October 2008 Archives

Crowd Counts

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Discussing the Obama campaign’s proclivity for announcing the crowd counts at its rallies, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank today says that, for the campaign, size matters:

At virtually every stop the candidate makes in these closing days of the election, the campaign sends out an announcement with a boast about how really, really big Obama's audience is.

Sunrise, Fla., Oct. 29: "A capacity crowd of 20,000."

Norfolk, Va., Oct. 28: "22K: 11 in the stands/11 on the field."

Fort Collins, Colo., Oct. 26: "45,000-50,000, with thousands still flooding in."

Not only does Obama want you to know how huge his crowds are, but he also wants you to know his opponent, John McCain, has itty-bitty crowds. "University of New Mexico fire marshal Vince Leonard quotes approx 35,000 inside Senator Obama's event tonight and at least another 10k-15k outside," the campaign boasted Saturday night. "Senator McCain reportedly had less than 1,000 this morning."

Milbank critiques the campaign for touting numbers that are sometimes on the sketchier side of an educated guess, and takes issue, in particular, with its use of crowd-count “validators”:

Of course, crowd estimating is a rather inexact science… To add legitimacy to the crowd boasts, therefore, the Obama campaign accompanies each measurement with the name of a "validator."

"Total is 35k," Obama campaign aide Ben Finkenbinder wrote in an e-mail to reporters on Wednesday night. "Validated by Danny McAvoy, Osceola County Fire Marshal." He then provided Marshal McAvoy's phone number.

Some validators are more valid than others. From Las Vegas came this questionable boast by the Obama campaign: "Bonanza HS Assistant Principal Zane Gray . . . says: '18k ppl.' " The "verifier" for Obama's Norfolk event on Tuesday was the unofficial-sounding "Megan Mensick, Event Coordinator, Seven Venues."

Granted, in his somewhat condescending assessment of the “validators,” Milbank is being just as inexact as the people he’s profiling. Who’s to say, after all, that the assistant principal at Bonanza High School isn’t an excellent crowd counter? Yet Milbank’s point reminds us that, while the idea of inflating crowd counts isn’t anything new, there’ve nonetheless been tales of fumbled or obviously exaggerated numbers during this election cycle. And rally accounts from today’s newspapers remind us that the figures included in such stories are as evocative as they are informative:

The Miami Herald states that Obama “drew standing-room-only crowds in heavily Republican Sarasota and in Orlando and Sunrise over the past two days,” including a “crowd of about 12,500 people” in Sarasota County.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Obama “drew more than 20,000 people to a rally Tuesday in Norfolk” and “spoke to roughly 10,000 supporters yesterday at the Verizon Wireless Virginia Beach Amphitheater.”

And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette states that at a campaign stop this morning in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Palin was “greeted by several thousand fans who started lining up around 6 a.m. outside a freezing hangar at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.”

Sometimes, the evoke-and-inform mandate can be slightly more problematic. The LAT, for instance, makes blanket mention today of the record-setting “100,000 people” who “in a sign of their enthusiasm for Obama…showed up at his Oct. 18 rally at the riverfront arch in St. Louis.” (The lump-sum number of 100,000 made it into all the headlines two weeks ago: the AP report confirmed the number with the Obama campaign, while MSNBC’s First Read confirmed it with the St. Louis police. An LAT blog account cheekily but responsibly introduced it as “a figure a police official signed off on.”) In today’s LAT article, the loss of the word “estimated” and the suggestion that all 100,000 attendees were there “in a sign of their enthusiasm for Obama” evokes rather than informs.

Sometimes, when reporters run with campaign validators and their number estimates, the story suffers, and not just because of errant implications:

Covering a Biden rally in Florida, the Ocala Star-Banner described “a wildly cheering crowd estimated at 3,500 people at the Dancing Horses Farm, just west of Ocala,” adding that it was “Bob Walla, owner of Dancing Horses Farm” who made the estimate.

But Milbank deconstructs that estimate:

"Owner of Dancing Horses Farm, Bob Walla, is estimating crowd count at 4,000," the campaign announced at a Biden stop in Ocala, Fla., on Tuesday. But Walla's crowd inflation was easily exposed: A Washington Post reporter stood on a riser and counted 1,200.

It is, of course, unreasonable to demand crowd-count fact checks for all of these innumerable rallies (and there’s no guarantee that the Post reporter was wholly accurate). But the Obama campaign has made a big deal of its ability to draw crowds; it has, in fact, been a bit of an emotional selling point that Obama can so consistently congregate ridiculously large numbers of people. And press accounts that uncritically accept campaign-provided crowd numbers ultimately abet the campaign in selling that point. There’s a difference, when reading, between “a wildly cheering crowd” of “3,500 people” vs. one of 1,200. In other words, let’s use caution in employing unverifiable numbers in the service of colorful crowd descriptions.

Plus, there are always other ways that numbers can be evocative—in more verifiable ways. The Dallas Morning News, for instance, has a whimsically quantitative story about the availability (or lack thereof) of Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin signs in the North Texas area:

Staff members at Dallas County Democratic headquarters are fielding calls from disappointed people still seeking signs. The party went through more than 6,000 signs, even after it started asking people for donations to offset costs.

It uses quantitative details to illustrate a community’s excitement to visually show support for the candidates: “A voicemail on the Denton County Democrats' phone says they are out of signs for this election,” while “in Collin County, Republican county chairman Fred Moses said the final order of 1,000 yard signs just arrived and should last through Election Day.” And it’s actually a pretty good way of accurately using numbers to tell a story.

Commitment Issues

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Is there anything in this world more baffling than an undecided voter? Lacking, as a group, the noble self-sufficiency of independent voters, or, for that matter, the dynamic unpredictability of swing voters, The Undecideds—like a washed-up, '60s girl group, or the collective villains of a Stephen King novel—are, quite simply, indecisive dimwits. Their minds have yet to be made up not because they're too open, but because they're too feeble.

Per today's Los Angeles Times, at least.

In an article dripping with condescension—from its headline ("What's up with still-undecided voters?") to its kicker (Amanda Taylor, an undecided, 32-year-old teacher, "plans to stay up Monday night, searching for that elusive piece of information that will lead to the undecided voter's Holy Grail -- certitude")—the Times essentially argues that...undecided voters are slow in politics because they're slow in everything else.

Meet Gloria Raymond, An Undecided from Tallahassee, who explains her political procrastination thusly:

"I'm waiting for one of them to shoot himself in the leg," she said, meaning the foot, which she would also like to see Democrat Obama or Republican McCain put in his mouth.

Thanks for clearing up her meaning, LA Times, in a totally straightforward and non-condescending way!

The paper needs to engage in such clarification, however, if only to translate Undecidedese into Regular Person English for its readers. The mind of An Undecided, you see, works differently from yours or mine. "Presidential elections don't always rise to the level of monumental decisions," the piece's author, Faye Fiore, notes, "but with two wars, a crippled economy and an energy crisis, this one does, and the undecided mind swings back and forth, amassing evidence, unwilling – unable? – to rush it."

Got that? If the point of an election is making, you know, a decision between the candidates, then An Undecided is a loser in the game, the kid on the soccer field who, rather than dribbling the ball toward the goal of his choice, gets distracted by butterflies or clouds or his shoes.

And just as the crowd reaction to this type of laissez-faire footballing is to scream at its perpetrator in baffled frustration from the sidelines, so the Times hurls an exasperated Aaaahhh! Just run already! to its unwilling-or-unable-to-decide sources. In the form, that is, of thinly veiled mockery.

Undecideds, for example, "have been spotlighted on cable news shows, pandered to by the candidates and skewered on comedy television ('chronically insecure . . . attention-seekers . . . people who get their heads stuck in jars while eating pickles')." And though, "this year, they look to be significant again," a recent SUNY-Buffalo study found that "the last time wafflers made a difference was 1960."

And good thing, apparently. Here's more from Raymond, who's a seventy-two-year-old retired waitress:

"I have cats, but I love dogs, and I've been thinking about it like five years already if I should adopt a dog. It's a lot of responsibility and at my age I'm afraid to do it, but if I found a dog that's 10 years old so he doesn't live too much longer after me," she said. "And I want to buy another car because my car is old, but I keep thinking, if I just fix it . . ."

Ha! Get it? She can't decide about a dog, either! Or even about a car! Undecided in life = undecided in politics!

Now, meet Joyce Noland, sixty-six, of Wilmington, Ohio, who "thinks McCain and Obama are "both good men," and can't decide which one she likes more."

"I'm leaning McCain, but I think Obama is like a breath of fresh air," she said, having voted twice for George W. Bush. She thinks Obama's running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, is "a blowhard."

"But no matter what happens," Fiore notes, "she plans to wake up happy on Wednesday."

We never hear why. But, apparently, we don't need to. If we believe what we've just read, the indecision of The Undecideds is a punchline all its own.

Xunlight Shines on Palin

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On Wednesday, I had a column about a number of energy and environment reporters’ reflections on their beat’s novel significance during the presidential campaign. The conclusion was largely that, because of the economy, the energy story had returned to the back burner.

The same day, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave an energy speech at the plant of solar energy cell manufacturer in Ohio. Had I not filed my column early and been flying at 35,000 feet between San Francisco and New York, I might have noted this. But the coverage of Palin’s talk reaffirmed my point about a relatively diminished role for the energy beat. The event drew a fair amount of coverage, actually, but the stories appeared mostly on news outlets’ blogs rather than in their print editions.

On the other hand, that might not signify much in the world of modern journalism, where editors and readers are, thankfully, coming to see less of a distinction between the two media. To be sure, most of the blog posts on Palin’s energy speech are article-length and some are very detailed. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, for example, as a great, 1,100-word post on The Trail blog. She leads with Palin’s central message that “lower oil prices shouldn't curb America's drive to drill domestically,” and draws on some long quotes from the speech before rounding off with some excellent detail on the Alaska governor’s visit to Xunlight Corp.’s solar plant.

As I noted on Wednesday, Eilperin is likely the only energy and environment beat reporter assigned to travel fulltime with the candidates. In an interview she told me that she appreciates The Trail blog because it allows her to write more about the campaign, though the ratio of energy to general coverage remains about the same. And Palin’s visit to Xunlight is exactly the kind of story that many would never see without the benefit of blogs. And after the relatively stoic beginning to Eilperin’s post, it’s not hard to pick up on some mild exasperation with the governor’s attempt to claim the mantle of energy guru. “Yeah! Good!” Eilperin records the governor saying upon being shown some lightweight solar panel, noting that Palin “stroked the panel in question.” On a more serious note, Eilperin writes:

“God has so richly blessed our land with the supplies we need," [Palin] said, despite the fact that the U.S. lacks enough domestic oil and gas reserves to meet its current energy demand.

In pointing out the tragic irony (or contradiction, if you prefer) in much of Palin’s speech the press achieved its most insightful coverage. And again, we have blogs to thank for permitting that critical tone. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital took the prize for pithiest lede: “Sarah Palin went to a solar plant in Ohio to talk about oil today.”

Indeed, in one the few mentions in print, The New York Times slammed Palin in an editorial today, rebutting her assertion that she and McCain were making a “clean break” from the Bush administration. “Ms. Palin mentioned greenhouse gas emissions exactly once,” the board wrote, arguing that her speech amounted to the “same old” fossil fuel oriented approach that has abetted the current energy crisis. A Wednesday post on the Times’s Caucus blog had a different tone, however, leading with the observation that Palin had “abandoned the usual flash her campaign rallies … No blaring country songs. No pink handmade signs. No rousing chants of ‘Drill, baby, drill.’”

The Associated Press seems to have goofed up on that slightly, reporting that Palin “repeated her signature anthem, ‘drill, baby, drill.’” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder posted her full remarks on his blog and it appears she didn't actually use those words. Still, many commentators felt the mantra’s underlying presence strongly enough. The Boston Globe, which seems cobbled a staff report with the help of the AP wire, wrote that, “Despite Palin's attempt to distance McCain's energy policies from those of the Bush administration, their priorities are largely similar, especially more [oil and gas] domestic production.” The paper also noted (wisely) that, “While she promoted her advocacy of a $40 billion natural gas pipeline designed to link Alaska to the lower 48 states, questions have been raised recently about whether the bidding process was flawed and whether the pipeline will be finished.”

At Grist, the online environment magazine, Kate Sheppard pointed out that, “Despite delivering the speech from the doorstep of a solar start-up, she didn't talk much about what she'd do for solar, wind, or any other renewable energies.” Both the pro-environment blog Earth2Tech as well as The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s student paper, ran Palin’s speech through a “word cloud” generator (an increasingly popular, though admittedly limited, technique among some media pundits) and found that ‘oil’ and ‘coal’ did receive the lion’s share of attention.

At the Climate Progress blog, Joe Romm, who served as an assistant secretary for renewable in the Clinton-era Department of Energy, argues that Palin’s “prepared text alone leaves no room for doubt. A McCain-Palin administration will not be issuing new orders that businesses must follow to control greenhouse gas emissions. It will use a voluntary or incentive-based approach, one that has never worked in any country to restrain emissions growth.”

Many posts about Palin’s speech have been wise to note the next president’s position on legislation (a Congressionally approved cap-and-trade scheme) versus regulation (the EPA capping carbon via the Clean Air Act) is one of the most important questions out there. But Romm’s analysis is stretching it. That McCain would completely abandon cap-and-trade (for which he’s been a pioneer) is as uncertain as the idea that Obama would immediately opt for regulation. The latter rumor began to circulate two weeks ago after a Bloomberg news article quoted Obama aide Jason Grumet saying that the senator might follow that route.

All the campaign reporters I’ve talked to say that it’s been difficult to pin down the exact details of some Obama’s and McCain’s policies. They both support “clean energy” and addressing “global warming” (though the media has been careful to point out McCain has retreated form this in favor of more fossil fuels production). It’s the how that still vexes reporters and the public alike.

Expanding WaPo(litical Coverage)

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Next week, post-election, Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli informed staff today, DC's hometown paper will create a new Web feature that will cover "the central institution in this town, the federal government."

The Post's expanded coverage "will pioneer true newspaper and website collaboration at The Post," Brauchli wrote in a memo. "We'll combine the reportorial, multimedia, design and editing skills of both newsrooms, to produce a lively and comprehensive array of news, analysis, blogs, video, interactive features, live discussions, games, advice and aggregation from other web sites."

Sounds...well, exactly like almost all major Web features. Still, the notion of "expanded, deeper and more sophisticated coverage" of the workings of the federal government is exciting (and, really, there's no paper better positioned to engage in that than the Post). We look forward to the effort. In the meantime, here's Brauchli's full memo, per Michael Calderone:


With Washington about to face its first major government transition in eight years, we're preparing to launch expanded, deeper and more sophisticated coverage of the central institution in this town, the federal government. Through a new web feature and expanded coverage starting next year in the newspaper, we'll dedicate space and reporting resources to the people, the processes and life within the federal workforce. Our aim is to become a must-read for the hundreds of thousands of government workers and contractors who live and work here and around the country.

This effort will build on the success of the In The Loop column and the Federal Diary. It also will pioneer true newspaper and website collaboration at The Post. We'll combine the reportorial, multimedia, design and editing skills of both newsrooms, to produce a lively and comprehensive array of news, analysis, blogs, video, interactive features, live discussions, games, advice and aggregation from other web sites.

Eric Pianin, politics editor at the website, will lead this effort and oversee the coverage both online and in the paper. Al Kamen, Joe Davidson, Robert O'Harrow and Ed O'Keefe -- with other players to be named -- will form the core of our reporting and blogging team. We'll also draw on beat reporters from elsewhere in The Post to deepen our coverage in their areas of expertise. We hope this pioneering effort will serve as a model for future integration of our newsrooms under a single, shared vision that expresses itself on multiple platforms.

The website will go up after the election next week, and we'll have a more ambitious print and online roll-out by Inauguration Day.


All Hallows (Pe)Eved

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David Shuster is, apparently, that dude: the guy at the Halloween party--the smug-looking one, over there in the corner--who is just so above the whole thing, and who keeps informing everyone that he doesn't do costumes, or that he's spending the evening as, you know, "himself." Witness the following exchange between the NBC correspondent and the anchor Contessa Brewer on MSNBC Live this morning, which occurred over footage of a soon-to-start Palin rally:

BREWER: This is Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Flanked by at least one of her children there and husband Todd in this final push to capture Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes. This is the one state the Republican ticket is doing their best to turn a blue state red. As soon as we see Sarah Palin speaking here, we'll bring that to you live. I was thinking we might see those kids in costume today, but maybe not. Let's go to David. I did see the pumpkins out there...there is Halloween spirit out there.

SHUSTER: I'm going to make a stand. I'm not going to make any Halloween references. It's always awkward when politicians do it--and news anchors.

BREWER: That sounds like that was aimed a little bit at me. Were you taking a shot at me, David?

SHUSTER: No. I'm aiming it in general. Howard Norman points out all the ridiculous Halloween references politicians make and they sound just as bad as when we do it. You have been warned.

BREWER: No more Halloween references to you, David.

SHUSTER: Thank you. We are approaching a crucial hour on the race to the White House....

Sheesh. Turns out Shuster did come in costume today, after all. As "Humorless Guy." Though, come to think of it, maybe we should just feel relieved about Shuster's stand: The small minority of Americans who will not be spending this evening bespectacled and be-beehived as Sarah Palin probably just deserve the thanks of a grateful nation...

[transcript per TVEyes.com]

Weapons of Mass Reduction

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In its most basic and useful form, a correction fixes erroneous reporting and provides a public admission for an error. Though it rarely tops 100 words, the correction, when properly deployed, can also be transformed into a weapon of mass reduction (as in ego).

Witness, for example, The Washington Post’s choice of words this week when >correcting a photo caption:

A photo caption in the Oct. 22 Style section incorrectly referred to Bill O’Reilly as a “right-wing pundit.” The Fox News host presents himself as an independent.

Yes, O’Reilly “presents” himself as an independent. Meaning: he’s not one. The Post is by no means the only news organization to deploy WMRs. The Australian delivered an enjoyable example in 2006 when an athlete lobbied the paper to correct a report about his boozing at a concert:

AN article in The Australian yesterday (“Tarrant caught out again as rock ’n’ roll lifestyle lingers”, page 31) said AFL footballer Chris Tarrant was “spotted at a Jet concert, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other”. This was incorrect. The Australian accepts that Tarrant was not at the Jet concert. As reported, Tarrant was out late and drinking the previous Saturday night.

It’s the correction equivalent of a frenemy apologizing for saying you look fat in those pants, and then whispering “but you really do.”

Another form of WMR is the pseudo-correction. This is when the correction format is used as a means to make a point, rather than correct any real factual error. In 2004, a race for a seat in the House of Representatives turned nasty when the National Republican Congressional Committee produced an ad that attacked the deceased father of Democratic candidate Don Barbieri. At the time, Barbieri’s Republican challenger, Cathy McMorris, stayed silent about the ad, causing a columnist with the Lewiston Morning Tribune to pen a biting pseudo-correction:

An Oct. 1 editorial referred to Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville as a “classy candidate.” This page regrets the error. — P.M.

Clever, but it has nothing on a pseudo-apology. This has been elevated to an art form by certain British newspapers, and no one does it better than The Sun. (Some quick accuracy math for you: the quality of a paper’s pseudo-apologies is directly proportional to its penchant for scandalously inaccurate reporting. Thus, The Sun’s dominance.) Here’s how the paper, uh, apologized to a member of England’s national soccer team during the 2006 World Cup:

SUNSPORT would like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt SORRY to Owen Hargreaves.

Over recent weeks we might have given the impression we thought he was, well, rubbish.

But Owen proved against Portugal, with his all-action performance, that he was well worth his place.

Unlike soppy Sven [Goran Eriksson], we’re big enough to admit we got it wrong.

Sven Goran Eriksson, the team’s manager, eventually earned his own apology:

RECENT articles in this column may have given the impression that Mr Sven Goran Eriksson was a greedy, useless, incompetent fool. This was a misunderstanding. Mr Eriksson is in fact a footballing genius. We are happy to make this clear.

And another one two years later:

The Sun may have inadvertantly suggested that former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was a prize twerp in selecting Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup squad.

We now accept Mr Eriksson was ahead of his time and correctly recognised his ability. We wholeheartedly apologise.

Though pseudo-apologies are by far the most destructive of their ilk, the very existence of WMRs could make sources think twice before requesting a correction—or speaking to a specific media organization. That’s yet another thing journalists could find themselves having to apologize for.

Correction of the Week

“In a report published in The Sunday Age on 16 September 2007 entitled ‘Is it the end of the line for a legendary seabird? This is where ‘Operation Albatross’ comes in’, it was said that Mr Brothers invented a chute device which drowned endangered albatrosses and other deep diving sea birds. The Sunday Age acknowledges that Mr Brothers did not invent the chute device and that it does not drown these sea birds. The Sunday Age apologies to Mr Brothers for any hurt he has suffered.” – The Sunday Age

About a Boat

“In discussing allegations that George Osborne solicited a donation for Conservative party funds from Oleg Deripaska, Michael White’s blog (Osborne and the Russian billionaire, October 21) inadvertently referred to Lord Ashdown’s donations to the Tory party when he meant Lord Ashcroft’s. The former Liberal Democrat leader assures us he has made no such donations. He does not have a yacht. As far as he knows, nor do any of his friends.” – The Guardian

Parting Shot

While following Sarah Palin on the campaign trail this week, Ana Marie Cox, former editor of Wonkette and currently a blogger for Time, offered what appears to be the first notable correction to a Twitter message. Her Tweet:

CORRECTION: Palin lauded those who “cook our food,” rather than eat it. Still, that means Mario Batali is a better American than you.

Making a Ghoul of Yourself

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It’s Halloween, which, naturally, means it’s time for TV news people to make fools of themselves. To start the day off right, CNN trotted out Kiran Chetry to gauge world opinion about the upcoming U.S. election. As she chatted up a British correspondent, the camera pulled out, revealing what Chetry was wearing with that stark, classy black top of hers: a horrid and clingy orange skirt. Oh, and she was standing behind a bale of hay topped with two elaborately carved, glowing jack-o-lanterns.

A bit further downtown, the cast of The Today Show was not to be outdone. Orange and black officewear? Psssh. Amateurs! Al Roker dressed up as a gingerbread man. A giant, foamy gingerbread man with a green button on his crotch and red eyebrows up top. Now that’s how it’s done, people. Meredith Vieira emerged as Pinocchio, her womanly figure crushed into lederhosen, her face painted in the manner of plywood and adorned by a long, floppy nose. And Matt Lauer? He showed up as Humpty Dumpty, his face painted a cadaverous white, his limbs protruding awkwardly from a huge white ovoid dressed in red velveteen. And, in case they had a little too much pride left, the whole Today Show cast split into teams—Mother Goose vs. Brothers Grimm—to play “Fairy Tale Feud.” Truly, this must be seen to be believed.

So, anyway, as we were saying about the world’s opinion of America…

The Corner's Andrew Stuttaford reacts to The Economist's Obama endorsement:

The Economist....
...endorses Obama, as it did John Kerry (2004), Bill Clinton (1992) and no-one (1984, 1988). Yes, it endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W Bush in 2000, but to portray this particular endorsement as an Obamacon moment seems like a stretch.

Robert Draper, in an interview with WWD, answers the Big Question most people had after reading his revealing profile of the McCain campaign in last week's New York Times Magazine: How did he get all that access?

When I began this story in early August, the McCain campaign felt pretty sanguine about their prospects.…Though the outcome of the story is not as they would have scripted it, it’s understood by them and others that I didn’t sucker punch them. It helped that I had contacts in the McCain campaign from the previous GQ stories I had done and I had a lot of contacts in Bush world. A lot of those people had gone to work for John McCain. That led to their belief that they’d get fair-handed treatment from me. And we’re talking about The New York Times, with whom they have an adversarial relationship.…I think their calculation was, if they’re ever going to get a fair shake from The New York Times, it’s going to be with Draper.

P.S. Draper's also blogging the last leg of the election for GQ.

Halve Not


A Debit to Reuters for posting a 19th century headline—and getting it wrong.

The topic is undergarments. Specifically, Hanesbrands, about which Reuters had this announcement on October 29: “Hanesbrands Q3 profit more than halves.”

In plain English, they are telling us that Hanesbrands’ third quarter profit fell 59 percent. In Reuters-speak, which appears regularly, the profit apparently “halved,” and then some.

We have two problems here.

One, the verb “halve.” It is the kind of word that you read every now and then, especially in cookbooks, but never really use, because nowadays people (except headline writers) prefer the more natural “cut in half.”

And yet Reuters not only uses the clunky term—to save space, perhaps—but modifies it with “more than.”

The even bigger problem is that Reuters’ construction is just plain wrong. According to Merriam Webster, “halve” is what grammar geeks call a transitive verb, meaning that it must have an object. As in, “He halved the apple.” Subject. Verb. Object.

Not that you’re likely to hear such a phrase anytime soon. But, nonetheless, it is correct. So Q3 profit can’t “halve.” Rather, something (subject) has to halve (verb) the profit (object).

Get it, Reuters?

Just to make it entirely clear, we offer you one of the more modern examples of “halve” from the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which traces word usage over time. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1789: “The fervid Sun had more than halved the day.”

Romantic poet right. Reuters wrong.

Charting a New Course

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The future is here, sort of. On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor announced that starting in 2009 it would stop putting out the daily paper, cutting back to a weekly dead-tree edition, and a concerted focus on daily web content.

The Monitoris a nonprofit whose moneys come from three sources: $9 million in subscriptions; $2 million in print and online ad revenue; and a $12 million endowment from the Church of Christ, Scientist. According to Business Week, it’s “currently posting net losses of $18.9 million a year.” The initiative is geared to eliminate the high cost of printing and shipping the paper, as well as make it more timely: the Monitor’s far-flung subscribers receive the paper via the U.S. Postal Service.

The move comes at a time that many publications are looking for a solution to their financial jigsaw puzzle, which means that publishers’ ears around the country are perking up. But, what’s good for the Monitor may not a be a one-size-fits-all solution for other publications, says Alan D. Mutter, a businessman and news industry veteran who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur. “They’re such a specialized business that whatever they work out that is successful for them, there’s lessons to be learned, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the general circulation daily newspaper,” Mutter says. “And if they fail in it, which of course we hope that isn’t the case, that failure doesn’t mean that the ideas that they have bad ideas. It just means they couldn’t make them work.”

Monitor editor John Yemma says the business plan going forward is to drop the subscription price from $220 to $89 for the year. This price will include a weekly newspaper as well as a daily e-mail newsletter with a news digest and links to current stories on the site. He expects that the lost subscriptions from customers who want a print product will be compensated by readers attracted to the lower price point. The business plan also includes hope for growth in online ad sales, which now generate more than $1 million annually.

However, this may be harder than it sounds, Mutter says, because advertisers from the print edition may not necessarily follow the publication online. “People who are buying print advertising are buying print advertising on purpose,” he says. “If they wanted to buy online advertising, trust me, the newspapers would be glad to sell it to them.”

Yemma also says he’s expecting staff cuts next year. His current prediction: ten to fifteen percent of positions, which will be identified in the future.

Still on paper, his plan looks good: eliminate high production costs, grow circulation, increase web traffic, cut staff. So why can’t everyone follow suit? According to Mutter’s calculations, most newspapers still earn as much as 90 percent of their revenue from their print editions, so a digital shift is simply not an option.

The big question facing the Monitor and any other publications considering such a shift face is the entrenched reading habits of their subscribers. The Monitor’s print readers are, on average, in their sixties. Online, they are in their forties. So the Monitor may draw a younger reader online, but for longtime readers who may not be so computer savvy the switch may hurt.

“One thing that would be really interesting to know, and we won’t know and will only become clearer with time is, how many people still subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor do so because they like the print format and so, you may be asking a lot of people who aren’t comfortable on a computer, or don’t like using a computer,” Mutter says. “You maybe asking a lot of people to change their habits in fairly dramatic way. And if, in fact, that’s who their readers are, many of those people may say, that’s not what I signed up for, so I’m out.”

Still, Yemma says, there might be ways around the problem: “Some of our readers who maybe don’t read online, they may get e-mail. And they also may have people who can print it out for them. So imagine someone who is in a rest home, for instance. They love their Christian Science Monitor. It’s one of their companions. They may not want to go and sit down at a computer terminal. But it may be that in the rest home the people who are could print it out and distribute twenty copies. So we’re hoping that it may satisfy people.”

The Washington Post is good this morning in reporting that the Bush Administration, which is exiting with the house falling down around it, is trying to knock out another couple of columns before it goes. After all we’ve learned in recent months, what we don’t need is more deregulation so industry can do what it wants without oversight.

The new rules would be among the most controversial deregulatory steps of the Bush era and could be difficult for his successor to undo. Some would ease or lift constraints on private industry, including power plants, mines and farms.

Those and other regulations would help clear obstacles to some commercial ocean-fishing activities, ease controls on emissions of pollutants that contribute to global warming, relax drinking-water standards and lift a key restriction on mountaintop coal mining.

And more:

As the deadlines near, the administration has begun to issue regulations of great interest to industry, including, in recent days, a rule that allows natural gas pipelines to operate at higher pressures and new Homeland Security rules that shift passenger security screening responsibilities from airlines to the federal government. The OMB also approved a new limit on airborne emissions of lead this month, acting under a court-imposed deadline…

A rule put forward by the National Marine Fisheries Service and now under final review by the OMB would lift a requirement that environmental impact statements be prepared for certain fisheries-management decisions and would give review authority to regional councils dominated by commercial and recreational fishing interests.

Self-regulation has worked out so well on Wall Street, so why not in the environment?

The Journal scoops that Wall Street bosses are looking at ways to cap their own pay because of the nasty political environment they find themselves in. The paper mostly takes the right tone here:

And as Wall Street firms examine their pay and bonuses, distinctions are being made between the highest-ranking executives and lower-level traders and investment bankers who aren't widely known beyond Wall Street but could get plucked away by rival firms if compensation practices are significantly altered.

As a result, the most likely scenario in the firm-by-firm discussions is a sharp decline in compensation for chief executive officers, but fewer changes in how bonuses are paid to most employees, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But why should anybody get bonuses at all at companies that are losing billions of dollars, not to mention taking government funds?

In another compensation story, the WSJ looks into the big pension plans on Wall Street that are still owed to execs by companies and were already being effectively being subsidized by taxpayers because they’re tax-deferred. The Journal says the big boys owe their executives more than $40 billion for deferred compensation and pensions.

Problem is, most of these companies haven’t set aside assets to pay for these obligations, meaning they’re getting subsidized by taxpayers again through the multiple ongoing bailouts.

Floyd Norris over at the NYT digs into the negative GDP number yesterday to report how bad things really are.

This recession, in other words, is already deeper than the 2001 downturn. And there are clear signs it is, or soon will be, worse than the 1990-91 recession as well.

If only consumer purchases were counted in G.D.P., it would have fallen at a 3.1 percent annual rate in the quarter. That is the worst quarterly performance in that regard since the second quarter of 1980.

The Times continues its good reporting on AIG. Now the government is adding another $21 billion in loans to the heap. This is great context:

A.I.G.’s big borrowings underscore the company’s bewilderingly rapid decline. When it suddenly faced a cash crisis in mid-September, the original estimate of the amount it needed was just $20 billion. A few days later, the Fed stepped forward with its $85 billion credit line. And now, the stunning size of that original bailout has grown by almost 70 percent.

A.I.G.’s cash needs could grow even further. Much of the cash it needs is being used to meet collateral calls from its derivatives counterparties, and the precise collateral triggers and amounts are not public information. In general, the derivative contracts cost A.I.G. more as the real estate markets decline. The company’s financial products division did a lot of business in that type of derivative, called credit-default swaps.

The Journal has a nice on-the-ground story from a vulture-fund conference.

A large exhibit area, called Preservation Hall, overflowed with six rows of vendors peddling liquidation services, bankruptcy advice and financial analysis. Those attendees that weren't pocketing stuffed pelicans and shot glasses often crowded around tables where investors pronounced their desire to finance distressed companies.

They will have plenty to choose from.

I like that Bloomberg put out this story about Austin residents up in arms over $64 million in city tax subsidies to corporate retailers via mall giant Simon Property Group.

The prevalence of locally owned small businesses is part of the uniqueness celebrated by the Keep Austin Weird movement, including the Cathedral of Junk, Ginny's Little Longhorn bar and the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata.

The mall has already been built, so it seem unlikely the backlash will succeed. But there's not enough reporting on the corporate welfare out there, especially the kind that hurts small businesses, so thanks to the Berg.

Bill Kristol guested on The Daily Show last night, giving way to a lively and rather fascinating exchange. The conversation's general takeaway: that partisan rhetoric--especially when it comes to the hyperbolic treatment of Obama's so-called "association with terrorists"--is to some extent a smokescreen.

STEWART: You have said about Obama that it's fair game to talk about his radical associations. But one of the things you don't like about him is he's too conventional. Now isn't that somewhat at odds?
KRISTOL: No, I think he made it through some fairly radical associations, but he actually is--I don't think he'd be very a radical president. In fact, I think he'll disappoint a lot of people on the left because he'll be a conventionally liberal president. And if you're a liberal, you should be for Obama, and if you're conservative, you should be for McCain. It's not a psychodrama, it's just an election.
STEWART: No. It's just an election! Yeah, what could happen?

Introducing News Meeting

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Welcome to News Meeting, a regular feature where we pose a journalistic question suggested by recent headlines (i.e. "Should newspapers cover the rumor of John Edwards's affair?") and then discuss the question in the comments section. CJR staffers will join with readers in expressing and defending their opinions on some of the top media issues of the day. Please join the fray.

Evolving technology and the rise of social media have magnified the power of the individual consumer and helped grass roots groups shake up corporations and government agencies for what they see as shoddy products, policies, regulations, and services. This daylong conference, co-sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review and Consumer Reports, will be held at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on November 20, 2008. It will be the first forum to bring together key players who are making this happen, including influential Weblog authors, high-profile activists, and social-media pioneers, as well as journalists who cover and interact with them. The conference agenda: to explore the role each plays in the emerging phenomenon, what they can learn from each other, what is fair and what isn’t, and what is the future of the consumer reporting agenda in such areas as business, healthcare, and the environment.

An Invitation

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Back in June, we gave one of our interns the daunting task of tracking newspaper buyouts and layoffs since 2007. She diligently worked the press clips and the phone and counted up to 2,700 by the end of the summer. The spreadsheet is not definitive but it is depressing—statistics from a plague (three here, twenty there; eighty here, 150 there) that is moving through newsrooms across the country.

Yet at the same time, a world of news innovation is emerging online, both inside and outside of mainstream media. A recession looms like an iceberg but under the waterline is something unknown, a great restructuring of the way people get their news and information. The recession will end, but the fate of quality journalism is not easily discernable. Here at CJR, we intend to do all we can to shed light on that future and to explore the efforts under way to repair or replace the economic model. And also to give voice to those affected.

In July, we invited laid-off and bought-out journalists to reflect on their experience in the form of a letter to colleagues. We published a number of them on our Web site under the rubric Parting Thoughts, and will continue to do so as they arrive.

Now we are issuing a similar invitation to the young people who’ve come into the profession in the last five years or so, and the young journalism students who soon will. We invite them to air their concerns and hopes about journalism, too. The central questions: What do you see in this business that makes you still want to pursue it? How do you imagine people will get quality news five years down the road? How will you try to fit in?

We’ll call this one Starting Thoughts, and if you fit the category (or know young reporters or journalism students who do), we invite you to join the discussion by emailing us at editors@cjr.org. We’re looking for anything from 600 to 1,200 words. Please put “Starting Thoughts” in the slug line.

But Wait! There's More!


Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such ads as "What If," "Plan for Change," and "Our Moment Is Now."

Oh, wait. Oops. Not Troy. Barack. Starring, yesterday evening, in The Mother of All Infomercials.

Obama didn't try to sell us Ginsu Knives or Magic Bullets or (alas) PedEggs. He was selling, rather, Hope and Change and A New Direction for America (for the low, low price of one vote!). Or so he said. Obama's Big Ad was, say what else you will about it, inspirational. It was pacifying (Mika Brzezinski, on MSNBC this morning, called it "a visual scented candle"). It was "soothing" (Joe Scarborough). It was historic (such a thing hasn't been attempted since Ross Perot pulled a similar stunt in 1992). It was informative. It was moving. It was bold. It was "extraordinary." It was "pitch-perfect." And it was incredibly, laughably sappy.

As in, there was Muzak involved.

This last one, however, was not was not enough to make the media question the ad. (Muzak? Seriously?) Instead, they lauded its narrative verve and high production values:

The program gave a new meaning to the word “infomercial” and, for that matter, to all notions of political advertising. Executed with high standards of cinematography, with help from the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim, the infomercial was part slickly produced reality program; part Lifetime biography; and part wonkish policy lecture with music that could have come from “The West Wing.” [Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times]

As a piece of political theater, the program was a low-key triumph, a message perfectly attuned to the cool side of the medium. [Robert Biano, USA Today]

Obama hopes will take him to the White House. He paid more than $4 million to blanket the prime-time airwaves with an ad that cast him as a bipartisan healer and a family man, a commonsense politician, and an American son with Kansas roots. The imagery of Obama with his head down and his back to the camera was Kennedy-esque, but the solemn symphonic strains invoked the heartland spirit of Reagan. [Carrie Burdoff-Brown, Politico]

The triumphal assessments are understandable enough; the ad buy was rather novel, after all, and it was, as many of the analyses noted, well-produced (for an infomercial, anyway). But still, every advertisement is a combination of inspiration and calculation, of art and artifice; Obama's most recent is no exception. And in focusing on the former in their assessments of it, many in the media lost sight of the latter.

Assessments might have noted, for example, the fact that the ad exists in the first place because Obama broke his pledge to use public financing for his campaign in order to court the private cash that made this ad buy feasible in the first place. Few did so. Instead, we got a lot of message-siphoning and uncritical repetition of the advertisement’s claims. We got a lot of stenography; we got much less analysis.

The message-siphoning we've been seeing in analysis of the Obamamercial (and it's not universal, it should be noted—the Los Angeles Times, for one example, provided a nice, critical look at the ad) emblematizes a larger problem with how the media report on political ads. There's something of a cottage industry of political journalism that analyzes, in particular, the candidates’ advertisements—and, in even more particular, the attack ads.

Rarely does a day go by, during the height of campaign season, that some cable analyst doesn't ponder the searing question that is "attack ads: how many are too many?" or some such. And in all the "analysis," nets almost always play and replay the ads in question. They stamp a little "Political Ad" icon in the corner of the screen, sure, so audiences don't confuse the ad with, you know, journalism. (I appreciate the lip service to journalistic divisions, and everything—but until the ominous-voiced Attack Ad Lady realizes her calling as a TV anchor, I think we can pretty safely assume the line is still clear.) But, before they/after they/in order to analyze the ads, they air them. Almost always in their entirety.

Or, rather, they air the ads that they deem worthy of analysis and debate. In other words, they air the ads that are, generally speaking, most controversial. So if you're a campaign communications strategist, how do you ensure that your ad gets exposed among the media? You make it offensive or ridiculous or otherwise controversial. You make it, in other words, "good TV." ("Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such ads as the really controversial ones.") The term "free media" has expanded: no longer does it simply relate to journalists interviewing candidates and covering their events; it also relates to journalists unintentionally amplifying campaign messages in the name of "analysis."

And what do we get in return for acting as candidates' megaphones—and, for that matter, for incentivizing salaciousness? We basically write ourselves—or air ourselves, as it were—out of the equation.

Nowhere was this on more display than last night, when the analyses of the Obamamercial added precious little value. There's a role for the press to play, of course, in parsing the candidates' other direct-democracy appearances—the conventions and the debates—as there's relatively more substance to discuss in each case. But noting a commercial's production value and tone and narrative may be a fun little intellectual exercise for journalists; for everyone else, though, it's pretty much a waste of time.

Stop The Presses!


The McCain campaign’s latest attempt to portray the press as liberal puppets of Barack Obama—by painting the Los Angeles Times’s refusal to release a videotape of the senator at a farewell dinner in 2003 for Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar and advocate, as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy—is much ado about nothing.

McCain’s spokesman, Michael Goldfarb, accused the Times of “intentionally suppressing information that could provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi.” Goldfarb went on to mention a potentially vote-altering moment wherein the tape could possiblyhave captured Obama’s reaction to a “hate speech”-filled poem recited at the dinner.

This “intentional suppression” has caused plenty of consternation in the blogosphere. Many writers saw the Times’s refusal as evidence of liberal bias; others were just confused by the paper’s intransigence.

Yesterday, the Times published an article explaining its decision to withhold the video. Here’s editor Russ Stanton:

The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to its sources.

Stanton’s explanation is beyond plausible; in fact, such deals with sources are quite common in journalism. Anyone who has worked as a reporter has been given access to a document, allowed to take notes on that document and write a story based on those notes, but not allowed to publish or otherwise distribute the document. So unless we’re prepared to call Stanton a liar, there shouldn’t be any problem taking him at his word.

As Bill Sammon, deputy managing editor of FOX News’s Washington bureau, put it, had Peter Wallsten, the reporter who wrote the Times story based on the videotape, buckled under the demands of the McCain campaign, sources would have good reason to question his trustworthiness in the future. Sammon also notes:

A deal is a deal, even if it’s a dumb deal. Besides, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for withholding the tape, such as the possibility that it contains footage that would compromise an unnamed source’s identity.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that the Times even still has the tape, but if it does, and it chose to break its promise, what exactly do the McCain folks expect to find? They talk of wanting to see Obama’s reaction to the poem, but do they really think the camera was just zeroed in on the senator all night long, waiting for him to do something suspicious? A terrorist fist-bump, perhaps? Watching with bated breath for a glimpse of the senator as he reacts to a controversial banquet speech is the essence of deliberate oversimplification.

What we do wish the Times had done is be as transparent as possible about how the story came about. Tell us what they can about the source’s motivations and why the editors agreed to grant anonymity and to the restrictions on the use of the tape. This would go a long way toward reassuring the rational public that there is no conspiracy here. For everyone else, it doesn’t matter what the Times does or says.

Rally Killer

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Contrasting Obama rallies that "often look like Benetton-colored billboards" with McCain events characterized by pompoms and flag pins, The New York Times's Mark Leibovich argues on today's front page that these rallies are snapshots of two Americas. "What can we learn from a close-in view of Democratic and Republican events at the end of a bitter, exhilarating campaign?" he asks rhetorically. "It has become a cliché to say that the country is ‘divided,’ but the anthropologies displayed at 11 campaign stops in recent days offer glimpses of partisan America."

If the Times feels obliged to acknowledge its reporting trades in clichés, maybe it should ask whether it is making the best use of its front page five days before a presidential election. Leibovich's story is color in search of substance. It is essentially a list of generalizations about the crowds' temperaments, slogans, and sartorial selections, including neither polling information to put these details into a larger context, nor substantive discussions with individual rally-goers that might deepen insight to an individual partisan's world view. And it is all filtered through a patronizing tone that conveys the reporter's fatigue with endless rallies, rather than supporters' excitement at being a part of this notable campaign.

There is no reason to question whether the rallies contain the details Leibovich describes. But there is plenty of reason to wonder whether presenting these details so broadly serves any purpose beyond allowing readers to feel secure in their stereotypes of the political camps. Political reporters and other media critics might argue that the Times's excellent election stories have earned it the right to front a light feature as part of its comprehensive coverage. But I found this story hard to swallow this morning because I went to vote yesterday. I chatted with other busy people who were willing to sit for forty-five minutes in multiple waiting rooms in order to cast their ballots in a chaotic city office building. And I have never seen people more excited to vote. The registrars, who had been pulling twelve-hour days, were also exuberant.

It's OK for political reporters to tire of a process that they have to watch in all its repetitive details. But voters are attending these events and visiting the polls in record numbers because this campaign has touched them personally in a way the political process rarely does. It’s odd that the Times chose to diminish this exuberance in a front page story five days before the election.

The opening paragraph set the story's tone:

Supporters of Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. often look like Benetton-colored billboards, decked out for their candidates in Obama-Biden hats, T-shirts and buttons. Supporters of Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin like logo merchandise, too, but tend more toward pompoms (yes, pompoms), homemade signs ("Pitbulls 4 Freedom"), flag pins and chest paint.

Leibovich does not get a whole lot more specific when it comes to actual political sentiments:

Democratic rallygoers seem more worried about Ms. Palin than about Mr. McCain. They speak of feeling weary of "the politics of fear" and claim Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin are "irrelevant" — unless they win, as one supporter in Charleston, W.Va., said with a smile-cringe....When you ask Republicans what they think of Mr. Obama, the word "socialist" comes up more often than not. They mention that he is a smooth talker, and not in a good way. A lot of them seem to have real problems with Michelle Obama, too, though they cannot pinpoint why. And they do not much care for that Joe Biden, either, or whatever his name is — many cannot immediately summon it.

As in these excerpts, the candidates' partisans are referred to exclusively as "they" and "one supporter" until the sixteenth paragraph, when a protestor at a McCain event is named (and his quote appears in parentheses). The final paragraphs bring us three actual supporters, all Republicans, who appear to have absorbed undigested the campaign's rhetoric about "Obama's Socialist beliefs."

Leibovich closes his story by commenting, "A lot of people at rallies for both camps say they are ready for this campaign to be over. But you kind of sense many of them don't mean it." Well, we certainly can figure out how the nation's "paper of record" feels.

Health Care Rationing Explained

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By now, most media accounts of the health proposals of John McCain and Barack Obama have grown stale and, frankly, boring. The stories I’ve seen lack both spark and originality, and rarely get beyond dry recitations of the stale rhetoric coming from health policy establishment types and the two candidates. For some reason, other voices rarely have been heard. So we were pleased to see the Syracuse Post-Standard open its pages to Trisha Torrey, a contributing columnist and the patient empowerment expert at About.com.

During the campaign, various candidates have mentioned the R word—rationing, which would prevent middle class voters from getting every treatment they demanded when they demanded it. But I have seen few stories addressing the extensive rationing that already goes on in the U.S. health care system—that is, until the Post-Standard published Torrey’s column on Tuesday. While Torrey did not point out that, in America, care is rationed to the poor because they simply can’t pay for it, (we’ve chosen to provide care, for the most part, based on ability to pay), she clearly showed how rationing affects those who have insurance.

In a sense, she pointed out, everyone rations care by choosing not to go to the doctor at times, a strategy that’s effective until an expensive illness strikes. Government programs like Medicare and Medicaid create elaborate formulas to determine which treatments they will cover, sometimes based on evidence of effectiveness and cost. But sometimes these programs pay for certain treatments based on health industry lobbyists’ recommendations, rather than any valid assessment of their true worth. One treatment might win out over another; hence a type of rationing occurs.

Health insurers also ration care when they deny treatments, Torrey says. Most middle class insurance holders have experienced this sort of rationing when their carrier says they can have procedure X but not procedure Y. Here’s a clear example I came across recently: One of the big insurers refused to pay for a pap smear for the daughter because the mom had just had a pap smear, and the policy said it would cover only one per family each year. Torrey notes that “thousands of different plans ration care in thousands of different ways.” Indeed they do, and it’s hard for people to know this in advance, or to choose their carriers based on which ones are least likely to ration needed care. That’s important to remember now that annual open enrollment (when employees choose their insurance for the next year) is upon us.

Every country rations health care in some way. So as the effort to reform health care moves forward during the next several months, reporters looking for a fresh story might consider Torrey’s comments and build from there.

Another One Jumps The Gun

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What was that you were saying yesterday, Jane, about how "it’s important for reporters to refrain from parlaying details from the election’s last week into a more speculative, and ultimately less responsible narrative of Palin’s future trajectory?"

"ABC Jumps the Gun on Palin 2012."

Salon's Rebecca Traister observes that "several female newscasters...have kicked ass, taken names and otherwise owned the coverage of the 2008 election." Writes Traister:

[I]f 2004 was widely touted as Jon Stewart's career-making election, then it would be more than plausible to call this year Katie Couric's (for her eye-crossing serialized interview with Sarah Palin and her impeccably timed career rebound) or Rachel Maddow's (for her Speedy Gonzalez scramble to the top of her profession and her sharply seasoned take on the race) or Campbell Brown's (for her fire-roasting of McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds and her series of rants on gender, access and the presidency).

Call it historical accident or mere coincidence, but this election, built as it has been around two history-making female candidates, traditional "women's issues" like the economy and healthcare and the acknowledgment of the power of female voters, also happens to have been translated, interpreted and picked apart by women newscasters. And that's something new.

"Anything is a Fair Question"


When Larry King randomly announced mid-interview last night that his next question for Sen. John McCain would be "a fair question," (unlike, I guess, earlier questions such as, "Are you anxious? Are you worried?" and Why is McCain "hot and heavy" campaigning in "red states?") McCain replied, "Anything is a fair question." (Except, of course, the ones that "cross the line" which are punishable by cancellation of scheduled McCain sit-downs with Larry King).

King's "fair question" was this hypothetical:

KING: You're flying over the Pacific between nowhere and nowhere. There's an attack on the United States.

How much confidence do you have in Vice President Palin?

MCCAIN: Total.

A couple of media-related moments:

KING: Are you ticked, for want of a better term, about the discord reported between [Palin's] camp and your camp?

MCCAIN: No. You know what happens with these things.

First of all, I have about 5,000 quote, "top advisors," that can be quoted by the media. But we get along fine. Sarah's a maverick. I'm a maverick. No one expected us to agree on everything.

And, McCain raised LATimesTapeGate (for background, here):

KING: Why would the paper suppress this [tape]?

MCCAIN: I have no idea. If they have the tape, they ought to make the American people aware of it, let them see it and make their own judgment. Frankly, I've been in a lot of political campaigns -- a whole lot. I've never seen anything like this, where a major media outlet has information and a tape of some occasion -- maybe it means nothing. Maybe it's just a social event. I don't know.

But why should they not release it? And why shouldn't the Obama campaign want it released?

KING: Is this Palestinian [Rashid Khalidi] some sort of terrorist?

MCCAIN: We know that at that time, the PLO was a terrorist organization...

Before King went to break, he announced that CNN "has fact checked the allegations the McCain-Palin ticket has made about Rashid Khalidi and Barack Obama's association with him" before offering up this hodgepodge:

In a 2004 Washington Times story, Khalidi denied ever being a spokesman for the PLO. He has been an activist for Palestinian causes and a critic of U.S. policy toward Israel. He currently is a scholar at Columbia University.

Eight years ago, Khalidi did host a political fundraiser for Obama. Obama has described him as a former neighbor and university colleague in Chicago.

However, CNN's fact check team notes the two men strongly disagree over the Israeli-Palestinian issue and there's no evidence of a continuing political relationship.

Also, King got a "No, but..." answer to his question of whether McCain believes Obama is a "socialst."

Audit Roundup: Bubble Brains

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What a short memory the business press has.

Amazingly, neither the Journal nor the NYT in their page-one stories on the Fed slashing interest rates to 1 percent mention what happened the last time the Fed slashed its interest rates to 1 percent: The housing bubble. Even the FT, which seems to be the central bankers’ paper of choice, doesn’t write about it.

This is not exactly a minor detail. It’s pretty clear in everyone but Alan Greenspan’s mind—and how often do you see that kind of consensus—that the Fed was responsible for keeping its easy money policy going too long.

The problem is that at 1 percent, the Fed is lending money at a negative real return. Take into account inflation of 5 percent or so and the banks borrowing this money are getting paid to take loans. Now you know why the stock market jumped the other day despite the apocalyptic news on consumer confidence.

The Fed paying banks to take loans distorts their decisions just like it did in 2002 through 2004. While this situation is much worse than that recession (and jobless recovery), the Fed’s stated concern is the same: deflation.

I’m not saying that the Fed cut is a bad move, but it’s inexcusable for the press not to give readers this context. And it needs to hit on it repeatedly so we don’t repeat the mistakes of just four years ago.

I like this smart Washington Post report that says banks getting money from the government will pay out half of it in dividends to investors over the next three years. That is unbelievable. Dividends are supposed to be paid by stable companies that have excess cash to throw off—not ones at the government teat.

The government said it was giving banks more money so they could make more loans. Dollars paid to shareholders don't serve that purpose, but Treasury officials say that suspending quarterly dividend payments would have deterred banks from participating in the voluntary program.

Well, screw ‘em if they don’t want to participate.

The Treasury's approach contrasts with decisions by foreign governments, including Britain and Germany, to require banks that accept public investments to suspend dividend payments until the government is repaid. The U.S. government similarly required Chrysler to suspend its dividend payments as a condition of the government's 1979 bailout.

Great reporting by the Post.

The FT takes a nice long look at the overarching trend behind much of the economy’s problems: the stagnation of middle-class incomes.

“You have to question whether conventional measures of economic growth mean anything when most people’s incomes have either been stagnating or declining for many years,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute and an adviser to Mr Obama. “The fact that wage earners are no longer getting the benefits of their improving productivity in the workplace is something we have never experienced [before] in modern America.”

The data are stark and go some way towards explaining why so many Americans felt so disaffected even during the most robust years of economic growth under the Bush administration. Between 2000 and 2006, the US economy expanded by 18 per cent, whereas real income for the median working household dropped by 1.1 per cent in real terms, or about $2,000 (£1,280, €1,600). Meanwhile, the top tenth saw an improvement of 32 per cent in their incomes, the top 1 per cent a rise of 203 per cent and the top 0.1 per cent a gain of 425 per cent.

Part of this was because the latest period of economic growth failed to create jobs at nearly the same rate as in previous business cycles and even led to a decline in the number of hours worked for most employees. Unusually for a time of expansion, the number of participants in the labour force also fell. But mostly it was because the fruits of economic growth and soaring productivity rates went to the highest income earners.

And how!

The NYT asks what AIG’s done with its $123 billion government loan, keeping up the paper’s good coverage of that insurance company’s disgrace. This time the paper reports that analysts are coming to believe the company was sitting on tens of billions in losses for months. That's no good:

Mr. Vickery and other analysts are examining the company’s disclosures for clues that the cushion was threadbare and that company officials knew they had major losses months before the bailout.

Tantalizing support for this argument comes from what appears to have been a behind-the-scenes clash at the company over how to value some of its derivatives contracts. An accountant brought in by the company because of an earlier scandal was pushed to the sidelines on this issue, and the company’s outside auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, warned of a material weakness months before the government bailout.

The internal auditor resigned and is now in seclusion, according to a former colleague.

I agree with Dean: Put everything on the table. My bet is the reason that won’t happen is because their balance sheets are so bad.

The Auditeers have talked about how much we like economic history reports. Even if history doesn’t repeat itself (exactly, anyway), it is helpful to have context when we hear “Great Depression”, “breadlines”, and “crash” day in and day out. The Washington Post comes through here with a nice read explaining how the Depression didn’t start overnight.

Soup kitchens popped up within months, but didn't become "ubiquitous" in many cities until 1932, says Kyvig, author of "Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940." The demand was so overwhelming by then, he says, that church and private charities turned to increasingly strapped local governments to keep their programs going.

Kyvig, a professor at Northern Illinois University, says he stuns his students when he tells them what happened in Detroit, a particularly hard-hit city. Overwhelmed by demands from the needy, the city shut down its zoo in 1932 and slaughtered its animals to provide food.

The parallels between October 1929 and today are striking.

Although the contemporary economy is far larger and more complex than it was eight decades ago, consumers were deeply in debt then, too. The gap between rich and poor had widened, thanks in part to tax cuts for the wealthy. Amid it all, the stock market—lightly regulated—grew into a speculative bubble, driven to unsupportable highs by investors who used borrowed money to purchase shares.

If you have any doubts that commercial real estate will be the next big shoe to drop, check out a random Thursday’s headlines on the Marketplace front of the WSJ:

London Mall Opens in Worst of Times

As Las Vegas Slumps, Wynn Doubles Down

Beverly Hills Development Is in Doubt After Default

Bloomberg notes that well-known shorts David Einhorn and Stevie Cohen aren’t having any problem raising money, unlike some of their other hedge fund peers.

Louts Out


In January, someone who goes by the name “crosswave” logged onto the reader forums at nydailynews.com and posted a comment about sports columnist Filip Bondy. “Eff 
you Filip Bondy,” the post read, “You should be banished back to covering ghetto futbol 
in Newark.” In March, another sports columnist, Terence Moore of The Atlanta 
Journal-Constitution, was labeled “racist” by a handful of readers on ajc.com. “Mr. Moore can actually make the Klan look reasonably intelligent by comparison,” wrote one user, who identified himself as “Salad Tosser.”

Personal attacks and off-topic rants are nothing new to newspaper Web sites. Back in 2005, the Ventura County Star temporarily disabled comments on its site after the tone turned vicious; in 2006, The Washington Post suspended comments on one of its blogs because they had become obscene. But as newspapers try to boost traffic and revenue on their Web sites by granting readers more ways to weigh in, abusive comments have flourished. Editors have an arsenal of technological tools at their disposal, such as mandatory registration, word filters, “report abuse” buttons, and even the sly “Bozo filter,” which gives blacklisted users the false impression that their comments are being posted, when in fact nobody else can read them. But software can only do so much. “The minute you put a filter in place, your trolls find a way past it,” says Yvonne Beasley, the home-page editor of The Des Moines Register’s Web site.

The question of how to balance openness and interactivity with the desire for civil debate is more an ethical question than a legal one, in light of the fact that the Federal Communications Decency Act grants Web sites immunity from defamation suits arising from user-generated content. But there is concern that derogatory, obscene, threatening, or libelous user comments could damage a newspaper’s brand or alienate readers—to say nothing of the anger that reporters and columnists feel when the comments attached to their work turn abusive.

"Not A Swing Show"

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Sen. Barack Obama appeared last night, yes, on nearly every major channel in prime time, but also on The Daily Show ("not a swing show, if you will," per Jon Stewart) where he worked in a little dig at Fox News.

STEWART: So much of this has been about fear of you...Do you think any of this has stuck with the electorate?

OBAMA: It just hasn't. There are certain segments of hardcore Sean Hannity fans that pobably wouldn't want to go have a beer with me...

Stewart asked Obama about the Bradley Effect:

OBAMA: We're still here, so I don't think white voters have gotten this memo about the Bradley Effect...

STEWART: You mother is from Kansas, a white woman. Your father is African...Are you concerned that you may go into the voting booth and your white half will all of a sudden decide, 'I can't do this...'

OBAMA: It's a problem...

Next up: a look at Sen. John McCain's appearance last night on Larry King Live...

Blame It On Aécio

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In 1985, press censorship was officially banned in Brazil, following the overthrow of a dictatorship that had for decades crippled journalistic freedom. Since then, Brazilian journalists have investigated government corruption and unearthed environmental and social stories with a zeal that made the nation’s watchdog press appear robust. In 2006, Marcelo Baêta, then a graduate student in journalism, changed that impression with his video, Liberdade, Essa Palavra (“Freedom, That Word”), which linked the firing of several reporters in Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s largest states, to stories they wrote that were critical of Aécio Neves, the state’s powerful and popular governor. Neves is a likely candidate for president in 2010, and so the issue of press manipulation continues to unfold in Brazil. Elizabeth Tuttle spoke with Baêta in July.

How did this project evolve for you?

While I was still a student, the journalism program coordinator sent around an e-mail that she had received anonymously, which listed cases in which the government was reportedly interfering in the press to block negative stories. This interference allegedly caused the dismissal of several journalists from the Globo Minas network, the biggest television network here; the Minas Network, a state network; and Itatiaia, the largest radio station. That's when I began to research other alleged instances of this kind of suppression.

Columnista! The Story of an Op-Ed

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We don’t mean to keep poking fun at Maureen Dowd's writing—we appreciate her creativity, and everything—but sometimes we find ourselves simply unable to resist. Today is such a time. Below, a theory of the genesis of MoDo's most recent masterpiece.

For a more authentic version (pdf), click here.

Screenplay by
Megan Garber
Unrevised sixth draft
© Oct. 29, 2008


INT. AN OFFICE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES BUILDING — in the middle of the day in the middle of Manhattan.

MAUREEN DOWD, a chic redhead, is pacing and frantically thumbing her BlackBerry. She is a top columnist at The New York Times. She is nervous. She has an op-ed due tomorrow, and has no fresh ideas for it.


(sighing, melodramatically)

Ohhhhh…what am I going to do?

DAVID SHIPLEY, her editor, sits slumped in a chair next to her, dejectedly checking his BlackBerry messages.


How the heck should I know? We go through this every week, Maureen. Are you really out of ideas?


Yeah, D, I am. And I’m really freaking out this time. You know how I am about message discipline, about keeping all my writing quirky and unexpected. I mean, how do you do better than a column half-written in Latin? You don’t, that’s how! It doesn’t get any better than that! I’ve got enough on my plate being quirky, but to keep it unexpected, too? To keep my readers all surprised and entertained and everything? It’s…just…so…


I know, I know. Well, hey: What if you write a straight column this week? I’d love that. You know, Bob may not write his columns in other languages, or anything, but I know readers appreciate his stuff…Frank's, too...

(He leans forward in his chair, watching her face
closely for reaction.)


Yeah, okay. I guess I could do that. That sounds like a valuable service to our readers in this final week of the campaign.

(She crosses her fingers behind her back.)

Or--oooh!--what if I write a series of haikus about the campaign? I could call it “MoDo-etry”! Or—oh, even better!--a Mad Libs game about the campaign! That would be so cheeky and irreverent!


Um, sure, Maureen, those could work. Or: maybe you could write something straightforward, thoughtful, with a point to it--


--I can call them “Rad Libs,” ‘cuz they’d be so rad! Or maybe “Mad-Lib(erals)”! You know, with parentheses and everything! And it could be about the Democrats! Oh, I can see it now!

(David stares glumly at his shoes. Her BlackBerry rings to the tune of “Oops! I Did It Again.”)

(She listens and then hangs up.)



Was that God calling with a column idea for you?


Actually, kind of.





It was Aaron Sorkin. Aaron thinks John McCain’s fed up with Sarah Palin getting bigger crowds and contradicting his message. And with her interrupting him on TV interviews and taking them over. Aaron thinks McCain’s fed up with her drilling him on drilling. And with never being able to discuss anything with her, like the latest violence in the Congo.


Really? He said all that?





So, then, what’s your idea? "Sorkin-libs," or something like that?


(Her eyes light up.)

A screenplay! The kind Aaron writes, but about McCain! It can be a conversation between McCain and Joe Lieberman about how Mac should have chosen Joe for his Veep—or something like that, I haven’t totally figured it out!—and it’ll be completely unexpected! And so witty!! And—oooh!—it’ll give me one last chance to make a “Maverick” reference!


I don’t know, Maureen. I mean, it sounds creative, and everything, but also kind of silly. I mean, what’s the point? Will it actually have an argument somewhere in it? And, I mean, McCain and Lieberman are so overexposed at this point…


(twirling her hair)

Come on, David…don’t be a Davie Downer…


(smiles, then sighs)

Well…how about…ugh, I don’t know what else to do. Okay, fine, do the screenplay thing. But what if the conversation’s between Nicolle Wallace and Tracey Schmitt? At least they’re more unexpected…


Dirty pool, David. You know I can’t say no to a chance to write about sorority girls in pearls!


(smiling smugly)

I do.

(settling back in his chair, sighing)

Okay. So what, exactly, will you say in this column, then?


I don’t really know! But I’ll figure it out! But it almost doesn’t matter what I say, though, right? Because how I say it is going to be so clever!


Well, Maureen, you still have to make some kind of point here. This is still The New York


We can even write it out in Courier font, just like a real screenplay! Oh, this is going to be classic!



Okay, whatever you want, Maureen. You’re the columnist, I guess...


That’s “columnista” to you!





You betcha!

Sarah Palin’s Conditional Future


Of late, Sarah Palin has been showing a more independent mind on the stump. She’s been at odds with the McCain campaign, publicly disagreeing with McCain’s decision to withdraw from Michigan and questioning the unofficial moratorium on rhetoric pertaining to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

And the press has had a field day with this newfound independence. She’s gone rogue! She’s out-mavericked the maverick! Enter Sarah the Diva!

Seeping into these reports is the big question of What Will Palin Do Next? Already, there’s been talk of Palin’s desirability as a talk show host (one-topic, not wide-ranging, à la Tyra Banks) or a conservative cable news star (as the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki suggested, “something similar to what Sean Hannity does”). The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza has noted that, regardless of the outcome, Palin will leave the election race with “extremely high name identification nationwide” and will therefore be a “rockstar on the Republican fundraising circuit” for years to come. And of course, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s talk of a presidential run in 2012 or 2016.

Despite the temptation to revel in/report on these possible future scenarios (including the, ahem, astute suggestion of a reality TV show with the Palin family, a cross between “The Osbornes” and “Northern Exposure”), it’s important for reporters to refrain from parlaying details from the election’s last week into a more speculative, and ultimately less responsible narrative of Palin’s future trajectory.

For instance, a New York Times article that suggests Palin’s current actions are preparations for her post-election prospects states: “there are signs that she…is making sure that she is well positioned for the future if she and Mr. McCain lose.”

What signs, exactly? The article, written by Kate Zernike and Monica Davey, points to Palin’s speech today on energy security “in a week that most candidates give over to big rallies and closing arguments,” and says her aides are calling it a move “to help her be seen as more substantive.” It also points to the fact that, on Monday, “she held a brief meeting with the Israeli ambassador, reflecting an interest that aides say she expresses in intense foreign policy tutorials,” and that she has been doing more off-the-cuff interviews with the press, “sending staff members scurrying to cut off conversations.” Finally, it notes that she has “this week tried to quarantine herself from the damage caused by news that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothing and accessories for her and her family.”

Wait, you mean Palin wouldn’t be doing these things if she had no aspirations beyond being McCain’s vice president?

While these points may segue nicely into speculative territory, they are also completely valid steps for a vice presidential candidate (especially one who has received so much flak for offering style over substance) to take at the end of an election campaign. For Palin to attempt to “show her depth” by addressing policy or to persuade voters to see her as a substantive candidate, even at such a late date, is still within the realm of the ’08 campaign—not necessarily preparation for a bigger and brighter future.

To make that leap in reasoning is to forget that Palin first and foremost has a time-sensitive goal that requires certain actions. In other words, please don’t project—campaign actions may very well just be campaign actions. While frustrated McCain advisers might label Palin’s behavior “going rogue,” reporters must report these developments in context—i.e. that Palin’s going off-message seems to signal a breach within the McCain camp—and not to extrapolate what this means for the GOP ticket in 2012.

Here’s a larger snippet from the NYT article, which seeks to build up that trajectory:

The presidential campaign has allowed Ms. Palin to develop as a candidate, and to make many useful connections as she travels the country. On the campaign, she has become close to people with extensive experience in Republican politics, including Steve Biegun and Randy Scheunemann, two foreign policy conservatives.

She has received extensive policy tutorials and been briefed on foreign policy almost daily. Aides say she has taken particular interest in Pakistan and Israel and in causes of Islamic extremism, which she has related to the economic despair that plagues parts of Alaska.

People loyal to her say Ms. Palin is well aware of the political job in front of her. One aide said she had “gotten on the offensive,” pushing to include more policy in her speeches. “It’s important for her personally, for how she’s perceived, to ensure that she gets to show her depth.”

Again, these are opportunities Palin has had, and qualities she’s had to build, in the course of her short candidacy. And it’s ultimately misleading to weave the two narratives—of 1) Palin’s increasing independence from the McCain campaign, and 2) her speculative political future—together. That’s not to say that both narratives don’t deserve discussion. But this type of theorization—she’s disagreeing with McCain… cranes neck, looks ahead… she’s ready to go it alone!—can easily snowball.

It also, unfortunately, jives with the general press meme that The Election Is (All But) Over, with polls suggesting that Palin won’t, in fact, make it to Washington. This has, perhaps more than other things, enabled accounts of the tension between McCain and Palin to simultaneously dabble in projections of the fabled Next Step for Palin.

Palin may have a bright future in politics. Or her reputation may be ineradicably damaged by this year’s vice presidential run. Or, hell, maybe she will in fact seek out television, as Mike Huckabee, to variable effect, has done. Conjecture stories will abound. But it’s melodramatic, and a bit hasty, to base these narrative projections on the Republican ticket’s beleaguered actions on the campaign trail in the last week before an election. In other words, focus.

From Thomas Friedman's New York Times column this morning:

Barack Hussein Obama would present another challenge for Iran’s mullahs. Their whole rationale for being is that they are resisting a hegemonic American power that wants to keep everyone down. Suddenly, next week, Iranians may look up and see that the country their leaders call “The Great Satan” has just elected “a guy whose middle name is the central figure in Shiite Islam — Hussein — and whose last name — Obama — when transliterated into Farsi, means ‘He is with us,’ ” said Sadjadpour.

Even for a man who has made a lucrative career out of oversimplification, this is a pretty asinine statement, better suited for a Coca-Cola commercial than the NYT's op-ed section. Barack Obama's familiar-sounding name will compel Iranians to abandon their concerns over American hegemony, like lazy children following the Pied Piper? "He is with us" will make Iranians forget that the United States currently occupies the border states of Iraq and Afghanistan, with not-very-subtle designs on Iran? By that logic, if America elected a president named Santa Claus, Iranians would stop worrying about an impending invasion and start waiting for gaily wrapped gifts to be airdropped from a rocket-fueled sleigh. By that logic, the election of Charles Taylor as president of Liberia should have compelled Americans to fundamentally reassess their opinions of and relationship with the continent of Africa. By that logic, every time I read a column by Thomas Lauren Friedman, I should feel extremely confused about gender roles.

Certainly one hopes that Iranian citizens start putting pressure on their ruling mullahs. But it is grossly optimistic to think that this pressure will stem from the pronunciation of Obama's last and middle names.

Work first. Juice boxes later.

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Kid reporter Damon Weaver (taking a break from his day job as a student at Kathryn E. Cunningham/Canal Point Elementary School) turns in this dispatch from a Biden campaign rally. The apex of cuteness comes when Weaver's arms get tired from holding the mic as high as he can to interview Biden. Or maybe it's when he he observes that the rally is a lot like a party, and that "they played tight music."

Weaver's one question is to ask Biden to explain what a Vice President does. Huh. Guess that's what all the kids want to know.

(h/t Ezra Klein)

Yesterday, Jack Shafer explained why covering an Obama victory might be very hard for our political reporters:

If Obama wins, these scribes know that they'll be facing the toughest assignment of their careers. They've all oversubscribed to the notion that Obama's candidacy is momentous, without parallel, and earth-shattering, so they can't file garden-variety pieces about the "winds of change" blowing through Washington. They're convinced that not only the whole world will be reading but that historians will be drawing on their words. Will what I write be worthy of this moment in time? they're asking themselves. It's a perfect prescription for performance anxiety.

Not to add to anyone's anxiety or anything but this isn't just a potentially "earth-shattering" moment, it is also a potentially "foreign-media's-stereotype-of-America-shattering" moment.

So blogs onetime NPR omudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin today. "If Barack Obama is elected in six days," writes Dvorkin, "then foreign journalists will have to come up with another way of describing America - one that won't be quite so easy" as what Dvorkin calls "the racist, anxious and fearful people that appear with alarming consistency in the foreign media - both print and broadcast."

...The New York Times! For the below no-it's-not-a-typo little gem, currently gracing the paper's homepage:

Coverage of Goldman Sachs has perplexed me throughout the crisis.

I’d still like to know, for instance, which subprime lenders it financed during the bad old days and how many of their mortgages it repackaged and sold as collateralized debt obligations onto the global bond markets.

In other words, what was its contribution to this whole state of affairs while our current Treasury Secretary was in charge?

But then, I’d like to know that about all the Wall Street banks. That’s just me; I’m greedy.

Sharp-eyed business-press readers, however, may also be perplexed about another important question: to what extent was Goldman exposed to American International Group?

In recent major stories, The New York Times and Bloomberg are at odds.

The Times, via anonymous sources, says Goldman’s exposure was up to $20 billion. Bloomberg, via its own source, says it was basically zero.

The issue is important because, as everyone knows, the Treasury secretary and former Goldman CEO nationalized the insurer rather than see it go under and bring down its counterparties with it.

It is worth recalling that this was probably the most dramatic and unprecedented Treasury move in the crisis so far, committing up to $85 billion in U.S. funds in return for an 80 percent stake in an insurance company. The federal government, in normal times, has almost nothing to do with insurance. It’s also worth recalling that AIG was/is one of the most complex and opaque financial organizations ever created. Talk about a leap of faith.

And as the Times reported in the same story, Lloyd Blankfein, Paulson’s successor at Goldman, participated in meetings at the New York Federal Reserve in the mid-September days preceding the bailout, including a meeting specifically about what to do about AIG (although judging from a lengthy correction at the bottom of the story, there was some confusion about who participated in what meeting. The correction says Blankfein did, but Paulson did not, attend a meeting devoted to AIG).

Further, the AIG bailout decision came on the heels of the government’s decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy the same day Blankfein was at the Fed.

The coincidences spurred the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to look into whether the USG did GS any special favors that weekend and heard testimony from former AIG chief Robert Willumstad (on page 178) who said Goldman had indeed bought insurance contracts on bonds worth $20 billion from AIG Willumstad added, however, that he didn’t know the answer to the key question — the degree to which that position was offset by other investments Goldman may have made.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Goldman Sachs as much as the next media critic, probably more. They’re one of The Audit's funders, for Pete’s sake! (You think this job is easy? It’s not.)

And most observers dismiss any crude conspiracy theorizing and understand that the entire financial system was a risk in the event of an AIG failure, hence the need for action no matter what Goldman’s position.

But even so, it’s more than a fair question. What did Goldman have at stake in that move?

Here’s the Times in an edgy September 29 story by Gretchen Morgenson on AIG’s risk-taking, a story that also zeroed in on a key, smart question: who were its counterparties? The emphasis is mine:

Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said.

The Times then quotes a Goldman spokesman who knocks down the $20 billion figure and flatly denies that Blankfein was looking for any special favors for Goldman.

A Goldman spokesman said in an interview that the firm was never imperiled by A.I.G.’s troubles and that Mr. Blankfein participated in the Fed discussions to safeguard the entire financial system, not his firm’s own interests.


Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman, declined to detail how badly hurt his firm might have been had A.I.G. collapsed two weeks ago. He disputed the calculation that Goldman had $20 billion worth of risk tied to A.I.G., saying the figure failed to account for collateral and hedges that Goldman deployed to reduce its risk.

Here’s Bloomberg’s account, in a basically laudatory, still interesting story on October 21 by Lisa Kassenaar and Christine Harper about how Goldman has survived:

This year, Goldman also saw trouble brewing in the insurance sector and began hedging its exposure to AIG, which had a notional value of about $20 billion as of mid-September, according to a person familiar with the strategy. The hedges included short positions on AIG and other insurance companies, as well as CDSs. Goldman wouldn't have lost money if AIG had gone out of business, the person said, although the collapse would have caused wide- spread economic distress.

“Wouldn’t have lost money” means, to me, that Goldman’s net exposure was zero.

Michael DuVally, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, told me the firm’s exposure is hedged, collateralized and ultimately “not material” to the firm’s overall financial condition. That sounds awfully close to Bloomberg’s account, but materiality is an elastic enough concept that the Times’s version can’t be excluded entirely. It’s not zero. It’s not $20 billion.

Morgenson, by the way, stands by her story in a note to me. A Bloomberg spokeswoman did the same for the Bloomberg story. They can’t both be right.

Who’s closer?

I don’t know. I have a hunch Bloomberg’s zero is, but that’s just a guess.

And that’s the problem. The real point is, at this late hour, should we really be relying on guesses, anonymous sources, or a company spokesman’s word to know where Wall Street banks’ interest lie in the disposition of public funds to fill holes created by private companies?

Taxpayers, remember, now own AIG, and they own it precisely because of well-founded fears for the counterparties to the insurance contracts it clearly could not pay. There is no other reason. The U.S. Government accidentally got into the property/casualty business (and every other insurance line) only because of AIG’s unnamed counterparties who were exposed to some unknown degree of risk of losing some undisclosed amount of money that they willingly took on for their employees’ own excessive remuneration.

And taxpayers can’t even find out who these institutions are? They’re still squinting over news stories and parsing quotes from anonymous sources, none of whom has any real knowledge themselves? How’s that again?

This is not to mention the fact that taxpayers—you remember, those people with the stagnating median incomes for the last eight years—were forced to become unwilling shareholders in Goldman itself, along with eight other firms, only because no one else would do it on the same terms.

What we have here, Audit readers, is a classic transparency problem, without doubt. Whatever Goldman’s hedges were and whatever collateral it holds—down to the last security—should be disclosed for taxpayer inspection. Those are public records now.

At this point, the old business press/Wall Street rules—relying on anonymous sources to answer a basic question—should be thrown into a giant trash compactor.

The story of the battling sources shows how little we have learned and how deeply the Wall Street culture needs to change.

On the other hand, it also shows a way forward to restoring public confidence in the government, its bailout and the bailed out institutions:

Put it all online.

Lost In Translation

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What could be less controversial than lawyers volunteering their services for those in need? Pro-bono work—from the Latin pro bono publico, “for the public good”—is not only a staple of the legal profession but an ethical obligation: the American Bar Association suggests that lawyers devote at least fifty hours per year. Pro-bono lawyers intervene on the behalf of evicted tenants, abused spouses, asylum seekers, and nonprofits, among others. Who could object to that?

Federal judge Dennis Jacobs—or so it seemed. Earlier this month, a debate broke out in legal circles when a local trade paper reported that Jacobs, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, had dismissed pro-bono work as “antisocial” and “self-serving.” Last week, the controversy swelled when a prominent law professor published a strongly worded reply in The National Law Journal, writing that the remarks were “a slap in the face” and that the judge “should be ashamed of himself.”

Was Jacobs guilty as charged? Or had a careless reporter misconstrued his message? Jacobs gave his talk at the inaugural meeting of the Rochester chapter of the Federalist Society, the conservative and libertarian legal professional association. Here’s how the talk was described (in part) by reporter Elizabeth Stull in The Daily Record, a legal and business publication in Rochester:

About 40 people attended Monday night's reception at the Hyatt Regency Rochester. Several came to hear Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; his topic, “Pro Bono for Fun and Profit.”

Pro bono work primarily is an “antisocial” and self-serving activity lawyers use to develop their skills, firms use to recruit and “give solace” to associates, and nonprofits use to further a political agenda, Judge Jacobs argued.

In particular, litigation against the government and government officials and impact litigation are attempts to improperly expand the courts’ reach in legislative matters, the judge said.

“No public good is good for everybody,” Jacobs said.

Could a serious person really take such a dim view of all pro-bono work? Walter Olson, of the Manhattan Institute, writes on the Point of Law blog that he “knew from the very first reports that there was something very ‘off’ about the story.” Mark Obbie, the director of the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program at Syracuse, agrees, writing on the LawBeat blog that his first reaction to the story was that it was “literally unbelievable.”

But Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar at Duke who will soon become the first dean of the new law school at the University of California, Irvine, took the story very seriously. In an opinion article published in the October 27 issue of The National Law Journal under the headline “Shame on Dennis Jacobs” (though recently toned down in the online edition to “Pro bono work: Not a self-serving activity”), Chemerinsky wrote:

Dennis Jacobs, the chief judge of the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, should be ashamed of himself. In a speech in Rochester, N.Y., on Oct. 6, it was reported that he ridiculed lawyers who do pro bono work. He said that some pro bono work is an “anti-social” and self-serving activity that law firms use to recruit and “give solace” to associates and that nonprofits use to further a political agenda.

As a law professor (and now dean of a new law school), I work hard to encourage my students to use their legal training to make society a better place and to help those who cannot afford legal services. Whatever their field of practice, they should spend some time doing legal work without charging for their time and services.

Implicit in Jacobs’s argument, wrote Chemerinsky, is the assumption “that pro bono work is inherently liberal.” But, in fact, most pro-bono work is ideologically neutral, such as “helping a victim of domestic violence get an essential restraining order or assisting a child with learning disabilities receive an adequate education.” In conclusion, Chemerinsky writes, “I take Jacobs’ words that I have been acting in an ‘anti-social’ and self-serving manner as a slap in the face from a person of enormous power and influence.”

As talk of Chemerinsky’s article animated the legal blogosphere, Judge Jacobs sent the following response to The Wall Street Journal’s law blog: “Dean Chemerinsky’s article was evidently based on a newspaper article of my talk that grossly misstates what I said and think. Neither the National Law Journal nor Dean Chemerinsky have contacted me. I support, endorse and solicit pro bono work, and my talk said just that. The talk identifies abuses.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Federalist Society posted a full transcript of Judge Jacobs’s remarks under the heading “Pro Bono Brouhaha.” Not surprisingly, they proved subtler than reported. Jacobs introduced his talk by saying that he intended his remarks to be “provocative”:

When lawyers gather and judges speak, you can count on hearing something on the subject of pro bono service. It is always praise of all that is done, with encouragement to do more. This evening I am going to articulate a view that you may not have heard: I will touch on some of the anti-social effects of some pro bono activity; I will try to explain why such observations are virtually never made by judges; and I will encourage the kind of pro bono activity that is an aspect of traditional American volunteerism.

My point, in a nutshell, is that much of what we call legal work for the public interest is essentially self-serving: Lawyers use public interest litigation to promote their own agendas, social and political—and (on a wider plane) to promote the power and the role of the legal profession itself. Lawyers and firms use pro bono litigation for training and experience. Big law firms use public interest litigation to assist their recruiting—to confer glamour on their work, and to give solace to overworked law associates. And it has been reported that some firms in New York City pay money to public-interest groups for the opportunity of litigating the cases that public-interest groups conceive on behalf of the clients they recruit.

Jacobs’s argument—that high-profile, pro-bono cases against the government flatter lawyers’ and judges’ egos while usurping lawmakers' power—is certainly debatable. But it is not as simplistic as it seemed in The Daily Record, which did not adequately distinguish, as Jacobs did, between everyday pro-bono work and so-called “impact litigation.” (Jacobs says that the ordinary sort of pro-bono work is “in a great tradition of American volunteerism.”)

“Some undoubtedly will declare [the Daily Record reporter] a member of the Liberal Media Conspiracy,” writes Mark Obbie, of LawBeat. “But I am willing to bet that the truth about Stull is depressingly less interesting. She simply didn't grasp the nuance and depth of the judge's brainy, contrarian comments about the nature of big-time pro bono.” (Stull declined to comment for this article.)

Obbie’s moral for reporters: use a tape recorder, request a written version of prepared remarks, and ask questions.

Meanwhile, Chemerinsky is standing by his first reaction. “I read Judge Jacobs' speech and believe that the newspaper stories were accurate,” Chemerinsky wrote to me in an e-mail. “At the end, he does acknowledge that some pro-bono work is useful—but the earlier part of the speech makes clear that this is not so if it is against the government or impact litigation. The speech is very strong in criticizing public interest law and impact litigation. I thus believe that the reports of his speech were in context and that my criticism was necessary and appropriate.”

Soon thereafter, in a revised version of this e-mail sent to The Wall Street Journal’s law blog, Chemerinsky raised the stakes: he would be happy to debate Jacobs on the issue in a joint debate sponsored by the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society, the liberal legal professional association.

A spokesman for Jacobs says that he will decline the invitation.

Matthews' Movie Madness

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Back in August, MSNBC's Chris Matthews decided that Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign:

Reminds me of Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste, the guy who was kicked out of the Siberian army for cruelty. We‘ll be right back with the round table with more of the politics fix. You‘re watching Hardball, where you get movie references, only on MSNBC.

This morning, Matthews pinned down which movie character Schmidt's boss, John McCain, has been reminding him of lately:

I think calmness in this economic storm has been a very strong part of the Barack appeal. All he had to do was look calm and take advantage of the terrible economy and people would say, I have confidence in this change. It works for him. I think McCain has been a bit like Humphrey Bogart, in, perhaps, The Caine Mutiny lately. You know, I think he's looked a little angry and a little disturbed, like Bogart. He's not looking for the frozen strawberries yet...

You mean Bogart in his 1954 Oscar-nominated portrayal of a mentally-troubled Naval captain "prone to unprovoked angry outbursts" and "eccentric behavior" who fixates on finding frozen strawberries that go missing from his ship's icebox?

UPDATE: Seems Matthews has used this John-McCain-as-Captain-Queeg thing before (back in September, and also with a "not-quite-there-yet" qualifier:

I think this other problem with McCain is the Captain Queeg factor here, which is starting to emerge. It's not there yet, but the erratic nature of calling for the firing of the chairman of the SEC, attempting to fire these debates in a sense, this effort to constantly change things ... I mean, he's always trying to rip up the score card...

Car Chase! (White Car Involved)

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Fox News has been for several minutes following a car chase live in Miami. Ditto, MSNBC ("That is not even a lane!" Thanks, Contessa Brewer). CNN appears to be sticking with an Obama speech happening in Raleigh, N.C.

Must-See TV (Also Online)

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FRONTLINE's "The War Briefing" (maybe you saw it on PBS last night?) was all the talk of our morning news meeting just now. A great example of "anti-pack" reporting (going where everyone else is not... and, literally going, in this case to "the deadliest battlefield in the mountains of Afghanistan," "the militant safe havens deep inside the Pakistani tribal areas, probing some of the most urgent foreign policy challenges facing the next president."). And, exceptional execution by Marcela Gaviria (producer), Martin Smith (correspondent ), Timothy Gruzca (producer/cameraman in Afghanistan), and all involved.

Watch it online here (click "Watch The Full Program").

Reporting on the Endgame


As E-Day creeps closer, the political press seems to be a bit confused as to how to handle these last few days of campaigning. And understandably so—it’s been a long campaign, and at times it seems like everything that can be said has been said. Nevertheless, there’s a news hole to fill, and many publications have decided to fill it by reporting (and I use that term generously, in some instances) on the candidate’s endgame stump speeches.

Two examples stick out in particular: one from the AP, the other from the Dallas Morning News.

On Monday, the AP’s Beth Fouhy took a closer look at McCain’s latest stump speech. While Fouhy credits McCain for a “well crafted speech, with stirring references to McCain’s five and a half years as a prisoner war of Vietnam and his plans for the nation,” she’s quick to note that “he goes off track when it comes to Obama’s policies.”

Fouhy goes on to recap and clarify the candidates’ stances on some important issues, in a good example of the AP’s new focus on “accountability reporting.” The press can't be afraid to counteract misleading or inaccurate political rhetoric, as CJR and others have argued ad nauseam over the past eighteen months. Fouhy sets the record straight on Obama's health care plan:

McCain's central claim — that people will be "forced" into a new government-run plan under an Obama presidency — is not true. In fact, Obama broke with many Democrats and others who advocate universal coverage when he announced his plan would be mandatory only for children, and voluntary for everyone else. Obama would allow those who want to keep their current employer-based health insurance to do so. Rather than requiring everyone to purchase coverage, Obama's plan is designed to bring down costs — make insurance more affordable so as many people as possible would choose to buy it.

This type of reporting is invaluable, regardless of what stage of the election we’re in. Simply regurgitating the candidates’ speeches or casually mentioning their well-rehearsed stump recitals does little for voters. While political junkies may think all the facts have been squared away, one would be surprised, for example, at the number of voters still convinced that Obama is a Muslim. If inaccuracies like that still permeate the public, it’s clear our job isn’t yet finished.

Another stump speech piece worth mentioning is the advice from editorial columnist William McKenzie, of the Dallas Morning News. In a two-part series, McKenzie decided to help Obama and McCain by letting them know what they should be saying.
For the most part, McKenzie’s advice would do little to persuade undecided voters. Merely name-dropping Senator Kennedy is unlikely to snag a vote, nor will this:

And those who would do us harm should know this: I will never back down from a fight, if a fight is what you wish. If we work together, though, we need not fight. We can live with our differences, instead of letting them lead us into bloodshed.

(That was your cue, Obama.)

While his advice for Obama has limited value, McKenzie does have a few valid points. Here’s one:

Let me say more about Senator McCain. He's shown me what it takes to work across the aisle. And that is, you must be willing to make your own party mad.

According to McKenzie, it’s “essential” that Obama include his intentions to work across party lines as opposed to attacking the GOP. While Obama may be highlighting how Americans have worked together during these challenging economic times, he doesn’t mention his own commitment to encouraging such cooperation in Washington. It’s hard to say if that’s necessary to commit voters, but it’s a reasonable proposal.

When it comes to McCain, McKenzie’s advice is far from novel: lighten up on the defense.

“That's not the way to win. You win by your own personality and agenda, not making the other guy look small,” writes McKenzie. But he also suggests McCain reaches out to Latino voters, a demographic that could save him on election night:

But we must move forward with this debate, and I want you to know that I believe in a welcoming society. That's why I will work on immigration until we find a fair, honorable system. And to the rest of you: We either get the education/immigration issue right, or we fail ourselves.

Decent advice, although one can’t help wondering whether it’s coming too late. But more important is the concept behind the advice itself. Just as Fouhy continues to contribute substantive reporting, McKenzie saw an opportunity to look beyond the speeches. He could have written a piece detailing the psychology and anatomy behind them.

Instead, he looked to fill in the holes of the candidates’ speeches. Regardless of their potential success with voters, it’s a valid column in that it doesn’t just take the speeches at face value but, instead, looks for what they’re missing. You don’t need to agree with McKenzie’s advice to concede that his is a commendable approach.

Moral of the story: we only have a few days left. Let’s not drop the ball now.

Fresh Thoughts on Voter Registration


Last night on Fresh Air, Jonah Goldman of the National Campaign for Fair Elections offered a not-so-new, not-so-radical, duh-in-a-good-way idea about how reduce voter registration fraud: Universal registration for all citizens.

There is no reason why we have to leave it to these community groups to do a lot of the great work that they do in registering voters. This should be the responsibility of the government to register voters and it's not that hard to do it; it's not that expensive to do it; it's a lot more efficient to do it.

Transferring the responsibility from the voter to the government, similar to Selective Service registration, Goldman says, would relieve pressure on local election officials and prevent the type of fraud allegations that are in the news news these days.

"Without Media Interference"

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There is something very appealing right now about the idea of a "time out" from campaign coverage. And the idea that this period of quiet reflection for voters prior to November 4, "without media interference," might be achieved simply by the local paper ceasing political coverage during this time is also appealing (Chris Matthews, poli-bloggers, radio talkers, local TV news anchor and national newspaper reporter stalking swing voters on the street, cable news satellite truck parked in front of my house, you don't even exist!)

The Centennial Citizen, the Englewood Herald the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Littleton Independent, and the Lone Tree Voice will resume their regular "interference" in readers' lives November 5 "with Election Day" (some eleventh-hour "interference?")

CPD "Hideously Bungled" Debates

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The 2008 debates were "hideously bungled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a wholly owned subsidiary of the successful campaigns," writes Cynthia Stead, a Massachusetts State Republican Committeewoman, in a Cape Cod Times column arguing that the League of Women Voters should once again take charge of presidential and VP debates (h/t Eric Boehlert).

And this year's debate moderators? Per Stead:

Jim Lehrer did a respectable job of herding cats in the first debate, almost getting the candidates to answer the questions actually asked instead of ones they wanted to answer. The vice presidential debate was a ratings star, but Gwen Ifill did a terrible job as moderator, unable to get questions answered. Even the ones she chose to ask, like, 'What is your greatest weakness' reeked of Entertainment Tonight.

The biggest disappointment was a crusty Tom Brokaw, who spent as much time reminding the candidates that they were breaking their own format rules as the two spent answering. Bob Schieffer made a credible finish...

Stead raises the obvious: "But why were the candidates able to dictate [the debates'] format in the first place?"

The State of Mexican Journalism

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Nowhere in the Americas is it more dangerous to practice journalism than in Mexico. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. Those deaths, and the many other assaults that are a constant threat to Mexican journalists, mirror a rising trend of drug-related violence in the country.

Earlier this month, Columbia's Journalism School hosted a conference, “Scared Silent: Mexican Journalists Under Attack by Drug Mafias,” to foster awareness of the threat Mexican journalists face in their work and to increase cooperation among those who are trying to aid them. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation, the conference brought many journalists to Columbia University from Mexico to provide a safe venue for discussion and to meet their U.S. counterparts.

Delivering the keynote address at that event was Alejandro Junco de la Vega, president of Grupo Reforma, which publishes seven daily papers in Mexico, among them outlets in Mexico's three largest cities: Mexico City (Reforma), Guadalajara (Mural) and Monterrey (El Norte). The publishing conglomerate, and its president, have been instrumental factors in the evolution of journalism in Mexico. And the powerful speech Junco delivered highlighted not only the many challenges Mexico's press faces, but also his abiding faith in the power of truth to effect change.

You can listen to audio of the speech here.

The State of Mexican Journalism

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Nowhere in the Americas is it more dangerous to practice journalism than in Mexico. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. Those deaths, and the many other assaults that are a constant threat to Mexican journalists, mirror a rising trend of drug-related violence in the country.

Earlier this month, Columbia's Journalism School hosted a conference, “Scared Silent: Mexican Journalists Under Attack by Drug Mafias,” to foster awareness of the threat Mexican journalists face in their work and to increase cooperation among those who are trying to aid them. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation, the conference brought many journalists to Columbia University from Mexico to provide a safe venue for discussion and to meet their U.S. counterparts.

Delivering the keynote address at that event was Alejandro Junco de la Vega, president of Grupo Reforma, which publishes seven daily papers in Mexico, among them outlets in Mexico's three largest cities: Mexico City (Reforma), Guadalajara (Mural) and Monterrey (El Norte). The publishing conglomerate, and its president, have been instrumental factors in the evolution of journalism in Mexico. And the powerful speech Junco delivered highlighted not only the many challenges Mexico's press faces, but also his abiding faith in the power of truth to effect change.

You can listen to audio of the speech here; the transcript of the talk is below. We found it compelling, and we hope you do, too.

--The Editors

"Scared Silent" Keynote Address
by Alejandro Junco de la Vega

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will often see people being interviewed on T.V. There was an explosion, or a train wreck, or some other kind of terrifying ordeal. The people interviewed will sometimes tell the reporter that their scary experience was “just like the movies.”

The implication I take from that, is that for many people, day to day life does not feel “just like the movies.”

I wish I could say the same.

Perhaps you have seen some of these movies; on one of them we even appeared: Man on Fire. Traffic. Godfather. Scarface.

And you may also know the clever T.V. drama, Weeds. The most recent series took its heroine south of the border and into the arms of a wealthy, urbane, blood-drenched politician whose drug ring was carrying vast quantities of narcotics and weapons across the border.

If you watched it, you must surely have flinched, to see his men, take to the face of an F.B.I. agent with a power tool, and then summarily shoot him the moment his agonized confession had been extracted.

You may have watched the story unfolding, and may have wondered if it was fanciful; exaggerated.

I wish it were so.

Mix the elements of that T.V. show and all those movies – together – in one noxious, toxic cocktail, and you will have a pretty good taste of Mexico as it is today.

Ladies and gentlemen, from what I heard and I can see, from the program ahead of us, that you will be hearing a dispiriting litany of the problems that beset us. It has come in great detail.

As it all unfolds, you could be forgiven for thinking that the problem is intractable. I will confess to pessimism myself; I cannot say I am confident that we will easily, or soon, awaken from our nightmare.

But I remain confident in the capacity of people to change. This is the context of my remarks.

I want to begin with the very personal and move out to the very broad.
You are being well-served by expert commentators today. They bring hard data and precise details. I only want to provide a context for it.

You might have been feeling in recent weeks, with so much talk about economic turmoil, and memories of the Great Depression, that things could not possibly be more grim.

Let me tell you: as bad as that spectre might be … it can be worse.

It can be worse when teenagers are kidnapped and murdered by people who drive police cars and wear badges and police guns.

It can be worse when intimidation can be presented in the form of a decapitated head on the hood of a car … when the City Morgue can have 80 corpses waiting in line because four doctors can’t keep up with the autopsies.

It can be worse when 5-year-old-children can paint colorful scenes of executions instead of puppies and clouds … when grenades are thrown into newsrooms.

It can be worse when you find no-one willing to take the job of Mayor because of a the sentence of intimidation and, possibly, death, that it carries.

That is our reality. It pains me to have to say so. It pains me as someone who has pride in his nation. It pains me as someone who has championed freedom of speech and justice and democracy and the rule of law. 

I have spent my entire life publishing newspapers that have crusaded for those causes, I have argued that they will make Mexico a better country.

Indeed, they have made life better.

But calling the name of democracy and justice and the rule of law does not – inevitably – bring those things in a torrent and neither does it bring their bounty in a rush.

While they are absent, poverty remains, and poverty brings its own evil. And so, for all the change our advocacy has brought us, we, Mexico’s journalists, find ourselves as the title of this event declares: Under Siege.

Not from businesses, not from politicians, not from the courts, not from any of the adversaries who have stood in our way over the past four decades.

We find ourselves under the siege of drug lords, criminals; and the more we expose their activities, the harder they push back.

Life is cheap. They push hard.

Two reporters from our Monterrey paper recently pursued a story. They had heard that a man running a tire rethread shop in a nearby town was being shaken down for protection money because this is how the drug rings have been “diversifying.”

Our reporter and photographer paid a visit to the town. Not ten minutes after they had arrived, armored vehicles pulled up outside, blocking their exit. They were thrown to the ground. Their laptops, their camera equipment, their phones, their I.D. with their addresses were all taken. And they were beaten.

With broken eardrums, shoulders, ribs … they both quit their jobs. This is not the first time such a thing has happened and the criminals have made it plain that unless we leave them alone, it will not be the last.

That threat hangs over all our reporters. We are, without question, under siege. But are we, as today’s title also proposes: “scared silent”?

Demonstrably, a reporter who has been hospitalized and who has resigned his job, has been scared silent. But as a newspaper, we remain dedicated to our creed: the truth must be known, it must be investigated, it must be published.

We continue to run the stories. But we find ourselves risking an ever higher price. So we adjust, make changes, and our lives are the worse for it.

We no longer run our reporters bylines. We vary our commuting route to evade kidnappers. Our families cannot be habitual in their daily lives. And this year, for the second time in four decades, I have had to move my entire family to a safe haven in the U.S.

We have every reason in the world to drop the stories. We have every reason to look the other way. But how can we do so? How can we ignore the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to remain silent.”

If we adapt the famous words of Martin Niemeoller they would say:

First, there was violence between drug traffickers, but I’m not a drug trafficker, so I didn’t speak out;

Then, they kidnapped rich people, but I’m not rich, so I didn’t speak out;

Then, they came for conflictive people, but… I don’t have problems with anyone, so I didn’t say anything.

Finally, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

It is our resolve to speak out: we will continue to report all that we know about the problem, and will continue to ask questions. We hold to the faith that if we ask enough questions we may finally come upon a solution.

Let me take you – briefly -- through what we know so far.

I’ll begin with a conundrum: crime pays. In my country, you are more likely to fail in business than you are in organized crime. Seventy-five percent of Mexican business startups die within the first two years. 80 percent are gone within the first three years. 90 percent by the end of the first decade.

By contrast, your risk of failure as a criminal – outside of death – is ludicrously small. Only 5 percent of crimes are reported. Of those, only 15 percent of victims press charges. Only one – very unlucky – criminal out of 100 will go to prison.

You only need to spend a week trying to file a police complaint to learn why this might be so. Our equivalent to the District Attorney’s Office, our MP’s, are not law enforcement or prosecution agencies. They are form filling factories.

The forms you fill out have many fields, just one of them would make any member of this audience fail in your attempt to have justice done. That field is called “pre-existence.” If someone stole the tire of your pickup truck, in order to file a complaint successfully you must demonstrate that:
a. the tire exists and
b. that it is your lawful possession.

Now, could someone in the audience please demonstrate to the group that your stolen spare tire:
a. exists and
b. that you are the legitimate owner?

Of course, this all assumes that the office behind the counter will be honest and diligent. It assumes that he is not in the pocket of organized crime.

Getting into this pocket is not easily evaded. During the campaign, an emissary of some Trans NAFTA Corporation, dressed in a smart suit, walks into the candidate’s office carrying a briefcase full of money. He is bearing good wishes – no strings attached – for a successful political career. Once that happens, there is no choice. The Mayor must collaborate. Plata o Plomo. Silver or Lead.

Many political leaders pay lip-service to the assumption that if drug users on this side of the border were taken off their addiction and consumption stopped, the problems on our side would be solved.

Not so. They run deeper.

The real damage the drug trade has done has been to the rule of law and to our fledging democracy. It has rendered it impotent.

What has been exposed by the success of the drug trade is the fact that we are powerless to stop criminal activities – in general. Once lawless people see there is no rule of law, you have an altogether bigger problem.

If you can run drugs without fear of being caught, then you can also kidnap, extort, rape and kill, and disregard any law that impedes you, all with impunity.

How has it come to this?

Perhaps the answer is rather less complicated than we might imagine. Perhaps is lies in this motto of many criminals in Mexico: “I rather live a week like a king than a lifetime eating shit.”

Make no mistake: for millions and millions, daily life in Mexico can be one daily spoonful of manure after another. At times, it feels as though it is the national sport, not only of the government, to make your life difficult.

Even the best days can be lousy. Your team finally gets into the national championship! And now for the bad news. If you want to buy tickets, you’ll have to get up at 2 a.m., stand in line and weather the elements.

Red tape is everywhere, and it is so thick on the ground that daily life is Kafka-esque.

Wages can be meager … prospects bleak. Who can be surprised that a young man will risk a bullet for the possibility – at least a short time – of liberty from a joyless grind?

Of course the answer, we’ve been hearing, is supposed to be simple. Change your economic settings. Free the markets, privatize, open the borders, unfetter the invisible hand and let all the boats rise.

For many years it has been regarded as all but heretical to question this wisdom in many political and economic circles. This argument has been blunt: get these macroeconomic settings in place, stick to them and you will soon be on your way to first world prosperity.

Perhaps the turmoil of the past few weeks in the First World might persuade everyone to reconsider. Perhaps simple recipes may not be enough. Perhaps we ought to look more closely at the human beings involved in the economy.

Let us ask what motivates them to work hard and contribute, and what discourages them from taking part. Let us ask what work we can all do, and how we might better share the proceeds.

Let me put it this way: the person who stands on the South side of the border can look like a lost cause: lawless, disaffected, unwilling to work, unwilling to contribute.

Move him just three meters forward, across the border and into the United States, and witness a transformation that is quite remarkable.

No longer does he have his hand out for money; he has it out for work. He toils, he applies himself, he does – all he can – to embrace his new life. He flourishes. Sends money back home.

Who is this man who changed fundamentally by moving just three short meters?

The answer is obvious: Most human beings are not innately bad or lazy, or incapable, or lawless. Given the right circumstances and an opportunity, given the hope of a better life, they respond.

I know this. I have seen it with my own eyes. Forty some years ago I came north to Austin, Texas as a young man to learn about journalism.

I learned about freedom of the press, I learned about transparency, I learned about Thomas Jefferson, I learned about democracy.

I went back home to Monterrey, to our family newspaper, then number two in a provincial city, and applied everything I had learned.

Our people there had been shackled and corrupted by the prevailing system. We would print only what people with power and money decided should be printed. Right across the country, reporters and publishers took order.

We changed all that/ Wed educated our reporters to report the news without fear or favor. We banned old practices. Changed paradigms. And the people changed. They came alive.

The same people who had been taking bribes and cutting corners became dedicated reporters and principled citizens. We went from number two in the province to number one in the nation.

It was the beginning of a revolution in my profession, in my city and country.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need three other revolutions: one that respects merits, one that respects property rights, one that brings public trials and the rule of law. And I have no doubt we can bring them about.

A colleague once shared with me the story of a shipwrecked sailor, who spent three years on a deserted island. He is overjoyed one day to see a ship drop anchor in the bay. A small boat comes ashore, and an officer hands the sailor a collection of newspapers. And this is what he tells the shipwrecked sailor:
Sir: “The captain suggests that you read what is going on in the world. When you’ve read it, let us know if you want to be rescued.”

In all the time I have been a newspaperman, I have never stopped believing that tomorrow’s edition could bring better news, no matter how discouraging the stories might be today.

I have seen enough in the capacity of human beings to make each new day better; to convince me that there is always hope.

We are – all of us – members of communities and there is not a community in the world that cannot be better protected by a good newspaper who speaks out.

And ladies and gentlemen, there is not a criminal alive that can scare us silent.

God bless you for your interest. Thank you very much.

Project Greenlight

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Today, in lieu of her standard column (and column font) in the New York Times, we get a "screenplay by Maureen Dowd" -- the "revised third draft." While I can't see a studio stampede to greenlight this thing, I'd give the green light to Dowd's continuing to tell column readers, right up top, which "draft" of her work we are about to read ("rough draft, unedited," "second re-write, after consulting voices in my head," and so on.)

Behind the Money

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Politico's Mike Allen writes up an email from the Obama campaign, cataloging a raft of October fundraisers that trade access for cash.

Give $500, and get a private reception with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank. Give $10,000 and you can have dinner with Tony Lake, Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro, three members of Obama's Israel/Palestine brain trust. With $28,500 to spare, you could chat with either Warren Buffett or Robert Rubin, who help shaped Obama's response to the financial crisis.

Allen quotes "an admiring"--but anonymous--"Republican official" describing the fundraisers as “Very unusual. Creative.”

But I'm not sure they are that unusual, and that's kinda the point. For all the emphasis that the Obama campaign places on its extraordinary small donor fundraising, they still rely on the old big-check and bundler routine that rewards wealthy and connected machers with unusual access.

Of course, a lot of people think that system is a problem. Even so, through this very expensive campaign, pieces that put vital background to Obama's fundraising rhetoric, like Allen's, have been rare. I noted a good Washington Post take in April, but otherwise, cataloging this take-and-give hasn't been much of a political press focus. And no matter who wins the White House, that oughta change.

Bloomberg has a nice, long look at securitization (part of a series on Wall Street’s debt-making). Particularly interesting is what it reports was the role of money-market funds in funding the securities that created the crisis:

Starting around 2005, securitization began to rely more on short-term money-market funds for financing. This was especially true for securities made by pooling other bonds, known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. Investors were loath to buy long-term debt of issuers that didn't have a track record, so new issuers sold asset-backed commercial paper that matured in less than a year. While money markets are the cheapest way to finance, they can also be the most dangerous for borrowers because they can mature as soon as the next day…

Once money-market funds began to be tapped for financing, Ocampo said, ``it created a huge appetite for high-yield assets, far more than could be originated on a sound basis.''

To accommodate the demand, banks funded more subprime mortgages, with an average life of seven years, replacing car loans with an average life of three years and credit-card bonds paid off within 18 months.
Among conservative lenders, that rang an alarm: Bankers are taught to avoid such mismatched funding, in which a lender has to pay back money before the borrower has to pay the principal.

``Most of the terrible things happening now are because of the presence of money-market assets, taking what used to be long-term funding and making it short-term,'' Bruce Bent, 71, who started the first money-market fund in 1970, said in an interview in July.

Good stuff. I’ll just question the Pravda-esque headline: “Evil Wall Street Exports Boomed With `Fools' Born to Buy Debt.”

The Journal is good this morning with a story about a Trump project being in big trouble. His 92-story condo and hotel tower in Chicago has sold far fewer units than it needs to break even and the market is, of course, now toast.

Most urgently, to stay current on the project's biggest piece of debt, a $640 million senior construction loan, originated by Deutsche Bank AG, Mr. Trump must negotiate by Nov. 1 to exercise an extension provision contained in the original loan that he took out in 2005. To extend the loan, Mr. Trump must prepay additional interest charges to Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank declined to comment other than to say it syndicated the loan to several other banks and that its exposure is less than $50 million. Mr. Trump is confident that the extension will be agreed upon.

This is excellent context:

Mr. Trump's challenges highlight the dangers of building very tall buildings. Because they take years to build, markets can change and leave developers in dire situations. In fact, very few supertall skyscrapers have been profitable for their original developers. The Empire State Building was dubbed the "empty state building," when tenants didn't move in. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center required heavy taxpayer subsidy to stay occupied through the 1970s and 1980s.

The WSJ looks at the astonishing recent events with Volkswagen’s stock, which the mother of all “short squeezes” has artificially boosted to being the world’s second-most valuable company, just behind Exxon Mobil. The paper says the shocking rise—which more than quadrupled the price in two days—has dealt a “punishing blow” to an already wobbly hedge-fund industry.

Steven Pearlstein comes out against a bailout of the Big Three and says it needs bankruptcy restructuring.

The Journal surveys top economists to find out when the crisis will end. A better survey might ask them why they were almost all wrong, Roubini excepted, in missing the thing before it got here. Let’s face it, at this point, the economists have been discredited and you might as well ask me when the clouds will part.

The Times tosses off a story on the impending credit-card crisis, something BusinessWeek wrote three weeks ago.

Lenders wrote off an estimated $21 billion in bad credit card loans in the first half of 2008 as more borrowers defaulted on their payments. With companies laying off tens of thousands of workers, the industry stands to lose at least another $55 billion over the next year and a half, analysts say. Currently, the total losses amount to 5.5 percent of credit card debt outstanding, and could surpass the 7.9 percent level reached after the technology bubble burst in 2001.

This assertion could use some evidence:

The depth of the financial crisis has shocked a credit-hooked nation into rethinking its habits. Many families once content to buy now and pay later are eager to trim their reliance on credit cards.

The NYT’s David Leonhardt is good today in exploring whether stocks are cheap. Warren Buffett and John Bogle think so, but this guy, James Melcher, who predicted the bust, is not:

He went on: “In the last 20 years — and particularly in the last six or seven — you had the most massive creation of liquidity the world has ever known.” Consumers went ever deeper into debt, thanks to loose lending standards, and a shadow banking system, made up of hedge funds and investment banks, allowed Wall Street to do the same. All that debt lifted economic growth and stock returns.

“It was a nice party,” Mr. Melcher said. “The problem is that all the bills are coming due at the same time.” He thinks stocks could easily fall an additional 20 percent and maybe 35 percent before hitting bottom.

Energy: Fueling the Campaign

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With less than one week to go before the most fiercely contested presidential election in recent memory, it’s time to reflect on the ways in which energy fueled this campaign.

In the end, while the economy has clearly emerged as the nation’s utmost concern, it is an issue—the severity of the current financial crisis notwithstanding—that is familiar to any presidential election. But energy, and by extension the energy beat has rarely, if ever, played such a significant role in a presidential campaign. Not only have candidates and journalists approached the subject directly, with talk of mandatory carbon caps and investments in alternative and conventional energy sources, but they have also highlighted its intimate connections to recurring issues like national security and, indeed, the economy.

Yet, over the course of this campaign, the energy story has changed in often surprising ways. CJR talked to three energy and environment beat reporters—two who covered the campaign from Washington and one who was out on the trail—about their beat’s newfound significance, their access to the candidates, and their opinions on what lies ahead. All of them agreed that energy was a different type of story during the primaries, when nearly all the Democratic candidates agreed on broad policy goals and even Republicans declined to make much of the issue. According to Darren Samuelsohn, a senior reporter at Greenwire, a subscription-based online news source that provides detailed coverage of energy and the environment, the general election quickly changed the narrative.

“Once we knew it was Mac and Obama, it was an amazing story,” he said. “It brought us to a place in American history where the two presidential candidates were supporting mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. That meant something significant in terms of the policy, regardless of the politics. And at first it didn’t seem like Obama and McCain were going to attack each other [on energy issues], but then, sure enough, they did.”

At first, it was largely McCain throwing matches. As Dina Cappiello, a national energy and environment correspondent for the Associated Press, pointed out in an interview, the candidate lit a fire during the primary with his calls for a gas tax holiday and a halt to filling the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Slowly but surely, McCain deemphasized clean energy sources like wind and solar in favor of nuclear and fossil fuels, eventually calling to lift the longstanding federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling. This summer’s skyrocketing gasoline prices drove that shift, and now, in the final week, other economic woes have almost entirely superseded energy concerns. And for all the energy-related debate, Cappiello says that the differences between Obama and McCain, especially as they relate to the financial crisis, have been hard for reporters to “tease” out.

“They talk about the green economy, and clean coal, and nuclear, but they talk about them in different ways,” she said. “There are differences, but I don’t think they’re as stark as people initially thought, and neither candidate has addressed what the economic situation does to some of these plans. For Obama, auctioning [carbon permits] may not be best way to go with cap and trade because of the cost. For McCain, how much is he going to have to subsidize these forty-five nuclear reactors he’s called for?”

To be sure, getting access to the candidates in order to ask more probing questions is the eternal challenge. But it is perhaps doubly so for energy and environment reporters, who typically do not go out onto the campaign trail. Juliet Eilperin, who has covered environmental issues for ten years at the The Washington Post, was perhaps the only energy-oriented beat reporter who travelled with the candidates full time. Even then, she only spent about ten percent of her time addressing energy and environment issues; the rest was general campaign reporting. In an interview, Eilperin said she has travelled with all of the Republican candidates, though never with Obama. Originally, she felt that she had ample opportunity to talk with McCain, but those opportunities tapered off after the primaries.

“One of the reasons it was so interesting to cover McCain in the beginning is because he allowed the press such access,” Eilperin said, “And we were able to discuss all of these issues, including environmental and energy issues, with him in detail at the back of his bus. That quickly changed around June when his campaign made a deliberate decision to shut out the press, and from that point forward I haven’t had a substantive conversation with him.”

Samuelsohn echoed some of the same feelings. All in all, he said, Obama has far more energy and environment advisors than McCain, but the McCain camp has been “much better” about returning calls and e-mails. Nonetheless, all of that has changed in the final weeks. “It’s harder to get them on the phone now [or] I get generic responses from them, that aren’t the detail that I want,” Samuelsohn said. “The key is just being persistent and going to a panel discussion where, you know, Jason Grumet or Elgie Holstein [two Obama energy advisors] is speaking. They’re on the record there and they’re doing a lot of those.”

Indeed, there were a number of speeches (from the candidates and their aides), a slew of advertising, and reams of news articles and features (in all media) that focused on energy issues even as the economic crisis unfolded. But the influence of that greater concern was apparent. As the campaign wore on, the candidates became loath to mention cap-and-trade, with its implication of cost, and shifted to talk of investment in renewable energy, with its connotation of growth and “green jobs.” With less than a week remaining, however, reporters have little hope to get much more.

“In the short term they’re going to be hyper-focused on winning the election, and less focused on the environmental and energy issues,” Cappiello said. “They really want to keep the focus on the economy because that’s what people are voting for. You have to remember, depending on how you ask the question, high energy prices are really high up there, but if you make it climate change and global warming, that’s really down the totem pole in terms of what people are concerned about.”

For a time, before the full impact of the economic crisis hit, Sarah Palin’s nomination for the Republican vice presidency renewed interest in energy and environmental coverage. Even last month’s endangered-species listing of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale became national headlines because of Palin’s opposition. “Usually that would go out over the [Alaska AP] state wire,” Cappiello said. “The positions of these candidates, whether they’re talking about them directly or not, elevate stories on the environmental and energy beat that wouldn’t be so elevated in the absence of the political campaign.”

Yet with Palin, problems of access continued, perhaps to an even greater degree. Eilperin, who spent “a lot” of her time with the governor in recent months, says she’s “never had a chance to ask her a direct question.” Samuelsohn and Cappiello both pointed to Palin’s somewhat ambiguous stance on the causes of global warming, and how, prior to her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, many newspapers were relegated to reprinting a single, skeptical quote that Palin had given to Newsmax magazine.

So in some ways, this may be a relatively diminished ending for the presidential energy beat, but the race has also elevated that coverage to unprecedented urgency and prominence. Though the story has waxed and waned throughout the campaign, voters now seem to have a clearer understanding of how integral energy policy will be to the next administration. And the energy beat will surely see an upswing in the election’s immediate aftermath.

“I don’t think [anything new about Obama and McCain] is going to break through the sort of exhaustion of the campaign and the anticipation of the race being over,” Samuelsohn said. “From the energy and environment perspective, I think it’s more, ‘Let’s get ready for what’s to come.’ That’s what I’m going to try pursue here in the final weeks.”

Eilperin concurred: “When this election is over, the immediate task that reporters will face is — give Americans a sense of how the policies may shift after eight years of George Bush in the White House, and what does that mean for their lives as well as for the global economic, environment and energy outlook … I think there’s no question that the economic downturn raises serious concerns over what sort of policies governments across the globe are going to be willing to pursue in light of recent developments.”

All three agreed that the next president’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency is glaringly important, given the agency’s Supreme Court mandate to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant. Internationally, it will be important to watch the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Poland this December, and whether or not the president-elect has a presence there. Whatever happens, it’s likely that energy policy will change, perhaps radically, and that the energy beat’s role in this campaign was no mere guest appearance.

Michelle-O Is Not Jackie-O


Hey, did you hear? Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew! And online, too! And she pays for her own clothes!

Wow. She. Is. So. Normal!

At least, that's what the AP would have us take away from Obama's appearance--during which she discussed much more than clothing--on The Tonight Show yesterday evening. Here's the lede of the outlet's widely picked-up summary of the appearance, helpfully headlined "Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew, buys online":

No $150,000 wardrobe malfunctions for Michelle Obama.

"Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble," the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told comedian Jay Leno on Monday on his talk show. She wore a yellow sweater, skirt and blouse ensemble.

"You can get some good stuff online," she added.

Okay, so, clearly we have clothing on the brain right now. Most in the media are ready for this long, rather painful campaign just to be over with, already, and chatting about fashion and other frivolities is a frothy little distraction from our collective frustration. There comes a point when even the most information-hungry news consumer would choose US Weekly over The Week. So, you know, fair enough.

At the same time, though, the extent to which her clothing choices have dominated the media conversation about Obama is rather remarkable. We know, at this point, about Michelle's fondness for sleeveless tops. We're aware of her dislike for pantyhose. And of her preference for ballet flats. And of her affinity for Jackie-esque pearls. And of her in-many-ways-symbolic appreciation for the color purple. And how, for special occasions, she likes floral frocks from the Thailand-born designer Thakoon. And how, for normal occasions, she dresses her girls in clothing from the Gap and Limited Too and Target. And how, for herself, she shops at White House/Black Market, mainstay of strip malls the country over. And, now, how she shops--online!--at J. Crew.

Which is, on the one hand, all well and good. First Ladies, for better or worse, have always been looked to as national fashion ambassadors, and there's nothing wrong, really, with noting Michelle's style choices. But, um, within reason. As with everything else, it's a matter of proportionality. Just for comparison, how much do we know about Obama's days as a student at Princeton and Harvard? Or about the work she did as a corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin, the Chicago law firm where she met Barack? Or as an assistant to Mayor Daley? Or as executive director of Public Allies Chicago? Or as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center?

Yeah. Comparably little.

This is, of course, by design. The Michelle-as-fashion-plate narrative is one the Obama campaign has been writing on behalf of its candidate's wife for basically the past year, a narrative that conveniently eschews substance for carefully calibrated normalcy when it comes to the potential future First Lady. A smart, no-nonsense, Ivy-educated lawyer is a much less relatable figure, after all--per campaign calculations, anyway--than a Target-shopping Supermom. Why reveal intelligence (smarts are so alienating) when you can reveal common-sense fashion sense? "Mrs. Obama and her aides have carefully chosen her appearances on the national stage this fall, mostly selecting high-profile venues that are politically safe," The New York Times notes in today's profile of Obama's political evolution. It continues,

As first lady, Obama advisers say, Mrs. Obama would focus first on her family and then on the issues facing women and military spouses as those groups deal with the economic crisis and the return of troops from Iraq. She also plans to take up national service as an issue, aides say. She will not have a major policy role, they say, and does not plan to have an office in the West Wing.

After declaring that "some of Senator Barack Obama’s advisers once viewed Mrs. Obama as an unpredictable force who sometimes spoke her mind a little too much" (how Victorian!), the piece goes on to note that "she is now regarded within the campaign as a disciplined and effective advocate for her husband." And that she has "gone a long way toward addressing her greatest unstated challenge: making more voters comfortable with the idea of a black first lady."

It's probably true--and kudos to the Times for coming out and saying that, rather than couching Obama's race in the familiar euphemisms ("otherness," "relatability," even "elitism") that are as unhelpful in the context of political journalism as they are frustrating. Still, though, the subtext here--that Michelle would have to go out of her way to make people "comfortable" with the idea of her in the first place--says perhaps even more than the text itself. For all the ink spilled in the service of analyzing What Barack's Race Means, Michelle has been navigating an even trickier course of racial implication. Lacking the mixed-racial identity that has to some extent insulated her husband from the fullness of stereotype when it comes to common conceptions of African-American men--and that has also provided physical foundations for Barack's pretensions to post-racialism--Michelle is, in both the simplicity and the complexity of the term, African-American. Which is in turn only complicated, of course, by her being a woman.

Watching Michelle's Tonight Show appearance, I couldn't help but think back to the "softening tour" that she embarked on last summer to rehabilitate her image after ReallyProudOfMyCountryGate and TerroristFistJabGate and (the fictional) WhiteyGate and the like: the rather unfortunate media journey undertaken by the highly educated lawyer, business executive, and all-around Sassy Lady to prove to the American public that she is, you know, Just Like the Rest of Us. (She shops at Target! She loves Sex and the City! Et cetera!) As I said at the time, there's something disturbing and disappointing and just a little bit disgusting about the whole thing, something distressing in the tour's tacit admission that to make Michelle more "palatable" to the American electorate means to soften her, which means to feminize her, which means to minimize her wholeness as a person. Girly-girls and SuperMoms aren't threatening to average Americans; high-achieving community activists, apparently, are. So why talk shop when you can talk shopping?

And the media have, paradoxically, amplified this narrative of reduction when it comes to Michelle. (Take the hour-long conversation she conducted with Larry King earlier this month--one of the few non-View or Access Hollywood or US Weekly interviews she's granted--and the fact that the main takeaway of the conversation, per the mainstream press, was that Michelle wasn't offended by McCain's reference to her husband as "that one" in the presidential debate.) Ironically, it's through their very tendency to siphon her spin that the media are doing a disservice to Michelle--and, less ironically, to the rest of us.

By focusing so readily, and so myopically, on Obama's clothes--and, more broadly, by allowing the Obama campaign to drive the normalcy narrative when it comes to Michelle--the media are shirking their responsibility to inform us about the person who may well become First Lady. (And the fact that that's a mostly symbolic office doesn't mean we have less of a right to know its occupant.) In this, they're cheating many Americans of a role model--and Michelle of her capacity to act as one. There's much more to be reported about and discussed when it comes to Obama. The vast majority of which will be infinitely more interesting to learn about than where she buys her sweater sets.

Going Ideological

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The Boston Globe runs an article today entitled: “McCain calls liberals a threat to economy.” The source quote for the headline? McCain’s ideological claim, made in Cleveland, that Obama—who McCain accused of running for “redistributionist in chief”—was dangerously liberal:

“Do you want to keep [your money] and invest it in your future, or have it taken by the most liberal person to ever run for the presidency and the Democratic leaders - the most liberal, who have been running Congress for the past two years, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid?" McCain went on, to boos. "You know, my friends, this is a dangerous threesome."

Unfortunately, the Globe’s Sasha Issenberg leaves this quote, with its “most liberal” charge, largely untouched. And that’s problematic, because the word “liberal,” like the word “socialist,” deserves context, not studied reportorial silence, particularly when a candidate’s speech largely rests on making ideological distinctions.

Issenberg does identify campaign tactics and partisan rhetoric for what they are, explaining that McCain “articulated in his most dire terms yet what has become the dominant theme of his campaign in the last two weeks,” namely the argument that Obama’s economic policies would stultify growth and serve as barriers to small business. Commenting on McCain’s argument that “the election comes down to how you want your hard-earned money spent,” and that the “choice facing Americans is stark,” Issenberg also states that the Arizona senator has had “greater difficulty sketching that choice in clear ideological terms.”

So there is some acknowledgement of McCain’s attempt to frame his argument in partisan terms—what the article calls an inauguration of “a final phase” of the campaign a week away from the election, during which McCain would, as the article elucidates, “offer himself up as a bulwark against the hazards of single-party dominance of the legislative and executive branches.”

But the account goes no further than this. McCain’s remark that Obama is “the most liberal person to ever run for the presidency” (and the implication that this is dangerous) is, if not inflammatory, then at the very least meant to galvanize. Press reports would do well to explain, at least in a sentence or two, the period-specific relativity of the descriptor “liberal.”

Is Obama as liberal, for instance, as William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president in 1896 on the populist-friendly Free Silver platform? After famously delivering at the Chicago Democratic National Convention the lines "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (a rousing call to depart from the gold standard that was in part oppressing a debt-ridden working class), Bryan won the party nomination. Despite his loss, he helped develop in the Democratic Party what a recent All Things Considered broadcast on NPR called “the core of modern liberalism.” (As Bryan biographer Michael Kazin noted during the broadcast, “You can say in many ways Bryan was one of the most important losers in American political history.”)

Even from the irascible Jonah Goldberg, an unexpected debunker of McCain’s comments, we get the proclamation that Obama’s liberalism is “not ‘new.’” Goldberg’s argument, which quickly becomes shrill, nonetheless places Obama in a spectrum of progressive politicians, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR.

Now, for all intents and purposes, McCain doesn’t mean to squeeze these precedents into the term “liberal” when he cites Obama’s liberalism. He simply means, one week away from the election, to draw clear and simple distinctions between his economic policies and Obama’s. And the easiest way to do this is to use terms that most immediately and qualitatively distinguish between the two, with little regard for the extent to which those descriptors actually pertain to today’s campaign, or the accuracy with which they are understood. That’s why the McCain camp has grabbed onto a seven-year-old radio interview in which Obama discusses the limitations of the Warren Court in ushering in civil rights, as more proof of his so-called socialist leanings. And that’s why McCain has dubbed Obama (in a rather inane attempt at a catch phrase), “redistributionist in chief,” and the “most liberal” presidential candidate in history.

In light of this, the press should do its best to engage politically inflated terms, and deflate them, if necessary. Ideological rhetoric—even when empty—holds a lot of power. In the Globe article, Issenberg states that “McCain has not historically campaigned as a messenger of sharp philosophical distinctions.” Well, the fact that he’s doing so now merits more unpacking.

Politico's Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris take readers through political journalists' biases (the ones that "matter so much more" than "ideological bias") and how they, and some of the particulars of this campaign, have redounded mostly to Obama's benefit.

One example:

Obama has benefited from his ability to minimize internal drama and maximize secrecy — and thus to starve feed the press’ bias for palace intrigue. In this sense, his campaign bears resemblance to the two run by George W. Bush.

There's also "the bias in favor of momentum" ("a candidate who is perceived to be doing well tends to get even more positive coverage") which is countered by "the bias against boredom" (a need to keep things exciting/competitive).

And then there's "the bend-over-backward bias" (trying "so hard to avoid accusations of favoritism that it clouds critical judgment") as demonstrated by "stories suggesting Palin held her own or even won her debate against Joe Biden when it seemed obvious she was simply invoking whatever talking points she had at hand, hanging on for dear life." (Something Campaign Desk addressed at the time).

The McKinley Problem

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Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's birth. Aside from several bully celebrations of the late president’s life and times, this anniversary also inspired comparisons to the current slate of presidential candidates. Who best embodies the Rough Rider’s legacy: Barack Obama or John McCain?

The obvious answer to this is McCain, who is proud to identify himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican: centrist, reasonable, devoted to fair play and American glory. And as John Avlon at Real Clear Politics explained yesterday, the similarities between McCain and his political hero are very real:

TR fought bitterly with the more conservative, big-business establishment of the GOP in his day. McCain has the scars from similar fights with the far-right of his time, whom he has pushed to modernize while reaching out to Democrats and Independents. In many ways, McCain's conflicts with Bush and Rove reflect the same fault-lines in the GOP that existed when TR warred with McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna - the progressive reformer versus the play-to-the-base establishment.

Obama also looks to Theodore Roosevelt as a hero, though the connections are somewhat indirect. Roosevelt was a political progressive, a vigorous man in his forties, and a leader whose presidency Obama claims to admire.

The New York Times tackled this comparison with considerable creativity yesterday morning, with Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris "interviewing" Roosevelt about this year's presidential race, using Roosevelt's actual words:

Q. What’s your impression of Barack Obama?

A. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the people have made up their mind that they wish some new instrument.

Q. You’re not afraid that he’s primarily a man of words? Like Woodrow Wilson, whom you once called a “Byzantine logothete”?

A. It is highly desirable that a leader of opinion in a democracy should be able to state his views clearly and convincingly.

Roosevelt was a "maverick" too; he just didn't trip all over himself letting everyone know about it. This is the awkward thing about active politicians talking about their political heroes—it only invites comparisons. Even if, politically, John McCain is very similar to Theodore Roosevelt (belligerent on national security, environmental conservationist, political reformer, father of daughters given to unpredictable political involvement) Barack Obama is symbolically similar to TR: hard working, vigorous, young.

Despite the very real admiration McCain feels for the twenty-sixth president, Roosevelt's political career probably ought not to be invoked too often by the McCain campaign. Demographically speaking, the problem is that McCain resembles not the vigorous twenty-sixth president of the United States, but the old man whom Roosevelt replaced in 1901. It's the worry about this sort of thing that makes many so uncomfortable with the McCain-Palin ticket. Or, as Morris writes:

Q. Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain’s choice of a female running mate?

A. Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue.

Q. How will you feel if Sarah Palin is elected?

A. I shall feel exactly the way a very small frog looks when it swallows a beetle the size of itself, with extremely stiff legs.

Campaign Press, Engaged

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The LA Times has twin front-page stories today chronicling a reporter's life on the road with the each of presidential candidates. (Heavy on "a reporter's life.")

From the Times' Maeve Reston we learn that "McCain was frank, garrulous and accessible -- and then he wasn't," starting sometime around when Reston asked him "if he agreed with his advisor Carly Fiorina's recent statement that it was unfair for some health insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control -- because McCain generally opposed those kinds of mandates" and his "awkward" response turned into "an embarrassing 'gotcha moment' for cable television."

Pre-Viagra-question McCain, writes Reston, "was unguarded and charming, occasionally solicitous about our lives." (He used to ask us about us.)

For example? Back then:

One winter afternoon when Cindy McCain joined him and he was stuck with three newly engaged reporters, he gave us a 10-minute treatise on honeymoon spots.... For several months, he would often lean in and ask the same question: "Did you set a date yet?"

And, now?

Tape recorder out and within a foot of him, I asked if he could talk about his new economic plan, which he was to unveil that week. The man who once asked me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door.

The man who once asked about my wedding date was now pretending my wedding date didn't even exist.

There's a tale of (engagement) engagement, too, in the Obama piece (headline: "Obama rarely reveals true self"). That time when, as the Times' Peter Nicholas writes, "I tried to wrest from Obama some display of personality" (this being what Nicholas's campaign trail mission has, given the candidate's distance and elusiveness, apparently been reduced to; or, in Nicholas's own words: "Those of us who were sent out to take his measure in person can't offer much help in answering who he is, or if he is ready. The barriers set in place between us and him were just too great."). But, back to that engagement. Per Nicholas:

Amy Chozick, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was wearing a new engagement ring. I told Obama's staff members they should send him back to take a look. A few minutes before takeoff my seatmate, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, nudged me: "He's coming back." I looked up and there he was, hovering over Chozick, clucking about her "rock."

He turned to our row. Just for fun and to see what he might say, I held out the $200 wedding ring I'd purchased four years ago at a chain jewelry store in a Sacramento mall.

What do you think of this ring, Senator? I asked.

He looked at it for a few beats. No reaction. He was back in robo-candidate mode.

Too bad that Obama didn't "cluck" over-- or even react, at all -- to Nicholas's ring. If only so Nicholas might have learned something about the candidate from the exchange. But surely something can be gleaned, some conclusion can be drawn, from the whole "rock-clucking" thing? (Other than that more than one campaign reporter seems to have become engaged during election 2008 -- absence does make the heart grow fonder? -- not that they'd expect the candidates to make a big fuss about it or anything, beyond, you know, weekly check-ins on seating arrangements). Maybe the lesson is that Obama doesn't hold grudges? Amy Chozick is, after all, the reporter who wrote that "Could Obama's Skinniness Be a Liability" story in which she trolled for people who might say yes on a Yahoo! message board. Or, maybe, that Obama doesn't read the Journal at all? Or...?

Back in June, the New York Times hinted that Michelle Obama (or at least, her "image") might be, um, in need of a makeover (Mrs. Obama "looks for a new introduction.")

In August, the Times weighed in approvingly on Mrs. Obama's progress, dubbing her "now a softer presence."

And today, one week before the election, the Times declares Mrs. Obama -- oh, happy day -- "no longer a novice." Michelle Obama, you've come so far! You are, the Times reports, now "cautious and disciplined" and the campaign has "confidence" in you and "deploys" you where it matters most!"

Minus, that is, with the media.

Still, the Obama campaign has limited interviews that would entail tough questions from national newspapers and cable news programs. “There is not one vote she will get from doing Wolf Blitzer,” an aide said.

(Blitzer's mom?)

And still:

By the standards of a national political campaign, Mrs. Obama does maintain a somewhat limited schedule...Most of the time she is at home taking care of the couple’s 10- and 7-year-old daughters, a choice that advisers hope will pay dividends among women of all races who can relate to her priorities.

And a choice that Mrs. Obama, presumably, hopes will "pay dividends among" her daughters themselves. But yes, tactics, tactics, strategy and what "advisers hope" first and foremost. And isn't it great that Mrs. Obama is now so presentable? Just in time.

MoDo, Bono....

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Fresh off his recent blogging gig at the Financial Times, U2 lead singer Bono will join the New York Times op-ed stable next year, which, current Times columnist David Brooks told Gabriel Sherman, is fine with him:

I take Bono quite seriously. I'm generally quite skeptical [of celebrity pundits], it's either marketing or posing. But Bono has cleared my hurdle. I do think he's taken time to think like a regular opinion person.

Not a regular person. A "regular opinion person." (Meaning: Thinks in imaginary conversations? Thinks in imaginary letters to world leaders? Thinks readers will translate Latin in order to receive his wit?)

Let’s Leave Jesus Out of It

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Today’s Bob Herbert column in The New York Times compares McCain to an Al Jolson aficionado and Obama to the Beatles. Stanley Fish, in his online NYT column, compares McCain to Satan and Obama to… wait for it… Jesus.

Both aim to show how the candidates’ respective approaches have gotten them to where they are—Obama with a solid lead and McCain, well, flailing. It’s a pair of how did they play the game retrospective analyses. Herbert, unsurprisingly, does this earnestly, while Fish, unsurprisingly, has a bit more cheek.

But while any reader appreciates the occasional analogy (check out the reader comments for the Fish piece), is it too much to ask columnists to refrain from sizing up the two candidates and playing the Who Beat Or Superseded Whom game, using, well, stand-ins? Surely, we can talk about McCain and Obama in the final days before the election without resorting to a game of match-up.

In the competition to win voters’ hearts, Herbert thinks, McCain fumbled the ball with dirty politics:

Senator McCain has diminished his chances of winning the presidency in many ways, the most important of which was his failure to grasp the most significant new trend in American politics.

With the country facing enormous problems (even before the meltdown of the credit and financial markets in recent months), the voters wanted more substance from their candidates. They wanted a greater sense of maturity and a more civil approach to campaigning. They were tired of the politics of personal destruction and the playbook that counseled “attack, attack, attack”… John McCain didn’t get it. He seemed as baffled by the new politics as an Al Jolson aficionado trying to make sense of the Beatles.

There’s nothing new here; in that sense, it’s rather like Obama’s “closing argument” yesterday. Herbert keeps things simple, if not simplistic, distilling the game down to “attack politics” vs. “new politics” and comparing an old fogey to, well, an old fogey.

Fish, though, went out of his way to pull a comparison out of his deep pockets that blows Herbert’s mild Jolson-Beatles attempt clear out of the water. Imagine what would’ve happened had this analogy cropped up earlier in the campaign:

I find an answer in a most unlikely place, John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e., maverick) loses it, crying in exasperation, “What dost thou in this world?”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that McCain is the devil or that Obama is the Messiah (although some of his supporters think of him that way), just that the rhetorical strategies the two literary figures employ match up with the strategies employed by the two candidates. What Satan wants to do is draw Jesus out, provoke him to an unwisely exasperated response, get him to claim too much for his own powers. What Jesus does is reply with an equanimity conveyed by the adjectives and adverbs that preface his words: “unaltered,” “temperately,” “patiently,” “calmly,” “unmoved,” “sagely,” “in brief.”

Stating that Obama decided “to play another game, one we haven’t seen for awhile,” Fish calls it like he sees it: “the name of this game is straightforward campaigning, or rather straightforward non-campaigning.” As a backdrop to Obama’s smooth game, he cites the flustered McCain camp—going red in the face trying to explain away Palin-speak, or jumping from the un-American charge to the socialism charge to the “measuring the drapes” charge. It’s in searching for an apt comparison that he alights on Milton.

It’s not an entirely unjust point to make. McCain has done lots of dancing, prodding and poking around Obama, and the latter has remained remarkably calm in the face of it all. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to remain temperate and in about the same place regardless of the irrational taunts thrown his way, and “so far,” Fish writes, “the combination of discipline and care — care not to get out too far in front of anything — along with a boatload of money is working just fine.” In that sense, Fish’s comparison is instructive—though this main point, about the virtues of passive non-campaigning as practiced by the Obama camp, almost gets lost in the Jesus-Satan two-step.

Still, drawing on such analogies is kind of like taking a short cut—the election results aren’t yet in, but, man, do people want to talk about who’s done it right, and who will win as a result. Barring talking about an Obama presidency, stand-ins are an easy way to discuss the dynamics of the seemingly inevitable big payoff. And how unfortunate for McCain that the comparison touts such a preordained result. Fish has McCain’s stand-in, Satan, increasingly getting desperate: “he conjures up rain and wind storms… tempts [Jesus] with the riches of poetry and philosophy…and finally, having run out of schemes and scares and ‘swollen with rage,’ he resorts to physical violence.” While Satan ultimately fails, Jesus, in a deus ex machina moment, rises up to heaven. Is that poetic—or columnists’—justice?

The fallacy of this comparison is that the “right” approach doesn’t always lead to the “right” result in elections, and painting what amounts to a moral portrait of a campaign run right (or wrong) is premature. This is especially true because Obama’s lead is strong—the more predictable the outcome, the more restraint is in order. And while Herbert’s Jolson-Beatles analogy is a one-line changing of the eras reference without any moral bearing, Fish’s isn’t. It’s one thing to criticize the way a campaign’s been run. It’s another to use a frame of comparison that is by nature heavily weighted in shades of good and bad. Fish is careful to say he is likening strategies, not personas. But everyone knows the outcome of that story, and that makes the comparison also rather presumptuous.

Covering That Other War

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We are a nation at war(s). And while you may know something of the presidential candidates' plans for Iraq and, perhaps, Afghanistan, do you know how McCain and Obama aim to handle the oft-overlooked "talk show host wars" (which, according to PEJ, ranked in the top ten stories covered by cable TV -- and only cable -- last week, unlike other more familiar wars which made the top ten topics in nearly every other medium save cable)?

(I watch a lot of cable news and even I am not sure what "talk show host wars" means. Oh no. Please tell me this isn't about The View. What is up with all the coverage given to the arguing that happens on that show? Stop. Please?)

Also from the latest PEJ study:

As the days tick down toward Nov. 4 with the momentum clearly tilting toward Obama—and with the press searching intently for developments that could change that dynamic—stories appear to have a shorter shelf life, often flashing across the media radar screen in a matter of hours rather than days.

Indeed, no single narrative dominated last week’s coverage. The top storyline, the fight over battleground states, accounted for 10% of the campaign newshole...

The Journal’s Dennis Berman looks at how difficult it may be to prosecute executives for the financial collapse, despite what was said about the post-Enron laws that supposedly made wrongdoing more difficult.

Those looking for retribution against the executives of failed companies will quickly see that prosecutions won't come easy. The law gives executives wide latitude to run their business, no matter how terrible their decisions. And even convictions would seem an incomplete conclusion given that a system — political and regulatory — also failed the public.

Berman also raises an interesting factoid I hadn’t seen before:

The House Financial Services Committee held 56 hearings in 2006, on everything from flood insurance to transparency in financial reporting. None touched directly on the issues that have brought the U.S. and world economies to their knees.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox came before that committee in September 2006, just as the credit bubble was reaching its peak. In a session celebrating signature legislation of the post-Enron era, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Mr. Cox mused, "We have come a long way since 2002. Investor confidence has recovered. There is greater corporate accountability. Financial reporting is more reliable and transparent."

Breakingviews is good in calling out the terribly bad merger ideas that have arisen with banks and investment banks in this crisis. He points out the Wachovia/Morgan Stanley (something I pointed out at the time) talks as particularly alarming.

Hey—there’s actually some good news! The WSJ says cheap houses are bringing buyers back into the market.

A quarterly Wall Street Journal survey of housing data in 28 major metro areas shows that the glut of unsold homes listed for sale is shrinking in most of them. In many cases, sales have been stimulated by investors who are grabbing what they see as bargains on homes that can be turned into rentals. Metro areas with the biggest drops in for-sale signs include Sacramento and Orange County in California and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Of course, there’s bad news accompanying it: Prices are likely to decline (or at least be under “downward pressure”) for another year.

The Journal is good in explaining what happened to General Growth Properties—one of the biggest real estate investment trusts and, not too long ago, one of the best-performing mall owners. Its stock is down 97 percent and it just replaced its CEO, the scion of the family that founded the company. It got in over its head with, you guessed it, leverage. Too much debt (something I wrote about three and half years ago, by the way).

The FT reports that the world has less than a week to prevent a full-scale financial meltdown in Pakistan, which we might oughta do, since it’s not, like, the most stable of countries already. I don’t see this story in the Journal or the NYT.

Bloomberg has an interesting angle on the financial crisis, which is sending immigrant populations, especially Poles, in Ireland back home.

The number of people leaving Ireland next year will outstrip those moving to the country for the first time in 14 years, according to Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. The biggest exodus will be among the 170,000 workers who arrived the past four years from Poland and other east European states.

Here’s a nice personal-finance story in the Journal on how the presidential candidates’ tax plans would affect us. While the story makes the obvious point that McCain’s plan would be better for the wealthy, I think it frames this wrong:

Sen. McCain wants to permanently extend all 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, raise the personal exemption for each dependent from $3,500 gradually over several years to $7,000 and keep the top tax rate at 35%, leaving "upper-income taxpayers" with "the most to gain under McCain's plan," according to a report by Deloitte Tax. The nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimates that the top 1% would see a tax cut of more than $125,000.

Is it a tax “cut” if the rate is kept the same? I realize the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, meaning the top rate is set to go up without an extension, but it seems there might be a fairer way to frame that.

Finally, got a kick out of this NYT story on a guy who’s sweeping the make-your-own-ads world. It reminds me of the great Journal “aheds.”

He was working as a comedy-club usher in Indianapolis in spring 2007 when he read that Planet Smoothie, a franchise based in Atlanta, was looking for someone to be its Cupman mascot.

“When I read the description, it was like, ‘Actors, comics, musicians,’ — whatever,” Mr. Levinson said, “‘Would you be interested in traveling the country? Would you be interested in dressing like a giant smoothie?’ Well, on all of those fronts, kind of, yes.”

For his entry, he stared into the camera, writhing and singing lyrics like, “I wanna found a new country in Asia and call it Cupistan.” There were 95 entries, but his won easily.

“Everyone just kind of fell in love with Joel,” said Chris Morocco, a Planet Smoothie executive. “We had people coming in singing the jingle.”

Hope I Die . . .


At the turn of the century, John Cusack came home to Chicago to shoot a movie called High Fidelity. In it, he played a sad-sack hipster hiding out from adulthood in his used record shop, Championship Vinyl. Toward the end of the film, a young woman walks into the store and introduces herself as Caroline Fortis, a music reviewer for the Chicago Reader, the city’s alternative weekly. “You’re Caroline Fortis?” Cusack says, incredulously. “I read your column. It’s great. You really know what you’re talking about.” He’s so smitten, he makes her a mix tape.

Vinyl records. Mix tapes. Alternative weeklies. They seem part of another era now. But in 2000, when High Fidelity came out, the Reader was still a totem of Chicago’s underground scene. Every Thursday, stacks of fat, four-section papers were piled in the lobbies of bookstores, coffee shops, nightclubs, and liquor stores. By that evening, the Reader was under the arm of every L rider on the way home from an office job in the Loop, and in the backpack of every thrift-store chick on a one-speed bike.

The paper was the source for music listings and apartment classifieds. Starting on the cover, and winding through the ads, was a long, reported-to-the-pencil-nub tale about curing multiple sclerosis with bee venom or corruption in the Tollway Authority.

Today, if you made a movie about Chicago hipsters, Caroline Fortis probably wouldn’t write for the Reader. She’d write for Time Out Chicago, or Pitchfork, the music Webzine. The Reader still hits the streets every week, but as a single-section tabloid. Last year, shortly after its purchase by Creative Loafing, the Tampa-based chain, the paper laid off its entire design staff and four investigative reporters. And there’s a feeling around Chicago that the Reader has failed to catch on with the younger generation, and perhaps failed to try, at least until recently.

In 1995, when I quit my job at a downstate Illinois newspaper and moved to Chicago, my goal was to work for the Reader. I broke in with a long narrative about learning to play the horses from a professional tout, and worked my way up to staff writer. It was the best job I’ll ever have. At the Reader, you could write about anything, at any length, in any style. I turned out pieces on a teenaged Frank Sinatra impersonator, a man who sold socks by the freeway, and the “callers” who drummed up business outside hip-hop boutiques on the South Side. When I wrote my first book, Horseplayers: Life at the Track, the Reader paid my salary while I went to the races every day. All I had to do was write about the gamblers, a subculture the Reader loved.

The Reader was launched in 1971. At the time, the paper’s lakefront stronghold was populated by a mix of gays, artists, musicians, actors, and young professionals who were skeptical of the first Mayor Daley’s political machine. The so-called Lakefront Independents were key swing voters during Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor. Right before the election, the Reader published an article aimed at reassuring white voters about Washington’s credentials. Widely copied and stuffed under apartment doors, it helped him squeak to victory. Throughout the council wars between white aldermen and Washington’s minority allies, the Reader remained in the mayor’s corner. Its star reporter, Gary Rivlin, went on to write Fire on the Prairie, the definitive book on that divisive era in Chicago.

As a newspaper that serves a narrow circulation area, the Reader doesn’t get to choose its audience. And the yuppies who’ve colonized the lakefront over the last twenty years don’t seem as interested in rage-against-the-machine muckraking. Lincoln Park, the heart of Reader Country, now has one of the few Republican ward offices in the city. The average home sells for $525,000. The new residents love the current Mayor Daley, who is considered less corrupt and racist than his father. They credit him with making the city safe for Barneys New York and Japanese restaurants with valet parking. The Reader still carries the banner of the Lakefront Independents, but that movement is down to one or two aldermen.

Throughout my time at the Reader, we railed against Chicago’s new gloss. Some of it was personal—we wrote for an alternative weekly; we didn’t have a lot of dough. Some of it was the journalist’s sympathy for poor people getting the shaft (Neal Pollack, who’s gone on to success as a satirist, once filed a nineteen-thousand-word epic about a landlord/tenant dispute). And some of it was the sense that Chicago’s changes were robbing us of both our audience and our subject matter. A lot of us wanted to be Nelson Algren. But in today’s Chicago, Algren would have trouble finding an affordable apartment, let alone finding the man with the golden arm—a junkie drummer who deals poker in the backs of taverns. The Maxwell Street Market, where old bluesmen played alongside junk peddlers, was torn down to make way for a college expansion. We wrote a cover story. An artist who illustrated alt-country album covers closed her record store and moved to Delaware. We published a farewell. One day, we got this letter: “Why don’t you write about these places while they’re still open?” Pollack once proposed writing a book called The Disappearing City. But the city wasn’t disappearing, it was evolving, as all great cities do. “I spent my entire career at the Reader chronicling the death of that Chicago, those weird little storefronts and bomb-in-pocket anarchists,” Pollack told me. “Part of me regretted it, and part of it was a funeral rite. Now, a lot of the old audience of the Reader has either moved away or died.”

When a potential new audience was moving onto the Internet, the Reader declined to follow. The Chicago Tribune, the paper dinosaur the Reader had been born to challenge, beat us to the Net with an entertainment site called Metromix. In 2004, the Reader, which had once defined hipness, finally tried to get hip again. The editors insisted on shorter stories, added features on fashion, and hired a tattooed, twenty-seven-year-old stripper to write a late-night party column. They also came out with a new design that finally brought color to the front page. The Trib’s media critic hailed it as bringing the paper “into the late 1990s.” The establishment daily was tweaking the alternative weekly for being behind the times. On the day the new cover debuted, I handed out copies at an L stop in Lincoln Park. Gray-haired men and women rushed to grab copies. But no one under thirty would touch one.

That’s the problem with being hip for one generation: you’re dated for the next. There are publications—Ms. and Playboy, for example—that defined their eras, but are now stuck with lists of aging subscribers. The average Reader reader is around forty. Its main print competitors, Time Out Chicago and RedEye, the Tribune’s free commuter tabloid, have younger staffs and younger readers. Not surprisingly, the Reader\’s recently cashiered reporters think it should have continued down its classic path. “Being young and hip was part of the definition of the Reader, and I think the feeling was the Reader had to be reinvented to stay that way, and change its character,” says Harold Henderson, one of the laid-off writers. “The problem is, you gotta be who you are. You can pretend to be forty years younger than you are, but you’re going to be who you are. It would have been nice, the strategy of trying to be what the Reader had been, and it might have failed, but it would have been an honorable failure.”
I quit the Reader in the summer of 2005. Officially, I left to research another book. Secretly, I believed the alternative weekly was an obsolete concept. The Internet had launched so many outlets, with so many agendas, that the Reader could no longer claim to be Chicago’s underground option to the Trib and the Sun-Times. Steve Rhodes, who publishes the local media blog Beachwood Reporter, thinks the Reader became complacent because it was still raking in ad profits through the early 2000s—before Craigslist looted its classifieds, driving profits into the red.

When the Reader’s founding owners sold to Creative Loafing, they acknowledged their vintage with this statement: “We’ve had a great ride. Now we’re happily handing the keys to a new generation.” Creative Loafing’s CEO, Ben Eason, thinks he can recapture the eighteen-to-thirty-five crowd while hanging on to Boomers who’ve grown into middle age with the Reader. The Web site—which only in 2005 began offering all Reader content, but in difficult-to-read PDF files—now features blogs on music, sports, food, and movies. The new restaurant section combines the old Reader and the new Reader perfectly: a recent column on soul food examined African American foodways while identifying South Side restaurants where readers would feel comfortable. And Eason has commissioned focus groups—a Reader first. When Creative Loafing Atlanta did the same, he explains, “we found that it was a values game. You have to reach into the values of the sixties. A twenty-year-old today is still educated, serious, and community-minded.” The spirit of the alternative weekly is viable, he believes. But the tradition of spending months on a story is “economically unsustainable.” A small staff can still produce good journalism, Eason says. Creative Loafing Atlanta won an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Award for an exposé on the Black Mafia Family, a drug ring/hip-hop label.

Alison True, the Reader’s editor since 1994, says that “long-form and investigative journalism aren’t necessarily the same thing, but we continue to publish both. For years, we’ve been mixing shorter cover stories with the long ones everyone remembers, but all you ever hear about are the super long ones. They’re the exception, not the rule.” Fair enough, but the paper fired its best investigative reporters, and at least one of them rebuffed True’s offer to continue as a freelancer. The paper also pays less for features than it did a decade ago, which makes it harder to publish quality reporting. The Reader’s in-depth pieces made it different from every other paper in the city. If there’s no longer a place for them, will there still be a place for the Reader? The paper was engineered for a particular moment in Chicago’s, and journalism’s, history. Its challenge now is to transcend that without losing its identity or alienating readers who loved it for what it was. Alternative weeklies are expected to be eternally youthful. The Reader is finding that a tough act to pull off as it approaches forty. In High Fidelity, John Cusack eventually had to face the fact that he wasn’t one of the kids anymore.

edward mcclelland is the author of The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes.

It Happened To McCain

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Although the election is, as I write, still more than a week away, The New York Times Magazine decided to get out ahead of history with a close look at how the McCain campaign got to where it is now and, presumably, where it’s going to be in a few days—which is, as reporter Robert Draper predicts, Loserville.

In Sunday’s cover story, “The Making (and Remaking) of McCain,” Draper traces the various reinventions of the candidate from “NARRATIVE 1: The Heroic Fighter vs. the Quitters” to “NARRATIVE 6: The Fighter (Again) vs. the Tax-and-Spend Liberal.” On one hand, the piece almost satisfies the curiosity for behind-the-scenes tidbits: Steve Schmidt smokes! So does Mark Salter! The choosing of Palin was a rushed, contrived affair with little time given to consider her policy bona fides.

But feeding the gossip mill doesn’t seem to have been the goal. Draper, I’m guessing, is trying to explain why McCain will lose on November 4, and his apologist explanation—that the campaign tried but failed to establish a successful storyline for the candidate— doesn’t ring true. Instead, the piece resonates with a passive tone, wherein McCain’s advisors and the senator himself are at the mercy of events beyond their control.

Draper describes the campaign’s attempt to recast McCain as a bipartisan leader, someone who often went against his own party:

Salter and Schmidt had hoped that the mainstream press would warm to this new narrative. But the matter of which candidate had shown more acts of bipartisan daring failed to become Topic A.

In fact, that version of McCain didn’t take hold in the campaign, but Draper doesn’t attempt to match the campaign’s story line against reality. Perhaps the reason why the idea didn’t get much traction is that Schmidt and company had a problem demonstrating the actual facts behind the rhetoric. Or perhaps those facts were simply lacking in the senator’s record.

Later, the piece recounts the campaign’s descent into ugly campaigning:

When his media team suggested running ads that highlighted Obama’s connection with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, McCain reminded them that he pledged months earlier not to exploit the matter, and John McCain was not about to go back on his word. In such moments, the man who renounced negative ads during the 2000 campaign because he wanted (as he told his aghast advisers back then) “to run a campaign my daughter can be proud of” has been thoroughly recognizable.

But that John McCain had lost.

In this telling and this verbiage, the McCain of 2000 becomes an example of collateral damage, an inevitable victim of a tough campaign.

This simply can’t be true. It is as if Draper adopts a doctrine of Determinism over Free Will. The campaign, Schmidt, McCain, and the rest of the staff are completely devoid of the agency necessary to run the kind of campaign that may have led to victory.

In the summer, after Obama’s successful world tour, the McCain camp rolled out its infamous “Celebrity” ad:

When Russia invaded the fledgling republic of Georgia on Aug. 8, McCain’s strategists saw an opportunity for another stark binary choice — albeit one that abruptly shifted the story line back to the international arena: combat-ready leader versus unready celebrity.

The execution of the new narrative left something to be desired, however.

Here again, Draper paints the campaign as a leaf caught in the breeze, blown this way and that by narratives gone astray.

Perhaps it’s possible that the headwinds of the Obama candidacy were too strong for McCain to fight. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the passion he has ignited around the country and the world.

But, ultimately, the premise that it was the failure of the narratives and not the lack of appeal of the candidate’s positions, or his poor response to the economic crisis, seems to both too easily excuse the campaign’s missteps and, in a sense, cast the voting public as a bunch of gullible fools.

If McCain wins this November, the postmortem of the campaign is unlikely to include a lot of praise for successful narratives; instead McCain's qualifications will get the credit. So why does Draper let the Schmidt and company get away with using narratives as excuses for a failed campaign? Such tactics as a whole belong in the realm of the campaign strategist, but Draper is a journalist and should resist that narrative—which, in this case, is just another word for spin.

With campaign ads flooding the airwaves in the frantic push for the finish line, you’d be forgiven for missing the crop of “visit Colombia” commercials swirling like a bambuco dancer through your television set. These commercials, which are part of the Colombian government’s Country Image Campaign, trot out scenes from Colombia’s Technicolor heartlands—lush green fronds, lithe topless children, colorful marketplaces and sunshine, lots and lots of sunshine—to the sounds of a narrator doing his best Gabriel García Marquez impersonation. He proceeds to tell you that Colombia is “a place where the rivers wanted to be an ocean” and that you should, well, disregard all the bad stuff you’ve heard about Colombia of late. All those guerillas and narcogangsters and disgraced free-trade lobbyists be damned. In Colombia, the voice says, “the only risk is wanting to stay.” Guess they didn’t ask this guy.

Poll Dancing

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The cover of this week's New York magazine features a black and white photo of Barack Obama Looking Presidential, slugged “January 20th 2009” in red and blue and subheaded, in white, "What an Obama Presidency Would Look Like." Next to the bright-blue "2009" is a small, white asterisk.

Its footnote? "If current projections hold."

In other words: Conjecture! Conditionals! Would! If!

Which, you know: Cheeky, sure. Ironic, definitely. Combine those, and you could even call the thing Witty. (Most asterisks, when inserted into in prose both journalistic—MoDo!—and literary—Vonnegut! Foster Wallace! Eggers!—are.) But the asterisk here, and the fine-printed caveat it indicates, also amount to a tacit—and smug—admission that, in projecting an Obama presidency before such a thing has transitioned from fiction to non-, New York is breaking the rules of journalism. We know we're not really supposed to report on stuff until it's actually happened, the headline declares, but we're going to do it anyway. The asterisk is a rhetorical wink: to readers who are ready for the campaign to be over with, already, and to journalists who understand the rules as much as they're inclined to break them. In this, New York's cover is suggestive of its (in)famous New Yorker counterpart: It's about narrative as much as it is about image—or, rather, it's poking fun at narratives through image, juxtaposing what journalists want to be talking about versus what they should be talking about. It's reportorial Id and Superego rolled into one.

And what brings the two together, in this case, is numbers. Polling numbers, specifically. Here's New York's rationale for its own Obama Presidency Projection story, rendered fantastic only by virtue of its being authored by John Heilemann:

From the moment it became clear last spring that Obama would be the party’s standard-bearer, the excitement over what he represented has been twinned with a gnawing dread that his astonishing ride would somehow come to a crashing end a few yards short of the White House. That America would prove unready to elect a black president. That the Republicans would once again work their voodoo on the electorate. Or that Obama would choke in the clutch—that, far from being the next FDR or JFK, he would turn out to be the reincarnation of George McGovern or Mike Dukakis or John Kerry.

But as the outcome of the race has begun to seem more certain with each passing day—with Obama’s lead in the polls healthy and showing few signs of diminishing, with John McCain’s campaign listing aimlessly and lapsing into rank self-parody, with Sarah Palin devolving into a human punch line—Democrats are slowly, haltingly allowing themselves to believe that victory is truly within their grasp, and hence to contemplate what comes next. Transition. Inauguration. Those first hundred days. Maybe even, perchance, with augmented majorities for the party in both the House and Senate all but in the bag, the dawning of a spanking-new era of Democratic dominion.

In other words, per New York: A long cover story about an as-yet-fictional Obama presidency is justified because the polls are currently in Obama's favor.

First of all, Democrats, progressives, liberals, socialists, union members, young people, independents in want of a change, Obamacans, and anyone else who currently wants Obama to win the election should probably go find the nearest table, chair, or other chunk of wood and knock on it.

Second of all, it should go without saying that New York and all the other news outlets that are doing similar bits of forward-looking speculation right now—from The New York Times to The Atlantic to the Boston Globe to the New York Post to the Huffington Post—are venturing into dangerous territory with their "what an Obama presidency would look like" stories. Articles written in the conditional tense always occupy a rather precarious section of the journalistic landscape. And particularly so when the conditions in question are determined by polling numbers, whose reliability is itself precarious (hence the ominous "Remember New Hampshire" we hear voiced among pundits every now and then). And even more particularly so during the closing days of a campaign—early voting has already begun in many states—and therefore during that strange window of time in which speculation moves from being merely "theoretical" and "idea-driven" and toward being, simply, audacious.

For journalists, there's a rule of inverse proportionality to be followed, it would seem, when engaging in political speculation: The more likely a candidate is to win the presidency, the more restraint journalists need to demonstrate when discussing that victory. Journalists are at their leisure to speculate all they want, for example, about What a Ron Paul Presidency Would Look Like, or an Al Gore presidency, or a Condi Rice presidency—because, currently, such administrations are highly unlikely. The discussions would be based on theories and ideas, rather than on concrete possibilities. They couldn't be deemed "influential," in the most literal sense of the term, because there's nothing at stake to, you know, influence. An Obama presidency, on the other hand, is likely; as such, journalists need to be particularly careful when they talk and write about it. There's a fine line, after all, between being on the right side of history and affecting which side history lands on.

Heilemann, guesting on yesterday's Reliable Sources, justified his forward-looking approach to Howard Kurtz like so: "Well, you know, one wants to try to be ahead of the curve, I guess, Howie." And fair enough. Except that, as we've said before, the American electorate generally doesn't appreciate being treated as a foregone conclusion. The curve Heilemann referred to is paradoxical: For journalists, being ahead of that curve often means stepping back and allowing the curve to take shape in the first place. Just as being on the right side of history often means stepping back and allowing history to be made.

When A Plus Is A Minus

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Last week, some people who read here that “bemused” doesn’t mean “wryly amused” may have been “nonplussed.”

“Nonplussed” is another word that looks like something it’s not.

Here are two passages from the same publication within three days of one another, each using “nonplussed” in ways that could be different. Or not. (No publication names, but think Australian media magnate.)

“At 93, Howard Waag has cause to be concerned – but also to be nonplussed, age and experience having provided him with perspective.”

Reading the context clues, this seems to mean that Waag has lots of perspective, so despite the circumstances concerning him, he’s sanguine, or cheerfully optimistic. “Nonplussed” is being used to mean “not bothered” or “unfazed,” in a positive sense.

Here’s the second passage:

“We meet landowner Neel Halder, who has accepted the loss of his estates to Burnham but finds his hauteur more difficult to surrender; and the ship's second mate, Zachary Reid, a half-black American who is nonplussed to be carrying out the will of racist Englishmen.”

In that passage, from a book review, the context clues (perhaps from olden days) are less obvious. Reid might be “not bothered,” or “unfazed.” Or he could be “puzzled” or “bewildered” at the position he’s in, or outraged. Or he could find the situation pretty amusing, or ironic. (Let’s save that one for another day.)

Enough of the suspense. Only if Reid is “puzzled” or “bewildered” would he be “nonplussed.”

“Nonplussed” came into English directly from the Latin “non plus,” meaning “no more.” But other languages offer better clues: In French “nonplussed” is “perplexe” and in Spanish it’s “perplejo.”

Are you more or less “nonplussed” to learn that?

Even though “nonplussed” is often used to mean “not bothered,” no dictionary sanctions that use—yet. Instead, they all stick to the traditional definition: “Nonplussed” means to be “perplexed,” or “puzzled,” or “bewildered.” Some dictionaries take it a step further, introducing the concept that someone “nonplussed” is so puzzled as to be unable to speak. (Note that some dictionaries spell it “nonplused,” but Webster’s’ New World College Dictionary, the journalistic standard, adds the second “s.”)

It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. English speakers see “non” and immediately think “not.” But if you think about it as “not plussed,” it must be a “minus,” or a negative thought. If that helps you be less “nonplussed,” that’s a plus.

Her Clothes May Be Beau Brummelly

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Another peek inside reporters' closets, courtesy of WardrobeGate. MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell talking to RNC Chairman Mike Duncan just now about how "the brouhaha" that is WardrobeGate somehow continues:

O'DONNELL: Let me ask you, did you sign off on the purchase of those clothes?

DUNCAN: Norah, I'm so disappointed. You of all people, someone who receives their clothing free as an anchorperson, to be talking...

O'DONNELL: No, I don't. Absolutely not.

DUNCAN: ...when we could be talking about taxes. When we can be talking about energy. There's so much more to this campaign than the wardrobe of our vice presidential candidate. I'm disappointed.

O'DONNELL: Well, just to be clear, I do pay for my own clothing. That's different than other networks, but just to be clear....

Time's James Poniewozick explains how the "political press...dotes on a nostalgic definition of realness that bears ever less relation to today's America" such that "we get an image of America shaped by outdated iconography and the self-consciousness and class guilt of journalists, especially male ones. (What do we, with our soft, girlie hands, know about real life?)."


My name is James, and I am a former Real American. I grew up in Monroe, Mich. (pop. 22,076), just across the state line from Holland, Ohio, where lives Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, campaign 2008's latest shorthand for Real America. My dad--also named Joe--drove a beer and wine delivery truck and hunted deer. We went ice fishing and bowling. The first album I ever bought was Bob Seger's Live Bullet.

Today my core beliefs are pretty much the same as then. (Well, the Bob Seger ... only in moderation.) But now I am unreal because I work in the media and live in Brooklyn, which is presumably not among Sarah Palin's "pro-American" parts of America. This is what campaign coverage tells me. If a candidate appeals to my kind, it is a liability. My artificiality will stain him with a mark that can be washed off only by a shot, a beer and a pilgrimage to Scranton, Pa.

I sometimes wonder where my realness went. Did it fall out somewhere on I-80 when I moved to New York?

(Insert your own snarky answer here...)

Phones They are A-Ringin'

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Jeff Zeleny's work-in-progress buddy-picture screenplay, working title "Bam and Ax Take Washington," opens with a phone call.

The senator calls before bedtime.

The cellphone in David Axelrod’s shirt pocket comes to life, sometimes before midnight, sometimes after. If the ring tone is “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, he steps away from the dinner table or the barstool. It almost certainly means Senator Barack Obama is on the line...

According to Zeleny's account, Obama and his chief strategist David Axelrod are more than a candidate and his political guru. They're friends. They share a worldview. They enjoy midnight phone calls. They make jokes. They balance each other out.

Yeesh. As if the Times had nothing better to do than devote a half-page to the Axelrod-Obama saga, complete with a photo of the dynamic duo on the bus, doing what else, but working their phones.

And of course, the piece wouldn't be complete without a phone-related kicker:

Told that “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” rings on Mr. Axelrod’s phone, a song that also plays at each campaign rally, Mr. Obama smiled. “Really?” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

When Mr. Axelrod calls him, the senator’s phone is set on vibrate.


Tracing GOP Turnabout

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In today's New York Times, John Harwood writes a most curious synopsis of the past four years of American politics. The GOP, he says, went from the verge of a permanent majority to the precipice of political irrelevance. "How did such a turnabout happen so fast?" he asks. Though he acknowledges some room for historical events—Hurricane Katrina first and foremost—he finds his primary answer in demography, which shows younger voters trending left and Western voters opening up to Democrats.

Harwood makes some excellent points about the unstable nature of American political coalitions, but the historical narrative he uses to make them is laughable. Let's look at historical opinion data. It is true that congressional Republicans gained ground in 2004, but George W. Bush only narrowly eked out a victory over Democrat John Kerry. And he returned to office with an approval rating of just 50 percent, the lowest of any second-term president in modern history. He did not win on the merits of some broad-based political vision that could provide the foundation of a permanent majority. The GOP's 2004 victory was due to outmaneuvering Democrats on the party's one advantage—national security. And this victory contained the seeds of its current economy-driven collapse.

In a 2004 Pew Research Center poll that asked voters which candidate held a leadership advantage on eight issues—terrorism, the situation in Iraq, foreign policy, morality, the economy, education, jobs, and health care—Bush had a statistically significant advantage over Kerry on exactly one: terrorism. Kerry beat Bush on all four economic issues, and tied him on morality and the two other national security indicators. Kerry had a seven-point advantage on the economy in the week before the election and a sixteen-point advantage on health care.

But even as Kerry gained on issues, he lost ground in the polls, largely because Bush walloped him on measures of personal strength and steadfastness. Only 28 percent of voters said Kerry was a "strong leader" in the last weeks of September 2004, as opposed to 54 percent who described Bush that way. National security was just as important as the economy to voters in 2004; today, the economy is much more important to voters than any national security issue. Barack Obama also fares much better in a personality match-up with John McCain.

The late summer and early fall of 2005—after Hurricane Katrina and a deterioration of the Iraq situation—was unquestionably a turning point for President Bush and his party. By October, his approval rating had fallen to 39 percent, with 58 percent of Americans disapproving of his job performance. But, in the spring of that year, a majority of Americans had already begun to disapprove of his performance. This can largely be attributed to the fact that he spent the first few months of his second term trying to privatize Social Security, an economic proposal that Americans overwhelmingly rejected. And the Pew Research Center found that Bush was broadly out of step with the public's agenda even before he had been reinaugurated.

President Bush's economic vision was already undercutting his popularity before Katrina and Iraq dealt it a blow from which it could not recover. And congressional Republicans helped tarnish the GOP brand through a wave of scandals, involving names like Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, and—perhaps most devastating—Mark Foley. Though the GOP's electoral fortunes have dramatically reversed, the party is not, as Harwood suggests, experiencing a sudden fall from grace. Rather, the GOP retained power by using a narrow tactical advantage, allowing it to ignore its fundamental disconnect with Americans on economic issues. And even a party in power can only ignore voters' concerns for so long.

Word comes from The Washington Times, in what the paper calls an “exclusive”, that Sen. Edward Kennedy has been secretly working behind the scenes to fashion a proposal for reforming the U.S. health system. Despite his illness, the paper said, Kennedy has been meeting with lawmakers, lobbyists, and assorted other health care mavens who want a say in the outcome. What’s more, he is working with a Republican, Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, who is the ranking minority member on the Senate health committee. Kennedy’s spokesman, Anthony Coley, told The Times that the senator has been laying the groundwork for fast tracking a bill when Congress returns in January. “This is and has been the cause of Senator Kennedy’s life,” Coley said.

All this is reminiscent of Hillary’s Clinton’s secret plan to reform health care as we knew it back in 1993, and Kennedy’s own mid-1990s efforts at piecemeal reform. In 1995, he teamed up with another Republican, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, to shepherd through Congress the now infamous Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), hoping to reduce the ranks of the uninsured by making it easier for some employed people to keep their insurance when they lost or changed jobs. But the requirements were so onerous, and the cost of new coverage so high, the law did little in that department. It did give favors to doctors and insurance companies, and its privacy provisions created a nightmare for journalists who try to get people in places like hospitals to talk to us.

We offer a few observations for the media, lest they be tempted to flock en masse to the win-one-for-the-Gipper story line that The Washington Times portends is coming. Hillary Clinton’s secret plan for health insurance became the story for too many reporters in 1993-94, when they should have been explaining how the Clinton plan would actually work and whether it would do what the Clintons said it would do. Ted Kennedy’s secrecy is not the story; what his bill will and won’t do is. That’s especially important since the outlines of confrontation are already emerging.

On Friday, a blogger for the conservative The Weekly Standard posted that “the liberal lion Ted Kennedy” is “still pushing for socialized medicine.” It’s unlikely Kennedy will propose anything close to socialized medicine or a single-payer system, which has been all but eliminated from this year’s health discussion. Instead, he probably will advance some version of the Massachusetts health reform law that he had a hand in creating. That law requires people to have insurance; if they don’t get it from a public program, they must buy it on their own or face tax penalties. But how will the public know the difference between Massachusetts health care and socialized medicine, unless the press improves on the work it did covering HIPAA?

HIPAA is a cautionary tale. We recommend that anyone serious about covering health reform in the next Congress take a look at a story CJR published after HIPAA was passed. We showed that most journalists had no idea what was in the law, and their stories were often just plain wrong as a result. Trish Riley, then director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, told us that “Everyone was so gleeful something was going to pass that the holes in Kennedy-Kassebaum (as the law was first known) were never well-documented.” We wrote that Kennedy-Kassebaum was “the perfect symbolic law giving the impression of solving problems without doing much.” As veteran health care journalist Susan Dentzer, now editor of the policy journal Health Affairs, said back then: “It’s fair to say that it kind of got kissed off.”

The press oversold HIPAA, telling the public that their insurance was portable and that they could take their coverage with them when they changed jobs, when, in fact, the law didn’t do anything of the sort. (HIPAA made it slightly easier for people with pre-existing conditions to get new insurance.) The media inflated the number of people who would have been affected by the law, and they didn’t bother looking at the gifts it bestowed on docs and insurance carriers.

There’s a real danger the press may reprise its HIPAA performance, bringing back all the legislators and special interests that previously took starring roles. We hope that doesn’t happen. But Kennedy’s meetings with the special interests, Barack Obama saying that reform will be decided in the legislative process (a.k.a the Congressional sausage grinder), and glowing comments like this one from the head of an advocacy group—“There really is a sea change that should not be underestimated in terms of attitude”—all give us cause for concern.

Paging Dr. Gupta

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Perhaps CNN’s in-house doctor, Sanjay Gupta, ought to stick to things medical. Gupta’s attempt to explain John McCain’s health plan offered a confusing and ultimately misleading picture of how the candidate’s proposals might work. McCain, you may recall, has proposed giving every family a $5,000 tax credit and every individual a $2,500 credit to help buy insurance policies in the commercial market. So it was reasonable for Gupta’s show to ask: How far will five grand really get you? Too bad it didn’t answer the question.

Gupta began by citing a study done a couple of years ago by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurance industry trade association. Gupta was wrong at the outset when he called AHIP “the largest provider of health insurance.” AHIP is a lobbying organization for its insurance company members. It does not—does not—provide health insurance. Gupta said AHIP had found that the average family’s premium was $5,799; he didn’t say that the data had been collected two years ago, and he didn’t explain that any study done by an insurance trade association is necessarily of limited value. (In fact, no organization has adequately studied the so-called individual market, where McCain wants people to buy their policies with his tax credit.) The take-away for viewers, though, was that a family could buy a policy for the amount offered by McCain’s tax credit.

Gupta did note a couple of other caveats, but missed the mark in explaining them. He reported that premiums vary depending on where you live, saying that family premiums cost about $16,000 or so in Massachusetts and $3,000 in Wisconsin. That allowed him to segue into McCain’s proposal for letting insurers sell across state lines—in effect, picking and choosing states with lax business regulations. The implication was that you might be able to buy a cheap policy in Wisconsin if McCain’s plan became law. But people in Massachusetts might have better consumer protections than those in Wisconsin, which they might lose in their quest for cheaper premiums. Gupta didn’t talk about that.

He did say that the premium “depends on the individual in terms of pre-existing conditions. These health care costs can vary widely if you’ve had some sort of illness before.” Premiums (not health care costs) might increase 50 percent or more if an insurer offers a policy at all. But the main point is that many sick people don’t get coverage in this market. Gupta skipped right over it.

Instead he jumped into territory he should have avoided—a comparison of the individual market and the employer market, where most people get their insurance. He told viewers that another organization, Kaiser (Kaiser Family Foundation), says that the average family premium from employers is around $12,000 a year, much higher than the $5,800 cited in the insurance industry study. Gupta gave this reason:

When an employer covers people they pool a lot of people together, people who are otherwise healthy and people with pre-existing conditions and that does tend to drive up cost.

I asked a neutral insurance expert, Paul Fronstin, who directs research for EBRI, the Employee Benefit Research Institute, to translate Gupta’s wonk talk. Fronstin said Gupta “gives a gross oversimplification” that “implies that the individual market is filled with healthy people, and that’s why the premiums are lower, because only healthy people are covered. Companies don’t have to raise premiums to cover the expenses of those who are sick.” This is far from an apples-to-apples comparison. The benefits, the regulation, and the people in the two markets are emphatically not the same, Fronstin explained.

Gupta’s show may have been inspired by FactCheck Wire, part of FactCheck.org, the Web site project funded mostly by the Annenberg Foundation and housed at the University of Pennsylvania. FactCheck Wire quoted from the same AHIP study:

As AHIP says, premiums at businesses that offer insurance reflect the cost for a large pool of people, both the young and healthy and the old and the sick, with the same rate normally being charged to all workers at a company. On the individual market, people are “very price sensitive,” since they are paying the full cost of the plans. (They may choose a lower-cost plan with high deductibles or copays.)

FactCheck Wire seems to be saying that people are buying less comprehensive plans, but the point was so muddled that CNN’s producers may not have understood. Aren’t fact checkers supposed to promote clarity?

We have a better idea. Instead of trying to parse the complexities of pooling arrangements, which elude most folks’ comprehension, why not find out what $5,000 really will buy? Do some shoe-leather reporting in pursuit of an old fashioned consumer story exploring what’s actually being sold. Gupta might have better served his audience had he answered the question that the show posed at its beginning.

To get some comparison shopping started, we looked at a family policy being sold in Cleveland by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield—its Blue Access Value $5,000 plan. The premium for a two-person family is $4,834 a year. Each family member must meet a $5,000 deductible and then pay 30 percent of their medical bills after the deductible is met. The family’s total deductible is $10,000. So if the family has an especially sickly year, it could pay as much as $10,000 out-of-pocket before the insurance kicks in. There is no maternity coverage during pregnancy, and no hospital coverage for labor and delivery; if the family does have a child, and if that child is healthy, there is some coverage.

For the first twelve months, the policy covers the cost of the baby’s checkups and shots, subject to the deductible and coinsurance. (The deductible, and a thirty dollar copayment for each doctor’s visit, does not seem to apply to the first two visits.) Between the ages of one and eight, the policy offers only $500 of coverage for well child care—a maximum of $150 a year. A family with a sick kid might have to incur debt to pay for the child’s care.

So what does $5,000 buy? The answer may be very little.

On The One Hand, Hannity....

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...on the other, Olbermann.

If you want to show that Fox News's Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann represent opposite sides of a "divide," offering "perspectives on the campaign that sometimes approach mirror images," surely there are better examples than the ones Howard Kurtz uses in his Washington Post column today. (Unless Kurtz is trying, in a roundabout way, to highlight the problems with false equivalence in reporting?)

In painting Olbermann as the left's equivalent of Sean Hannity (or Hannity as the Olbermann of the right) -- both being "so determined to play to their base that the broader reality can be hard to discern"--Kurtz kicks off his article with this:

On Fox News last week, Sean Hannity said he was tempted to ask Barack Obama: "Where did you buy your cocaine, how much cocaine? How much cocaine did you use? How often did you use it? When did you stop?"

On the same Monday night, Keith Olbermann said on MSNBC that John McCain had a responsibility "to say 'enough' to Republican smears without end" and not be "party to a campaign that devolves into hatred and prejudice and divisiveness."

Suggesting one candidate may have been (not so long ago?) a cokehead (shades of When did you stop beating your wife?) and contending that the other candidate's campaign is smearing without end. Totally equivalent! Or, close enough.

More mirror imagery? "Each host has pitched softballs to his preferred candidate," reports Kurtz. Examples:

On Sept. 8, Olbermann asked Obama: "Have you thought of using, on the campaign trail and in your speaking engagements, more exclamation points? Have you thought of getting angrier?"

On Oct. 8, Hannity asked McCain and Palin: "Do you really believe that Senator Obama is prepared to be president of the United States? . . . Is he being dishonest, not truthful with the American people? . . . Should the American people be concerned that he's capable in a post-9/11 world of fighting terrorism when he is friends with an unrepentant terrorist?"

Not hard questions, Olbermann's. More suggestions, of sorts. Hannity's, while also not hard for his preferred candidates to answer, were wrapped in scary accusations/insinuations about the opposing candidate.

Same thing.

Beyond Bradley

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Writing in the Miami Herald op-ed page today, Washington and Lee University's journalism ethics professor Edward Wasserman calls for reporters to cut beyond the noise of Bradley effect coverage, and tackle head-on the impact of race on this election.

Sure, his own racial identity will influence voting. Black voters support him with near unanimity, while an AP-Yahoo News poll in September suggested that with a third of white Democrats holding negative views about blacks, the percentage of voters who may withhold support from Obama because of race could actually exceed the overall margin of victory in 2004.

Reporting what's behind that is tough. A common reason for not exploring the role of race in this election is that white voters will dissemble, and those who won't vote for Obama because of race are embarrassed to say so.

But surely, how race might tilt the vote isn't the only racial issue worth reporting. What about exploring what an Obama victory would do to race relations? What would become of the myriad, passionately divisive policy issues that have been inextricably tied to race for the past half-century: the huge population of young black males behind bars, early childhood intervention, job training, the war on drugs, poor housing, the whole reality of race-tainted social justice? We're beyond those? Even the subprime lending debacle, which disproportionately hit minority homeowners, has been whitewashed into a race-neutral industry bailout.

A very good and necessary point. The rest is here.

King Kong vs. Godzilla

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"People within the media gossip world [may] want to put [Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown] at each other's throats," the New York Times reports (in an article that closes with a comment by Kurt Andersen likening the two women to "King Kong and Godzilla") but the two women are actually quite close. Per a friend who knew the women back when:

"Tina and Arianna really came up together in the London of the 1970s, and theirs was a world of fun, of spas and dating and who said what about whom."

And now?

After Tina Brown’s signature Talk Magazine closed in 2001, she reached out to an old friend for support: Arianna Huffington.

Together they traveled to Rancho La Puerta, a spa in Mexico, and in early morning hikes in the foothills of Mount Kuchumaa, the two discussed Ms. Brown’s future.

Also: "each has two children," each dated older men, and each was invited aboard David Geffen's yacht last summer.

And, oh yeah, each now runs a newsy web site, sites that are "profoundly different in ways that will help determine which one will survive" (Huffington's Huffington Post is a "visceral and boisterous conversation" while Brown's The Daily Beast is "more genteel and cultivated.")

But, only one will survive.

Where Soledad Soaks (So?)

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After all those hours on debate nights interviewing the Perception Analyzer People? Who among us could begrudge CNN's Soledad O'Brien a nice, big bath?

(But, yes, it's creepy when the real estate broker suggests that Wolf and Coop et al could soak alongside her...)

"My Friends," An Explanation

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"My friends," McCain began, with a verbal tic that conveys a sense of closeness with his audience....

Oh, that's what that is? Thanks for the explanation, AP, tucked in an article chronicling "18 hours" on the campaign trail with McCain which begins (cringe):

For a guy who spent time in the "Hanoi Hilton" as a Vietnam prisoner of war, the Four Seasons Hotel has to feel a world apart...

Get your "18 hours" with Obama here. Both candidates are making time for local reporters and cold-shouldering the "national media pack."

"Captivating" Doesn't Cut It


While "Palin's rise captivates" the Anchorage Daily News, the paper on Saturday endorsed Sen. Barack Obama:

Gov. Palin's nomination clearly alters the landscape for Alaskans as we survey this race for the presidency -- but it does not overwhelm all other judgment. The election, after all is said and done, is not about Sarah Palin, and our sober view is that her running mate, Sen. John McCain, is the wrong choice for president at this critical time for our nation.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, brings far more promise to the office. In a time of grave economic crisis, he displays thoughtful analysis, enlists wise counsel and operates with a cool, steady hand. The same cannot be said of Sen. McCain....

You need look no further than the guilt-by-association lies and sound-bite distortions of the degenerating McCain campaign to see how readily he embraces the divisive, fear-mongering tactics of Karl Rove.

More on Palin:

Gov. Palin has shown the country why she has been so successful in her young political career. Passionate, charismatic and indefatigable, she draws huge crowds and sows excitement in her wake...

Yet despite her formidable gifts, few who have worked closely with the governor would argue she is truly ready to assume command of the most important, powerful nation on earth. To step in and juggle the demands of an economic meltdown, two deadly wars and a deteriorating climate crisis would stretch the governor beyond her range. Like picking Sen. McCain for president, putting her one 72-year-old heartbeat from the leadership of the free world is just too risky at this time.

Read excerpts from other recent newspaper endorsements here.

School of Talk

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From the New York Times' Styles section yesterday (next to the article explaining that "fashionistas" are now to be called "recessionistas"):

Journalists once had to achieve a certain gravitas before appearing on television as a political expert, but not anymore.

No. But it might help, the Times reports, to get some media training at a "pundit school" such as:

the Leadership Institute, a conservative policy group in Arlington, Va., that has given courses in punditry to nearly 600 people this year, up from 461 in 2005. The institute offers various courses, from a $75 basic lecture to a $1,500 three-hour one-on-one session.

What does a pundit-in-training get for that money? Some sort of B.S. in b.s.? He learns how "to avoid questions he doesn’t like," "to steer a conversation in his direction (by interrupting)" and is counseled to use "more slogans and short phrases ('flip-flop' is one that works well)." The Times reports that the students at these Schools of Talk are often young-ish, whereas "the conventional stereotype of a TV pundit is a middle-aged white guy with years of experience (John McLaughlin or Pat Buchanan might come to mind)..."

They might. (75 is the new 45?)

Audit Roundup: How Low Can It Go?

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The Times is good today in looking at how some prognosticators are racing to outdo each other predicting how far the market will fall. It’s kind of amazing to see experts quoted in a major paper saying the Dow could fall to 2,000. It’s stunning, actually, and that’s not even mentioning the guy who predicts a 90 percent tumble.

The Times is quick to say that trying to predict stock-market movements is largely a fool’s errand and is amusing in busting the chops of those guys who wrote “Dow 36,000” a few months before the tech bubble burst.

Still, while the reputation of its authors may have taken a hit, “Dow 36,000” has not seemed to hurt their careers. Mr. Hassett, who did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry, works at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington, and serves as the senior economic adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain.

According to his spokesman, Mr. Glassman prefers not to comment on the financial markets now that he has started in his new position: under secretary of state for public diplomacy in the Bush administration.

I think that’s called failing upward.

Speaking of prognosticators, Nouriel Roubini, who will be remembered as the Prophet of the Panic of ’08, says it’s only going to get worse, with governments likely to have to shut markets down for a spell. He’s not called Dr. Doom for nothing.

``We've reached a situation of sheer panic,'' Roubini, who predicted the financial crisis in 2006, told a conference of hedge-fund managers in London today. ``There will be massive dumping of assets'' and ``hundreds of hedge funds are going to go bust,'' he said.

N. Gregory Mankiw in the Times yesterday asked whether we’ve learned enough over the last 80 years to prevent another Great Depression. The ex-Bush economic adviser is not too optimistic either.

What’s next? Perhaps the most troubling study of the 1930s economy was written in 1988 by the economists Kathryn Dominguez, Ray Fair and Matthew Shapiro; it was called “Forecasting the Depression: Harvard Versus Yale”…

The three researchers show that the leading economists at the time, at competing forecasting services run by Harvard and Yale, were caught completely by surprise by the severity and length of the Great Depression. What’s worse, despite many advances in the tools of economic analysis, modern economists armed with the data from the time would not have forecast much better. In other words, even if another Depression were around the corner, you shouldn’t expect much advance warning from the economics profession.

Let me be clear: Like Mr. Blanchard at the I.M.F., I am not predicting another Great Depression. We have indeed learned a lot over the last 80 years. But you should take that economic forecast, like all others, with more than a single grain of salt.

Arthur “the Curve” Laffer gets column inches from his favorite patron, the WSJ editorial page, and calls Bush (and Congress, to be equanimous, of course) Herbert Hoover! Of course, he’s got a book to sell, but what’s really laughable is to see him beef about budget deficits.

Some 14 months ago, the projected deficit for the 2008 fiscal year was about 0.6% of GDP. With the $170 billion stimulus package last March, the add-ons to housing and agriculture bills, and the slowdown in tax receipts, the deficit for 2008 actually came in at 3.2% of GDP, with the 2009 deficit projected at 3.8% of GDP. And this is just the beginning.

That’s right— it’s Mr. Voodoo Economics himself, griping about deficits that his theories had perhaps the biggest role in creating. Nice.

The NYT’s Gretchen Morgenson let loose on the BS being shoveled out by the perps in the crisis, including Alan Greenspan, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, and the ratings agencies.

The press is talking more and more about the potential bankruptcy of the Big Three. Today it’s the Journal and yesterday it was the Times. I’ve beefed about after-the-fact-ism in the press, so a tip of the hat to it for an uncharacteristic boldness in spelling out the likely scenarios before they happen.

Bloomberg is decent in looking at the outlandish bonuses on Wall Street, $20 billion of which have yet to be paid.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, both still on track for profitable years, have set aside about $13 billion for bonuses after three quarters, down 28 percent from a year ago. Even some employees at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which declared the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history last month, will get the same bonus they received a year ago.


``I'm just flabbergasted that the financial community has failed to show any sense of leadership on this issue and doesn't seem to understand how angry people are at them,'' said Nell Minow, editor of Corporate Library, a Portland, Maine-based corporate-governance research firm. ``They are just a bonus away from having the villagers come after them with torches.''

New York-based Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Merrill, Lehman and Bear Stearns Cos. awarded their employees a cumulative $145 billion in bonuses from 2003 through 2007, according to estimates based on company reports. That's more than the annual gross domestic product of the Philippines. Last year the firms paid out a record $39 billion.

The Washington Post is a little bit late with its online headline today: “Middle East Financial Hubs Still Faring Well”

Here's the WSJ on page one: “Financial Storm Hits Gulf”.

Sunday Watch 10-26-08

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The campaign has lasted as long as a rhinoceros stays pregnant, but at the end, for both candidates, will come delivery if not deliverance. Ten days before that blessed day arrives, though, the campaign’s duration seems to have cast a certain pall on the Sunday shows.

With a this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you air, Tom Brokaw plopped unfavorable poll results on a dogged but visibly weary John McCain, and while McCain tried to show his game face, it was not his strongest performance. When you’re reduced to insisting that “polls have been consistently shown me much further behind than we actually are,” and that “we are very competitive in many of the battleground states,” you’re in trouble and you know it. It doesn’t matter that, as McCain bragged, “I think I still have been more appearances on Meet the Press than anybody else,” which elicited from Brokaw the memory of Bob Dole, an comparison that does not serve McCain well.

Brokaw asked McCain how seriously his charges against George W. Bush’s administration can be taken. He posed serious questions about the consistency and longevity of his complaints about Bush. He noted that, according to Congressional Quarterly, McCain voted with Bush 92 percent of the time between 2006 and 2008. All this emerged, however, in a muted, even perfunctory tone—suggesting, perhaps, that Russertesque indignation might sound like taking advantage, for McCain was as wobbly as he has sounded during all these rhinoceros months.

McCain strained, but his heart wasn’t in it as he gamely repeated his clichés: “My friend.” “I respect that.” “The worst thing we can do is increase taxes.” Sarah Palin “has more executive experience than Senator Biden and Senator Obama together.” “I could not be more proud of her.” McCain abandoned all hope of cogent argument, cobbling together his phrases as if the repetition might trigger Pavlovian responses and persuade a still-undecided voter who hadn’t heard the phrases often enough.

It was deft of Brokaw to remind his listeners exactly who sets the heart of the Republican base fluttering. He played a clip of Rush Limbaugh shouting on his radio show that Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama last week “was totally about race.” McCain did not agree, and quickly changed the subject. To the Powell endorsement he countered that he had five former secretaries of state on his side—Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker, Al Haig, and— He enumerated again, and still came up one short. A few minutes later, he remembered the name of the fifth: George Shultz.

Meanwhile, over at ABC, for economic wisdom, George Stephanopoulos turned to Jack Welch, ex-CEO of General Electric. (Sunday Watch will donate a, well, Sunday watch to the first Sunday show that features a present or former union official opining on the global economic meltdown.) Welch had nothing particularly interesting to say, although the sentence “Small business is being murdered” might be something of a first, and “we will see a sunny late '09, early '10 period” might be the least heartening cheer-up line since, oh, 1932. Welch assured viewers that there was “light in the tunnel,” presumably at the end of it. He meant to be reassuring, but when I hear that phrase, I reach for my delete button, for the last time it circulated, the tunnel was called Vietnam, and Robert Lowell was contributing the immortal lines: “If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”

Chris Matthews, One-Man Vice Squad


Dear Chris Matthews:

I appreciate that you've been emboldened in your interviewing tactics after your expert cajoling coaxed Michele Bachman into revealing herself in all her McCarthyesque glory. Kudos on that, and everything. But there's a fine line between acting like a hard-hitting, tenacious interviewer...and acting like kind of a jerk:

UPDATE: The McCain campaign has responded to Matthews's antics with a statement saying that, given "such a stunning combination of bias and ignorance" on the part of the Hardball host, they felt "compelled to set the record straight":

Chris Matthews further elaborated on his understanding of the role of the Vice President, saying that 'it has nothing to do with policy making, nothing to do with Senate leadership on either side of the aisle. There is no policy role there whatever for the vice president. If you'd even watched 'John Adams' on television a few months ago, you would know that, going into the very beginning of our democracy.' We have little hope that MSNBC will take a more even handed approach in covering this race over these last few days, but it is outrageous that Chris Matthews would rely on an HBO mini-series as the basis for his condescending attacks on Governor Palin. If he wishes to pose as a Constitutional scholar, he should read the document. This campaign has sent a copy to his office.

Double Awesome

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Here are two things I love: 1) John Hodgman, of the "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" ads, also of the "Daily Show," of "This American Life", formerly of The New York Times Magazine and formerly of the forever-on-hiatus Little Gray Book reading series. 2) TED Talks, of the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference series.

Now these two things have merged and can be enjoyed in one sitting, as Hodgman's address to the conference from February is now available for all to enjoy. If you have fifteen minutes to be delighted, and let's face it, considering how today is going, you probably do, sit back and enjoy.

Lupica Waves at One

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Sports columnists aren’t required to read balance sheets or anything, but surely Mike Lupica can do better than this lazy column today that tries to decry the high cost of the new Yankee Stadium and the (truly outrageous) fact that it is publicly subsidized, but can’t be troubled to mention how much the public subsidies are or even how much the stadium is going to cost ($1.3 billion, most of it publicly financed, if you can believe it).

This is the richest ballpark in history, built by the richest team in history. Oh, and it is also built by you, because the government of the city and state signed off on all this, the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets' Citi Field, before the economy fell apart the way our baseball teams did the last two months of the season.

“The city and state signed off on all this?” I’m not even sure what that means.

The Times in September wrote:

The city and the state agreed to provide the Yankees with more than $300 million in cash subsidies for garages, a Metro-North train station, replacement parks and road work. But the teams do not pay rent for playing on city land, nor do they pay property taxes.

That wasn’t hard, was it?

Actually, the cash subsidy is closer to $350 million, according to this report by Westchester County Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who says interesting savings on inappropriate tax-exempt bond financing pushes the figure to between $585 million and $826 million.

He doesn't need to go into detail, but would it kill Lupica to mention the subsidies or even use the word “subsidy”? No. No, it would not.

(I’m not even going to get into the idea that you can pay Carl Pavano $39.5 million over four years, but cannot pay property taxes like every other home and business owner. That's a scandal.)

The main point of the Lupica column is to lament the Yankees’ high payroll.

Nobody knows how much the Mets plan to spend once the Series is over. The Yankees, though, the Yankees are expected to spend bigger than ever so they don't have to open their new palace with another team that can't win 90 games and can't beat the Rays and the Red Sox.

Okay. Not original. But okay.

But why bother writing about the Yankees’ payroll if you’re not going to mention ticket prices? Otherwise, who cares what they spend?

In case you were wondering, the box seats next to the field are $400 each.

The point: If you’re going to denounce the high cost of Yankee Stadium, denounce it.
Stronger work on this subject is needed, and that goes for sports writers, too.

At first, you don't think she's going to go there. Sure, it seems like she might, you think to yourself. But, then: No, you decide. She wouldn't. She couldn't.

"My husband called it first," the National Review Online's Kathleen Parker begins her latest Sarah Palin-pondering column. "Then," she continues, "a brilliant, 75-year-old scholar and raconteur confessed to me over wine: ‘I'm sexually attracted to her. I don't care that she knows nothing.’"

Okay, hmm, you think, still benefit-of-the-doubt-ing.

"Finally," Parker continues, "writer Robert Draper closed the file on the Sarah Palin mystery with a devastating article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine: ‘The Making (and Remaking) of McCain.’"

What "Sarah Palin mystery" is she referring to? you wonder. Confusing, but, granted, intriguing...

She continues:

McCain didn't know her. He didn't vet her. His campaign team had barely an impression. In a bar one night, Draper asked one of McCain's senior advisers: ‘Leaving aside her actual experience, do you know how informed Governor Palin is about the issues of the day?’

The adviser thought a moment and replied: ‘No, I don't know.’

Okay, where is she going with this?

She continues, mysteriously, "Blame the sycamore tree."


McCain had met Palin only once — in February, at the governor's convention in Washington, D.C. — before the day he selected her as his running mate. The second time was at his Sedona, Ariz., ranch on Aug. 28, just four days before the GOP convention....

McCain took Palin to his favorite coffee-drinking spot down by a creek and a sycamore tree. They talked for more than an hour, and, as Napoleon whispered to Josephine, ‘Voila’

Uh-oh, this is getting..., you think. But you stop yourself--Parker's a journalist, after all, and intelligent, and everything, and, just, she couldn't--and you decide to keep giving her the benefit of the doubt, because, you know, she wouldn't...

But then, this: "One does not have to be a psychoanalyst," Parker writes, "to reckon that McCain was smitten."

And: There. It Is. McCain picked Palin as his running mate because, Parker claims, he was attracted to her. Not in any inappropriate way, she's careful to clarify--"By no means am I suggesting anything untoward between McCain and his running mate," Parker writes--but in that unavoidable way that comes from him being A Man and her being A Woman. In a way that is all very Scientific, and everything.

A study in Canada, published in New Scientist in 2003, found that pretty women foil men's ability to assess the future. ‘Discounting the future,’ as the condition is called, means preferring immediate, lesser rewards to greater rewards in the future.

Drug dealers, car salesmen and politicians rely on this affliction and pray feverishly for its persistence.

Which, just...wow. Parker has gone and married sexual taboo and rational absurdity into one--and, in the process, managed to pander to tired and silly stereotypes that insult pretty much all parties involved. (Women: They're always manipulating men with their Feminine Wiles! Men: They're too dumb to stop them!) In other words: She. Went. There.

Again, just...wow. I feel manipulated, somehow. And I'm not even John McCain.

Clearing Up Yes and No


In California, the battle continues over Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriages, overturning the California Supreme Court’s May ruling that made them legal. And in-state newspapers have been doing their part to cover the different angles and implications of the ballot measure. (The Sacramento Bee, for instance, ran a story on Tuesday discussing whether or not marriages conducted before Nov. 5 will be invalidated, should the proposition pass.)

But as a Los Angeles Times article yesterday admits, “Many voters have expressed confusion about what yes and no votes mean. A yes vote would ban same-sex marriage, while a no vote would preserve it.” Confusing, no? Well, at the very least, there’s some room for befuddlement.

So how clearly have the papers been phrasing the yes-and-no’s surrounding Prop 8?

At times, vaguely. Some stories have sought to avoid mentioning official terminology, instead circling around “the underlying question of same-sex marriage” or how different counties are “handling same-sex marriages.”

And the LAT article that cites voters’ confusion, for instance, avoids mentioning Prop 8 by name in the lede (my emphasis): “While California voters remain closely divided on the question of gay marriage, a majority oppose a measure to ban it, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.”

When the LAT article does mention Prop 8, its language runs amuck. Here, it convolutedly introduces the proposition and a new poll all at once:

…the poll also found that support for Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to disallow same-sex marriage, has gained somewhat since a similar survey was taken in late August. The latest results show 44% in favor and 52% opposed, with a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.

Support, amend, disallow, in favor, and opposed—got it? The poll shows that support for the proposition has grown. But the story uses unnecessary verbiage to state that fact, and skips some important prepositional phrases along the way. Sure, it’s implicit that the “44% in favor” is 44 percent in favor of the proposition, but it could have been more clearly stated—“44% in favor of the proposition” or “44% in favor of the ban.”

The article runs into another clarity block when its author, Jessica Garrison, describes the money raised for and against the proposition, stating, “Yes on 8 campaign committees had raised $26.7 million while the No on 8 committees had brought in $26.1 million,” without explicitly stating the stances of those committees. Readers will probably figure it out; the names do speak for themselves. But by stressing the yes-no terminology, the article only contributes to the which-side-is-which morass. It perpetuates confusion, rather than going out of its way to promote clarity.

The San Francisco Chronicle does a better job with the following description of Prop 8 supporters. Titling a section of his article “‘Yes’ bus visits Oakland,” reporter John Wildermuth finds clarity in scenic details:

At the bus tour's lone Bay Area stop, in East Oakland on Tuesday, about 100 sign-waving supporters heard from campaign officials and local black ministers speaking in front of a bus decorated with ads running the length of the vehicle urging people to "Say 'I Do' to Traditional Marriage."

"This is not about taking away rights from anyone," said Frank Schubert, campaign consultant for the Yes on 8 campaign. "It's about standing up for rights."

Go, props! The phrase “Say ‘I Do’ to Traditional Marriage” clearly and simply illustrates the goals of the group, Yes on 8. It also manages to avoid using the phrase “yes on 8” as a rhetorical crutch to describe supporters of the proposition.

Of course, such vivid scenes aren’t always available for the reportorial taking. The LAT article, for example, was reporting the results of a new poll. In those cases, it comes down to this: redundancy is required in order to clearly describe a ballot measure, and the stances of its supporter and detractors. “Yes on 8” and “No on 8” are specific campaigns dedicated to raising money and running ads for or against Prop 8. They’re also convenient ways to split California’s voting population according to their stances on the proposition. But to conflate the two—referring to the “No on 8 side,” for instance, as the LAT account did, instead of as the “No on 8 campaign”—is to take the easy way out. Sometimes, reporters should embrace clunky repetition and avoid the temptation to simplify in order to provide the most accurate explanation.

So, kudos to the Chronicle for including a key at the bottom of its article, which straightforwardly explains Prop 8, and then explains what a “yes” vote would mean, and what a “no” vote would mean. It’s just a small detail, but it sets the pitch-perfect tone.

Having been on the receiving end of an article assignment that's either a dream come true or a horrific nightmare, depending, Slate's Nina Shen Rastogi spent Wednesday afternoon at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in Manhattan in an attempt to blow $150,000 on designer duds, Sarah Palin-style. (Virtually, anyway: As Rastogi points out, ruefully, "Slate does not have a clothing expense account.")

The conclusion from Rastogi's foray into experimental journalism?

Blowing $150,000 in a department store in an afternoon is a lot harder than it sounds. Of course, if my vice-presidential fantasy extended to scooping up some gorgeous but totally campaign-inappropriate Alexander McQueen party dresses and Carolina Herrera ball gowns, that would be a different story. But unless she's squirreled a bunch of glam formal pieces back to Wasilla, you have to think that most of Palin's purchases were off-the-rack suits and accessories like the ones I picked out for her. And in that case, coming up with a hefty-enough spending total was a job for a woman far more dedicated to pantsuits and peep-toes than I.

On the other hand, when I got back to the office and looked over the virtual purchases I'd scribbled in my notebook, they seemed somehow puny. Especially when you consider that, by the time the election winds to an end, Palin will have spent nearly two and a half solid months in front of the camera, striving to look polished, professional, and ready to govern at a moment's notice. A couple dozen suits might seem like a lot to me. But when clothing is your armor of choice, as it seems to be for Sarah, can you ever really have enough?

...Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson! Here's the winning performance, rendered while Carlson discussed campaigns' conclusions with Keith Olbermann on Countdown last night: "It's a little like dying, the day after an election," Carlson declared. "It's--the lights go out."

And...scene. Beautiful! Cut! Print!

All the News That's Fit to Feed

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Last week, The New York Times announced that it was finally launching the first of its long-awaited news APIs."Application programming interface" may sound complicated, but its essence is simple: the Gray Lady was packaging up its news in a way that can play nicely with others on the Internet.

APIs work by establishing a trusted relationship between computer programs so that they can share information, the way Google Maps are used by real estate Web sites to plot the latest listings. The first one launched by the Times, a presidential campaign finance data API, packages what the paper's own reporters use to track the money chase of Barack Obama, John McCain, and third-party candidates and then sends that data out onto the Internet to see if it can make itself useful. The Times has announced plans to follow up with APIs of movie reviews, restaurant reviews, and congressional vote records.

Using Times newsroom resources to compile structured data might seem a bit off-track. But Aron Pilhofer, the paper’s editor of newsroom interactive technologies, puts APIs "squarely within our journalistic mission." That mission is no longer to merely serve readers, but to serve as, as Pilhofer frames it, a valued peer in the Internet age. "We're well past the time," acknowledges Pilhofer, "when it's enough to throw the day's paper online."

Like many papers, the Times has tried various digital strategies. Like many papers, it hasn't been overly successful. Its attempt to port its old circulation model to the web, TimesSelect, collapsed in a heap of failure last summer. As it turned out, putting Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman behind a firewall angered both readers—who were annoyed that even after paying fifty bucks they still couldn't email links to their friends—and writers, who found themselves cut off from the party happening elsewhere of the Internet.

Then there's TimesPeople, which is something like Facebook-lite. As an add-on to NYTimes.com, TimesPeople informs you which articles your friends think are the most interesting or newsworthy. As someone who devours the Times every day and regularly uses online social networks, I'm perhaps the poster child for TimesPeople. But I've logged in maybe five times, and made only one friend. I abandoned the service when that one friend's lone story recommendation stayed stagnant at the top of my screen for weeks.

APIs, though, might represent the paper's best hope of becoming an integral part of the modern news process—sometimes as a destination, but other times as a savvy information broker. As a trusted source for culled and polished fundraising data, for example, the Times can not only feed the stories of local campaign reporters across the country. It can also become a valuable partner in the growing online movement towards greater government transparency. Doing that might manage to keep The New York Times at the front of readers’ minds, and, just as important, keep eyeballs and links headed its way. Programmer Derek Gottfrid recently labeled the Times's APIs "just another another syndication mechanism for us." To make this work, it has to be more than mere syndication. The organization will have to decipher how to feed the Internet news that isn't so easily packaged as reviews and finance data.

And they'll have to do it while making sure they protect the quality of the news—which is what it will take to convince reporters to embrace the API revolution. In just a few years, we've seen blogs have gone from a quirky pastime for a handful of writers to an embraced way for journalists to track and tell stories. Similarly, some enterprising reporters will be attracted to and inspired by the chance to move away from the assumption that the cut-and-dried "article" is always the end product of the news process. With APIs, it becomes easy to imagine reported anecdotes piling up each other over time, until, perhaps, a narrative emerges. With APIs in play, savvy reporters, editors, photographers, designers and other content creators will learn to think about creating for them.

Think, for example, about what a "Mortgage API" launched by the Times two years ago could have meant. It would have given government reporters a place to feed those reported bits on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that didn't fit into actual stories. Business reporters could have delivered curious data chunks showing something funny happening in the derivatives market. What's more, enterprising readers could have introduced that feed to Google Maps API or Outside.in's localization tools. Perhaps no one could have predicted the Wall Street meltdown, but in retrospect it's clear that reporters had turned up useful information that ended up falling through the cracks.

Of course, it’s still unclear how to actually make money off of structured journalism. But the companies that have made money on the Internet—Google, Amazon, eBay and so on—have heartily embraced the idea that that they need to be enmeshed in the fabric of the Web. Amazon, for example, went out of its way early on to provide tools for online affiliates to market books and other products; the company's S3 system, which rents storage space on its own cloud of Web servers, is now one of the Internet's most popular data services. Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble started on the Web by replicating its stores online. The company has since scrambled to replicate Amazon's approach to the Web, but according to Alexa Web rankings, barnesandnoble.com has about 6,700 inbound links while Amazon.com enjoys a quarter of a million.

"The Times has got to change," Aron Pilhofer acknowledges with a laugh. "We have to start approaching the web as a medium," he says, and not just a place to stick a Web site.

It's an idea that's inspiring in its counterintuitiveness, really. What might be The New York Times’s last best chance to thrive in the modern news business is to double-down on actually reporting the news—and then let the Web take it from there.

Here's pretty much the last thing John McCain--who just today was excoriated by the Times for "running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism"--needs right now: the revelation that the 20-year-old female campaign worker who claimed to have been robbed by "by a black man" in Pittsburgh, and sexually assaulted and mutilated by said "black man" when said "black man" learned that she supported McCain--and whose tragic story of victimization got major play on Drudge this morning and was all the talk of the cable news shows--was making the whole thing up. Lovely.

Okay, here's a question I know is trivial and superficial but that I'm going to throw out there anyway because there's a point at the end and also because we're in ElectionLimboLand and also because it's Friday: Ever noticed how MSNBC's on-air personalities have really good skin? In a too-good-to-be-true, even-for-TV, lit-from-within-with-the-glow-of-a-thousand-suns kind of way? I'll admit it: I have. Watching, as I do, many too many hours of the network's news coverage each day--and being exposed, therefore, to repetitive loops of information about Sarah Palin's wardrobe and the latest Casey Anthony development and the like--I sometimes find myself distracted. Which, in turn, quite often leads me to wonder at the provenance of the purity-of-complexion on the faces of those who are trying to keep my attention. Sure, I think to myself, it's probably just a combination of good lighting and layers of pancake makeup, the traditional television tag-team; or maybe, I venture in wilder moments, Keith Olbermann, in a fit of RLS-triggered insomnia, has fallen prey to the late-night infomercialistic charms of Alyssa Milano and Jessica Simpson and other advocates of Guthy-Renker's Proactiv Solution.

But it's always speculation. There's never an answer. Nor does my distraction ever last long enough to make me care to find one.

Until, that is, today. Because I just learned that the nagging mystery will (probably) soon be solved. Finally, we'll (probably) discover whether Chris Matthews's pores really are as freakishly small as they appear on Hardball, or whether his complexion is, in fact, man-made. Because, this spring, MSNBC will be going high-def.

Pore Chris.

A Treasury of Page Six Corrections


Gossip is a cutthroat business. It’s also an error-prone one.

Mistakes are inevitable when you trade in rumors and rely on “spies” and self-interested publicists to feed you product. Or, yes, when you simply make things up in order to sell magazines or newspapers.

The New York Post’s Page Six, the grande dame of old school gossip columns, has had its share of whoppers over the years. It added another notable correction to its archives this week after it reported that Michelle Obama had a craving for lobster and caviar while staying at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Alas, there was no such meal. In fact, Mrs. Obama didn’t even stay at the hotel. The correction:

THE source who told us last week about Michelle Obama getting lobster and caviar delivered to her room at the Waldorf-Astoria must have been under the influence of a mind-altering drug. She was not even staying at the Waldorf. We regret the mistake, and our former source is going to regret it, too. Bread and water would be too good for such disinformation.

Yes, an amusing offering. Focusing on how your now “former” source was wrong is also a good way to deflect criticism for a wholly inaccurate report that was bound to be picked up and used as political cannon fodder. In fact, blaming a source is a common theme in Page Six corrections, of which there have been many. With that in mind, I offer the best of Page Six’s recent corrections:

“ON Dec. 28, we reported that Steve Bing went on a ‘dinner date from hell’ with
Pamela Anderson. The item, based on a report by Us Weekly, was wrong.
The date did not occur. We regret the error.” Link

“… it wasn't Jam Master Jay the other night at Crobar. It was loud and dark and our intrepid reporter has trouble distinguishing among Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fab Five Freddy and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Jam Master was murdered two years ago, and we apologize to his family...” Link

“LARRY David and his wife, Laurie, must have pretty convincing doubles. The testy comic says yesterday’s report from our spy that David went ballistic when his BMW was hit by a shopping cart on Martha’s Vineyard is ‘so fantastical, I’m considering hiring your source for my show . . . none of it is true.’ Worse, the ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ star says, ‘the most egregious error was that they had me wearing shorts, an item of clothing that hasn’t been on my body since I started growing hair.’ ” Link

“OUR spies need to clean out their ears and get some glasses. On Nov. 23, we incorrectly reported that Nicolas Cage’s wife, Alice, while at the L.A. premiere of ‘National Treasure,’ asked someone, ‘What is the Declaration of Independence?’ and that Cage came to her rescue and stated, ‘Please don’t ask my wife any history questions.’ We
apologize to the Cages who, we are sure, are both well versed in American history.” Link

“WE blew it yesterday when we reported that Herman Melville worked at the front desk of the Riverview Hotel on West Street in 1907, an impossibility since the ‘Moby Dick’ author died in 1891, as many of our more learned readers pointed out. While we’re correcting bad information: a rep for Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard wants it known that the couple, who’ve been together for 31/2 years, have never broken up: ‘They live together and they are very happy together.’ ” Link

“ON April 23 we reported that the fiancée of Gregg ‘Opie’ Hughes, one half of the Opie and Anthony radio show, was involved in an X-rated sex video with MTV star Bam Margera. We reported that Hughes was taking legal action against a disgruntled ex-employee of the radio duo who had acquired the rights to the video. We have since learned that this information, supplied by Steppin’ Out’s Chaunce Hayden, was entirely incorrect. There is no sex tape. Further, Hughes’ fiancée has never met the MTV star. The Post sincerely regrets the error.” Link

Correction of the Week

“Stupid is as stupid does. And it was a pretty stupid one as I hit the send button on Wednesday night.

"The Oilers hardly spent a moment in Anaheim’s end of the rink for the first 30 minutes and the Honda Centre press box is so far from the ice you need binoculars to read the names, but that’s no excuse - listing J.S. Giguere as the starter instead of Jonas Hiller is straight out of the Thick Forehead Hall of Fame.

"In the same hurried rush to make a west coast deadline I had Mathieu Garon mixed up in the Edmonton-Los Angeles-Anaheim transaction blender with Matt Greene, Ladislav Smid, Lubomir Visnovsky, Dustin Penner, Jarret Stoll, Chris Pronger and Joffrey Lupul. Garon used to play for the Kings, of course, not down the road in Anaheim.
Sorry for the brain cramps. Jeopardy won’t be calling anytime soon.”– Edmonton Sun

A Notable Editors’ Note

“An article in the Itineraries pages last Tuesday reported about the increasing stress on business travelers, and cited the findings of “Stress in America,” an annual survey of the American Psychological Association. That survey found that economic factors were the leading causes of stress levels in 2008, but it did not say, as the article did, that “the crisis on Wall Street was the No. 1 cause of anxiety,” nor did participants in the survey say they felt most vulnerable to stress “in the office and on a business trip.”

"The survey included data from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, 2008, a period of volatility on Wall Street, but none of the questions in the association’s survey referred to Wall Street or any economic crises. Participants were not asked how business travel affected their stress levels or where they felt most vulnerable to stress. The author of the article distorted the survey’s findings to fit his theme, contrary to The Times’s standards of integrity.

"The article also quoted incorrectly from a comment by Nancy Molitor, a psychologist in Wilmette, Ill., who told the author that, “In my 20 years of practice I’ve never seen such anxiety among my patients,” not “among my banking and business patients.” While Dr. Molitor does have patients in banking and business, she did not single them out as being more anxious than her other patients.” – The New York Times

Talking to the Press Can Turn You Into an Alcoholic

“Bob Fredrick, a clinical social worker and therapist in Atlanta, is not a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. A story in the Sunday Living section had incorrect information, including a misspelling of his name.” – Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parting Shot
“An item on yesterday’s front page said oil prices had fallen to a 14-year low. We should be so lucky. In fact, they fell Thursday to a 14-month low.” – Hamilton Spectator

Foreign Policy, Undigested

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The New York Times’s “If Elected...” series seems to promise insight into what a candidate might actually do if sworn into office next January. (“If elected... John McCain will make the Bush tax cut permanent,” for example.) But unfortunately, the latest installment, “Rivals Split on U.S. Power, but Ideas Defy Labels,” fails to provide any of the implied speculation about what Barack Obama or John McCain might do when one of them becomes president.

In more than 2,600 words, David E. Sanger rehashes the candidates’ positions on Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, the United Nations, and so on, from every source available under the sun. There is talk of humanitarian intervention and nuclear disarmament, and more.

As the campaign has unfolded, both men have been forced into surprising detours. They may have formed their worldviews in Hanoi and Jakarta, but they forged specific positions amid the realities of an election in post-Iraq, post-crash America — where judgment sometimes collides with political expediency.

The result has included contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign. As spelled out in presidential debates, in written answers provided by their campaigns, and in an interview with Mr. McCain in January, some of their views appear as messy and unpredictable as the troubles one of them will inherit.

So reads the nut graph of the piece. The next two thousand words are dedicated to the twists and turns the candidates’ positions have taken. There are reversals and surprises. Obama’s response to the Russia-Georgia conflict is closer to Bush’s than McCain’s. Obama speaks out boldly about a willingness to sit down with Iranian leadership without preconditions, is criticizes, and scales back. There’s hemming and hawing, but no real answers, as Sanger readily admits.

On the one hand, the Times should be commended for taking the time to review the substance of this election. The last few weeks have been punctuated by too many distractions (CoutureGate, Ayers, Acorn, Plumber Joe, and the Kitchen Sink) and it’s admirable of the Times to cut through that (even though this story did share the front page with this account of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe).

But the piece reads like an endless game of He Said, She Said. Falling back on the default mode of campaign stenography at this late date in the election cycle does nothing to provide readers with any kind of meaningful analysis or context. “We report, you decide,” the article seems to proclaim.

Sorry, but that’s not good enough. Laissez faire journalism may work for some things, like profiles of different dog breeds, but foreign policy is too complicated. Readers, myself included, need some critical perspective on the candidates’ positions.

Sanger himself seems to admit so much in describing their views as “messy and unpredictable.” If he can’t make sense of them, how are we supposed to?

So why not go a step further? Why not call up a few career diplomats—American and foreign—a few professors of history and international affairs, and a couple of foreign policy analysts to make something out of this mess? Neither campaign appears to have made itself very available for the interviews necessary to write an article stuffed with specifics, which may make it hard to parse the implications of their actual positions. Oh, well. Try.

What’s more, Sanger admits that the essential premise of the article and the series—what they might do “If Elected...”—is a relatively useless exercise:

It is worth remembering that presidential campaigns are usually terrible predictors of presidential decision-making. John F. Kennedy said virtually nothing about building up troops in Vietnam in 1960, nor did Richard M. Nixon talk in 1968 about engineering an opening to China. George W. Bush, in an interview at his ranch 10 days before his first inaugural in 2001, lamented that sanctions against Saddam Hussein looked like “Swiss cheese” but did not appear, at that time, to be heading toward a military confrontation with him.

Instead of devoting endless inches to the back-and-forth of the candidates’ words, the Times could have compiled a list of specific challenges that the next president will inherit, with some insight into what will be required to meet those challenges. In reading the two candidates’ words, one might think that Obama’s actual plan to dealing with the Iranians is to sit down and talk without preconditions. This idea in itself has become the entirety of his foreign policy approach, and was recently seized upon by the McCain-Palin ticket.

The real, important, and necessary point is this: What would they talk about at this now-mythical sit-down? Perhaps Mideast experts could offer some insight into what incentives the U.S. could use to achieve its goal of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, and honestly assess whether or not such a goal is even feasible at this point.

Sanger admits as much. “The harder question,” he writes, “is how to force Iran to give up its uranium enrichment quickly, before it produces enough material to build a weapon?” It would have been nice if he’d asked someone to take a crack at it.

There are myriad reasons why editors may be reluctant to push forward the type of story I’ve described, and campaign fatigue and poll numbers may occupy the Number One and Two slots on that list. Presumably, part of the reason that the Times is running such long policy pieces at this point in the campaign is that, hard as it might be to imagine, there are still voters out there who are trying to make up their minds. If the story’s goal was to help readers make up their minds, then, unfortunately, it fell short.

Five Questions for SEJ’s New Prez

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At its eighteenth annual conference last week, the Society of Environmental Journalists elected Christy George, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, to be its newest president and the first from a broadcast medium. George has been a journalist for over twenty-five years, having arrived at OPB in 1997 after a four-year stint as an editor at the Boston Herald. At OPB she has covered politics and environmental issues for television and radio, and produced a documentary about the prevalence of global-warming skepticism among television meteorologists, which she calls her “opus.” CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked with George about the current state of environmental journalism, what she plans to accomplish during her two-year term, what SEJ can do for members and non-members alike, and what is (or should be) on reporters’ radar.

Curtis Brainard: Why in the busy life of a journalist would you want to become the president of an organization like SEJ?

Christy George: Well, I’ve already been involved intimately in the time-consuming work of SEJ; I’ve been on its board for eight years. And it is time-consuming, but it’s great fun. And I’m supported here at OPB by my boss and others who think this is a good thing. Here in public broadcasting we sit in the little neutral zone in the battlefield of the litter of dead bodies of newspapers and reporters and journalism. As far as I know, we’re still growing our membership—it may be flattening out a little bit after our meteoric growth curve of the last decade—but we’re doing okay, and so we can afford to be involved in journalism groups. Unfortunately, a lot of SEJ’s members don’t have that support anymore because a lot of newsrooms no longer have a travel budget and they don’t even really want you to take the time off. But our members make it to our conference just the same, which really says something about the value of SEJ.

CB: There’s been a sort of boom in environmental reporting and public consciousness over the last year, but some think it’s all a lot of green fluff. What’s your opinion?

CG:Well, I think the beat is doing wonderfully well. And the climate story and the energy implications of that, and high gas prices, all conspire to make this the great beat of our time. I think we’re on the cusp of becoming the most important political and business story anybody will cover for at least the next decade and perhaps the rest of the century. So what we’re seeing is this cross-beat thing happening where business reporters are covering energy stories; where political reporters are covering climate change and energy issues during the campaign because the candidates, for the first time in my memory, are talking about them and voters are thinking about them.

[As for] the “green” stuff, SEJ has many advocacy reporters who are advocating for, you know, a viable Earth. And they are green, but they’re also journalists and we don’t vet people’s reporting. We just have a very, very strict policy that excludes anyone who does PR or lobbying on the environmental issues for money.

CB: What do you think will be the most critical issues facing SEJ over the next two years?

CG:I think the shrinking of newsrooms is a top issue for us. We were founded primarily by print reporters and the vast majority of membership is print reporters; so we need to do something about that. We don’t print news stories, but there are probably creative ways that we can help. And as a broadcaster I want to bring more broadcasters into the group. We are seeing more coverage of the environment on TV—network TV, not so much local stations. Radio, public radio in particular, does a great job with the environmental beat, but we really need to reach out to folks in broadcasting. The environment is a fantastic broadcast story—I mean, it’s got great pictures, whether it’s animals or cars on the freeway. And it’s a great audio story as well for radio, and something that touches everybody. Part of our mission is simply to get more environmental stories covered. The other is to support reporters who are covering the beat, especially because a lot of people cover it as general assignment reporters, as opposed to real beat reporters. When you get thrown into the fray, there’s a lot of science that folks may not know. So we’re here to help.

CB: In terms of accomplishing some of the goals that you’ve laid out, can you tell me exactly what kinds of tools and resources SEJ makes available to members, and non-members as well?

CG: A dramatic percentage of our Web site—www.sej.org—is open to non-members. We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which means we’re an educational organization, and educating the public is part of our mission, in addition to educating our peers in journalism. So a tremendous amount of what we do is for everybody. We also do a lot of Freedom of Information work, and the vast majority of FOIA requests are not made by journalists, but rather by lawyers and activists, which is unfortunate for journalism; we should be doing it ourselves. We do a thing at SEJ called FOIA Friday where we encourage members to file Freedom of Information Requests—there’s got to be something that you need to know. And people have been doing that and they’ve been getting answers.

Past SEJ presidents have worked very hard on this issues—have found themselves, in fact, even testifying before Congress. Tim Wheeler, my predecessor, did that in his term because there were attempts to keep reporters out of Interior Department lands—National Parks—unless they paid a very stiff fee, the kind of fee that you’d expect a Hollywood movie producer to have to pay in order to film for two weeks.

We also just got a grant to rethink our strategic plan, which we’ll give some serious attention to given the threats to the beat and to print journalism in general, and try to figure out what we could reasonably do. Could we become a news outlet of some sort? We do have some publications; they tend focus on helping people with the beat and answering specific questions about how to do the job. But could we launch a reporting project? Maybe. That might help a few people.

CB: Looking forward, do you have any other advice for environmental journalists? What should be on their radars?

CG: Well I want to get a message out to all the non-environmental reporters that they are probably covering environmental stories. Example: there was session at the conference last week on the environmental roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Robert McClure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who’s also on the board, did that session. Folks who wanted to buy a first house, didn’t have enough money, didn’t have a down payment—the line is, you drive until you qualify, farther and farther in to suburbia, or exurbia, and when you finally get to a place where you can afford to buy the house you are consuming vast quantities of gasoline to commute to and from work—forty-five minutes, an hour, even two hours a day. And when gas prices went up, those people just didn’t have the money to pay for it, and that [combined with other factors] was when they got in trouble with their house payments.

The cost of energy and early impacts is affecting everything right now. There are just a lot of things to think about. We will have a president in January who is committed to doing something about climate and, by definition, if you’re doing something about climate, you’re changing the energy mix, and both candidates get that. So there’s going to be a tremendous wealth of stories that are political and business stories as well when January 21st hits. Every beat—health, sports, and fashion—has environmental implications.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story was amended to reflect the entirety of George's answer to the first question.]

All by himself...

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McCain's planning a rather unorthodox election night tableau. From the AP:

Instead of appearing before a throng of supporters at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix on the evening of Nov. 4, the Republican presidential nominee plans to deliver postelection remarks to a small group of reporters and guests on the hotel's lawn. ...

McCain's remarks will be piped electronically into the party and media filing center, aides said. Only a small press "pool" — mostly those who have traveled regularly with the candidate on his campaign plane, plus a few local Arizona reporters and others — will be physically present when he speaks.

There are two ways this can play out. Either McCain gives a concession speech without a blow-softening penumbra of supporters, which I'm guessing will look sad and lonely. Or--um, less likely--he gives a victory speech to a handful of silent reporters and cameras, which will probably look like a bizzaro world presidential address. Weird.

Meanwhile, construction workers are already readying Chicago's Grant Park for Obama's election night event.

Will our pundits be able to resist rehashing the "Celebrity" narrative? No.

UPDATE: A campaign aide is claiming that McCain will, in fact, have 2,000 select supporters outside with him. Still, I bet Obama breaks 100,000, given the confluence of hometown and the historic.

Obama Gets the Sign of the Times


So, in a totally shocking and unforeseen move, the The New York Times has endorsed Barack Obama. Here's the meat of the endorsement:

Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

In the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

Not to be outdone, today also brings with it Obama endorsements from such luminaries as Scott McClellan and various heroes of classic sit-comedy.

"You Stepped in it, Buddy"

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Newsweek Jonathan Alter was on the Colbert Report last night promoting his new book. Some funny exchanges ensued.

ALTER: Remember the 1920s... On the economy, we had this idea that if was good for Wall Street, it was good for America.

COLBERT: It is good for Wall Street, it's good for America. You know how I can prove it? Because now, what's bad for Wall Street, is also clearly bad for America.

The Politics of Symbolism


It is ironic that conservative commentators, led by radio personality Rush Limbaugh, dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama as a racist act at the very moment several Republicans are hunting for votes using racially charged rhetoric about "real Americans." These commentators argue that Democrats invented symbolic politics this cycle—and that a voter who is drawn to the symbolism of an Obama presidency is a racist—while tacitly absolving the McCain-Palin of its efforts to court those voters who fear a black urbanite in the White House.

Limbaugh hung his attack on a portion of Powell's endorsement of Obama on Sunday's Meet the Press, in which he described the Democratic nominee as a "transformational figure." On his radio show the following day, Limbaugh concluded that "this was all about Powell and race," explaining to a caller, "Transformational simply means we're finally going to get over our days of slavery and a majority of people would elect a black guy president, that's what transformational is." Apparently, that's the same as being racist.

"I can’t read the mind of Colin Powell, but I know Rush isn’t crazy," chimed in National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez. Bewilderingly, Lopez went on to suggest that Obama stole his "change" theme from Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity and therefore differs from McCain the Maverick solely in skin color. Through an analysis of the Obama endorsements and other celebratory features in African-American magazines—Vibe, Ebony, Essence, and Black Enterprise among them—she constructs a flimsy argument that Obama supporters have made the race about race.

In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks made much less convoluted charges of racism against the McCain-Palin campaign and their allies. "The GOP code isn't hard to crack," she writes:

There's the America that might vote for Obama (a suspect America populated by people with liberal notions, big-city ways and, no doubt, dark skin), and then there's the "real" America, where people live in small towns, believe in God and country, and are ... well ... white."

Brooks is referring, of course, to the flood of "real America" rhetoric first delivered by Sarah Palin at a North Carolina fundraiser last week. "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit," she said, "and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic ... pro-America areas of this great nation." North Carolina congressman Robin Hayes added his two cents: "Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God."

Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann then added fuel to the fire by calling for media investigations of members of Congress to establish whether they are "pro-American" or "anti-American." Palin subsequently apologized for her remarks (as did Bachmann; Hayes didn't apologize, but rather issued a statement saying his own comments "came out completely the wrong way"). None of this stopped John McCain, however, from declaring that "western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God-loving, most patriotic part of America."

On its face, such rhetoric may seem to have more to do with Reds than blacks: there's a loud echo of McCarthyism in it, especially in Bachmann's remarks. But the Republican strategy of pitting rural whites against urban "elites" and minorities comes courtesy not of McCarthy, but rather of George Wallace, the Alabama governor—and racist demagogue—who ran for president in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Richard Nixon, who needed the votes of Southerners and middle-class Wallace voters outside the region in order to win the White House, brought that rhetoric into the mainstream of the Republican Party.

The ghost of George Wallace surfaced explicitly in this campaign when Congressman John Lewis suggested that violent outbursts at Palin's rallies were reminiscent of the violence engendered by the Alabama governor. But the debate over the extent to which the antagonism at recent GOP events resembles the Klan violence Wallace inspired obscures the much more fundamental legacy McCain and Palin inherited from Wallace through Nixon. (Diane McWhorter touched on this larger legacy in a nice piece for Slate last week.)

Wallace's 1968 campaign came within a hair's breadth of denying Nixon victory, built on strong appeal to middle-class whites outside the South. His supporters were cast as "working men" with a tremendous "love of country," while their adversaries were pointy-headed liberals, Washington bureaucrats, and elites who wanted to give welfare to African-Americans at the expense, they claimed, of hard-working whites.

The cultural showdown Nixon strategized was, like McCain/Palin's incarnation of it, geographically coded: the black-allied elites were on the coasts, while "real Americans" were in the middle. And they were very definitely in the South, a region that many Americans were ashamed of just a few years earlier as scenes of horrific anti-black violence flooded their televisions. But anti-civil rights backlash spread to places like Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, and Detroit, and was made even more bitter by an economic squeeze on middle-class whites.

Nixon thus adopted an agenda, designed to appeal to angry whites, that included opposition to busing and a crackdown on "crime." (Dan Carter's The Politics of Rage and Bruce Schulman's The Seventies have terrific accounts of these developments.) And he started singing the virtues of a place newly named "Middle America." Indeed, the very notion of a "middle America" that is "more American" than other parts of the country is an invention of Nixon's divisive politics.

Of course, there have been reports that McCain himself vetoed efforts to revive the Jeremiah Wright candidacy because of his discomfort with racially divisive politics. But the history of the rhetoric his campaign is using rightly makes some observers queasy. Indeed, McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer got way too close for comfort when she recently described the "part of [Virginia] that's more Southern in nature" as "the real Virginia," echoing the demeaning remarks Senator George Allen made in 2006 to an Indian-American born in Northern Virginia. The appearance of racism, of course, helped to cost Allen his seat. It remains to be seen what it will cost the McCain campaign.

In the same column in which she decries the McCain campaign's "real America" rhetoric as racially implicative, Rosa Brooks also rejects the notion that the "real America" looks like the one the Republicans mythologize. "About 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas, not small towns," she writes. "A third of us are ethnic and racial minorities, but that's changing: Already, nearly 45% of children under 5 are minorities.... That's the real America: a land of change and perpetual renewal. Let's stand up for it."

Nicholas Kristof echoes this sentiment by placing a potential Obama victory in an international context. He opens his New York Times column yesterday by relaying a conversation with a Chinese friend who is incredulous that a black person could be elected as a U.S. president, since she thought "blacks were janitors and laborers." When Kristof explains that Obama will become president only if a lot of white people vote for him, she exclaims, "Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!"

But Kristof closes his column tentatively: "Look, Mr. Obama’s skin color is a bad reason to vote for him or against him. Substance should always trump symbolism." But this week should have us asking: Given that the GOP is once again flirting with ugly symbolic politics, is it wrong for voters to embrace a "transformational" candidate who might help bring them to an end? Is it "all about race" if a voter factors what a candidate symbolizes into his or her voting decision? Is it as morally condemnable to select Obama because he represents an end to the legacy of slavery and segregation as it is for a voter to choose McCain in order to keep a black urbanite out of the White House?

For Rush Limbaugh and the writers of National Review, apparently the answer to all of these questions is "yes." For the rest of us, history should make that answer a lot more complicated.

Where are the Subprime Toasters?

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Sometimes we come across pieces that are so clear, relevant and to-the-point that we feel like quoting them to you in toto.

So it is with Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi’s short piece in Harper’s, advocating a commission that would “protect homebuyers and investors from the finance industry’s most dangerous offerings.” The piece is a beacon of common sense in a business press that is, quite frankly, too often awash in slight statistics and financial jargon.

Warren and Tyagi address what leaders from Henry Paulson on down tell us is at the heart of the credit crisis, confidence.

So they start out by talking toasters:

Go into any appliance store in America and look for a toaster with a one-in-five chance of exploding. You won’t find one. But at any mortgage brokerage in the country it has been possible to purchase a loan with a one-in-five foreclosure rate, and the broker doesn’t even have to tell you the odds.

Yep. Seems like a problem. On the bright side, if you lose your life savings, you can always survive on Pop-Tarts. But perhaps you want to know how we arrived at this strange set of priorities. Warren and Tyagi continue:

For most of the country’s history, state and local usury laws imposed modest consumer protections by setting caps on interest rates and fees. But in 1978, a federal statute was used to bypass these laws. Creditors quickly rewrote the rules, issuing unintelligible contracts that increased fees, penalties and interest rates. The fragmented financial regulatory bodies that remain have operated as if their main goal were lender profitablility. Real oversight has been left mostly to a handful of consumer advocates who struggle to examine and review hundreds of complicated financial products and publicize problems while financial institutions spend about $100 million each year lobbying Congress for less regulation and more privilege.

And then the consequences:

The ever-widening information imbalance between consumers and creditors has only made borrowers easier marks. In a Federal Trade Commission study conducted last year, for instance, nine in ten mortgage customers examining relatively straightfoward fixed-rate loan agreements could not figure out the up-front costs on the loan; half could not identify the loan amount.

Okay, we pause here to let those numbers sink in. Continuing:

Of all the borrowers who were sold subprime mortgages in the past five years, nearly 60 percent would have qualified for prime mortgages if brokers had offered them; the subprime mortgages carried so many rate escalators, prepayment penalties, and other traps that even would-be prime borrowers defaulted.

Thus, Warren and Tyagi make a convincing case for a Financial Product Safety Commission. We’ll leave the details for you to read, but we do note that they are not arguing risk should be entirely eliminated from financial products, only that it should be controlled. Consumers need to understand the risks they are taking.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of this piece lies in its ability to make us see how skewed our regulatory apparatus has become. We live in a world where, thankfully, consumer goods like televisions and toasters are “held to increasingly higher standards of safety.”


The world of physical products has become safer, while the world of financial products has become far more dangerous. That’s a problem that can be fixed.

Here’s to a country where, if investments aren’t always as safe as toasters, at least their risks are clear and fair.

The press, along with everyone else, has finally turned on Alan Greenspan, and it looks like there’s no going back. The shocking news from yesterday came when Greenspan testified to Congress that he was wrong about deregulation and that his free-market ideology hadn’t worked.

"I made a mistake," Greenspan said, "in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

The NYT, WSJ, and Washington Post are all good in their news coverage of the testimony, but the Journal and Post for some reason ignore Greenspan’s near dismissal of many of his ideological compatriots’ blaming of Fannie and Freddie for causing the crisis. So a tip of the hat to the Times for catching it:

Many Republican lawmakers on the oversight committee tried to blame the mortgage meltdown on the unchecked growth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored mortgage-finance companies that were placed in a government conservatorship last month. Republicans have argued that Democratic lawmakers blocked measures to reform the companies.

But Mr. Greenspan, who was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan, placed far more blame on the Wall Street companies that bundled subprime mortgages into pools and sold them as mortgage-backed securities. Global demand for the securities was so high, he said, that Wall Street companies pressured lenders to lower their standards and produce more “paper.”

Daniel Gross over at Slate has a worth-reading piece on how the unemployment rate is artificially low. That’s because it’s not catching underemployment and people who’ve just flat given up looking for work.

But the most troublesome is the U6. The U6 is sort of the summa of job angst, a shorthand tally for the aggregate of job-related frustration… To compile the U6, the BLS takes the number of unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus all of those employed part-time for economic reasons, and then calculates that total as a percentage of the sum of the entire civilian labor force plus marginally attached workers.

The U6 in September rose to 11 percent, its highest level since the data series started in 1994 and significantly higher than it was in the last recession, in 2001.

Bloomberg has a creative angle on how the global elite partied while the troubles built. It gets inside the World Economic Forum in Davos and finds the organizers laden with guilt—and pointing figures at their decadent attendees for being in “psychological denial” of the insanity that led to the bust.

Steinberg recalls the attitude among some of the delegates at Davos from 2003 through last January. ``It was clear irresponsibility on their part and it's more damning than anyone can imagine,'' says Steinberg, who has been with the WEF for more than a decade. The former McKinsey & Co. management consultant supervises the forum's finance-industry delegates.

``By 2003, the over-leveraging of the system was a serious topic of conversation, but the some 60 of WEF's corporate members from the financial world never had an understanding of how big a problem it was,'' Steinberg adds…

Steinberg says the most-discussed housing issue among some delegates centered on Davos's Belvedere Hotel, where corporate chieftains and their deputies were ``more interested in entering into bidding wars to secure the biggest party room than they were in attending sessions held there.''

The LA Times takes a nice look at how Countrywide’s mortgage-workout plan—which it was forced to create in settling lawsuits over its years of fraudulent activity&mdsah;could be a model for the rest of the country.

The Countrywide plan, which is aimed at borrowers with subprime mortgages or pay-option adjustable-rate home loans, known as option ARMs, would temporarily cut interest rates on some loans to as low as 2.5%. Some borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth could even see their loan balances reduced, giving them equity once again in their properties.

The idea is to modify a loan's terms just enough to create a new monthly payment, including principal, interest, taxes and property insurance, equal to 34% of a borrower's verified monthly income.

Rep. Barney Frank, who heads the House Financial Services Committee is trying to force other big companies into similar plans.

I like the Journal’s Ahead of the Tape column today. It points out that Libor, which finally has been decreasing a bit, may not be the best credit indicator to be watching now. This is important because while most people follow the gyrations of the stock market to indicate how bad things are, it’s the debt indicators that really illustrate it.

The problem is that credit is still tightening for everybody else. Yields on below-investment-grade, or "junk," corporate bonds have blown out to 16 percentage points above comparable Treasury bond yields. That is a record spread; the spread is usually less than six percentage points, and anything over 10 points is considered distressed.

Fannie and Freddie debt spreads over Treasurys have been at records, too, at least until Thursday, when Federal Housing Finance Agency chief James Lockhart spoke of an explicit government guarantee for this agency debt, an assurance his office later dialed back. Though commercial-paper rates have fallen, the market for this short-term debt is still shrinking, according to the latest Fed data, starving companies of vital financing.

In this final-days-of-Campaign-2008 silly season, three rumors--each of them as-yet-unproven--have emerged:

1. Sarah Palin has begun running against John McCain and toward the GOP base
2. McCain is increasingly detached from the inner workings of his own campaign
3. President Bush is self-medicating

SNL, with an assist from the glorious Will Farrel, manages to tackle all three:

The Horse’s Mouth

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Here’s a cardinal rule of journalistic writing: Don’t float a quote.

But the San Francisco Chronicle does just that, in a report on Sarah Palin’s appearance in Nevada (first in Reno and then in Henderson). Calling each source by his or her newly adopted GOP name (Charles the Retired Physician, Esther the Housewife, etc.) and referring to homemade signs, the article paints a shining portrait of Palin’s effects on her supporters (my emphasis):

They were among the ranks of what might now be called ‘Sarah's Army’--conservative and proudly wearing that Average Joe, ‘pro-American’ label--who lined up for blocks and blocks outside the Henderson Pavilion in this Las Vegas suburb to cheer on their candidate.

The reference, of course, is to Palin’s comment, made last week while campaigning in North Carolina, that she loves to visit “pro-American areas” of the country. The governor has gotten a lot of flack for the statement, which seemed to imply that there were other areas of the country that were not pro-American. (Her remark has also elicited some nods of agreement.) And any account that uses the descriptive “pro-American” should explain its provenance. Describing a Palin-friendly crowd as such is irresponsible; the term comes from Palin, and should end with her.

The “pro-American” quote needs identification. It also needs context. Rally stories, if they’re not Candidate A said this, Candidate B said that accounts, are generally driven by characterizations of the crowd. (How’s it feeling about this? That? What color would it produce on a mood ring?) But those descriptions require specificity (see the “pro-American” gripe) and relevant context if they are to provide any illumination for readers.

As we’ve noted before, it may be unfair to lament missing context, especially because atmosphere-at-rallies stories are often filed without additional desk reporting. But take a glance at the following requisite paragraphs of context in the Chronicle account:

Palin… has plunged with gusto into her role as the populist rabble-rouser of the GOP presidential team--lambasting Sen. Barack Obama for “palling around with terrorists,” dismissing his economic plan as “socialism” and lending her voice to robo calls that have even some leading Republicans wincing.

Although Team McCain's go-to woman has been skewered by some prominent conservatives--and a few polls suggest she could be a drag on the ticket among independents and female voters--there's something about Sarah Palin that continues to fuel her popularity among the conservative grassroots.

While the attempt to provide some sort of background here is commendable, it’s also important to recognize that context isn’t solely about listing old egregious errors or potable campaign mantras by way of Palin insta-quotes (on palling around with terrorists—check! and on socialism—check!). Nor, at this late stage in the game, is it about providing the general “there’s something about Sarah” explanation for the governor's demagogic popularity. Right now, the relevant frame should involve the endpoint of Election Day, and any background information provided in a piece should exist to help readers understand how a Nevada rally fits into that timeline.

Avoiding generalizations when it comes to crowd descriptions serves that ultimate goal. The Chronicle story tells us that the Nevada rallies were “crowded with Republicans who proudly identified with the regular-guy persona of Joe the Plumber.” And its author, Carla Marinucci, does begin her story by pinpointing several supporters who held up signs: “‘Jerry the Plumber’ showed up here Tuesday with a homemade sign to identify himself. And so did ‘Wendy the Plumber's Daughter,’ ‘Sandra the Homeschool Mom’ and ‘Michael the Student.’” But the article, which is titled “Sarah’s Army rallies for Palin in Nevada,” also uses terms like “Average Joe” or “pro-American” more loosely to describe the crowd at large.

Labels like these perpetuate a kind of falsely descriptive narrative, one that seems to characterize an event in appropriately current terms, but which in fact runs the risk of using campaign argot wholesale. Specificity is key. Given that “pro-American,” in the Chronicle's case, is a term that came from Palin, it’s irresponsible to ascribe that term to the rally as a whole. And if the crowd was full of “I am pro-American” signs, Marinucci should have specifically noted that. (It would be something worth noting, too.)

This isn’t to say that reporters shouldn’t use such labels on occasion; they’re catchy, and make for great headlines. But it is to say that they should be careful about how they describe and define crowded rallies. If supporters take up candidates’ lines themselves, then reporters should clarify the terms of the appropriation. Otherwise, it’s rather like taking words from a politician’s mouth and using them to corral and blanket the crowd.

The Most Importantest Election Ever


In The American Scholar, Christopher Clausen investigates the phrase that comes 'round and 'round. He starts in July 1864, when Lincoln was running for a second term against Gen. George B. McClellan, three years into the Civil War. A New York Times editorial that year stated: “We have had many important elections, but never one so important as that now approaching....The republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history.”

A few more iterations, courtesy of Clausen:

As the republic’s history lengthened, the phrase often mutated into “the most important election in my lifetime” or “in a century.” Still, in all its forms it proved remarkably resistant to irony or derision. In 1988, when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, the already venerable Senator Robert C. Byrd declared: “It may be the most important election of this century.” In 1992, when Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton, Clinton declared it “the most important election in a generation,” generation being a word that sounds weighty and biblical but is often deployed without any precise meaning.

By 1996, when Clinton himself was running for a second term against Senator Robert Dole, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, declared it “the most important election of our lifetime,” while John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, pushed the envelope by describing it as “the most critical election in the long history of the American labor movement.” In November 2000 Ebony magazine tried to re-establish a sense of proportion by asserting, “The first national election of the 21st century is the most important election (so far) of the 21st century,” though strictly speaking it was still the 20th. By 2004 everyone was getting in on the act, from the rock band Pearl Jam (“the most important [election] of our lifetime”) to Bruce Springsteen and Democratic nominee John Kerry (“the most important election of our lifetime”) to the Christian Coalition again (“the most important election in our nation’s history”).

Perspective, schmerspective.

I Spur, You Spur, We All Spur

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Andrew Sullivan, in the new Atlantic, explains why he blogs:

Each week, after a few hundred posts, I also write an actual newspaper column. It invariably turns out to be more considered, balanced, and evenhanded than the blog. But the blog will always inform and enrich the column, and often serve as a kind of free-form, free-associative research. And an essay like this will spawn discussion best handled on a blog. The conversation, in other words, is the point, and the different idioms used by the conversationalists all contribute something of value to it. And so, if the defenders of the old media once viscerally regarded blogging as some kind of threat, they are starting to see it more as a portal, and a spur.

For references to Plato, Pascal, Karl Kraus, and Montaigne, read on.

Lose Both Ways

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However the election goes in two weeks, we're likely to see less of Sarah Palin, whether she's sitting in the VP office, or moving back to Alaska, and that might be a problem for some people:

After Nov. 4, psychologists predict, there will be legions of people all across America who will find a hole in their lives and time on their hands.

“We are all absolutely obsessed with Sarah Palin,” says Dr. Sheenah Hankin, Manhattan psychotherapist and author of Complete Confidence: A Handbook. “I’ve never seen this before. Even my patients want to talk about her all the time. After Election Day, even if we are relieved [by the results], we can expect to feel a huge sense of loss.”

For more tips on how to get over our Palin addiction, check out "Getting Over Sarah Palin".

Making the Grade

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Just yesterday, I called for papers to fill their pages with substantive, local-minded stories about how campaign rhetoric will translate into real-life legislation on the ground.

Today, The Times-Picayune delivers just that with a critical look at McCain’s and Obama’s education-policy proposals--and at how they would affect New Orleans's troubled public schools system.

There’s been a lot of focus on New Orleans charter schools as the city tries to repair its ailing public education system post-Katrina. In June, The Washington Post reported that, according to the local officials, 53 percent of the city’s students were enrolled in charter schools--a state of affairs that the Post's Jay Mathews called "an unparalleled education experiment, with possible lessons for troubled urban schools in the District and elsewhere."

That’s why education policy has particular relevance in New Orleans--and the Times-Picayune piece gets to the point right away. First, it instantly frames the issue in local terms by asking Paul Vallas, superintendent of New Orleans's Recovery School District--which oversees the city's 100 or so worst-performing public schools--to weigh in on the issue. Vallas, in turn, offers a balanced perspective on the two proposals, without a taking a partisan line.

Next, reporter Bruce Alpert offers a sharp summation of the candidates’ positions: “The primary differences between Obama and McCain on education amount to financing.”

Alpert notes both the specifics offered by the candidates and the criticisms they have faced. The two differ, for instance, on how to reform the No Child Left Behind Legislation, with Obama proposing testing reform and McCain advocating greater choice for parents. McCain has not mentioned education as an area that would be protected during his proposed spending freeze, while Obama’s support of charter schools is unpopular with some Democratic voters.

Finally, the piece holds the candidates accountable for their positions on NCLB.

Neither McCain nor Obama offers many specifics about the changes in the law they would support, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational think tank.

"They are being rather vague, perhaps because the law is unpopular with both parties' bases. The Republican base believes No Child Left Behind is a major federal intrusion into local control, and the Democrats' liberal base, particularly the teacher unions, consider the punitive nature of the law unfair, " Petrilli said.

Meaningful comparisons, analysis, context: What’s not to like? (One could object that the think tank Petrilli represents is run by the conservative Chester E. Finn Jr., but his comments are balanced and critical of both parties.)

Education has gotten short shrift on the trail because of issues both important (the economy) and trivial (Bill Ayers), and it’s great that The Times-Picayne has given this particular story some prime real estate on its front page today. Other papers, take note.

As part of an ongoing series examining what the candidates’ plans might mean for Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took another crack at health care Sunday. A few weeks earlier, the paper ran a story called “Issue in-depth: health care: in their own words,” which simply was a bunch of paragraphs lifted from old stump speeches made by John McCain and Barack Obama, and a box listing bullet points for each candidates’ health plan. Not so good, we said especially for a once venerable newspaper like the Journal-Constitution.

Its latest effort began with a decent enough anecdote about uninsured people coming to the Good Shepherd Clinic, staffed by volunteer physicians who struggle to keep it open for eight hours each week. There, the ills of the health system meet. The AJC told of thirty-nine-year-old Shanta Head, a diabetic woman with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She can’t afford insurance from her employer, and, even if she could, it wouldn’t cover her conditions for a year, anyway. When she tried to buy cheaper coverage on her own, insurers turned her down. Big surprise. But the paper stopped there, missing a great chance to reinforce other points it tried to make.

The story veered predictably into the standard reportage on health care these days—that the candidates have different visions for health reform. It told of McCain’s tax credit proposal, and quoted a local insurance expert who said that many workers who now have coverage would come out ahead, at least at the beginning. But Shanta Head doesn’t have employer coverage; how would she be helped by this plan?

The story cited a recent employer survey jointly produced by a consulting firm and an outfit called the American Benefits Council. (It did not provide any background information about the Council, which advocates in Washington for employer-sponsored benefits.) The survey found that taxing the value of health benefits, as McCain also proposes, would have a “strong negative effect” on their employees. Then came the counterargument from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which said that employers would not pay an extra tax for health insurance under McCain. The last I heard was that employees who get health insurance from their employers might have to pay an extra tax, not employers. So this bit of information was puzzling at best. But maybe, by then, readers had stopped reading.

The story noted that McCain would spend billions to fund high risk pools for people with health conditions, pointing out that “such state risk pools cover about 200,000 people nationally, far short of the millions with chronic problems, and a bigger pool would be very costly.” Another missed chance to mention Shanta Head. Most pools are way underfunded, and consumers who use them must pay very high premiums to keep them afloat. How could Head pay these premiums when she can’t even afford coverage from her employer—who most likely is already paying a portion of them? The paper could have also used that opportunity to explain why Georgia doesn’t have such a pool, while some thirty other states do. No funding source, or what? Who was against it? Finding out would have been helpful to locals who are trying to understand the sound bites about each candidate’s plan.

The story touched on Obama’s proposal, saying that, under his plan, “no one would pay a higher premium for an existing condition.” Where did that assertion come from? Obama has said he would require insurers to insure everyone, but little has been said about how much policyholders would pay. Currently, if an insurance company agrees to insure people with, say, high blood pressure, they have to pay more money—sometimes a lot more. This was another missed chance for the Journal-Constitution to investigate what the state’s major carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, charges residents with high blood pressure. It was another way to tell readers how they fit into the business of charging more to sick people.

But alas, the paper didn’t do that. How nice it would have been for the AJC to link Shanta Head and other patients at the Good Shepherd Clinic to the proposals it described. Although this time the paper did a bit of its own reporting, that reporting didn’t go far enough or deep enough to explain health care to Georgians. Here’s a case where an anecdotal lede went nowhere; it probably drew readers into the story, but they may have stopped reading after the fourth graph. As professionals, we say we’re for humanizing a story, but here was a case where the Journal-Constitution fell down on the job.

Another thing we say is let’s eliminate the jargon—the wonk talk—that confuse, yes, Joe the Plumber as well as university professors. The paper again ran its bullet point box summarizing the two plans. In the McCain box, it used the words refundable to refer to tax credits, and talked about allowing individuals with multiyear insurance policies costing less than the tax credit to put money into a health savings account. In the Obama section, we read about a government-run health plan and an insurance exchange. Next time, please tell us what these mean.

Moonlight and Valentino


He was drawn to her from their first meeting. He liked her and respected her and saw how charming she could be, so he brought her on board, made her his partner, and led her into his rarefied world of insiders and high-stakes politics. That world didn't understand her at first--nor she, it--and its members tested her, weighing whether she really belonged. But she was spunky and sassy and pretty, and she knew, above all, who she was and where she came from. So, guided by a few trusty advisers, but most of all by her own instincts, she learned to hold her own and, finally, fit in. And, in the process, she taught the insiders how to be, on the outside, just a little more human.

Thus, the plot of Lady Maverick: The Sarah Palin Story, the quaint little narrative the McCain campaign has been attempting to construct, since the first announcement of her nomination, on behalf of Sarah Palin. “Oh, man, it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider, and someone just not used to the way you guys operate,” Palin declared during the Veep debate. Such clarification was, of course, unnecessary.

If the story sounds more familiar than that, though, there's good reason. Because it's also the plot of Pretty Woman. And of The Sound of Music. And of Mean Girls, My Fair Lady, She's All That, The King and I, Mary Poppins, Pride and Prejudice, The Devil Wears Prada, Legally Blonde, and on and on and on--modern, generally lowbrow takes on the classic Cinderella story (not, mind you, Cinderfella: it's a story, almost always, about a woman): the tale of the Noble Stranger who is chosen, by fate or a dashing gentleman or both at the same time, to enter the insular lives of the elite, shake them up, and reveal the moral shortcomings of their own pretensions to superiority.

It's a story, at its core, about class--because the outsider in question, we're conditioned to understand, is not merely a diamond in the rough, but also an agent of social reform. And it's one that gives the tired old dichotomies of Palin's controversial candidacy (conservative politics versus liberal; street smarts versus book smarts; folksiness versus erudition; elitism versus Joe-six-packism; blah versus blah) a Pygmalionesque political implication: that by bringing the outsider onto the GOP ticket and into the party's echelons, McCain and his team have invited the common to infiltrate the exclusive, thereby daring--expecting?--the former to change the latter from within. It's straight out of the movies...but, hey, the sincerest form of flattery, and all that.

And it's an implication the media--if we're looking at the media beyond the airwaves of Fox News and the pages of The National Review, that is--have challenged. Or, well, tried to challenge. Because the McCain campaign's very framing of Palin, from the beginning, as an outsider--and as everything that that implies--has been, to some extent, The Narrative to Which All Other Narratives Must Relate. (Is Palin an outsider? What does Palin's status as an outsider mean for the McCain campaign? Etc.) The "Hi! I'm An Outsider!" button perma-pinned to Palin has been the Veep hopeful's version of McCain's "Hi! I'm a Maverick!" one: a label that not only stubbornly sticks no matter how much the media try to scrub it away, but that also--perhaps even more frustratingly for those who try to dissolve it--presents Palin not just as an agent of political ambition, but also as an agent of morality. And as an agent, specifically, of Outsider Morality. Sarah Barracuda, meet Fraulein Maria.

Which is perhaps why the media have shown such glib delight in informing their audiences of the new twist Lady Maverick's plot has taken this week--in the form of a sequel entitled Sarah's Shopping Spree: The Moose Hunter Is a Clotheshorse!. And why Palin's wardrobe dominated the cable news shows yesterday (Mika Brzezinski's references to Palin's sartorial proclivities during yesterday's Morning Joe were in the double digits). And why world outlets picked up the story. Sure, reveling-in-irony may be part of the explanation (the famous Shunner of Elites has been frequenting the Elites' sartorial stomping grounds!). And, sure, the fact that we're currently in pre-election limbo may be part of it, too: To everything, there's a season, and our current season is, apparently, of the silly variety.

But the coverage of Sarah's Shopping Spree is a matter of quality as much as it's one of quantity. Take the moralistic tones that seeped into its telling. "Sarah Palin, small-town hockey mom and everywoman? More like Sarah Palin, pampered princess," scoffed the Los Angeles Times's Booth Moore. "It's hard to run as Joan of Six Pack when your wardrobe alone almost qualifies for an Obama tax increase," Robert Schlesinger declared in U.S. News and World Report. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American households spend an average of $1,874 a year on clothing. The RNC spent $150,000 on one family in seven weeks. Frankly, I'm not even sure how one family can spend that much so quickly," The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen echoed. Over at The American Prospect, Ezra Klein covered the irony angle when he slugged his take on WardrobeGate, "IT AIN'T CHEAP TO LOOK THIS AUTHENTIC."

The basic implication in all this is, of course, that shopping--and, worse, excess in that endeavor--is at odds with the populist rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Palin's candidacy. Fraulein Maria, after all, didn't spend thousands on Valentino blazers. She didn't spend the Captain's precious wartime schillings on sassy knee-high boots or spunky pink suits or high-end haircuts or makeovers or what have you. She didn't indulge in image-rehabilitative shopping sprees to the tune of $150,000 as her country crumbled around her. Nor, more importantly, would she have. Such profligacy wouldn't befit the head of a household during a time of deprivation.

Just as Maria's ability to economize--and to convince her charges that raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the like are to be treasured more than traditional luxuries--serves as a hint, to her costars and her audiences alike, at her moral goodness, Palin's apparent inability to do so, the media have been implying, suggests a betrayal of morality. Or, at least, a betrayal of the populist pact that McCain's Veep has, since the announcement of her nomination, been striking with the hard-working, cash-strapped denizens of the so-called "real America." Hence, the bit of schadenfreudic glee that has seeped into the media's dissection of Palin's wardrobe: Gotcha, Sarah, you're just as vain and materialistic as the rest of us! By your own definition, you don't live in the "real" America, either!

And yet. For the media to be so moralistic about the matter is also to overlook the obvious: that politics is about image. Fraulein Maria, and the nobly humble frocks that revealed so much about her character, weren't being photographed from all angles and described by campaign reporters and analyzed by fashion critics and snarked about by Defamer and uploaded to YouTube. The glib gotcha-ism on display when it comes to CoutureGate or what have you is, among other things, hypocritical: The media are the same people, after all, who attack politicians when they don't live up to the standards of attractiveness that they set (see "Clinton, Bill," and "Clinton, Hillary")--and who take umbrage when politicians are portrayed as, you know, normal (remember that infamous Newsweek cover?). Politics is, in many ways, a beauty pageant. And it's so because we--the public and the media--make it that way.

If anything, Sarah's Shopping Spree is more a dark comedy than a romantic one: It's a story about a makeover, sure, but a makeover imposed rather than chosen. One not about the empowerment of the individual, but about the tyranny of the image. Just as it's absurd to say that the occasional $400 haircut disqualifies a politician from advocating for the poor ("Edwards, John"), it's also absurd to suggest that to be fit for Gio Armani is therefore to be unfit for Joe the Plumber. But that's what the media are suggesting when they treat Palin's wardrobe "malfunction" as a malfunction in the first place. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Palin--her cheerful culture warriorhood, her willful incuriosity about the world, her general unpreparedness to assume the office of the vice president--but let's keep the censure focused on substance. Let's not tear Palin apart simply for dressing a part.

And You Will Know Us By...

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That Ukranian ship stocked with weapons? Still being held by Somali pirates. The BBC has an update today and some big picture information, including this, on the difficulties NATO troops will have patrolling for pirates, from a NATO spokesman:

Chief Nato spokesman James Appathurai said the crew [heading for Somali waters] would have a "full range of self-defence" measures at their disposal, including the "use of force". But he admitted "what they are trying to do is complicated".

"There are a host of pirates, but they don't identify themselves with eye-patches and hook hands so it isn't immediately obvious that they are pirates."

Also worth a read: this BBC report from September on "Life in Somalia's pirate town" of Eyl, "in the Somali region of Puntland":

People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates' accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator...

Eyl has become a town tailor-made for pirates - and their hostages.

Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships.

Brokaw's "Ideal Debate"

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NBC News's Tom Brokaw was on The Daily Show last night talking about his experience moderating the third presidential debate. Brokaw told Jon Stewart that he got some positive feedback afterwards, in that people "came up to me and said, 'Well, thank God you were trying to keep [the candidates] to the rules that they had agreed upon.'" (Not everyone liked that as much). Brokaw also said that Bob Schieffer, as moderator of the final presidential debate, "came close" to what Brokaw sees as an ideal debate format, "by having them at a table within reach and pressing them across the table."

I Am Reporter

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Stock market's down. Party-crashing in New York City is up. So reports amNewYork. Also? Some party crashers are posing as reporters ostensibly to ease their passage beyond the velvet rope into the land of the open bar and swag bag.

For this to be a legit Trend Story, I'm going to need to see a Quote From An Expert, amNewYork.


Beyond free food and wine, people who pose as journalists could be seeking a boost to their self worth, said Kristin Sommer, a Baruch College associate professor in psychology.

Masquerading as a reporter might, might, get you some free food. But improve your self-esteem? Maybe try political campaign adviser? Or, member of Congress?

Disposable Story

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A Debit to Fortune for repeating an old canard of the business press: that an increase in the personal savings rate means Americans are becoming thriftier.

The problem is that the savings rate, as calculated by the government, bears a deeply uncertain relationship to the amount of money Americans are actually saving. And so, leaving the true meaning of the savings rate unexamined, Fortune offers us an eye-catching but unsupported assertion: that the savings rate is the “bright spot in a dark economy.”

It isn’t.

Before we explain why, here is Fortune’s argument:

But as dark as the next three or four quarters could be, the U.S. economy appears to be undergoing a more lasting, and ultimately uplifting, shift.

Americans who for decades have spent an increasing share of their incomes and taken on more and more debt are now, for the first time in years, saving instead.

And then the details:

The personal savings rate, which measures the amount of disposable personal income that isn't spent, ticked up to almost 3% in the second quarter of 2008, after almost four years below 1%.

The first problem here is that Fortune hasn’t actually reported what the savings rate is, because it doesn’t define “disposable personal income.” Given that the piece presents savings as a matter of choice, a reasonable reader might assume that disposable income is what those of a certain generation (or Jim Cramer) call “mad money”—the kind that doesn’t need to go to groceries, rent, tuition, etc. In other words, extra cash that can either be thrown around or saved.

But the reasonable reader would be wrong.

The amount of money left over after all the necessities have been covered is actually called “discretionary income.” “Disposable income” is all after-tax income, which is to say the pool of money available for necessities and luxuries alike.

Given this definition of disposable income, the implications of changes in the personal savings rate are not so clear. Certainly, non-discretionary spending is somewhat flexible: eat beans and rice instead of meats and vegetables, say, or pay cheaper rent after you’re foreclosed out of your option-ARM house and there are a glut of empty homes on the market.

But what Fortune doesn’t get here is that many Americans who have to spend less are cutting into bone, not fat (or even muscle). They don’t have discretionary money to spend (see below). Cutting back for them means not taking your prescription medicines or juggling which payment can be delayed this month and which can’t.

This may be required under the circumstances, but it’s not a clear good. If people are willing—or are forced—to make these kinds of sacrifices, they are pretty scared. After all, the middle and working classes weren't doing so well even before the crisis. It's not like everyone was living high on the hog, with Midtown lunches at Michael’s and a brownstone in a nice part of Brooklyn.

It’s simply wrong, and somewhat glib, to see the rise in savings rate as a come-to-Jesus moment for the American public.

And stepping back from, well, reality a moment, we note that even on its own terms the importance of Fortune’s stat is unclear: the rise in savings rate is thus far a single-quarter aberration—of which there have been others over the past eight years.

Furthermore, even when there was something of a trend, it didn’t necessarily last very long. The savings rate went even higher than the most recent figure in 2001, for example, but then slumped down into negative territory by 2005. Only time will tell whether the most recent rise is the start of a trend, and if so what the nature of that trend is.

But we return to the more substantive problem here.

The fact is, as we have pointed out in the past, there is no single American public when it comes to economic issues. And stats on discretionary income clearly demonstrate what is pretty much self-evident to anyone over the age of five: that some households have far more choice about how to spend and how to save than do others.

According to a 2007 study released by The Conference Board, while the number of households with discretionary income has increased in recent years, actual discretionary spending power is concentrated among the wealthiest.

About 73 million U.S. households now have discretionary income, up from about 57 million in 2002, according to a report by The Conference Board. The percent of the U.S. population with discretionary income has increased to nearly 64 percent, up from 52 percent in 2002.

Now the flipside of this good news is that more than a third of US households had no discretionary income, and that was before the current crisis. So if these households spend less, they are presumably cutting into necessities.

And there is another problem here. The Conference Board again:

‘While the percentage of households with discretionary income has risen over the past several years, purchasing power remains concentrated in the wallets of the affluent,’ says Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. ‘More than three out of every four discretionary dollars flows to householders earning $100,000 or more. And their average discretionary income is more than 2.5 times above average.’

If we apply this knowledge to the savings rate issue, we can generate two different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, scenarios. One, households across the board are spending less, and the ones at the bottom of hurting because of it. Two, the increase in savings is concentrated in the wealthiest households, who have the bulk of the discretionary income and therefore the most choice of whether to spend or save.

To complicate the matter further, the definition of the savings rate is strangely narrow. Here is John Steele Gordon, on the American Heritage blog, defending Americans against charges of wild spending:

The trouble here is not with Americans; it is with the definition of the savings rate, which is hopelessly out of date. That definition is the percentage of after-tax income that is not spent. If a family takes home $50,000 and spends $47,500, its savings rate is 5 percent. If it takes home $50,000 and spends $50,500, its savings rate is -1 percent.

That definition was not a bad one in 1932 and 1933, when few American families owned their own homes, were the beneficiaries of company pension plans, held any substantial financial assets, or paid any income taxes. Today it is a meaningless statistic.

Just consider. Every time a family sends a mortgage check to the bank, part of that money increases their equity in the house. But that doesn’t count as savings. Contributions, by employer and employee, to a 401(k) or other retirement plan don’t count because they are made with pre-tax income. Unrealized capital gains in stocks, bonds, or real estate don’t count. Social Security taxes don’t count either, even though they amount to 12.5 percent of total income from salaries or wages up to a little less than $100,000.

And then Steele offers some useful context:

It might be noted that the savings rate peaked in 1977, when it was over 11 percent, and has been in near continuous decline ever since. Why? In 1978 the 401(k) revolution began, and more and more Americans, more than happy to have Uncle Sam help out, began saving out of pre-tax income rather than after-tax income. So the statistic called the personal savings rate declined while the amount of wealth being saved in the real world began to increase sharply.

And here is another defense, from late 2006—a time when the savings rate was in the basement, but banks were “bulging at the seams with record amounts of cash socked away by everyday consumers.” Michael Giusti, of Bankrate.com, explains these two seemingly contradictory facts by bringing the idea of wealth into the equation:

By many measures, even with a falling savings rate, U.S. consumers are wealthier than they have ever been.

How wealthy? Well in 2006,

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC, records show that American banks have more cash in their vaults than at any other point in recent history—with $6.4 trillion deposited in the domestic offices of U.S. banks as of June.

Huh. Judging from the situation today, it looks like banks have gone on a bit of a spending spree themselves. We’re starting to wonder whether the problem is less that Americans have been overspending and more that they have been stowing their money in the wrong places.

Brian Lawler, writing for The Motley Fool, notes that

when the news comes out that the average U.S. citizen has a negative savings rate, everyone tends to bemoan consumers' overspending, undersaving ways. Yet in reality, people in the United States do a great job of saving for the future—if you measure by the more appropriate metric of economic wealth, which accounts for rising asset values even before they are sold.

The problem, of course, with these kinds of investments, as both Giusti an Lawler point out, is that if the housing or stock markets plummet, it can wipe people’s savings out. As Giusti puts it:

Unfortunately, stagnating home values, a dip in stock prices or some unforeseen calamity could cause the whole equation to shift radically out of balance.

Like now.

And it is worth pointing out that by this logic, the low savings rate indicates not profligacy but rather a general trust in the stability of the economic system—after all, aren’t we always told to trust the markets? Well, Americans did, apparently, and look where it got them.

As for that issue of choice and consumer spending, a CNN piece from the middle of this year makes the following point:

The fact that consumers continue to borrow against their homes, even as they decline in value, shows how troubled Americans are.

‘It signals how consumers are struggling to get cash,’ [senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com Scott] Hoyt said.

You don’t need a PhD in economics to know that anyone borrowing on their homes in early 2008 was in serious trouble. The business press needs to move beyond the idea that luxury spending by the general public got us into this mess. And that scrimping by the average American will go very far toward righting the Good Ship Economy.

We thus add the Fortune piece to the ranks of stories presenting an unreasonably buoyant take on the economy.

Sometimes, Dear Reader, things really are as bad as they look.

The New York Times has an excellent bit of insta-history this morning, scoring an interview with Treasury Secretary Paulson to find out why he let Lehman Brothers fail. Paulson says he had no choice, that Lehman’s debts were more than its capital, and he and the Federal Reserve didn’t have the legal authority to save it.

But the Times, as part of its top-notch “Reckoning” series led by columnist Joe Nocera, is tough on Paulson, showing that he never raised such arguments with either Lehman or the companies who were considering buying it but needed a government backstop like Bear Stearns got in March.

But in contrast with Mr. Paulson’s perspective, other government officials and financial executives suggest that Treasury’s epic rescue efforts have evolved as chaotically as the crisis itself. Especially in the past month, as the financial system teetered on the abyss, questions have been raised about the government’s — and Mr. Paulson’s — decisions. Executives on Wall Street and officials in European financial capitals have criticized Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke for allowing Lehman to fail, an event that sent shock waves through the banking system, turning a financial tremor into a tsunami.

The papers justifiably pile on the credit-ratings agencies today after a congressional hearing unearthed incriminating emails about their business practices. But the Times has the best angle, leading with the news that two former high-ranking executives at Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s testified that conflicts of interest—they are paid by the firms whose bonds they rate—caused their firms’ abysmal performances.

Here’s the Journal:

At S&P, one employee wrote in an instant-message exchange: "btw-that deal is ridiculous." A colleague replied: "it could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

The credit-ratings industry, which is essentially given a quasi-governmental role blessed by Congress, needs to be blown up and rebuilt entirely—or replaced with something else.

The WSJ scoops that the Bush Administration is considering a $40 billion bailout for homeowners.

At a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair is expected to suggest the government give banks a financial incentive to turn troubled loans into more-affordable mortgages, according to a person familiar with her testimony. Under the proposal, the government would share in any future losses on the new loans with lenders.

This is kind of a no-brainer, right? After I’ve-lost-count-of-how-many trillions for Wall Street and the banks, $40 billion to help keep people in their homes—and address the root of the whole crisis—looks like loose change.

The Journal posts a nice little dispatch from the disrupted mortgage bankers annual meeting.

On Tuesday, several members of the group interrupted Karl Rove during a panel discussion with a political focus. Some shouted from the audience, and one woman went onstage and attempted to handcuff Mr. Rove. All were escorted from the room.

A day earlier, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin walked onstage during a panel discussion with the new chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and demanded a moratorium on foreclosures. Meanwhile, outside the Moscone West Convention Center here, another group of people picketed as convention attendees entered.

For an industry group that focuses on mortgage rates, home sales and refinancing, the public outcry provided an emotional charge to the mortgage bankers' normally staid annual convention. Some felt the need to defend their industry. "I'm darn proud to be a mortgage banker," said John Courson, the trade group's chief operating officer. "We put people in houses, we invest in communities, and we know it has to be done right."

But David Kittle, the next chairman of the MBA, conceded the industry had been less than rigorous in the training of loan officers, and said the group needs to rebuild its reputation in 2009.

The Washington Post is good in conveying the magnitude of the problems facing the labor market, with layoffs hitting their stride.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times concludes its great series on health-insurance consolidation, reporting on how hospitals are having a harder time getting insurers to pay.

"Insurers have found a very creative way of denying, delaying or slowing payments in a way that is having a real impact on patient care and some of our survival," said Von Crockett, Centinela's chief executive. "Every single doctor and hospital is writing off money they are legally owed but don't collect. It's an insane situation."

Doctors and hospital executives say collecting payments from insurers has become an expensive headache that is driving up the nation's healthcare costs.

Billing disputes and protracted payment delays are one consequence of a massive consolidation among health insurers that has created de facto monopolies in much of the country, the Los Angeles Times found.

Closet Confessionals

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One of CoutureGate's coattails? Political reporters and talking heads feeling moved to air their own dirty laundry to the world by spontaneously sharing their (inevitably more sensible than some VP candidate's) shopping habits. Sort of: I don't know about her, but I'm no fop.

Today, we learn right out of the "Media Notes" gate that Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz "has never shopped at Neiman-Marcus" (indeed, perhaps never even seen the store's name, given the sudden appearance of a hyphen) but that he:

once bought an expensive shirt at Nordstrom's, but that was an emergency because I was out of town and on the plane my daughter had attacked, with a crayon, the only dress shirt I had.

Nordstrom (there's no 's)! But, he had no choice.

Yesterday, Kurtz's Post colleague Chris Cillizza made this disclaimer on MSNBC before giving his two cents to Andrea Mitchell about WardrobeGate:

CILLIZZA: [A]s someone who doesn't spend more than about $100 on his wardrobe...

MITCHELL: Oh, you look much better than that. You look much more expensive than that.

(And it's true. That soft charcoal blazer, Chris? Looks like buttah!)

Also yesterday on MSNBC, viewers heard Lawrence O'Donnell's humble 1988 raincoat-in-Buffalo story (he lost his raincoat while working on a Senate campaign and spent campaign money to get himself a new one and):

O'DONNELL: The FEC lawyer said, what is ithis? We said, it's a raincoat. He said, that's against the rules. It was a close call whether you could spend that...

And, Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist had this exchange with MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski:

BRZEZINSKI: Charlie Crist, talk to me about Sarah Palin's clothing allowance. How do you get one of these things?

CRIST: I don't know. You know, I don't know. I get my clothes at Dillard's here in Florida...

... and always, only, from the final markdown rack.

See how they run from labels (and labels). I guess it goes back to this?

Too Good to Be True?

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Journalists, and for that matter academics, relish a good plot twist. So it’s no surprise that some commentators in the United States have latched onto a new picture of Arab journalists as friends, not foes, of western interests. Rather than being hard-core enemies of America, Arab media are “potential allies whose agenda broadly tracks the stated goals of the United States Middle East policy,” according to a new study published in this summer’s International Journal of Press/Politics and previewed in a New York Times op-ed in May. Arab journalists are “not overtly anti-American,” writes former CBS foreign correspondent Lawrence Pintak, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo and lead author of the study, who in his Times op-ed argues that they are “a valuable conduit for explaining American policy to their audiences.”

Tell that to President Bush, who in 2006 said that Arab TV is a font of “propaganda” that “isn’t fair” and “does not do our country justice.” To promote the U.S. line in the Middle East, the Bush administration tried an end run around the Arab media, establishing its own Arabic-language television network (Al Hurra—“The Free One”) broadcasting in the Middle East.

If Pintak is right, Bush’s efforts have been worse than a waste: they have “demonized” Arab journalists, would-be foot soldiers in what Pintak calls the “war of ideas against terrorism.” Most Arab journalists see themselves as responsible for driving social and political reform, according to Pintak and co-author Jeremy Ginges, a psychology professor at the New School for Social Research. They base their conclusions on a 2005–2006 survey of 601 journalists in fourteen Arab countries. Most of the respondents want their clergy out of politics, their governments clear of media control, and a change in the political status quo in their countries. Almost half describe their political philosophy as “democrat,” and a “sizeable bloc” shares America’s espoused values of political freedom, human rights, and at least some separation of church and state.

Dowd’s Gravitas

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Maureen Dowd’s column in today’s New York Times is a serious, even earnest, take on Colin Powell’s late-in-the-game endorsement of Obama. Instead of Sunday’s “Madame Defarge sharpening her knitting needles at the guillotine” (payback for George W.’s “Reign of Error”), we get the following earnest statement:

In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan was a young Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq; during his Meet the Press appearance, Powell described opening a New Yorker featuring a photo of Khan’s mother pressing her forehead to his grave, which was inscribed with the crescent and star to denote his Muslim faith. Powell posed the question: “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”

The column, titled “Moved by a Crescent,” refers to Powell’s reaction to the photo, and reads nothing like a typical Maureen Dowd piece. No sarcasm, no satire, no name-calling—just an entire column dedicated with unwavering attention (no grab bag elements here) to why Powell’s comments were noteworthy.

Which is weird. MoDowd has built her career on a style-before-substance model—clever cadences, clever syntax choices, clever nicknames. She is read and discussed entirely on the basis of her wit, which is ample enough to allow her indulgences that would not be granted to other columnists. (Clark Hoyt, the NYT’s public editor, writing earlier this election cycle about her treatment of Hillary Clinton in a column about the charges of media sexism, reached the conclusion: “I do not think another one could have used Dowd’s language.”)

So why such earnestness? It certainly had us considering the possibilities. Could it be that Dowd, after several manifestations of style, temporarily dove off the deep end, chanting “Forget voice”? Maybe she got bored and decided to mimic Bob Herbert. Maybe the opinion desk accidentally ran Bob Herbert’s column with Dowd’s byline on it. Maybe she just couldn’t come up with a good nickname for Colin Powell. Oh, the scenarios.

It’s also possible that Dowd decided to take the serious route because Powell’s comments broke through the media spin cycle to make a point—that the word “Muslim” has been erased and replaced by another word that looks exactly like it but connotes something very different—too important to be obfuscated by her usual semantic baubles.

If that last scenario is the case, does it hold special weight because it comes from such a clever-tricks writer? Some readers of her column thought so: “Refreshing and surprising to read a serious comment here makes an even greater impact from Ms. Dowd.”

I would tend to agree. Still, while Powell’s endorsement made the news for a day, it was also largely seen as nominal. His remarks about Muslim-American patriotism were poignant, but not new. There were certainly other moments that might have merited a similar sort of wake up and let’s be serious about this one tone. It’s odd that it was this particular moment, thirteen days before the election, that caught Dowd’s eye as worthy of a column noticeable for its gravitas. It also underscores how wide-ranging a platform national opinion columnists like Dowd have (it’s currently first on nytimes.com’s “Most e-mailed” list). Given that, we can only speculate on the other ways she could have benched the snappy talk and straightforwardly discussed the questionable rhetoric tossed around during the horse race.

In December of 2006, Dowd wrote a column discussing Obama’s middle name, saying, “Republican wizards have whipped up nasty soufflés with far less tasty ingredients than that.” Fair enough. And then style-over-substance takes over: “But there hadn’t been much focus on the unfortunate coincidence of the senator from the city known as the Hog Butcher to the World having the same name as the Butcher of Baghdad until a Republican operative dropped the H-bomb on “Hardball” this week.”

Alliteration: check. Obfuscating semantic baubles: check. Dowd’s commentary (early on, when Obama’s candidacy seemed a long(er) shot) was valid enough: No one was really mentioning that Obama’s middle name was Hussein. But it’s hard to imagine a more convoluted or tortured formulation of that thought.

Granted, Dowd doesn’t play by journalists’—or even other columnists’—rules. But looking back at some of her choices, one thing is clear: sometimes, even for Dowd and her patented brand of brashness, substance over style is the way to go.

Be the Change You Want To See

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Halloween-hooked election stories. Election-hooked Halloween stories. It's time.

The (Torrance, CA) Daily Breeze is "Handicapping the winners in the Halloween mask race." While one mask sales tracking poll has Obama Mask leading McCain Mask 54 to 46, anecdotal evidence is mixed. Here's Leland Van Andler, owner of the store Lelands Just For Fun in Hermosa Beach (CA) speculating as to why, as the Daily Breeze reports, he "has sold all seven of the Obama masks he has ordered and none of the McCain masks:"

"You have to look at the masks, though," Van Andler said. "McCain isn't a very good mask."

(What McCain's mask may lack in Halloweeny oomph his recent campaign trail talk is more than making up for: "I'll take a cleaver and I'll take a meat ax and I'll take a scalpel and we will stop this out-of-control spending!")

Speaking of "not very good" likenesses, what's up with the frowning Cindy-McCain-O-Lantern, Associated Press? All of your other pumpkin-carving patterns (the Obamas, John McCain, Palin, Biden) are happy-looking or at least poker-faced.

A reason for Cindy to smile? "Interest Grows In John McCain Halloween Masks," according to The Chicago Sun Times last week. But you should know that this "interest" is "based on Internet searches from Wisconsin-based computers, not on actual sales." So Wisconsin-dwelling, presidential-candidate-mask-Web-shoppers appear to be leaning (browsing?) McCain. But McCain still hasn't made the sale.

Oh, and CNN tells you how to get a Palin wig. For your dog.

Islamophobia and the Op-Ed Pages

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It's hard to compete with Colin Powell, especially if you're a small media watchdog group. But the former Secretary of State did in a few sentences what the progressive group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has been trying to do for months: push back on anti-Muslim media bias, which they term "Islamophobia."

In his Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, Powell cited the persistent right-wing “Barack Obama is a secret Muslim” rumors as one of the reasons that he is withholding support for Senator John McCain. "Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" Powell asked indignantly, "The answer's no, that's not America."

Maureen Dowd amplified Powell's comments in her New York Times column today. "It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo," she writes. But her praise raises the question—couldn't someone with a New York Times op-ed column have provided that tonic without Colin Powell’s prodding?

A FAIR report entitled ”'Secret Muslims,' Open Bigotry" argues that while mainstream press has been quick to contradict rumors of Obama's faith—he is, in fact, a Christian—reporting has tended to reinforce the anti-Muslim sentiments that make these rumors so politically potent. The report states, "Journalists often accepted the idea that there was something suspicious or bad about being Muslim by referring to the canard as a "smear" (New York Times, 1/17/08; ABC News, 12/5/07), an "unsubstantiated charge" (Washington Post, 6/28/08), or an example of "nasty and false attacks" (New York Times, 1/17/08)."

FAIR especially faults opinion writers for their silence. When Polish elections were tainted by allegations that a presidential candidate was a "secret Jew," the report points out, the opinion pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlanta Journal Constitution vigorously denounced this anti-Semitism and congratulated Americans for being above such fear-mongering.

But while "secret Muslim" rumors have been circulating for two years, it's only after Colin Powell goes on television that the opinion pages wake up. Along with Dowd, columns condemning Islamaphobia have appeared in The Concord Monitor , The Washington Post , and The Detroit Free Press . To be fair, CJR seems to have largely fell down on the job, too, though Jane Kim called attention to the issue last week in a post highlighting comments from CNN's Campbell Brown.

Better late than never. But it's hard not to read all the editorial plaudits for Powell as something of an indictment of the opinion writers complimenting his courage.

Fun With Demographics

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The witty folks at McSweeney's turn their eye for satire to this year's election with "Extended Trailer for American Demographic: The Movie":

(JOE THE PLUMBER emerges from the bathroom holding a diamond-encrusted plunger and a basin wrench made of solid gold.)

JOE THE PLUMBER: Hello, fellow small-business owner. I'm Joe the Plumber, and I've successfully plumbed your bathroom. I'm relevant to national politics for some reason.

SMALL-BUSINESS OWNER: What do I owe you?

JOE THE PLUMBER: More than $250,000 a year. Despite my name and salary, I'm neither a Mafia boss nor a porn star.

Read the rest here.

Better late than never

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A quote from Seymour Hersh, portending interesting stories on the Bush administration, even after inauguration day:

"You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on 20 January ... 'You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.' So that is what I'll do, so long as nothing awful happens before the inauguration."

That is, if New Yorker editor David Remnick deigns to run them:

"He says no to a lot of stuff - stuff I think the editor would die for! Admittedly, it is not the Seymour Hersh weekly. But sometimes he'll say: 'We are not going to publish this kind of stuff 'cos it's frigging crazy.'"

Both quotes--and a glance of what a Hersh draft looks like after facing Remnick's pen--are in a breezy Observer profile from this past Sunday.

(And if you get on a Hersh kick, Scott Sherman's more comprehensive CJR profile from 2003, before Hersh landed some of his greatest Bush era scoops, is still worth a look.)

To-Do List

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There are thirteen days until the presidential election, and, as Liz mentioned earlier, the media seems to be stuck in a holding pattern. Here are a few suggestions for how the press could fill their time and their column inches:

1. Look at local ballot initiatives on topics of national interest. Many local proposals deal with high-profile issues, including the same-sex marriage propositions in Florida and California. Montana has an interesting proposal to provide health coverage to the state's uninsured children, and both Michigan and Massachusetts will vote on proposals to decriminalize marijuana for severely ill persons or in small quantities for personal use.

2. Consider how national election outcomes will affect local issues. For example, the Las Vegas Sun offers a discussion of how an Obama presidency would impact unionization because of his pledged support for Employee Free Choice Act, which grew out of labor organization efforts in Las Vegas casinos. We could stand to see more stories like this.

3. Address issues undercovered during the campaign. Immigration, for instance. In June, NPR reported that the candidates don’t differ on the issue, partially because both McCain and Obama supported the McCain-Kennedy Bill that would have “stepped up enforcement at the border and in the workplace. It also would have expanded guest-worker programs and, most controversially, legalized millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. if they paid fines, paid back taxes and learned English.” Ultimately the bill failed, and NPR also reported that McCain told Tim Russert that he would not support the bill as president. It's time to revisit this and other underreported issues.

4. Write about Congress. There is a chance, slim or not, that the Democrats may attain sixty magical seats in the Senate. There’s been a fair amount of coverage of the permutations of the races that the Dems would need to win to hit 60, but there are bigger questions beyond that, like: What would a Democratic House-Senate-President triumvirate actually do? Last time the Democrats controlled all three was during Clinton’s first term, which gave us, among other things, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” How might such a setup actually play out in 2009 and beyond?

5. Dust off the old policy packages. This one’s easy, folks: every paper worth its salt has now done a side-by-side comparison of the candidates’ proposals on taxes, health insurance, national security, education, and so on. A review of the issues would not only help undecided voters, but may even encourage those previously on the sidelines to get out and vote.

Or we can keep talking about Sarah Palin’s shopping spree. Your call.

Take Me to the Other Side


Nir Rosen’s blockbuster article in Rolling Stone on his “embed” with the Taliban in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan is being roundly praised as a stellar work of investigative journalism. But does it really deserve all the acclaim?

In 1994, Nancy DeWolf-Smith, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, embedded with the original Taliban and later wrote a major story about how they ransacked Kandahar as crowds cheered them on. Her account of the conquest, which declared the “scary stuff”—stories of the Taliban’s brutality—of the “myth-making machine” to be “simply untrue” because of the Taliban’s “white hats underneath [those black turbans],” has become iconic, though not for reasons she probably would have wanted. Afghanistan experts like William Maley have used her story as the perfect example (pdf) of journalists’ habit of fundamentally misunderstanding the Taliban’s ideology and intent.

The so-called Neo-Taliban, which behaves much differently than the original Taliban, may be another story: that is what many seem to find of value in Rosen’s reporting. But we’ve had insider accounts of the Neo-Taliban for a long time now. In 2007, Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad embedded with the Neo-Taliban at the Kunar province border, and actually reported on its movements, motivations, and internal dynamics. The previous year, he did the same thing in Helmand (and the contrast Shahzad draws between the two experiences is as valuable as the actual stories he tells).

Earlier this year, Journeyman Pictures, an Australian production company, filmed a short documentary about its own embed with the Taliban—replete with all the bluster one would expect. Even al Jazeera has embedded with the Taliban, unintentionally highlighting the fact that unarmed villagers will welcome to town pretty much anyone who carries a gun—about as one would expect.

Indeed, if there is one theme that crops up in all of these embed stories, it is that they all seem guilty of the same sin as their Western military embedded counterparts: the inability to separate bluster and rhetoric from reality. Indeed, Rosen doesn’t miss a single point of the Taliban creation narrative, including its transition from an “isolated and impoverished group of religious students who knew little about the rest of the world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords” to “the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists.”

Scholars of the Taliban argue that this is simply not true. The original Taliban were not ignorant—Mullah Mohammed Omar was an experienced mujahideen fighter from the Soviet War with extensive contacts inside Pakistan; much of the Taliban’s senior leadership, especially the officials in Kabul, had a keen understanding of the outside world (including, poignantly, when they toured the Texas homes of Unocal executives in the 1990s). And while the Neo-Taliban are well-armed, its arms are not that advanced—the Stinger missile, for example, which so famously shot down so many Soviet aircraft in the 1980s, is nowhere to be found.

But buying into narrative bias isn’t anything special. How does Rosen’s account contribute up to the body of existing insider Taliban reporting? This is difficult to say, exactly: Rosen doesn’t do us the courtesy of getting a single on-the-record interview with any of the Western officials with whom he spoke. This leaves a reader with the impression that the universal sentiment in Kabul is doom and gloom—a misrepresentation of the spectrum of views that actually characterize officialdom.

And, curiously, it’s not clear that Rosen ever actually embedded with the Taliban in the first place. He meets some men who claim to be Taliban, and when they take him into Ghazni, men who seem to be actual Taliban threaten to kill him. While Asia Times reporter Shahzad was imprisoned and had to dodge U.S. gunfire in his embeds, Rosen longingly gazes at the many U.S. military units he sees driving or flying by, hoping to escape the men holding him at gunpoint. We don’t know how trustworthy Rosen’s contacts are—in an aside at the end of one paragraph, he admits that they freely lie about their injuries and accomplishments (such as a brag about beheading some 200 “spies”).

There are other underwhelming aspects to Rosen’s reporting. He reports that a UN investigation found 1,445 Afghan civilians have died so far in 2008 from Coalition activity, two-thirds of which (964) died in air strikes. Now, there is a serious problem with Coalition air strikes in Afghanistan, but Rosen didn’t find it relevant to note that Human Rights Watch—an organization at least as credible as the UN (if not more so) on reporting atrocities—told a rather different story: 540 dead civilians from Coalition activity, only 119 in air strikes (these numbers did not include events past August). The discrepancy is fairly simple to explain: each group uses different metrics for gauging the reliability of casualty claims. But that fact is nowhere to be found in the piece.

That is because Nir Rosen’s emphasis on narrative doesn’t leave much room for a dispassionate recounting of the facts. When discussing civilian casualties, for example, Rosen neglected to mention the more than 700 policemen murdered by the Taliban this year alone. That doesn’t include the hundreds who have died in suicide attacks in cities, or the dozens of aid workers killed as they travel between worksites.

There is definite value in what Rosen reported. His well-written story provides insight into what the Taliban are thinking as they gather their strength outside Kabul. It shows how some Afghans view the deteriorating security situation, and even how some competing factions within the Taliban might interact with each other. But it is also laden with serious flaws that call into question Rosen’s reliability as an analyst of the events he witnessed, and make it hard to accept his credentials as an impartial observer. This is perhaps his most serious sin: taking a story that should be important, and turning it into another shallow partisan hit piece. How disappointing.

Forgive the foray into middle school essay writing, but here goes: The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.

John McCain and some of his allies have been playing a cute dance these last few days, suggesting that Barack Obama (or his plans, or his general ideological underpinnings) are in some way “socialist.”

Big word that, and one that carries negative associations for many Americans—which, of course, is why McCain is using it. And part of the reason it’s such an effective weapon is that the press has in general avoided enforcing a clear, accurate, non-hyperventalating definition of socialism. That’s why in even in 2008—twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, calling a policy or politician “socialist” is a scare tactic meant to call forth a Holiday in Cambodia.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard Obama talk about nationalizing our means of production or instituting land reform. I have heard him talk about making small revisions to our current system of taxation, the one where the rich pay more taxes than the poor, and the poor get greater benefits than the rich. You could call that socialism, if you like. In the real world, every country’s economic model is a hodgepodge of capitalism and bits of socialism. Yes, Virginia, even the United States, where we have nationalized parks, post offices, and retirement systems.

Still, say “socialism,” and people scream like there’s an inbound Soviet ICBM. Take Chris Matthews’s intro from Monday night’s Hardball:

After spending more than a week making the charge that Barack Obama is close to, is friendly with, or maybe even sympathetic to terrorists, the McCain/Palin campaign is trying to pin another disqualifying tag on him: socialist. The campaign has started using the “S-word” as Sarah Palin did today in Colorado Springs…

Matthews is simply acknowledging the word’s reputation in America. Through heavy abuse from both sides of the Iron Curtain, it’s come to carry a lot of bad baggage. And McCain gets this. McCain doesn’t care about any actual definition of socialism; he’s just reaching back to the Cold War to grab a bludgeon.

The press should play a role in preventing politicians from irresponsibly wielding these kind of rhetorical weapons. For now, they could provide some measured looks at what socialism is and what it is not. They could start by noting that dozens of countries have socialist parties in government. While they come in many strengths and flavors, these parties share at heart the idea that the market does not take care of all human needs, and that governments have a role to play in filling those gaps.

It’s not the press’s role to endorse socialism, capitalism, or any other ideology; nor is it their role to demonize one, either. But destigmatizing political language is a key step towards building a nuanced, productive, grown-up conversation about issues and how we might solve them. And shepherding that discussion ought to be a main job of the press during a campaign season.

How the Other Half Dies

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Did The New York Times intentionally construct a brilliant juxtaposition of wealth and poverty on its front page this morning?

Above the fold, we have “In Sour Economy Some Scale Back on Medication":

As people around the country respond to financial and economic hard times by juggling the cost of necessities like groceries and housing, drugs are sometimes having to wait.

“People are having to choose between gas, meals and medication,” said Dr. James King, the chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, a national professional group. He also runs his own family practice in rural Selmer, Tenn.

Then below the fold, “And at the End, All the Comforts of the Carlyle”:

So when Mrs. McDill, who grew up in society in Washington and was enjoying an outdoors life in South Woodstock, Vt., learned she had terminal cancer this summer, her family immediately booked her a suite on the eighth floor for an open-ended stay, but one they sadly knew would not be open-ended enough.

The family hired 24-hour hospice care, but Mrs. McDill, at least until the very end, was in sufficient mental and physical shape to enjoy her final stay at the Carlyle. The hotel, at Madison Avenue and 76th Street, is one of New York’s most luxurious, with a long list of celebrities, presidents and royalty who have stayed or lived there.

Month-to-month suites at the Carlyle are always expensive, but less so during the summer months, when they cost about $17,000 a month.

It’s almost like the conjunction “and” at the beginning of the second headline invites a reader to combine the two stories into a single thought, which puts into focus the two diametrically opposed narratives: some people can’t afford medicine and others enjoy their last weeks at a lavish hotel in New York. Intentional or not, the pairing brings into sharp focus the disparity to health care in the U.S. Kudos.

13 Days Out: What, Now?

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We know what the campaign press, in general,is doing with its time now, today, thirteen days before election day. But what should campaign reporters be doing? What could they be doing? Katia will have some suggestions for aimless reporters later today at Campaign Desk.

Meantime, one decent example of what productive campaign coverage can look like even at this, the election's eleventh hour. The New York Times's Kevin Sack today takes a closer look (with help from some "health economists") at the candidates' health care plans (specifically, at some of "the authoritative-sounding statistics about the money they would save and the millions of Americans they would cover.") Writes Sack: "A number of economists said voters would be wise to simply tune out all of the competing numbers and focus instead on the philosophical underpinnings of the candidates' plans." (Which sounds like a story idea for some listless campaign reporter!)

AP's Extended Teaching Moment

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Yesterday, Megan offered some suggestions for reporters for how to cover the McCain campaign's recent cries of socialism, including: "add a brief note of clarification next to a McCain campaign claim about Obama’s socialism...ideally, in your story’s lede." The AP, which started down this path yesterday, seems to be getting the hang of it:

John McCain is pouncing on Barack Obama's call for shifting more wealth from richer Americans to poorer ones, likening it to socialism. His remarks win applause at campaign events. But they ignore the nation's long tradition of redistributing huge amounts of wealth through tax-and-spending policies.

Placing a heavier burden on the wealthy has been a cornerstone of the federal income tax since its inception in 1913...

Audit Roundup: Reeling 'Em In

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The New York Times has an excellent story on how banks are luring struggling Americans into ever-more debt by assembling their private information to create detailed and amazingly timed pitches.

Singling out even struggling American consumers like Ms. Jerez is one of the overlooked causes of the debt boom and the resulting crisis, which threatens to choke the global economy.

Using techniques that grew more sophisticated over the last decade, businesses comb through an array of sources, including bank and court records, to create detailed profiles of the financial lives of more than 100 million Americans…

These tailor-made offers land in mailboxes, or are sold over the phone by telemarketers, just ahead of the next big financial step in consumers’ lives, creating the appearance of almost irresistible serendipity.

Of course, these tactics were used heavily in the mortgage-lending frenzy:

During the housing boom, “The mortgage industry was coming up with very creative lending products and then they were leaning heavily on us to find prospects to make the offers to,” said Steve Ely, president of North America Personal Solutions at Equifax.

One product created by credit-bureaus like Equifax sold information on people about to buy homes to brokers and banks. Here we get into some of the boiler room tactics that Audit kingpin Dean Starkman wrote about here:

In the midst of the high-flying housing market, mortgage triggers became more than a nuisance or potential invasion of privacy. They allowed aggressive brokers to aim at needy, overwhelmed consumers with offers that often turned out to be too good to be true. When Mercurion Suladdin, a county librarian in Sandy, Utah, filled out an application with Ameriquest to refinance her home, she quickly got a call from a salesman at Beneficial, a division of HSBC bank where she had taken out a previous loan.

The salesman said he desperately wanted to keep her business. To get the deal, he drove to her house from nearby Salt Lake City and offered her a free Ford Taurus at signing.

What she thought was a fixed-interest rate mortgage soon adjusted upward, and Ms. Suladdin fell behind on her payments and came close to foreclosure before Utah’s attorney general and the activist group Acorn interceded on behalf of her and other homeowners in the state.

“I was being bombarded by so many offers that, after a while, it just got more and more confusing,” she says of her ill-fated decision not to carefully read the fine print on her loan documents.

More reporting like this, please, and put it on page one.

The Journal is good today with a long look at one of the worst-hit cities in the housing bust: Los Banos, California. How bad is it there? Home prices have already fallen 66 percent. One in five houses is in foreclosure. Eighty-five percent in the county have negative equity now. Amazing.

The paper sees signs of a bottom there, though, with sales in California up 65 percent from a year ago. And really, how much further could it possibly fall? That’s a crucial question because as the WSJ says:

Until markets like this are sorted out, there's little hope for calm in the global financial system. As banks and governments survey the wreckage of residential real-estate investments, the central mystery is how to value the trillions of dollars in securities that are tied to U.S. mortgages. These securities are so hard to value in part because no one knows when normalcy will return to places like Los Banos.

A chart says California alone accounts for a third of all securitized mortgages in the country. Here’s what happened in Los Banos:

Subprime lenders poured in, making cheap loans with few questions asked. Builders offered to pick up the tab for their customers' closing costs.

Home prices soared. In 2005, one local builder was selling three-bedroom homes for $300,000 — more than three times what it asked for a similar design in 2000.

Many lenders catered to buyers with shoddy credit, who qualified for "affordability" loans with low payments that typically ramped up over time. In 2006, 45% of the home mortgages and refinance loans in Los Banos were high-rate loans, most of which would be considered subprime, compared with a national average of 29%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal mortgage data. The town's top lenders included Countrywide Financial, New Century Financial and divisions of Golden West Financial and Washington Mutual — all former highfliers in the mortgage business whose holdings later turned toxic.

The Journal also has an interesting story on how it’s getting harder for illegal immigrants to buy homes—something that happened in the last five years as part of the general loosening of standards for lending.

The paper reports that illegal immigrants’ loans had a 2007 delinquency rate of just 0.5 percent, compared to the subprime rate of 9.3 percent.

The mortgages performed better than some others, partly because of stringent lending criteria and because they usually had fixed rates over a period of time.

Jonathan Weil eviscerates Wall Street pay—and not just that in the executive suite—in his Bloomberg column.

Here's all you really need to know to see who lost and who benefited most at the Five Families of Wall Street, otherwise known as Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. From the start of their 2004 fiscal years through yesterday, the big standalone investment banks lost about $83 billion of stock-market value. During the same period, they reported about $239 billion of employee-compensation expense. So, for every dollar of shareholder value destroyed, the employees got paid almost three.

And Weil is just devastating here:

As long as Paulson can't think of any better ideas, the government will keep throwing money at an industry that pays too many people more than they're worth, to perform services the world has too much of already. The bright side is we avoid a global meltdown, for now.

The LA Times, in part two of its three-part health-care series, is very interesting on health care companies transforming themselves into banks.

Federal banking regulators insisted on classifying WellPoint as a healthcare company. And that was interfering with its efforts to open a bank.

The Federal Reserve Board eventually agreed that the company's core insurance business could be considered financial services. But what about its mail-order pharmacy and its program for managing chronic diseases, which was overseen by WellPoint doctors and nurses? Wasn't that healthcare?

WellPoint finally convinced the Fed that those activities were merely "complementary" to its main business — financial services. It pledged to limit them to less than 5% of total revenue.

That a medical insurer would agree to keep a lid on healthcare expenditures so it could get approval to open a bank illustrates a fundamental change in the industry: Insurers are moving away from their traditional role of pooling health risks and are reinventing themselves as money managers — providers of financial vehicles through which consumers pay for their own healthcare.

The NYT looks at how the bad economy is already affecting Americans’ health: People are cutting back on their prescribed medicines to make ends meet. Through August, drug sales were down.

"Palling Around With Haberdashers"

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So, WardrobeGate (CoutureGate? FashionPlateGate?) Politico reports that the Republican National Committee apparently has spent over $150,000 on clothing and accessories for Gov. Sarah Palin and her family since she joined the McCain ticket.

Tailor-made for cable news.

MSNBC's Morning Joe:

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: This looks bad. Having said that, before you judge Sarah Palin about her clothes, keep in mind that Barack Obama, what he pays for a suit might be somebody's mortgage payment. We need to look into that...

Do we really "need to look into that?" Why?

BRZEZINSKI: I'm just saying, for balance. It's not like Barack Obama is walking around in J.C. Penney sweats.

(Or... is he?)

And then there was this, from MSNBC's Mike Barnicle:

It's clear [Sarah Palin] has been palling around with haberdashers.

News Hog(wash)

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The central question that Michael Tomasky asks in the most recent New York Review of Books is this: “Can a strategy of sidestepping the media defeat a campaign that’s organized around the media in the media age?” He’s referring to the notion that Obama’s campaign, though technologically much more savvy, has distinctly not catered to the daily news cycle, whereas McCain’s campaign distinctly has. It’s an astute, if brief, rumination on whether a post-media (apologies for the word) approach can work in today’s political media landscape.

Writes Tomasky: “The McCain campaign is organized entirely around daily news cycles—the belief that winning the media war will win the election.” He cites two decisions that illustrate this philosophy: the Sarah Palin vice presidential pick, and McCain’s choice to “suspend” his campaign to return to Washington for bailout negotiations. “Virtually every major move McCain has made has been about trying to win that day’s headlines,” he adds. If the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that these make the news priorities haven’t been very effective.

A good example of the two campaigns’ approaches lies in the continuing hubbub surrounding Joe the Plumber. Tomasky’s observation is evident in the way the campaigns have responded to this everyman “news item”: Palin has been trotting it out continually (and introducing a new working class hero every chance she gets—see “Tito the Builder”). Both she and McCain have taken a “he said it” approach, spinning Joe’s words into a cry of Socialism! against Obama.

The McCain campaign’s desire to milk the media fixation on Wurzelbacher and his proliferating compatriots is palpable. (And this isn’t the first time. Remember Palin’s approach to the Ayers question? Her comments, then like now, weren’t motivated by a desire to clarify; they were designed to inflame.)

Obama, on the other hand, has returned to talking seriously about the economy.

Tomasky doesn’t explicitly say that Obama’s approach—to play the long distance game when it comes to media exposure—is the inherently successful one. He merely says that the Illinois senator has “tripped [McCain] up…by not playing the game.” And if Obama’s lack of grandstanding for the cameras and notepads is a big, trip-inducing wrinkle in the rug for the McCain camp, as Tomasky suggests it is, it’s because the strategies that the latter has employed traditionally thrive when used against an opponent who would consider “losing” a days’ worth of headlines, well, a loss.

Nevertheless, the verdict seems to be in for Tomasky: Obama’s decision to make his campaign not about grandstanding—and to spend time instead on a carefully spread out field operation that he hopes will prove its worth on election day—will prove the more successful strategy.

It’s a decision that speaks to the levelheadedness of the Obama team just as much as it underscores any distinct philosophy, but it’s still an interesting point—made more interesting by the fact that the Obama campaign has been much better at managing tech-aided communications outreach than has McCain’s.

In this sense, it’s a bit misleading when Tomasky writes: “Barack Obama’s campaign is less concerned about coverage by blogs and television than any other presidential campaign in the short history of this media age, and…John McCain’s operation seems utterly consumed by it.”

Because while it’s true that the Obama campaign hasn’t pandered as much to the media for inches or minutes of exposure, in no way has it shunned or turned its back on coverage of any kind. The Obama team is far from indifferent to media coverage. It may be “less concerned” with being a news hog in any flashy way, but strengthened by its own media-savvy ways, it’s also just better at appearing as though it’s standing still in the attention wars—rather than running full-speed towards the headlines.

What Tomasky doesn’t cover in his piece is how the media have responded to the campaigns’ differing approaches. (That wasn’t his angle.) But the media response, after all, is the variable that determines what works and what doesn’t in those two equations. It’s also why, even after this election is over, we won’t know if a “strategy of side-stepping the media” is smart, effective, or just a sidebar to Obama’s smoothly-run campaign. There’s no control group in this experiment of cause and effect.

(For a different angle on Tomasky’s argument, read the first three paragraphs of this Steve Coll post on the New Yorker’s Think Tank blog, which argues that the media have been too malleable in printing or running McCain campaign language.)

Whatever the outcome of the attention wars game in political media (and whatever can be said for Obama’s atheistic approach to such coverage), Tomasky’s point is really about the following simple summation: losing the headlines battle doesn’t necessarily mean losing the election war. And for a political media bombarded by little decisions—Tito the Builder, or Jane the Engineer, or Ed the Dairyman?—that’s a takeaway worth pocketing.

Last Friday, The Union of Concerned Scientists released a “report card” grading fifteen federal agencies’ records on disclosing scientific information to the public and the press.

Given many journalists’ and scientists’ (government or otherwise) opinion that the Bush administration has restricted data to an unprecedented and unwarranted degree, the UCS report couldn’t have come at better time. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both decried the secretive and autocratic policies of the current White House and have promised many times on the campaign trail to undo gag orders on government scientists. Thanks, then, go to The Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman, who appears to be the only reporter to have covered the UCS report card.

But that said, Kaufman’s piece misses a few important details. The report card graded two things: the agencies’ written policies (on a scale of A to F) and their actual records in practice (on a scale of Outstanding to Unsatisfactory). Now, as Kaufman clearly communicates in his article, the important takeaway message is that, overall, these agencies’ (from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Institutes of Health) willingness to share scientific information with the public and the press leaves much to be desired. But his article only reports the agencies’ written policy grades while ignoring their work in practice, which may have given readers a false impression of a few that he mentioned.

In particular, Kaufman wrote, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … [does] a commendable job of making scientific research and expertise available, the report said.” Well, that is not true. The CDC received a solid A for its written policy, but a “Needs Improvement” grade for its work in practice. Likewise, Kaufman reports that both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) received an “Incomplete” for their written policies, which the UCS was unable to locate (or which don’t exist). However, it would have been worth noting that the FDA received a “Needs Improvement” mark for its work in practice, while the NSF got an “Outstanding.”

Indeed, as the UCS noted in the first paragraph of its press release, “The report found significant inconsistencies and confusion among agency media policies and their implementation. Some agency policies encourage free speech, but the agencies stifle communication. Other policies are weak, but in practice the agencies allow scientists to speak freely.”

Kaufman, who has been a journalist for thirty years and with the Post for last ten of them, is truly one of the best reporters covering federal regulatory agencies. I interviewed him earlier this month for a story about the 50th anniversary of NASA, which both he and the UCS cited as one of the agencies that has done the most to correct well-publicized restrictions on its scientists. So this column should not cast any aspersion whatsoever on his journalistic capability. This looks to be a prime example of what New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin has referred to as “the twin tyrannies of time and space.” Kaufman’s article is only 500 words long and he turned it around the same day that the UCS released its report. Yet this is obviously a story that deserves more investigation and more column inches.

Lamentably, it’s “be first or be last” in the modern media world, and even veteran journalists like Kaufman are not immune to such pressure. But given the UCS report card’s utter relevance to the current presidential campaign, one hopes that he will do a follow-up (or many; and that other reporters will, too) that examines the hard work that needs to be done to restore our government’s scientific integrity.

Journos of the World, Unite!

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Listen up, all you hard-working Americans! If Barack Obama wins the presidency, get ready to have your hard-earned money snatched from your noble, stoic, work-hardened hands and placed into the outstretched palms of the lazy and entitled! Get ready to see your values and those of other American Heroes vanquished by the assumptions of snobby, liberal elites! Get ready to be shipped off to a gulag or a Siberian work camp or a locale in south Jersey if you dare to express an individual thought! Because, my friends, the most liberal senator known to mankind is a big old Bolshevik, ready to shake up society, redistribute the wealth, and Robin Hood you right out of your slice of the American Dream!

Or, well, something like that. Because John McCain's presidential campaign has, it seems, taken a fancy to a new talking-point buzzword ("terrorists" and "media elite" are so five days ago): "socialism." As in, per Sarah Palin:

Taking more from a small business or small business owners or from a hard-working families and then redistributing that money according to a politician's priorities—there are hints of socialism in there and that's why I don't fault or discredit Joe the Plumber for bringing that up, asking if that is socialism.

By which the campaign does not seem to mean "the economic system that has defined American government pretty much since its founding." Instead, the campaign is using "socialism" not intellectually, but emotionally, as an attempt to stoke the flames of cultural animosity even further than its efforts with respect to race (Obama "palling around with terrorists") and class ("elites" versus "Joe Sixpacks"). Indeed, when a McCain surrogate accuses Obama's policies of being "socialist," he or she is pitching camp smack in the middle of that rocky terrain where the Culture War meets the Cold War.

But socialism is not communism, and, come to think of it, our entire economy depends on infrastructure and programs produced by the government for public consumption, and, yes, paid for by citizens' taxes...in other words, on the "redistribution of resources," or, if you prefer, "spreading the wealth around." Tax-and-spend, as a term, may be forever fused to the term "liberal," but the fact is that taxing and spending is, in theory and in practice, what the U.S. government, you know, does.

So, then. The media find themselves in yet another quandary when it comes to campaign spin: How can we unpack a rumor without also tacitly endorsing it? How do we do justice both to text and subtext when it comes to this particular campaign strategy? Should we append an asterisk—"*NB, dear reader! We're all socialists! Kinda!"—to each use of the word? Should we practice, as the AP did, a form of accountability journalism when it comes to correcting the record on allegations of socialism? Should we feature segments, as Chris Matthews did on Hardball yesterday, asking guests whether "socialism" is "a bad word, a naughty word"?

Well, probably not the latter. (Sorry, Chris.) But there are some basic ways for talking about the socialism charge without giving the charge credence—obvious, sure, but apparently in need of pointing out (sorry again, Chris). Among them:

1. Incorporate the Corrective into News Stories

Add a brief note of clarification next to a McCain campaign claim about Obama's socialism. See, again, the AP story Liz noted. Feel free to do your own incorporation more gracefully--ideally, in your story's lede. As in: "In an attempt to appeal to latent fear of the Red Menace, Sarah Palin today accused Barack Obama of harboring socialist leanings..." Or some such.

2. Write a Separate Story Clarifying the Corrective

Write a separate article, or feature a separate segment, unpacking the implication of Obama's socialism. The Chicago Tribune—hedging the matter by asking socialists whether Obama "is one of them," but still—provides a good example.

3. Fact-Check, Fact-Check, Fact-Check

Sure, the answer that would likely come up, in this case, is that Camp McCain's claim of Obama's "socialism" is "half true." But at least a comprehensive fact-check would provide news organizations an opportunity to give context to McCain's claim, and to divest the term of its more insidious subtext.

4. Columnists of the World, Step Up!

Un-spinning the spin, in a format unfettered by the constraints of hard-news stories: what a great way for political columnists to earn their keep. The New Yorker's Steve Coll provides a fantastic example of the corrective role columnists can play here. Even MoDo could join in: I'm sure there are several excessively witty references to Dr. Zhivago or Castro or some such just waiting to be shared with the American public.

$tunned into $ilence

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So far, 2008 seems to be the year of the big, round numbers: the $700 billion bailout, the $10 trillion national debt, or, if you like, the $4 gallon of gas. Now, there’s a new number in play: the record $150 million Obama raised in the month of September.

Just like all those other numbers, Obama’s $150 million isn’t as simple as it looks. First of all, Obama promised to campaign with money raised via public financing, before abruptly changing his mind when he realized he could be more effective without it. The McCain campaign has raised the real possibility that some of the anonymous $200-and-under donations may be coming from foreign donors, or individuals exceeding the $2,300 contribution limit. Throw in a dash of philosophical quandary (what does it mean for the country that the man who raises the most money may win?) and a pinch of history (McCain, after all, is the guy who shared top-billing on a high-profile campaign finance reform bill) and you’ve got a relatively complex picture.

But the coming out party for Mr. $150 Million has been largely devoid of these questions. Instead of raising and, heaven forbid, addressing these serious issues, so far the story about the money has been brimming with wow!

Oh, goodie! proclaimed the Los Angeles Times:

With Obama's $150 million from September plus $49 million raised by the Democratic National Committee, the Democrats have a vast cash advantage heading into the Nov. 4 election. Obama can go on offense in states that Republicans must hold and still spend freely on costly TV ads.

"It is working out brilliantly," California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said of Obama's decision to forgo public funding.

And, yippee! cooed the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

The campaign has raised so much money that it is considering passing some along to Democratic Party committees to try to help grow the party's majorities in Congress, according to a campaign source.

The odd thing shared by all these stories is their implicit acknowledgement of the larger issues beneath the big number. Something’s going on here, they seem to whisper.

Mr. $150 Million is definitely a big deal says The New York Times:

It is a remarkable ascent to previously unimagined financial heights—Mr. Obama’s September total more than doubled the record $66 million he collected in August—that has been cheered by some and decried by others concerned about the influence of money in politics. The impact on the way presidential campaigns are financed is likely to be profound, potentially providing an epitaph on the tombstone of the existing public finance system.

Concern is good, and warranted. This fundraising milestone has been celebrated as a good thing for Obama and the Democrats, but there are plenty of questions about this election’s long-term effects on the public financing system, which was designed with the goal of making campaigns more transparent and less vulnerable to big-money interests.

The press, meanwhile, has left it to McCain to call for disclosure of the small donors’ identities, as mentioned in The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama campaign has also fielded criticism from Republicans for what they say is a lack of donor transparency. Federal rules don't require disclosure of donors giving less than $200. Small donors account for about half of Sen. Obama's 3.1 million contributors.

Granted, Obama isn’t obligated to reveal those donors, but given that McCain has done so (with his dramatically smaller number), perhaps the press, too, should sound the call for greater transparency on Obama’s part. Armed with that information, they could more clearly explore the legitimacy of McCain’s claims.

It isn’t enough to quote Democrats making pronouncements like this one in The New York Times:

Tad Devine, a former senior strategist for Senator John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, said there were plenty of arguments that what Mr. Obama had done was healthy for the democratic process.

“What we’re going to have to figure out,” Mr. Devine said, “is why this is not only good for the Democratic Party but it’s good for the country.”

The answer might be that it isn’t. One reason that small donors aren’t typically disclosed, writes former New York Sun reporter Josh Gerstein, has to do with privacy protections awarded to those donors, and the associated data-mining that occurs after information is disclosed (that is, donate once, and get bombarded with requests for more donations with no ability to opt out of the mail storm).

There are many other problems with the fundraising system. That the McCain campaign is raising these issues does not make them any less valid, and marginalizing them as partisan sniping doesn’t advance the story.

For example, speaking to the McCain camp’s allegations of fraud, the Washington Post offers this insight from the Center for Responsive Politics:

Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, said the Obama campaign could have avoided questions about its donations had it responded. At the same time, Ritsch said, there is nothing to suggest that fake or foreign donations are a large-scale problem.

"It's very hard to corrupt the system on a large scale," he said. "The amount of coordination that would be required to corrupt a campaign that's raised more than half a billion dollars is really just impossible."

But would it really be “very hard” for an organization to break up a $200,000 donation into one thousand donations of $200? It’s not impossible to imagine. If, say, the Remington Arms Company decided to donate $200,000 to McCain in this manner, for example, the GOP wouldn’t be to blame, but the system’s faults would be exposed for all to see. Taking a serious look at these problems would be a better use of column inches and airtime, than the “golly gee, look at this pile of cash” reporting that has prevailed.

To be honest, I don’t really understand how campaign finance works, and I read the newspaper. For a living. And, I haven’t learned enough about its mechanics as a result of this record-shattering campaign. I’m not holding myself up as a barometer of the media’s success to explore this issue. I don’t know if Obama’s online fundraising is, in fact, “arguably more democratic” as the Times suggests or what to make of the fact that his success could be the ”epitaph of the federal campaign finance system”.

These are big questions and they deserve considered answers. Papers might be reluctant to allocate resources to an extensive explainer piece, but they should. Before the first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi, a reporter at the local paper told me that area schools seized on the teaching opportunity of the election and dedicated the first half of the year to learning about the democratic process. Newspapers, too, have a chance to explore the inner workings of campaign financing. We call that a news peg, and we should use it.

Props, CNN

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Yes, CNN's Dan Lothian did file a report this afternoon standing next to a canon on a Civil War battlefield in Prince William County, Virginia (you know, a battleground state).

Can we get Soledad O'Brien on a playground swing in Ohio for a one-on-one with a swing voter? Maybe Ed Henry could hit the gym in Florida to interview folks about anticipated strong voter turnout?

Perhaps you've heard Gov. Palin refer to"Tito the Builder" on the trail recently (in the same bit where she calls her opponent "Barack The Wealth Spender")?

Here's David Corn's encounter with Tito Munoz, who announces he is "disgusted with you guys," for "going after Joe the Plumber" but not reporting "all the time" on Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers. And by "you guys," Tito's "talking about NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN. And New York Times. And Washington Post." When Corn replies that the New York Times has had "the longest story to date about Ayers," Tito answers, "and also another one about Cindy McCain that was probably insulting and negative." (If, you know, Tito had to guess).

Yes, that is Byron York of National Review visible at times in the footage. Here's York's take on what transpired between "Tito The Construction Worker" and "David The Journalist" and what it all means. (The "real anger at McCain's rallies," York reports, is at the media, not at Obama). York describes "one lovely moment" in the Corn-Munoz back-and-forth (a moment absent in Corn's footage) when:

[A] shouting match turned into a lesson on the fundamental meaning of American constitutional rights — and the immigrant was the teacher.

“Let me talk,” Munoz said to Corn. “I know the Constitution, and I know my First Amendment — ”

“I’m not the state,” Corn said. “I can’t take that right away from you.”

“No, no,” Munoz shot back. “Even the state, the state cannot take that right away.”

“Right, right,” Corn quickly agreed.

“Nobody can take that away,” Munoz said.

And indeed they can’t.

Related: Who should be the next Person With Job To Be Used As Political Pawn (er, Name-Checked On the Trail)? Vote at the Indecision2008 blog for "the next _____ the _______." Me, I voted for "He Man The Master of the Universe."

Obsession with Controversy


Sometime around early June, about the time Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, an agent for a shadowy group called the Clarion Fund approached Newspaper Services of America, the nation’s biggest newspaper ad placement agency, with a proposition. Clarion wanted to use newspapers to distribute millions of copies of a DVD titled Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, and provided a list of areas that it wanted to target, from Florida to Oregon. The job was huge, and with a quick turnaround, but the ad organization was excited about the possibilities of its first DVD distribution. For an industry battling for its life, this was an opportunity to tap into desperately needed revenue sources.

The insert, in this case, wasn’t your typical free sample of headache medicine, though. Obsession featured, among other scenes, Islamic clerics calling for jihad and crowds chanting “Death to America,” and it drew parallels between Islamic extremists and Nazi Germany, mixing footage of Nazi youth and children pledging to be suicide bombers. Did the newspapers know what they were getting themselves into? Advertising managers were provided a link to a Web site where they could watch a trailer. Had they wanted to dig further into the film's origins, however, it would have been difficult: The Clarion Fund, at the time, revealed next to nothing about itself or the source of its funding. To discover that the group had links to a pro-Israel charity would have taken rigorous reporting--the kind normally done in newsrooms, rather than advertising offices. To the papers' ad managers, the Clarion Fund was little more than a name and a Web site.

Still, when newspapers finally had a chance to view the film--as Obsession's September delivery date approached--some began to have second thoughts. Some dailies backed out at the last minute. Most, however, accepted the DVD, and delivery began around the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which happened also to be during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Newspaper Services of America placed the insert into the pages of just over 100 local newspapers, with distribution concentrated in political swing states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. Some 22 million DVDs were delivered, Gregory Ross, Clarion’s director of communications, said in an interview with CJR, at a total cost in the “multi-millions” of dollars.

Which, in terms of publicity, ended up being something of a steal for the Clarion Fund. The hardest-hitting investigative stories don’t generally generate as much reaction as Obsession did. Although some were pleased with the film, the general response to it was overwhelmingly negative--and vocal. Muslims in communities where the film was distributed were, not surprisingly, devastated. Many others were simply outraged. Long-time newspaper readers canceled their subscriptions. Protesters marched outside the offices of the Portland Oregonian. Newsrooms were deluged with angry e-mails and letters. “Would you have accepted an advertisement from the Ku Klux Klan alerting Americans to the dangers posed by black people?” Carl W. Ernst, a professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote in a letter to the News & Observer. “Or are you planning to accept money from those who would like to stir up hatred against immigrants from Mexico?”

Despite the negative publicity--or, rather, because of it--Clarion considers the newspaper distribution a complete success. “We were hoping we would be getting the media engaged,” Ross, who has done 100 media interviews in three weeks, says. “Most filmmakers would pay good money to have that kind of engagement.” Clarion also mailed out millions of copies of Obsession, but Ross agreed that the film wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much exposure had Clarion relied solely on the U.S. Postal Service.

Editors and publishers who distributed the film, meanwhile, defend their decisions to distribute it as principled ones. At the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, editors said they were mollified by Obsession’s opening statement: “Most Muslims do not support terror. This is not a film about them.” Orage Quarles III, publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer, cited his duty as First Amendment steward. “We tend to shy away from censorship,” Quarles said. “In cases of controversial topics, if we err, we tend to do so on the side of freedom of speech.” Others echoed those sentiments. "Just as we print advertisements that rebut New York Times editorials, news articles or critical reviews, we print ads that differ from our editorial position. We do so in the belief that it is in the best interests of our readers for our pages to be as open as possible,” Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, said via e-mail.

Yet many other dailies decided against this notion of a constitutional duty to accept Clarion’s advertising dollars. About sixty-five newspapers refused to distribute the DVD, Tim Rodriguez, a vice president at Newspaper Services of America, says. Those who refused the ad included the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Greensboro News & Record, which decided that Obsession played on people’s fears and served no educational purpose. John Robinson, the News & Record's editor, reminded readers, “Just because you can publish doesn’t mean you should.”

Many civic leaders agreed. Newspapers that distributed Obsession, they said, were lending their authority to a film critics saw as “hate media.” Portland’s mayor and community leaders pleaded with the Oregonian’s publisher not to distribute the DVD, to no avail. The Rev. Gary Percesepe, a Dayton minister, called the film's release in swing states like Ohio "a cynical attempt to influence the presidential contest by fanning the flames of fear and prejudice against Muslims." His sentiments seemed confirmed when, a few days after Obsession was distributed in Ohio, a 10-year-old Dayton girl was sprayed with a chemical at the local mosque.

The controversy behind the film--even more than its message--became the focus of the media coverage that followed Obsession's distribution, both in print and online. So did, as a result, the organization behind it. Clarion Fund is a not-for-profit founded in Delaware in 2006 to distribute films like Obsession. Its founder, Raphael Shore, produced Obsession and also served as director of Aish HaTorah, an international charity founded in Jerusalem that provides Jewish education and is a staunch defender of Israel. (Aish HaTorah says it wasn’t involved in the film, however.) Obsession's executive producer was credited as Peter Miers, but Shore told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Miers is an alias for a Canadian-American businessman. Ross, Clarion’s spokesman, wouldn’t identify its donors, media strategists, or vendors. Its tax return isn’t due until after the election. So one month after the film's distribution, we still don’t know, specifically, who was behind Obsession.

To the extent that it's engaging in transparency, Clarion Fund didn’t dispute that it concentrated its distribution of Obsession on political swing states like Ohio, but says it was trying to attract attention, not votes. “We chose areas where the press is congregated at the moment,” Ross says. “If we sent it to Hawaii and Maine, it would be under the radar.” Ross noted that the film was made in 2006 and doesn’t mention either candidate or political party. The group’s refusal to disclose its funding sources, however, isn’t reassuring. The Council of American Islamic Relations asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate--since, as a 501(c)(3) charity, Clarion Fund is prohibited from influencing elections.

This wasn’t the first time that advertising caused so much trouble for newspapers. It was an ad that led to the landmark 1964 Supreme Court freedom of the press ruling in The New York Times v. Sullivan, which set the “actual malice” libel standard, allowing free and aggressive reporting of public officials to flourish. The case stemmed from an ad that claimed Alabama officials had engaged in a “wave of terror” against civil rights activists. In the case of Obsession's distribution," newspapers had left themselves open to charges that they had been used in a backdoor attempt to influence the presidential election by stoking fears about another wave of terror.

There’s no disputing that Obsession was inflammatory. But a deeper question went unanswered in all the controversy that resulted from the film: Was its message true? Were we, as a nation, ignoring the grave threat from radical Islam? Some readers thought so; others saw the film as a slick piece of propaganda. Newspapers left it up to subscribers to decide, and that abdication allowed Clarion Fund to bypass the editorial department and access customers directly. Small wonder there were so many hurt feelings.

Shortly after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel distributed Obsession, publisher Betsy Brenner told the city’s press club that, in light of the negative reaction the film provoked from readers, she probably wouldn’t distribute it again. Still, in many ways, Obsession was a missed opportunity for newspapers. The film provided an opportunity to engage the community, to foster dialogue, and above all, to educate readers on the question of terrorism--an opportunity that got lost in the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps the Clarion Fund was being more innovative in its thinking about the role of newspapers than the papers themselves.

Michele, The New Zell?

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Politico's Daniel Libit pronounces Rep. Michele Bachmann's "call for a media investigation into 'anti-American' members of Congress" "the macaca — or McCarthy — moment of 2008."

Chris Matthews, on whose show Bachmann made that "call," seems to see it as the election 2008 equivalent of his Zell Miller Moment. (You know, in 2004 when Miller wished he could challenge Matthews to a duel? And the clip was discussed everywhere, to the extent possible in a time before YouTube?):

Michele Bachmann may be leery about returning to Chris Matthews’ show but Matthews tells Politico he’d love to get the Minnesota congresswoman back on “Hardball” after their headline-grabbing exchange last Friday.

“I’ve always wanted to get Zell Miller back on,” Matthews said. Matthews and the former Georgia senator had an infamously contentious encounter with the MSNBC host following the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Watch that "encounter" here:

And the Bachmann exchange here:

Among the interesting bits of Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Marc Salter of the McCain campaign:

We also talked about Salter's current view of the press: "I think the media is driven by a need to see this history happen," he said. "And I think they've rationalized it, they think they're on the level with McCain, that he's not the old McCain. But he is the old McCain. He just doesn't know what happened to the old press corps."

The AP applied some basic "accountability journalism" (I guess?) to some recent McCain/Palin campaign trail rhetoric (emphasis mine):

Republican Sarah Palin told a rally of several thousand people Monday that Barack Obama would not only raise their taxes as president but also spend the money in a way that could hurt the economy.

"What that means is government taking your money and spreading it out wherever politicians see fit. That's not good for the economy," she said.

The government's job is to collect taxpayer dollars and decide how to spend them...

Oh, riiight. That's right. It was sounding so drastic and objectionable for a minute there, wasn't it?

Gen. Colin Powell gave a related little primer which aired on MSNBC yesterday (Reason! Basic facts! So un-cable! Refreshing!):

NORAH O'DONNELL: I want to play for you first what General Colin Powell said about these particular tactics, this new message over the weekend from the McCain/Palin campaign that Obama is a socialist. Listen.

POWELL: I guess the message this week is we're going to call him a socialist, that Obama is a socialist because he dares to suggest that maybe we ought to look at the tax structure that we have. Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who paid them in roads and airports and hospitals and schools, and taxes are necessary for the common good.

(Of course, O'Donnell then immediately turned to her two assembled "strategists" -- a Repub, a Dem -- to again muddy the waters...)

Check back later on Campaign Desk for more on how political reporters have been/should be handling this recent using of the s-word. (Meantime, you can take the New York Times's tour "Inside Socialist Party Headquarters.")

Brief Encounters

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Literary Journalism on Trial: Masson v. New Yorker and The First Amendment

By Kathy Roberts Forde

University of Massachusetts Press

304 pages, $28.95

The Masson case was, like so many other libel cases of the last third of the last century, protracted and clouded. At its core was the question of whether Janet Malcolm, a New Yorker writer, had attributed words to an interviewee, the Freud scholar Jeffrey Masson, that falsely portrayed him as a braggart and a fool. In the wake of Malcolm’s 1983 article, Masson filed suit, denying the accuracy of quotations that had him characterizing himself as (among other things) “an intellectual gigolo.” After a considerable interval of legal wrangling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a false quotation could indeed be libelous. But in the final trial, in 1994, Masson lost—hence, a standoff. Kathy Roberts Forde, a professor at the University of Minnesota, leads the way with surprising clarity through the tortuous proceedings. She also describes significant dramas playing out behind Masson. First, she shows that the case inflicted another in a series of blows to the freedom of discussion guaranteed in the groundbreaking case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which placed libel law under the protective wing of the First Amendment. Second, she sees the legal battle as one more symptom of the tension between traditional reporting and the freer-form modes that came to be known as the New Journalism. Malcolm, although more a conventional New Yorker writer than an innovator, was widely attacked as representative of the purported carelessness and irresponsibility of the New Journalists. Forde’s discussion of these matters is consistently engaging. And for good measure, she throws in an amusing chapter on earlier libel cases involving The New Yorker, including the magazine’s effort to deal with the delusionary Cat Woman, who was devoted to ridding the city of its strays—a dispute that lasted from 1938 to 1943, and was ultimately settled for the sum of $25.

Has Scarborough Been In Touch?

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Joe Biden's recent "mark my words" words -- and the way the press has handled them -- were all the talk on MSNBC this morning. Said Joe Scarborough:

You know, we've been talking about the media coverage of this. I've been e-mailing people at the other networks. We covered it last night. I've been e-mailing people at top news papers. They are going to cover this today. They wanted to see how McCain reacted. McCain's reaction makes it more of a story...It will be covered.

Whether you think coverage of Biden's words to date has been sufficient or lacking, what a sad general commentary on campaign reporting (not that Scarborough seemed to notice): we were waiting for the he-said to, you know, make it more of a story.


"Biden predicts international crisis if elected - McCain reacts".

Among others....

Picturing the Crisis


What does the financial crisis look like? Well, judging from recent weeks, it looks better in The New York Times than it does in the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Since the crisis really hit its stride in mid-September, the Times has provided more creative, substantive, and eye-catching front-page photos than has the Journal or the FT.

The Times has long had a strong tradition of photojournalism, and an estimable staff of in-house photographers. That experience and investment has served it well in recent weeks as business news has regularly hit the front page, and thus required front-page-caliber photography to go along with it.

At a time when newspapers across the country are struggling to maintain readership—and when their competition is not just other newspapers but other, more graphic media—they need to catch readers’ eyes. In fact, photography’s appeal to the eye may be one way to make business news more inviting to those who have not been regular readers.

Furthermore, given that space is at a premium, it makes no sense to view photos, even for not-always-image-amenable business stories, as filler. Like the text that accompanies it, if a photo doesn’t give important information, we don’t need to see it.

Now, we admit that financial photography can be a bit of a challenge. (How many photos of frazzled stock traders do we need?) But a look at recent Times coverage shows that the bar is not impossibly high.

We start our examination with Sept. 16, the day when front pages blared momentous bad news at us: the stock market plunge following the tribulations of Lehman and AIG.

First, here's what the NYT did right.

On a day when the press posted a flurry of images of distressed traders, the NYT front page took a step back and focused our attention on the government’s response—as represented by Henry Paulson—in about as dynamic a photo as you can get of a press conference:

The blur gives a sense of movement, and the expression on Paulson’s face says a lot about that day’s predicament.

That same day, by contrast, the WSJ offered an arrangement of eight stock-trader photos on the front page:

Now, when you look at that many small images of approximately the same thing, they tend to blend, especially when crowded together. And perhaps that is the point here: Mayhem all around!

But we already knew that, just from the headlines.

The power of photojournalism lies in its ability to show us specifics. Yet such a generic presentation blurs specific details—“stock” traders, indeed!—rather than clarifying them.

The FT steered clear of the tiny-images trap, but not in a particularly original or incisive way:

You may not have noticed, but you have actually seen this AP photo already, on the
WSJ’s front page. The top right box. And in fact, this photo appeared all over the press. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

For now, compare these two images, from September 20, the first in the Times:

And the second in the Journal:

The Journal has a bit of a disadvantage because its “What’s News” box takes up a considerable fraction of the front-page—leaving less space for everything else, including photos. And with images, bigger is often better.

Still, the difference between these two photos can’t be blamed on size alone, or on the idea that their intent is to convey something different—because we have no idea what the Journal is trying to convey. It is that muddled variant of a mid-range, up-the-nose shot that most amateur photographers erase from their digital cameras.

And the problem, it seems, was not the photographer. We came across what appears to be the same AP photo, in Newsweek, cropped differently:

This fuller version works. Grounded and framed by the pillars, the men suddenly have a context. We don’t get the striking image of the row of pillars, as we do in the Times photo, but we do get a shot that now raises a similar question: Are these men like or unlike the architecture that surrounds them? Are they pillars of strength or not? Or, put differently, How worried should we be? (The answer, as told by this photo at least, depends upon how you read the subjects’ faces and posture, and so will probably differ from person to person.)

As for the FT, editors seem to have absorbed the bigger-is-better philosophy. But the problem is that size alone is not the key to an effective photograph. We don’t even know what this September 23 front-page photo is of:

If we don’t know, neither do a lot of other people. The caption doesn’t help us: “Flagging reserves: growing concern over the rescue plan saw the dollar slide 2 per cent against a basket of major rivals yesterday.”

Moving along, we’d like to register a complaint about what has become a key element of the iconography of the credit crisis: traders with their heads in their hands, or in other poses of distress. Such photos are always a staple of down markets, and this one is no exception. Most of them are forgettable, and we wish editors would think twice before putting them on the front page.

Here is the FT essentially replicating its September 16 image two days later, this time in Moscow:

By way of comparison, here is another example of a strong Times cover. This one appeared October 1, by which time it was pretty hard to do what the Times does here: come up with a distinctive view of the trading floor.

And here is another strong example from the Times, September 23:

in comparison to the WSJ the same day:

The Times is better here because we get more information from its cover: There are graphs on both pages, but rather than offering a small generic image of traders, the Times shows Barney Frank at a press conference. It is an image of controlled chaos, where the man in charge practically blends in with the people to whom he is speaking.

Interestingly, the WSJ did include a photo of that press conference, but put it on A3, next to a Tiffany ad.

Needless to say, a photo inside the paper embedded in advertising does not have the impact of a front-page shot. Now, this could be an editorial choice—to downplay Frank’s press conference—but the practical result is a stiff-looking front page.

Which brings us to another point. The WSJ often emphasizes graphs over photos or, as in the example below, uses photos as background for the graphic information:

Hey, we like graphs. But they don’t substitute for photographs. Real photographs. Not wallpaper for the numbers.

Now, all this said, even the cover of the Times doesn’t always greet us with impact. Like the October 7 cover, where, in a look more typical of the WSJ, we got its version of the stock-trader typology, accompanied by several graphs:

And this cover leads us to one last point: the problem of repetition.

It wasn’t just the composition here that caught our eye. It was the woman in the middle photo. We’d seen her someplace before… That’s right. As a distressed trader on the cover of the September 17 FT:

She also appears on the October 7 WSJ Money & Investing front, accompanying a teaser at the top left of the page:

This wasn’t the first time we had encountered such repetition. Remember that first FT photo>?

That one, from the AP, really made the rounds.

As local and regional papers picked it up, this rather unremarkable photo appeared across the press that day as the (hidden) face of the Lehman collapse. It was so ubiquitous that it even sparked some Internet chatter, including nasty comments on, surprise, Yahoo! message boards and a defense on the subject’s friend’s blog.

Now, papers do publish the same photo when it suits them. But the fact is that the Sept 16 photo doesn’t say very much and didn’t warrant the attention it got. Furthermore, we did a bit of digging and found that the trader depicted is something of a recurring subject on financial pages.

Even the NYT offered a photo of her that day, although not the same image and not on the front page. So did Reuters.

And an image search led us to even more photos of the same woman. Here she is earlier in September. In March. In October 2007. In December 2006. Again in December 2006.

It may be a small world out there. But not that small. The financial crisis deserves photography as serious and inquisitive as its best articles.

Afflicting The Comfortable?

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While talking about how hard campaigning can be, during an interview with Cindy McCain, Fox News's Greta Van Susteren articulated for Mrs. McCain what it is that reporters do (speaking for herself? for the group?):

VAN SUSTEREN: All we do is try to find things to pick at you about, anything we can possibly unearth, that we can possibly put in the worst light possible. And this is on both sides of the aisle...

Afflicting the comfortable and all that (I guess?). This came up during Van Susteren's sit-down with Mrs. McCain, soon after Van Susteren's question, "Is there anything that's been a stunner to you in terms of going out and talking across the country...you felt like, you know, you had no idea or, this is better or worse than I thought? Anything stun you?" To which McCain replied:

You know what has really stunned me is the -- quite honestly, is the kind of viciousness of the media on occasion. In 2000 -- there certainly's always been, you know, differences, and the -- you know, the things that occur. But this has taken on a different tenor. And I don't know why and what's caused that, and I'm sorry for it because I think it turns a lot of young people off.

Speaking of "viciousness," said Van Susteren, what did McCain think of the New York Times article which, Van Susteern said, "took a whack at you over the weekend?" Mrs. McCain said she did not read it and "doesn't really care what the New York Times thinks."

And, much like during her one-on-one with Todd Palin, Van Susteren got in a question (though, only one) about When Cindy Met John:

VAN SUSTEREN: When you first met him, did you like him ?

MCCAIN: Yes, I did.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was it that?

MCCAIN: His humor, his tenaciousness. He's so well read. I mean, we had the most interesting discussion the first night we met.

VAN SUSTEREN: About? Now you've got to tell me!

MCCAIN:...[H]e invited me for a drink, and I didn't really know who he was. I didn't -- I had -- I didn't know anything about him. And all of a sudden, I was talking to this marvelous man. We were discussing the books we had read and the -- you know, where we'd traveled and kind of the depths of each other. It was wonderful. And he's very funny. And it was just so different from anybody I'd ever met. So it was lovely.

Audit Roundup: Derivative Dilemma

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The Wall Street Journal is good this morning in writing that more trouble is brewing in the derivatives markets.

One of the reasons this stuff was allowed to get so out of control was that no one really understood it. You can understand why as your eyes glaze over reading this story. And that’s not a criticism; the same might happen reading my synopsis of it

The WSJ says “synthetic” CDOs, which are made up of credit-default swaps (those insurance contracts on a company’s default) are plunging in value as hedge funds and others bail out. Prices are nearing a point that could trigger contractually obligated sales, which will push up the cost of credit-default swaps and make it more expensive for companies to borrow.

Perhaps the weakest link in the market are specialized funds, known as "constant-proportion debt obligations," that work much like synthetic CDOs but with one important difference: They use borrowed money, or leverage, to boost the returns they can provide for investors, a strategy that also magnifies losses.

CPDOs, for example, typically borrowed about $15 for every dollar their investors put in. They also contain safety triggers that force them to get out of their investments if their losses reach a certain level. Analysts estimate that most CPDOs reach those triggers when the cost of default insurance hits about the level where it is now.

But 15-to-1 leverage isn’t so bad when you consider the 80-to-1 employed by some “credit derivative product companies.” The Journal points to two that according to an analysts “could wreak havoc on the marketplace," if forced to sell.

Not another generational story about the Baby Boomers! This one is tossed off in the Journal:

Affluent Boomers had more to spend than most of their Depression-baby parents could have dreamed. Their appetites buoyed sales of everything from Bavarian sedans to Sumatran coffee to Swedish furniture. Boomers could make or break a brand. Boomers embraced Toyota, and helped make it the world's dominant car maker. They shunned Oldsmobile, and it died. Boomers have driven the explosive growth of the computer and consumer electronics industries, accounting for half the money spent on techno-gadgets, big-screen televisions, laptops and the like, according to McKinsey…

Now, millions of Boomers are realizing that "hope I die before I get old" was just a sarcastic line in a rock and roll song, not a life plan…

The sluggish 1970s and early 1980s overshadowed the college years and early work lives of the bulk of the Boom generation. But with a few mild hiccups, it's been easy riding since then.

Yuck. Let’s put a moratorium on these kinds of stories, especially when they're not correct as in here:

Some economists and demographers say the Baby Boomers themselves are driving the current turmoil. As Boomers send their kids out into the world, they are entering the phase of life when income starts to fall, spending slows and houses get sold. The same generational heft that Boomers used to create fads for hula hoops, sport-utility vehicles and Harleys will now work against them as all of them rush to cash out and slow down at once. That puts more houses up for sale to far fewer buyers: a younger generation that is also less able to afford them.

This is just wrong. Baby Boomers are “driving the current turmoil”? This is the WSJ, people. It, of all papers, should know that what’s driving the turmoil is the bursting of a massive bubble that inflated homebuilding and sales far beyond all normal trendlines. Boomers getting old doesn’t have a whit to do with it. How many boomers do you know selling their houses to shuffle off to the nursing home? Not yet, anyway.

Bloomberg goes long with a story on Goldman Sachs becoming a commercial bank. But through the whole thing, it doesn’t make even a nod to what role Goldman had in creating the crisis—something Audit big cheese Dean Starkman asked about yesterday.

And it contradicts reporting by Gretchen Morgenson of the Times that Goldman had a $20 billion exposure to AIG had the government let that insurer collapse.

This year, Goldman also saw trouble brewing in the insurance sector and began hedging its exposure to AIG, which had a notional value of about $20 billion as of mid-September, according to a person familiar with the strategy. The hedges included short positions on AIG and other insurance companies, as well as CDSs. Goldman wouldn't have lost money if AIG had gone out of business, the person said, although the collapse would have caused wide- spread economic distress.

Who is right? “Several” people talked to by the Times or “a person familiar with the strategy” talked to by Bloomberg. I’ll side with the NYT until further notice.

And a useless-detail alert, with Bloomberg learning from the Journal:

Goldman executives, fortified with Chinese takeout, gourmet pizza and burgers from Harry's at Hanover Square, had spent the weekend debating the firm's options.

But inquiring minds really want to know: Where was the Chinese from? Au Mandarin or China Chalet? Liberty View perhaps?

The LA Times take a good long look at the health-insurance industry rejecting patients with minor pre-existing conditions, in the first of a three-part series.

Insurers insist that they can't stay in business without excluding chronic disease sufferers, known in the industry as "clinical train wrecks." But companies in the individual market also want to avoid even marginal risk — adopting a practice some insiders call "hangnail underwriting."

Even nonprofits such as Blue Shield of California are obliged to follow prevailing market practices, lest they be swamped with the highest-cost customers.

"That's the game," said Cindy Ehnes, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care. Risk selection, she said, "must be part of every insurer's strategy or else they potentially will get all the bad risk."

Such cherry-picking tripped up Pam Munter when she applied for individual coverage two years ago. She had retired from a clinical psychology practice in Oregon and moved to California, where her insurance applications were rejected, one after another.

The reason: She takes Prevacid for gastroesophageal reflux disease. It is a widely prescribed drug with annual sales exceeding $3 billion.

The NY Times notes the rapidly changing Zeitgeist has Hollywood is scrambling to keep up with drastically changed views of Wall Street.

Anchorage Daily News Traffic Soars

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When the McCain campaign announced that Sarah Palin would be the Republican vice-presidential nominee in late August, few reporters knew anything about the Alaska Governor. She didn’t have much of political track record, but what was there revolved mostly around the environment. So I wrote a column arguing that journalists should dig into the archives of the Anchorage Daily News, which had done an excellent job covering Palin's positions on oil drilling, endangered species, mining, and aerial hunting. While I don’t presume that they followed my advice per se, or that they stuck to environmental issues, that’s exactly what they (and others) did.

According to a report from Editor and Publisher, in September, “The Web site of the Anchorage Daily News zoomed up to make it in the list of top 30 online newspapers. The Web site enjoyed a 928% spike to 2.1 million monthly uniques in September, no doubt due to the paper's excellent coverage of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.” The monthly ratings, from Nielsen Online, also showed that “All in the top 30 experienced double-digit increases in September monthly uniques with the lone exception of Village Voice Media (down 13% to 1.7 million).”

Cheers to the ADN!

Vulgus, Schmulgus

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In The New York Times today, William Kristol takes issue with Peggy Noonan’s proclamation that “the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics.”

Noonan was discussing Palin’s performance on the national stage over the last seven weeks, which she found lacking. Astoundingly, here is how Kristol goes about debunking Noonan’s claim:

Leave aside Noonan’s negative judgment on Sarah Palin’s candidacy, a judgment I don’t share. Are we really seeing “a new vulgarization in American politics”? As opposed to the good old non-vulgar days?

Politics in a democracy are always “vulgar” — since democracy is rule by the “vulgus,” the common people, the crowd. Many conservatives have never been entirely comfortable with this rather important characteristic of democracy. Conservatives’ hearts have always beaten a little faster when they read Horace’s famous line: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.” “I hate the ignorant crowd and I keep them at a distance.”

But is the ignorant crowd really our problem today? Are populism and anti-intellectualism rampant in the land? Does the common man too thoroughly dominate our national life? I don’t think so.

Wait, what? Noonan was ascribing the vulgarization of the election to the politicians who are commanding America’s attention—“[Palin] could reinspire and reinspirit; she chooses merely to excite”—and not to the crowd that trains its eyes on them.

Put another way, Noonan was talking about political praxis à la Palin, as exhibited by choices the Alaskan governor has made—rhetorically and otherwise—on the stump. “But what instincts?” Noonan queried. “‘I'm Joe Six-Pack’? She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation—‘palling around with terrorists.’ If the Ayers case is a serious issue, treat it seriously.”

Noonan was using vulgar to mean crass, in order to describe qualitatively the tactics employed by the Republican camp—not plebeian or common. She certainly wasn’t referring to (or lamenting) the state of democracy, i.e. “rule by the crowd.”

Kristol knows that. But he decides not only to ignore her central point (that Palin has not convinced doubters of her intellectual readiness for office), but also to use a definition of the word “vulgar” that stands separate from Noonan’s topic of concern. In short, he recreates the accusation “vulgarization of politics” as an attack against the everyman. And his response is to note that many of this nation’s mistakes have come from the “highly educated and sophisticated elites,” and that, “as publics go, the American public has a pretty good track record.”

Noonan’s opinion of Palin may not suit Kristol, but it seems pretty ridiculous to in turn criticize it by way of an entirely different argument. Maybe he meant it as a red herring: a debate about the elite vs. hoi polloi is a debate made general, and not Palin-specific. And it takes attention away from Noonan’s delineation of Palin’s inadequacies—for instance, the governor’s seeming lack of intellectual curiosity, and her context-devoid talking points.

These are hardly the digs at the “vulgus” that Kristol makes them out to be. They’re directed straight at Palin’s qualifications. Opinion columns are good for providing the nuanced context that news articles can sometimes lack. But when it’s the wrong context, as it is here, it makes the opinion format seem vapid.

Kristol ends his column by raising “Joe Wurzelbacher, a k a Joe the Plumber” up on the everyman’s pedestal, saying: “He seems like a sensible man to me.” Praising the McCain-Palin ticket for “hav[ing] had the good sense to embrace him,” he adds, “I join them in taking my stand with Joe the Plumber—in defiance of Horace the Poet.” Good sense, it would seem from this, falls to McCain, Palin, Wurzelbacher, and Kristol—and well, certainly not to poor Horace. If Kristol wished to draw such an alignment, he didn’t need Noonan’s column to do so. From the top, now…

The New York Times’s Lawrence K. Altman, one of the few reporters in the this country who holds an M.D., has a long breakdown on the front page today of what is known about the four presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ current health. Actually, it’s more about what is unknown:

Fifteen days before the election, serious gaps remain in the public’s knowledge about the health of the presidential and vice-presidential nominees. The limited information provided by the candidates is a striking departure from recent campaigns, in which many candidates and their doctors were more forthcoming.

In past elections, the decisions of some candidates for the nation’s top elected offices to withhold health information turned out to have a significant impact after the information came to light. This year, the health issue carries extraordinary significance because two of the four nominees have survived potentially fatal medical problems that could recur.

I interviewed Altman in June, shortly after John McCain allowed a limited group of reporters—from which Altman was notably excluded—to view (but not photocopy or otherwise digitally record) over 1,000 pages of his medical records. Altman was allowed to take part in a teleconference with McCain’s doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona following the release, but New York Times reporters were prohibited from asking questions, and the call lasted only forty-five minutes rather than the promised two hours. When I asked Altman about the stonewalling, he replied, “They did not like the editorial that ran in early May—which I had nothing to do with—pointing out that [McCain] had passed his April deadline for issuing his medical records; we’d been trying to get them for over a year.”

Nonetheless, McCain seems to have been more forthcoming with information than the other candidates in the race and, appropriately, he received most of the attention in Altman’s piece today. Most importantly, Altman explains some conflicting opinion about the melanoma McCain had removed in 2000. Mayo Clinic doctors had reported that it was a primary, or new, melanoma and that none of four detected melanomas had spread. But two pathologists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, after examining a biopsy of the melanoma, suggested that it had spread, or metastasized, from another melanoma—a much more worrisome opinion. Unfortunately, according to Altman’s article:

The Armed Forces pathologists did not speak in the teleconference in May 2008, and questions raised by their report have remained unanswered. The selected reporters did not ask about that report, and the Mayo Clinic doctors did not discuss it. A complete Mayo pathology report was apparently not included in the pool summary.

Obama’s lack of transparency about his medical is second only to that of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has refused to release any medical information or grant any interviews (personally or from her doctors). Last May, Obama’s campaign released an undated, single-page letter from his doctor in Chicago stating vaguely that he is in “excellent health.” According to Altman’s article:

Mr. Obama has had a notable medical problem: a difficulty in stopping smoking. It is not known how heavily he smoked. Dr. Scheiner wrote that Mr. Obama began smoking at least two decades ago and had made several efforts to stop. Mr. Obama has used Nicorette gum “with success,” Dr. Scheiner wrote, without defining success.

… Dr. Scheiner did not say when Mr. Obama had started using Nicorette, how much he had used or for how long he had used it. Reporters have often observed him chewing it.

Mr. Obama said he quit smoking in 2007 when he began his presidential campaign. But he has “bummed” cigarettes since then, he has said.

… Information about Mr. Obama’s smoking is relevant because studies show that the risk of cancer and other tobacco-related serious diseases declines after an individual stops smoking, but not until then.

Delaware Senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden’s record on medical transparency seems to be somewhat similar to McCain’s insofar as he has released some troubling information and a complete, up-to-date picture is still missing. According the Altman’s article, “[He] had emergency surgery in 1988 for an aneurysm in an artery in his brain and elective surgery for a second one. His campaign released 49 pages of medical records to The New York Times late last week showing that he was healthy, but the documents did not indicate whether he had had a test in recent years to detect any new aneurysm.”

The first aneurysms kept Biden away from the Senate for seven months, according to Altman: “Now, a question arises: Has Mr. Biden developed a new aneurysm over the last two decades that could burst?” While Altman reports that Biden’s type of aneurysm was once thought to be a “once-in-a-lifetime event,” doctors now think it can recur. Although the likelihood of recurrence might still be low, Altman wrote:

Four leading neurosurgeons interviewed separately in this country and Europe said that as a vice-presidential nominee, Mr. Biden should have had recent brain imaging studies to detect any new aneurysm, because if one is found he might face more neurosurgery and be out of work for weeks or longer.

At any rate, the lack of transparency among all four candidates for the nation’s two highest offices is disturbing. Thankfully, Altman was undeterred and, perhaps coincidentally , his story was cast into even higher relief by one that appeared next to it on the Times’s front page. It was by Amy Harmon, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for her stories about the privacy dilemmas surrounding DNA testing. Her story today focuses on the first ten volunteers in the “Personal Genome Project, a study at Harvard University Medical School aimed at challenging the conventional wisdom that the secrets of our genes are best kept to ourselves.”

Alas, our candidates are not so bold.

Bemusement Park


Here’s the lede on one article about the final presidential candidates’ debate:

“Calmly swatting away John McCain’s aggression in their last debate the other night, Barack Obama repeatedly flashed his beautiful smile—that silky version of the Palin wink—confidently signaling voters that he was bemused but never threatened.”

Another article on the debate said, “At numerous points, Obama shrugged off McCain’s attacks with a bemused smile.”

If the last six months of Nexis citations are any guide, more than half the people reading this think, as the above writers did, that “bemused” means something like “amused.” But it doesn’t. Unless Obama was “confused,” or “muddled,” or “puzzled,” he was not “bemused.”

Of all the major dictionaries, only Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “bemused” as “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement,” and that definition is its third, meaning it is the least used or most recently recognized. All the other dictionaries and usage guides maintain that “bemuse” suggests a frown or furrowed brow, not a smile. A few dictionaries also define “bemused” as “to cause to be engrossed in thought.”

What has happened to “bemuse” has happened to a lot of other words: A perfectly good English word that means one thing is co-opted by people who think it means something else. Take “discrete,” for example, which is often misused to mean “discreet.” (“Discrete” means “separate” or “distinct.” Use it with discretion.) Usually, the incorrectly used word sounds like the word that is really wanted. It’s amusing, really, but it’s also “bemusing,” because a perfectly good word already existed. In some cases, a writer might use the wrong word in the belief that it is “more intellectual,” in which case the writer may “bemuse” readers who know better.

Here’s one ambiguous example, from an article on a federal appeals court hearing arguments in a tobacco settlement case: “‘So you want us to enforce the decree not based on what it says but what it “meant,”’ responded a bemused Judge David S. Tatel, a Clinton appointee who has sided with the government in tobacco cases.”

Was the judge puzzled? Or was he being sarcastic, and thus wryly amused?

But here’s one article, accompanying a recipe for empanadas, where “bemused” is unambiguously used correctly: “I’m a little bemused because the directions say the filling should be a bit spicy, but the recipe calls for just salt, black pepper and white pepper. I suppose the peppers give it a bit of kick.”

We were not “bemused.”

The Plumber's Tale


The emails I occasionally receive from the McCain campaign aren't generally funny. Glorifying as they do the us-versus-them mentality that has become a hallmark of so many of both campaigns' recent communications, they're often rather distressing. Their subtext is often double, suggesting at once victimization and empowerment (as in: "The liberal, elite media are bashing Sarah Palin for no reason. Help stop their attacks: Donate now!"). Which: fascinating, sure. Revealing—oh, totally. But funny? Not so much.

And yet, a few moments ago, my inbox received a fairly funny message, sent from an article-less "McCain-Palin Team" and slugged..."I'm Joe the Plumber."

Well. Thinking this must be some kind of joke—or, at the very least, an urgent message from a plumber from the Cote d'Ivoire who's just inherited millions and will give me a cut if I help him invest it—I took the bait, and clicked. And was greeted with this:

At which point I realized...Not. A. Joke. Despite everything we've learned about Joe the Plumber since the final presidential debate catapulted him to fame last week—that he doesn't really fall into the tax bracket whose implications he discussed with Obama; that he owes over $1,000 in back-taxes; that he's not, in fact, a licensed plumber—the McCain campaign is still treating Wurzelbacher as the populist Everyman whose life story is an inspiration to Hard-Working Americans everywhere...and who, in the three words of pop-culture shorthand, will remind those Hard-Working Americans of the four little words that Barack Obama uttered when speaking to Joe: "spreading the wealth around." "Joe the Plumber" is a stand-in for, among other things, "Obama the Socialist."

And as Joe's story has played out in the media—from those first, gleeful stories about him to the revelations about his background—Joe's story has assumed another dimension: "Joe the Plumber" has become, apparently, a stand-in for another three-fer: "Journalists Are Jerks."

The media, after all, had the audacity to probe the background of the man who would be Everyman. They're the ones who found out about the whole not-technically-a-plumber thing and all the back-taxes stuff. Vicious. They're the ones to blame for Joe's transformation from a symbol of empowerment (Look how he built himself up!) to one of victimization (Look how they've torn him down!). What average Joe wouldn't empathize with this literal average Joe?

Take this take from Byron York, writing in The National Review this morning about why Wurzelbacher has become a figure of empathy for so many:

The second reason Joe the Plumber resonates with the crowds is what his experience says about the media. Everybody here seems acutely aware of the once-over Wurzelbacher received from the press after his chance encounter with Obama was reported, first on Fox News, and then mentioned by McCain at last week’s presidential debate. Wurzelbacher found himself splashed across newspapers and cable shows, many of which reported that he didn’t have a plumber’s license, that he wasn’t a member of the plumbers’ union, that he had a lien against him for $1,182 in state taxes, and that he failed to comprehend what many commentators apparently felt was the indisputable fact that Barack Obama would lower his taxes, not raise them. As the people here in Woodbridge saw it, Joe was a guy who asked Barack Obama an inconvenient question — and for his troubles suddenly found himself under investigation by the media.

In the audience Saturday, there were plenty of people who were mad about it. There was real anger at this rally, but it wasn’t, as some erroneous press reports from other McCain rallies have suggested, aimed at Obama. It was aimed at the press.

This is as telling as it is utterly baffling. York is suggesting—actually, he's simply assuming—that information itself is partisan. And that the most basic impulse of political journalism—to report things about public figures—is politically motivated. There are myriad ways that such an assumption is wrong, and those are obvious enough. And there are many other instances one could point to of partisanship seeping into our attitudes toward the act of fact-gathering itself. But, still. To hear the generally respected York so clearly prioritize his role as a partisan over his role as a journalist is, to say the least, troubling.

Just as it's troubling to see other journalists treat Joe as a symbol not of populist empowerment, but of populist outrage. When Wurzelbacher appeared on Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor's oddly Oprah-esque new Fox News talk show, this weekend, he was joined by Steven Moore, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, who had this to say:

Ladies and gentlemen, aren't you outraged by the way the left-wing attack machine and the media, The New York Times and the left establishment, has tried to destroy a man who creates jobs, he works for a living, he's served this country. This is an outrage, don't you agree with me?

To which the crowd exploded in applause.

A lengthy New York Times piece on the heavy involvement of Goldman Sachs alumni in the government apparatus in charge of the financial crisis avoids altogether what to me is a pressing question: What was Goldman’s own contribution to all this?

Headlined “The Guys From Government Sachs,” the piece breaks some but not much new ground in exploring the pros, cons, and potential conflicts that might arise from the flurry of hires Hank Paulson has made to cope with the crisis, including that of Neel T. Kashkari, a thirty-five-year-old former Goldman investment banker to serve as point man on the government’s bailout.

I didn’t know that Ed Liddy, the new head of A.I.G., was a Goldman director, but then that’s not a secret either and I doubt it was decisive in the selection of the former chairman and CEO of Allstate to run the government’s new insurance company. Liddy has his own problems—the subject of another post—but they have nothing do with his being a Goldman director. (I’ll get you started on Liddy with this excellent report from Robert Hunter, the Consumer Federation’s insurance expert, on Allstate’s get-tough history on claims, as well as a story from last spring by the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune on the same subject, and a good 2006 BusinessWeek story for background.)

The Times piece raises the potential for conflicts of interest, a legitimate and obvious issue that has gotten some attention elsewhere. Strangely, though, Sunday’s piece leaves out the anecdote reported by the Times’s own Gretchen Morgenson on September 27, that presented the conflicts issue in its most glaring light: the meeting earlier that month between Paulson and Lloyd C. Blankfein, in which the former Goldman CEO and his successor discuss the fate of A.I.G.

As Morgenson wrote:

Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said.

Days later, federal officials, who had let Lehman die and initially balked at tossing a lifeline to A.I.G., ended up bailing out the insurer for $85 billion.

Again, it was already reported, so I can see why one wouldn’t want to rehash it. But in a lengthy discussion of Goldman’s potential conflicts, I’d say it merited a mention.

I’m also not nuts about the way the Sunday piece allows Goldman loyalists to respond to a charge that nobody in the piece is making: that the Paulson hires are part of a “conspiracy” or a “cabal” to exclude other bankers and/or enrich Goldman Sachs. The emphasis is mine:

Not so fast, say Goldman’s supporters. They vehemently dismiss suggestions that Mr. Paulson’s team would elevate Goldman’s interests above those of other banks, homeowners and taxpayers. Such chatter, they say, is a paranoid theory peddled, almost always anonymously, by less successful rivals. Just add black helicopters, they joke.

Ha ha. Good one. Actually, no one in the piece raised anything like a conspiracy argument. The conflicts are so obvious that one doesn’t need any anonymous sources to raise them. They’re just there, as the Times notes: “Decisions that Mr. Paulson and other Goldman alumni make at Treasury directly affect the firm’s own fortunes.”

It’s true that Paulson, Kashkari, and others sold their Goldman shares, but you don’t have to be paranoid to wonder if they would help the firm that made them rich, where their friends still work, and to which they may one day return.

The Times piece continues:

“There is no conspiracy,” said Donald C. Langevoort, a law professor at Georgetown University. “Clearly if time were not a problem, you would have a committee of independent people vetting all of the potential conflicts, responding to questions whether someone ought to be involved with a particular aspect or project or not because of relationships with a former firm — but those things do take time and can’t be imposed in an emergency situation.”

This all says less about the Times, perhaps, than it does about the way Goldman’s wealth and power stoke over-the-top, wing-flapping hysteria in its defense among some sectors of the financial commentariat.

Check out this blowhard:

“There are people at Goldman Sachs making no money, living at hotels, trying to save the financial world,” said Jes Staley, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s asset management division. “To indict Goldman Sachs for the people helping out Washington is wrong.”

In hotels! Is there no end to the cruelty?! Sob. Sniffle. Thank you, Jes. Now go back and manage some assets in your division.

And of course, Goldman itself is blasé.

Goldman concurs. “We’re proud of our alumni, but frankly, when they work in the public sector, their presence is more of a negative than a positive for us in terms of winning business,” said Lucas Van Praag, a spokesman for Goldman. “There is no mileage for them in giving Goldman Sachs the corporate equivalent of most-favored-nation status.”

Frankly, Lucas, whatever you just said, because, frankly, it has no meaning.

But frankly, as long as we’re being frank, what about this issue:

They also question why Goldman, which with other firms may have helped fuel the financial crisis through the use of exotic securities, has such a strong hand in trying to resolve the problem.

That’s the most uncovered issue of the entire crisis, and it’s stuck inside an interior clause of a single sentence. I’ve written about it before. I’ll write about it again:

Readers need a better understanding of where Goldman fits into the creation of this toxic wasteland that is our global financial system—just as they need a better understanding of where all of Wall Street fits in. We need some accounting and accountability here, a look at the entire mortgage conveyor belt that stretched from Wall Street to Orange County to the Ameriquests of the world and back again. It’s that machine that brought us to this day.

So far, the best examination of this critical issue still belongs to This American Life. That’s a radio show. Who else will step up?

Wikipedia vs. Joe the Plumber


If John McCain and Barack Obama's invocation of "Joe the Plumber" twenty-odd times in their final debate wasn't enough to vault the Ohioan into national prominence, subsequent newspaper articles and interviews from far and wide certainly did the trick. But over at Wikipedia, the question of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher's notability has created a real mess.

Since John McCain first mentioned Wurzelbacher on Wednesday night, a page dedicated to him was created, deleted, frozen, created, and relegated to a section in another article. It was redirected and locked. For a time, the way his name was spelled in search queries influenced the landing page. Then the page was reinstated, and it remains that way now, protected against editing by unregistered and newly registered users.

Many of Wikipedia’s most fervent users are adamant that the site is an encyclopedia, not a news source. But the site is used as a resource by any number of people looking for information about topics in the news—including many reporters for whom Wikipedia is a default research tool. As Wikipedia becomes mainstreamed, this disconnect between original intention and public perception sparks a debate over its role and responsibility as an all-purpose knowledge base and research tool.

Wikipedia's users—who are fully responsible for writing and organizing the online encyclopedia—choose, as a group, whether any given article is worthy of inclusion. And while the site contains any number of entries on subcharacters in various fantasy universes, its users were torn over whether the very real Wurzelbacher deserved an entry of his own.

The two camps in this tug-of-war over Joe the Plumber are the two basic camps often arrayed against each other in Wikipedia’s notability wars. Some users, known on the site as conservatives, want Wikipedia to resemble more traditional encyclopedias.

"They resent fads, reality TV celebrities, obscure Internet cartoon characters, garage bands, and local businesses," Ben Lowe, a site administrator, said. "To Wikipedia's conservatives, it's an affront to the seriousness of the project."

But if there are conservatives, so must there be liberals, who argue for inclusion. "It's not up to Wikipedia to determine whether something is notable," the gold standard for an article’s existence, Lowe said. "Establishing that something is true and citing it in a secondary source makes it good enough to include."

The kind of back-and-forth discussion, meting out the applicability of each argument, took place on a page dedicated to whether Joseph Wurzelbacher’s entry should be deleted.

"It is overwhelmingly clear," wrote one Wikipedia user called Tarc, "that this person's notoriety is only based upon a single event, and the guidelines for handling such cases are crystal-clear. Not a single one of the 'keep' votes legitimately addresses this point, and thus should be disregarded in the final considerations." Tarc's comment, whose combative tone is par for the course, draws on the conservative ideology and points to a Wikipedia standard to ground his argument.

Wikipedia has a guideline pertaining to "articles about people notable for only one event," referred to as the BLP1E , and it encourages its users to "cover the event, not the person." Most of the users arguing against an article dedicated to Wurzelbacher point to this guideline, which says, "We should generally avoid having an article" on an essentially "low-profile individual...mentioned by name in a Wikipedia article about a larger subject."

Still, Sage Ross, another Wikipedia administrator, argued, "We shouldn't let our fairly straightforward notability and sourcing policies, which this article clearly meets the letter of, get shoved aside because of some vague feeling that this person isn't the type of person who deserves a Wikipedia article." As any good liberal might, Sage is relying more heavily on "sourcing policies," essentially claiming that, if something can be linked to, it's good enough for Wikipedia.

A third argument split the difference between the two traditional camps. Let the guy have his own page, the argument went, but drop his real name and label the entry "Joe the Plumber", so that it fits better within the context of the campaign and recent presidential debate.

"As a current events reference," veteran editor Dtobias wrote, "it's a useful article to have." But "as an actual person...he's probably not sufficiently notable for a bio, meaning that the article would perhaps be better placed under "Joe the Plumber" rather than his real name." User Cube lurker made the point succinctly: "Cover the meme not the man."

This compromise scenario ultimately won out. Wikipedia's page on Joe Wurzelbacher—found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_the_Plumber—discusses his encounter with Barack Obama, his appearances in the press, and his status as a plumber. Joe also has spawned a subsection of Wikipedia's page on the presidential debates of 2008.

The article appears safe—for now. “Redirecting his article now would only cause needless drama, from both experienced editors who think he should have an article and new editors who can't understand why we don't have an article on such a "notable" subject,” wrote Bjweeks, the administrator who ultimately decided that Wurzelbacher’s entry merited inclusion. “In a few days or weeks after the spotlight has moved to another political talking point, this should be revisited with a new AfD. I realize this means that Wikipedia will be a news site for a short period of time but I don't see any real harm in that.”

AP's Tale of Two Ropelines

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Two Associated Press headlines today:

"Obama ropelines: bouncing babies, controlled chaos"

"McCain ropelines: more discipline, less chatting"

(... and also, apparently, "bouncing babies," if the accompanying photo is to be believed).

So: Which sounds like more fun to you?

This Tale of Two Ropelines can be summarized by the way the AP "defines," for campaign newcomers, the term "ropeline" in each story.

From "Obama's ropelines:"

Working the "ropeline" is an old tradition for big-time politicians. In Obama's case, the barrier that separates him from surging fans is always a low, metal fence, erected around the stage before he arrives.

And, "McCain's ropelines:"

Working the "ropeline" - the fence or security barricade that separates a candidate from the crowd - is part of the rhythm of any presidential campaign. Some candidates are energized by the experience; others view it as a chore.

How do you think McCain "views" it?

When McCain works a ropeline, his face seems to telegraph his thoughts: After a recent teleprompter speech in New Mexico, his expression seemed to suggest, 'These rope lines are a chore.'"

While other times, reporters don't have to read minds or faces because McCain's words tell us what he's thinking (presumably, though we are talking about a politician here) :

But when he walked offstage recently in Davenport, Iowa, where an anti-war protester had stopped him on Saturday, McCain flashed a wide grin and told [a campaign aide], "That was fun."

But, fun for whom?

From "McCain's ropelines:"

As the campaign enters its home stretch, McCain's time on the ropeline is becoming more tightly controlled. Advisers try to limit unscripted interactions that can unexpectedly turn sour....

Gone are the days when McCain would endlessly linger after a rally and hold almost a second event to shake hands and talk with voters. It's a sign of just how reined-in the freewheeling candidate has become.

And, from "Obama's ropelines:"

What is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for his supporters is a daily job for Obama, and he performs it in steady, workmanlike fashion.

People five, six, even 10 rows back stretch out their arms in vain, unable to reach him. Most call out "good luck," or "we're with you." Some appear too awe-struck to speak.

Others clearly want a longer conversation. But Obama usually keeps moving at his steady pace, inches from the bedlam. He pauses for only a few.

“That’s Not Right.”


It was a cold night in early January when Dana Goldstein, a writer for The American Prospect, was interviewing caucus goers in the auditorium of Des Moines’s Harding Middle School.

She started talking with a supporter of John Edwards. When he said he disliked Obama, Goldstein asked why. Among other things, he mentioned e-mails he’d read claiming that Obama was a Muslim.

"There are so many rumors about his background, and you know, it's scary," Goldstein quoted him as saying.

“This is not in my piece, but I remember what I said: ‘I don’t think that those rumors are true,’” Goldstein says. “And I don’t know if I did the right thing or not, but I didn’t feel like I could stay silent.”

“My simple answer—‘I don’t think that’s true’—sort of felt like a way to stay somewhat objective and still cast some doubt on what he said,” says Goldstein. “I guess objective is the wrong word. I’d say somewhat disinterested.”

It’s a scene that has, no doubt, happened thousands of times to reporters covering this campaign: during the course of an interview, a voter alleges that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Barack Obama is a Muslim. (Of course, whether or not he is should be immaterial, but Islamophobia exists, and some voters are weighing false information about Obama’s beliefs.)

“I hear it all the time,” says Wes Allison, a national affairs writer for the St. Petersburg Times. “In New Hampshire, I’ve heard it. In South Carolina I’ve heard it. In Florida I’ve heard it. In Pennsylvania I’ve heard it.”

When this allegation makes it into print, it’s usually followed by a note making clear that the contention is false. But that sort of correction doesn’t always come as quickly, routinely, or easily during the course of the actual interview. And this raises questions about the proper balance between a host of competing interests and ideals: impartiality, setting the record straight, getting the best interview, and being honest with sources.

“I don’t correct,” says Allison. “And honestly, it’s not that I want people to have the wrong impression.

“But my mission’s not to change the minds of the voter, but to report on the texture of what voters are thinking,” says Allison. “Every person I interview represents ten people. And if I didn’t let him finish, I’d never hear what his ten friends from the diner were saying.”

“For me to say he’s not a Muslim, that interrupts the flow… It’s like dropping a two by four in the creek,” says Allison, adding that if the conversation is long, he might work in a correction as a way of probing the origins or strength of the false belief.

That idea of using the truth as a tool to push interview subjects is the main reason that Michael Powell of The New York Times says he tries to correct the record in every interview where the Muslim claim arises, as it did while he was reporting in Pennsylvania over the summer.

“Almost without exception, you’ll get a more interesting answer. The point isn’t to try to get in an argument with people. The point is to draw them out,” says Powell. “I’d love to say it’s out of some sense of high ethics, and maybe it is at some inchoate level, but it’s also out of good journalism, or more interesting journalism, because you’re going to get a more revealing response if you poke and prod people.”

Earlier this month, a version of the falsehood grabbed the news cycle when Gayle Quinell, a seventy-five-year-old McCain volunteer, took the microphone at a town hall forum to tell her candidate that she couldn’t trust Obama because he was “an Arab.”

After the event broke up, reporters found Quinnell, and Adam Aigner-Treworgy of MSNBC asked about how she came to believe that Obama was a Muslim. After several rounds of this, CNN’s Dana Bash chimed in to explain that Obama’s father was Muslim, but that Obama had never been a Muslim, and that he was a Christian. The exchange was uploaded to the internet by TheUptake, a citizen journalism Web site.

“I think it is a fine line when you are talking to someone who doesn’t have all the facts,” said Bash. “I think it’s really, really, important to make the case that it’s not my job, nor was I trying to convince her that Barack Obama is a Christian. What I was trying to do after she had gotten a lot of questions about how she got her information was to see how seared that information was into her head, and to see whether or not she was open to other ideas, and to the idea she might be wrong.”

Bash was adamant that any story she’d produce mentioning the falsehood would include a line explaining that Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim. I asked Bash if she thought there was more of a place for that in a story than in a real-time interview.

“I think it’s both,” she responded. “What do we do? We try to put out correct information as reporters. That’s our job. In part, saying, wait a minute, he’s a Christian, it was trying to inform her. She doesn’t have to wait for my piece on television. She doesn’t have to wait for my live shot. She can hear me there.”

Daniel Malloy is a young reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Earlier this month, he wrote a piece exploring voter opinion in a rural county in southern Pennsylvania. Before he began reporting, he considered how he’d handle it if anyone repeated the Muslim lie to him. He decided that spot corrections were necessary.

“We are journalists and our job is to inform the public,” he says. “When I write this story later, I’m going to say that he’s not a Muslim. So when this person reads this story, is it going to be weird for them to read it in the paper but not have heard it from me? That’s a little bit dishonest, almost. If it’s supposedly our job to educate and inform the public, we should be educating and informing the public verbally as well as in the written word.”

I’ve only had one experience reporting on the campaign where something like this came up. It was during April’s Pennsylvania primary, and I was at a rec-building polling station in a northeast Philadelphia park, interviewing people about where they’d found their information on the candidates.

Hector Rivera, a thirty-seven-year old bricklayer, had clearly spent a lot of time reading about the election, and was proud to tick off his news sources and what he’d learned. But I was a little taken aback when he vaguely mentioned Obama’s father and stepfather, just before claiming that when Obama “was sworn in to the Senate, he did it on the Koran, not the proper Bible.”

I asked Rivera where he had read that.

Human Events,” he said. “Someone e-mailed it to me.”

And then I told him that that he had in fact been sworn in on a Bible, and that what he’d heard was just a rumor.

“It’s a rumor? Then that’s not right for people to say,” said Rivera.

That response was much more surprising to me than his original claim. How could someone who was so up on the election—seconds before, he had referenced Clinton’s dodgy landing-under-sniper-fire anecdote—have seen the Muslim rumor, but not seen information that would have set him straight? And why was he so willing to believe me once I told him he was wrong? And why would it have mattered to him if the Koran statement were true? I wish I’d thought to ask.

In any case, my experience seems to be an exception. The reporters I spoke to said that any real-time corrections to the Muslim rumors almost always have no impact. Interviewees say something to the effect that the rumor—even if they weren’t entirely sure of its veracity—was still enough to trouble them; or they make some factually true, if still Islamophobic, statement, like pointing out his Muslim ancestry.

It’s a depressing thought for a journalist: no matter when you point them out, sometimes the facts don’t matter.

"You Have Been So Friendly..."

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As mentioned in passing in this earlier post, the morning after her SNL appearance, being in town and all, Gov. Palin sat down for an interview with WWOR-TV's (New York) My9 News (local press being political candidates' favorite sort of press in the later stages of the campaign).

While My9 News highlighted Palin's response to Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama in its introduction to Brenda Blackmon's "exclusive" Palin interview -- "The Maverick Takes on The General" (she tells Blackmon she "begs to differ" with Powell's suggestion she isn't ready to be president) -- I was struck by the way Blackmon began and concluded her interview. "Do you mind if I take you up to the set?" Blackmon asked as she and Palin walked toward the interview set. (Almost as if she expected Palin to say, "You know what? No. Changed my mind. Don't want to take questions." Why chance it like that?) Blackmon ended the interview by asking Palin, the "former journalist," how she liked the studio, how she liked Blackmon's "digs." Said Palin:

Very beautiful. Yes, it's just very sharp and classy, too. Yeah, I really like it. This is beautiful. You have been so friendly. This is so nice.

And Blackmon had been pretty friendly. She even lent Palin her studio.

BLACKMON: [Palin] spent more than one hour with us... She even took some time to get some state business done, using our studio to send a message back to Alaska...

PALIN: Hi, I'm Governor Sarah Palin. Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you at the Alaska Federation of Natives 2008 Convention in Anchorage...

Who’s Cutting What in Medicare?

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All of a sudden last week Medicare zoomed atop the list of acceptable campaign talk. It started with an early October Wall Street Journal story, reporting that John McCain would pay for his health plan with major reductions to Medicare and Medicaid, possibly cutting more than $1 trillion over ten years to both programs. Alarming stuff to people who care about the poor and the elderly. Adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said that the campaign had always planned to partially fund McCain’s plan, primarily the much ballyhooed tax credits, with cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. He didn’t give specifics on where in those programs the money might actually come from.

To jog your memory: Congress operates on a pay-as-you-go system. If it wants a new program, an old one has to go. So if the uninsured are to get federal help paying for health insurance, money must come from somewhere else in the budget—a kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul scheme.

During last week’s debate, Barack Obama dipped his toe into the waters of pay-as-you-go when he called himself a strong proponent of matching the cost of new programs with equivalent budget cuts. He tossed out an obvious example—the billions of dollars in government overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans, a certain kind of Medicare insurance policy authorized in 2003 as a way to further the privatization of Medicare. These plans offer the prescription drug benefit as well as hospital and physician coverage. That way, someone on Medicare can avoid having to get his or her benefits from the government.

To make it attractive for insurance companies to sell these plans, Medicare overpays them, spending more money to insure a person under these plans than it does to provide coverage directly to someone under traditional Medicare. This year, according to New York-based research and philanthropic group The Commonwealth Fund, Medicare will, on average, pay about 12 percent more, or almost $9 billion. From 2004 to 2008, the overpayments totaled some $33 billion. During the debate, Obama hardly made it clear what he was talking about:

Every dollar that I’ve proposed, I’ve proposed an additional cut so that it matches. And some of the cuts, just to give you an example, we spend $15 billion on subsidies to insurance companies. It doesn’t—under the Medicare plan—it doesn’t help seniors get any better. It’s not improving our health care system. It’s just a giveaway.

A few days after the debate, though, an Obama ad distilled the issue Madison Avenue style, citing The Wall Street Journal and declaring that McCain would tax health benefits and cut Medicare. The McCain camp cried foul with a Friday press release accusing Obama of “Medicare Malpractice And Lies.” But the press release was about as cryptic as Obama’s debate remarks.

In a section called “THE TRUTH,” it said: “Just Two Days Ago, Barack Obama Highlighted His Own “Cut” to Medicare Spending,” without explaining that Obama meant cutting overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans, which many Medicare experts say are indefensible. The release also noted, in a section labeled “THE MALPRACTICE”, that “Barack Obama implied That The Wall Street Journal Reported John McCain Plans To ‘Cut Medicare By $882 Billion,’” and said Obama was citing his own campaign because the report had come from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, which, the release said, supports Obama.

Neither the press release nor the ad is very useful in helping people understand what’s at stake with Medicare, so we hope the press won’t take McCain’s press release or Obama’s ad very seriously. But we do urge the media to take Medicare seriously, and move beyond the gloom and doom stories peddled by conservative interests—like the one that recently came out of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Now is the perfect time to revisit the issue of Medicare overpayments and the likelihood that wealthier seniors may have to pay more for their benefits, which some experts say will further hasten privatization. Down the road, wealthier people may find they can do better in the marketplace and leave Medicare, destroying its value as a social insurance program where everyone gets the same benefits. (Last summer, Congress did cut some of the overpayments, but the cuts don’t take effect until 2010.)

It’s also the right time to revisit Medicare Advantage plans. Open enrollment is starting, and, in the next month or so, seniors get the chance to choose a new plan for their drug benefits. Open enrollment is open season for insurance agents who have lured seniors to the new plans, often with misleading or deceptive sales pitches. There’s a good story to be told in what, exactly, Medicare consumers are getting in return for the government’s generosity to the health insurers.

Endorsements Out Of Ohio

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Four newspapers in the battleground state of Ohio endorsed Barack Obama's candidacy this weekend, raising his total Ohio endorsement count to five. (The Canton Repository declared its support back in September.) The state's eleven remaining major newspapers have yet to release endorsements.

Read the editorials here:

The New Philadephia, Ohio Times-Reporter: "Our opinion: Barack Obama for president"

The Akron Beacon Journal: "Obama for president"

The Dayton JournalNews and the Middletown Journal:
Obama the leader we need at this historic time"

Echoes of Hank

Remember "McCain/Palin Tradition," Hank Williams, Jr.'s re-working of his song "Family Tradition" that was unveiled last week on the campaign trail (and played and replayed on cable news)? You know:

Like a mama bear in Idaho

She'll protect your family's condition

If you mess with her cubs

She's gonna take of the gloves

It's an American female tradition...

(Mom's clawing the eyes of anyone who would harm her young? That's as American as her apple pie, at least. Love those "American female traditions!")

Anyway, if you haven't been able to get this song out of your head since, you're not alone. Per the New York Times:

Gov. Sarah Palin said Sunday that the hardest part about public life as the Republican vice-presidential nominee was the news media coverage of her children. That, Ms. Palin said, brought out the grizzly bear in her.

“The toughest thing has been the shots taken against the kids, against the family,” said Ms. Palin, according to a partial transcript of an interview with WWOR, a television station that serves New York City. “They’re my kids. The mama grizzly bear in me comes out, makes me want to rear up on my hind legs and say, ‘Wait a minute.’

“It’s a little bit unfair there...



The only "press conference" Gov. Sarah Palin has conducted to date as the vice presidential nominee took place on "Saturday Night Live?" And it went (after the real Palin took over for Tina Fey's Palin, who actually fielded a few questions):

PALIN: No, I’m not going to take any of your questions, but I do want to take this opportunity to say, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.'

That's funny? (Really?)

UPDATE: A professor of pop culture (Bob Thompson of Syracuse University) has an assignment for Gov. Palin:

I think the work [Palin] needs to do is not the kind on a comedy show. It would be great if she could go on a snobby serious discussion show and blow everybody away...

Audit Roundup: Oil Turmoil

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The bust has already sent oil prices tumbling, but here’s a shocking headline from Bloomberg: Options contracts are pointing to $50 a barrel oil by the end of the year. Crude was at more than $147 just three months ago.

That’s good for the economy short-term, but long-term it will keep us tethered to foreign oil supplies and gas-guzzling cars longer than we would have with expensive oil. The Washington Post is good on that:

"Declining oil prices can give us an artificial and temporary sense that reducing oil consumption and energy consumption is an issue we can put off," said Greg Kats, a managing director of Good Energies, a multibillion-dollar venture capital firm that invests in global clean energy.

The credit crisis is compounding that threat by making it more difficult to finance capital-intensive projects, whether they are new auto assembly lines or solar panels or wind turbines. General Motors has been touting the Chevy Volt as the first mass-marketed, plug-in hybrid vehicle. GM, which has been holding merger talks with Chrysler, believes the project will help justify federal financing. It hopes to deliver the car by the end of 2010.

The Journal chimes in on the effect on renewable-energy companies. It ain’t pretty.

In the past three months, global renewable-energy stocks tracked by New Energy Finance, a London-based consultancy, have dropped about 45%, compared with a 23% decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period.

The sector's problems have been compounded by the skid in oil prices to below $70 a barrel last week from more than $147 in July. The sudden reversal in crude prices has removed — at least temporarily — a key rationale for investors to pump billions of dollars into alternative fuels, industry analysts say.

The result: At least in the short term, a slew of projects from palm-oil-based biodiesel plants in Indonesia and Malaysia to wind farms and solar projects across the U.S. and Europe may not be able to get funding.

The Journal’s Heard on the Street column says “the race to the bottom on regulation is over” and suggests that the U.S. beef up its regulatory system to maintain financial supremacy. It notes it’s the opposite argument from what Henry Paulson was making not so long ago:

Two years ago this month, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was talking about how the regulatory pendulum "may have swung too far" in the wake of corporate scandals earlier this decade.

Mr. Paulson's fear: That overly burdensome regulation would make U.S. capital markets less innovative and competitive globally. If only.

As investors now know, stunningly ineffective regulation led to the biggest credit bubble ever. Its implosion has resulted in the nationalization of swaths of the financial system. Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has taken to calling Mr. Paulson's boss "Comrade Bush."

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that whoever succeeds Mr. Paulson will need to view competent regulation as a competitive advantage, not an albatross. This will be especially important in bond markets, where global investors will choose between instruments backed by a variety of government guarantees. Clearly, a country's financial strength, along with prospects for its currency, will be important factors.

But investors will also have to consider which countries can best back up guarantees with regulatory oversight that minimizes chances of unexpected losses.

The Washington Post is keeping an eye on some key dates in the credit-default swap market, which has exacerbated the financial crisis. Problem is, since the system is completely unregulated and opaque, nobody really knows where to watch.

Potentially, hundreds of billions of dollars of these contracts are coming due.

But it's unclear which firms are on the hook, how much they're on for, and whether they can pay. Firms do not have to disclose whether they hold these contracts, called credit-default swaps. So there's no way to know whether the contracts will be settled smoothly, or whether they will set off a cascade of losses in markets that already have been pushed to the brink…

"If there are other large concentrations of CDS outstanding, we don't know about it," said Robert Bliss, a finance professor at Wake Forest University and a former economic adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "But who would have thought AIG, a plain-vanilla insurance company, suddenly was going to get blown up by CDS?"

Robert Samuelson of the Post tosses off a terrible column (not an unusual occurrence by any means).

In this fluid situation, one thing is predictable: The crisis will produce a cottage industry of academics, journalists, pundits, politicians and bloggers to assess blame. Is former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan responsible for holding interest rates too low and for not imposing tougher regulations on mortgage lending? Would Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have spotted the crisis sooner? Did Republican free-market ideologues leave greedy Wall Street types too unregulated?

Some stories are make-believe. After leaving government, Rubin landed at Citigroup as a top executive. He failed to identify toxic mortgage securities as a big problem in the bank's own portfolio. It's implausible to think he'd have done so in Washington. As recent investigative stories in the New York Times and The Post show, the Clinton administration broadly supported the financial deregulation that Democrats are now so loudly denouncing.

Where did Rubin come from here? Does anyone believe he was a gun-totin’, regulatin’ sheriff of Wall Street? I don’t think so. Hello, straw man.

There's a broader lesson. When things go well, everyone wants on the bandwagon. Skeptics are regarded as fools. It's hard for government — or anyone — to say: "Whoa, cowboys; this won't last"…

We go through cycles of self-delusion, sometimes too giddy and sometimes too glum. The consolation is that the genesis of the next recovery usually lies in the ruins of the last recession.

What is this “we” business (and thanks for the platitudes)? Trying to pull everybody into the blame here is irresponsible and dangerous. It deflects blame from the tiny sliver of financiers on Wall Street and elsewhere that created most of the mess.

The NYT’s David Carr visits the set of “Mad Money” and paints a nice picture of a subdued Jim Cramer.

The Times also looks at the growing backlash by newspapers against the Associated Press, which they say is charging them too much while competing with them on the Web—and not writing as many, you know, news stories.

The editors in Ohio, in particular, say The A.P. has retreated from one of its traditional roles: producing a lot of routine, breaking-news articles.

The A.P. wants to make its work more engaging, with more enterprise journalism like features, investigations and analyses — but that is also the direction many papers are going.

Mr. Marrison of The Columbus Dispatch said that course had forced newspapers to devote more resources to small stories that used to be covered by The A.P. “Then The A.P. rewrites our story and sends it out,” he said. “So we’re sacrificing our enterprise so that A.P. can do its enterprise? No, no, no. We’re the owners.”

Out of (Bounds') Bounds

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Tucker Bounds, cable news's favorite McCain campaign spokesperson, to MSNBC's Tamran Hall this morning:

HALL: Let's also talk about the impact this endorsement [Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama] could or could not have. You've got Governor Kaine in Virginia saying it could have an impact there, you've got a lot of military families there. Representative Debbie Wasserman in Florida saying this could resonate in Florida. We know how important those states are...

BOUNDS: Well, Tamran, you are not citing neutral sources there...

HALL: Certainly, I know that. That's what I am saying...

BOUNDS: I want your viewers to know and understand that, sure, the Obama campaign will say this is going to make a difference and I'm here to say it's not...

...There are a lot of things that will be discussed through election day. I think the Colin Powell endorsement has probably met its end in the news cycle...

... "met its end" until Tamran Hall raised it again in a segment minutes later with another McCain surrogate...

Sunday Watch 10-19-08


My dictionary offers this definition of statesman: “a senior politician who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good.” On Meet the Press, the much decorated Colin Powell declared that he was voting for Barack Obama. Thereby Powell clutched for the statesman ring that he forfeited five and a half years ago in front of the U. N. Security Council.

The cynic will say that Powell has discovered that it’s repositioning time in America. Still, Powell’s speech, delivered to Tom Brokaw in large blocs of virtually uninterrupted text, should give the cynic pause. The fact is that Powell went beyond conventional political phrases. He made arguments in behalf of Obama, he commented on what, politically, is at stake, and he offered Obama ammunition that might come in handy in budgetary wars he will have to fight if he is president.

The latter first. Unnoticed in the commentary about Powell’s endorsement was this little exchange:

BROKAW: Given the state of the American economy, can we continue our military commitments around the world at the level that they now exist?

GEN. POWELL: We can. I think we have to look as to whether they have to be at that level. But we have the wealth, we have the wherewithal to do that….And so, first and foremost, we have to review those commitments, see what they are, see what else is needed, and make sure we give our troops what they need to get the job done as we have defined the job.

The italics are mine but the sentiment was Powell’s. He was giving Obama leave to consider cutting the Pentagon budget—a subject that both parties collude in ignoring during the campaign.

Powell blew some kisses at McCain but lauded Obama for “an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor.” Intellectual curiosity, intellectual vigor—when was the last time a high government official, present or recent, lauded those qualities? Democrats can’t say such things. Pundits won’t.

And if that wasn’t enough, Powell, son of Harlem and City College of New York and the U. S. Army, declared that “all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.” Such comments also have become controversial, I suppose.

And if that wasn’t enough, Powell declared himself “disappointed” that the McCain campaign was resorting to “demagoguery,” making “inappropriate” charges about the significance of Bill Ayers. “A little narrow” was one euphemism he used for his party’s modus operandi.

But if that wasn’t enough, Powell said this:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was twenty years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life….

John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

(The unforgettable photo that Powell referred to is here.)

Given the shriveled, retrograde state of political discourse in the United States of America, it took Colin Powell to uphold the Army’s egalitarianism—which derives from the Declaration of Independence—and obstruct what has become an automatic assumption that there’s something wrong with being an American Arab or Muslim. When, in a widely circulating video clip, McCain decided to disagree with a woman at one of his town meetings who said she couldn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab”—a line circulated by Rush Limbaugh—McCain responded: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues….He’s not [an Arab.]” Not an Arab but a decent family man. With this precisely tailored objection to his supporter’s bigotry, McCain hoped to win back some points from a disaffected press. Until Powell spoke, I hadn’t seen many commentators point out that McCain retained his polarity while eating it. (Campbell Brown did so here.)

Powell concluded his set-piece:

I come to the conclusion that because of [Obama’s] ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities—and we have to take that into account—as well as his substance—he has both style and substance—he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world—onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and that reason I'll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.

Brokaw’s round table was all anticlimax. He featured two conservatives—Joe Scarborough and David Brooks (what’s a TV round table without David Brooks?)—and not a single liberal. What else isn’t new? Andrea Mitchell waxed indignant about a “remarkably negative ad” that Obama is running now. “I mean,” she said, “we talk a lot about the negativity on the Republican side. But the fact is that Barack Obama has so much more money, and some of these targeted ads, one that they unveiled on Thursday and Friday of this week and it's on national television, has John McCain in his own words saying, in another interview, in another context, ‘I voted, I supported George Bush ninety percent of the time.’”

In fact, Obama’s ad is true. It’s not scurrilous. It doesn’t insinuate. It states facts. Mitchell succeeded in making it sound like the equivalent of a McCain ad tarring Barack Obama with Bill Ayers’ brush. The habit of false equivalency dies hard.

Two things I know to be true:

1. This photo of Colin Powell, retired general, former Secretary of State, and Object of Admiration of pretty much everyone, is unfortunate. And also kind of funny. But mostly unfortunate.

2. The existence of this photo provides no evidence of any kind that Powell will be endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States.

This latter point would seem to be obvious--just at it would seem to be obvious that just because someone is African-American doesn't mean, on its own, that he or she will support an African-American candidate.

Fox News, however, seems to have missed that memo. Here's the headline from a recent article about Powell: "Hip-Hop-Dancing Colin Powell Fuels Speculation He'll Endorse Obama."

And here's the subhead:

Colin Powell showed off his hip-hop moves at an 'Africa Rising' celebration in London Tuesday, fueling speculation that the former secretary of state is about to endorse Barack Obama for president.

Um, what? The fact that Powerll is doing trying to do a hip-hop dance means he's endorsing the black guy? Seriously, Fox?

Oh, but wait. The logic is more subtle than that. It's not so much the dancing that's fueling the Powell-endorsing-Obama speculation; it's the more general fact that the African-American icon supports African-American culture. Therefore--evidence!--he must be supporting the African-American candidate.

The normally staid former U.S. secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff performed an impromptu hip-hop dance alongside well-known rap stars Tuesday following a speech at a festival in London celebrating African-American music and fashion.

His address at the "Africa Rising" celebration inside London's Royal Albert Hall fueled speculation that an endorsement of Barack Obama is imminent.

Which, just...baffling. Sure, Powell may well endorse Obama. But if he does, the elder statesman's reasoning will surely be more complex than "his skin looks like mine." So, once again, I have to ask: Seriously, Fox? Seriously??

Attack Media


From Romenesko comes the news that a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record was attacked yesterday at a Sarah Palin rally in North Carolina. From Joe Killian’s account:

The man began to say something about how of course I was interviewing the Obama people when suddenly, from behind us, the sound of a pro-Obama rap song came blaring out of the windows of a dorm building. We all turned our heads to see Obama signs in the windows.

This was met with curses, screams and chants of "U.S.A" by McCain-Palin folks who crowded under the windows trying to drown it out and yell at the person playing the stereo.

It was a moment of levity in an otherwise very tense situation and so I let out a gentle chuckle and shook my head.

"Oh, you think that 's funny?! " the large bearded man said. His face was turning red. "Yeah, that 's real funny…" he said.

And then he kicked the back of leg, buckling my right knee and sending me sprawling onto the ground.

In describing the event, The News & Record’s Mark Binker wonders “whether Republicans aren't in some respect giving their supporters license for this sort of crap.” It is ludicrous to claim otherwise. The ugliness coming out of recent McCain rallies is directly attributable to the incendiary rhetoric being issued by his surrogates and advocates. One can’t create an atmosphere charged with anger and resentment and then feign bewilderment when some emotionally stunted mouthbreather acts on those sentiments. Governor Palin, during her time as a national figure, has especially demonstrated a disappointing readiness to stoke the us-versus-them mentality that undergirds much of the anti-intellectual, anti-press sentiment in America.

Like most prejudices, middle-class disdain for the press is rooted in reality. Most modern reporters come from highly educated backgrounds and tend to align with the moderate liberalism that is common among the urban privileged classes. There is a real disconnect these days between news reporters and many news consumers, and this problem must be addressed if the industry is to remain relevant.

But it is intellectually dishonest to extrapolate this disconnect into the claim that all news is therefore tainted by reporters’ personal political sympathies. Personal values are not supposed to matter in professions that conform to a set of universally observed standards, and there are few professions so fanatically obsessed with standards as is journalism. Highest among those standards is fairness. Most journalists have internalized the objectivity-and-balance mantra to the point where their reporting is sometimes crippled by it.

Attacking the press in this catch-all “dishonest left-wing media” formulation is dangerous in that, by its obvious falseness, it makes it easier to dismiss more legitimate criticisms of the press—like its pack mentality, or its perhaps subconscious classism. It also lets readers off the hook. Sometimes “they’re not telling the complete story” actually means “they’re not telling me what I want to hear.” The first of these complaints indicates poor performance on the part of the reporter. The second complaint indicates bias on the part of the reader.

“They’re not telling me what I want to hear” is by no means a strictly Republican complaint. Narrow-minded ideologues across the political spectrum resent reporting that doesn’t pander to their own prejudices and beliefs. But it is the Republican Party that has courted this resentment as a linchpin of its campaign strategy; has deliberately and cravenly confused populism with anti-intellectualism; has encouraged the notion that “the voice of the people” speaks only in simplistic, bullying tones. The McCain campaign, originally tuned as the moderate alternative to the Romneys and Huckabees of the world, has morphed into a campaign that has tied itself to a divide-and-conquer strategy, one that actively encourages its adherents to hate and distrust the national media because it represents the “other” America.

How, then, should reporters approach their jobs in such a hostile atmosphere? Some, like Jay Rosen, have suggested a strategy of disengagement, but I would contend that disengagement just ends up validating the huddled conspiracists’ us-versus-them framing. Instead, stay tough. Report well. Talk to as many people as possible. Record everything that happens at these rallies, and use that reporting as evidence with which to shame those people who insist on hijacking our national discourse with base, deceitful populism and intellectual thuggery.

Because it is hypocritical for the McCain campaign to disclaim responsibility when its followers violently act on the messages that they have been receiving. A man who incites a crowd to riot is just as liable for the ensuing destruction as the man who throws the first kick.

Trib goes for Obama

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In a not entirely unexpected move (Chicago Reader media critic Mike Miner suggested the possibility last month) the Chicago Tribune has endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Of course it is his hometown paper. But its still a big deal (or about as big of a deal as any newspaper endorsement can really be) for a paper that hasn't endorsed any candidate other than the Republican since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a progressive in 1912. As the paper notes, "This endorsement makes some history for the Chicago Tribune."

The Tribune in its earliest days took up the abolition of slavery and linked itself to a powerful force for that cause--the Republican Party. The Tribune's first great leader, Joseph Medill, was a founder of the GOP. The editorial page has been a proponent of conservative principles. It believes that government has to serve people honestly and efficiently.

With that in mind, in 1872 we endorsed Horace Greeley, who ran as an independent against the corrupt administration of Republican President Ulysses S. Grant. (Greeley was later endorsed by the Democrats.) In 1912 we endorsed Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as the Progressive Party candidate against Republican President William Howard Taft...

We are proud to add Barack Obama's name to Lincoln's in the list of people the Tribune has endorsed for president of the United States.

The rest.

Abortion and the Anecdotal Lede

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In her syndicated column today, Ellen Goodman contrasts the relative success of the gay rights movement with the defensive crouch in which many abortion rights advocates now find themselves. "The fear-mongering of the 'Gay Agenda' is now the wedding registry at Home Depot," she writes, arguing that the visibility of gay couples in the media helped bring about the Connecticut Supreme Court's recent decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry. But the media seldom writes about women who have had abortions, she says, wondering, "Has the invisibility of these women made it easier to chip away at their rights?"

Goodman is primarily concerned with opinion, not journalism, but her argument raises an interesting question for journalists. If she is correct that humanizing these issues makes Americans more sympathetic to liberal policies, then the style in which we report on them may lend support to one side or the other. This is about more than terminology: by her logic, the humanizing anecdote has political implications.

Following the Connecticut decision, Lisa Charnoff of the Stamford Advocate offers this international take on what has become a cliche of gay marriage reporting. She leads: "In June, after Eniko Mikle entered into a civil union with Cheryl Hensel, her partner of 14 years, she had trouble explaining to her Hungarian mother what that meant. There were no words in her mother's language to describe it." Now Mikle has a simple explanation: she's getting married. This vignette places the emphasis squarely on this couple's joy, arguing that these human emotions should guide policy.

"[T]he narrative of same-sex marriage ends with the sound of a champagne bottle popping at a wedding," Goodman writes. "An abortion, on the other hand, may be followed by an assortment of emotions, but certainly not joy." So "we rarely see real women," making it easier to forget the claim that one in three American women has had an abortion.

Such anecdotes are much harder to come by in abortion reporting, says journalist Jennifer Baumgartner, in part because reporters do no know how to handle stories that are more complicated than the shallow face-off between abortion rights advocates and abortion opponents. In 2004, Baumgartner launched a campaign to collect women's stories, and she is currently promoting her new book, Abortion and Life. "In the 'I Had an Abortion' Campaign, I found hundreds of women willing to come forward," Baumgartner says. "If it's not out there, it's because journalists aren't asking about it." Though pro-choice herself, she says pro-choice forces are partly to blame, because they worry an honest and complex debate might give ammunition to abortion opponents. (In fact, Kristen Fyfe of the conservative Culture and Media Institute, thinks the pro-life side would be helped if the press honestly reported the experiences of women coping with depression following abortions.)

Tait Sye, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, says there have been good stories that successfully incorporate personal anecdotes, like this one from the Associated Press. But from his perspective, there are two kinds of abortion stories: those that tackle abortion as a health story, and those that approach it as a policy debate. Health stories—which he says most often appear in women's magazines like this one in Marie Claire—are more likely to ask who has abortions and why, and include personal anecdotes. But "for the vast majority of newspapers, a lot of it is around the politics of abortion," he says. "If you're talking about abortion as the policy/politics story, you're less likely to include a personal example."

Ellen Goodman ends her column by concluding that the "more private" the abortion conversation remains, the "more we think it only happens to someone else, someone 'unlike us.' The more unlike us she is, the less public support there is for the right. Abortion rights slip away as the woman slips out of sight." Conservative critics disagree that humanizing reporting equals support for abortion, but both sides agree that how the issue is covered affects public sentiment.

The rise of Barack Obama has spawned a wave of stories heralding "a new generation" of black politicians who successfully appeal to white voters. There are two big problems with this story line.

The most apparent is that the politicians so identified, including Obama, do not belong to a new generation or even the same generation—a word that, on journalists' keyboards, seems to have lost its age-related meaning.

The New York Times’s front-pager on Tuesday, "Quiet Political Shifts as More Blacks Are Elected," is the latest example. Of the six black politicians cited as examples of "a new generation of black elected officials who are wooing white voters and winning local elections in predominantly white districts across the country," five are Baby Boomers and one was born in 1944, a year before that generation began. Black Boomers in political office are decidedly not new.

A much-discussed article in the August 10 issue of the Times Magazine, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, was even more confused. Wedged into the same generation with Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, both Boomers, were three younger officeholders who belong to the next generation: Newark Mayor Corey Booker, born in 1969; Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, born in 1967; and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, born in 1965.

Now, there can be some fuzziness about when certain generations begin and end, but the Baby Boom is not one of them, defined as the twenty-year-period from the end of World War II in 1945 through 1964. Obama was born in 1961, Patrick in 1956.

The Times is hardly the only publication to birth a generation to fit this facile, preconceived construct. LexisNexis and Google searches for a “new generation” of black politicians turn up numerous examples from, for example, The Washington Post, Time, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Associated Press.

This stock interpretation, besides being wrong, neglects the kind of probing this significant political trend merits.

The big question: What has made more white voters willing to vote for black candidates? What types of experiences, in desegregated schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or elsewhere, have shaped these voters' attitudes toward the candidates? In what parts of the country has racially polarized voting broken down, and where may it still prevail? What may account for those regional differences?

Instead of lumping the new black candidates into a generation free-floating above time, why aren’t more journalists asking what—rather than age—binds them together? What kinds of experiences have shaped their ability to successfully appeal to white voters? Are the candidates offering similar political messages, or campaigning in similar styles? What might they have in common with black pioneers who won in predominantly white electorates, most notably former senators Ed Brooke of Massachusetts and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois?

Pursuing both lines of questioning, why white voter attitudes have changed and what truly makes these emergent black politicians different, would surely produce more thoughtful coverage of black politics than newspaper readers have been getting for four long years. The midwife of a supposedly new generation of black politicians was the uplifting speech Obama gave to the Democratic Convention in 2004, when he was still an Illinois state senator but the prohibitive favorite to win a U.S. Senate seat that November.

Three days after that speech in Boston, the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited “some political analysts” who said Obama “represents a new generation of black politicians.” The one analyst who was named, Hastings Wyman, identified as the editor of the Southern Political Report, said that the new group “knows how to cross the racial lines” and is “comfortable in an integrated world.”

Wyman did pinpoint what appears to be a common attribute of the candidates discussed in the article and many subsequent articles in other publications. But a quick check of birthdates should have given the Times-Dispatch pause about accepting Wyman’s conclusion that the interracial comfort zone the candidates share has been shaped by age.

Besides Obama, also mentioned in that article were Herman Cain, another Boomer and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the senate in Georgia; and two members of the next generation, Harold Ford Jr., then a Democratic congressman eyeing a senate seat in Tennessee; and Dylan Glenn, who was headed into a runoff for the Republican nomination in a mostly white congressional district in Georgia. (Ford and Glenn lost.)

In the intervening four years, various political analysts have echoed Wyman’s generational interpretation, and journalists have swallowed their quotes whole. There is a lesson for journalists about the risks of abandoning their skepticism when interviewing experts, even the best of them, and granting their words unquestioned authority.

One black officeholder said to belong to this new generation has echoed the analysts. A front-page story in The Washington Post on July 28, 2007, quoted Deval Patrick as saying:

There's a huge generational moment in the country where people are looking for the next generation to take its rightful role . . . and we represent the next generation to take some responsibility.

Journalists, of course, should know better than to let politicians write their own press notices. Patrick governs the same state where John F. Kennedy used a similar slogan to launch his political career in a congressional race in 1946.

Some articles have contrasted Obama, Patrick, and others with black officeholders who are members of what has been called the civil rights generation. This interpretation has some merit. Like World War II, the civil rights movement had such impact on the nation that it may define a generation, though not as neatly. Obama and Patrick, for example, lived through part of that movement, but both were too young to have participated in any significant way.

Even here, though, some age-related confusion has crept in. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have sought the Democratic nomination for president, have been frequently cited as politicians who represent the civil rights generation. Jackson was born in 1941, before the Baby Boom. But Sharpton was born in 1954. So he belongs to one generation, and Patrick, two years younger, to another?

The Times Magazine article juxtaposed Senator Obama against other members of the Congressional Black Caucus from the civil rights era, such as Democratic Whip James Clyburn from South Carolina, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, and Charles Rangel, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman from New York. But their generation no longer is representative of caucus membership.

A generational shift in the Black Caucus started more than a decade ago and has been completed. The creation of additional black-majority districts before the 1992 election increased caucus membership by about 50 percent and brought an influx of Boomers. By now, they comprise 60 percent of its forty-two members and outnumber the civil rights-era members almost two to one.

Overall, the coverage of Obama and other black politicians with broad appeal has focused on their track records as candidates. What else they may have in common has received superficial treatment.

That many were educated at predominantly white colleges is sometimes mentioned, but not enough journalistic energy has been devoted to finding out what formative experiences on campus prepared them to skillfully navigate between the races. Nor has there been much comparison of their campaign styles and messages. The Times Magazine article points to their "extolling middle-class values in urban neighborhoods," though it's a stretch to suggest members of the civil rights generation, who fought to open the doors of those elite white colleges, have not done likewise.

Even more lacking has been an examination of what has changed about white voters to make them more accepting of black candidates. Early in this election cycle, many stories reported poll findings that a majority of whites are willing to consider voting for a black candidate for president. This attitudinal shift has been taken for granted as a natural, predictable evolution unworthy of further investigation.

What is underneath that change in white voter attitudes? That’s a large story that could tell much about how the country has moved closer to embracing its creed that anyone can grow up to be president.

Perhaps it will be written after the election.

My Buddy, My Powell

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Is there anything the political press loves more than a good mystery? Who will the candidates choose as their Veep nominees? Will Candidate A be mean to Candidate B during the debates? So many searing questions to be answered! By the press, of course!

So today brings the latest Burning Mystery to be focused on and ginned up by the media: whether Colin Powell will endorse Obama during his appearance on Meet the Press this Sunday. Such an endorsement would be, of course, the kind of juicily ironic turn of events that's so fun to write about, since the uber-clout-wielding retired general was himself a fan favorite in the McCain Veepstakes game. And the aisle-crossing endorsement has been predicted previously, with varying degrees of validity, by many pundits, among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Novak, William Kristol, and Lawrence O'Donnell.

But now, it seems, their predictions will come true.

Or, well, maybe. (Mystery!) Andrea Mitchell, announcing the Powell-on-MTP news on the Today Show this morning, teased--but didn't explicitly mention--the notion (Dramatic Emphasis mine):

In what promises to be a dramatic moment Sunday, Colin Powell — a lion of the Republican establishment, whom McCain and Obama both have courted for months — will finally speak out on a variety of issues, appearing exclusively on Meet the Press.

And Politico's Mike Allen took Mitchell's "variety of issues" one step further, explicitly spelling out the Obama endorsement rumor via input from GOP sources (Dramatic Emphasis, again, mine):

Retired Gen. Colin Powell, once considered a potential running mate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now may endorse his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), according to Republican sources. But an air of mystery surrounds Powell's planned live appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," and no one is sure what he will say.

Oooh...an air of mystery. And no one is sure what he will say. So perplexing! And, therefore, so exciting! So: Will Powell endorse? Won't he? I guess we'll all have to watch Meet the Press to find out! Because, of course, networks' desire for ratings is one thing that's never a mystery.

Double Negative

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Both the Obama and McCain campaigns, their coffers flush with cash, have been taking their messages to the airwaves, and the folks at the Wisconsin Advertising Project have been paying attention. In a comprehensive analysis, the group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, categorized all the campaign ads as either positive, negative, or contrast ads, and concluded that both campaigns have been equally negative.

According to a press release (pdf) from the project, “if one allocates the contrast ads as half positive and half negative or considers the contrast ads as negative—as the Adverting Project does—the tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical.” These conclusions were cited during Wednesday’s debates and, later, all over the media.

“To date 73 percent of McCain's ads and 61 percent of Obama's have been negative, the report said,” was a fact mentioned by the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, The Hill and many others.

But while the study’s findings are consistent with its own methodology, its tidy conclusions don’t accurately represent the totality of issues associated with campaign ads, be they negative or positive.

For example, Media Matters pointed out that “the project made no effort to assess the veracity or fairness of the ads in question.” And, as project deputy director Jacob Neiheisel told me, the group doesn’t distinguish between negative policy ads and negative character ads.

So in the eyes of the project, the following two ads are equally negative:

Barack Obama: Keating Economics

John McCain: Celebrity

The criticism here isn’t aimed at the Wisconsin research group. As academics, they are obliged to reach only the conclusions that their study design allows, and the figures they’ve compiled reflect their methodology.

But the press has to go a step beyond and evaluate the conditions and conclusions of the study against the realities on the ground.

In the last weeks, the media have cited the group’s statistics, creating a false equivalency between McCain and Obama’s ads.

From CNN:

Though Sen. Barack Obama's campaign circulated a University of Wisconsin Advertising Project study earlier this week indicating that nearly all of Sen. John McCain's ads are negative compared to just 34 percent of Obama's, both campaigns are spending about equal amounts on attack ads.

From The Boston Globe:

While most polls show that voters believe John McCain is running a more negative campaign than Barack Obama, a new count out today suggests they are running nearly equal numbers of negative TV ads in local markets.


Although it has often been said in recent days that John McCain has run a far more negative campaign than his main rival for the presidency Barack Obama, research shows that both campaigns spent approximately the same amount on negative ads.

One appeal of the Wisconsin statistic is that it’s counterintuitive. The consensus seems to be that McCain’s ads are more negative than Obama’s, yet the numbers appear to contradict that. But in this case, the collective intuition is correct, because McCain’s ads have been more consistently vicious, and in some instances, empty, throughout this election (see lipstick on a pig). Political journalists who have been closely watching this race are qualified, in an objective way, to make that assertion. Instead, the press has relied on a study that lets them avoid drawing their own conclusions. What’s more, they’re letting the study become the proxy for their consensus, without explaining or examining how its conclusions were reached.

In the case of the Wisconsin project, the effect of its coding system was to reduce the amount of variation among the ads. To consider ads as not only positive, negative, and contrast, but also as true-false, and personal-policy, would have introduced many more variables and, likely, made it difficult to reach easily digestible conclusions.

Some studies accommodate nuance, and some don’t.

Too bad. Reality is messy, and when the press relies on compact factoids derived from reductive research, everyone loses.

Transparency, Regulation and ...

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Most readers don’t get to see newswire copy, which is available only to subscribers at a price we can’t afford. (Dow Jones: That’s a hint. And don’t forget we’re tax-deductible.)

Michael Rapoport, a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires, offers pretty simple advice for restoring investor to the financial system — so simple it may even strike some as radical, especially his last point, until you start to think about it.

Pull the curtain back, all the way, on what's in those toxic mortgage

That’s right: complete transparency. Here’s why:

Even after months of write-downs, banks' balance sheets are still clogged with illiquid, risky securities, many based on subprime mortgages or other garbage. The dozen or so largest banks and financial institutions alone have about $600 billion in "Level 3" securities — the especially risky securities for which there is no market, which are valued using their owners' own models.

No one outside a particular bank can tell if those models are accurate or not, so no one can tell if the securities are properly valued or overvalued. Banks can't be sure about who's healthy and who's not.


So let's help make them sure — by requiring public disclosure of every scrap of information about these securities, as some other commentators have suggested. Disclose what's in them — the mortgage loans or other assets on which the securities are based. Disclose how they're performing — how much money the underlying assets are taking in, and how many of them have gone bad. Complete transparency.

That would allow third parties to evaluate the assets on their own. Buyers would emerge for the better assets, and those who hold the worse assets would be exposed. Confidence about who banks can safely lend to and who investors can trust would be bolstered.

Some of these ideas have been bandied around, including by Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil, and to some extent by Dennis Berman of The Wall Street Journal.


Take a big, concrete step toward tougher regulation.

He recommends starting with credit-default swaps—those insurance contracts on debt going bad that don’t require anyone to actually hold debt to take out insurance and gamble on it.


More broadly, any major step toward better regulation of banking and markets would help reassure jittery banks that it's safe to lend again. While there's plenty of disagreement about who most needs regulating and how, there seems to be a widespread feeling that better regulation could have prevented or softened this crisis. A solid start in that direction might be just the thing to bolster confidence.

Of course.


Indict somebody big. Quickly.

Finally. Dang.

One big reason Main Street is skeptical of the Wall Street bailout, and has pulled its money out of the market, is its sense that the bankers and executives who caused the crisis are getting away with it. The bankers and executives haven't faced any sanctions. They're still rich even though their companies' stocks have tanked. They're getting money from the government to prop up their companies. Meanwhile, ordinary people are losing their jobs, homes and retirement savings.

Investors want to see someone held accountable — and so authorities should move quickly to file charges against a chief executive or other bigwig who misled investors or otherwise broke the law in the course of the crisis. If that constitutes "making an example" of someone, so be it. No need to suggest names; anyone who's followed this crisis for more than five minutes won't have trouble compiling a list of possible candidates.

He emphasizes that this isn’t about scapegoating, but accountability. He adds helpfully:

The government may get there yet. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEHMQ), American International Group Inc. (AIG), Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE) and Washington Mutual Inc. (WAMUQ)—all of which collapsed or required government bailout—are under investigation.

And I would add: How about indictments of some of the bigwigs who misled not only investors but borrowers, a circumstance that, the best evidence shows, happened on a mass scale during the bad old days of the bubble, especially in '05 and '06. The FBI's lender-fraud probe is now up to 26 companies. Let’s get cracking.

Lessons Learned

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How can you tell that a campaign concept has made it into the public consciousness? It's a joke on SNL:

Every election is a learning opportunity. In 2000, the country learned about hanging chads and the mechanics of voting in a distant Florida county. In 2004, evangelical voters and swift boats claimed the headlines. And this clip proves that the Bradley Effect has earned its rightful place as a 2008 buzzword. Congratulations!

Ils Regretteront L'Erreur

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Le Monde, a highly respected French newspaper, committed an error so egregious on Wednesday that its editors believed the only way to correct their mistake was to publish a front page apology.

Had the paper falsely accused someone of a crime, or damaged a company’s stock price as a result of incorrect reporting? Maybe it had discovered an incident of plagiarism or fabrication?


On Wednesday, Le Monde published a story that referred to President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife as “Cecilia Bruni-Sarkozy.” This was an unfortunate mingling of the names of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the president’s third and current wife, and Cecilia Attias, his second wife. (She recently remarried as well. With six marriages between her and the president, Le Monde’s gaffe is somewhat understandable.)

The paper’s front page apologia on Thursday noted that “an unfortunate slip” caused the mistake. "To our readers, to Mr and Mrs Sarkozy, to Mrs Cecilia Attias, we present our most sincere apologies," it wrote.

Le Monde wasn’t the only European paper to step up with a major apology this week. The Daily Star and Daily Express, two papers that are part of Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers company, also stepped up to apologize to Kate and Gerry McCann, a couple against which the papers had leveled repeated accusations after their daughter disappeared while on vacation. This was the second round of apologies for the papers, with the first having come back in March. This week, the Daily Express offered these regrets:

IN articles published between July and December last year we suggested that the holiday companions of Kate and Gerry McCann might have covered up the true facts concerning Madeleine McCann's disappearance and/or misled the authorities investigating her disappearance.

We also reported speculation that one member of the group, Dr Russell O'Brien, was suspected of involvement with Madeleine's abduction. We now accept that these suggestions should never have been made and were completely untrue. We apologise to Jane Tanner, Russell O'Brien, Fiona Payne, David Payne, Matthew Oldfield, Rachael Oldfield and Diane Webster to whom we have agreed to pay substantial damages which they will be donating to the Find Madeleine Fund.

Based on its actions this week, you could almost imagine Le Monde publishing a special apology edition if it had done something similar.

Correction of the Week

“Monday’s review of the Village People at Seneca Niagara Casino stated that former member Victor Willis is deceased. Willis is still alive.” — Buffalo News

History Lesson

On Monday, The New York Times shared the story of a hoax that fooled the press nearly 150 years ago:

IN 1864, back when rumor still traveled by foot, a young messenger walked into the newsrooms of New York City’s press row with an Associated Press bulletin that President Lincoln had ordered the conscription of 400,000 additional troops for the Union.

The news arrived at a precarious time for the newspapers — around 2 a.m. Even the night editors had left, forcing a skeleton crew to decide whether to rush something into the paper, or risk being scooped. Two papers took the bait on what soon was exposed as a hoax.

But the news also came at a precarious time for the country: a conscription would have meant the Union army was in trouble, and the price of gold soon shot up. Two journalists from Brooklyn hatched the plan, knowing how best to sneak bogus news into print, and remembering to buy gold beforehand. (They were soon caught.)

Not bad, but the best press hoax ever hatched in New York was the great moon hoax of 1835. It’s pretty tough to top a report of “man-bats” living on the moon.

Parting Shot

“The name of the former Syracuse football player is Dick Easterly. We landed on the other side of the compass in a story on Tuesday’s etc. page.” – St. Petersburg Times

Kicked Around

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At a rally in North Carolina yesterday, Joe Killian, a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record, got kicked to the ground by an angry McCain-Palin supporter.

The assault came after Palin had finished speaking, when Killian was trying to speak with a group of Obama protesters who’d been escorted out. A “large, bearded man in full McCain-Palin campaign regalia,” as Killian puts it, started harassing him and his interview subject.

[S]uddenly, from behind us, the sound of a pro-Obama rap song came blaring out of the windows of a dorm building. We all turned our heads to see Obama signs in the windows…

It was a moment of levity in an otherwise very tense situation and so I let out a gentle chuckle and shook my head.

“Oh, you think that’s funny?!” the large bearded man said. His face was turning red. “Yeah, that’s real funny…” he said.

And then he kicked the back of my leg, buckling my right knee and sending me sprawling onto the ground.

Killian’s senior colleague, Mark Binker, was also at the rally. His thoughts?

Do I hold the McCain campaign responsible? Not entirely. No one on their staff said, "Hey, after the event, go smack around a reporter." …

After today I'm wondering - and this is just wondering at this point - whether Republicans aren't in some respect giving their supporters license for this sort of crap. If the story you peddle is that your guys are the good guys and all those who stand against them are the bad guys, and the "liberal media" is in that second column, might there be a message there – even if it is one that is misconstrued and carried to a stupid extreme in some cases?

SNL is at it again:

Juggling Beats, Localizing Climate

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Reporters at local papers around the country know how to juggle beats. They have to. Steve Bennish of the Daily News in Dayton, Ohio covers crime as well as the environment. “When people aren’t getting filled full of holes, then I can do some environmental reporting,” he said. “It’s a balancing act at my paper.”

So when it comes to tackling a big issue like climate change, reporters like Bennish have their hands full getting a grip on the science and the policy options. To get help, he joined twenty-seven other print, television, and Web journalists from a variety of beats and backgrounds who were invited to a three-day conference this week aimed at arming them with the tools for writing about climate change in a meaningful way.

For many of the reporters who came to Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs, where the event was held, that means figuring out how to localize global issues in a way that makes sense for their papers (and editors), as well as readers. “We’re hyper-local in coverage. Everything has to be seen through the local lens,” said twenty-seven-year-old Phoebe Sweet, who writes about water, environment, and energy for the Las Vegas Sun. “I want to take the hyper-local and blow it out to the national-level debate. I’m looking for how to do that better.”

For her, the threat that global warming poses to the water supply in western states is a good handle. She asked UCLA geography professor Laurence Smith, an expert on the potential impact of northern climate change, about the “value judgments between domestic use and agriculture.” Smith responded that, in the past, agriculture has gobbled up roughly 85 percent of local water supplies for irrigation. But in the future, “cities will trump agriculture every time. Farmers are going to lose some water, and there will be a contraction of agriculture in marginal areas.”

Jennifer Cunningham, a staff writer for The Herald News in West Paterson, New Jersey, listened to Ohio State scientists talk about the potential impact of “business as usual” greenhouse-gas emissions on shrinking polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, “a one meter (roughly three feet) sea-level rise by the end of the current century is not outside the range of possibility,” said Ellen Mosley-Thompson, whose ice studies with colleague (and husband) Lonnie Thompson are world-renowned. The twenty-five-year-old Cunningham, who has already written about flooding along the over-developed Passaic River, plans to localize glacial melting as a future threat to valuable real estate on the Jersey shore—an old story to some, but one that makes sense for her readers. “We can harp on climate change, but at the end of the day, it’s, ‘So what, how’s it going to affect me?’” she said. “The trick is creating a local angle.”

K Kaufmann, a reporter at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, tackles energy, higher education, and medical marijuana while covering the nearby city of Palm Desert. The paper used to have a dedicated environmental reporter, but no more. She got into energy issues when Palm Desert started an ambitious five-year campaign to cut energy use by thirty percent. “It isn’t so much climate change as energy here. Energy is the focus,” said Kaufmann, who made a mid-career switch into print journalism. She’s looking at how folks can cut their energy bills and how alternative energy sources like wind, geothermal and solar, in a sun-drenched area, might ultimately help.

Deborah McDermott, a reporter at the Portsmouth Herald in New Hampshire, is the paper’s Maine bureau chief but squeezes in a regional “sustainability” column. After hearing about the potential public health impact of climate change, at the Ohio State conference, including the risk of increased spread of diseases like West Nile Virus in warming areas, McDermott planned to explore climate in her new “Earth Matters” column. “I had not made the connection. That’s something I definitely intend to look into,” she said.

For some reporters at the conference, the immensity of the problem and the complexity of the science and policies of climate change seem at times overwhelming. “As a reporter, I sometimes feel hopeless,” admitted Sweet.

But rising climate-change concerns have pushed some scientists and policy experts out of their comfort zone, into stepped-up efforts to communicate with the press and the public. “What is it going to take?” asked scientist Lonnie Thompson, who is concerned about not only the polar glaciers, but also the “dying” tropical mountain glaciers that are crucial to water supplies from Peru to China. “We respond only to crises…when our backs are to the wall and we have no other choices,” he said. Thompson took the conference journalists on a chilly tour—30 degrees below zero—of the Byrd Polar Research Center’s unique storage center which houses frozen ice cores from around the world that can provide an invaluable history of climates past and present. A nearby poster shows the melting globe in an ice cream cone and a quotation from Thompson: “The world is warming and it’s foolish to pretend that it’s not.”

The conference was funded under a journalism program grant from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation to Ohio State’s Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, which specializes in digital journalism. So the meeting had a decidedly techie side. Organizers set up a Ning social network site, which includes PowerPoint presentations, resources (including a recent CJR article, "Climate Change, Now What?") and video from the meeting. Also available is a Twitter thread by Amanda Zamora, a WashingtonPost.com editor, which provides a running commentary and lots of Web links.

(By the way, all this Twittering and Ninging convinced me you can teach old dogs new tricks. Using a brand new iPhone, this reporter joined Twitter during the conference and discovered her first “TwitPic” — a photo posted of me meeting eighty-seven-year-old former Sen. John Glenn, an astronaut hero of my childhood who, in 1962, became the first American to orbit the Earth. And yes, he is very concerned about climate change—the view from space gives a special sense of just how fragile the earth’s atmosphere is. Now if I can just figure out how to download that photo…)

Dave and Mac Kiss and Make Up

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McCain and Letterman after the candidate famously snubbed the host during SuspendMyCampaignGate:

Michael Calderone has the pool report from the session.

The Newsweek Bubble

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A Debit to Newsweek for trying a bit too hard to look on the bright side as the latest economic developments unfold. In the October 20 cover story, Fareed Zakaria introduces us to the catastrophe’s “silver lining.” In case you missed it:

This crisis has—dramatically, vengefully—forced the United States to confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If we can kick those habits, today’s pain will translate into gains in the long run.

Now, the fundamental problem with this piece—the false premise on which the counter-intuitive argument stands—is that a single “we” exists as an economic reality. We can all learn from this crisis, goes the argument, because we have all brought it on ourselves.

Tell it to the struggling Ohio voters profiled in this recent New Yorker piece (which we “Audited” here).

Nonetheless, Zakaria explains the problem:

Two decades of easy money and innovative financial products meant that virtually anyone could borrow any amount of money for any purpose.

Then come the “we’s”:

If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn’t actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies.

Fantasies like…. health care? Filling the gas tank? Food? Education? Child care? The fact is that the costs of living have been rising while middle-class wages have been lagging —with growing income concentration at the very top.

So, given the difficulty many Americans have in just covering the basics, why attribute rising debt to “fantasies”? The explanation that the battered middle class spends money mostly on necessities makes far more sense.

But Zakaria continues:

As the fantasies grew, so did household debt, from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today.

This is not to say that he only blames the fantasies of ordinary people. Next on the list:

But the average American’s behavior was virtue itself compared with the government’s. Every city, every county and every state has wanted to preserve its many and proliferating operations and yet not raise taxes.

And next:

Local pols aren’t the only problem. Under Alan Greenspan, the federal Reserve obstinately refused to inflict any pain.

Next, maybe Wall Street? No. It’s back to you, me and everyone we know:

The whole country has been complicit in a great fraud.

And then later:

In the medium and long term, we have to get back to basics. Households, for instance, should save more.

Wall Street does eventually enter Zakaria’s picture, but only as one problem among many. Ultimately, he says, we all need to accept responsibility. It might even be good for us:

This discipline will be painful for a country that has gotten used to having it all. But it will make us much stronger in the long run.

The fact is, Americans haven’t all benefited equally from the up years—as David Leonhardt pointed out in an excellent column that helped make up for his own mistaken attempt at counterintuition—and American’s don’t all deserve equal blame.

To suggest otherwise doesn’t just distort the historical record, it allows for silly moralistic arguments that cloud our future direction.

What’s Rich?

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Wednesday’s presidential debate may or may not have changed the race for John McCain, but there was one thing that did remain constant: the amorphousness of the middle class.

McCain “keeps referring to Joe, who in these first few minutes of the debate has become the universal middle-class taxpayer,” wrote Katherine Seelye on The New York Times’s Caucus live blog Wednesday night, as the Republican candidate brought Joe Wurzelbacher, an aspiring plumbing entrepreneur who stood to draw a $250,000 salary in the near future, to the debate table. The Boston Globe called Joe “an election-year everyman for a nation on the cusp of a potentially deep recession.”

A $250,000-per-year everyman? The real median household income in 2007, according to the latest Census Bureau survey, was $50,233. Joe may be the living, breathing figure of the hard-earned American Dream, but if his business scenario has him topping $250,000, he would not exactly be the average American taxpayer. Since Wednesday night, it’s been revealed that Joe the Plumber is not the soon-to-be rich man that McCain depicted him as. But that wasn’t common knowledge when yesterday’s papers were printed. And the en-masse portrayal of Joe Wurzelbacher as an average Joe of the middle class also emphasizes how broad the political definition of “middle class” has become—and how lax the media have become in challenging that definition.

Both Obama and McCain have made good mileage trying to plump their plans for America’s middle class, that broad expanse often equated to the middle three quintiles of the Census Bureau’s five-part income distribution methodology.

But as the debate again showed, the definition of middle class (and by proxy, the definition of upper class), is abundantly and repeatedly swayed for political gain—and for good reason. A Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year found that about half (53 percent) of all Americans think of themselves as middle class, even when those who self-identified as middle class had a wide range of incomes:

But within this self-defined middle class, there are notable economic and demographic differences. For example, four-in-ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 say they are middle class, as do a third of those with incomes above $150,000. And about the same percentages of blacks (50%), Hispanics (54%) and whites (53%) self-identify as middle class, even though members of minority groups who say they are middle class have far less income and wealth than do whites who say they are middle class.

And it is this wide-ranging self-alignment—and not strict definitions—that both politicians more often cater to in their stump speeches. And that’s unsurprising; appealing to voters through the amorphous vehicle of class is a tried and true (and often a well-intentioned) political tactic. But because political speech is so often driven by code phrases like this, the press should be even more active in combating imprecision of language, rather than allowing politicians and their cohorts to sap such terms of their most functional meaning.

So if anything, this means that labels like “middle class” deserves re-examination, not inflation—and if not from the candidates, then from the press. They shouldn’t be so easily repackaged. For instance, when Sara Taylor, former Bush White House political affairs director, is quoted as describing Sarah Palin in a Los Angeles Times article as a "living, breathing replica of the middle class," we should take a step back and say, wait, how are assets topping $1 million aligned with the middle class? Or, we might question the exactitude of this conclusion about the debate from the NYT: “[McCain] managed to change the subject from the economy, as he tried to woo independent and working-class voters and put himself on the side of the working man. And in this bad economy, he even knows his name: Joe.” The inflation of labels beyond the limits of their definitions—and used instead to make broad politician woos x voter-group statements—makes it that much easier to ignore, conflate, or distort the specific and real issues confronting the real working and middle classes. And that’s a problem.

Similarly, during last night’s debate, McCain’s sarcastic use of the word “rich” in reference to Joe W. should remind us that the middle class receives a generous political definition for a reason: it allows the candidates to shape their policies most flexibly, and regardless of party, to maintain as much of a populist tinge as benefits them. It’s also the more convenient way to address the “what is rich?” question that has floated around the campaign since Saddleback. But waving a “not rich” wand is no way to categorically define such a large swathe of our population.

Audit Roundup: Working Class Blues

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The Washington Post has a solid story this morning on the hardships facing the working class—illustrating them with the story of a Virginian named Regino Romero.

But with the economy sputtering, inflation increasing to levels not seen in nearly two decades and his family life in flux, he is struggling to survive economically. Although he has worked full time for nearly 14 years as a cook at the Hilton Crystal City hotel, he feeds his own family with help from a local food pantry.

Romero makes $13.84 an hour. Imagine a family trying to make it on the minimum wage of $6.55.

Romero's dilemma is not unlike that of many low-wage workers struggling to cope in an economy that has left them behind. A national survey by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that large percentages of low-wage Americans struggle to pay for life's staples. Eight in 10 find it hard to pay for gasoline or save for retirement, while more than six in 10 said it was tough to afford health care. And roughly half said they were having difficulty affording food and housing.

Workers are more productive than ever, as the output per person has hit new highs in the past eight years. But rather than funding wage increases for most employees, the fruit of that new efficiency has largely bypassed all but the people in the best-paying jobs, as inflation-adjusted incomes for typical Americans edged downward from 2000 to 2007.

Now, as the global financial system strains to absorb its biggest shocks since the Great Depression, the once faraway world of Wall Street is making things worse for low-wage workers.

Even before last week's dramatic declines on Wall Street, credit markets had tightened, making borrowing more expensive — or impossible — for people and businesses whose credit histories are less than stellar. Already, most lenders are requiring higher down payments for mortgages and more collateral for other loans. Tighter credit means less spending and fewer jobs. Inevitably, those at the bottom of the income ladder are most vulnerable to all of those changes.

I'd like to see more reporting like this.

Meanwhile, The New York Times has a timely piece on families struggling to pay for college.

With the unemployment rate rising and a recession mentality gripping the country, financial aid administrators say they expect many more calls like the one from Ms. Jacobs. More families are applying for federal aid, and a recent survey found that an increasing portion of families expected to need student loans. College administrators worry that as fresh cracks appear in family finances, they will not have enough aid money to go around, given that their own endowment returns are disappointing, states are making cutbacks and fund-raising will become more difficult.

Speaking as part of a household with six-figure student-loan debt: Welcome to the club, if colleges even have the money to lend, that is!

Bloomberg takes a good look at the state of the credit markets, which are what we really need to pay attention to, but which are much harder to find information about than stock markets.

Prices of loans rated below investment grade declined to a record low 66.1 cents on the dollar, virtually guaranteeing investors get their money back, based on historical recovery rates, according to data compiled by Standard & Poor's. Yields on corporate bonds show investors expect 5.6 percent of the market will go bust, the highest default rate since the Great Depression…

While central banks injected $3 trillion into the global economy, credit markets are tumbling because banks are clamping down on lending, forcing investors to unload assets they bought with borrowed money…

``It's quite possible that we had priced in Armageddon,'' said Robert Gahagan, head of taxable fixed-income in Mountain View, California at American Century Investment Management, which oversees $23 billion in fixed-income assets.

And the selloffs causing bond prices to plunge probably won’t end anytime soon, according to the story, as hedge funds are forced to liquidate.

The Journal is good on the perilous state of the hedge-fund industry, including the latest closures, here.

Debt, of course, is essential to the modern hedge fund. That leverage has helped funds squeeze more gains out of many thinly profitable investment strategies such as merger arbitrage and senior loans of big companies. For example: A fund that borrows $5 for each $1 of equity can turn a 5% gain from a leveraged-loan investment into a 25% gain.

But, just as some homeowners are finding that a home declining in value can wipe out their down payment, hedge funds are learning how sensitive their investments are to even modest declines. One main problem: Collateral backing their borrowing is also falling in value, and banks are demanding more collateral in turn. Such collateral calls typically kick in when a fund loses 25% of value. That creates "forced selling" for funds, pushing stock-market averages lower.

The current mix of investor withdrawals, declining markets and banks withdrawing financing can be dangerous for even large hedge funds, says Antonio Munoz-Sune, head of the U.S. for fund of funds EIM. "The combination can take anyone down," regardless of size.

If you think there was a lot of screaming about bailing out Wall Street, imagine the caterwauling if we’re forced to bail out Greenwich, Connecticut. Their paychecks have been much, much bigger.

Breakingviews is smart today in pointing out that hedge funds’ compensation structures, like those at investment banks, led them to take on too much risk.

With a 2 percent fee to manage money and 20 percent of profits, hedge funds are structured to gamble other people’s money. There’s no clawback provision when the manager loses tons of money, as lots of hedgies are doing now. That needs to be reformed.

And breakingviews is very pessimistic about the economy, as well it should be.

The Journal says commercial real estate is the next shoe to drop, quoting a JPMorgan report that estimates 7 percent of the $3.4 trillion in outstanding debt will go bad in the next decade. That would be the highest rate since the commercial real estate depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But it’s not clear to me from the Journal if that number includes condos, which are often considered commercial real estate loans, even though they’re residential projects. It seems to, though the paper confuses the issue here:

After years of plunging residential property valuations, commercial real estate is heading into the danger zone as office vacancies rise, stores close and hotel bookings fall…

Defaults on commercial real-estate debt remain less than 1%, compared with more than 10% at the worst point of that earlier collapse. Rents and vacancy rates have so far remained solid, enabling most properties to pay their debt service.

The major exception has been construction loans to single-family home builders and condo developers.

It seems to be saying that residential is the real problem with “commercial” real estate.

Finally, the Journal is good today with one of its classic page-one “aheds”, this one on “ICE Air” the illegal-immigrant repatriation airline whose business is soaring these days.

While U.S. airlines downsize and scrimp on amenities, one carrier is offering its passengers leather seats, ample legroom and free food. But frequent fliers probably don't want a ticket on what may be the fastest growing "airline" serving Central America.

This carrier is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants. A crackdown on illegal immigration has led to a spike in deportations and the creation of a de facto airline to send the deportees home.

Tortured Reasoning?

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You may have heard of Torturing Democracy, a documentary film exploring the Bush administration’s interrogation strategies and policies, written and produced by Frontline's award-winning Sherry Jones. The film will air on New York's WNET tonight, and in other public television markets around the country over the next few weeks. However, The New York Times reports today, 15 percent of the country likely won't see the film on TV before 2009, if they do at all. That 15 percent includes the kinda-into-politics market of Washington, D.C.

The reason? Seems PBS wanted to postpone the film's release date to...January 21, 2009. Which...yeah. Just slightly eyebrow-raising. According to a PBS rep, though, the reason for the desired postponement was certainly not fear of pissing off the famously laid-back and non-grudge-prone Bush administration, or anything. Nuh-uh. Instead:

Several factors prevented a summer airdate, including scheduling of the animated sitcom “Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns” and the political conventions, and a desire not to compete against the Olympics, Lea Sloan, a PBS spokeswoman, said.

Okay. The political conventions, fair enough as pre-empters. And the Olympics, mostly, fair enough, as well. But: Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns? Seriously? As in, the animated sitcom based on the Car Talk guys? Good lord.

Here's more detail on the matter, per the Times:

PBS executives also asked Ms. Jones to make changes to the film, including adding [a taped] panel discussion [to follow the film's airing]. By the time that happened, the fall schedule was set, said John Wilson, the PBS senior vice president for programming. He called the film “ultimately an impressive work of journalism,” and said, “our goal was to have it in a good slot.” That the first date offered happened to be the day after the Bush administration is to leave power “absolutely is coincidental,” he said. “It was the date that offered itself up.”

But Jones rejected PBS's offer of a late release. Instead, with the help of democracy advocate and public television enthusiast Bill Moyers, she negotiated with stations individually, eventually convincing 85 percent of markets to find their own time slots in which to air the film before 2009. If you're in the minority whose stations haven't made such arrangements--check your local listings, and all that--then you can watch the ninety-minute film online at torturingdemocracy.org.

Still. Though WNET's Stephen Segaller probably had a point when he told the Times that "PBS was in a no-win situation and would also have been criticized had it decided to show the program before the Nov. 4 election," as well, Gawker's Ryan Tate sums up the situation well. "If this is just another one of those internecine conflicts endemic to nonprofit journalism," Tate writes, "it's sure doing a good job disguising itself as a genuine scandal."

Ever wondered how campaign reporters spend their time while watching the presidential debates? Pretty much the same way you do. Dana Milbank explains.

[h/t Michael Calderone]

Faulty Plumbing


Earlier today, CJR’s Megan Garber was right to fault the media for being distracted by the humor of the "Joe the Plumber" story. But I don’t quite agree with her suggestion that the media should have used him as a way to show tax policy's impact on "real people."

Post-debate digging has found that the real Joe Wurzelbacher, of Holland, Ohio, is not an undecided small businessman who is honestly trying to sort through the imact of the candidates' tax proposals. He voted in the Republican primary, and he regards a progressive tax code as un-American. He also is either confused about the details of the Obama tax plan, or simply distrusts the Democratic nominee. Wurzelbacher is entitled to his opinions, to be sure. But they make him a poor protagonist in stories about tax policy, not to mention a bad poster boy for McCain's attacks on the Obama tax plan.

Katie Couric scored the first interview with Wurzelbacher, and prompted this exchange:

COURIC: Well, he supposedly will raise taxes only on people who make over $250,000 a year. Would you be in that category?

WURZELBACHER: Not right now at presently, but, you know, question, so he's going to do that now for people who make $250,000 a year. When's he going to decide that $100,000 is too much, you know? I mean, you're on a slippery slope here. You vote on somebody who decides that $250,000 and you're rich? And $100,000 and you're rich? I mean, where does it end? You know, that's - people got to ask that question.

In a subsequent interview, Diane Sawyer pressed Wurzelbacher on this point. Is it fair to tax at a higher rate people who make more than $1 million, she asked? Or $5 million?

Well, I mean, quite honestly, why should they be penalized for being successful?... That's wrong. Because you're successful, you have to pay more than everybody else? We all live in this country. It's a basic right. And Obama wants to take that basic right and penalize me for it, is what it comes down to. That's a very socialist view and it's incredibly wrong.

ABC also learned that the very premise that transformed Wurzelbacher into the anti-tax icon Joe the Plumber is false. John McCain claimed that The Plumber would make more than $250,000 annually if he were to become the owner of the business he currently works for, putting him into the tax bracket that would pay more under Barack Obama's proposal. But it turns out that the purchase price of the business is $250,000-$280,000. In all likelihood, Wurzelbacher would still belong to the 95 percent of Americans Obama has said will not see their taxes increase.

You have to feel a little sorry for Wurzelbacher, who suddenly has reporters uncovering the fact that he does not have a plumbing license and that he owes back taxes. Even before the Joe the Plumber frenzy began, The Washington Post's Tom Shales suggested devoting resources to covering a random guy from Holland, Ohio would be a symptom of the way "the electonic media are ever on the lookout for ways to trivialize the democratic process."

But the iconic power of someone called Joe the Plumber is compelling—that's why John McCain brought him up at every turn last night, and why McCain can’t stop talking about him today on the stump. In last night's debate, McCain invoked Wurzelbacher to lecture Obama: "what you want to do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business." When the moderator, Bob Schieffer, gave Obama the opportunity to respond to this charge, McCain persisted, "That's what Joe believes."

But the sincerity of this person's belief does not make it true—that's why the press has the obligation to turn the character Joe the Plumber into a real guy named Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. Voters deserve to hear about the real effects of the candidates' plans, not about the fictional world of a cartoon character.

Iceland: "Back to Fish"

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There's been a decent amount of coverage of tiny Iceland over the last couple of weeks, as the country's banking system and economy have gone to ground. But nothing that I've read is as mournful and poetic as this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Charles Forelle:

For the banks, growing was easy. They could borrow at low cost from all over the globe, then turn around and with little oversight lend that money to businesses and entrepreneurs wherever they wanted -- in the U.K., Denmark and the U.S. Over time, the banks' assets -- largely these loans they made -- grew and grew.

The money rode a carousel: Iceland banks borrowed, made loans, borrowed some more. They had to pay their own lenders, of course, but that wasn't a problem -- there was always someplace to borrow more money with which to make the payments.

Then, last winter, the credit crunch struck. By this summer, no one wanted to lend to anyone, really, least of all Icelandic banks.

Small Business Sense

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After all the plumbing business, I was heartened to see this passage in the Times today:

So will Americans who are in business for themselves have to pay more taxes if Mr. Obama is elected, as Mr. McCain asserted?

According to figures compiled by the Small Business Administration, there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms that report income from hobbies or freelance work done by their registered owners, earning as little as $1,000 a year.

Of these, according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan. But even some of these are not small-business owners in the traditional sense; they include lawyers, accountants and investors in real estate, all of them with incomes that put them in the top tax brackets.

This is solid stuff, and it introduces a previously unmentioned point: a small business isn’t always a company with employees. Sometimes it’s just an individual, whose entire business is doing whatever it is that they do: artists, freelance writers, accountants. And in these cases, the argument that an increased tax burden would prevent the employer from “creating jobs” doesn’t apply, because these operations are one-man bands.

Next, however, the Times undermines its own good work with the following statement:

So are there “millions more like Joe the Plumber,” as Mr. McCain contended? Probably not. Mr. Obama may well have been correct when he stated that “98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000.”

Instead of going to an expert to evaluate McCain’s claim and reach a solid conclusion, the Times cops out with a “probably not” and a kinda-sorta reference to an Obama talking point. Not good enough.

The article also plays dangerously with language and statistics in a way that seems to intentionally diminish McCain’s claims, saying “there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms.”

The key words here are “actually” and “the rest”. Here’s why: both of these words imply that comparatively speaking, the number of nonemployer firms greatly exceeds the number of firms with payroll. This is true. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 5.7 million companies with payroll and 17.6 million firms without, in 2002.

But here’s a key fact from the Small Business Administration:

A nonemployer firm is defined as one that has no paid employees, has annual business receipts of $1,000 or more ($1 or more in the construction industries), and is subject to federal income taxes. The Census Bureau provides nonemployer business data. According to Census, "Nonemployers account for roughly 3 percent of business activity [in terms of sales or receipts]. At the same time nonemployers account for nearly three-quarters of all businesses. Most nonemployer businesses are very small, and many are not the primary source of income for their owners.

The problem is, Obama’s 98 percent claim lumps together people who operate the types of small businesses we imagine—plumbers, restaurants, mom-and-pop shops—in which people rely fully on their businesses as their income, and the types of small businesses we forget, that are really side businesses, not the individual’s only job.

Obama can twist and turn numbers however he pleases. But, in this story, the Times needed to go further and explain that those numbers are misleading. Numerically speaking, yes, the majority of small businesses will not be affected by the next tax. But, more logically speaking, the types of businesses that we commonly think of as small businesses—and the ones who are in a position to create more jobs and expand—may very well feel the pinch. Instead of merely quoting the candidates and pulling public statistics, this piece needed an expert in small-business tax law to take the story further. As it stands, tacked onto bottom of a profile of “Joe the Plumber,” it fails to bring clarity to a key issue in this campaign.

The American Nightmare


Two weeks after the bailout heard round the world, and with three weeks to go until one of the most anticipated presidential elections in American history, journalist-turned-novelist James Howard Kunstler’s got a lot to say. He loves sermonizing about the cause-effect relationship between suburban sprawl and everything from obesity to American dependence on oil. And he’s saying it all via the Web, through a weekly podcast that offers some of the smartest, most honest urban commentary around—online or off.

Kunstler knows a little about the topic. Since the mid-90s, he has written four non-fiction books about suburban development and oil. His first work on the subject, The Geography of Nowhere, discussed the effects of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and a ravaged countryside, as he put it. The tomes that followed—Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind, and The Long Emergency—pushed hard on taboo topics like a post-oil America. His books spurred the original podcast idea and offer constant fodder for his shows.

Kunstler’s show, dubbed KunstlerCast, highlights the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl. He always manages to relate the topic to current issues. In recent episodes, he’s attributed our current financial mess to the American living arrangement and the subprime mortgage failure, forecasted the grave impact the oil situation will have on Americans living in suburbia, and spouted on subjects like the vice presidential candidates, the future of airline travel, even tattoos.

“The subject [of suburban sprawl] itself is kind of endlessly fascinating, since we’ve gone to such extremes to torture ourselves with this idiotic arrangement of how we live,” Kunstler says. “For example, the enormous subject of our happy motoring program is so rich that you could spend hour after hour discussing its bizarre angles, everything from the agony of commuting in southern California to the insane costs of running cars for every member of the family.”

Kunstler is frank, uncensored, and entertaining, deeming no topic off limits. Just listen to his take on McCain’s vice presidential pick, Governor Sarah Palin. “It was a gross and outrageous act of pandering that is now, pardon the metaphor, standing naked before the public for what it is,” Kunstler says. “Now, whether Sarah Palin will appear naked before the public is another question…[McCain] basically picked this Barbie doll with glasses on who looks like one of the secretaries in a porn movie setup.”

Though Kunstler is trying to rebrand Republicans “The Party That Wrecked America,” he doesn’t reserve his anger for the GOP. In a two-part episode entitled “One City Block,” Kunstler and co-host Duncan Crary (who also produces the shows) walked the streets of Kunstler’s hometown, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and described what they saw. The podcaster bemoaned the landscaping and parking situations, and praised the cohesion of small towns.

“We went on a shopping spree and got 11 different kinds of street trees that behave differently…Some of them are totally inappropriate,” Kunstler says about the landscaping on Broadway, the city’s main street. “They planted one red maple. It just sort of sticks out like a sore thumb, like a sore, red thumb. Why did they have to get a red maple?”

He moves on to parking. “I think diagonal parking would probably be a better thing all and all. But since we’re sort of at the end of the automobile age, I sort of don’t give a shit anymore.”

He eventually returns to suburban sprawl. “The rest of America doesn’t function this way. Everybody’s in their car, going through the drive-in at the cappuccino place, drinking the cappuccino in their car,” he says. “They don’t get to see other people. When we came into the coffee shop here, I saw three or four people who are good friends of mine, not just casual folks you say hello to.”

Kunstler’s honesty and frankness don’t offend most listeners. Rather, these attributes engage even those who fall on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Take Mike Schaeffer, a conservative, forty-something health plan administrator and father of five from Troy, N.Y. He listens to the KunstlerCast weekly. “Some of what [Kunstler] has to say is rather controversial, but in many ways, it’s right on the money,” he says. “He challenges his listeners to really think critically about what it is that we’re seeing.”

Just two weeks ago, for example, as the House of Representatives got ready to vote on the $700 billion bailout package, Kunstler spent all but five minutes of a podcast condemning the financial sector’s stranglehold on the American and world economies. In the remaining five minutes, Crary and Kunstler tied the bailout discussion back to urbanism, with a segment on the inherently American idea that you’re not successful unless you own a house. Kunstler called the notion sentimental nonsense that would lead to a further downward spiral in the housing market.

This no-holds-barred attitude about suburbia brings nearly 9,000 people to the podcasts each week, according to Crary. It’s why, in July, KunstlerCasts were downloaded 32,000 times (the highest download month to date). It’s also one of the main reasons John Merrall, a disc jockey for a Canadian radio station, airs Kunstler’s show every Saturday morning.

“I appreciate when he addresses mundane topics like urban planning,” says Merrall, who resides in Hamilton, Ontario, a place he calls uninhabitable due to the disappearance of high-paying union jobs and movement away from the city center. “I’d like to hope that airing Kunstler’s podcast on CFMU might help get just a few more people interested in the idea of…making my city more livable.” Plus, he added, “Kunstler’s fun to listen to.”

Kunstler aims to please. “I consider myself a prose artist, someone who is happy to function in fiction and nonfiction…and to some extent, an entertainer,” he says. “One of the hallmarks of my work is that it’s comic. It’s explicitly comic.”

A common Kunstler refrain—the Samuel Beckett quote “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”—pretty well sums up this man.“He is really funny. The subjects he talks about are really dark,” Crary says. “I don’t think people would listen to him if he weren’t funny.” But he is, and the medium seems to work.

Schaeffer likes the accessibility of podcasts. “You used to listen to AM radio a lot,” he says. “Podcasting is the next generation in communication on a very wide scale.” Merrall likes that Kunstler covers a topic that, in his opinion, isn’t covered enough: “He’s addressing issues that certainly aren’t getting much traction in the mass media. And even if they were, I don’t think you could trust the mass media to give those issues a fair treatment.”

Whether Kunstler’s podcasts will continue gaining traction and popularity remains to be seen. Perhaps more people will tune in now that Kunstler has appeared on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Without question, Kunstler will never stop talking about suburban sprawl. “There’s a lot to say about it, especially since we’re so determined to keep on doing it in the face of circumstances that are telling us we better change our behavior,” he says. “It’s a fascinating tragic spectacle.”

To check out audio files, transcripts and the listener discussion forum, go to the KunstlerCast Web site. The toll-free listener comment line is (866) 924-9499.

There You Joe Again


Before last night's presidential debate, if I were to mention the phrase "Joe the Plumber" to you, the image you'd conjure in response would likely involve a doughy male backside, leaning below a kitchen sink, the waist of the jeans meant to cover said backside riding just a little too low to do the job, if you know what I mean.

You would probably not picture, therefore, Joe Wurzelbacher, newly minted as the official Joe the Plumber™ of Campaign 2008: a beefy bald guy who, after fifteen years spent working as a plumber in Holland, Ohio, is now in a position to buy a company that could gross up to $280,000 a year. You would probably not picture the guy who is—based on what we know about him, anyway, from reporters' frantic phone calls and even more frantic Google searches—in many ways a fitting example of the hard work and resultant upward mobility that are key components of the old campaign-trail standby that is The American Dream.

But, today, as the direct result of "Joe the Plumber" being evoked twenty-six times during last night's presidential debate, stereotype has collided with reality. The cliched old image of the saggy-pantsed pipe-snaker has been not only fleshed out, but transformed. You'd think the media would be thrilled about this turn of events, since, in Wurzelbacher, they have a person who humanizes the candidates' tax policies, and who exemplifies the effects each candidate's proposals might have on an average American. You'd think.

Instead, the media responded to Joe the Plumber™ in the same basic way they responded to Joe Sixpack™: with a barely-disguised roll of the eyes. "Does Joe the Plumber know Joe Six-Pack?" asked Reuters, gleefully. "'Joe the Plumber' becomes a national fixture," declared the Los Angeles Times, barely able to contain its delight at its own punny headline. "Barack Obama looked like a prosecutor delivering a polished summation in a long civil case, Joe the Plumber v. George W. Bush," wrote The New York Times. "This should forever be known as the Joe the Plumber Debate," opined The Washington Post. "Now We Know Joe Six Pack Is A Plumber," announced TIME.

Granted, this campaign has been going on for nearly two years now—and, like all parents dealing with a kid in its Terrible Twos, the media have a right to indulge in some levity. Particularly in a situation which involves a candidate for the presidency of the United States using the phrase "my old buddy, Joe the plumber" with a straight face in a Serious Policy Debate. So, on the one hand, you know, have at it.

And yet. There's a fine line between having fun and making fun. And it's a line many in the media straddled, if not fully crossed, last night. TV pundits, in particular, found great delight, last night, in declaring, oh-so-ironically, that "Joe the Plumber won the debate." But, um, why is that ironic? Isn't it kind of fantastic that a literal Average Joe became the focus of a give-and-take between candidates?

The reason Wurzelbacher was mentioned last night in the first place, after all, is that he carried on a long (six-minute, which is eons in Campaign Stop Time) conversation with Obama about the candidate's tax policy. Their debate was nuanced and respectful and rooted in the everyday implications of policies too often presented in abstract terms. After explaining his situation to Obama, Wurzelbacher told the candidate, "I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American Dream." To which Obama responded,

I’m gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5 percent, of the folks who are doing very well - even though they’ve been working hard and I appreciate that – I just want to make sure they’re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts.

“It’s not that I want to punish your success, "Obama concluded. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got a chance at success too.”

See the full exchange--which was, all in all, long and thoughtful--here.

Sure, you could say, the exchange gained the traction it did because Obama happened to use the phrase "spread the wealth around" in the course of his discussion with Wurzelbacher, which—socialism alert!—made it spread like wildfire among conservative media outlets. And, sure, McCain is being cynical in framing Wurzelbacher's situation as evidence of Obama's desire for "class warfare," as he did last night--and, generally, in framing himself as the working man's only friend in Washington. Perhaps, taken together, the media have a reason to be jaundiced toward someone like Joe.

Still, though, the media need to be framing candidates' economic policies in terms of how they'll affect people. That's a large part of their job. The initial exchange between Wurzelbacher and Obama was, above all, a great example of the give-and-take that should be occurring between the candidates and the voters; it'd be great if the media would make themselves part of that conversation. As Clint put it today on The Kicker, “As Joe The Plumber enjoys his 15 minutes, would it be too much to ask that some of that time be devoted to fair-minded determinations of how the candidates' respective tax and health care plans would affect people like Joe? How about to finding out roughly how many Americans are in situations roughly similar to Joe?”

While we're asking those questions, it's also worth wondering why, exactly, we have an impulse toward irony when it comes to people like Joe. And whether that impulse might just have something to do with the fact that so many Americans mistrust the media.

Circular Logic

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In addition to the squiggly lines that I so detest, CNN’s debate broadcast featured another useless feature: the pie-chart score card.

For those who don’t have HD cable, or weren’t watching CNN HD, let me explain. The images of Obama and McCain side by side were flanked by six pie-charts, three on the left and three on the right (see here from the first debate). Each pie chart was manned by a CNN contributor/commentator/analyst/quasi-journalist. All the usual suspects were there: John King, Rowland Martin, David Gergen, and others.

Each pie chart was divided into two halves: blue for Obama and red for McCain. And each contributor was to record their “plus points” for either candidate in the top part of the red/blue half, and “minus points” on the bottom.

The result was a disaster. With no way to know why points were being awarded, viewers were left perplexed by six red-blue circles claiming valuable real estate on their screens. Whenever a candidate earned a point, a quadrant would pulse for a few seconds (King, McCain, Plus), pulling my eyes away from the action and to the points tally.

The confusion was clear among the contributors as well: Gergen awarded only a handful points throughout the whole night, where as Martin went points crazy, handing out many dozens of plus and minus points.

And when the debate wrapped up, CNN didn’t even bother doing a total tally, leaving the pie charts reading McCain (12+/4-), instead of arriving at a final number (8). Viewers were left doing their own arithmetic, and scratching their heads over what it all meant.

CNN’s investment in the pie charts and other bells and whistles shows that they are taking the elections seriously, and that’s a good thing. But, all this money might be better spent on reporting, no?

Hate The Game

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MSNBC's Chris Matthews after the debate last night:

Coming up, we go to The Spin Room -- I hate that name -- to get, well, the spin from both sides. And we may get some truth...

Don't hate "that name," hate "that game." Apparently Matthews is offended by the name of the Room but not the shameful acts which occur in that Room, for which that Room is expressly designed. Matthews is more than happy to line up outside that Room, hands outstretched, to receive his helping of talking points and maybe "some truth."

If I'm being generous, I could allow that maybe Matthews meant to convey some sort of discomfort in his own stopping by The Spin Room but: is someone making him go there? If a campaign adviser Spins in a Room but no one is there to hear him...

UPDATE: Matthews followed the above by welcoming Rep. Peter King, a Republican Congressman from New York and McCain surrogate:

MATTHEWS: [King] is in The Spin Room right now. Actually, he's right here with me...

And so King was, seated next to Matthews, outdoors, enjoying the balmy Long Island evening, outside the debate hall (and the actual, physical "Spin Room.") But I guess "The Spin Room" is really...wherever Chris Matthews is located.

The Coming Credit Card Meltdown

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BusinessWeek takes a useful look at the next big problem in consumer credit. One word: plastic.

The piece’s perspective is upside-down, in my view, in that it concerns itself with the effect of looming defaults on lenders. Really, at this point, it’s borrowers you have to worry about.

But the issue is important.

…The next horror for beaten-down financial firms is the $950 billion worth of outstanding credit-card debt—much of it toxic.

That's bad news for players like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) that have largely sidestepped—and even benefited from—the mortgage mess but have major credit-card operations. They're hardly alone. The consumer debt bomb is already beginning to spray shrapnel throughout the financial markets, further weakening the U.S. economy. "The next meltdown will be in credit cards," says Gregory Larkin, senior analyst at research firm Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. Adds William Black, senior vice-president of Moody's Investors Service's structured finance team: "We still haven't hit the post-recessionary peaks [in credit-card losses], so things will get worse before they get better."

In fact, the “meltdown” for banks from credit cards is actually going to be on the modest side, even using BW’s figures:

Credit-card losses are already taking a bite out of lenders' balance sheets. Bank of America, the nation's second-largest issuer behind JPMorgan, revealed on Oct. 6 that roughly $3 billion of its $184 billion credit-card portfolio has soured, a 50% increase from a year ago. At the same time the bank, which is also dealing with the broader financial tumult, said it would have to cut its dividend by 50% and raise $10 billion in fresh capital.

Three billion on $184 billion is 1.6 percent, so that's not a big problem, yet.

But as BW mentions, it will get worse:

Innovest estimates that credit-card issuers will take a $41 billion hit from rotten debt this year and a $96 billion blow in 2009.

For a market of $900-plus billion, that’s a lot.

Again, I would love to have read more about families’ balance sheets, which are getting crushed and will have much more to do with how long this recession is going to last, rather than those of banks.

We’ve written at length about the shift in the credit-card business from an underwriting paradigm to a sales paradigm and the consequences for consumers.

The stats are more devastating for borrowers than for lenders:

• Bankruptcies tripled between 1989 and 2004, to 1.8 million.

• For the first time in 2004, more people went bankrupt than were divorced or were diagnosed with cancer or graduated from college.

• For every household that files for bankruptcy, another ten would have benefited economically from doing so.

And here’s another:

Research shows, for instance, that nearly 30 percent of low and middle-income people with credit-card debt reported medical expenses to be a major contributor. And in a study cited by [bankruptcy expert and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth] Warren, 87 percent of families with children filing for bankruptcy listed one of the “big three” reasons—divorce or separation, job loss, or medical expenses—as the cause.

A public interest research group, Demos, compellingly showed how middle class borrowers have used credit cards as a “plastic safety net” to supplement stagnating wages.

But I take what I can get.

BW moves the ball forward a bit with a detail that begins to tell the story of how banks, and borrowers, got into this overly leveraged predicament.

It wasn’t an accident:

The industry's practices during the lending boom are coming back to haunt many credit-card lenders now. Cate Colombo, a former call center staffer at MBNA, the big issuer bought by Bank of America in 2005, says her job was to develop a rapport with credit-card customers and advise them to use more of their available credit. Colleagues would often gather around her chair when she was on the phone with a consumer and chant: "Sell, sell." "It was like Boiler Room," says Colombo, referring to the 2000 movie about unscrupulous stock brokers. "I knew that they would probably be in debt for the rest of their lives." Unless, of course they default. Responds BofA spokeswoman Betty Riess: "The allegations do not reflect our practices. The bank has nothing to gain by extending credit to people who do not have the ability to pay us back."

That’s quite an anecdote. The use of “boiler room” tactics to sell consumer debt is, in my view, one of the most under-reported stories of the mortgage crisis.

Credit to BW for shining a bit of light on such tactics in the credit-card business.

More, please.

Best "Plumber" Headline

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The award for the best use of "Joe the Plumber" in a morning-after-debate headline could belong to... Barron's.

"Plumber Takes Center Stage As We Go Down Drain"

Sen. Obama warned supporters at a fundraiser this morning in Manhattan:

For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky or think this is all set, I just have two words for you: New Hampshire. I’ve been in these positions before when we were favored, and the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked.

Some Kind of Journalist

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Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson

by William McKeen

W. W. Norton, 448 pages, $27.95

Conversations With Hunter S. Thompson

Edited by Beef Torrey and Kevin Simonson

University Press of Mississippi
, 240 pages, $22

"Well, fuck the Columbia Journalism Review,” Hunter S. Thompson said in a 1974 Playboy interview, responding to a question about CJR’s attacks on his objectivity and credibility. The only hope for the Review, he wrote four years later, in The Great Shark Hunt, would come when “the current editor dies of brain syphilis.” A lot of water’s gone over the dam since then—or else you wouldn’t be reading this—and the scandalous and scurrilous Thompson’s ashes have been launched, according to his wishes, from a custom-designed cannon over his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The gala sendoff after his suicide in 2005 cost $2.5 million. The money was put up by his friend Johnny Depp, who played him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam’s here-today-gone-tomorrow film of Thompson’s most enduring book. By then, Thompson had become—to his obvious pleasure, and perhaps to his private consternation—a revered, if still bracingly disreputable, figure in American literature. The term “gonzo,” which he first embraced and then came to dislike, had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary: “A type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style.” His friends and admirers included such respectables as George Plimpton, Ed Bradley, Charles Kuralt, and Douglas Brinkley, who became his literary executor. George McGovern was the featured speaker at his funeral. And in The Wall Street Journal (of all places), Tom Wolfe compared him to Mark Twain and judged him “the greatest comic writer of the 20th century.”

But the old enmity between Thompson and mainstream journalism lives again in two new books: William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson and a paperback collection of interviews and profiles called Conversations With Hunter S. Thompson. They deserve to be read together. Even a biography as thorough as McKeen’s has room for only so many digressive glimpses of the man, and you don’t want to miss Richard Keil’s white-knuckle account of sitting in the passenger seat with Thompson at the wheel, or the self-styled Doctor’s judicious diagnosis (from Ron Rosenbaum’s 1977 High Times interview) of Jimmy Carter’s mix of Puritanism and libertarianism: “He’d put me in jail in an instant if he saw me snorting coke in front of him. He would not, however, follow me into the bathroom and try to catch me snorting it.”

Both books devote much attention to Thompson’s running feud with the journalistic establishment—and his attraction to it. As a young and unknown reporter for the National Observer, he initiated a cheeky correspondence with arch-insider and Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, concluding one letter with, “I’m beginning to think you’re a phony, Graham.” It was a paradoxical, even perverse, way of courting approval. But it worked—they were pen pals until Graham’s suicide in 1963—as, in the long run, Thompson’s provocations usually did. Had Graham lived, Thompson once speculated, the founder (and really, sole practitioner) of gonzo journalism “could have been the editor of The Washington Post.”

Where Thompson and the mainstream diverge most glaringly is over the question of objectivity. Of course even the most rigid journalistic purist would agree that, strictly speaking, there can be no such thing: what the word really means is a good-faith effort to be fair and (though the expression has become miserably discredited) balanced. But Thompson’s sense of morality overrode any impulse he might have had to place himself at a remove and see both sides of a story. “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long,” he told Matthew Hahn in a 1997 interview with Atlantic Online. “You can’t be objective about Nixon.” In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his account of the 1972 presidential race originally published in Rolling Stone, Thompson’s liberation from the constraints of objectivity produces both a flow of ecstatic invective—Hubert Humphrey, he writes, is “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler”—and such novelistic insights as Edmund Muskie’s talking “like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop.” Some reporters from the mainstream press had contempt for this flouting of professionalism. Others, according to his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse, got “a vicarious, Mittyesque thrill” from reading what they secretly thought but were forbidden to say. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s chief political adviser, called Thompson’s dispatches “the most accurate and the least factual” reporting on the campaign.

In some moods, Thompson denied he was a reporter at all. “I’m a writer,” he told Playboy. “Nobody gives Norman Mailer this kind of shit. I’ve never tried to pose as a goddamn reporter. I don’t defend what I do in the context of straight journalism.” But he never denied he was some kind of journalist; it was just that he was ambivalent about the whole enterprise. “The best people in journalism”—David Halberstam and Harrison Salisbury were two he always praised—“I’ve never had a quarrel with. I am a journalist, and I’ve never met, as a group, any tribe I’d rather be a part of or that are more fun to be with.” Or so he told McKeen in 1990. Two years earlier, in his introduction to A Generation of Swine, he’d written that “I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it—a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures.” (Gee, Hunter, you say it like it’s a bad thing.) Thompson was hardly the consummate professional: editors often had to piece together and sequence the fragments he turned in for publication. On the other hand, he was a meticulous stylist, seldom if ever guilty of grammatical lapses, and his reputation—richly deserved—as a drug-crazed Lord of Misrule obscured a more-than-Protestant work ethic. He often started writing after everyone else had turned in or passed out, but he knew “you’ve got to have pages in the morning. I measure my life in pages. If I have pages at dawn, it’s been a good night.”

Thompson’s great journalistic innovation, though, was to subvert the very idea of journalism. In his best work, the real story was Thompson getting the story—as in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and even in his far more conventional 1966 book Hell’s Angels—or better still, failing to get it, as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After snagging an assignment to cover a motorcycle race in the desert for Sports Illustrated (which rejected the copy he turned in), Thompson traveled to Vegas with Oscar Zeta Acosta, an activist Chicano attorney and fellow drug aficionado whom he was trying to interview for another piece, and ran amok. “We were somewhere near Barstow,” his report began, “on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” What follows is a phantasmagoria involving speeding cars, casinos, drug abuse, a National District Attorneys

Conference on drug abuse, the “American Dream”—on which subject Thompson had been contracted to do a book for Random House, and which turned out to be the name of a burned-down nightclub—and, incidentally, the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Thompson calls himself Raoul Duke; Acosta has become a Samoan named Dr. Gonzo. The expenses they ran up, according to McKeen, caused American Express to ban Thompson for life. As to its journalistic value, the whole book is, as they say, too good to check.

Thompson, for whom modesty was no virtue, called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a “masterwork . . . . It’s as good as The Great Gatsby and better than The Sun Also Rises.” We can argue about the merits of this comparison, but it’s telling that he chose to measure his work against two novels. (Fear and Loathing has been called a novel, but not by Thompson himself.) To think of fiction as a nobler calling is the journalist’s traditional mode of self-disparagement—the novel-in-the-drawer syndrome—and Thompson, an original in most other respects, took the cliché to heart. In 1979, journalist Toby Thompson (no relation) plucked up his courage and told him: “ ‘Everything you publish these days seethes with a contempt you bring to journalism.’ Hunter stared at me. ‘There are not many people who get that,’ he said.” As a young writer, Thompson would type out passages from Faulkner and Hemingway to absorb their styles; when he was in his sixties, he still felt “I was basically meant for higher things. Novels.” His first serious work, in 1961, was a novel called The Rum Diary, which he finally published, in much-revised form (and to little acclaim) in 1999. In a 1993 interview for Spin, Thompson told Kevin Simonson, “I always had and still do have an ambition to write fiction. I’ve never had any real ambition within journalism, but events and fate and my own sense of fun keep taking me back for money, political reasons, and because I’m a warrior.”

Apparently he was just born that way. In McKeen’s words, he was “wired different.” His elementary-school principal in Louisville, Kentucky, called him “Little Hitler,” and one schoolmate recalled that he “almost had demonic power.” When he was nine, FBI agents came to his parents’ door, accusing him of vandalizing a mailbox; he missed his high-school graduation because he was serving a jail term for ripping off somebody’s wallet. “What do you think made Hunter the way he is?” his straight-arrow older brother, a Cleveland insurance man, asked one of their boyhood friends at Thompson’s memorial. Thompson himself once speculated that “there may be some genetic imperative that caused me to get into certain situations”—or, as he put it in his Playboy interview, he was “a natural freak.”

His compulsive productivity is one indication. In addition to his published books, some twenty thousand of his letters survive. (Before the days of photocopying, he made carbons.) Those collected a decade ago in The Proud Highway add up to nearly seven hundred printed pages, which only takes us from 1955 to 1967—and Douglas Brinkley, who edited the volume, says he included only one letter out of every fifteen. Whether or not Thompson’s energy came from drugs—he once said he used only tobacco and Wild Turkey “regularly” while writing—it was scary to behold. Timothy Crouse remembers watching him at his IBM Selectric, “his elbows out to the sides, sitting up very straight, and then he would get this sort of electric jolt and start to type. He’d type a sentence and then wait again with his arms out, and he would get another jolt and type another sentence.” In a 2003 profile for Relix, Jesse Jarnow noticed that Thompson talked the same way: “He speaks in tight bursts, quickly stopping and starting, as if allowing his hands time to type. ‘I’veneverunderstood. Whatamemoir. Reallyis.’”

Certainly Thompson could function after consuming quantities of drugs that would immobilize—at best—a more chemically sensitive soul. “There are very few things that can really beat driving around the Bay Area on a good summer night—big motorcycle, head full of acid,” he told Rosenbaum in his High Times interview. Thompson’s self-mythologizing may have encouraged tall tales about his exploits. “Obviously, my drug use is exaggerated,” he said in 1990, “or I would be long since dead.” But if he ingested a tenth of all the LSD, mescaline, speed, cocaine, and cannabis (often in combination) that he himself claimed, he was, to quote 
McKeen, “a genetic miracle.” He also drank constantly, “probably enough during a twenty-four-hour span to render a minor-league infield unconscious,” McKeen writes. “He breakfasted on bloody marys and beer and drank Wild Turkey and Chivas by the tumbler, but he was rarely shit-faced.” In his Playboy interview, he claimed to have spent $1,400 on cocaine just to finish one section of one Rolling Stone story—and that was in 1974 dollars.

You’d think that these habits, combined with his fondness for shooting off guns and his Tourettic abusiveness—he once told his son Juan, then a toddler, to bring him cigarettes or he’d “rip his balls off”—would have made Thompson a pariah. In fact, he was widely and deeply, though hardly universally, beloved. His house at Woody Creek became a salon, superintended in his later years by a succession of devoted assistants and lovers—one often becoming the other. His devotees were hard to alienate: a pair of college interns whom he’d menaced with an ax came back to work for him a week later. In 1983, he traduced socialite Roxanne Pulitzer in Rolling Stone as “an incorrigible coke slut . . . . In six and a half years of marriage, she had humped almost everything she could get her hands on . . . . At thirty-one, she looks more like a jaded senior stewardess from Pan Am than an international sex symbol.” But after she lost custody of her children in a divorce trial, he apologized to her for years, and ultimately won her over: “I really grew to love him,” Pulitzer tells McKeen. Somewhere inside the bad boy, people saw the good man—just as the ferocity of his political writing ultimately failed to hide the patriot, the moralist, even the prophet. “I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation,” he wrote in Generation of Swine, “than anything else in the English language.”

Thompson was sixty-seven when he ended his life: young by actuarial standards, but older than he ever thought he would be. He’d had a hip replaced and he was in constant pain from nerves impinging on his spine. A month before his death, during a trip to New Orleans, Thompson planned to attend a party given by his politico friend James Carville, but he was in a wheelchair and wouldn’t let people carry him up to the dining room. And he knew what everyone else knew: that he’d done his best work twenty years before. Brinkley, like Thompson’s first wife, Sandy, partly blames cocaine—which Thompson called “a worthless drug” even as he snorted it—for the long, slow slide. And self-inflicted celebrity got in his way. After the 1972 campaign, he was too famous to do much reporting: wherever he went, he became the story, no longer just for himself, but for other reporters. Rolling Stone miscast him as a war correspondent during the fall of Saigon in 1975: he missed the evacuation while trying to buy eavesdropping equipment in another part of the city. The previous year, he’d gone to Zaire for the Ali-Foreman fight, and missed that, too. He was in the hotel pool, floating around with a pound and a half of pot he’d thrown in—and he didn’t even file that story. For the rest of his career, he was essentially an armchair commentator, retooling his Nixon-era outrage to fit Ronald Reagan, Bush forty-one, Bush forty-three.

It’s painful to read the accounts, both in McKeen’s biography and in Conversations, of the aging Thompson commanding his Woody Creek visitors to read his work aloud, and insisting that they slow down in order to bring out the rhythmic nuances. You can’t help but be reminded of King Lear coercing his daughters to demonstrate their love through flattery: it suggests an unassuagable insecurity. Sandy, who asked him for a divorce in 1978 when she could stand no more of his drugging and womanizing, considers Thompson a failure on his own terms. “He was a tortured, tragic figure,” she told McKeen. “I do not think he was a great writer . . . . He had the genius, the talent, and, early on, the will and the means. He was horrified by whom [sic] he had become and ashamed . . . . He knew he had failed. He knew his writing was absolutely not great. This was part of the torture. And yet, he could never climb back. The image, the power, the drugs, the alcohol, the money . . . all of it . . . he never became that great American writer he had wanted to be. Nowhere close. And he knew it.”
But how much great work can any writer do in a lifetime? Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Faulkner and Twain, all produced more tailings than gold. Thompson left us one canonical classic (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), the funniest and darkest book ever written about the American political process (Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72), and volumes of letters rivaled in American literature only by those of Ezra Pound for their voice and vigor. It should have been enough to satisfy anybody but Thompson himself.

Pundits With "Moldy" Assumptions

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Time's Joe Klein explains why political pundits (and he uses "we" in the explanation) had such a different-seeming insta-reaction to last night's debate than did "regular" people polled (with some pundits concluding something like McCain had best debate yet and many people polled concluding something like, Obama "won."). In part:

Journalism is, naturally, about the past. We are much better at reporting things that have happened than in predicting the future. We never seem so foolish or obnoxious, especially on TV, as when we accede to the constant demand for crystal-balling. But the obvious danger inherent in journalism is that we tend to get trapped in the assumptions of the past. Too often this year, my colleagues--especially those who are older than me, but also my fellow baby boomers--have seemed a bit moldy in our questioning of politicians: What are you going to do about budget deficits? What are you going to do about entitlement programs?

These are valid questions, but less relevant in a financial crisis that will probably lead to a severe recession...

Klein writes that pundits have:

been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working--and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama: you're going to raise our taxes, you're going to spend more money, you want to negotiate with bad guys, you're associated somehow--the associations have gotten more tenuous over time--with countercultural and unAmerican activities. ...

Again, these arguments have "worked" for a long time...[McCain] thought that merely invoking the magic words "spread the wealth" and "class warfare" he could neutralize Obama.

As did, Klein suggests, some pundits. "But," Klein concludes, "those words and phrases seem anachronistic, almost vestigial now."

Method Reporting

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Yesterday, Clint and I were wondering aloud whether CNN might dress its campaign reporter like a local, in typical Long Island-wear, in order to better cover the final presidential debate on location at Hofstra University. CNN has, after all, done this sort of method reporting before (Ali Velshi in a ten gallon hat down at the Texas primary).

I didn't notice any high hair (or, higher than usual) on the CNN crew yesterday or anything resembling such a costume change. But the Daily Show's senior presidential debate analyst, John Oliver, filed his post-debate report last night sporting a velour track suit unzipped to showcase his undershirt and gold necklace (there were several large rings as well). And he attempted to swap his native accent, Brit, for something like Buttafuoco...

Plumbing out the Context

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As Joe The Plumber enjoys his 15 minutes, would it be too much to ask that some of that time be devoted to fair-minded determinations of how the candidates' respective tax and health care plans would affect people like Joe? How about to finding out roughly how many Americans are in situations roughly similar to Joe?

And I'm no accountant, but can't Joe (or any other small business owner) incorporate his plumbing business and thereby only be taxed on the income he draws from the company, rather than its full profits?

Given that personal income tax policy is often cited as having a negative effect on small business job growth--as McCain did last night--I could use an explainer on the way that part of tax law works, how it affects small business owners, and why more don't take advantage of incorporation.

Or we could just talk about how folksy and authentic Joe is. Whatevs.

UPDATE: I understand that the unsurpassed Megan Garber will have more on the Joe-nomenon soon.

LATER UPDATE: And here's Megan's piece.

The Times says the housing rout is far from over, with prices likely to decline for another year.

The current housing downturn is much more national in scope and severe than any other in the postwar period, partly because of the proliferation of risky lending practices. Today, foreclosures are running ahead of the downturn in the economy, a reversal of previous housing slumps.

“We are in uncharted waters,” said Brian A. Bethune, an economist at Global Insight, a research firm.

The paper doesn’t mention that many analysts think the financial crisis can’t really end until house prices find a bottom. The Journal yesterday noted that the Treasury’s bailout plan doesn’t really address the housing bust.

But some economists say the government needs to do more to address the underlying problems that triggered the credit crisis. "It's very disappointing" that the plan doesn't do anything "to stop the spiral in home prices," which is reducing net worth and creating a falloff in consumer spending, says Harvard University economist Martin Feldstein. He proposes that the federal government offer low-interest loans to replace 20% of homeowners' mortgages…

Falling prices are feeding a vicious cycle that leads to more mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures. As more Americans end up "under water," or owing more on homes than they are currently worth, more people are likely to walk away from mortgages, causing foreclosures to rise further and adding to negative market psychology.

Today, the WSJ reports that FDIC head Sheila Bair is criticizing the Administration’s plan for not helping homeowners. Good for her:

"I support all the measures; I've been a part of all the measures that have been taken," she said. "But we're attacking it at the institution level as opposed to the borrower level, and it's the borrowers defaulting. That is what's causing the distress at the institution level. So why not tackle the borrower problem?"

The Times reported last year that Bair had tried to get the subprime industry to adopt better practices. It seems she has good intentions but just hasn’t been given the power by the Bush Administration to follow through.

The Times gives a lot of space to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announcing he’s going after AIG to recover some executive bonuses it passed out—and compares the action to Eliot Spitzer’s back in the day. But this seems more like grandstanding, with an outdoors press conference on Wall Street, than something that will have any real effect.

Cuomo, after all, made a lot of noise about the ratings agencies, which were bad actors critical to creating this crisis, and then agreed to a settlement with them that contained no punishment.

The FT reports that hedge funds suffered more than $43 billion in withdrawals in the U.S. last month, something that has some hedgies—gasp!—offering to suspend their outrageously high fees until March if their investors just keep their money in them. Talk about “definancialization”:

A fundraiser for a major hedge fund said the period “between now and December 1 is a sort of death march” for the industry.

The chief executive of a leading alternative investment manager said he expected the hedge fund industry to shrink by 50 per cent in coming months — with half the decline coming from withdrawals and half coming from investment losses.

Since hedge funds are so levered with debt, every dollar of withdrawn money forces nearly three dollars of sales by the hedge fund, which helps drive down prices.

The Journal reports that one of the biggest hedge funds, Citadel, has been waylaid in the last month, losing some 30 percent of its value. It says a rumor posted on Dealbreaker.com Tuesday that its results were much worse helped stoke fear that sent markets plunging yesterday by their most since Black Monday of 1987.

The Citadel rumors gained momentum as the Web site Dealbreaker published some of them.

The item was posted for about an hour on the site, but was taken down after a Citadel executive called. "We removed the Citadel post after it was brought to our attention that it was a baseless rumor, and was irresponsible to repeat," Dealbreaker wrote on its site. The site had labeled it the item an "unfounded" rumor.

The Journal reports that the crisis is like whack-a-mole: knock it down one place and it pops back up in another.

Government efforts to heal the credit markets are having unintended consequences that are roiling different sectors of the market and adding to anxiety among investors, who already are worried about the impact of a possible recession on U.S. companies…

"You have unintended consequences that spark government actions, that create other unintended consequences," said David Kotok, chairman at money managers Cumberland Advisors.

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil has a good column on how the banks are taking taxpayer’s money and still trying to conceal the true value of their balance sheets:

What investors need now is a good reason to believe corporate balance sheets. Otherwise, it won't matter how much taxpayer money gets pumped into ailing financial institutions. We'll still be risking systemic meltdown because nobody, especially the banks, will be able to trust anyone else's books.

Yet that's where the banking industry and its lobbyists keep taking us. They want government blessing to value their assets any way they want, using whatever numbers they desire. And the banks will fight to their deaths to get it.

Jesse Eisinger posts a good look in Portfolio at the advent of the credit-default swap.

Morgan’s derivatives project began in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 as an attempt to protect the bank from bad loans. Demchak’s innovations worked—for his bank. Morgan came to dominate this corner of the financial world while preserving a culture of prudence. Morgan—deemed to be so safe that it snagged two of the victims of the financial-system collapse, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual—is still swimming in credit derivatives, far more than any other firm on Wall Street, though the bank says it’s hedged. As of the second quarter of 2008, the bank had written derivatives contracts backing credit valued at $10.2 trillion, roughly three-quarters the size of the U.S. economy.

But Demchak’s innovation has a more troubling legacy. J.P. Morgan, rather than being inoculated, was actually becoming the Patient Zero of Wall Street, eventually carrying the credit virus to the far corners of the global financial system. The structure of the first derivatives deal wasn’t as solid as Demchak’s team had intended. That initial, flawed financial instrument was later replicated thousands of times by J.P. Morgan and other banks, with the same defects repeated and magnified over and over again.

Joe, Cool

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While "Joe" (as in, The Plumber) was a frequently-used word during last night's debate, "cool" is a frequently-used word in post-debate news headlines (h/t/ Eric Boehlert), employed by at least the following newspapers to describe Obama's debate performance.

"Aggressive Underdog vs. Cool Counterpuncher," Washington Post

"McCain Brings Heat, Obama Stays Mr. Cool," Chicago Sun-Times

"Debate Sees An Aggressive McCain and a Cool Obama," The Hill

"A fiesty McCain, a cool Obama, and appeals to 'Joes' everywhere," Christian Science Monitor

"McCain seemed energized; Obama kept cool," Denver Post

"Cool" or "too cool"?

"Analysis: McCain Intense, Obama Maybe Too Cool,"Boston Globe

Voters and Race

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I mentioned earlier this week that articles about theories like the Bradley Effect run the risk of zooming out too much to look at what the numbers say—about how discomfort about race is still frequently covered up, or, on the flip side, how the Bradley Effect might be an obsolescent notion.

So The New York Times’s “voters on race” package is a refreshing reminder of the individual quotient in the race and politics equation. While the articles present a very narrow slice of the voter pie, they do handily fulfill the “show don’t tell” mandate, without trying to reach for big-picture conclusions.

The articles take a person-on-the-street approach, asking questions about race to different voters in a range of swing states—from whether it matters to them in 2008, to how it affects their views of the candidates, to how they think it might affect the outcome of the election. And while stories of this timbre can tend towards simplistic caricatures of a complex voting dynamic, it remains true that the more individual voices we hear, the more the overarching theories can be said to speak for something.

For instance, here’s a telling moment that follows the logic of a voter’s mindset, from an article about how voters in Mobile, Ala., perceive Obama’s biracial background. Reporter Adam Nossiter quotes a voter named Kimi Oaks (one of fifteen gathered at a Methodist church to discuss the campaign), who approvingly highlights the fact that Obama is “not a product of any ghetto.” But at the same time, Nossiter writes:

…she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Ms. Oaks said she was “terribly offended,” as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.

While one person’s words don’t say anything to prove or disprove polling theories of closeted racism, the juxtaposition of the woman’s two sentiments powerfully underscores the point that unconscious bigotry is indeed alive.

Likewise, Jennifer Steinhauer’s article discusses an Obama volunteer’s effort to assuage an undecided voter’s worry that Obama’s race made him untrustworthy: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.”

Originally posted on the NYT’s Caucus blog on October 2 (and provoking a slew of comments), the exchange serves as a reminder of how the race card can be, and unfortunately has been, used in attempts to bring wary voters over to Obama’s side.

Here’s a snippet from another of the NYT articles, about voters—in the heavily white area of Buena Vista, Colo.—for whom race is often a more distant, almost theoretical discussion. The reporter, Kirk Johnson, writes: “the debate over race—and for some, the soul-searching—that Mr. Obama’s history-making candidacy as the Democratic nominee has engendered are clearly present here, just different… The lack of racial interaction made Mr. Obama’s race more of an intellectual concept, secondary to ordinary political considerations.”

One man, Johnson continues, admitted “voting for a black man was simply easier in a place where social problems were divorced from a discussion of race.”

It’s another small portrait, but again it prompts a bigger thought—about how a sort of neutral tolerance (by way of racial conflict in absentia) figures into the often-polarized discussions of race in politics.

Finally, a Chicago Tribune article has this poignant scene to offer, of two union volunteers in Clairton, Pa., deciding how to pass out campaign fliers to best serve Obama:

They refold the fliers so that Obama's picture isn't visible as they hand them out.

"We still have a long way to go," says Doug Ward. "The main problem is that he's black."

Rachel Serbin smiles and says only one thing as she offers the leaflets.

"This is from the union," she says. "It's about your wallet."

The questions these snapshots raise are modest. But if one of journalism’s goals is to inform, the information that can be gained from these on-the-street stories is important, if only because it makes news consumers think about the race issue (and other issues connected with it) in ways that polling phenomena, and reports on them, often don’t.

As a recent NYT article on the Bradley Effect stated, concern about such theories “obscures” the more important point:

There are plenty of ways that race complicates polling. Considered alone or in combination, these factors could produce an unforeseen Obama landslide with surprise victories in the South, a stunningly large Obama loss, or a recount-thin margin. In a year that has already turned expectations upside down, it is hard to completely reassure the fretters.

The “voters on race” articles may not necessarily reassure the fretters, but they aptly show, in shades of gray, what some of those complications are.

Hollow Criticism from MarketWatch

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Given that I am currently at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, it seems an opportune time to comment on a column from last Friday by MarketWatch's Jon Friedman, which attempted to cast environmental journalism—that's right, as a whole—as incredibly hollow and gutless. He should have reread his own column.

Let's start with the many things that are wrong with the current reportage, according to Friedman. Environmental, or as he refers to them, "green," journalists (which implies that environmental journalist equates to environmentalist), "are anxious to show the public that they're in tune with the zeitgeist in America … many of them don't really understand the nuances of the subject – and therefore have a hard time communicating ideas and insights to their readers and viewer." And this: "Beyond sticking to a few catch-phrases and earnestly spouting a do-good philosophy gleaned from Al Gore's movie, 'An Inconvenient Truth,' the media aren't doing much to try to explain the green phenomenon."

If you think that Friedman will eventually un-mire himself from those generalizations, he doesn't (and CJR has criticized him before for this). In fact, meaningful and instructive criticism doesn’t even seem to be the point of the column, which is, instead, to promote a new book by fellow MarketWatch columnist Thomas Kostigen. The book, according to Friedman’s piece, “examines how our everyday lives impact the environment in the rest of the world.” And, adding to the list of environmental journalism’s shortcomings he lays out, Friedman quotes Kostigen adding that “most journalists get hung up on the jargon,” and that ‘green’ and ‘global warming’ have become a “pejorative term,” which is “the media's fault for combining politics with science.”

Well, first of all, that last bit is not entirely journalists’ fault—there has been a well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by special interest groups to discredit climate science and conservation. But Friedman and Kostigen are right, to some degree, about other points; all of these problems with environmental journalism (and other writing/broadcasting that get confused for it) are out there. They are by no mean ubiquitous, however, and writing in generalizations does nothing to help that. True, the line between objective journalism and special interest reporting has been blurred by a proliferation of mostly online information sites, but if you’re going to complain about it, offer examples of each variety so that readers can actually learn something. The same goes for problems of misunderstanding of science or poor writing. And by the same token, if Friedman wants journalism to “explain the green phenomenon,” he needs to unpack that term as well. After all, reporting on energy, agriculture, natural resources, pollution, and environmental politics or business each comes with its own dilemmas.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of blind attack on environmental journalism before. Almost exactly a year ago, Sam McManis, at The Sacramento Bee, tried to pull the stunt and I responded with a column reminding him that his own paper has one of the best environmental teams in the nation—and cited specific articles from the Bee and many other papers. I could cite many other fine stories that have run since then, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of excellent environmental journalism out there, and some that’s really horrible. I don’t have hard numbers to back this up (and getting them would be a worthwhile project), but it is my hypothesis that there is more of the excellent variety today than there was five years ago because there is more demand for it. There is probably more of the horrible variety as well, but rather than displacing the former, it is simply adding to the “background noise” (to use some of the scientific jargon that Friedman decries). A Pew Research Center report from one year ago found that this was true of “hard” and “soft” news in general.

At any rate, the last attempt that Friedman makes in his column to substantiate his vague criticism is to quote an essay by Dan Fagin, a former Newsday reporter who now directs New York University’s Science and Environmental Reporting program. The essay, titled “Science and Journalism Fail to Connect,” appeared in the Winter 2005 Nieman Report on global warming (pdf) and Freidman cherry-picks two sentences, reading “How can we expect Americans to know anything beyond what they happen to remember from science class? Journalists certainly don't tell them." Unlike Friedman, however, Fagin wasn’t generalizing. In the rest of the essay, Fagin details how journalists have done a terrible job of explaining the basic structure of statistical analysis and the scientific method to readers.

The Observatory recently published a similar column, arguing that science journalists, because of traditional constraints in the news business, have been unwilling (but also unable) to reiterate basic principles of science. Indeed it is disconcerting that global warming should have become such an enormous story over the last five years without reporters having first established a clear understanding of the carbon cycle among readers. Fortunately, the Web, acting as a sort of encyclopedic database for news sites, is giving journalists an opportunity to change that. At any rate, it is a shame that Friedman misused Fagin’s work, because Fagin is proof positive that Friedman’s generalizations don’t hold.

At last year’s Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I saw Fagin give a talk about covering cancer clusters, and his grasp of environmental toxicology was outstanding. Like me, Fagin is probably at this year’s meeting, where there will be scores of other reporters, editors and educators who are working their tails off to improve environmental journalism, but who have already demonstrated many times over that their reporting is far from hollow.

On Hardball's pregame right now, a crowd of people--most of them, apparently, Hofstra students; almost all of them, judging from their cheers and jeers, Obama supporters--is gathered behind Chris Matthews as he chats with the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman and The New York Times's Jeff Zeleny. Behind Matthews's head, a large sign, its black background and its orange and white lettering standing out among the sea of Obamian Red and Blue, is being propped up by an unknown advocate. The sign advertises Ed in '08, an attempt to make education reform a key issue in the presidential campaign. I've written about their efforts before, on Campaign Desk, and must sadly acknowledge that, however worthy their cause, and however noble their efforts toward achieving it, that cause has now been completely trumped by the economy. Chalk yet another loss up to the crisis.

IM'ing past each other

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Today New York magazine moderated--egged on?--an instant messaging bout between Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and The National Review's Byron York.

The concept of making these two men type out their differences is at least as funny as the results, but click through to read Taibbi work himself into a lather on the origins of the credit crisis. York doesn't take the bait, or respond to Taibbi's question.

Lesson: Even IM debates sometimes need monitors

Live Blogging The Debate. Again.

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CJR contributors will be live blogging tonight's debate in the comments section of this post. As always, everybody is welcome to participate. The "fun" will begin around 8:45 EST.

Most political bloggers would say that their craft requires a careful, often uneasy balance between taking the time to develop a worthwhile insight and responding with the speed the Internet demands.

The normal equation gets reworked during bouts of live blogging, when writers let their thoughts spill in almost real time on an event of national importance. In the politics world, the technique has become the tool of choice for election nights, state of the union addresses, and, especially, debates.

“You’re zooming along at ninety miles per hour,” says Katherine Seelye of The New York Times.

“This would be what we were shooting out of our mouths during the debate,” says Kathryn Jean Lopez, the editor of National Review Online, and a primary contributor to The Corner blog.

“If Bob Herbert was going to be saying things under his breath—‘That guys lying and that’s nonsense’—you’d want to hear that if you enjoyed his perspective. That’s what live blogging is,” said Steve Benen, who blogs for The Washington Monthly.

The speed attendant to the concept, of course, can lead to a predictable set of hazards—like intemperate, seat-of-the-pants reactions, or short blasts devoid of context.

“I try to have a measured tone when I write. I try not to fly off the handle,” says Benen. “I can think of a couple of times during the Palin debate where I was thoroughly annoyed and the emotions were kind of raw while I was experiencing it. And I probably used some intemperate language—not necessarily profanity or vulgarity—but language I probably wouldn’t have included had I not been live blogging.”

(At 9:40 that night, Benen wrote “She's obscene.” Three minutes later: “She's disgusting. Literally.”)

“Because you are commenting on the entire debate in little pieces, you might say ‘That was an idiotic statement, Senator McCain,’ and you will wind up in a DNC or Obama press release” says Lopez. She says she and other Corner contributors take care to add context “almost for self defense purposes, when all your readers start complaining you gave John Kerry or Barack Obama a passing grade in a debate, when all you did was one throwaway line on one throwaway line.”

The New York Times’s measured analysis separates its live blogging from the bulk of its competition, which tends to be more opinionated. But Seelye says other constraining aspects of Times style bother her more.

“We still have to say Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. If I could change anything, it would be to talk in the parlance of people who are having the conversation,” says Seelye. “People say Hillary. They don’t say Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Many live bloggers use “conversation” as a metaphor for what happens during the process. Readers email in ideas, and leave comments.

“In the comments section, they’re doing what I’m doing, logging in with their thoughts,” says Benen.

“To me the whole point of doing this is to go on the journey with the reader. It’s sort of the opposite of the voice-of-God journalism that we have at the end of the debates,” says Seelye. “They like being part of a conversation. They like seeing what other people think.”

“People find it useful because they wonder what other conservatives, what other like-minded people, are thinking,” says Lopez. “Or if you are a liberal, you’re wondering what the conservatives are thinking.”

No matter how much readers like the format, some bloggers still worry about how the need for speed can lapse into superficiality.

“One of the main disadvantages of blogs is that you feel a need to make an immediate statement and have some immediate analysis,” says Lopez, even on trivial matters. “You feel a need to comment on the lighting. Heck, someone commented on Gwen Ifill’s jacket. Because there’s a little bit of entertainment value at that point.”

“I still prefer to be able to stop and think about something, for at least for a minute,” says Benen. “Give me at least sixty—ninety—seconds. That’d be great!”

“In general I don’t love it but I appreciate that readers appreciate it, so I’ll keep doing it,” says Benen, who once the election’s over, imagines he’ll be able to shelve the format until the next president’s first state of the union address. Until then, Benen says, “I’m looking forward to not doing it some more.”

The Red And The Black


Barack Obama. He's black. He's got a funny name. He's rather liberal. All of these things are somewhat novel in the annals of American presidential politics, and journalists have a hard time figuring out how to treat them.

On The American Prospect’s Web site, Adam Serwer argues that conservative attempts to accuse Barack Obama of being a socialist correspond to the right-wing racist tradition of condemning prominent blacks for their purported communist leanings:

The hysterical accusations of socialism from conservatives echo similar accusations leveled at black leaders in the past, as though the quest for racial parity were simply a left-wing plot. Obama may not actually be a socialist or communist, but his election would strike another powerful blow to the informal racial hierarchy that has existed in America since the 1960s, when it ceased being enforced by law. This hierarchy, which holds that whiteness is synonymous with American-ness, is one conservatives are now instinctively trying to preserve. Like black civil-rights activists of the 1960s, Obama symbolizes the destruction of a social order they see as fundamentally American, which is why terms like "socialism" are used to describe the threat.

The problem with this line of argument is that directly connecting the Obama campaign to the struggles of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. ignores the fact that, during the last century, lots of Americans actually feared communism. As some prominent blacks actually were communists, attempting to draw connections between radical blacks and the Soviet Union made sense for the right, both ideologically and strategically.

But while aligning Obama to radical blacks makes tactical sense, nobody (or nobody credible) really thinks Obama is a communist. It is 2008. Americans, no matter how ill-informed, do not actually worry that the red menace will strike again.

And it’s not really clear that these insinuations of Marxism are a racial thing as much as a liberal politics thing. Historically, conservatives have seen communists everywhere. Even a rabid anti-communist like Richard Nixon was just as eager to accuse white people of being communists.

More interesting is the article's discussion about black liberation as part of a general communist plot:

Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s… declared that "amalgamation is ultimately the goal of the Communist element." (To be fair, these conclusions make a bit of sense: could there be a more perfect vessel for a secret communist takeover of the United States than a biracial one-term senator from Chicago with an Arabic-sounding name? At a Starbucks somewhere, Chairman Mao is leeching WiFi for a quick instant message to William Ayers: "It’s happening exactly how we planned it.")

This is, admittedly, kind of a cute turn of phrase, but the image highlights precisely why the notion of Obama as a communist is so ludicrous. No one actually thinks Obama is taking messages from some communist overlord. (And who would that overlord be, anyway?) During the Cold War, people actually worried about that sort of thing. The Prospect article goes on to explain:

When Sarah Palin accuses Obama of "palling around with terrorists" and suggests that Obama hates his own country enough to wish it violence, the McCain campaign fuels age-old paranoia built around the conflation of black rights and the radical left. As for McCain himself, his attempts to tamp down the vitriol of his crowds suggest that he is somewhat confused by their response. He wants voters to dislike Obama, but he seems unaware of just what he has unleashed. However, by implicitly invoking the idea that Obama represents a socialist takeover of the United States, McCain is inviting what can only be a rational response from those who would die for their country: violence. What else is a patriot to do when freedom is threatened?

This is exaggerated. Even if terrorism is the new socialism, the governor of Alaska—who admittedly is often misinformed—is not implying that Barack Obama is a socialist; she's implying he's a terrorist. While both of those implications are inaccurate, they're not identical.

It’s unclear whether Serwer actually believes that tossing around the word “socialism” will actually lead to violence against Obama. This idea of Obama as a top assassination target is a media obsession lately, but the potential for violence is always a problem for presidential candidates. There's no legitimate reason to think violence is any more likely this time around. "What else is a patriot to do when freedom is threatened?” Well, vote for the other candidate. That's the point of all of this rhetoric—just to get people to vote for McCain.

The author seems to imply that these accusations and insinuations are basically just designed to associate Obama with other “dangerous” blacks. Because aren't “communist” and “socialist” just shorthand for “you should be afraid of him?” One thinks the author would have made more of that point. He didn't, however, because it's not really valid. “Communist” and “socialist” used to be shorthand for “you should be afraid of that person.” But today, “Communist” is shorthand for nothing.

There are a number of interesting things one can say about how the right attempts to portray Obama, particularly in light of its historical treatment of other black politicians. Indeed, his opponents are throwing plenty of nasty and potentially damaging rumors at Obama during this campaign. But rumors of communist leanings are not primary among these. It's like accusing Obama of being an Anti-Federalist or a Roundhead. And it’s not something about which Americans need to worry much.

Apples to Acorn


Fox News may be ahead in quantity of Acorn-related coverage (between Saturday and today at 3:00pm, TVEyes shows 556 mentions of "acorn" on Fox News, to CNN's 67 and MSNBC's 17; if you search on "a.c.o.r.n." the numbers are 280 for Fox, 92 for CNN and 33 for MSNBC.). But CNN is clearly winning in quality, as evidenced by this story intro:

... an Acorn not falling from the candidate's tree? Barack Obama and John McCain's connections to a group being investigated for possible voter registration fraud...

Both acorns and apples, yes, fall from trees but only apples have an idiom about it. Why nut-up an apple idiom for a story intro (can "Acorn of candidate's ear" be far behind?) when acorns have their own idioms? Even a blind pig can find an Acorn is probably not an option in the age of LipstickOnAPigGate but there's always Mighty oaks from little Acorns grow. (Mighty votes?)

A few minutes ago CNN used another apple expression and then just tacked Acorn on at the end:

Could a few bad apples be hurting Acorn?

How 'bout them Acorn? Which is to say: Megan is working on a piece that really digs into recent Acorn-related press coverage (check Campaign Desk later today).

A Depressing Look Back

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The Washington Post has some enlightening historical reporting today on a series of Clinton Administration battles that left the market for derivatives unregulated, contributing mightily to the current crisis.

The story follows a New York Times piece we liked last week on Alan Greenspan’s central role in allowing the financial system to head off the cliff. Brooksley E. Born, Clinton’s head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued stark warnings on the threat of unregulated derivatives and tried to get something done. If she had succeeded it would certainly have moderated this crisis. But Greenspan and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Arthur Levitt of the SEC (and the Treasury’s Larry Summers) battled her tooth and nail.

The Post gets inside a critical meeting in 1998 where Greenspan, Rubin, and Levitt shut down Born’s plea for oversight, though she kept fighting an extraordinary intra-government battle with them.

Born didn't back off on derivatives, either. On May 7, 1998, two weeks after her April showdown at Treasury, the commission issued a "concept release" soliciting public comment on derivatives and their risk. The response was swift and blistering. Within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt cited their "grave concerns" in an unusual joint statement. Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers decried it before Congress as "casting a shadow of regulatory uncertainty over an otherwise thriving market."

The story shows that the regulation battle goes deeper than simple partisanship. Rubin Democrats were big deregulators (or non-regulators to be precise), too, though not nearly so much as the current Bush Administration. Rubin himself comes off looking terrible in the story, largely in his own words, which are insider-y and milquetoast:

Rubin, in an interview, said of Born's effort, "I do think it was a deterrent to moving forward. I thought it was counterproductive. If you want to move forward . . . you engage with parties in a constructive way. My recollection was, though I truly do not remember the specifics of the meeting, this was done in a more strident way"…

Asked why he didn't suggest stricter capital requirements as an alternative in 1998, Rubin said, "There was no political reality of getting it done. We were so caught up with other issues that were so pressing. . . . the Asian financial crisis, the Brazilian financial crisis. We had a lot going on."

So Rubin says he was too busy and Born was too assertive to get oversight in place even though it was needed? Even after the notorious Long Term Capital Management meltdown threatened the entire system in 1999, he didn’t do anything.

The battle left Born politically isolated. In April 1999, the President's Working Group issued a report on the lessons of Long Term Capital's meltdown, her last as part of the group. The report raised some alarm over excess leverage and the unknown risks of the derivative market, but called for only one legislative change — a recommendation that brokerages' unregulated affiliates be required to assess and report their financial risk to the government.

Greenspan dissented on that recommendation.

Of course he did.

Former top McCain economic adviser Phil “Nation of Whiners” Gramm had a prominent role in this:

Throughout much of 2000, lobbyists were flying in and out of congressional offices. With Born gone, they saw an opportunity to settle the regulatory issue and perhaps gain even more. They had a sympathetic ear in Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, the influential Republican chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and a sympathetic bill: the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

Gramm opened a June 21 hearing with a call for "regulatory relief"…

Gramm was holding out for stronger language that would bar both the CFTC and the SEC from meddling in the swaps market. Alarmed, SEC lawyers argued that the agency at least needed to retain its authority over fraud and insider trading. What if a trader, armed with inside knowledge, engaged in a swap on a stock? Treasury Undersecretary Gary Gensler brokered a compromise: The SEC would retain its antifraud authority but without any new rulemaking power.

On the night of Dec. 15, with the nation still focused on the Supreme Court decision three days earlier that settled the 2000 presidential election in George W. Bush's favor, the act passed as a rider to an omnibus spending bill.

Let’s be clear, and as the Post points out, swaps didn’t create this bust—cheap money and bad lending did. But swaps are playing a critical role in turning this mess into an existential crisis for the entire system. By magnifying the bets, they multiplied the losses. And by making investors at the time think they were hedging their risk, they took much more of it. Because these derivatives are unregulated, companies like AIG could “insure” against losses without putting nearly enough capital in reserves.

We know the rest of that story. A credit to the Post for an instructive post-mortem.

Rooting Up ACORN


Ever since the McCain campaign called for an investigation into voter registration fraud perpetrated by the nonprofit organization ACORN, many news outlets have attempted to clarify what, exactly, the group does and how it is connected to Barack Obama.

Today, NPR’s Peter Overby offers another take, which, unfortunately, leaves listeners with no clearer understanding about the legitimacy of the allegations. The lead-in to the piece promises that there’s “a lot more” to the ACORN story than the GOP accusations. There is, but NPR fails to put all the pieces together.

The NPR report does a good job establishing ACORN’s mission—advocating for jobs, education, etc.—and the archive department pulls a great ace from the audio library: a 2006 clip of John McCain congratulating ACORN organizers for exemplifying “what makes America special."

NPR also lays out the full extent of Obama’s connections with ACORN: the Illinois lawsuit, the affiliation on Project Vote, the $800,000 paid for voter registration work, and the endorsement of the organization’s PAC. But things get muddled afterward.

Overby interviews Tim Miller, from the corporate-backed Employment Policies Institute, who details the history of complaints against ACORN and maligns the group’s financial practices, in light of the recent embezzlement-related ouster of the group’s founder. (The founder’s brother, the organization’s controller, stole approximately $1 million from the group.) But Overby spends no time explaining that the embezzlement scandal has no connection to the current registration fraud issues, and, more importantly, that Barack Obama has no connection with either affair.

Next, the report airs a McCain ad linking Obama to ACORN’s alleged pattern of “nationwide voter fraud.” Yet Overby does not clarify the difference between vote fraud and registration fraud; nor does he explain or contextualize the claim that ACORN is “flooding polling places with illegal voters.” An attorney specializing in voting protocols would have been useful here. Yes, ACORN may have submitted some fraudulent registration forms, but that’s because they’re legally required to submit every form they collect. Otherwise we’d invite a different kind of registration fraud, where organizers could throw out forms they deemed unacceptable for any given reason. What’s more, ACORN itself raised some of the alerts about the legitimacy of the forms now under investigation. And, also, the questionable forms represent a small portion of the overall registrations collected.

There are legitimate angles to the ACORN story, and they deserve to be reported. But what we’re missing here is context. NPR and others have to fulfill their “a lot more to the story” promise. Explain how ACORN registers voters; explain the laws; explain when Obama was involved and when he wasn’t; outline ACORN’s association with the Democratic party, and with the Republicans as well. The group has a complicated history, as this Slate piece explains. Pinning the fault entirely on Obama and the donkeys is a massive stretch.

And Now From the Heartland….

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You could say it wasn’t the greatest story, but, hey, a TV station taking a crack at health care is a pretty rare thing these days. Too bad that the story appearing on the station’s Web site was so obtuse that viewers were left scratching their heads wondering what it was all about. The occasion to tackle the subject was a forum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the state’s lame duck senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, and former senator and governor Bob Kerrey offered their views on reform.

The story started off noting that both Hagel and Kerrey said that “bipartisan health care reform would be the best approach to the present health care problem.” It went downhill from there. The statements and the quotes offered little context or explanation, and couldn’t help but leave viewers puzzled. Because health care is an American problem, Hagel said, it should be regulated by the federal government, not the states. OK, do viewers even know that health insurance is regulated by fifty state insurance departments? Most likely not. A word of explanation would have helped here.

KOLN/KGIN said that Kerrey backed the plan proposed by Barack Obama, which would provide what it called “government-sponsored health care to all Americans who want it,” which would work alongside existing employer-sponsored plans. Then came this line: “But skeptics say this plan supports socialism.” What skeptics? What socialism? The last I heard, the government wasn’t planning to nationalize private health insurers or do anything remotely close to what it just did to the banks. And Obama certainly hasn’t talked about a federal takeover. The reporter could have drawn a good analogy between Obama’s plan to provide subsidies to help poor people buy health insurance and what the government does to keep farmers afloat with price supports.

The last graph was really a doozy:

Both Kerrey and Hagel said a hybrid of Sen. Barack Obama’s and Sen. John McCain’s plans will work best to mend the broken health care system. They say Obama’s plan may be best as an immediate action, but that McCain’s plan may work best in the future.

What the heck does that mean? Aside from the brief explanation that Obama may be leading us down the path to socialism, the story gives no more details of his plan; nor does it give any details about McCain’s. So how can anyone understand what a hybrid might look like? Or, for that matter, how can they possibly know that Obama’s plan offers a short-term solution, and that McCain’s is better in the long run? Perhaps Hagel and Kerrey would like to explain that one; maybe their answers could be heard outside the limited viewing area of eastern Nebraska.

Perhaps all this explains a comment posted on the station’s Web site. “They don’t know any more than anyone else does and they certainly don’t have any answers and/or solutions.” The commenter was apparently taking his or her frustrations out on the pols, but it really was the station that fell down on the job of informing its audience.

Intro to Campaign Reporting

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From the New York Times's scene from Hofstra University, host of tonight's presidential debate:

In a class on nonverbal communication, they discussed Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s laugh and Gov. Sarah Palin's wink.

Schooling the next generation of campaign reporters?

Sen. John McCain's younger brother, a onetime reporter, wants the McCain campaign to re-open press access (to the candidate and "those who know him" and can most effectively talk him up). The younger McCain apparently emailed as much "to all who have a 'McCain08' or an 'RNC' address." From that email:

And most especially, let those who know him talk to the people about him, through the press. This policy of trying to so tightly 'control the message' by cutting off those who know him from the cacophony of national and local voices -- the reporters and the editors -- is counter-intuitive, counter-experiential, and counter-productive. It creates ligatures and tourniquets that are causing gangrene. It has gradually bled away all the good will that this great man had from the press, for he alone among politicians would talk to them openly, without finesse, without guile. And regardless of the their political lean - and whether we like it or not, reporters think and have opinions - they loved him nonetheless.

At the end of the email, McCain offers a script he drafted for a TV ad, one that he apparently believes better showcases the John McCain he knows and thinks America needs to know -- and it includes a 3am phone call.

Chapter 7: Road Trip

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Similar to the Grand Tour tradition of the Victorian age, modern newspapers observe a perennial election-time rite in which an intrepid team (usually a reporter and photographer) sets out across this great country of ours to speak to voters about their concerns. The effort usually results in a series of snapshots and dispatches from small-town diners and country fairs. It’s an assignment for someone with a strong stomach and a fast metabolism. Sometimes there are cliches. And always there’s mention of a pie.

I haven’t noticed too many of these series during this campaign, probably as a result of those shrinking newsroom budgets I hear so much about.

The New York Times’s Road to November sent a duo traveling from San Francisco to New York, a team from the St. Petersburg Times travelled from Florida to Washington D.C., and Grist assembled a motley collection from both coasts.

Here are the pickings from this year’s crop, the good and the bad.

The Good

From Elko, Nevada, a poignant, revealing moment:

“I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced,” [a prospective voter] continued. “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”

Ms. Vance [a canvasser] skipped no beats. “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” Ms. Mendive looked tentative. “Well, that’s true.” Ms. Vance said she was so used to looking at Mr. Obama, “I don’t see the color of his face anymore.”

From Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a glimpse of new immigration patterns:

Then something interesting began to happen. The Russian kids and American kids started getting along. Sometimes, really well.

Crabtree proposed marriage to his Russian colleague in his Toyota pickup, even though his grandmother wouldn't let her in the house because she feared the Communists. Anna Kirillova became Anna Crabtree, and she now knows more about Tennessee Volunteers football than your correspondent.

Sammy Weeks needed money to buy a plane ticket for his Russian girlfriend to return to the United States. He sold his shotgun.

They've been married four years now and are expecting their first child.

Olga Weeks says she'll name the baby girl Iris, after Tennessee's state flower.

From Huntingdon, West Virginia, the challenges of being a minority:

Another neighbor, Gloria Pauley, whose husband is a college professor at Marshall University -- yes, the one from We Are Marshall -- suggests that's because it's not easy being green in West Virginia. In their neighborhood, she says, some people dump because trash pickup costs extra, and recycling pickup costs even more. "We used to do little things, like recycle, but they took away the boxes," and kept making it more expensive. Wonnell tells Pauley that she finally canceled her recycling service after her husband saw the trash collectors picking it up one morning -- and throwing it in with the rest of the garbage.

The Bad

From Rock Springs, Wyoming, an insensitive take on a complex situation:
The women [strippers] in Rock Springs, off Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming, seem to like Mr. Palmer and his ilk, which is why they travel from cities across America — often places where the economy has tanked — to make thousands of dollars a week at places like the Astro Lounge. Most of their customers are men who work in natural gas exploration and production and who have few other ways or places to spend money on their rare days off.

From Kenner, Louisiana, a saccharine portrayal of the American dream:

At a little table near the door, owner David Montes ejected some lead from his mechanical pencil and inched a little closer to understanding his new world. He had a vocabulary assignment for an English class at Delgado Community College.

Write the opposites, the workbook instructed.

mother — father

a little — a lot

can —

What's the opposite of can?

From Stanardsville, Virginia, points off for cheesy county fair dispatch:

A harvest moon is rising over the cornfields on the last night of the Greene County Fair, just hours before the carnival rides are packed up and the local politicos break down the vast GOP tent, where yard signs and balloons are being handed out, and the much smaller Democratic Party tent, where you can shake hands with the local congressional candidate.

The Pie

From Madison, New Jersey:

“Mr. Nielsen’s friend Joseph Spendley dipped into a little piece of pumpkin pie and explained why he is most likely going to vote D next month.

“I feel disappointed by the lack of oversight in government,” said Mr. Spendley, 67, a retired fund manager. “I think the party in office has a greater responsibility for this problem in its selection of the people in the various roles, the regulators and so on. They took a passive role. It’s time for a change.”

From Little America, Wyoming:

Between my Cowboy Joe burger and slice of coconut cream pie, I chatted with some of the people who work in the rest stop, truck stop, and hotel, pretty much the only businesses in this spot of a place off Interstate 80, about 60 miles from the Utah border.

"Tone and Tactics" Coverage

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From PEJ's report on last week's campaign coverage:

[T]he media narrative of the campaign focused on tone and tactics last week, perhaps as the press searched for something that might alter the strategic dynamic of the race.

Indeed, 27% of the campaign-related news hole last week was devoted to "harsher attacks by candidates." And the campaign received more coverage than the financial crisis (41% vs. 36%).

The Times and the Journal post their behind-the-scenes stories of the meeting where the government told the nation’s top bankers it would be buying part of their companies to give them needed capital.

The Journal for a second day goes with the “Henry Paulson got tough” angle, saying the Treasury Secretary forced the bankers to “blink.” This seems like overreaching to find a narrative—as if the banks were going to turn down this money at just 5 percent interest.

Indeed in its story yesterday the Journal said the banks had proposed just such a deal this summer. But now, with the crisis threatening to take them all down with us, they had to be dragged along? Unlikely.

Senior executives and advisers to some of the nation's leading banks pitched such a plan at various points earlier this summer but were rebuffed by officials at Treasury and the Fed, according to people familiar with the matter. Instead, Treasury initially marched ahead with a plan to buy distressed assets directly from banks.

In the department of unnecessary detail, the WSJ reports that the bankers lunched on sandwiches from Potbelly Sandwich Works. Thanks for that. It doesn’t tell us, like the Times does, that the plan is a $2.25 trillion commitment, more than triple the controversial $700 billion original bailout package.

The NYT rightly shifts focuses on the “grim outlook” for the economy.

“Everything the government has done is not going to prevent further deterioration in the economy,” said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank. “At the end of all this, what matters is what the economy does.”

And the paper’s David Leonhardt writes a must-read about the severity of income stagnation and impending decline, which will likely be the worst period since the Depression.

every recent recession has brought an effective pay cut of somewhere between 3 and 7 percent for the typical family. The drop typically happens over a period of about three years, lasting longer than the recession officially does, as pay fails to keep up with inflation.

The recent turmoil — the freezing up of credit markets, the fall in stock markets, the acceleration of layoffs — has made it unlikely that the coming recession will be a particularly mild one.

“The biggest hit will be in 2009,” Nariman Behravesh, the chief economist of Global Insight, a research and forecasting firm, told me, “and it probably won’t be until 2011 until we see any kind of pay gains.”

What will make this recession different, no matter how deep or shallow it is, is that it’s following an expansion in which most families received little or no raise. The median household made $50,200 last year, slightly less than the $50,600 that the equivalent household earned in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. That’s the first time on record that income failed to set a new record in an economic expansion.

Pass it on.

The Washington Post reports in-depth on how a bid by a Clinton Administration official to regulate credit-default swaps a decade ago was nipped in the bud by Alan Greenspan and other Clinton officials. More on this later today.

Martin Wolf of the FT says the recent moves by governments around the world should calm the panic. But he raises two key questions:

…first, worry may shift from the creditworthiness of banks to that of governments; second, economies may weaken far more profoundly than policymakers believe. These risks are real, but containable.

Mind you, Wolf is one of the smartest commentators out there, and he raises the prospect that banks might need another $1.5 trillion in capital:

Against this, four concerns must be registered: first, additional losses are likely on already contracted domestic European mortgage debt and as a result of the economic slowdown under way; second, countries with exceptionally large banking systems and exceptionally high domestic indebtedness may find fiscal burdens far heavier; third, the banking sector also needs extra capital, to offset the collapse of the so-called “shadow” banking sector; and, finally, the sector also needs to be substantially better capitalised.

Informed observers suggest an additional $1,500bn in capital might be needed for such reasons. So double this and assume it all comes from the state: it would still “only” be 10 per cent of US and European GDP. If the real interest rate were 2 per cent, this would be a permanent increase in public spending of 0.2 per cent of GDP.

Moreover, this would not be extra demand for resources. It would be a recognition of past errors: a part of what people thought was private lending turned out to be public spending. Stuff indeed happens!

I like to see reporters and editors using plain language to call it like it is instead of hiding behind “neutral” wiggle words that allow them to avoid responsibility—and for readers to miss the point. So, a tip of the hat to Bloomberg for calling a spade a spade, that the government may directly subsidize GE, Citigroup, and others:

he Federal Reserve may subsidize America's companies by purchasing their short-term debt at rates below those demanded by private investors in the $1.6 trillion commercial-paper market.

The Journal takes a nice look at the end of an era on Wall Street, with punctured egos and bank accounts deflating the one-time “Masters of the Universe.”

Mike Holland, a money manager at Holland & Co., a New York investment firm, compares the current environment to the 1970s, when the "go-go" era of the 1960s was followed by rising inflation and interest rates. Stock-market returns suffered.

"The gilded age of the early 21st century is coming to a close," Mr. Holland said. The next decade, he said, will see fewer "houses in the Hamptons, yachts and soirees in Sardinia," reducing "the allure of Wall Street and the whole investment business."

Mr. Solomon, 70 years old, started on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers in 1960 when the firm occupied a smallish 12-story building and the entire investment-banking department occupied a single floor. "We bought our own lunches and we took the subway," he said.

Down With the Dial

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Cue the infomercial:

Wanna to know what real people are thinking, but can’t bother to ask actual questions? Have no fear, the Perception Analyzer is here!

This nifty gadget fits in the palm of your hand! Read viewers’ minds without lifting a finger. It slices and dices complex, nuanced ideas into bite-sized factoids. It’s never been easier to toss in a handful and infuse meaningless data into your broadcast!

Order now! Operators are standing by. (Shipping and handling not included.)

The Perception Analyzer is the brand name of the dial doodad (the generic version is only available in Canada) that CNN is using to gauge viewers’ reactions to the debates. It’s been around for the last three debates, and is bound to make an appearance on Wednesday. Oh, how I wish it wouldn’t.

The system works like this: thirty voters, roughly equal numbers of Ds, Rs, and Is, hold in their hands a doodad that looks like an egg timer. Turn the dial to the left to register a negative reaction and turn it to the right to express approval. The results are tabulated to create a real-time line graph on the bottom third of the screen. Responses above the neutral line are positive, below the line, negative. Easy enough, right?

The dial promises insight, but only offers confusion, since there’s no way to actually know which words or phrases elicited the viewers’ reaction.

Here’s one reason: In a line graph, you need to identify both axes, in terms of meaning and intervals. In the case of the dial reports, the y-axis represents approval, while the x-axis represents time. The range of reaction is defined from 0-100; below 50 is bad, above 50 is good. Of course, the graph is so small, crammed into the bottom of the screen, that it’s hard to actually qualify how much approval is being expressed. Did Obama get 45-out-of-50 approval on his health-proposal? You can surmise whether the feedback is generally positive or negative, but that’s about it.

But how is the x-axis defined? In terms of intervals, it’s hard to tell if viewers are reacting to the theme of a candidate’s answer, his overall proposal, or his specific phraseology. Unless you have an excellent memory, it’s hard to simultaneously watch the squiggly lines and keep in your brain what is being said. This requires a nimble act of synthesizing audio- and visual-processing, something that could be corrected with a running transcript of the debates presented along the x-axis.

Another complaint against the dial-meter concept is that it operates with a tiny sample. During the broadcast, Wolf Blitzer asked Soledad O’Brien if the dial group could be “extrapolated to the rest of the population.” No, O’Brien responds, “But to some degree, they are a microcosm of the United States.” If that doesn’t suggest extrapolatability, I don’t know what does.

Also, according to studies cited by the Wall Street Journal , “Recent psychological experiments suggest they can influence viewers' judgments. That might give tiny focus groups outsize influence, especially over undecideds.”

Here’s more from the WSJ:

Often, the groups turn their dials up when they hear specific plans, like Sen. John McCain's desire for tax cuts or Sen. Obama's charges against CEOs' golden parachutes. By contrast, they turn them down when candidates repeat obvious catchphrases or go on the attack, said Rita Kirk, a professor of communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University who is running CNN's focus groups.

On-screen charts are just one of a host of outside factors that might influence judgments. Some have argued polls can have a "bandwagon effect." Debate spin is often based on the idea that framing the discussion can shape views. And reactions among fellow debate watchers can have as profound an effect as a laugh track.

Two studies published in the last two years suggest continuous-reaction graphs can affect opinions -- at least in an experimental setting. In one, led by a researcher at Emory University, 253 college students evaluated "American Idol"-like performances with fake audience feedback superimposed on screen. Those who saw negative reactions themselves viewed the performances more negatively.

As it is, voters have a snowball’s chance in hell of forming their opinions based on the words and deeds of the candidates alone, given the barrage of opinion-posing-as-news to which they’re subjected. The dial-group polls are just one more example of these opinion injections. Perhaps, instead, networks could compile the dial-poll responses and present a summary and analysis of the results in the follow-up to the debates.

What’s more, CNN could use its lower third to provide something valuable, like real-time fact-checking. It’s not hard to predict some of the things that Obama and McCain will say during the debate, which tonight focuses on domestic policy. For example, both will tout their health care proposals, which have already been examined in great detail. CNN could use the space to present information that verifies or debunks the candidates’ claims.

For a humorous take that further illustrates the inanity of the dial-group approach, check out Joel Schwatzberg’s hypothetical scenario.

SOLEDAD: Yes, Ma'am. You in the back.

ELDERLY WOMAN: (holding up her dial): I thought this was a remote control. No wonder I couldn't change the channel to CSI.

ELDERLY HUSBAND: I assumed it adjusted the volume. But when I turned it up they never got louder, just more boring.

The Obama Effect?


At another panel at the Time Warner Summit, TechPresident co-founder Andrew Rasiej, talking with his fellow panelists about the recent coverage given to the Bradley Effect, made a prediction. "What we're going to see is the Obama Effect," he said: Obama over-performing because of people who secretly wanted to vote for him, but were afraid to say so.

Where's the "Viable Discourse"?

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At a panel at the Time Warner Summit this afternoon, Michael Eric Dyson, Amy Holmes, Charles Blow, and Smokey Fontaine discussed race, the media, and politics--and the way the three have intersected during the 2008 presidential campaign.

In a conversation that featured lively dissension among the panelists--about where, exactly, is the line between pride and prejudice when it comes to African-Americans voting for Obama because of his race; about the extent to which William Ayers is Obama's Willie Horton; about the media treatment of Jeremiah Wright--there was one issue that the participants agreed on: the need for more minority voices on TV and in the newsroom.

Dyson pointed to the most recent round of Sunday shows, and to the fact that they generally assembled a group of privileged white pundits to talk about issues facing people of all races and economic situations. The implication, he said: That white people can talk about anything with authority, while minorities--blacks, latinos, Native Americans--can speak with authority only on niche issues. The result, he continued, is that "there are no countervailing voices"; non-white perspectives aren't generally brought to our media narratives as they're developing and solidifying, so audiences generally don't consume a full breadth of of viewpoints.

"I hunger for that kind of viable discourse," Dyson said.

The other panelists echoed that sentiment. Holmes mentioned the coverage of Wright, and, specifically, the "timidity," as she called it, of mostly-white editors and producers to question the idea that Wright was representative of black political and religious culture. Wright and the ideas he espoused had only a 15 percent approval rating among African-Americans at the height of the controversy, Holmes pointed out--but a complacent media wound up producing a false impression of his authority.

And Smokey Fontaine pointed to a study that found that people of color trust ethnic media over mainstream media almost 2 to 1. Minorities don't feel represented by the mainstream media, he said, and therefore mistrust much of its content. But there's an upshot to that, Fontaine said, given the market for minority media and the presidential campaign's renewed attention to racial issues: "There's no better time in human history to launch a black Web site."

AP: What "Could" Happen at Debate

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From the AP's Liz Sidoti:

Advisers for each candidate say he will use the final debate to lay out his vision for the country and promote his economic policies while drawing differences with his opponent.

Character attacks — subtle or not — also could occur.

Sort of sounds like that part in a TV ad for Latest Pharmaceutical To Ask Your Physician About when the voice-over hustles through the unpleasant possible side affects (headache, hearing loss, and the desire— subtle or not — to stab your eye with a fork also could occur...)

Arab or Decent?

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On Friday, a woman at a McCain rally in Minnesota said she didn’t trust Obama because he was “an Arab.” McCain took the microphone from her hands and replied, “No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man.” Since then, many a report has cited this grabbing of the microphone as an example of McCain turning away from the McNasty syndrome he’s exhibited of late, and more than a few articles have boasted some variation of the eye-catching headline “McCain Defends Obama.”

But on her CNN blog yesterday, Campbell Brown aired her own opinion of the event— and put into words what was lacking in McCain’s—and the press’s—response:

Now, I commend Sen. McCain for correcting that woman, for setting the record straight. But I do have one question -- so what if he was?

So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? So what if John McCain was Arab or Muslim?...

When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in our country? When did Arab and Muslim become dirty words? The equivalent of dishonorable or radical?

Whenever this gets raised, the implication is that there is something wrong with being an Arab-American or a Muslim. And the media is complicit here, too.

We've all been too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur.

Brown’s point is, as she said, obvious, and yet, reports of the incident, which gathered steam over the weekend, showed a remarkable lack of distinction between McCain’s response and the more appropriate one—one that wouldn’t create the ludicrously false dichotomy between being Arab and being decent. Phrases like “to his credit,” “McCain defends rival,” and “crowd boos” float through these news reports and the subsequent commentary; there’s less accountability than CNN’s Brown would like, and that we should see. Here are some of the accounts that appeared without any additional parsing (my emphasis):

The AP: McCain drew boos at a town-hall meeting Friday in Minnesota when he defended Obama

A column in the Kansas City Star entitled “Ignorant Republicans embarrass McCain, their party”: “To his credit, McCain replied…”

Syndicated political columnist Susan J. Demas at MLive.com: McCain “did the only thing he knew how to do: He recoiled and set them straight.”

Ron Elving, writing at NPR.org, praised McCain for correcting the woman, and said it “suggest[s] the McCain of old is still in there.”

Reuters, via Washington Post: “McCain, an Arizona senator, spoke up on the weekend to defend Illinois Sen. Obama as a 'decent family man' after supporters at rallies called Obama an Arab, a Muslim, a traitor or terrorist -- inaccurate descriptions that some critics see as coded attacks on his race.”

The Economist: “To Mr McCain’s credit, on Friday he began to discourage such outbursts and told his supporters that his opponent is ‘a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.’”

Mary Mitchell, a Chicago-Sun Times columnist: “To his credit, McCain forcefully shook his head no. He went on to tell the woman that Obama is a ‘decent man’ with a ‘good family.’”

The Los Angeles Times: During a town hall Friday in Minnesota, a woman referred to Obama as an Arab, leading McCain to correct the misperception and defend his opponent as a "decent . . . family man."

While McCain’s response was, as Brown stated, commendable, the way the press covered it also suggests a dangerous apathy concerning what types of corrections (and record straightening) are required or expected of a candidate. McCain stepped forward, but he didn’t go far enough. It was more of a symbolic move—this grabbing of the microphone—than an effectual one; as author Khaled Hosseini stated in the Washington Post, “Simply calling Obama ‘a decent person’ is not enough.”

Surely this is true. But reporters should also refrain from unduly critiquing McCain’s good faith, impromptu effort. What they could have done, however, is added an extra line citing the discrepancy, or called the moment a missed opportunity on McCain’s part to truly set the record straight. As Juan Cole at Informed Comment wrote: “McCain should have said, ‘there would be nothing wrong with being an Arab, but Obama is not.’ The way he put it strongly implied that he had a low opinion of Arabs.”

And similarly, Michael Young at Reason Magazine took issue with the confusion of fallacies, and raised the possibility that the trickledown of the GOP ticket’s recent greasy politicking helped create a justification for the woman’s comment:

…you would have expected him to answer in a million different ways than the way he did, instead of just focusing on Obama's personal qualities. He could have, first of all, corrected the woman's inaccuracy, the confusion of one fallacy (that Obama is an Arab) with another (that he is a Muslim), before adding: "So what?"…denouncing someone because he or she is an "Arab" or a "Muslim" all too often seems fair game in American popular political discourse, with little visible backlash.

And if it's not fair game, then it would be useful to see the country's prominent politicians affirm that with a bit more conviction.

Young is right. McCain should have denounced the woman’s false assertion with more conviction and also called out the bigotry inherent therein. But barring that, reporters themselves should have taken no prisoners in clarifying why McCain’s response was dissatisfactory.

The Therapeutic Press

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CNN.com led this morning with a story about kitchen-table financial panic fomenting backyard violence. “An out-of-work money manager in California loses a fortune and wipes out his family in a murder-suicide,” the story reports. “A 90-year-old Ohio widow shoots herself in the chest as authorities arrive to evict her from the modest house she called home for 38 years.” And, much like Wall Street’s financial losses, the violent, grisly tragedies on Main Street, CNN tells us, “keep mounting.”

Don’t worry, though. This is just the kind of irrational, unproductive, mainstream-media panic—there’s that word again—that world leaders are trying to combat. Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson are paying good money—$250 billion—for your “confidence.” And why, after all, did Chancellor Angela Merkel ram through a $650 billion bailout—worth way more, incidentally, than Germany’s entire 2008 budget? "The measures we have taken have one objective," Merkel said. "They shall help build new confidence. Confidence between the banks, confidence in the economy, confidence of citizens. Confidence is the currency that is valid."

So if world leaders are scrambling to encourage you not to panic, one can hardly fault the Kremlin for going the extra mille and ensuring public calmness, can one? Yesterday, online newspaper Gazeta.ru reported (in its “Financial Crisis” section) that “crisis vocabulary” has been scrubbed from TV newscasts with stunning uniformity. According to the Russian media watchdog group Mediology, of the 331 stories about the Russian financial crisis that have run in the past month, less than half used words like “crash,” “panic,” crisis,” “collapse,” or even the relatively anodyne “fall.”

Let’s recall that all of these TV stations are controlled by the state, either directly or through oligarchic proxies. Let’s also recall that, in the past month, the Russian stock market took first place in the World Crashing Markets Olympiad for its, yes, crash (and an epic crash at that: since the beginning of the year, it has lost two-thirds of its total value).

The most interesting data point on Mediology’s study, however, is September 17. On that day, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he was freeing up 500 billion rubles (roughly $20 billion) worth of spirit change to cheer up the stock markets, which had, um, misplaced over 12 percent of their value the day before. The Micex index, for example, gently floated down 18 percent in one day—a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the Dow’s 18 percent collapse over one week. The change was so heartening, in fact, that trading had to be shut down for the rest of the week.

Since September 17, Russian media insiders say, financial coverage hasn’t been the same. Instead of “crash,” “we should say, for example, ‘decline,’” anchor Evgeny Kiselev told Gazeta.ru. “I have no doubt,” he continued, “that there’s been an order.” The directive, according to the piece, was to portray Russia as “an island of stability” in the choppy seas of the world financial crisis. The Russian financial crisis—bank failures, falling consumer confidence, a credit deepfreeze, oil companies begging alms from the Kremlin-- is very real and very deep, much deeper than in the U.S. This, however, only comes out online, and gets no coverage on TV newscasts whatsoever. This is a troubling and potentially dangerous phenomenon: with a Web penetration of only 14 percent, Russians get their news mainly from an overly optimistic boob tube. Don’t Russians need to know what is happening to their economy?

“This is not journalism,” noted a German journalist working in Russia. “This is more like psychotherapy. It’s an insult to the public.” In times like these, he continued, people need information more than anything. “Journalists are behaving like firefighters who see a fire but say nothing about it so as not to cause panic, even though they’re obligated to mention it,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the Russian media bigwigs disagree. “Finances are a pot of boiling milk that can run over at any minute,” explained Elena Zelinskaya, the vice president of the Russian Media Union. “We have to be extremely responsible and understand how our reporting can affect our viewers. If we go too far, we could create a panic.”

But despite all the press’s psychotherapy and firefighting and careful blowing on the boiling milk, something else seems to be happening: in the last month alone, Russians have gone to the bank and quietly taken home some $40 billion dollars. What they worry?

Wolf Blitzer, Mother's Helper?

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From The Daily Beast's "Dear Sarah" letter offering advice to Gov. Palin should she find herself D.C.-bound:

When a busy woman is faced with having to do it all, there is no shame in asking for help. And I have a thought about a labor pool you could tap. There will be quite a few political pundits looking for work next month, and what a perfect fit! They know every detail of your life, so it would be quite easy for any one of them to step in and help run your family. Perhaps Campbell Brown could accompany Piper on her school field trip to the Lincoln Memorial. Tucker Carlson might be willing to help fold the laundry that piles up on the White House dining room table. And who would be more perfect than Wolf Blitzer to wait for the cable guy when you need a new box in the Oval Office?

Someone needs to gently break it to the letter writer that the political talking heads will go on talking after Nov. 4. (Also: While Blitzer does seem like a patient man, I'm not sure he actually ever leaves The Situation Room...)

This is the ninth and final entry in a series that has examined how seven people who live in the town of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, would fare under the health proposals offered by John McCain and Barack Obama. The entire series is archived here.

The policy wonks have begun their hand-wringing. “If the country’s finances get too depleted, both parties could lose their zeal to retool the health care system,” John Holahan, director of health policy for the Urban Institute, told the Des Moines Register. In a Chicago Tribune op-ed last Sunday, noted bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel conceded that “the financial crisis has appeared to knock health care off the national agenda,” while arguing that the crisis might make reform more politically feasible, and even necessary for financial stability. A few weeks ago on NBC’s Today, Barack Obama said that the financial bailout means that he cannot immediately accomplish everything that he has proposed during the campaign: “I think we’re going to have to phase it in. And a lot of it’s going to depend on what our tax revenues look like.”

Okay, so the county’s financial problems might have deflated the momentum that was building earlier for health care reform. Apparently, the government doesn’t have money to help both the big, bad businesses that got into trouble and the little people who can’t pay for health insurance. In other words, the billions needed for subsidies to help people buy private health insurance have been put to other uses. There are also stirrings that maybe we shouldn’t be helping people who don’t have insurance anyway. The reasoning goes like this: It’s their own fault if they smoked and got cancer or ate too much and got diabetes. For awhile, it looked like the country was beginning to agree that everyone is entitled to health care. Even the American Medical Association and the insurance industry have even come around to that idea. In last week’s debate, Barack Obama affirmed that health care is a right; John McCain did not, saying instead that health care was a responsibility. Whose responsibility, he didn’t quite make clear.

Now along comes Robert Samuelson, columnist at The Washington Post and contributing editor at Newsweek, challenging the notion of health care as a right. Samuelson argues that casting medical care as a simple right ignores questions of how far that right should extend, and how its fulfillment might compromise other rights and needs. He contends that personal habits, genetic makeup, and age make people healthy or unhealthy, and adds:

The crying need now is not to insure all the uninsured. This would be expensive {an additional $123 billion a year, estimates the Kaiser (Kaiser Family Foundation) study} and would provide modest health gains at best. Two-fifths of the uninsured are young (19 to 34) and relatively healthy.

As I read Samuelson’s piece, I thought of the people whose stories we have told on the Campaign Desk. Which ones don’t have a right to have health care? Who is more deserving of medical treatment? The 43-year-old with symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes because he can’t pay for care? The disabled woman whose $758 monthly income from Social Security disability is too high to qualify for Arkansas Medicaid? The farmer who has no coverage for his urinary problems? The insurance agent’s son who suffered a concussion playing football?

Superficial describes this year’s health care discussion. There has been a lot of talk about getting insurance into everyone’s hands, but little conversation about equity and poverty. In fact, it seems the candidates have aimed their health care comments toward the middle class. Except for a few “blame-the-victim comments” like Samuelson’s, there hasn’t been much said about the larger causes of poor health: like stress from being unable to pay your bills, or jobs affording little down time, or bad housing, or the chemicals sprayed on cotton. Almost everyone I interviewed in Arkansas—black or white, rich or poor—at one time or another in their lives picked cotton. “Health Care on the Mississippi” indicates a universal need for medical treatment. But despite the campaign rhetoric, the candidates’ proposals will get us neither universal care nor universal insurance to pay for it.

More of the people I interviewed would benefit more from Obama’s proposals than those of John McCain. They are older, sicker, with lower incomes—the very people who will have trouble getting coverage under a McCain plan, according to a Lewin Group study released last week. Some people with the lowest incomes, like James Bell IV and Michelle Hernandez, might get coverage from an Obama public insurance option if government helped pay for the coverage and if the government provided the benefits. But if an Obama public program option calls on commercial insurers to provide the benefits, and if they are not forced to take people with diabetes, then people like Bell and Hernandez will remain uninsured.

Obama’s plan would expand current public health programs. But if the government has no money to improve coverage under Medicaid—which might allow Hernandez’s daughter, Jasmine, to continue her insurance when she turns eighteen in a few months—or if it can’t afford to let the disabled Annette Murph get on Medicare without waiting two years for the opportunity, then these people, too, would continue to be uninsured. James Bell III and Kevin Smith have employer coverage, which means they will have to come up with extra money to pay income taxes on those benefits, as McCain has proposed. Neither would benefit from his tax credit, because they have preexisting health conditions that disqualify them from coverage and couldn’t buy insurance on their own. Smith, Pam Culp, and Glenn Hall would continue to be underinsured under either plan. Their incomes are high, and they wouldn’t qualify for any subsidies to help them buy insurance. Most likely they would keep what they have—insurance with high copayments, high deductibles, and, in Hall’s case, an exclusion from coverage of his existing health conditions. (Under Obama, insurance companies might be prohibited from adding such exclusions.) And they’d pay a pretty penny for the coverage they do get.

We have repeatedly urged the media to find people in their communities and tell their stories through the lens of the candidates’ proposals. News outlets that have done that are few and far between, which may be one reason why a recent poll by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harris Interactive found that average people don’t see much difference between the two plans, and don’t know how the plans would affect them personally. As we move toward a new administration with health care maybe somewhere on the agenda, it’s not too late for the media to put the new president’s health proposals to the test.

Dan Rather talking presidential debates at the Time Warner Media/Politics conference today (h/t Michael Calderone):

"First of all, these aren’t debates," Rather said. "They are a 'something,' but they aren’t debates."

Rather talked about the constricted format and that the two major political parties are the ones engineering them through the commission.

"These so-called debates are not by the people, for the people," Rather said. "They are by the parties, for the parties."

Meanwhile, Broadcasting & Cable asked the moderator of tomorrow night's "something," Bob Schieffer, what he would do if McCain and Obama spontaneously agreed, on-air tomorrow night, to junk the agreed-upon debate format and rules in order to try to have something resembling a debate? Said Schieffer:

You know what? If they did that, I would say 'Gentlemen, have at it.' I would lean back in my chair, and I would probably enjoy it more than anyone else. That would be the dream, wouldn't it?

(I can think of someone else who might be in a position to spontaneously set aside restrictive debate rules. Live "the dream!")

More promising words from Schieffer:

And if they try and get off track, I'm not going to be bashful about saying, 'Gentlemen, that was not the question.'


These follow-up questions don't have to be too complicated…

No answering a question other than the one posed! And, follow-ups! That would be something...

On Friday, an Alaska investigative committee released a report into Palin's attempts to remove her ex-brother in law from the Alaska state trooper force. It clearly stated that her efforts were in violation of state law.

Yesterday I wrote about that finding's amazing absence from the Sunday political shows, and noted that many journalists were failing to point out the report's clear conclusion that the governor broke state law, or even worse, falsely claimed that the report cleared her of any legal wrongdoing.

Even her home state's largest paper, The Anchorage Daily News, feel victim, as it chose to treat the question of whether or not the report said Palin broke the law as a partisan he-said-she-said, when, again, the report is very clear that she did.

Today, in a blistering article, the paper's editorial page chimes in on the right side of the facts:

She claims the report "vindicates" her. She said that the investigation found "no unlawful or unethical activity on my part."

Her response is either astoundingly ignorant or downright Orwellian.

Page 8, Finding Number One of the report says: "I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act."

In plain English, she did something "unlawful." She broke the state ethics law.

Perhaps Gov. Palin has been too busy to actually read the Troopergate report. Perhaps she is relying on briefings from McCain campaign spinmeisters.

That's the charitable interpretation.

Read the rest.

Why We Fight

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Many in the press have begun to declare the war in Afghanistan either unwinnable (off the words of one outspoken British commander) or some cynical exercise in colonialism. David McKiernan, the general in charge of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) (which oversees security for much of Afghanistan), disagrees, noting that the situation is really not as bad as some make it out to be, and there remain many reasons for hope. While this assessment clashes with the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that declared Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral,” the general has a point: reports of Afghanistan’s demise are seriously premature.

Of course, problems remain legion, from the growing insurgency in the east and south to the grinding problem of corruption, which seems to be driving even non-Pashtuns into the arms of the insurgency. There remains too little money to build an economic base in the countryside, and too few troops to provide security. But in some areas, such as telecommunications (an often neglected side of a reconstruction focused on roads and bazaars), there has been stunning progress—from 99 percent unavailability in 2002 to 80 percent availability today. Elsewhere, there are signs of local Pashtun resistance to the insurgent movements, indicating the fight for “hearts and minds” is far from lost.

But just looking at the last two years, which is the focus of almost all media coverage of the country, misses the point badly. A common complaint, for example, is that there must be a strong, centralized government in Kabul—a claim repeated by well-meaning think tankers and pundits alike. This misses the real history of how society works in Afghanistan. In 2002, Olivier Roy, a noted expert on Afghanistan, wrote (pdf) that the various communities of the countryside have needed “a distant but benevolent and legitimate state, regarded as a broker or an ally helping to establish a favourable local balance of power and influence.” These communities also have needed a state to deliver general services, like access to roads, healthcare, and schooling.

Yet most reconstruction activity in Afghanistan is not focused on creating a “distant but benevolent and legitimate state,” but something decidedly Western, and alien to Afghans. The NIE cited above sees a weak central government as the problem, rather than the solution—just as it thinks arming and funding tribal militias with no allegiance to that central government is a way to promote its legitimacy. This cuts against history to an alarming degree: M. Nazif Shahrani, an anthropologist who has studied Afghanistan for decades, argued in a recent book that Afghanistan not only does best with a weak government, but also with rich foreign supporters.

This is certainly the case historically. Even during its relatively brief period of independence in the 20th century, Afghanistan’s government was wholly reliant on foreign largesse. While this support vacillated between Iran, the U.S., and the USSR, the point is that Afghanistan’s government could not have functioned at all without large injections of foreign aid. (Even then it did a miserable job of remaining a coherent country, as demonstrated by the Bukharan Rebellion of 1928, the 1929 coup, the Safi Rebellion in 1945-6, the Gujar Wars of the 1960s, the Balochi insurgency of the 1970s, and then the Communist Coup of 1978.)

Nevertheless, the cries for withdrawal are silent about who or what would take the West’s place should it withdraw. It would almost certainly be Pakistan (which is currently funding the Taliban in order to do just that) in some areas, and Iran in others. Neither can be said to be exactly opposed to supporting international terrorist movements—a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in both parties.

The U.S. has already tried abandoning Afghanistan to its own fate after achieving some short-term objective—as the poignant last scene of Charlie Wilson’s War ably showed. The 1990s were not a period of stability, peace, or reason. In fact, it was after Afghanistan was abandoned to a fractured and violent group of militias that the Taliban found space to move in and “create” order. And it was through al Qaeda they found a patron saint in the guise of Osama bin Laden. And it was an American belief in the power of air strikes to destroy camps when they could and its ability to fund proxies when they couldn’t that gave all of these groups the space needed to arm themselves and wreak havoc across the planet.

Withdrawal, strategic or otherwise, has been tried, and it was an abysmal failure. Why isn’t this mentioned more often by those outlets either quoting or publishing analysts and officials who advocate it? We should let history be a guide to this debate, not a forgotten sidenote.

Gems of Reporting

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In the same Times story Clint pointed out earlier, Elizabeth Bumiller slips this one past the goalie:

Even in the face of the dismal polls, most of Mr. McCain’s campaign staff continues to hold out hope, however distant, that Mr. McCain or events will somehow turn the situation around. But more often the mood is anxious, angry or subdued, interspersed with occasional moments of escape. Last Tuesday after the presidential debate in Nashville, Mr. Salter and Steve Schmidt, who is managing Mr. McCain’s campaign, were at a karaoke bar until the small hours of the morning as Mr. Salter sang his way through a range of Bob Dylan songs.

Tidbits like this often languish in reporters' notebooks. But, sometimes, with a muscular transition, they can see the light of day.

Parliament’s Peanut Gallery


Whenever Simon Hoggart writes about Michael Fabricant, he makes note of the honorable gentleman from Lichfield’s hair. “How many My Little Ponies, we asked, were slaughtered to make such a creation?” reads one of his countless dispatches. That 2003 piece, in fact, was devoted entirely to Fabricant’s mane (or lack of it) and its uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and length. The previous day, Hoggart had noticed that Fabricant’s blond toupée “used to be roughly normal length, finishing round the level of his ear lobes.” Yet twenty-four hours later, “the thing had reached his shoulders, a great lustrous cascade of tresses curling over and even caressing the collar of his jacket.”

It’s hard to imagine a congressional reporter for a major American newspaper writing such things about a member of Congress. But Hoggart is not an impetuous blogger; he’s a parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian, the paper of Britain’s right-thinking liberals. His kind has existed for centuries, dating back to Samuel Johnson, one of England’s greatest literary figures (born, as it happens, in Lichfield). The eighteenth-century poet, essayist, lexicographer, and biographer began filing parliamentary reports in the 1740s, and often had to use his imagination to describe how elected officials conducted the people’s business—journalists were banned from attending parliamentary debates at the time, and so Johnson had to piece together his reports using bits of information gathered from witnesses. Or he just made things up. Many of the speeches today attributed to William Pitt (the Younger) were actually written by Johnson, who simply printed what he imagined Pitt had said.

Today, sketch writers don’t need to make anything up partly because they are allowed to watch parliamentary proceedings, but also because they have such great material. Sketch writers differ from typical legislative correspondents in that their primary duty is to provide colorful accounts of parliamentary debates, not report hard news based on interviews with sources or analysis of thick government reports. The closest approximation to a sketch writer in the U.S. is The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose three-year-old “Washington Sketch” is described as “an observational column about political theater in the White House, Congress and elsewhere in the Capital.” While Milbank has