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"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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Friday, 29 September 2006
A Dialog on the Facts of the Matter
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
A Dialog on the Facts of the Matter

It all started when Reality Takes a Holiday was first posted on the web log, Monday, September 25 - the first of a few posts discussing the leaks about the long-delayed National Intelligence Estimate ("Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States") that was all over the news. But the item was mostly about who controls what we think of as reality, ranging into a discussion of what the retired generals were saying about Rumsfeld and all that. There seems to be a great deal of difference as to what the basic facts are in these matters. And the public gets whipsawed back and forth.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said this - "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Well, some say he said that, but who knows? Still, that's the issue now. We've stopped arguing about our opinions. Now we are about who has the facts right. In fact (no irony intended), there's a political website edited by Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, called Same Facts, and that has the Moynihan quote right up there in the masthead. The mission there seems to be to get the basic facts straight in the ongoing national dialog, but it's an uphill battle. We live in the age of spin, what Stephen Colbert has coined "truthiness" - the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts. You see, Colbert sought to critique the tendency to rely upon "truthiness" and its use as an appeal to emotion and tool of rhetoric in contemporary socio-political discourse. He particularly applied it to President Bush's modus operandi in nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and in deciding to invade Iraq as well as the rationale behind Wikipedia.

But of course that definition itself is from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit, on the presumption that one can build a really amazing body of facts about everything if everyone joins in. But that hasn't worked out that very well, even if folks really do want to know what's what in this world. People pop things into Wikipedia that just aren't facts, but seem plausible. Someone says this or that is a fact, but everyone has an agenda, or they might be confused, or they might be flat-out wrong.

So, given that National Intelligence Estimate, is it a fact that the Iraq war has had the opposite effect of its stated purpose, and of the rationale now presented to us for "staying the course" - the idea of changing nothing and simply fighting on? All sixteen of our national intelligence agencies say so - the war has created a whole lot more terrorists (something about dismantling and then occupying a Middle East country for four years, for reasons that all turned out to be false, making the locals, and others, angry), and created a practical terrorist training ground where there was none before, where all sorts of better and better roadside bombs can be perfected and all that.

But the president says this is not so - "You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism." His gut tells him so - everyone else is naïve, and buying into the enemy's propaganda (which doesn't say much about his own CIA and all).

See Michael O'Hare at Same Facts -
If you fight floods by constraining the river with levees, you create floods.

If you fight infection with shotgun dispersion of antibiotics, you create more, worse, infections by resistant bugs.

If you fight forest fires by putting out every fire, you create really big fires.

If you fight crime in poor minority neighborhoods by sending white cops in to break heads, you create crime.

If you fight misbehavior in children by beating them with a belt, you create misbehavior.

If you fight AIDS by attacking the CIA for inventing it, you get more AIDS.

If you fight impiety and unbelief by berating the congregation for being so small, you create more impiety.

I think the president may be mistaken.
But he says he's not mistaken at all. The intelligence agencies all have their so-called "facts," but he is appealing to what's under those facts - the gut feeling that this is a war, and you fight wars by, well, fighting.

What should you believe? What are the facts here?

In September 2001 we were attacked by an organization of fundamentalist religious madmen, if you will, who had been given refuge in Afghanistan. Three thousand people died. Everyone called it an act of war, and it was just like Pearl Harbor, or worse. So we went to war, and we're still at war, and you win wars by fighting. That's what the president knows, viscerally - in his viscera of course, and that would be his gut.

But then note Richard Reeves here -
Actually, 9/11 was mass murder, and it should have been treated as mainly a challenge for the police and intelligence services. Interpreting the 9/11 attacks as an act of war demanding military reprisal has only helped up the ante of violence throughout the world.

In other words, declaring "War on Terror" was a mistake. A big one. Hurt and angry, we overreacted to 9/11. Leaving aside, for the moment, the invasion of Iraq, which history, in 2031 or 2131, is likely to judge as one of the stupidest presidential decisions of all time, we would have been wiser to treat 9/11 as a crime rather than an attack.
So it is a "fact" that those attacks were an act of war, or were they a crime, mass murder of the worst sort? It depends on how you see things. We may have started with the wrong "fact" - although seeing things as "war" was more than understandable at the time.

Reeves -
I did not think at the time that declaring undeclared war in 2001 was a mistake. That day in September, I was just another guy trying to get into Manhattan to find my family. It was impossible. If someone had asked me then, as I sat in fifty-mile-long line of stopped cars, I might have been for using nuclear weapons to retaliate. But the history of the past five years has persuaded me that we should have concentrated our power and money, whatever it took, to find the people who did it and treat them as common criminals of the worst kind.

Instead, we fell into a well-laid trap: We declared war on Islam. We did exactly what the terrorists wanted. Osama bin Laden and his ilk were dedicated to re-starting the Crusades, hoping to provoke a running war between the evangelical modernity of the West and the more zealous faith of many, millions, of Muslims. And they did it, helped by our righteous anger.

I don't just mean that we are losing in Iraq. Personally, I don't think it matters whether we leave that sad country today or in ten years. We have been defeated there by our own arrogance and ignorance.
But we do have this war, so that's moot. Now what? And what is the public to believe?

Staring with the presumption, perhaps foolish, that we are not spectators in all this but actually actors - we vote and elect people to do for us what we think they should - we have here a prescription for paralysis. No one can agree on the basic facts of the matter at hand, so what can you really do about anything?

The Dialog

Okay, the facts are in dispute and people - left and right - feel both angry and powerless.

And in reaction to the "Reality Takes A Holiday" item, one reader sent this comment along -
I found myself mentally composing an Op Ed piece about citizen impotence, and realized I didn't know enough about the two concepts that kept ringing around in my head: impeachment and no-confidence motions. Since I am at my desk at work, and supposed to be working, I resorted to Wikipedia to get a quick glimpse at their definitions.

Regarding no-confidence, I got a single sentence that confirmed what I suspected: "In presidential systems, the legislature may occasionally pass motions of no confidence, as was done against United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the 1950s, but these motions are of symbolic effect only."

Then, I continued in Wikipedia to impeachment, and was struck by the last sentence excerpted and copied here -
In the constitutions of several countries, impeachment is the first of two stages in a specific process for a legislative body to remove a government official without that official's agreement.

Impeachment occurs rarely enough for many in a country to misunderstand its nature. A typical misconception is to confuse it with involuntary removal from office; in fact it is only the legal statement of charges, paralleling an indictment in criminal law. An official who is impeached faces a second legislative vote (whether by the same body or another), which determines conviction, or failure to convict, on the charges embodied by the impeachment. Most constitutions require a supermajority to convict. George W. Bush must be impeached per a decree from God.
Of course, being Wikipedia, someone could edit it out soon, but as of ten minutes ago, it was there.

It's gone now, but Wikipedia is like that. People mess with the facts. They add their own "facts." That's one of the dangers of relying on Wikipedia.

But that was worth sharing with the Just Above Sunset community - the online salon, as it were - the small email forum where a lots of ideas get batted about.

Of course one friend from Canada had to chime in - "Dangers? Looks spot-on to me!"

Then there was this from our high school student in New Jersey - "At school when ever we do research papers the teacher always warns us against Wikipedia. Anyone could add information to that site. It's kind of depressing so many people rely on a source made up of information from totally unreliable sources."

Another reader -

Condi and Karl do the writing.

But then I just came across an editorial - "Insulting Bush Helps Our Enemies" - and I think to myself, Gosh, am I to blame for endangering America? Over my first cup of coffee, it strikes me that if the headline's true, well then his handlers "shudda taut about it" before they PUT HIM in HARM's WAY!

Now we're the guilty ones... hah!
To which Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, adds this -
"Insulting Bush Helps Our Enemies"

I do not believe that news headlines should take political sides, even though I do happen to agree with both assertions found in this headline:

(a) Yes, Bush certainly is insulting, and
(b) Yes, he certainly does help our enemies.
Then from the New Jersey high school -
I agree that headlines ought to not take political stances, but I think it is unrealistic to expect a newspaper to be totally neutral because everyone has their own opinion. Also headlines that display a strong opinion are more likely to sell then those that are neutral due to the fact that those which are displaying an opinion usually have more exciting headlines.
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, to central New Jersey -
I should mention I was being at least partly tongue-in-cheek when I said that I don't think headlines should take sides; I am ashamed to confess that I was mostly just using that line to set up the joke.

True, people have opinions, but I tend to be more trusting of news outlets that don't. The argument that objectivity, being impossible, should not even be strived for is usually put forth these days by "truth relativists," most of them cynical conservatives who don't believe in anything they hear anyway.

And the "whatever sells" argument, which has become all the rage in recent years when "serving the public interest" has taken a back seat to "enhancing shareholder value," doesn't work for someone like me who started in the news business forty years ago, back when informing the public was more important than "beating the street."

In fact, I'm not so rigid as to deny a newspaper the right to decide however it wants to tell its readers what's going on in the world, or even how to sell itself, but I will say that I certainly wouldn't buy, nor do I subscribe to, any newspaper that would sink so low as to try to get me to agree with it by the way it reports the news.

Not that I believe there ought to be a law against subjective news reportage; I just don't personally find it credible, and I try whenever possible to avoid wasting my time by reading or listening to it.
From the New Jersey high school -
I should try being less cynical when looking at news sources. One day in my IPLE class (Institute for Political and Legal Education) we talked about how the media and other news sources affect people and how its role has changed over time - it was pretty interesting.
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
You're probably not really cynical per se. Maybe skeptical? I think of skepticism as cynicism's non-sociopathic cousin. Witness your healthy skepticism of Wikipedia. I myself went in a month or so back and edited their article on CNN, correcting what they said were the network's original bureaus. I was right, of course - I was there in 1980, helping to get them up and feeding video to Atlanta - but still can't help being suspicious of a medium that anyone out here can edit, almost with impunity.

Yep, news sources certainly have changed since this "new media" wave hit our shores. I like the quote I heard recently from an editor at (I think it was) the Sacramento Bee, who said something to the effect that, "Sure, we're still the gatekeepers, but apparently somebody went and knocked down the walls, and everyone's running right around us."
That prompted a question from New Jersey - "I'm trying to figure out what caused the change in the media - was it sudden or gradual - and why did it happen?"

At this point the high-respected professor of marketing from a highly respected graduate school of business in upstate New York laid it all out -
Why the change in media?

Follow the money!

Public ownership of media corporations and a general financially-based cynicism that grew in the 1990's especially, as too many Wall Streeters became heroes of the Quarterly earnings machinery, resulted in a distortion where corporations began to believe (or operate as if they believed) that earnings was the Mission of a corporation - which it ISN'T. This from a business school prof, mind you. Profit SHOULD be a Strategic Measure of success and NOT the purpose of the firm. The Purpose of a firm USED to be seen as fulfilling a consumer (aka social) need. IF a business doesn't fulfill a need it doesn't profit, and thus doesn't survive. So profits should be a metric or indicator but not a PURPOSE.

MBA students - and we've trained too many with too little context for Liberal Arts Decision Making - have been led to believe that maximizing profits in the short run is equivalent to maximizing profit in the long run. But privately held companies, that don't NEED to pay out larger and larger profits every three months, are inclined NOT take cash out of the system in excessive amounts. When the key decision-maker is also the primary beneficiary (stockholder, stakeholder) then appropriate short-term sacrifices are made when long-term gains require serious investment. Quarterly payouts take a backseat to smart long-term maneuvering in the marketplace, and to even greater profits in the long run.

The fallacy - in my humble opinion - of where the financial logic breaks down is in financial modeling. The models themselves (Capital Asset Pricing Model, Derivatives models, etc) are elegant and SHOULD actually fulfill the short term long term promise. HOWEVER - and here you can blame the accountants - LOL - the models DON'T work perfectly in reality because people (those accountants) CAN'T PREDICT THE FUTURE ACCURATELY. If people could foresee the future and put in highly accurate future data, then the financial models would indeed work perfectly and Wall Street would be vindicated. But we don't know the future. And the human condition within businesses means that we will ALWAYS forecast to the rosy scenario - we don't tell our boss the dirty downside - we forecast in ways that exaggerate the upside - for how else would we SELL OUR PROJECTS to decision makers? If we could foresee the unforeseen consequences of our current actions (which invariably are more costly than we can estimate BEFORE those new problems arise) we'd have perfect financial scenarios and short run would actually equal long-run best interests. (See the work of Peter Senge for interesting concepts about unforeseen consequences!)

This is a very convoluted way to say that in the 1990's greed took over America in ways that had been held in check in earlier times. We've always had greed but it hasn't been this institutionalized since... the 1880's maybe, before modern labor law was enacted to protect the worker. Here I might rely on others with deeper historical resources. But I'll guess industrial revolution was the last instance of unchecked greed at level equivalent to today. Needless to say, as money becomes king, content (in media in this case) takes back seat, and we get publishers who as a rule forsake balanced journalism in the name of increasing market share among greedy readers - more interested in shock value than newsworthiness of their news. I mean look at the OJ phenomenon and everything that has come since.

Greed has replaced human sensitivity as a social dynamic - and we can then begin to argue that the style of media itself continues to reinforce cynical world views. It's a vicious cycle. There's an interesting corollary in Wal-Mart playing upon our collective greed to support its lower price - always lower price - strategy (which often is NOT the case - they aren't ALWAYS the lowest retail price in town for all goods they sell, but they OWN that position in your head - the Power of Advertising!) And the way they can continually meet your demand for lower prices is to pay workers relative wages that are unsustainable - the old joke that as more and more people work for Wal-Mart, more and more can't afford to shop anywhere else, and at some point can't even to afford to shop at Wal-Mart. No joke. It's THEIR cost model! Where do all the profits go, you ask? To every investment fund that owns Wal-Mart stock. Venture a guess at how many Wal-Mart employees are invested in stocks! Does Wal-Mart have a retirement fund for employees? It doesn't have adequate health care coverage!

So we lose the middle class in America - day by day. The middle class that automation (and Henry Ford) built. The suburbs, the public school systems, the telephone and highway infrastructures of America - ALL affordable because of a huge middle class with disposable income - extra wealth beyond the bare necessities, and able to pay taxes. America's secret as a success story IS the middle class. The life and freedoms and luxuries we enjoy in the US are all here on the backs of the middle class. And it's going away - and going away by design as more and more money gets pushed upwards to fewer and fewer of the haves. It's not your grandfather's America anymore. Or your father's. Or your father's media. Or your father's politics.

Is it too late? Like global warming, is there a tipping point beyond which we're moving where the sins of our constant (quarterly) consumption can no longer be rectified even if we try? I trust not. I trust we're in a deep pendulum swing. And your generation will have grown up in this world of constant change - indeed accelerating change - with skills and attributes that will allow you collectively to snatch us from this path to some new direction - and with new sense of destiny and accomplishment.

And if not - well then we hand the baton to China. We've a run for a couple hundred years. Next...

Here's to picking up the challenge. All you need is a dream... and the determination not to let 'em get you down (Didn't Bono write a song like that? Kinda). You'll be in good company. I've got a daughter determined to contribute in a better way. Here's to pendulum swings!
Now THERE'S a dose of reality.

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
With the possible exception of that stuff on financial modeling (which I didn't understand), I by and large agree with this take.

It's not that newspapers make a better profit margin than they did thirty years ago or so. In fact, I think margins for the owners have always been good and haven't changed much. What has changed are the owners themselves, along with new attitudes of what must be done to maintain those profits. Newspapers used to be largely owned by families and closely held companies controlled by those families, but I'm pretty sure they've mostly been taken over public corporations.

Please, nobody stop me from telling this story if they've already heard me say it, but when I went to work for Ted Turner in 1980, he owned about 87% of his company; by the time I left in 1985, he had given up voting control to his major backers, Time-Warner and TCI, and it was downhill for CNN ever since. Unlike in the days when that crazy drunken sailor was making all the decisions, huge mutual funds and pension funds now call the shots, and the reason I know these people care less about CNN showing us the world as they do about showing shareholders the money is this: All of my own money is in mutual funds, and if my fund doesn't perform, I find another one.

So it's the schmoe-on-the-street like me who really doesn't care about the way companies do business as much as how much money they can get out of whatever it is the companies do. In fact, corporate ownership has become at least one area where I think too much democracy can be a bad thing.
The marketing man -
That's very interesting twist of the screw! Irony into which to sink your teeth! And a solid argument against privatizing social security!
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
Hmm. Maybe so, although probably not the best one I can think of.

To me, to "privatize" a "public" program means to "abolish" it. Do we really want to do that, we should ask ourselves (but often don't)? No, wait, someone suggests, we're not really "abolishing" the program, we're just "personalizing" it, giving Americans the chance to realizing a higher return on it! It's part of the "ownership society" thing, in which we do for ourselves instead of expecting government to do for us!

But the problem with what I'm sure Bush and his minion think of as an innovative and neat idea is that it takes both the "social" and the "security" out of "Social Security," which citizens seemed to sense, and which I hope is why the effort died.
Our high-school friend really started something here (and had better not tell his teachers). On the other hand, in his next paper he can quote the unpublished observations of a noted marketing expert, and one of the founders of CNN. Things have changed for this generation.

And the topics here didn't really drift. We're all just trying to get the facts straight. That's what we're supposed to do - be informed citizens.

If only it weren't so tricky.



On media and following the money, the local story out here is the Los Angeles Times, as the AP, on Friday, September 29, explains here -
Barely three months after the demise of Knight Ridder Inc., the same pressures that forced the storied newspaper publisher out of existence are shaking the foundations of another media empire.

But as Tribune Co. considers a potentially drastic makeover amid impatience on Wall Street, declining circulation and other issues, the third-largest U.S. newspaper company isn't necessarily facing a wholesale dismantlement or sell-off within the next few months.

The pressure on Tribune to act is intense, though. Tribune signaled a week ago its intent to make big changes, and CEO Dennis FitzSimons says all options are on the table.

While an outright sale of the company, as happened with Knight Ridder, may not be likely, several partial breakup scenarios are starting to emerge, ones the company will have to consider before investors force action.

The Los Angeles Times and other prize jewels all will be studied for what selling them would do to the company's stock, tax bills and future, even though FitzSimons insists the Times isn't for sale.

Tribune underscored its commitment to a significant overhaul on Thursday, saying it has hired Merrill Lynch and Citigroup as financial advisers and retained Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as legal counsel for its independent board committee reviewing strategic options.
But out here, ever since the Tribune folks took over the Los Angeles Times. they been on the cost cutting thing - whole swaths of folks are gone, and the current editors are standing up to the parent company. They just don't want to fire any more reporters to improve the bottom line. What's the point? And the founders of the paper, the Chandler family, holding the biggest block of Tribune stock, doesn't want the newspaper turned into an empty shell. The Chandlers sold Times-Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, to Tribune in 2000 and have three board seats.

The situation -
The Chicago Tribune last week cited unidentified sources as saying the company's preferred solution is to spin off many of its two dozen TV stations, sell several smaller papers among its eleven dailies and take the rest of the company private in a leveraged buyout.

That outcome, however, hinges on lots of buyers stepping forward with big checks at a time when the newspaper industry is under siege from Internet competition for its readers and advertising dollars. Other questions also hang over local television stations.

Tribune insisted until recently that such marquee assets as the Cubs or its Tribune Tower headquarters building were untouchable, as were businesses in its three major markets of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. But many think that has changed as the stock continues to languish.

So far, the only reported inquiries into Tribune properties to have surfaced publicly in the last week are for smaller Tribune papers: The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. and three Connecticut dailies - The Hartford Court, the Advocate of Stamford and the Greenwich Time.

Billionaire Ron Burkle, business leader Eli Broad and Hollywood mogul David Geffen have voiced interest in the Los Angeles Times, but no formal offer is said to have been made. A spokeswoman for Geffen's office declined comment and Burkle and Broad did not return phone calls.
It's not like the paper is worthless. These guys will take a steady twenty percent return and the chance to do the Citizen Kane thing. Or is that Ted Turner? In any event, there'd be no corporate owners demanding double-digit year-to-year growth. You'd just being putting out a reasonably good newspaper, respected around the world, and making reasonable money, no matter what the Chicago Cubs lose or how things are going in Allentown or Hartford.

We'll see how this plays out.

Posted by Alan at 22:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006 22:31 PDT home

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