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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Topic: Iraq

Tipping Point: Something Becomes News?

Over the last two weeks in these pages there has been a bit of discussion of how the government we established in Iraq, to replace the one dangerous one we removed, has been aligning itself with the government next door, Iran - cross-training troops, the new Iraqi PM laying the wreath at the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini on a visit to Tehran and all that. (See One Man's News Is Another Man's Tedium from July 17, 2005 and Non-Stories from last week.)

As you recall, the original Axis of Evil was Iraq, North Korea and Iran. The obvious question that came to mind was did we fight this war to install a government in Iraq that will join up with Iran in all sorts of military agreements? We created, possibly, a new client state of the worst-of-the worst, Iran? It seemed curious that that the government we brought into existence - to replace that of the former guy now in jail and awaiting trial - is aligning itself with Iran, who we have been told since the days just after 9/11 is just as bad (same axis) - and this was not all over the news.

Even more curious is the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein was quite secular, until some opportunistic Koran-thumping in the last weeks before the war. Iraq had one of the most progressive sets of laws protecting women's rights, they fought a long and costly war with the Shiite theocracy of Iran, and al Qaeda denounced Saddam as an enemy for his refusal to join the religious fanatics. They saw him as corrupt and worldly.

But now the Shiite fundamentalists have the power, the Sunni Baathist folks are out of luck, and the guys running this new fun house, like their Shiite counterparts next door in Iran, take their religion very seriously. Iran and the new Iraq have a lot in common.

But all this wasn't yet news, per se. It was quite startling, and made the whole war seem a tad pointless in a deeply ironic way - but to make it "news" there needed to be a tipping point.

That happened this week.

Wednesday, July 27, the Los Angeles Times, among others, reported on the draft of the new Iraqi constitution now in circulation (they're supposed to have it complete by August 15).

As the Times reports, it seems there are a few issues -
… the provisions on Islam and on the powers of the newly created federal regions are potentially divisive within Iraq. The powers of the regions are a concern for U.S. officials, as are the diminished rights of women.

The draft text states that "Islam is the official religion of the state. It is the basic source for legislation. It is forbidden to pass a law that contradicts its fixed rulings." That language is considerably stronger than the model set down by U.S. authorities before the hand-over of sovereignty last year, which stated that Islam would be "a source" for legislation.
Did Iran win this war? We won't get a unified county, women's rights will take a bit hit, and we get strict theocracy?

As for what it all means, Alex over at Martini Republic ("Lead, follow, or have a drink") sums it up this way:
The Chalabian fantasy of a pluralistic, Western-style democracy which the fools and dupes at PNAC who infest the Bush administration bought hook, line and sinker, continues to swirl down the toilet. The reality - a fundamentalist-Islamic regime in Iraq - continues to emerge as details of its new draft constitution comes to light.

Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the gang of bumbling neocon assholes who Bush brought into office believed that Iraq was ripe for a pro-Western democracy, that American troops would be greeted as liberators, and that there would be virtually no resistance to US occupation once the regime's forces were destroyed or disarmed.
What's the line? "Rats! Foiled again!"

The Times also runs an item on all this upsetting folks. The guy Cheney and Rimfeld and that crew hand-picked to run the news Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, did promise the new Iraq would be friendly to Israel. That didn't work out, and he didn't work out (or hasn't yet) - "Chalabi also promised his neoconservative patrons that as leader of Iraq he would make peace with Israel, an issue of vital importance to them. A year ago, Chalabi was riding high, after Saddam Hussein fell with even less trouble than expected."

As this Alec fellow had pointed out before, the Iraq draft permits Iraqi-born exiles to regain their citizenship - unless they are Jews. He notes draft Iraqi Charter also contains the following provision: "Any individual with another nationality (except for Israel) may obtain Iraqi nationality after a period of residency inside the borders of Iraq of not less than ten years for an Arab or twenty years for any other nationality..."

Oh well. And you might want to go read what he has to say about how the new plan takes away the rights of women.

His summary?
Bush has just about run the gamut of rationales for his rushed and forced decision to invade Iraq. First it was dismantling Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, which didn't exist; then it was disrupting the close ties and cooperation with Islamic fundamentalist terror groups which were similarly non-existent; finally, it was to put "Democracy on the March" in the Middle East, to show the way for Arabs to form a secular democratic government, which now looks like a march towards theocracy and Islamist rule. He's spent thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of cruelly maimed and wounded American soldiers, and hundreds of billions of American dollars, and the most favorable outcome we can hope to achieve is an Islamic republic, not terribly different from the neighboring Iranian regime Bush has labeled an axis of evil.
That's about right.

And for a full, careful analysis of the document, you might want to read what the University of Michigan professor, the Middle East expert Juan Cole, has to say in Draft Constitution Enshrines Islamic Law - but be prepared for a bit about the ambiguities particular Arabic phrases. It's rather academic. (No pun?)

Moving away from the academic, our columnist Bob Patterson listens to right-wing talk radio regularly, so we don't have to, and comments on Michael Savage.
I flipped on Michael Savage tonight and he is really ripping into Bush.

He says that the Iraq constitutional congress (or whatever they are calling it) says that the new constitution will found an Islamic Republic.

Savage says that's about the worst possible outcome there could be. He basically says all conservatives should punish the Bush Junta by voting for every Democrat in sight in 2006 and 2008.

Savage says that a Shiite Islamic Republic in Iraq would team up with the Shiite Islamic Republic in Iran.

If both countries voted for an Islamic Shiite leadership isn't that a triumph for the democratic way of life?

Gees, you'd think that Savage would be falling all over himself with praise for Bush's plan working out like that.

As this is being written he now is lamenting how much money it is costing and saying that an article in today's Wall Street Journal says it is all going to graft for the Iraqi politicians.

Gees! It is very disconcerting to listen to Savage and not have him blame everything on Clinton and heaping praise on Bush.

What's up with this?
Savage is hard to get. When he goes off like this he says later that he's just mocking the left - it's parody - and to others he says he really means it. He's needs his medication.

The larger issue is cognitive dissonance. How will the Bush side assimilate all this?

We shall see.

__

Unfamiliar with Michael Savage? You might want to checkout this from Paul Mulshine from the Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ).

Excerpts:
Al Franken and the other liberals are probably still wondering why they had such little luck in their efforts to start a talk-radio network to bash George Bush from the left. They didn't consider the obvious explanation. George Bush has his left flank nicely covered. It's on the right that he's weak.

That is the theory of Michael Savage. Savage is the most right- wing of the right-wing talkers on the national airwaves at the moment. He is based in San Francisco, but he can be heard in the New York area on WOR in the evenings. He is a welcome change from those Karl Rove clones Hush Bimbo and Sean Vanity.

"Hush Bimbo" and "Sean Vanity" are the names Savage has pinned on Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity of WABC. In doing so, he has sparked a war between the members of his "Savage Nation" (slogan: "Borders, language, culture") and the so-called "Bushbots," that sizable number of gullible Americans who can be convinced that whatever policy Bush adopts is a conservative policy.

"What makes Bush a conservative?" Savage asked when I got him on the phone the other day. "On the economy, Bush has got more governmental workers than anybody before him. He's ballooned the government."

As regards the so-called "war on terror," Savage points out that you can't win a war when you're afraid even to name the enemy.

"He's never mentioned Islamofascism," said Savage.

No, he hasn't. Even the French have been more willing to defend their borders, language and culture than Bush. He's a multiculturalist and a mushy one at that. Instead of reducing the reach of Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has managed in Iraq to get 1,700 Americans killed in a war that will create yet another Islamic republic. Just yesterday we learned that the new constitution in Iraq will incorporate sharia, Islamic law.

That's why we right-wing commentators believe the Iraq war has been the biggest blunder in America military history. As for Bimbo and Vanity, if I may employ Savage's labels, they are simply too uneducated to realize that the Iraq war represents a failed liberal exercise in nation-building.

"There is no college in Rush. There is no college in Hannity," said Savage. "He's a high school dropout. It's like listening to an uneducated, unthinking man on the radio."

Savage has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in epidemiology, an extremely challenging field. That makes him a bit overqualified for the verbal pro- wrestling matches that make up talk radio. But it also makes him interesting.

... Savage hears a lot from people who say that any criticism of Bush is a mark of disloyalty to conservatism.
Yeah, but PhD or not, he's a mean-spirited, nasty piece of work. MSNBC gave him a show a year or two ago, and that lasted only a few weeks. The final straw was when one caller raised the issue of rights for gays and Savage told him to just get AIDS and die, and hung up. So I'll let Bob listen all he wants and report back to me. I'd rather not listen to the guy.

Posted by Alan at 23:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005 23:34 PDT home


Topic: Local Issues

Cincinnati to the Moon

When events in Cincinnati are reported in the newspapers of Paris, then the world must be coming to an end. Those people can't even pronounce Ohio.

But such is the case. It seems the Paris-based International Herald Tribune (sort of the shorthand European edition of its parent publication, the New York Times) on 28 July ran the James Dao item from the Times - Iraq duty helps Democrat's election odds.

This is a review of the Jean Schmidt, Paul Hackett race for the open seat in the 2nd Congressional District of Ohio. That's Cincinnati. And the seat is open because the fellow who held it for twelve years, Rob Portman, resigned to become George Bush's new super-duper trade representative. So it's vacant now. The Republicans have held the seat for thirty years, all told.

Jean Schmidt, the Republican lady, should be a shoe-in. She's the daughter of a well-known local banker we're told, a guy who owned Indianapolis racecar teams on the side. She's married to an investment counselor. She has a twenty-seven-year-old daughter. She's a leader of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati. So what's the problem?

The problem is that her opponent, Paul Hackett, the Democrat, was, until four month ago, serving as a marine, commanding a unit in Iraq - and he's been going around calling President Bush a "chicken hawk" for not serving in Vietnam and saying the decision to invade Iraq was a big mistake.

When Michael Moore does that, well, that's one thing. What does he know? But this guy has been there. And he's not a flake. He's forty-three, a lawyer, and has those populist credentials - he's the son of a traveling salesman, and he joined the Marine Corps in college. He was honorably discharged in 1999 but joined again in 2004, to command a civil affairs unit in Ramadi and Fallujah. And he's got the appropriate kids - three children, ages eight, four and one. And he says that if he loses he will probably return to Iraq next year.

Oh my - the guy could be trouble.

How did this happen? Hackett, we are told, entered the race the day he returned from Iraq in March when a friend told him about Portman's nomination to the trade post. Schmidt, who is a former state representative, said she formed an exploratory committee, studied a straw poll and thought about the race for a about a week before she ran in the Republican primary.

And it's turning into a referendum on Bush. Schmidt argues that people in the district, which voted sixty-four percent for Bush last year, "adore the president." It seems Hackett thinks Bush is kind of a jerk (not his term, but close enough), saying we should have focused on capturing Osama bin Laden instead of invading Iraq so quickly.

Cool. But there are other differences:

Schmidt supports making all those Bush's tax cuts for the rich folks permanent, and offers no plans for closing the federal deficit other than trimming "unnecessary pork" and bureaucratic inefficiency. Bush. Hackett opposes making those cuts permanent, and he harps on the idea that our troops in Iraq are not receiving adequate supplies or benefits.

Schmidt wants abortion outlawed. No exceptions. Hackett says he opposes abortion but says the government has no business dictating "a woman's healthcare decisions."

It's a classic match-up, with the twist being this guy's military background. And now it's news, and getting national.

Schmidt is getting tons of cash from national Republican committees, and, of course, Bush himself has agreed to record a telephone message that will be delivered the weekend before the special election. On the other side the Democrats are sending in the staffers, and their big-gun, odd, bald-as-a-cue-ball strategist, James Carville. He was the keynote speaker at an event in Cincinnati on the 26th that raised almost a hundred grand for Hackett. Last week, Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and mutilated Vietnam veteran - the one Karl Rove destroyed by saying he was on the side of the terrorists - campaigned with Hackett, calling his decision to volunteer for Iraq "an act of conscience." Still, Schmidt raises three dollars for every one Hackett brings in. And she threw in two hundred thousand of her own dollars. (Hey, her daddy was big time banker, and his daddy a traveling salesman - so you now who knows how things work in the real word.)

This is hot. Hackett would become the first member of Congress to have served in the Iraq war. And he's ticked at Bush. You have to love the irony.

But he won't win. Not there. At a rally is Blue Ash, Ohio, Cleland said, "Someone who has led on the battlefield, that's the kind of person you want to see in the United States Congress." No, you want the rich girl.

And she's no dummy. Her campaign advisor, Eric Minamyer, is going on local talk shows and saying things like this -
I understand that Hackett did not participate in combat at all. It is still dangerous over there as I can personally attest. Let's just not act as though we led marines in combat if we did not, okay…

I have asked the question time and again, what role did he actually play?

Given all the opportunities he has had to say "I served in combat" one fair conclusion is that he did not.
Yep, he's a faker, just like Kerry, and not like that real combat veteran-hero, George Bush. Trust the rich girl.

Tim Tagaris over at Swing State Project covers how this is continuing -
1.)A local conservative radio host started by questioning Paul Hackett's service to country. Scott Sloan of WLW 700 AM in Cincinnati went off on some insane rant about the real level Paul's patriotism regarding the war in Iraq and claimed Hackett was using his service for "political purposes." Over the past two days, Republicans have been calling into talk radio across the district saying things like, "Paul wasn't really a Marine Corps Major in Iraq." It's a coordinated effort, as I am hearing from people that similar lines are being repeated and repeated by radio callers in and out of the district.
2.) The "swift boating" is picking up steam, and we have to fight back. I sat no less than five feet away from a reporter from a cable news outlet that asked, "Some say that this was all a plan on your part. To go to Iraq and come back with this great story while running for congress." Less than 30 minutes ago, a reporter from CBS asked about Eric Minameyer's question, and yes, questioned Paul's service to his country.
3.) A few days ago, an Army Private First Class was buried in Fairfield, Ohio. Within 24 hours, a number of flags were burned and tossed into a pile in front of his mother and father-in law's home. As you can imagine, this incident has led to a lot of press and sadness for the family. The same host above, Scott Sloan, attempted to tie Paul Hackett to the flag burning incident. He said that it was people like Paul Hackett that allow things like this to happen.
3.) Last night, a number of people in the district began receiving robo-calls talking shit (for lack of a better word) about Paul Hackett. Of course, they hit on the standard themes, choice, equal rights, and yes, Iraq.
4.) Earlier today, the police had to be called at campaign HQ as a strange individual pulled up to the office, kept the car in park, and started plugging away at a lap-top. When people walked out of HQ to investigate, the car pulled off quickly. The police have been notified.

One local said, "This really reminds me of what was happening last October. It got real ugly down here before the election. Sounds familiar...
Yes, it does. A preview of 2006 and 2008, of course.

One wonders what readers in Paris make of all this.

Posted by Alan at 20:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005 20:40 PDT home

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Ironies that can only be seen from the left side…

Some ironies:

African dust cloud drifting toward United States - Bob Arndorfer, Gainesville Sun, Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 6:01 am Eastern
A cloud of dust nearly the size of the continental United States drifting in today or Wednesday from North Africa may produce more colorful sunsets and sunrises in North Central Florida over the next couple of days. Aside from that, weather and other officials said Monday, the Saharan dust cloud should have almost no health or other impacts on the region.
Really?

Received from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - something he found on Craigslist, Rant & Rave (no URL provided) -
Now stop a moment and think. If the winds can blow dust from Africa to the US, then all that depleted uranium dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq is being blown this way as well. DU has had ten years to blow from Iraq into Africa, and has already been found in Europe. So, as you watch those spectacular sunrises and sunsets caused by the Saharan dust, remember that the horrors of cancer, leukemia, and birth defects visited on those foreign nations is now coming home.
Yeah, but this:

Sandia Completes Depleted Uranium Study; Serious Health Risks Not Found
Science Daily, July 24, 2005
Sandia National Laboratories has completed a two-year study of the potential health effects associated with accidental exposure to depleted uranium (DU) during the 1991 Gulf War.

The study, "An Analysis of Uranium Dispersal and Health Effects Using a Gulf War Case Study," performed by Sandia scientist Al Marshall, employs analytical capabilities used by Sandia's National Security Studies Department and examines health risks associated with uranium handling.

... Marshall's study concluded that the reports of serious health risks from DU exposure are not supported by veteran medical statistics nor supported by his analysis. Only a few U.S. veterans in vehicles accidentally struck by DU munitions are predicted to have inhaled sufficient quantities of DU particulate to incur any significant health risk. For these individuals, DU-related risks include the possibility of temporary kidney damage and about a 1 percent chance of fatal cancer.

... The Sandia study also looked at civilian exposures in greater detail, examined the potential risk of DU-induced birth defects in the children of exposed individuals, and provided a more detailed analysis of the dispersion of DU following impact with a number of targeted vehicles.
Ah, you see, it's perfectly safe stuff, or pretty safe. Jeb Bush and Kathleen Harris will not be glowing green next week. (The full report is here, in PDF format.)

It just sounds like bad stuff. If you're reading in Florida, enjoy the sunsets this week. If you can. Sandia National Laboratories is a government-owned/contractor operated (GOCO) facility. Lockheed Martin manages Sandia for the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. You can trust them.

__

Eric Alterman here goes for the ongoing irony:
Let's tally it all up: Creating a murderous civil war, badly weakening our military, creating anti-American hatred all over the world, vastly increasing the terrorist threat, getting thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands wounding, killing tens of thousand of Iraqis, torturing hundreds, perhaps thousands more, letting our true enemies retreat and regroup, and wasting hundreds of billions of dollars - to say nothing of deliberately outing CIA agents for political payback and firing everyone who tried to tell the truth and starving homeland security - all for a war in which we were never threatened. Seriously, if I were Bin Laden, I'd just retire. Everything's going swimmingly?
Yeah, well, that's the way it is. Elections do matter - if the guy really won them.

__

And this from the same Alterman column, Monday, July 25 - on a topic covered in these pages in the day before in News of What Didn't Happen, and of What Won't Happen - Cheney and the White House threatening to veto any legislation that would limit our right to torture and hide prisoners -
Let's say you are a Rush Limbaugh kinda guy who thinks that when you torture Moslems, brown foreigners, the like, it's all just a matter of fun and games like a fraternity prank. There is a still a downside to doing it. Not only is the rest of the world going to hate your guts, but the people who catch your soldiers are going to be unconstrained when it comes to torturing them. Wartime rules are designed to protect combatants on both sides as a matter of self-interest rather than moral fastidiousness. Because Dick Cheney had so many "other priorities" during the Vietnam War, including getting himself four student deferments and when those ran out, another deferment for married men with children, and George Bush was so busy doing, well, he can't remember and neither can anybody else, when it was time for them to serve in the war both men supported, neither appears to understand America's pragmatic - as well as moral - reason for not torturing people. It's going to get our guys tortured too. John McCain understands this, naturally, having served and been taken prisoner himself. This is no doubt why he has authored legislation that would have bar the U.S. military from engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees - in language modeled after wording in the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the United States has already ratified - and from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual. Cheney and Bush, however, want to block it. (So, no doubt does Limbaugh.) So next time one of you guys out there in Iraq finds yourself under torture from an Iraqi insurgent, well, you'll know who to thank, here. (The New York Times, by the way, buried this story on page A23 a day later.)
No, no, no... If one of our guys is captured and tortured, well, he is being tortured because the other guys are evil. We torture because we're GOOD! We want information. It's different. And it's policy.

You'd think we enjoyed torturing people. (Well, actually, given the photos released so far, and the photos and videotapes coming out soon (perhaps), what was going on had little to do with gathering information - as in videotaping of the anal rape of various pre-teenage boys who knew nothing, the more conventional rape of women prisoners, the biting dogs and all, and the general humiliation stuff - not to mention more that a few troublemaker prisoners had the idea they could make us look bad if they cleverly died. One wonders.)

No, there's something else here.

One suspects what Cheney is working on is keeping up our image of being folks you don't want to mess with - because we'll do just about anything, and enjoy it. The theory seems to be that this is exactly what keeps us safe, ironically enough.

Could he be right? What about events in London? And what happens here next? Making the other side feel outrage, and the deepest resentment, and seething, unmitigated anger - and making sure it grows and grows - may not make them behave. But we're not the guys calling the shots, are we?

Posted by Alan at 20:23 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 26 July 2005 20:36 PDT home


Topic: Photos

New Photo Album Posted

Forty-two photographs from the annual "Call to the Wall" surfing contest in Malibu, shot Friday, July 22, 2005 - along with some details of Malibu itself. Only a few of these have these have appeared in Just Above Sunset and on this site. There is far more than the surfing contest, so if you ever wanted to visit Malibu, this is your chance.

Click here to go there: Malibu Calling - The Call to the Wall

Posted by Alan at 10:37 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
home

Monday, 25 July 2005

Topic: The Media

What's The News? What You Want It To Be.
Last weekend in Just Above Sunset there were six paragraphs on how the news is, almost entirely, a commercial venture, and on the implications of what that means about what gets reported, and how it gets reported. That was the opening of Non-Stories, and the argument was that the news folks don't choose the news, the market does, with a few exceptions.

Now Richard A. Posner is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and in a New York Times item they will publish next Sunday - Bad News - the judge makes the authoritative argument for this idea. It's far longer than six paragraphs, and far better than the six in these pages. A friend who has often argued before Posner in Seventh Circuit appeals court tells me the guy is flat-out brilliant, and can be pretty brutal - but fair. (She didn't say the same thing about Scalia after arguing a few times before him down in Washington.)

In the Posner article to be published on 31 July (available early on the web if you know where to look) the judge is addressing how the conventional news media are "embattled." With books attacking them from both the left and the right, and this scandal or that, and being challenged by "upstart bloggers" – and with their audience in decline and "their credibility with the public in shreds" - well, it's a mess. Posner covers the polling data. It's not pretty, and he points out that most everyone sees the problem - thirty years ago news reporting was dominated by newspapers and by television network news, and audiences for these have declined. There's competition - cable television and the web. And things have turned partisan.

Posner points out this may mean the end of newspapers, if not most traditional news media, and this journalism thing:
The audience decline is potentially fatal for newspapers. Not only has their daily readership dropped from 52.6 percent of adults in 1990 to 37.5 percent in 2000, but the drop is much steeper in the 20-to-49-year-old cohort, a generation that is, and as it ages will remain, much more comfortable with electronic media in general and the Web in particular than the current elderly are.

At this point the diagnosis splits along political lines. Liberals, including most journalists (because most journalists are liberals), believe that the decline of the formerly dominant ''mainstream'' media has caused a deterioration in quality. They attribute this decline to the rise of irresponsible journalism on the right, typified by the Fox News Channel (the most-watched cable television news channel), Rush Limbaugh's radio talk show and right-wing blogs by Matt Drudge and others. But they do not spare the mainstream media, which, they contend, provide in the name of balance an echo chamber for the right. To these critics, the deterioration of journalism is exemplified by the attack of the ''Swift boat'' Vietnam veterans on Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign. The critics describe the attack as consisting of lies propagated by the new right-wing media and reported as news by mainstream media made supine by anxiety over their declining fortunes.

Critics on the right applaud the rise of the conservative media as a long-overdue corrective to the liberal bias of the mainstream media, which, according to Jim A. Kuypers, the author of ''Press Bias and Politics,'' are ''a partisan collective which both consciously and unconsciously attempts to persuade the public to accept its interpretation of the world as true.'' ...
Of course Posner is arguing that the media is controlled by liberals, and he doesn't like it much. But the twist is that the news media is full of liberals for reasons having to do with the economics of the marketplace.
The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.
No left-wing conspiracy against the patriotic God-fearing real Americans? It seems not.

So what happened? He argues there has been a "vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication" and "the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry." This led to a whole lot more choice. Thirty years ago the average number of television channels that Americans could receive was seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is seventy-one, and thirty years ago there was no internet, therefore no web, thus no online newspapers and magazines, and of course no blogs. Things changed.

Posner asks us to consider a town that before television came along, or even before, radio had just two newspapers. Why just two? Economies of scale made it impossible for a newspaper with a small circulation to break even. So the two, to stay in business, played to the middle:
Each of the two, to increase its advertising revenues, would try to maximize circulation by pitching its news to the median reader, for that reader would not be attracted to a newspaper that flaunted extreme political views. There would be the same tendency to political convergence that is characteristic of two-party political systems, and for the same reason - attracting the least committed is the key to obtaining a majority.

One of the two newspapers would probably be liberal and have a loyal readership of liberal readers, and the other conservative and have a loyal conservative readership. That would leave a middle range. To snag readers in that range, the liberal newspaper could not afford to be too liberal or the conservative one too conservative. The former would strive to be just liberal enough to hold its liberal readers, and the latter just conservative enough to hold its conservative readers. If either moved too close to its political extreme, it would lose readers in the middle without gaining readers from the extreme, since it had them already.
Clear enough. That's easy to see.

But then cost conditions change. Imagine what happens as it gets cheaper to publish. The liberal newspaper has to worry that diluting its message, in an effort to attract moderates, could cause it to lose its most liberal readers to a new, more liberal newspaper. They've lost their secure base. And the same thing the other way - by the same process the conservative newspaper more conservative.

Such things happen when it gets cheaper and easier to publish.

And that's what's happening now:
The current tendency to political polarization in news reporting is thus a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants. The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by catering more assiduously to their political preferences.
But wait! There's more! This change in the cost of doing business creates more crap - the endless coverage of Michael Jackson or the missing lass in Aruba and that sort of thing - and all the talk shows with pundits shouting at each other -
The tendency to greater sensationalism in reporting is a parallel phenomenon. The more news sources there are, the more intense the struggle for an audience. One tactic is to occupy an overlooked niche - peeling away from the broad-based media a segment of the consuming public whose interests were not catered to previously. That is the tactic that produces polarization. Another is to ''shout louder'' than the competitors, where shouting takes the form of a sensational, attention-grabbing discovery, accusation, claim or photograph. According to James T. Hamilton in his valuable book ''All the News That's Fit to Sell,'' this even explains why the salaries paid news anchors have soared: the more competition there is for an audience, the more valuable is a celebrity newscaster.
Be that as it may, Posner's main thesis - competition increases polarization - is interesting in that it assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones.

Lots of people say that we consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Yeah, right. Posner points out that if that were true -
? liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.
So folks want the news equivalent of comfort food. The world is a scary place.

So why do people "consume" news and opinion?
In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''

Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it.
As Rick, our News Guy in Atlanta, says, it's always a balance - between what should be reported in a democracy (people really need to know this), and what people want to hear about (people really want to know that). Our columnist Bob Patterson call she former "Broccoli News" - as in "Eat your broccoli, it's good for you - and stop making faces!"

How to disguise the awful taste of broccoli? Make a contest of everything - seeing this or that as something like a sports competition. That how we cover almost all political matters - news coverage of a political campaign is designed for a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded. Civic-minded stuff is so boring.

So we have a media that is increasingly, and inevitably, polarized, and pumping of sensational tabloid silliness. And no one is now talking about raising people's consciousness and elevating public discourse.

A problem? Maybe not.
Does this mean that the news media were better before competition polarized them? Not at all. A market gives people what they want, whether they want the same thing or different things. Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism.

Not that the media lie about the news they report; in fact, they have strong incentives not to lie. Instead, there is selection, slanting, decisions as to how much or how little prominence to give a particular news item.
It's a "market" thing.

But what about those journalists fighting for truth, justice and the American way - willing to go to jail to protect their sources and all the rest?

They need to get real -
Journalists are reluctant to confess to pandering to their customers' biases; it challenges their self-image as servants of the general interest, unsullied by commerce. They want to think they inform the public, rather than just satisfying a consumer demand no more elevated or consequential than the demand for cosmetic surgery in Brazil or bullfights in Spain. They believe in ''deliberative democracy'' - democracy as the system in which the people determine policy through deliberation on the issues. In his preface to ''The Future of Media'' (a collection of articles edited by Robert W. McChesney, Russell Newman and Ben Scott), Bill Moyers writes that ''democracy can't exist without an informed public.'' If this is true, the United States is not a democracy (which may be Moyers' dyspeptic view). Only members of the intelligentsia, a tiny slice of the population, deliberate on public issues.
Yep, that civic-minded hard-news policy-wonk stuff is so elitist, isn't it?

As for the facts of what's happening in the world, the idea here is "the public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors." Who needs facts?
The limited consumer interest in the truth is the key to understanding why both left and right can plausibly denounce the same media for being biased in favor of the other. Journalists are writing to meet a consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths.
It's a business, after all, and no business wants to offend a customer.

Bu the business is in trouble, from "the latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment." The BLOG!

Note this:
Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media. A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers. These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but also has to institute rules for avoiding error - like requiring more than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters' reliance on anonymous sources - that cost it many scoops.

Blogs don't have these worries. Their only cost is the time of the blogger?. Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media's customers one by one, as it were.

And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become bored. It was the bloggers' dogged persistence in pursuing a story that the conventional media had tired of that forced Trent Lott to resign as Senate majority leader.

What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.
Oh my! Posner says that, in effect, blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not twelve million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with twelve million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It's as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

How can the conventional news media hope to compete? It's not even fair.
The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend.
Oh drat, now I feel so? dirty?

But, Posner asks, are the people less well served than in the old days?

Surveys show that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, "including that bane of the right, National Public Radio," are attracting ever larger audiences. And there's that tiny, tiny group that invites challenges to its biases - reading The New York Times along with The Wall Street Journal, watching CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between. For them, Posner suggests, the increased polarization of the media "provides a richer fare" than ever before.

Yeah, it does. But who has the time?

Posner ends with "maybe there isn't much to fret about."

He took a lot of words to tell us not to worry.

By the way, Eric Alterman - that fellow who wrote the book What Liberal Media - provided the link to this Posner article (here) commenting he is in the middle of writing a six hundred word reply to Posner for the Sunday Times. Alterman has opposed Posner before, as in this.

And ironically, Richard Posner has a blog, written the Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker, The Becker-Posner Blog.

Posted by Alan at 21:14 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005 21:17 PDT home

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