Tag Archives: media

What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson

It doesn’t matter how many details you know. If you start the story in the wrong place, you won’t understand it.


Part of my regular news-watching cycle is to check in on Fox News from time to time. It keeps me honest and helps me anticipate the kinds of arguments I’m likely to start hearing from conservatives.

Watching Fox was particularly interesting in the early part of this week, because in the evenings they (like MSNBC and CNN) gave a lot of air time to their reporters on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a rare opportunity to see all three cable news networks cover the same controversial events at the same time. Most days, the difference between the networks lies mainly in what they choose to cover — a new report on climate change might lead the news on MSNBC, while Fox focuses on Benghazi hearings in Congress. But for a few days the what of the news was obvious and inescapable, so Fox’s unique perspective on the world could only express itself in the how.

Some of the difference in coverage has been on the detail level and is easy to filter out if you’re aware of the various networks’ points of view. When police would start moving in on demonstrators, for example, Fox would report as fact whatever they were hearing from police — that, say, shots had been fired from the crowd — while MSNBC would stick closer to what they could see (police moving in), express ignorance as to why it was happening, and then later report what police were saying (shots were fired from the crowd) as a claim they couldn’t verify. Whether you were pro-demonstrator or pro-police, you could watch either network and make a good guess about what the other was reporting.

But there has been a much more subtle, harder-to-compensate-for difference in the way each network answers the fundamental question: What are the demonstrations in Ferguson all about?

On Fox, the answer to that question is very simple. Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event: White police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. That restricted context drives the rest of their narrative.

The apparent mystery. Like any good narrative hook, Fox’s omission of context creates a mystery: Why do so many people in Ferguson care so much about that particular event? Of course, Michael Brown’s family would be upset, and even Fox’s audience can cut them some slack if they want Officer Wilson nailed to the wall. But what about all those other people on the street night after night? It’s safe to say that most of them never even met Michael Brown. Why were they giving up their evenings and risking arrest or worse?

Once you have that question in your head, several answers suggest themselves: Maybe they’re all just crazy. Fox’s resident psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow, says “the psyche of the community” deserves as much investigation as the actions of police.

Or maybe most of the protesters really don’t care about Brown, and the demonstrations are just an exciting thing to do in a boring town. At night on the streets, you’re where it’s all happening. You might even get on national TV. That’s the interpretation Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan was promoting when he described the demonstrations late Monday night as a “media event” and “child’s play”. (In response, he got cussed out on camera by one of the black “children” he was demeaning: “We go through this shit every day,” the young man reported. Harrigan did not follow up on that observation.)

An even more sinister solution to the mystery evokes racial stereotypes that Fox doesn’t need to spell out. A hint is enough: Maybe these young black men are just wired for anarchy and violence. The Brown shooting was nothing more than an excuse for doing what they’d do all the time if police weren’t stopping them. And once you raise the stereotype of the lawless black savage, the incidents of looting take on a significance far beyond their number or the number of people responsible: This isn’t about Brown or the police at all, it’s about grabbing some free liquor or a new pair of Air Jordans.

In addition, the why-do-they-care mystery leads right into a question Fox raises at every opportunity: Why do blacks only go to the streets about white-on-black cases like Brown and Trayvon Martin, when black-on-black violence [see endnote 1] kills far more people? How street demonstrations could prevent black-on-black violence is a question they never address. (Demonstrations speak to governments and the national electorate, and have little effect on criminals or hot-headed youth.) But Fox presents the Brown and Martin demonstrations as pointless anyway, so why shouldn’t there be equally pointless demonstrations against black-on-black violence instead?

Second, restricting your attention to that one context-free event makes the crowd look like a lynch mob. Why are they so sure Officer Wilson wasn’t justified in shooting Brown? Why can’t they wait for the investigative process to play out? And why can’t they cooperate with police now to keep the peace?

And finally, the mystery-framing makes the politics of the situation look purely venal. How outrageous it seems that liberals — they must be liberals — are exploiting the Brown shooting to register Ferguson’s black population to vote!

What makes Fox’s frame so convincing to its audience is that you can feel well-informed inside it. You can know how many people were arrested each night and which stores they looted. You can learn details of the shooting (though anonymous leaks from police will be reported more authoritatively than eye-witness testimony from black citizens). You can learn statistics about black crime in America. You can know just how rare police killings are compared to drug killings or other black-on-black murders. You’re not ignorant; you’re a walking storehouse of the kinds of information MSNBC would never tell you.

But in spite of that well-informed feeling, you don’t understand what’s really going on, because Fox is leaving out key background information and then beginning the story in the wrong place. The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence.

Start by asking. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie did what Fox reporters (or most individual whites) hardly ever do: ask the black community what they’re concerned about and listen to their answers.

Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. … Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

The right story begins here: A majority-black community feels abused by its almost entirely white police force. [2] And complaining to the white-dominated local government does no good. (As a report from Arch City Defenders spells out, the town of Ferguson gets significant revenue from assessing fines against poor people.)

If you start there, the narrative takes a completely different path. When a policeman shot Michael Brown six times on a city street in broad daylight in front of witnesses, the Ferguson community was not shocked (the way I would be if one of my white friends were gunned down by police in my majority-white town). Quite the opposite, this was the kind of incident they found all too believable, given the police behavior they see all the time.

So the reaction we’ve been seeing on the streets isn’t “OMG! How can something like this happen?”, it’s “This shit has to stop.”

No mystery. So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect?

Their tactics are also no mystery: When the political process is unresponsive, the streets are the only communication channel left. Trayvon Martin’s mother is supposed to have said, “If they won’t hear us, make them feel us.” And Ja’han Jones put it more aggressively on Salon: “What if being peaceful won’t change a thing?”

As far as Officer Wilson is concerned, the crowds are not rushing to judgment, they are speaking from experience. Yes, police act this way, and the result is always the same: If the incident isn’t ignored completely, it is shunted into a opaque “process” in which eyewitnesses are ignored and no quantity of physical evidence is sufficient to bring charges. Ferguson police have showed every indication of wanting to go that way: keeping back relevant information as long as possible, smearing Michael Brown, responding to protests with even more excessive force, leaking bogus “facts” that support Wilson, and arresting reporters.

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

Once you understand where the story really starts and what it’s really about, then the whole detour into black-on-black crime is revealed to be “the politics of changing the subject“. Other than corpses, the two issues have nothing in common. It’s like asking Sean Hannity, “Why have you spent so much time on the four Americans who died at Benghazi when tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents?”

My reality and theirs. Demographically, I look more like a Fox viewer than a Ferguson protester. I’m white, over 50, and have an above-median household income. I barely notice when a police car goes by, and when I have had occasion to deal with my local police — usually because I approached them with a question — they have been unfailingly polite. When I arrange to meet people socially or promise to be somewhere, I don’t allow extra time for the possibility that I might be stopped and frisked, or taken down to the police station and questioned about some crime I never heard of. That kind of stuff never happens to guys like me.

If I did find myself in an unexpected and unpleasant run-in with police, it would feel like snow in July. My instinct would be to wait it out until polite normality re-asserted itself. So I could easily follow the advice of LAPD’s Sunil Dutta:

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? … Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop. [3]

Great advice for me, but I don’t believe it has much to do with the reality of places like Ferguson, or even parts of Dutta’s own Los Angeles.

What if I weren’t a middle-aged middle-class white guy? What if police abuse is normal in my experience? What if I’ve cooperated before, and before, and before that … and the stop wasn’t “complete in minutes” and I got tased, pepper-sprayed or worse anyway? What if I “saved my anger for later” and the appropriate channels laughed at me? What if I have dead or injured friends whose attempts to cooperate didn’t “end safely”, and other friends who weren’t “presumed innocent” in court, and are now in prison on sketchy or manufactured evidence?

What’s your advice for me then, Officer Dutta?

What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get. The frustrated citizens of Ferguson are pursuing a plan that makes sense: Wait for an incident so egregious that it can’t be swept under the rug, and then get out on the streets in large numbers. Tell your story to the country, put your political leaders on the spot, and show the world how “justice” works in your town. Shine a spotlight on the usual shadowy self-investigation process, and dare the powers-that-be to work their usual trickery in front of a national audience.

That plan might not work — it didn’t work in Florida — but what more likely plan have you got for them? They can’t just be quiet and wait for justice to be served. They’ve got to do something.

Because “we go through this shit every day”, and that shit has to stop.


[1] Reason‘s Steve Chapman asks:

Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

[2] Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Ferguson residents aren’t giving police credit for all the people they stop and don’t kill. What’s up with that? And what about the 3/4ths of the people police across the nation kill who aren’t black?

[3] This advice was funnier when Chris Rock was giving it.

What the CBO Really Said about ObamaCare and the Economy

File this under: “Liberal media? What liberal media?”

I doubt the Congressional Budget Office expected The Budget and Economic Outlook 2014 to 2024 to be front-page news. They put out these ten-year look-aheads every six months or so, and they don’t usually get much reaction.

But say some news outlets decided to pay attention. You might expect — the CBO probably expected — reporters to focus on the summary. After all, that’s why people write summaries to 182-page government reports with eight appendices. In particular, you might expect articles to focus on the summary’s first line:

The federal budget deficit has fallen sharply during the past few years, and it is on a path to decline further this year and next year.

That sounds like a big deal. Very Serious People have been telling us for years (or more accurately, since Inauguration Day 2009, when they suddenly stopped believing Dick Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” maxim) that the deficit is going to destroy our entire society. We’re going to turn into Greece, locusts will devour our fields, toads will rain from the sky, and so forth. So the fact that this situation is rapidly improving ought to get the VSPs attention.

The numbers are striking: The combined Bush/Obama budget of FY 2009 (October, 2008 to October 2009) had a $1.4 trillion deficit. (Bush’s first proposal for a FY2009 budget had an $407 billion deficit, which had grown to a projected $1.2 trillion by the time Obama took office, due to the economic collapse at the end of Bush’s term. Obama’s stimulus pushed the deficit the final $200 billion on its way to creating 3.3 million jobs, according to a previous CBO study.) FY 2013 ended in October with a $680 billion deficit, and the CBO projects deficits of $514 billion in FY2014 and $478 billion in FY2015.

At that level, this year’s deficit would equal 3.0 percent of the nation’s economic output, or gross domestic product (GDP)—close to the average percentage of GDP seen during the past 40 years.

So unless you think we’ve been in a Deficit Emergency for the past 40 years, we’re not going to be in one this year or next.

But that’s not what caught everybody’s attention. Instead of looking to the CBO’s summary for the story, the media (led by the right-wing media) looked to Appendix C “Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates”. Because, you know, appendices of government reports are always so fascinating, especially the third appendix.

But even if you only read the appendices, you still have some choice about what the story is. Appendix B, for example, says:

CBO and JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation] estimate that the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA will markedly increase the number of nonelderly people who have health insurance—by about 13 million in 2014, 20 million in 2015, and 25 million in each of the subsequent years through 2024 (see Table B-2).

So despite all the scary (and debunked) headlines about cancelled policies and increased premiums, the ACA will make substantial progress on its main goal: Millions more people will have health insurance.

But the cost of that coverage will explode the deficit, right? Well, this report reiterated a previous conclusion:

Considering all of the coverage provisions and the other provisions together, CBO and JCT estimated in July 2012 (the most recent comprehensive estimates) that the total effect of the ACA would be to reduce federal deficits.

But maybe you’re worried about the “insurance company bailout” Republicans have been denouncing, which the rest of the world calls “risk corridors”. If so, you’d focus on this part of Appendix B:

CBO now projects that, over the 2015–2024 period, risk corridor payments from the federal government to health insurers will total $8 billion and the corresponding collections from insurers will amount to $16 billion, yielding net savings for the federal government of $8 billion.

So the “bailout” is a re-insurance plan that the government expects to make an $8 billion profit on.

But anyway, what does Appendix C say?

CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor … The reduction in CBO’s projections of hours worked represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million in 2017, rising to about 2.5 million in 2024.

It’s not hard for me to imagine why this might happen: My wife is a (currently healthy) over-55 two-time cancer survivor, and prior to ObamaCare she couldn’t possibly have gotten insurance on the individual market at any reasonable rate. She happens to like her job, but many people in similar situations might decide to retire early (now that they have that option) rather than hang on until Medicare covers them. Similarly, my college roommate has been frozen into his job for the last couple decades, because his son was born with major medical problems that a new employer’s insurance company might write off as a pre-existing condition. Other people might prefer to work part-time, but have been hanging on to full-time jobs for fear of losing their health coverage. Or maybe extended Medicaid or S-CHIP coverage or an ObamaCare subsidy could shift the balance in a struggling household towards having one parent stay home with the kids.

That’s the kind of thing the CBO is talking about: “workers … choose to supply less labor”. It’s a good kind of thing.

So naturally it got covered like this by the conservative media:

Fox News: ObamaCare could lead to loss of nearly 2.5 million US jobs, report says

Washington Times: ObamaCare will push 2 million workers out of labor market: CBO

National Review: The CBO just nuked ObamaCare

And not much differently by the mainstream media:

The Hill: O-Care will cost 2.5 million workers by 2024

UPI: ObamaCare to cost 2.3 million jobs over ten years

And even a 180-degree false CNBC headline: CBO says ObamaCare will add to deficit, create reluctant work force — later corrected to allow that ObamaCare “may not add to federal deficit” rather than the accurate “the total effect of the ACA would be to reduce federal deficits”.

CBO director Paul Elmendorf testified before Congress Wednesday morning, and set the record straight. The CBO believes that ObamaCare will increase demand for labor over the next few years, creating jobs rather than killing them.

When reporters began to understand that they’d been scammed into repeating Republican talking points, many of them blamed the Obama administration. National Journal‘s headline: “The White House is Still Terrible at Explaining ObamaCare“. You see, it’s not up to reporters to check facts and inform their readers rather than mislead them. How can they be expected to print the truth when no one spoon-feeds the story to them properly? And why didn’t the White House (which doesn’t control the CBO) anticipate the report, anticipate that Appendix C would be the story, and anticipate that Republicans would twist its statements into pretzels? Shouldn’t they have been prepared for this?

That’s your liberal media in action.

To Succeed, Fail Boldly

Five doomed proposals for changing the national conversation


From one point of view, it all came to nothing.

Two weeks ago, liberals around the country thrilled to the story of Wendy Davis’ filibuster. With a few minutes of help from a raucous gallery of protesters, Texas State Senator Davis’ 11-hour speech ran out the clock on the special session of the legislature that Governor Rick Perry had called to pass a draconian anti-abortion bill.

Victory!

For two weeks, anyway. But Perry was still governor, so he called yet another special session. And the Republicans still had majorities in the legislature, so Friday the same bill passed the Senate and was on its way to Perry’s desk. In spite of massive protests, in spite of a viral video that made another new heroine out of Sarah Slamen, the legislative result is the same as if everyone had just stayed home.

Soon we’ll probably be able say the same thing about Moral Mondays in North Carolina. The Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature and they’re not afraid to use it, so they’re going to pass whatever they want, no matter how many religious leaders protest, no matter how many Carolinians they have to arrest.

So it’s pointless, right?

In the long term, no, it’s not pointless. This is the only way things change.

Losing my shrug. Let’s start with the obvious, even if it doesn’t seem all that consequential. A few months ago I’d have shrugged if you told me Texas and North Carolina were about to pass a series of laws that would impose real hardships on women and the poor. “The South,” I’d probably have said, “what can you expect?”

Well, Wendy Davis and William Barber have taken away my shrug. Like lots of other blue-state folks, I have been reminded not to write off Texas and North Carolina. Red states are not monolithic blocks of small-minded people. Progressive forces may be losing there right now, but they’re fighting. And people who keep fighting just might win someday.

If you don’t believe that, recall how the Religious Right and the Tea Party got where they are today. For decades, right-wing extremists rallied for proposals they couldn’t hope to pass into law, and mostly still haven’t: human life amendments, balanced budget amendments, the gold standard, defunding the U.N., and so forth. They failed and they failed again. And sometimes they succeeded when no one had given them a chance. (When the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate 84-8 in 1972, its ratification seemed a foregone conclusion.) But today their point of view has to be dealt with, and in some states is dominant.

Before you can win, you have to change the conversation. And the only way to do that is to fight battles the conventional wisdom says you can’t win. You’ll lose most of them. For a while you’ll lose all of them, because the conventional wisdom isn’t stupid. But that’s how things change.

The only way to change the direction of the wind is to keep spitting into it.

How conventional wisdom shifts. I have written in more detail elsewhere about how conservatives manipulate the supposedly liberal media. Journalism is not a conspiracy, but there is an unconscious group process that decides what news is, what can be stated as a simple fact, and what has be covered as controversial. Partisan groups can pressure that process and get their desired response, independent of whether most individual journalists agree or disagree with their views.

In that article I focused on how outside pressure can make known facts seem controversial. So, for example, global warming is almost always covered as if it were in dispute, when in a scientific sense it is well established. But powerful voices will argue with journalists who say global warming is a fact, so instead they write he-said/she-said articles, or leave the global-warming angle out of a story entirely.

Today I want to focus on the opposite side of that same unconscious media groupthink: Anything that is stated forcefully by one side and not contested by the other will be covered as if it were a fact.

So: Texans are all conservatives. Only people on the right care about “morality” or “the family”. “Moral issues” are the ones about sex — abortion, contraception, homosexuality — and the moral position is the conservative position. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, making sure workers get a fair wage — all that sermon-on-the-mount stuff — those aren’t “moral” issues.

If you don’t regularly and loudly contest those notions, they’ll get reported as facts. They’ll provide the background assumptions that frame the coverage of everything else.

Wolf Blitzer’s evangelism. The clearest recent example of this principle was Wolf Blitzer’s embarrassing interview with an atheist mother after the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May. Blitzer badgered the woman to “thank the Lord” for her and her child’s survival until she finally had to confess her atheism.

So is Blitzer is an evangelical Christian trying to push his religion on CNN? Nope. Wikipedia says Blitzer is a Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. I can’t say from that precisely what he believes about God, but he was almost certainly not pressuring this woman to proclaim her Judaism.

Instead, Blitzer was applying two seldom-contested stereotypes:

  • Oklahoma is in the so-called Bible Belt, so everybody must be some kind of conservative Christian.
  • There are no atheists in the foxholes. When life and death hang in the balance, everybody becomes religious.

Probably Wolf had been hearing loud proclamations of Christian faith all day, and no voices on the other side. (This is another kind of groupthink. It’s not considered rude to thank Jesus in these circumstances — even in the presence of people whose loved ones Jesus apparently chose not to save. But conservative Christians would take offense if you said, “Stuff like this just shows that everything’s random and you can’t take it personally.”) So it became a background “fact” of his reporting that the people of Moore were having an evangelical Christian response to their survival.

Candle-lighting vs. darkness-cursing. We can wish for harder-working more-objective journalists who will seek out the truth and cover it fairly, regardless of the power dynamics. But in the meantime journalism is what it is, and we’re just being stupid if we let conservatives manipulate it and don’t fight back.

The facts on the ground today are that the media will challenge a pro-choice Catholic to reconcile the contradiction between his politics and his faith, but not an Evangelical who votes to cut Food Stamps or reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. (Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you fed me. … I was sick and you cared for me.”) Want to change that? Join the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh, or start something similar in your own state capital.

In the short term, you may not change any votes in the legislature. But if enough people contest the previously uncontested “facts”, those “facts” leave (what Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin call) “the Sphere of Consensus” and enter “the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy”. The conventional wisdom changes.

From defense to offense. So far the big progressive protests have been efforts to resist conservative aggression: rollbacks of women’s rights in Texas, unemployment insurance in North Carolina, workers’ rights in Michigan and Ohio.

It’s time to go on offense. In addition to resisting the regressive agenda of the right and timidly putting forward small proposals like universal background checks for gun buyers, progressives need a blue-sky positive agenda that we keep making people notice. Just because we can’t pass it in this term of Congress doesn’t make it impractical. (When have conservatives ever been constrained by that?) You have to keep proposing it until people get used to hearing it; only then will they look at it seriously.

So here are five bold proposals that are “doomed” according to the conventional wisdom. Their complete impracticality is a “fact” and will continue to be so until loud voices move them into the Sphere of Controversy, from which they can get serious consideraton.

  • The Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 and fell three states short of ratification when the ratification deadline passed in 1982. Supporters of the three-state strategy claim the deadline doesn’t count and in 2011 got ratification through one house of the Virginia legislature. But the ERA gets re-introduced in every session of Congress, most recently in March. Only the fact that the conventional wisdom says it can’t pass, protects politicians from explaining why they disagree with “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
  • Single-payer health care. Of all the existing plans to help the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance, Obamacare is the most conservative. (It’s Romneycare, after all.) Conservatives opposing Obamacare have offered no plan to fulfill the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” slogan. And yet, if you watch Sunday morning political shows on TV, Obamacare is the “liberal” position. It’s better than the status quo, and I support it on those terms. But single-payer is what gives Europe, Japan, and the industrialized parts of the British Commonwealth lower costs and higher life expectancies than we currently have. It would do the same for the United States.
  • End corporate personhood. Few actual humans defend the idea that corporations should be people with full constitutional rights. A variety of constitutional amendments have been proposed to reverse this piece of conservative judicial activism (which in particular has no basis whatsoever in the originalist constitutional interpretation conservatives claim to favor). Bernie Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment says: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations.” Everybody who runs for office should be challenged to state a position on that.
  • A federal Reproductive Rights Act. The current reproductive-rights situation in states like Texas resembles Jim Crow: Women’s constitutional rights are not repealed directly, but are made impractical by a series of restrictions transparently introduced for that purpose. In the same way that the Voting Rights Act protected minorities’ right to vote (until recently), a federal Reproductive Rights Act should impose federal oversight on states that have a history of infringing women’s rights.
  • Replace the Second Amendment. The overall situation of weapons and society has changed so much since 1787 that it’s hard to attach any meaning at all to the full text of the Second Amendment. I don’t have a revised text in mind yet, but I think the amendment should defend the right of individuals to procure appropriate tools to defend their homes, while giving Congress the power to control military hardware.

Are you a “news” addict?

Every week, the so-called “news” provided by 24/7 cable channels and their web sites includes a hefty helping of gossip: stuff you really don’t need to know that is designed to snag your attention. Worse, this kind of stuff is addictive; you can find yourself thinking about it when you’re supposed to be working or resting or listening to your spouse. Like any addict, your mind drifts into wondering when you’ll be able to turn on the TV or check the internet to get your next dose.

Believe me, I speak from experience. Back in the 90s, my attention got captured by addictive stories like the O. J. Simpson and the Microsoft antitrust trials. They seemed harmless at first, but before long my brain was not my own. They took mental cycles away from the important issues in my personal life, and from the issues that needed my attention as a citizen. Instead, my thoughts and emotions were focused on whatever CNN* decided to hype that week, stuff that usually had nothing to do with me.

One beautiful summer day I went to a peaceful park, imagining that I would work out the plot holes in a piece of fiction I’d been trying to write. Instead, I spent the time raging about Elian Gonzalez. That was when I knew I had a problem. I had to go cold turkey.

That’s why the Weekly Sift is the way it is. I designed it to be the informational equivalent of a coffee-and-juice bar for former alcoholics. You can hang out here, stay informed about the things a citizen needs to know, and never hear about the Casey Anthony trial. We can even talk politics without agonizing over whether Hillary is going to run again or not**.

Most weeks, providing that hype-free space feels like enough. But these last two weeks have seen such an enormous concentration of addictive not-news or almost-news stories that simply ignoring them doesn’t seem sufficient. (I had to listen to President Obama’s climate speech on C-SPAN, because CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had junk news to cover instead.) Many of my regular readers, I suspect, have been captured by these stories, because it’s hard not to be. So this week I’m doing an intervention. If you’re obsessing over any of the stories below (or something similar), think about whether that’s the best use of your time, your mind, and your emotional energy.

As I said, I’ve been there, so I know how you want to respond: “OK, maybe I am spending too much time on this, but I enjoy it. What’s wrong with that?”

Alcoholics will tell you the same thing. They enjoy drinking. They enjoy barfing in your car. They enjoy waking up with a headache and not knowing how they got here.

Take a step back from your “enjoyment” of addictive stories and look at their larger effects. Do you really enjoy staying up until 2 a.m. to put the 400th comment on some internet article (because otherwise the 399th guy wouldn’t understand what a jerk he is)? When you finally leave the TV, are you happier than when you sat down in front of it? More relaxed? Better able to deal with the rest of your life?

Or have the gossip pushers gotten their hooks into you? Has your mind stopped being your own?

The Zimmerman trial. Trials are classic soap opera, but the only people who should devote day-by-day attention to them are defendants, jurors, and the lawyers and judges who are paid for their time. Everybody else should just wait to see how they come out. A typical day at a trial produces maybe a paragraph’s worth of new information, but that paragraph can take hours to unfold and then pundits can speculate endlessly about what tomorrow’s paragraph will say. Minus the 15 seconds it takes to read a paragraph, all that time is wasted.

The Zimmerman trial is particularly insidious, because you can almost convince yourself it’s news. The Trayvon Martin case as a whole is worth knowing about, because of what it says about racism in America. (So was O. J.’s case, if you could keep the long view and not develop an opinion about Kato Kaelin’s character.) That’s why I covered it twice last year (Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See and Prejudice, Bigotry, and “Reasonable” Racism). When the trial is over, it may be worth looking back to see how those social issues played out in this context. But don’t waste hours pondering the daily drip-drip-drip of information.

You don’t know George Zimmerman, and whether he spends 20 years in prison or walks away free has no effect on your life. So if you find yourself reacting emotionally to obscure points in the rules of evidence, consider the possibility that you may have a problem.

The Snowden chase. Like the Zimmerman trial, this spins out of a legitimate news story, but isn’t news. As I explained in the previous Sift, Edward Snowden is Not the Issue. So far, Snowden has told us a bunch of stuff about NSA spying that the government should have told us a long time ago. Why he did it, how he did it, where he is now, and whether he’ll make it to a country willing to grant him asylum — it’ll be a great movie someday, but it doesn’t matter. The Fourth Amendment matters; the NSA spying on innocent American citizens matters.

Paula Deen. This story contains a tiny sliver of some important issues: How much should we care about what TV stars do when they’re off camera? And if you imagined that racism was ancient history in America, well, clearly not.

But those issues came and went in a brief flicker. Now it’s about whether she’s been sufficiently contrite, and whether white people are persecuted by “reverse racism” or “political correctness” or some other nonsense. (I’ve already said everything I have to say about that in The Distress of the Privileged.)

If you never watched Deen’s show on the Food Network, then the story has no effect on you whatsoever. If you loved her show, don’t worry, she’ll have another one before long. Don Imus came back; so will Paula Deen.

Aaron Hernandez. I’m a Patriot fan, I’ve enjoyed watching Hernandez run after making a catch, and I still refuse to pay attention to this case. O. J.’s runs were even more fun to watch, but his murder trial took up a chunk of my life that I’ll never get back.

I’m going to continue to worry about whether Tom Brady will have anybody to throw to next season. But the Patriots have released Hernandez and the rest of us should too. A jury will decide whether he’s a murderer. The rest of us don’t need to have an opinion.

What is news anyway? News is a recent or ongoing public event that affects you either in your personal life or in your role as a citizen. You could imagine doing something about news. If it’s large-scale news, it might change how you vote or cause you to contact your elected representatives. Maybe you’ll write a check or attend a demonstration or organize to help the victims. Or maybe you won’t end up doing any of those things, but you could, because the story affects your life.

Smaller-scale news concerns stuff you might do in your personal life: a new restaurant is opening, the highway is under construction, 4th of July fireworks will be somewhere different this year.

Sometimes news changes your perspective or opens your eyes to wonder. Apollo 17’s Big Blue Marble photo was news.

Addictive gossip raises the same do-something feelings as a war or a famine, but since it doesn’t really touch any part of your life, all you can “do” is invest more energy in the story itself. So you learn more details, form more opinions about the characters, speculate about what might happen next, and generally just get more and more wound up. Perversely, you end up more motivated to do something — but there’s nothing you can do — than you feel in response to personal and political situations that are crying out for your action.

Worst of all, the addictive story gives you a chance to keep repeating all those maxims that make you unhappy and prevent you from achieving your potential: The world is rigged against people like you, nasty people are everywhere, justice never really triumphs. Maybe your negative maxims are different, but you know what they are.

Take a step back and look around. Are you really enjoying this? If you never thought about it again, would it ever come back to bite you?

Let it go. There’s a world out there that needs your attention.


* The Fox/MSNBC shouting match hadn’t developed yet. It was a simpler time.

** It’ll be fine. Either way, there will be someone worth voting for, at least in the primaries. Trust me on this.

How Bubbles Look From the Inside

Somehow, no matter what team I root for, the referees favor the other one. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life. How is that even possible?

I mean, mostly I root for teams in my area, so the refs could have a regional prejudice. But once in a while some team on the other side of the country catches my fancy, and the referees persecute them too! How do they even know? It’s not like I announce on Twitter: “New team 4 me. GO 9ERS!” (Like I’d make it that easy for them.) But somehow they figure it out. Even in the college bowl season, where I’ve never heard of half these teams and sometimes I’m not even sure myself who I’m rooting for until the middle of the second quarter, it’s just inevitable that some bogus pass interference call in the last two minutes is going to give the game to the other team.

Why me? What did I ever do to them?

Deep in their hearts, all sports fans have these thoughts. But for most of us, reason eventually wins out. Sooner or later, no matter how convincing it feels, the International Conspiracy of Telepathic Refs in All Sports becomes too unwieldy a theory to take seriously. “OK,” you reluctantly admit, “maybe I do have a perceptual bias that makes all of Kobe Bryant’s best moves look like traveling. Maybe I have a memory bias that clings to those plays at the plate where the replay showed my guy was clearly safe and forgets all the bad calls that went the other way. Maybe that’s what’s happening really.”

It’s hard to accept, like the first time you hear that the world isn’t flat and the Australians are actually standing upside-down. But after a while it’s the only thing that makes sense. (In weak moments, though, when the red light goes on even though the puck obviously didn’t cross the line, I still nurse the fantasy that someday in a dark smoky bar in Bangkok, a renegade ref on the run will explain to me how it all works.)

Something similar happens in politics. No matter who you root for, it’s pathetically obvious that the media favors the other side. If you’re conservative, you believe that the Liberal Media covers up incredible Obama scandals like Fast and Furious or Benghazi, not to mention oldies-but-goodies like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. If you’re liberal, it makes you crazy how conservatives can get completely baseless stories into the news cycle, like the Menendez prostitute thing or the ACORN pimp scam. David Atkins expressed the common liberal frustration:

The “story” about Menendez bubbled up through the right-wing “news” site The Daily Caller and gained traction from there in the traditional media.

It reminds me of the time that some liberal hacks paid off people to lie about a Republican Senator, the story “broke” on Daily Kos, and then the entire media world talked about it for months.

Oh wait. That didn’t happen, because it would never happen. The Washington press is wired for Republican control, and that includes the credibility given to alternative media sources.

Another media-bias notion popular on the left is false equivalence, where any story about Republican wrong-doing also has to mention some Democratic sin, no matter how trivial, so that the journalist can conclude that “both sides do it”, even if both both sides actually don’t do it.

This week’s false-equivalence story was the liberal war on science, which balances the conservative war on science. You see, a handful of liberals share popular conservative anti-science views (19% don’t believe in global warming) and there are even some issues where a fringe of liberal environmentalists or anti-corporatists reach beyond the facts (like the bogus vaccine/autism link). Even though none of these views have the slightest influence on Democratic politics or Obama-administration policy, they are totally the same as, say, Republican denial of global warming or evolution.

So let’s take for granted that (like sports fans) political partisans across the board feel persecuted by the media, or at least by the portion of the media that isn’t clearly on their side. From there, it’s tempting to dismiss the whole issue of mainstream media bias. But that might be false equivalence: What if some part of the media really is biased? (I mean, occasionally one team really does get the short end of the calls.) How would you know?

Increasingly, media has gotten polarized into self-contained liberal and conservative orbits. If you’re a liberal, you watch MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interview people from The Nation or American Prospect. If you’re a conservative, Fox’s Sean Hannity is telling you what the Washington Times or Breitbart.com just discovered. The worldviews you get are so diametrically opposed that they can’t both be right. So — unlike in sports — you know that there is at least one set of biased refs out there. But which one? Or both?

Once you get inside one orbit or the other, almost everything you hear confirms what you’ve already been told. But how could you tell if it’s all a delusional bubble? What do bubbles look like from the inside?

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf is arguably part of the liberal bubble, but recently he posed exactly the right questionWho best equipped readers to anticipate the outcome that actually happened?

Most of the time, a news bubble has the resources to cover up its mistakes. So if One-Sided News announces that something is the Biggest Scandal Ever, and then the scandal doesn’t catch on with anybody else, OSN can explain that it’s all being covered up by Other-Sided News. OSN might have predicted from the outset that the other OSN would stonewall, and so the non-scandalousness of the scandal merely emphasizes how deep the scandal goes.

But some events are just too big to spin, so those are the ones to focus on. Friedersdorf argues that when you do that, you’ll see that there is a conservative delusional bubble unmatched by anything on the left. This puts conservatives at an “informational disadvantage” in their competition with liberals. (Mitt Romney’s Benghazi blunder in the second debate, for example, probably happened because he believed what he heard on Fox.)

Friedersdorf focuses on the recent coverage of the Chuck Hagel nomination, where conservative pundits kept reporting signs of Hagel’s support beginning to fracture, while liberal pundits consistently predicted a bumpy ride that would eventually arrive at its destination (which is what happened).

But a story of that middling size could come from Friedersdorf’s selection bias. Maybe there are stories just as big where the informational disadvantage runs the other way, but they just don’t pop to his mind.

So let’s look at a much bigger shock: Barack Obama got re-elected. Right up to the moment polls closed, Dick Morris was predicting a Romney landslide, and many other conservative pundits agreed. (This election-night liveblog captures the full conservative shock as the votes come in.) They had elaborate explanations of why the polls were skewed in Obama’s favor. Karl Rove kept his denial going even after most of the votes were counted.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s readers saw pretty much the election they expected. Silver had prepared them for what actually happened.

We’re closing in on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, which has put another shock back in the news: Saddam had no WMDs. That was a shock even to the mainstream media, which suggests that the MSM had a conservative bias going in to the war.

As the war went on, the Bush administration consistently argued that the MSM was biased against the war; it was ignoring the good news out of Iraq, and focusing only on the bad. Again: Who prepared you for what really happened? If the Bush administration view had been right, people who believed the MSM account of the war would have been repeatedly surprised by American success in Iraq. Eventually, the peace and prosperity in Baghdad would have been too obvious to spin away.

Quite the opposite: the MSM’s Iraq reporting was consistently too positive. When the shocks came, they were bad ones. Again, the mainstream media was too conservative, and the Fox News part of the media was that much worse.

How can you tell if you’re living in a bubble? A bubble is like an earthquake zone. Life rolls along smoothly for months at a time, and then there is some huge shock.

The next time you feel the Earth shake, take a look over at the other end of the spectrum and see how they’re doing. If they’re OK, consider the possibility that they might be living in the real world.

Working for the Man and other short notes

Our 24/7 news media covers fires and hurricanes pretty well, but does a bad job on major stories that develop over decades. Thursday, Salon published an article that deserved major-media attention, but didn’t get it: 21st Century Chain Gangs by Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman.

What they’re pointing to isn’t news because it isn’t new: NewsOne.com connected many of the same dots in October (Big Business or Slave Labor? What Prisoners Make in Jail). Vicky Palaez (The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery?) was on the story in 2008. Nobody noticed then either.

Here are the dots:

  • Compared to other countries, the United States jails an incredible number of people: 2.3 million in 2010, about 25% of all the prisoners in the world. The prison population continues to increase, even as all forms of violent crime are going down.
  • Prisons are increasingly privatized. More people behind bars means more money for corporations like CCA.
  • Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the private prison industry lobbies for legislatures to jail more types of offenders and lengthen prison sentences. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes CCA as: “a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”
  • Increasing numbers of prisoners (about a million, currently) are leased out to private industry. They work for wages that are sometimes less than $1 an hour, and the workers are in no position to complain if they aren’t treated well. The old trend was to move call centers to India; the new trend is moving them to prison.

Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was sentenced to row the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. (How else are you going to get people to row galleys?) We seem to be headed back in that direction. Why should companies pay real American wages when they can get real Americans to work for less? And as legitimate jobs dry up (or lose their purchasing power) due to competition from rightless workers at home and abroad, crime becomes more tempting.


An elaborate parody imagines what the Bank of America should say on its web site. The parody comes from Yes Lab, home of the Yes Men.


The Vatican is cracking down on American nuns, who worry too much about social justice and not enough about the culture wars. The solution? Put a man in charge: Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

Nuns need to learn to take their political cues from male leaders like Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, who this week compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin.


I didn’t expect the revolution to be started by Citigroup shareholders.


A USA Today reporter investigating illegal Pentagon propaganda activities mysteriously becomes the target of an info op.


Attack those who are attacking the status quo (as James McWilliams does in “The Myth of Sustainable Meat“) and the major media (like the NYT) will beat a path to your door.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (who you may remember from The Omnivore’s Dilemma) answers.


Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick reports that conservative judges are feeling increasingly unfettered by standing precedents. Bush-appointed Circuit Court Judge Janice Brown recently wrote an opinion calling on the Supreme Court to return to pre-New-Deal interpretations of the law, an issue that ought to be way beyond her pay grade.


An ad by Californians for Populations Stabilization features an attractive and sensible-looking young man making this argument against immigration:

Immigrants produce four times more carbon emissions in the U.S. than in their home countries.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? We don’t hate Mexicans, it’s just that letting them into California is killing the planet.

But where does that argument come from? ThinkProgress traces the 4-fold-increase calculation to a report by the anti-immigration think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Center: They gave the 2004 award for “excellence in the coverage of immigration” to Lou Dobbs, for the same CNN program The Nation summed up as “nightly nativism“.

And here’s the logic of their report:

this study postulates a broad correlation between a person’s annual income and his or her annual CO2 emissions

In other words, immigrants have a bigger CO2 footprint in the U.S. because they make more money here. So this isn’t just an argument for keeping immigrants out of the U.S., it’s an argument for keeping poor people poor.

What if we applied the same logic to other groups? “Don’t create jobs, because the unemployed have a smaller carbon footprint.” or “Raising taxes on the rich will shrink their carbon footprint.”

Or why not go all the way? “We want to cut CO2 emissions by starting a worldwide recession.” But no. In any context but immigration, the message we get from the right is more like this:


Two groups that need help with their messaging. (1) a religious group:

(2) a university (click for bigger image)


I hesitate to link to this because (1) the study sounds very preliminary, and (2) the public got burned so badly by false reports of an autism/vaccination link. But a new study links autism to consumption of high fructose corn syrup.

A dissenting view comes, naturally, from the Corn Refiners Association.


Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for the murder of dozens of teen-agers at a camp run by the Workers’ Youth League of Norway’s Labor Party. A chilling article in the respected journal Foreign Policy sees him as “the tip of the iceberg in a rising sea of radical Islamophobia in Europe.”

The kids were mostly blond Norwegians unconnected to Islam, but Breivik blames the Labor Party for Norway’s increasing multiculturalism.


The Writing Center at St. Mary’s University gets schooled:

Democracy in Michigan: What Rachel Got Right and Wrong

Thursday, Rachel Maddow devoted 15 minutes to a very important story that no other national news source was covering, so I made it the Link of the Day on Saturday. Unfortunately, she only got it mostly right. So rather than just link you to her video, I need to write a whole article.

Briefly, democracy in Michigan is in trouble for two reasons, one that Rachel has been covering for about a year, and one she just noticed Thursday.

Local Dictators. The year-old problem is the Emergency Manager law. As the Nation summarizes it:

Signed into law in March 2011, it granted unprecedented new powers to the state’s emergency managers (EMs), including breaking union contracts, taking over pension systems, setting school curriculums and even dissolving or disincorporating municipalities. Under PA 4, EMs, who are appointed by the governor, can “exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.”

Basically, when a city or town gets into bad enough financial trouble, the state appoints a dictator who replaces the entire local government.

In addition to the taxation-without-representation aspect of the law (local people continue to pay local taxes, but have lost the ability to elect the officials who spend their money), there’s an unfortunate racial outcome: The communities most likely to suffer the dire economic conditions that trigger the law — Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Detroit — are those where white flight has left behind a black underclass.

I doubt this represents a conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks, but a similarly large group of disenfranchised whites could probably get more public sympathy. So, Rachel points out,

If you are an African-American living in Michigan, there is a 50-50 chance that this year, the state of Michigan has considered scrapping … your right to elect local officials to represent you.

(I haven’t figured out yet what “considered” means in this context. It may refer to concessions Detroit’s local government made to the state in order to avoid being replaced.)

Fake supermajorities. Here’s the newly-revealed part: The Michigan Constitution delays laws going into effect until 90 days after the legislative sessions ends — which could be a year or more after they pass. But there’s an “emergency” provision that allows a 2/3 super-majority to give a law “immediate effect”.

But then something funny happens. Since Republicans took control of the state legislature and the governorship at the beginning of 2011, 546 of 566 bills — including the Emergency Manager law — have been passed with immediate effect. The funny business isn’t just that there haven’t been 546 authentic emergencies, but that Republicans don’t have a 2/3 majority in the House.

How did they do that? Well, you see an example beginning around the 12:30 mark of Rachel’s segment: The Republicans pass a bill, the floor leader asks for immediate effect, the chair ignores Democrats calling for a roll call, asks all those in favor to rise, and within four seconds gavels that it has passed. The House journal records a 2/3 super-majority that probably never existed.

Wait a minute. Rachel is incensed, and so was I when I first watched. But then I had the same reaction as Kevin Drum:

When I first heard this, my BS meter tingled pretty hard. Maddow characterized her story as a scoop, but that made no sense. I mean, Michigan still has a Democratic Party. If this were a huge abuse of power, they’d be yelling about it, right? So what’s really going on?

OK, this is outrageous stuff, but it’s outrageous stuff that’s been happening since January, 2011 and the Michigan Democrats only sued at the end of March. (Monday they got an injunction, which the Republicans are appealing on the grounds that courts have no right to interfere in the workings of the legislature.) What’s up with that?

The Detroit News reports that the Democrats had similar percentages of immediate-effect bills when they were in power in 2009-2010, even though they also were short of a 2/3 majority. Democratic legislator Jeff Irwin was asked about this and responded:

Has this been done before? Yes. Violating the clear terms of the Constitution has become commonplace in the Michigan House of Representatives. The big difference now is that since the Senate follows the Constitution, there was always one chamber where immediate effect votes would be counted and extremely divisive bills would not earn immediate effect in the Senate.

But the Republicans really do have 2/3s of the Senate, so miscounting in the House makes a real difference now. Anyway, Irwin says:

I’m new to the Michigan House and I’ve always thought this practice of declaring votes successful without any actual voting is bogus.

What I think it means. Anybody who looks at the numbers and the video has to conclude that the Michigan House is violating the Constitution. That’s a bad practice no matter who is doing it, so it has to be stopped.

But it isn’t a sudden Republican coup. The House let itself get into the habit of miscounting supermajorities and so violating the Michigan Constitution — probably because the delayed effect the Constitution calls for was viewed by both parties as a procedural nuisance. So the House has been operating illegally for a while, even when Democrats controlled it.

Republicans should have protested this when Democrats did it, but it was easier just to block stuff in the Senate, or to wrangle extra concessions there in exchange for allowing bills to take effect immediately.

After the 2010 Republican sweep, though, they haven’t had to negotiate with anybody or concede anything. (The Emergency Manager law is evidence of that.) So Democrats have started refusing to cooperate in the illegal procedures, and the Republicans have been illegally running over their non-cooperation.

So anyway: It’s bad and it needs to stop, so Rachel was right to call attention to it. But she should have done a little more homework before she went public with it.

Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See

I tend to filter out crime stories, because so often they get more coverage than they deserve, like O. J. Simpson. So I’ve been slow to catch on to the significance of the Trayvon Martin story. But lately this has turned into a meta-story: reactions to the killing say even more about our country than the killing itself did.

The basic facts are simple: A white-Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer (George Zimmerman) got suspicious of a 140-pound black teen-ager (Trayvon Martin) for no apparent reason. He called 911, and the dispatcher told him not to follow the kid. Zimmerman followed anyway. Some kind of confrontation ensued and he shot Martin dead. Martin was unarmed and had nothing easily mistaken for a weapon, but the police accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense claim (in spite of at least one witness who denied it) and let him walk away. That all happened back on February 26, there’s still been no arrest, and the local African-American community is getting pretty upset about it.

The story points out the continuing presence of racism in America. To some segment of the population, being black raises suspicion all by itself. Probably Zimmerman is not the kind of racist who would go out hunting black teens at random. Probably he really believed that Martin was planning some kind of mischief, and that Martin must be armed, so that he had to shoot first once the confrontation started. But why did he think that? Why did he frame the situation in such a way that shoot-to-kill seemed sensible?

And why did the police find his story credible and his actions excusable? You’re an armed white adult chasing an unarmed black teen-ager you outweigh by about 100 pounds. Naturally, you would feel threatened.

That’s the kind of racism that is still endemic in every nook and cranny of America. We’re almost entirely past the “I don’t hire niggers” phase, but still in a phase of “he just doesn’t look trustworthy to me”. What would look like a well-deserved break for a white employee is goofing off when a black does it. An ordinary mental glitch becomes evidence of low intelligence, and so on.

Being black is no longer three strikes against you, but it’s still one or two.

By and large, White America doesn’t want to believe that. Last year a poll found that 51% of whites (also 60% of Republicans and 68% of people who name Fox as their most trusted news source) say that reverse discrimination against whites is at least as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

You can see just how badly White America doesn’t want to believe in its continuing racism by how it has reacted to the Martin story. Fox News did its best to ignore the whole thing. ThinkProgress totaled up how much attention each cable news network gave the Martin story during its first three weeks:

Compare this to Fox’s obsessive coverage of a series of scary-black-people stories. For example, it devoted 95 segments totaling 8 hours of air time to the trumped-up voter-intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party.

Or check out how the Glenn-Beck-founded blog The Blaze has covered Martin’s death. Searching on the word “Trayvon” got me 15 stories, five of which were about the scary ways black people are reacting to the incident — the New Black Panther Party (of course), Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, and the New Black Liberation Militia. The Sharpton post ends by raising more suspicion about Martin. (He was on a 10-day suspension from school, and “Sources sympathetic to Martin say he was suspended for ‘excessive tardiness’.” But the Blaze makes sure we know all the more serious stuff that a 10-day suspension could be about.)

A sixth Blaze post quotes Beck himself, who is worried not about white vigilantes, but about black extremists “winding everybody up”:

“We have this extremist African-American militia group that says they’re just going to come in and handle it. You’re got Al Sharpton winding everybody up. You’ve got Color For Change winding everybody up.” … Beck ceded that the man who shot Trayvon could indeed be a racist, but that many of his detractors are driven by a racial agenda too, and thus are everything they claim to stand against.

Got that? You should focus not on what actually happened to an innocent black teen, but on what “extremist” black groups might do. Zimmerman could be a racist, but blacks and liberals upset by the Martin story are racists.

So the beat goes on: For the part of the media that panders to I-am-not-a-racist whites, the Martin story is just one more example of racism against whites and one more reason for white people to be afraid of black people.


Among the presidential candidates, only Newt Gingrich directly pandered to white racists by turning the incident into a reverse-racism story. President Obama had reached out to Martin’s parents, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Gingrich’s response:

Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. … When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.

Gingrich glossed over the whole walking-while-black angle that makes the story important: If Trayvon Martin had been white, he might not have been shot at all. George Zimmerman “turned it into a racial issue”, not President Obama.


While researching this case, I learned something interesting about the law: Self defense falls into a class known as affirmative defenses. In other words, at your trial you’re not just looking at the state and saying “Prove I did it”, you’re making assertions about facts that are supposed to exonerate you. When you do that, part of the burden of proof shifts to you.

So the state does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self defense. In making a self-defense plea, Zimmerman would be conceding that he killed Martin, and he would then need to convince the jury of his self-defense claim by a preponderance of evidence (not beyond reasonable doubt).


Want some background music to read this piece by? Try Eminem’s “White America“:

Look at these eyes:
Baby blue, baby, just like yaself.
If they were brown, Shady lose,
Shady sits on the shelf.

Covering Climate Change Seriously and other short notes

Buried deep in an insight-filled exchange between Grist‘s David Roberts and The Roost‘s Wen Stephenson about media coverage of climate change is this brilliant analogy:

It’s quite instructive to compare coverage of climate with coverage of the deficit.

Both are long-term threats whose short-term symptoms don’t seem that serious. But they’re covered very differently.

Mainstream journalists routinely tell us that a trillion-dollar-a-year deficit will lead to disaster. They don’t worry about sounding like activists or alarmists. When a newsmaker warns about the consequences of the deficit, journalists don’t hunt up some fringe economist to give an opposing view. Further, journalists will bring the deficit into a story even when the sources don’t. If a politician is proposing something related to taxing or spending, a common question is “What would that do to the deficit?”

None of that happens when mainstream journalists cover climate change. Roberts sums up:

the deficit is mentioned not just in stories about the deficit but in almost every story about economics or government, period! You can recommend economic austerity measures that are absurd to professional economists and never, ever get your reputation dinged. There is no social risk to over-worrying or talking too much about the deficit; there’s only upside, reputation- and career-wise. It is the paradigmatic Very Serious issue, divorced from the facts but reinforced by herd behavior.

Climate is the mirror image. The facts support a far more alarmist case, but not only can objective journalists not take that for granted — they’re barely allowed to take the existence of climate change for granted. Even the mildest of carbon-pricing schemes is deemed radical, unrealistic, bad politics. “Everybody knows” we’re going to keep accelerating through oil, gas, and coal until they’re gone. To say otherwise is to be un-savvy

When action on climate change is blocked, it’s typically reported as a defeat for “environmentalists” — a special interest group. But when action to cut the deficit fails, it’s a blow to our grandchildren.

Roberts’ analogy provides a very simple way to explain what we should be demanding from the media: Cover climate change the way you cover the deficit. It’s not impossible or impractical or a violation of journalistic ethics. They’re already doing it on a different issue.


Today’s wishful thinking: Maybe outright lying by politicians will become less acceptable. I’m not talking about the lies everybody tells about their inner process (like “I don’t pay attention to the polls”), I mean checkable black-is-white lies about history and the state of the world. Maybe the media will start calling attention to these lies and make them counterproductive.

This pollyanna-ish thought is motivated by NPR’s new journalistic ethics handbook, which emphasizes truth over balance.

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.

Journalism critic Jay Rosen sees this as a rejection of he-said/she-said coverage, where opposing true and false statements are presented without comment.

AlterNet’s Sarah Jaffe thinks she has found an example of the new policy: On February 27, NPR ran a Mitt Romney quote and then corrected the part of it that was false. Maybe that practice will catch on with other journalists.

Correcting lies is a good first step. Ultimately, I’d like to hear journalists objectively report “That guy just lied to us” as Rachel Maddow does here:


The Romney Etch-a-Sketch gaffe just underlines what I wrote about him last week:

his general-election strategy depends on voters doubting his honesty: Come fall, he’ll need to convince independents that he didn’t mean any of the stuff he’s saying now.


Lauren Zuniga’s poem for the Oklahoma legislators is painful to listen to, but that’s what’s so good about it.

Oklahoma is one of many states passing laws whose main purpose seems to be to humiliate and cause anguish to women who want an abortion. Zuniga strips away all the facades and reacts to the spiteful intention behind the law.


While we’re talking about transvaginal ultrasounds, have you ever wondered how doctors feel about the state using them as tools of humiliation against their patients? This one doesn’t like it, and even thinks some civil disobedience is in order:

When the community has failed a patient by voting an ideologue into office…When the ideologue has failed the patient by writing legislation in his own interest instead of in the patient’s…When the legislative system has failed the patient by allowing the legislation to be considered… When the government has failed the patient by allowing something like this to be signed into law… We as physicians cannot and must not fail our patients by ducking our heads and meekly doing as we’re told.


Zuninga’s poem is an example of the Left getting more aggressive on social issues, a trend I hope catches on. For the longest time we’ve been passive. Unless “family values” types took crystal meth with gay prostitutes, we’ve mostly not challenged their claims to be well-intentioned moral people, motivated by conscience and authentic religious conviction.

It’s time for that to stop. That’s why Fred Clark’s recent article The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal is so important: He points out the suspicious timing of the evangelical revelation that a newly-fertilized ovum has a soul.

They haven’t always believed that. They started believing it after Roe v Wade, and it became undebatable in evangelical circles after abortion became the center of a right-wing political movement.

In other words, this isn’t a political view motivated by theological conviction. The theology was invented to support a political movement already in progress.


Two weeks ago (in the weekly challenge) I proposed that the Left go on offense on women’s issues by pushing the Equal Rights Amendment again. I wasn’t the only one to think of that.


The American public has basically the same view on abortions that it has on guns: There are too many of them, but if my family ever decides that we need one, I don’t want the government telling us we can’t have it.

So whether the public is pro or anti depends on how the question is phrased. This poll bears that out on abortion: In every religious group, large numbers of people who disapprove of abortion still want it to be available.

abortion poll


If you’re not watching Cara Santa Maria’s videos on Huffington Post, you’re not just missing good coverage of science and society, you’re missing a hot chick with glasses whose tag line is “Talk nerdy to me.” I mean, I like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but …

Here she tells us about a new state law to return Tennessee to the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial.


If you’ve ever wondered about those “Proof Jesus Never Existed” ads that show up in the back of magazines or pop up on the internet, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has a new book out. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler: He concludes Jesus existed.


I don’t expect President Obama to raise the Romney dog-on-the-roof issue explicitly. I just think we’ll see a lot of pictures like this:


If a prospective employer asks you to give them your Facebook password, what other morally dubious demands will they make?

And why would an employer trust applicants who are willing to violate FaceBook’s rules and compromise their friends’ privacy like that?


A week ago Friday, the Daily Show had one of its best episodes ever. The opening monologue was funny as usual, but the next two segments were John Oliver’s amazing take-down of our defunding of UNESCO. It culminates with Oliver in Africa (really — not via green-screen) explaining to cute African children why Israel-Palestine politics means they can’t have an education.

Property vs. Freedom

If you strip it down to its essence, the battle over SOPA/PIPA is Property vs. Freedom: the media companies want to defend their intellectual property, while Internet-users want to defend their freedom.

You won’t often hear it characterized that way in the corporate media, though, because Property and Freedom are supposed to be inseparable, like Love and Marriage. Sing it, Frank:

This I tell you, brother:
You can’t have one without the other.

Or, as Ron Paul more prosaically put it in 2004:

The rights of all private property owners … must be respected if we are to maintain a free society.

Simply saying the phrase “Property vs. Freedom” marks you as some kind of extreme Leftist. All right-thinking people know that Property can’t possibly oppose Freedom.

Last summer I wrote Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say. Well, here’s another one: The relationship between Property and Freedom is highly contentious. (On second thought, the Love-and-Marriage parallel isn’t that bad.)

Get off my lawn. Why is that relationship so contentious? It’s simple: The essence of Property is the right to tell people to get off your lawn, and to sic the police on them if they don’t. If you can’t do that, it’s not really your lawn.

So naturally Property increases Freedom for the owner. Once you have the right to sic the police on trespassers, your lawn becomes available for cookouts, gardening, minimally supervised children, and all sorts of other expressions of freedom.

But look at it from the other side. What if you’re constantly being forced off other people’s lawns and own no property you can retreat to? How free is that?

Free to be Jim Crow. Now read the Ron Paul quote in its full context. On the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Wikipedia entry, text of bill), which banned racial discrimination in “any place of public accommodation” (like the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro) and in hiring, Paul portrayed the law in this light:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society.

In other words, business owners lost some of their right to tell black people to get off their lawns. Definitely it was a diminishment of Property. But was Paul right that it was a net loss of Freedom, or did the freedom gained by blacks more than make up for the freedom lost by businesses?

Why is it your lawn anyway? Post-slavery America may look like an exceptional case, but actually it was just a particularly egregious example of a general rule: Never in the history of humankind has private property been fairly distributed. By the time American blacks stopped being property themselves, all the good stuff was already owned by whites.

Welcome to Freedom, suckers! Now get off my lawn.

One standard pro-property response to this point is that in a free economy property tends to move to the people who earn it through hard work and ingenuity, so mal-distributions even out over time. Maybe the newly-freed slaves did get a raw deal, but that was a long time ago. According to this point of view, by now their great-great-grandchildren must be pretty much where they deserve to be.

But far from an exception, the race problem is a convenient color-coding that makes the general historical pattern easier to see. Michael Hudson described that pattern like this:

The tendency for debts to grow faster than the population’s ability to pay has been a basic constant throughout all recorded history. Debts mount up exponentially, absorbing the surplus and reducing much of the population to the equivalent of debt peonage.

In other words, the typical trend is not for things to even out after a few generations, but for unfair distributions of property to get moreso. Sing it, Billie:

Them that’s got shall have.
Them that’s not shall lose.

The only exception I can think of is post-World-War-II America and Europe, where property tended for decades to become more evenly distributed. But far from the natural workings of a free economy, that outcome required inheritance taxes, progressive income taxes, public education, laws to break up monopolies and protect unions, a significant social safety net, and many other government interventions.

Freedom and public property. America’s two greatest symbols of freedom are the Cowboy and the Indian, both of whom own little, but live in a vast public common where they can hunt in the forests, drink in the streams, and swim in the lakes without worrying about ownership.

Contrast that freedom with economic blogger Noah Smith‘s account of downtown Tokyo.

there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). … outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite – the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained.

To me the lesson is clear: For all but the fabulously wealthy, freedom is maximized by balancing public and private property. It’s nice to have your own lawn, but public property you can’t be chased off of — roads, parks, sidewalks — is even more important. It’s also nice to have public access to water and sanitation, and not to be at the proprietor’s mercy whenever you enter a store, restaurant, or theater.

Intellectual property. Applying that logic to intellectual property gets you to the kind of public/private balance we used to have: Copyrights and patents grant creators and inventors valuable temporary rights, while producing a rich public common allowing fair use of recent creations. And since everything eventually becomes public, a balanced copyright law increases the value of the public domain by encouraging the creation of works that otherwise might be impractical.

Protests of SOPA and PIPA make no sense until you understand that we have lost that balance.

Consider how the music-downloading problem arose: By controlling distribution, media corporations inserted themselves as toll-collectors between creators and users. You’d pay $20 for a CD you could easily copy for $1, knowing that precious little of the difference made it back to the artist. Napster-users had few moral scruples against “stealing” music because the system was already amoral. (Call it the Leverage Principle: “The rich and powerful take what they want. We steal it back for you.”)

Also, endless copyrights have dammed the flow of material into the public domain. When Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928, he was granted a 28-year copyright with the prospect of renewing for another 28 years. Evidently, the prospect of Mickey entering the public domain in 1984 didn’t deter Walt from creating him.

But every time that expiration date approaches, the Disney Corporation leans on Congress to extend the length of existing copyrights. Tom Bell illustrates how copyrights lengthen as Mickey ages.

Unless corporate money loses its primacy in our political system, nothing created after 1928 will ever enter the public domain. Unlike Mickey, the vast majority of that cultural treasure-trove will be orphan works that no one has the right to use. (For a book-length treatment of these issues, see The Public Domain, which the author has graciously put in the public domain.)

As Lawrence Lessig has pointed out, extending an existing copyright does nothing to promote creativity or otherwise advance the public interest:

No matter what the US Congress does with current law, George Gershwin is not going to produce anything more.

In short, the Infosphere is slouching towards Tokyo. Gradually the public common is shrinking towards the day when almost everything of value will be corporately owned.

SOPA/PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the equivalent Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate are two more corporate attempts to buy laws that serve the private interest but not the public interest. (Interestingly, Politico covers the SOPA protests as a battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, as if the public were not involved.)

These laws would make search engines, internet-service providers, and other middlemen responsible for blocking access to web sites that copyright-holders claim are pirating their works. Since they bear no comparable responsibility for defending fair use, their safest course will be to block any site Disney or Time-Warner complains about.

Consider the quotes and images in this article. Traditionally, they would be considered fair use. But what if somebody complains? Is WordPress really going to pay a lawyer to read this article and write an opinion? Or are they just going to shut the Weekly Sift down?

The protests worked, for now. Websites like Wikipedia went dark on Wednesday to protest SOPA/PIPA, and a massive public response forced many lawmakers to change their positions.

But it’s naive to think that’s the end of the story. Corporate money is relentless. When public outrage dies down, we’ll soon see the basic ideas of SOPA/PIPA back in some other form.

In addition to protests, we need a fundamental rethinking of intellectual property. As long as we’re just talking about theft and how to prevent it, we’re missing the point. The right question is how we restore the public/private balance to intellectual property.

We need intellectual property lines that are widely seen as legitimate. When we have that, the problems of trespassing and theft will become much, much smaller and easier to police.

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