Topic A: Usual Suspects

One fair criticism of newspapers in general and The Washington Post in particular is that they too often rely on the same people, whether to comment on breaking stories, add insight to enterprise ones or opine on the op-ed page. 

As I read Sunday’s Topic A section in The Post, I felt I was seeing the same names over and over again.  As any casual reader of the section knows, the editors try to balance Democratic and Republican viewpoints. Which is to say not only the usual suspects but the traditional DC-defined left and right.  Rare are the truly left or ultra right viewpoints, although one wonders how much farther to the right one can go from today’s GOP, short of calling for a military dictatorship or a corporate oligarchy.

The same people are called on again and again as a quick search of Lexis-Nexis confirmed.  It appears this Topic A section in The Post, which usually runs on Sunday but has appeared on other days on occasion, began in March 2009.  Here’s how often some usual suspects have appeared:

Name Topic A contributions
Matthew Dowd 6
Newt Gingrich 12
Donna Brazile 9
Dan Perino 6
Robert Shrum 6
Scott Keiter 9
Dan Schnur 19
Douglas E. Schoen 25
Ed Rogers 25

The more I looked at Topic A columns, the fewer new names appeared.  Sure, there are the occasional pundits who only appear one or two times, but over the course of nearly two years, it’s clear we get the views of about a dozen or so people, virtually all of whom are aligned with one party or the other and give us predictably partisan views. You wonder how Doug Schoen or Ed Rogers find time for their day jobs.

Is it really that hard to find different voices? Or is this section on auto pilot as The Post continues to find ways to fill up its dead tree real estate without much heavy lifting?

Media Gives Points for Spin

Michael Kinsley hits it on the head:

What the press seems to value is successful spin. As gaffes and the phony umbrage that follows them gradually swallow up our politics, the press has taken on a bizarre role like that of judges in a figure-skating competition, as opposed to referees in a hockey match. What counts is the artistry. Figures in the news get points for successful spin (whether true or not), for a positive image (whether deserved or not), and for avoiding gaffes (that is, for not telling the truth.)

And, the GOP being better at spin, or at least more successful at getting people to believe lies (“death panels” anyone?), gets a better shake from the Fourth Estate than Democrats.

Post Neglects to Fact Check Right-Wing Screed

At first, I thought this article was indicative of the right’s bending the truth to fit its ideology, but on further reflection, it is more a damning indictment of Outlook editors at The Washington Post.

I’ve written a few opinion columns for The Post and have been challenged for assertions I made in them.  But that scrutiny apparently doesn’t hold when the newspaper is trying to refute charges of liberal bias.  To do that, it seems to allow conservatives to draw any conclusion they want.

The article is provocatively titled “America’s new culture war:  Free enterprise vs. government control” by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.  Its thesis is that most Americans want free enterprise capitalism while the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress want “European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.”

The entire article is intellectually dishonest, and Post editors should be ashamed for not challenging Brooks’ assertions.  He cites a Gallup Poll that

…found that 86 percent of Americans have a positive image of "free enterprise," with only 10 percent viewing it negatively. Similarly, in March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked individuals from a broad range of demographic groups: "Generally, do you think people are better off in a free-market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time, or don’t you think so?" Almost 70 percent of respondents agreed that they are better off in a free-market economy, while only 20 percent disagreed.

I support stricter financial industry regulation, more environmental controls, a safety net for the poor, more federally financed infrastructure projects and a few other Obama administration policies.  I also have a “positive image of ‘free enterprise’” and I generally think people are better off in a “free-market economy.”  That doesn’t mean I oppose sensible controls or support libertarian concepts of the wild west in our economic system.

To suggest these poll results support Brooks’ contention that Obama and company are out of the mainstream is ludicrous, particularly if you look at that same March 2009 poll at the time of the stock market’s nadir.

  • People were split 50-50 on wanting “smaller government and fewer services or bigger government and more services”
  • 54% said it was a “good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in
    recent years.”
  • 56% thought Obama’s stimulus plan was a “good idea.”

The poll was wide-ranging, and if anything, doesn’t merely not support Brooks’ contention that Obama is out of sync with the American people; the poll actually refutes Brooks’ thesis.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Obama and company want to dissolve free markets or abandon capitalism for socialism as Brook argues.  Why does The Post let him draw such fallacious and dishonest conclusions?

The article, given precious center-front page placement in Outlook, is replete with disingenuous, erroneous or duplicitous conclusions.

If we reject the administration’s narrative, the 70-30 nation will remain strong. If we accept it, and base our nation’s policies on it, we will be well on our way to a European-style social democracy. Punitive taxes and regulations will make it harder to be an entrepreneur, and the rewards of success will be expropriated for the sake of greater income equality.

Brooks also argues that unfettered permission to maximize profits without regard to societal good is not only preferable but a convenient measure of success.

Earned success involves the ability to create value honestly — not by inheriting a fortune, not by picking up a welfare check. It doesn’t mean making money in and of itself. Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.

Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success.

What Brooks seems to miss is that for many Americans, it is becoming impossible to earn success by creating “value honestly.”  The widening gulf between rich and poor is not because the poor are working any less hard.  They simply are pawns of those who want a greater share of the fruits of others’ labor.

Ironically, he concludes by citing Sen. Scott Brown’s victory as a symbol of the revolt of the “70% coalition.”

Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat from Massachusetts in January by declaring himself not an apparatchik Republican but a moral enthusiast for markets. "What made America great?" he asked. "Free markets, free enterprise, manufacturing, job creation. That’s how we’re gonna do it, not by enlarging government." His cultural pitch for free enterprise hit just the right chord, even in liberal Massachusetts. It struck at the heart of the 30 percent coalition’s agenda for America.

Scott Brown is one of four Republican senators who just voted for the administration’s financial regulatory reform bill.

I guess The Post’s Outlook editors didn’t notice either.

The Post Gets It Wrong on ‘Net Regulation

With all the seemingly intractable problems we face, you would think that surviving media would focus on the information we really need.  Yet today in The Washington Post we have a story about how President Obama’s is “to make a Supreme Court decision soon,” as if he were thinking of postponing it until after the November elections.  The article breaks no new significant ground.  Then we have a story about Attorney General Eric Holder’s “rare moment to celebrate,” the capture of the Times Square would be bomber.  The story could have been written by one of The Post’s sports writers, as it focused on Holder’s “good week.”  But The Post never seems to miss an opportunity to allow its reporters to make broad sweeping statements, such as Anne Kornblut’s characterization of Holder being “on rocky ground,” as if he’s let big innings inflate his ERA this week.

One would hope The Post learns that too many of its stories are nothing more than a series of events trying to find a trend the paper can report on.

But we have a stark reminder today that postulating where there is no news can bite them on the ass.

Dateline—May 3 by The Post’s Cecilia Kang:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has indicated he wants to keep broadband services deregulated, according to sources, even as a federal court decision has exposed weaknesses in the agency’s ability to be a strong watchdog over the companies that provide access to the Web.

Dateline—May 6, again by Kang

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission plans to seek clear-cut powers to regulate Internet service providers, redefining the government’s role over at least parts of the fast-growing industry.

Kang cited three sources for her May 3 story, all of whom are probably now in her dog house.  The story didn’t provide anything more than well-known talking points from each side of the regulation debate and ultimately, of course, proved false.  Why waste time on speculating what might happen before it does?  OK, that was a softball question on today’s exam: because The Post wanted to be the first with the news.

But don’t expect the paper to take the blame.  In today’s story,

Sources said Genachowski appeared to have shifted from late last week, when The Washington Post reported that it looked like he was inclined to keep broadband services deregulated.

The same sources, no doubt, who had no clue what was happening three days earlier.  It wasn’t The Post that got it wrong; it was the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski who changed his mind. 

Watch soon for a flip-flopping story.

Why The Post is Becoming Irrelevant

With all the problems the American way of life faces today–declining economic leadership and standard of living, two wars, a broken healthcare system, climate change, increasing energy costs, a financial system that holds the taxpayer hostage–what is The Washington Post covering today?

Before the papers even hit the driveways, I count on its web site 12—Count ‘em, 12!–stories/posts/commentaries, etc. on Tiger Woods’ apology yesterday.  And these are only the ones I can find links for on its home page:

“A disgusting apology,” Woods convinced me,” “Taking the blame,” “Call it a half-apology,” “Tiger Woods Apologizes,”Tiger Woods’…Mea Culpa,” “…Apology Leaves Little Room for Sincerity,” “Sincere and Thorough,” “…What Do We Believe,” “Woods Opens Door on Private Life…,” “Will Tiger Join the Shame Hall of Fame,” and last, but not least though certainly a new low for The Post, a poll, asking readers what they think.

Let me spare you all the wasted time reading the work of 12 writers and God knows how many editors, web and graphic designers, and the poor dead trees that gave up their lives for this.  Here’s the video of his public apology.

Let me save you more time:  Don’t view the video.  I didn’t.  And as Friday night rolls into Saturday morning in the central time zone, I can say I have survived not knowing what he had to say.  I may not make it ‘til morning.  I may wake up in a cold sweat and succumb to watching it and reading what all these underemployed journalists think about it. 

Most of them, of course, are pissed that he apparently took a swipe at them.  (I couldn’t help hearing that on a TV news report that caught me before I could run out of the room screaming.) They feel cheated:

“Tiger, would you let us know what your wife said to you when she found out?”

“Yo, Tiger, did you really tell a porn star you loved her and would marry her?  Oh, and how was she?”

“Please tell us, how does it feel to be so humiliated?”  (Note to non-reporters:  “How does it feel?” is the first question all reporters learn to ask.  Adding questions to their repertoire can help their careers, but isn’t really necessary.)

I’m willing to bet that when the paper comes out in the morning, you won’t find 12 full-fledged news stories in the A section.  As I’m out of town, let me know, and if proven wrong, I’ll admit it—in front of cameras with my family members in the audience.  And I’ll try to top Tiger by getting my wife to be there looking distraught and shamed that I guessed wrong.

But only if The Post apologizes to all those dead trees.

Punditry=Over Analysis

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman provides context to Obama’s declining popularity, currently around 50 percent, depending on the poll.  He’s simply following the usual path of a new president’s first year.  In fact, the Dallas Morning News headline outs it this way:  “Just Like Reagan.”  Mr. Greed-Is-Good, however, rebounded to win 49 states in the next next election.  George W. Bush was on his way to suffering the same fate in his first year, but for 9/11, which despite it being his administration that let its guard down and cost the lives of 3,000 people, that helped his popularity soared.

Chapman cites research by Stanford University professor Douglas Rivers.

Though Obama rated the lowest of recent presidents at the end of his first year, Rivers says the pattern "is pretty much in line with what you would expect." What we see is "more a continuing trend than an Obama phenomenon."

That’s not to say Obama has made no mistakes. Every president bungles some things, and every president pays a price.

His fiscal policy and health care plan, in particular, have spawned public resentment. On the other hand, his grades on gay rights and immigration have actually improved — possibly because he has done less than expected on either. There is no real evidence to suggest that the public finds Obama far more fallible or detestable than they usually find presidents at this stage.

On health care reform, it’s not clear what he could have done differently to appease a notoriously demanding citizenry. Surveys indicate people think that if his plan passes, they will get "worse care at a higher cost," says Rivers. What do they expect if his plan doesn’t pass? "They’ll get worse care at a higher cost."

I wish I could say Americans’ suspicion of health care reform shows a sensible appreciation of the limits of government power and responsibility. But I suspect the real problem is they fear it will not guarantee them everything they want at someone else’s expense. Rivers notes that when you ask people about specific components of the plan, they turn out to be "fairly popular."

If Americans distrust the government, they also take a dim view of the private sector, or parts of it. "Anything negative for insurance companies is popular," says Rivers. Most people blame insurers for rising health care expenditures, even though insurance companies are one of the few constituencies with a powerful interest in reducing outlays.

This is not the contradiction it may appear. People don’t mind when national health care costs rise. They do mind when their personal health care costs rise. When that happens, they blame health insurers. They may also blame the president.

But most important is Chapman’s observation of politicians and the media, pointing out how frustrating it is to see the amount of newsprint dedicated to the daily politics of reform and the insipid observations of the pundit class.

American politicians and commentators are generally not afflicted by a deep knowledge or appreciation of history. If they were, they would not waste their time laboring to explain something that requires little explanation. They could simply state the obvious — new presidents invariably lose public esteem in the first year of their terms — and go on to try to explicate something truly mysterious, like Lady Gaga.

And later,

It’s a mistake to think every political trend has deep meaning.