesswork. If this is truly what Nunberg means, I think the contention demands much more than a one-sentence assertion.

I'll discuss other critiques of the UCLA study in my next post.

Further Update: Groseclose and Milyo take Nunberg to task for his critical errors in their response, which I'd like to recommend again for its attention to detail. The controversy continues . . .

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Impeachment Game

Over the past several months I've been receiving emails from a concerned progressive in my community that begin thusly:
Subject: DSM/impeachment petition meeting with [congressperson] office staff Thursday afternoon

Body: You are getting this update because you gave your email address on the Petition for Investigation of the Downing Street Memos as Evidence of Impeachable Crimes or told me you were interested. A steering committee was formed after the October planning meeting and we have been trying to set up a meeting with Rep. [congressperson's name removed] to present the petition. Congress' schedule hasn't been determined yet, and was too full in November, so we don't know when we will be able to meet with him. For now we have a meeting scheduled with etc.
The torrent of comments I've observed recently on radio call-in shows and blogs suggests a strong coordinated nationwide effort among a certain sect of the American left to get Bush impeached. I haven't done any real research on subject, but yesterday I found some firm evidence for my inference in a chat transcript starring Washington Post polling editor Richard Morin (he wrote the following in response to four separate questions about why the Post hasn't polled its readers on impeachment):

For the past eight months or so, the major media pollsters have been the target of a campaign organized by a Democratic Web site demanding that we ask a question about impeaching Bush in our polls.

The Web site lists the e-mail addresses of every media pollster, reporters as well as others. The Post's ombudsman is even on their hit list.

The Web site helpfully provides draft language that can be cut-and-pasted into a blanket e-mail.

The net result is that every few months, when this Web site fires up the faithful with another call for e-mails, my mailbox is filled with dozens and dozens of messages that all read exactly the same (often from the same people, again and again). Most recently, a psychology professor from Arizona State University sent me the copy-and-paste e-mail, not a word or comma was changed. I only hope his scholarship is more original.

We first laughed about it. Now, four waves into this campaign,we are annoyed. Really, really annoyed.

Some free advice: You do your cause no service by organizing or participating in such a campaign. It is viewed by me and others with the same scorn reserved for junk mail. Perhaps a bit more.

That said. we do not ask about impeachment because it is not a serious option or a topic of considered discussion--witness the fact that no member of congressional Democratic leadership or any of the serious Democratic presidential candidates in '08 are calling for Bush's impeachment. When it is or they are, we will ask about it in our polls.

Morin's absolutely correct. Setting aside the question of whether Bush has actually committed any impeachable offenses, the congressional will simply isn't present on either side. Because impeachment is not a plausible option, the time and effort spent on spam email campaigns and meeting with members of Congress amounts to little more than politically-flavored playtime masquerading as real action. I understand the frustration that many liberals suffer as they watch Iraq on the brink of chaos, the Patriot Act's resurrection, and the emerging details of a secret program to eavesdrop on domestic communications. But there are more constructive ways to focus one's political energies—such as working to convince undecided voters that the modern GOP is the party of the "have-mores," helping to forge a unified front out of the many single-issue progressive interest groups, and pressuring local Congresspeople in more attainable legislative directions than impeachment. I hate to say it, but it appears as though this particular wing of the anti-Bush crowd has truly lost touch with reality, and their vain efforts only subtract valuable energy from credible attempts to foment real change in the American polity.

Monday, December 19, 2005

UCLA Study Finds That the MSM Tilts Left

Frequently asserted but rarely substantiated, the question of whether or not American media outlets operate under the influence of pervasive liberal bias is an old blogosphere staple. Today I learned of recent research that claims to show that most news organizations actually do lean to the left of the American mainstream. The study's authors, Tim Groseclose at UCLA and Jeffrey Milyo at the University of Missouri at Columbia, developed an innovative method of quantifying bias in the news: comparing the think tank citation patterns of lawmakers to those of media outlets. They started with ideology ratings provided by the liberal interest group Americans for Democratic Action, which assigns each senator and House member a score between 0 and 100 (with higher numbers indicating increased liberalism) based on their legislative record. Groseclose and Milyo then counted the number of times each Congress member cited a given think tank (such as the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute) and did the same for each news source. Outlets and Congresspeople with similar citation patterns were assumed to share the same ADA score; e.g. since both the New York Times and Joe Lieberman were found to cite from very similar bodies of sources, the theory dictates that the paper and the senator would be comparably liberal.

Groseclose and Milyo's methodology is certainly non-intuitive, but how valid is it? The idea that the ideological tilt of politicians and news providers alike can be divined from the sources they cite seems logical, since liberal politicians tend to cite liberal think tanks and vice versa for conservatives. But I have two comments: one, Groseclose and Milyo's theory predicts that major news organizations should discuss the ideas of liberal think tanks disproportionately in their articles. This is a hypothesis that could be investigated without much difficulty, since they conveniently rate the top 20 most-frequently-cited policy organizations at the end of this older paper on the same topic. Secondly, the authors fail to account for what could be a gaping hole in their theory—the possibility that many political news articles may have been left out of the analysis because they cited no think tanks at all. It's possible that for some news organizations (particularly TV news), the ratio of stories-with-citations to total stories might be too small to properly extrapolate conclusions about the former to the latter.

I have no idea though; I only skimmed the earlier paper, and all I have is a press release for the new research. Interesting stuff anyway.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

If You're Gonna Give Your Citizens Net Access . . .

. . . don't expect to be able to control how they use it. That's the take-home lesson from today's WaPo report about the various methods Chinese citizens have been using recently to thwart government censorship. These include discussing current events via historical allusion, posting to bulletin-board sites that are small enough to elude official crackdowns, and using proxy-browsing software to access overseas sites that have been blocked by the authorities. I can't imagine that the Chinese government believes its outdated attempts to limit the flow of information will succeed in the long run. Their efforts contradict the Internet's fundamental nature, not to mention the people's wishes. In turning the screws of repression ever tighter, the Party may lay the groundwork for its own demise as the Chinese people become more and more aware of their own desire to say what they please.

Is the Secrecy Warranted?

Big news this morning: Bush has confirmed that he authorized secret domestic wiretaps after declaring last night on Newshour that he "do[es] not discuss ongoing intelligence operations to protect the country." In another GSAVE development, Democratic senators successfully led a filibuster against the Patriot Act renewal vote yesterday, with four Republicans joining them against the cloture movement. Coincidence? It's tough to say. After all, the WaPo reports that "members of Congress had been notified of [the warrantless wiretaps] more than a dozen times," so at least some of them shouldn't have been surprised. But headlines like "Shocked Lawmakers Demand Spy Program Probe" and John McCain's revelation in an NPR interview yesterday that he had not previously known of the program indicate that many were in the dark until the New York Times broke the story.

And that's a problem, because we all know how dedicated this administration is to strengthening its own hand relative to the other branches. Controversial anti-terror measures with the potential to trample Americans' civil liberties need skeptical oversight to ensure against abuse. Otherwise, we leave our most sensitive national security duties to a small cadre of ideologues who are absolutely convinced they are right, and who may remain unaware of the impropriety of their actions until the media points it out all over front pages nationwide.

Getting back to the current cloak-and-dagger business, here's another question:
what was the rationale for keeping these warrantless wiretaps secret when the Patriot Act has been very public from the start, warts and all? Bush has not explained the difference between this executive order and the Patriot Act's Section 215, which allows the government to search people's financial, medical, and other records without notifying them. If the latter's efficacy isn't compromised by being on the public record, why would the former's? This looks like yet another Bush PR blunder, because he probably could have snuck the program into the Act without much argument in the months following 9/11. Not that secret wiretapping would have been any more of a good idea then, but we could have at least had a public debate about its merits instead of just now hearing about it.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Iraqi Propaganda Was Just the Iceberg's Tip

The New York Times has a very informative medium-length article in today's issue exploring the extent of the US military's post-9/11 propaganda activities. One quote from the second page stood out to me as particularly relevant to the efficacy of such information campaigns:
Many Iraqis say that no amount of money spent on trying to mold public opinion is likely to have much impact, given the harsh conditions under the American military occupation.
I think this is spot-on, for the simple reason that actions speak louder than words. Under unstable conditions such as those that currently prevail in Iraq, people will be more likely to form their opinions based on how they judge the quality of their own lives rather than on news reports and editorials. Public opinion can only improve when insurgent attacks decrease, utility capacity grows significantly, and job opportunities promulgate across the nation—in other words, when the benefits of invasion become self-evident to the average Iraqi. The $100 million we've spent building up the Iraqi media should have gone toward real-world efforts at realizing these benefits, e.g. infrastructure development, business investment, and/or local military training.

Here in the US, the situation is different: mediated accounts from news agencies and the government offer us our only window onto Iraq, which becomes the sole basis upon which we form our opinions on how the war is progressing. This suggests that in general, propaganda has its most significant effects on topics with which the target populations have no direct experience and vice versa. One recent example of the latter would be Bush's Social Security reform proposal from earlier this year, which now lies stillborn on the legislative backburner despite a major information campaign touting its necessity. People understood that Social Security will eventually begin to lose solvency due to increased life expectancies among a burgeoning retiree population, but they weren't willing to swallow an immediate need to switch to private accounts when more pressing problems demanded resolution.

Getting back to Iraq, most of the accumulated evidence leads to the conclusion that the information war is at best a relatively insignificant front in the larger struggle for hearts and minds. Given that covert propaganda carries a high risk of exposure and isn't very effective even when it remains hidden, the military should focus its efforts on creating good news in the field rather than with the word processor.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bush and the New Propaganda

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg reached a conclusion recently that this blog has danced around and hinted at but never stated explicitly: over the past five years, the Bush administration's efforts in public diplomacy have significantly outstripped those of White Houses past in both volume and egregiousness. He begins by defining the difference between mere "spin" and propaganda:
Though propaganda and spin exist on a continuum, they are different in essence. To spin is to offer a contention, usually specious, in response to a critical argument or a negative news story. It does not necessarily involve lying or misleading anyone about factual matters. Habitual spin is irksome, especially to the journalists upon whom it is practiced, but it does not threaten democracy. Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake "news," suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole.
There may be a meaningful distinction to make between these two concepts, but Weisberg hasn't made it here. He immediately telegraphs the forthcoming typological shortcomings in the first sentence: things that exist on a continuum pretty much always share the same "essence." Propaganda may or may not involve lying, and the entire purpose of spin is to effect favorable impressions and actions among the public--just as Jacques Ellul said of propaganda. If you're trying to convince me that the current administration uses propaganda more perniciously than its predecessors, great, but Weisberg's distinction amounts to little more than an attempt to tar Bush with the negative connotation of the word "propaganda."

But that's a fairly minor quibble; the relevant question is the one I just mentioned: whether this White House's use of propaganda techniques is actually more frequent, greater in variety, and more secretive than ever before. Weisberg's examples have all been well documented: Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, VNRs, and this new Iraqi newspaper payola scandal. But he never quite manages to transcend assertion—there's very little investigation into specific comparative questions, such as how Clinton-era VNRs differ from those of today or whether paying pundits to flack for administration policies has any historical precedent. The only substantive comparison Weisberg makes is between US underwriting of "democratically-minded" foreign journalism during the Cold War and the recently uncovered scheme in Iraq, and while it is relevant, it is not strong enough by itself to support his broad thesis.

I should reiterate at this point that plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that this president's public diplomacy methods do indeed represent a significant break from previously accepted practices. But simply ticking off a list of Bush's transgressions doesn't make a strong case for that conclusion. Arguing it successfully would require a clearheaded, apples-to-apples look at the similarities and differences between the information-management strategies of all the modern presidencies. Historical propositions require historical analyses.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is God Necessary? (apologies to M. Dowd)

In the course of lambasting noted anti-Darwininst Gertrude Himmelfarb for some commentary of hers recently published in The New Republic, National Review blogger John Derbyshire directs his readers to a suprisingly relevant Reason magazine piece from 1997 on intelligent design. In addition to ripping the "theory" to shreds before it was fashionable, author Ronald Bailey described the Straussian tendencies of a few of its otherwise agnostic conservative supporters. I use the term "agnostic" loosely to describe people like Irving Kristol, Leon Kass, and Robert Bork whose chief interest in religion appears to be the idea that it is the prerequisite for public morality, and that society would spiral into a Hobbesian nightmare without its narcotic influence.

I've seen and heard many religious fanatics assert that God is necessary for social order, but few have seen fit to buttress the claim with hard evidence. A spot of casual Googling did turn up several attempts to "prove" that religion underlies morality in society "as a general rule", but they're not very convincing. For example, the author of this article betrays an appalling inability to distinguish between correlation and causation in the following passage:
Some months ago, author David Myers penned an essay titled “Godliness and Goodliness,” which appeared in the magazine Sightings (4/11/01). Myers called attention to the fact that in one “U.S. national survey, frequent worship attendance predicted lower scores on a dishonesty scale that assessed, for example, self-serving lies, tax cheating, and failing to report damaging a parked car. Moreover, in cities where churchgoing is high, crime rates are low. . .In Provo, Utah, where more than 9 in 10 people are church members, you can more readily leave your car unlocked than in Seattle, where fewer than a third are.”
And thus the unwashed heathens of Seatown reap the bitter harvest of their atheistic ways . . . or not. A lower crime rate could be a positive consequence of higher church attendance, but I'd wager it's more to do with the fact that Seattle claims 36 times more people than Provo. Plus, I just can't figure out how the author could have overlooked the 2000 obscenity case against a Provo video-store chain owner whose acquittal rested on evidence that the town consumed a higher-than-average share of pornographic media.

More typical of the arguments for God as prime antecedent of all morality is the final clause of the following quote from Kristol, cited in the Reason article (emphasis mine):
If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.
Aside from the fact that Kristol sounds more like a comic-book supervillain than a serious thinker, he's merely asserting a link between two concepts (religion and the maintenance of social order) without supporting it. To refute his claim, one would have only to show that religion is no more a guarantee against social collapse (cf. 99% of the world's societies) than its absence is a guarantee thereof (cf. most Western European nations). The idea may be seductively intuitive, especially to the faithful and their leaders, but it is not borne out by the facts.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Anti-War Sentiment Spreading Among GOP Stalwarts

Declining support for the Iraq war and the directly proportionate declivity in Bush's approval ratings are well-established public opinion trends by now, but whether or not those negative feelings will manifest themselves at the polls in 2006 is an open question. According to a Washington Post story from today's edition, conventional wisdom among GOP insiders has it that House and Senate incumbents will be immune:
. . . Republican campaign strategists who are carefully monitoring public sentiment insist that, for now at least, the war is not likely to be a crucial issue in 2006, unlike taxes and health coverage. Moreover, they say, Bush -- not members of Congress -- will bear the primary political burden for events in Iraq.

"National security is not something you run TV ads on in a House race," Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said late last week.

I, as usual, am skeptical. A spin-doctor's job is to portray every situation in as positive a light as possible, and I'd expect nothing less of the GOP's finest. But my intuition tells me that the 2006 elections may hinge upon how closely Republican lawmakers are perceived to have hewed to Bush's agenda in general. In this way, widespread dissatisfaction with the administration may bleed over onto those who have supported its every move. The same lockstep party discipline that got the GOP into power in the first place may prove its undoing, if the public decides it doesn't like the status quo.

While taxes, national security, cultural issues, and political scandals will definitely be on voters' minds next year, Iraq isn't going anywhere. To the extent that it remains relevant to the 2006 elections, Republicans will need to come up with some sort of plausible plan for an eventual pullout. One of the reasons for the war's growing unpopularity is that it was originally sold as a very brief engagement on the order of months or even weeks. Another is that Saddam's purported WMD threat turned out not to exist--and Iraq is a greater danger to the US today than it was before the invasion. The administration originally claimed that invading Iraq was essential to maintain American national security, and now that it's saying the same thing about staying indefinitely, the people are understandably upset. Most would prefer obvious signs of progress over an immediate pullout, and if neither starts happening within the next year, the GOP will suffer accordingly.

Update: the WaPo's Jonathan Rauch opines similarly, citing historical evidence as well as recent poll results.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Profiling Doesn't Work Mk. Zillion

Do you feel profoundly uncomfortable with the practice of profiling of young, swarthy males as terrorist suspects yet unable to articulate your objection cogently? If John Walker Lindh and José Padilla weren't enough contervailing evidence, take a look at what the London Times turned up today.