Category Archives: Politics

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

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How the Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact can make ALL political coverage better

Today’s 2010 Knight-Batten Symposium gave me visions of political debates and speeches transformed from exercises in sound-bitery and emotion into civic lessons and conversations.

It gave me visions of political news stories that provide context not just about the issue at hand, but also context about the people at hand.

(Also, it gave me the vapors. But mostly just visions.)

Here’s one vision:

On TV, political debates display a fact-check tally for each candidate (how many true, truthy, lying-liar, etc. statements each candidate has made). Fact-check details about a particular statement are displayed as soon as they’re available.

No more useless meters showing allegedly uncommitted voters’ emotional reactions:

Instead, imagine if the debate screen looked like this (well, imagine a non-crappy-mockup version that looked vaguely like this):

Here’s another vision:

Online, any streamed speech, debate, or hearing displays a combination of fact-checking material, aggregated contextual material, real-time commentary and public reaction. Any story or video that mentions politicians displays some combination of:

  • Fact-checking details for that person’s recent statements (any of their statements and/or recent statements related to the story being viewed)
  • Campaign contributions to that person from individuals/organizations related to the story’s subject.
  • The candidate’s biggest contributors (individuals/organizations and industries).
  • Lobbying information for the person and/or their staffers
  • If in office, recent votes the person has taken related to the story’s subject.
  • Biographical information about the person.

Now here’s the great thing about these visions: The Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact have pretty much already fulfilled them!

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The Cameron Todd Willingham case: a Moneyball moment for forensics

Anyone with a passing interest in capital punishment or notions of justice should tune in to the saga of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man convicted in 1992 of murdering his three daughters by arson and executed in 2004. The New Yorker’s David Grann renewed attention to the case in September with a powerful, stomach-churning story detailing the flaws in the arson investigators’ evidence that led to the execution of a man who may have been innocent. (The Chicago Tribune was on the case first, in 2004.)

Grann reported that a Texas commision investigating allegations of forensic misconduct is nearing completion of one of its first case reviews — on Willingham. But at the end of September, Texas Gov. Rick Perry replaced three commission members, including the chairman, who says Perry’s lawyers had pressured him about the case. The new chairman then canceled a hearing that would have included testimony from a fire scientist whose report for the commission concluded, according to Grann, “that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory … relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.”

Perry has already played a major role in the case. He was governor in 2004, when another fire expert concluded the arson evidence used against Willingham was “junk science.” Perry and the state board that reviews clemency applications both apparently ignored that expert’s last-minute report, and Willingham was executed. On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle and parent company Hearst Newspapers sued Perry “to force the release of a clemency report Perry received before denying a stay of execution” to Willingham.

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The continuing awfulness of John Edwards

Hey, remember when John Edwards was running for president, and his wife’s cancer returned? And then he was caught having had an affair, and he lied about not having an affair? But then he had to admit that he did have an affair, but he denied that the child of the woman he had an affair with was his, but nobody believed him because he’s a liar who cheated on his wife who had cancer? And then he stopped running for president because nobody wants a president who cheats on his wife who had cancer and lies about it? Remember that? Yeah, this guy:

Mr. Edwards is moving toward an abrupt reversal in his public posture; associates said in interviews that he is considering declaring that he is the father of Ms. Hunter’s 19-month-old daughter, something that he once flatly asserted in a television interview was not possible. Friends and other associates of Mr. Edwards and his wife of 32 years, Elizabeth, say she has resisted the idea of her husband’s claiming paternity. Mrs. Edwards, who is battling cancer, “has yet to be brought around,” said one family friend.

Way to take responsibility after lying to the world, John Edwards! Especially now that nobody in America wants to ever hear your name again! Oh, also there’s this:

[P]eople who know Ms. Hunter said she was planning to move with her daughter, Frances, from New Jersey to North Carolina in coming months.

Those are going to be some fun Christmas dinners with the whole fam!

It’s not really fair to say that one case of adultery is worse than another. But in a recent Atlantic essay, Caitlin Flanagan put what Edwards did in perspective to devastating effect.

Writing about Helen Gurley Brown, Elizabeth Edwards, and infidelity, Flanagan first recounts the funeral of a teenage boy who died in a car crash — the same way the Edwardses’ son Wade died in 1996. Then she pivots to what John Edwards’s infidelity means in such a context:

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced—physically forced—to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness.

“You are so hot,” Rielle Hunter said to John Edwards 10 years after he and his wife buried their first boy, and after they had started a new family, and after they had given their all to a presidential campaign—with the personal losses and long separations that come with it—and after Elizabeth had been diagnosed with cancer and undergone a disfiguring surgery and chemotherapy and lost her hair and been handed a recalculated set of odds about her life expectancy with two very small children who needed their mother.

What a creep.

On politics and blogging

Hmm … two posts about politics in one night. I’m not usually that fired up.

Maybe it was the rape kits that pushed me over the edge. Ezra Klein explains:

Eight years ago, the Alaskan Legislature had to pass a bill that banned towns from charging rape victims for the kits used to prove the crime and capture the perpetrator. These kits cost between $300 and $1,200 a piece, and are an essential portion of the investigation. There was only one town in the state doing this: Wasilla, where Sarah Palin was mayor. This was the same town that received tens of millions of dollars in pork, and had the money to hire a high-priced lobbying firm to bring in yet more. Shame Ted Stevens couldn’t appropriate some money so rape victims weren’t hit with a $1,000 bill.

What this election is about

There are any number of reasons why someone might not want to vote for Barack Obama.

I get that. But I also agree with Andrew Sullivan about what’s at stake in this election.

We need to think about: Who best can win the war on terror? Who best can extricate us from Iraq? Who best can handle Pakistan? Who best can manage the financial meltdown? Who best will rid us of addiction to foreign oil? Who best can unite the country? Who best can tackle the enormous debt the Bush-Cheney years have landed us with? Who best can restore America’s core abhorrence of torture?

Now watch these videos.

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Ignorant political journalism in full effect

In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)

There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.

In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.

The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.