Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Enemy is Us

Tom Friedman said all this in an interview with Charlie Rose that aired Friday night.  It’s not yet online. Read it and weep.

Newspapers’ Problem: A 30-Something Nurse

An open letter to The Washington Post:

I met the problem newspapers like The Washington Post face.  She is a 30-ish admissions nurse at Inova Hospital.

I was sitting in her office clutching The Post and the Wall Street Journal, my hands gray with newsprint.  She noticed and volunteered, “I stopped my subscription recently because the paper was all yesterday’s news.”  She confirmed to me that she gets her news online.

The most obvious way to profit from readers like her is to give her information she can’t readily get elsewhere or charge for online content.  Maybe you put it in newsprint before going online with it, if you think newsprint is your future. 

I suggest you might save both your newsprint and online real estate for stories that readers like her care about.  Dan Balz’s article about a “pep rally”  is a case in point.  I understand that The Post’s reputation has been built on its reporting of politics, but that’s no longer helpful for two reasons.

One, Politico, Huffington Post, blogs, etc. give us more and faster. 

Two, politics has become so predictable and offensive.  Writing an article that’s nothing more than dueling talking points probably holds little interest for most of your readers.  Exactly how many of them care to hear the partisan tit-for-tat about what might happen a year from now?  And even “Republicans acknowledge that events could change the political landscape before next November.”  In March 2007, a year before Obama’s breakthrough victories in the primaries, who would have bet on his being president?  Still, let’s assume such navel gazing matters to political insiders.  Count them all.  I’m sure there are thousands.  Are there enough to save The Post

Now consider Shear and Eggen’s story this morning.  There is no news there except the coordinated effort by healthcare opponents to tie the recent mammogram study to “healthcare rationing.”  And The Post dutifully obliged to help that effort with front page placement.  The lede has no news hook:  “opponents stepped up efforts to define the legislation as big-government ambition run amok that will interfere with intimate medical decisions and threaten the pocketbooks of average taxpayers.”  Is that news?  Increased taxes had never been mentioned before yesterday?  “Stepped up efforts”?  I was unaware opponents were holding their powder before yesterday.  The story is “fair and balanced,” if that’s your criteria for good journalism.  But is this story of any value to my admissions nurse?  It certainly helped “radio show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Glenn Beck,” who again seem to act as The Post’s assignment editors.

I might argue with at least one point in the article:  “Obama administration officials [say the] U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which issued the [mammogram] guidelines, has no power to affect coverage decisions by insurance companies.”  In fact, insurance companies could use the results of the task force as a rationale to cut coverage for mammograms for women under 50.

But my complaint is not about any partisan slant or arguable point.  Nor is it with any of these reporters.  My problem is their talents are going to waste because of bad decisions about what content readers want.  That ultimately rests with Mr. Brauchli.  Maybe he needs a push from the national editors. 

Maybe readers want more critical analysis of the big issues of our day, which I seem to get more of in Post columns than I do in daily stories.  Or maybe it’s a curriculum change being considered by the local school board.  I don’t know, but surely it isn’t what The Post has done for decades.  That’s over.  You’ve lost that war, at least for your newsprint edition.  And I would argue that getting the story about the Republican governors’ conference on your web site faster isn’t the answer, either.

Health Reporting Slammed

This doesn’t reflect well on mainstream broadcast health reporting.

What they don’t overflow with is accuracy, context and journalistic responsibility, or so concludes University of Minnesota’s Gary Schwitzer, publisher of In September, Schwitzer announced that his team will no longer be reviewing every single medical item on TV. The reason? Despite HealthNewsReview’s years of reporting on the reporting and publishing the results, TV health pieces consistently failed to adhere to basic standards.

Daily Show, The National Ombudsman

Here’s a story that supports the thrust of my previous post.  Listening to the producers and writers of “The Daily Show” describe their mission and how they hold themselves accountable makes you wonder why real news organizations can’t do this.

"I feel like there are lot of critics of the government but there are very few critics of the media who have an audience and are credible and keep a watch on things," said "Daily Show" writer Elliott Kalan. "That’s a role that we provide that we take very seriously."

And they try to be funny and accurate.

One of the show’s rules is to not trust any source too much until it’s been confirmed by another source. The show’s 11 writers and eight producers — who range in age from their early 20s to mid 40s and four of whom are women — say they often check The New York Times and other newspapers to verify the facts and figures they hear on TV or read about on blogs. They also have a researcher and fact-checker, Adam Chodikoff, who makes sure any information that’s used has been verified by multiple sources.

"We work very hard to make sure that we don’t take anything out of context," King explained, "just because we like to think at the end of the day that what we’re doing is right and correct, but also because while the networks don’t respond to us all that much, people attack us and criticize us and we don’t want to give them ammunition than they need."

Daily Show producers have their sights set on my pet peeve.

Too often, King said, journalists’ political coverage — and that of media critics — ends up being sanitized and nothing but a perfunctory he said/she said exchange. "If you were going to talk about whether the earth is flat, and 99 percent of scientists are saying it’s round, and 1 percent are saying it’s flat, you wouldn’t bring on the 1 percent guy," he said. "That viewpoint is factually inaccurate and they shouldn’t bring him on just to give the illusion of balance."

When both sides are represented, writer Elliott Kalan said, there needs to be more fact-checking and deeper questioning: "A senator or governor will be on the news and will say something completely biased, and newscasters won’t call them on it. They should be checking these people. Instead they don’t want to alienate them and they let them say whatever they want."

He argued that the news media — and political commentators — need to look more critically at both sides of an issue, and spend more time breaking down complicated talking points for news consumers. Too often, Kalan said, journalists adhere to neutrality to the point where it paralyzes their ability to ask tough questions and undermines the power of objective, informed opinion.

Stewart is Indispensible

The main man of mainstream media, Brian Williams, claims that Jon Stewart has changed MSM.

The old arc of a news story went like this: News happens. Media cover news. Audience reacts, then turns in for the night. For the past several years, however, there’s been another step added to the end of the process: being held to account for our faults by a comedy show with a sharp eye and a sharp tongue. How did we live without it?

His latest – an interview with Lou Dobbs – was wonderful, especially if you watch the entire interview, only a portion of which appeared on TV.  Stewart is not only funny.  He is smart and articulate.  Dobbs can’t keep up.  I doubt few media mavens could.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Lou Dobbs Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Who Decides Opt-Out?

With the Senate bill now up for discussion, one focus will be on how the public option is implemented.  The Senate allows states to “opt-out.”  Who’s the “state”? 

Can a governor unilaterally opt-out?  Must it be by a vote of the legislature?  Is there a gubernatorial veto possibility?  Must there be a referendum?

Maybe it’s in the 2,000+ page bill.  But as I’m probably the only person on the planet who hasn’t read it in its entirety, I wonder if someone could please inform me, because they press sure hasn’t.

Journalists Addicted to Polls

Joe Klein makes a good point about polls on issues:  They are useless. But for the press, they are heroin.

This is one of my biggest gripes with journalism as it is practiced, particularly on cable news: Polling numbers are "facts." They can be cited with absolute authority, sort of. And so they are given credence beyond all proportion to their actual importance or relevance. But they are not very truthy facts. The are imperfect impressions. They don’t tell us how many people actually know what’s in the House bill. They don’t tell us what the public thinks a plausible alternative strategy might be in Afghanistan. They are what journalists hang on to instead of actually reporting and thinking. And they are–for me, too–addictive.

Klein seems to target cable news, but have you noticed that just about every poll The Washington Post conducts it touts on its front page? 

I think it’s also true that even when ascertaining opinion on politicians, polls can be misleading.  If a pollster asked me if I was happy with the job Obama is doing, I’d answer “no.”  Does that mean, I’m ready to vote for the next GOPer on the ballot?  Not unless they can resurrect Clifford Case form the dead.

Where is Obama’s Larger Message?

Newsweek’s Joe Klein reminds us how memories get muddled.  Ronald Reagan, the man conservatives love to love, in fact recognized that his early tax cuts were a mistake and that he actually raised taxes two years after being elected.

[S]ince deficits do matter — and since Reagan’s so-called supply-side cuts blasted an enormous hole in the budget — the President had to come back in 1982 with the largest peacetime tax increase in American history: the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raised $37.5 billion, or 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), per year. He also signed a $3.3 billion gasoline-tax increase. The next year, he signed another whopping tax hike, designed to save Social Security.

But still the Reagan deficits got out of hand and Presidents Bush I and Clinton raised taxes, and as Klein put it, “Somehow the economy not only survived, it prospered.”

I thought about this after reading Tom Friedman’s Friday column in the New York Times.  He argues that President Obama has lacked an overall theme to his change agenda.

He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected.

Without it, though, the president’s eloquence, his unique ability to inspire people to get out of their seats and work for him, has been muted or lost in a thicket of technocratic details. His daring but discrete policies are starting to feel like a work plan that we have to slog through, and endlessly compromise over, just to finish for finishing’s sake — not because they are all building blocks of a great national project.

What is that project? What is that narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America.

“Nation building” is not a winning phrase for the president, in my opinion.  It makes us sound like a third-world country (even if we are becoming one). 

But he does need a larger message.  My guess is it’s not that he can’t outline one; he’s afraid to articulate it.  We have not raised federal taxes in this country since 1993.  That alone is not a reason to.  But since then we have skewed the tax system so badly that not only have income disparities grown, but we are losing ground – in healthcare, education, infrastructure.

As I grew up in the 50s and 60s, life was pretty good in this country.  Most folks felt a better life was around the corner.  Not anymore.  We are not necessarily the greatest land of opportunity.

Actually, some other advanced economies offer more opportunity than ours does. For example, recent research shows that in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom, children born into a lower-income family have a greater chance than those in the United States of forming a substantially higher-income family by the time they’re adults.

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

…As a result of economic growth, each generation can usually count on having a higher income, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the previous one. For example, men born in the 1960s were earning more in the 1990s than their fathers’ generation did at a similar age, and their families’ incomes were higher as well. But that kind of steady progress appears to have stalled. Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.

The main reason today’s families have modestly higher overall income than prior generations is simple: More members of the household are working. Women have joined the labor force in a big way, and their earnings have increased as well. But with so many families now having two earners, continued progress along this path will be difficult unless wages for both men and women rise more quickly.

My mother didn’t work when I was growing up,  Neither did most of the women in our middle class neighborhood.

We will never go back to those good ol’ days.  But Joe Klein argues, we needn’t go that far back to the future.

An antitax fetishism has overwhelmed both parties. Along the way, despite the melodramatic rhetoric, the actual rate of federal taxation has wobbled a bit, from a high of 20.9% of GDP in 2000 to a recession-driven low of 17.7% last year, but averages out to just under 19% from 1980 to today. If the not-so-onerous Clinton tax rates are restored when the economy recovers, the federal Treasury would be enriched by nearly $300 billion per year.

Why does this matter now? Because we are in the midst of a debate over how to fund a health-care-reform plan — and the idea of raising taxes, even just a little bit, to pay for it is causing heart failure among our legislators. They are looking for somewhere between $30 billion and $35 billion per year. If the bill isn’t properly funded — if working-class families don’t receive large enough tax credits to help pay for their newly mandated health insurance, if they’re forced to pay thousands of dollars in new out-of-pocket expenses — Republicans will use "socialized" health care as a bludgeon against Democrats in 2010 and 2012.

…It is a national scandal that we’re nowhere close to having a reasonable discussion about taxes. A Reagan-size increase probably would be unwise right now, given the shaky economy. But the conversation will become unavoidable next year, when the Bush tax cuts expire. A restoration of the Clinton rates would go a long way toward paying down the Bush deficits and the assorted Bush-Obama federal bailouts and creating some breathing space if health reform costs more than expected. One hopes that Democrats, and fiscally responsible Republicans, will locate the backbone between now and then to do the right thing.

No, Obama’s big theme isn’t I’m going to raise taxes.  But in defense of higher taxes he needs to make a red,white and blue argument for fairness, something we’ve lost in the past 30 years.  Ronald Reagan made it OK to be greedy.  It seems with the populist anger against the obscenely wealthy, now is a good time to make that larger argument for justice, a fair, living wage for a fair day’s work, and a level playing field that rewards work and frugality.  Once the recession eases, we need to raise taxes not only on the super rich, but the well-to-do also, many of whom will be considered middle class ($100,000 and up). I would gladly pay them if I thought we’d have true healthcare reform, better transportation systems and a vibrant middle class, which is what makes this country great.

It is the common good argument, one that Obama hesitates to make, being perhaps afraid of the rich white men on Fox News
and on talk radio.  He’s begun to fight back against right-wing extremists.  Now he needs to make the case to the rest of us.

‘We Wanted a Do-Nothing President’

Here’s a letter from a Newsweek reader on the week’s previous Anna Quindlen column about Obama’s change challenge.

Anna Quindlen asserts that, to help move the president’s liberal agenda along, Americans "should start acting more like the voters who elected him." I suspect it’s a mistake to equate the reasons many independents voted for President Obama—his youth, his family, his freshness after eight years of GOP governance—with strong support for his policies.
Calvin l. White Ooltewah, Tenn.

Mr. White seems to be saying, “Yeah, we elected him but we didn’t really want him to do anything.”

If This is What J-Students Learn…We’re Doomed

It’s not longer the five W’s – who, what, when, where and why – but the three C’s – celebrity, currency and conflict – that they teach in journalism school, according to a writer of a letter to The Washington Post Saturday.

The writer comes to the right conclusion regarding the Foreign Service officer who resigned due to his objections to the Afghan war.  But the student’s reason is that the story doesn’t have currency.

What is disturbing is the lesson he’s learning in journalism school — that to be a story, there must be celebrity, currency and conflict. 

That’s precisely what’s wrong with journalism.  Celebrity only counts if you’re working for People magazine or MTV.  Currency is probably fair; after all we’re not writing history in the morning paper, except maybe the first draft.

But the focus on conflict is what is taking journalism down.  Newspapers are dying for several reason.  But journalists can’t blame it all on the internet.  Unfortunately, they are taking their cues from the internet, especially rabid partisan bloggers and cable shoutfests.  By doing so, they are leaving readers without the information they need to make informed decisions.  False conflict, i.e., death panels and whether we go all one way or the other in Afghanistan, is crowding out information readers want.   That is one of the reasons they’re losing readers; they’re not any different from what people can get online.

Fortunately, that’s not always the case, but if they’re teaching the three C’s in J-schools, it will only get worse.