Sunday, March 22, 2009

The R Word

Not unlike Jed Bartlett's on air gaffe about the intelligence of governor Richie, Obama's offensive remark the other night just seems a little too perfect.  It rings of Josh Lyman, i.e. Rahm Emanuel.    

In a moment of "unscripted" banter, President Obama commented that he bowls like the special Olympics.  Now, as someone who has closely followed Barack Obama for almost three years now, the content of the quote itself does not cause suspicion.  He has, on occasion, been insensitive.  It's human.  What is surprising though, is the piss poor grammar.  "I play like the special olympics" is not only awkward phrasing, but doesn't make sense.  I play like I am in the special olympics seems much more on spot for such an articulate and eloquent person.  

Now, that gaffe does a number of nice things for the president as well.  It assures that the Leno interview is watched by tons of people, as it is played online.  It takes a fairly innocuous outing and turns it into a week to two week story.  It also, and this rings of Michelle, calls attention to a racially driven cause.

It just so happens to neatly correspond with the new R-word campaign run by the same people who run  the special olympics.  They are taking on language itself, a very Obama thing to do, to "change the conversation" about mental handicaps.  

And, finally, although a tad conspiracy theorestic in nature, the organization responsible for the r-word campaign is JPKF, or the Joseph P Kennedy Jr Foundation. A foundation, which is presided over by Barack's good friend Sen. Edward Kennedy and a Mr. Steven M. Eidelman, a good friend of Vice President Joseph Biden's from undergrad.  

Fun, huh?    

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marxist's Critique on CNN

Slow, subtle, and not particularly articulate, still....

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A friend of mine, a senior leader in a pharmaceutical company, spends all her spare time doing yoga, taking classes in comparative religions, reading about spirituality, speaking with others about their beliefs. Just talking about it energizes her.

Which is not how she feels about her day job.

"Why don't you leave your job and do something with this full time?" I asked her.

"I've thought about it. But I could never make the kind of money I make now."

She might be right. But the question isn't whether she could make as much money. Even if she stays in her job she's unlikely to do that in this economy.

The question is far broader and more interesting. What would her life look like -- in every dimension she values -- if she decided to pursue her passion full time?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Complexity is not a Vice: A History and Future of Campaign '08

"So, at 11 o'clock am on Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults." John Stewart, The Daily Show.

On March 18th, 2008, Barack Obama stood before a small audience at the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and delivered arguably the biggest and most important speech of the presidential campaign. Responding to the controversy surrounding his former pastor's, Jeremiah Wright, racially divisive remarks, Obama chose to make the moment not specifically about Rev. Wright, but about the politics of race in general [Full text of speech].

Obama began, as many of his speeches do, with a relevant, brief history of America, in this case a history surrounding "the nation's original sin of slavery." He then, in his professor voice/persona, walked American through a history of race, contextualizing the civil war, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement in his own campaign. He then began to bluntly articulate and identify "black anger" and "white resentment." By doing so, he sought to air the troubles of a nation divided, in the hope of finally healing them. He ended his speech with a simple plea, one that became an enduring mantra that will forever be associated with his name:

"For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time."
The last lines of his speech were dedicated to a small, subtle anecdote with powerfully simple implications. That anecdote asks the listener to do something almost no other politician in the entire 20th century asked. The anecdote tied together racial tension with racial union, and asked the audience to allow that paradigm to remain unresolved, to hold those two concepts apart and discrete. He asked us, not only to open ourselves to his otherness in that instant, an otherness that exists in an eternal dialogue within himself, but also to all otherness.

Yet, this was utterly and completely missed by a 24 hour news media supposedly dedicated to providing the public with news.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Should the mainstream media do something more than they did here? How could they have completely and utterly missed the point? And, perhaps most importantly, how can it change?

Before change can be proposed, the problem must be diagnosed. And, in that sense, the first real question to ask is this - is there something wrong at all? In order to really have a handle on that question, the first thing to do is identify what should be, what is an idealized form of media, and how should it have reported Obama's speech?

One place to begin is with a 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville traveled to America in the mid 19th century and brought back to Europe a number of ideas that he wrote down in his expose on American Life: De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America). Mikahl Bahktin, a Russian literary theorist, once said "it is only in the eyes of another culture that a foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly." In Tocqueville's case, such a statement barely manages to capture the depth of Tocqueville's elegant insight.

His diagnoses of 19th century American media is predicated on a certain assumption, a foundational tenant of democratic theory. He believes that an informed public is best for democracy. That a newspaper, then, has the responsibility to persuade and inform the public so that they form together and pursue "common activity." Tocqueville believes that newspapers, and by extension I mean to suggest all forms of news whether in print, on television, or on the internet, have a civic obligation to inform the public.

Translating Tocqueville into modern discourse, John Stewart appeared on Crossfire to advocate that same value of civic responsibility.

Stewart and Tocqueville both seem to claim that a news organization has a civic responsibility to inform the public, to "help us out." Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel take this idea even further in their book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. They lay out nine general points, which they believe are key functions of news media.

"Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

Its first loyalty is to citizens.

Its essence is a discipline of verification.

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience."

Wielding these nine can be cumbersome, luckily two common themes run through this list: Advocacy and Transparency. Kovach and Rosentiel, along with Stewart, Tocqueville, and a number of others (see Jan Leighley's Mass Media and Politics: A Social Science Perspective ) define the obligation that news media has toward the public in those two general ways.

Advocacy is a general word combining the concepts of "loyalty to citizens [...] provide a forum for public criticism and compromise [...] comprehensive and proportional, [etc.]" This basically gets back to Tocqueville's idea of an informed public. News media should advocate for the public in ways singular, isolated individuals cannot. It is the true fourth estate in this sense, an organization tasked with the obligation to advocate, and by advocating informing the citizenry so that the citizenry can make the proper decisions.

The second goal, transparency, is a main aspect of advocate journalism, in Leighley's word "the public advocate model," kind of a figurative tactic if your overall strategy is one of advocation, so to speak. To make transparent, to clear up, to open doors, pursue truth, to unopaque: these are the tools with which journalist can expose government and politics to public scrutiny. A prime example of this form of media is Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All The President's Men, their heroic investigatory journalism that scrubbed the windows of Nixon's White House clean for all to peer in.

So, if the ideal is the above, what is the current state of news media? Well, in's report, aptly titled, "The State of the News Media 2008", we can begin to see some disturbing trends. Trends that, followed to their logical extensions, make news media, mainstream news media to be exact, less like Woodward and Bernstein and more like Network.

Among the newer trends like blogging (which will appear later) and things of that nature, one trend that stands out is the claim that:
"The agenda of the American news media continues to narrow, not broaden. A firm grip on this is difficult but the trends seem inescapable. A comprehensive audit of coverage shows that in 2007, two overriding stories — the war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential campaign — filled more than a quarter of the newshole and seemed to consume much of the media’s energy and resources. And what wasn’t covered was in many ways as notable as what was. Other than Iraq — and to a lesser degree Pakistan and Iran — there was minimal coverage of events overseas, some of which directly involved U.S. interests, blood and treasure. At the same time, consider the list of the domestic issues that each filled less than a single percent of the newshole: education, race, religion, transportation, the legal system, housing, drug trafficking, gun control, welfare, Social Security, aging, labor, abortion and more. A related trait is a tendency to move on from stories quickly. On breaking news events — the Virginia Tech massacre or the Minneapolis bridge collapse were among the biggest — the media flooded the zone but then quickly dropped underlying story lines about school safety and infrastructure. And newer media seem to have an even narrower peripheral vision than older media. Cable news, talk radio (and also blogs) tend to seize on top stories (often polarizing ones) and amplify them. The Internet offers the promise of aggregating ever more sources, but its value still depends on what those originating sources are providing. Even as the media world has fragmented into more outlets and options, reporting resources have shrunk."

This a particularly scary thing once you begin to realize the extent to which the mainstream media has conglamorized. The picture below barely demonstrates the extent to which mainstream media suffers from a pack mentality, fraught with Jonny-come-lately reporting.

Kovach and Rosentiel focus on another aspect of this overall issue, cutting even further to the heart of the problem.
"The public, in turn, increasingly distrusted journalists, even hated them. And it would only get worse. By 1999, just 21% of Americans would think the press cared about people, down from 41% in 1985.7 Only 58% would respect the press's watchdog role, a drop from 67% in 1985. Less than half, just 45%, would think the press protected democracy. That percentage had been nearly ten points higher in 1985.8

What was different that day in Cambridge was that many of the journalists in the room -- and around the country -- were beginning to agree with the public. "In the newsroom we no longer talk about journalism," said Max King, then editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We are consumed with business pressure and the bottom line," agreed another editor. News was becoming entertainment and entertainment news. Journalists' bonuses were increasingly tied to the company's profit margins, not the quality of their work. Finally, Columbia University professor James Carey offered what many recalled as a summation: "The problem is that you see journalism disappearing inside the larger world of communications. What you yearn to do is recover journalism from that larger world."

Now, I'm sure that all of you old Marxist's out there are screaming, "this is it! The fundamental problem is capitalism after all." And, in that way, there is a weird sense of irony to this whole thing, since Alexis de Tocqueville was perhaps the Adam Smith of France in his belief in Laissez-faire philosophy. But Tocqueville, as well as Smith, acknowledge something greater than the almighty dollar. They argue that morality, that moral sentiments, should stem from moral obligation/religion/etc. not from capital. Whether right or wrong, it seems that many modern networks are more concerned about the "bottom line" than any form of "civic or moral obligation" to the public.

So, we have pack journalism and capitalism unchecked by external morality (I know, I'm qualifying it anyway, because I do not want to open that pandora's box) as issues distorting the quality of modern mainstream media. A final piece comes from a small, neat little book by Russell Peterson titled Strange Bedfellows: How Late Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. He makes one insightful observation that directly criticizes the style of mainstream media's coverage of politics. He argues that modern coverage is character based. Leads are not about processes. Leads are about who did what today. Stories are not about how this bill made it to the House floor. Stories are about how these two congressman fought with each other for hours over the bill on the floor. Character driven news, as Peterson points out, often misses the larger story, the 'brokenness of the system itself' as Stewart would say, and further, creates more distance between the audience and the politics. Instead of dealing directly with the politics, a competition or character is superimposed between the audience and the actual event.

Think about this in the context of Obama's "A More Perfect Union." Rev. Wright, and to a lesser extent Obama's white grandmother, as well as the competition of the campaign itself were all superimposed between the audience and the mechanics of the speech. The coverage, in fact, almost never dealt with the words of his speech.

And this is the good coverage. The bad is much uglier. You see, standing at the opposite end of the continuum from the Washington Post's Watergate is Foxnews' coverage of Obama's Madrassah. (It begins around the 1:51 mark)

This is, in a word, bad. It is "hurting America." If Americans are going to be able to confront the problems facing them in the 21st century, they need more than character driven, greed based, pack journalism.

It isn't all bad though. There is some hope. Hardball went through a small breakdown of the opinions of Obama's speech.

The coverage is a tad strange ("what are White men afraid of?"). But, some media organizations, whether it is the Dallas Morning News or the Philadelphia Inquirer, began to, at least, deal with the language. It brings to mind an enduring theme of a West Wing episode.

Perhaps by complicating the nature of the event itself, of the public discourse, American's can solve the problem that mainstream media posses to democracy.

In order for that to occur though, access to politics needs to change. In order to elevate the discourse, more people and more divergent opinions have to somehow enter into the national conversation. Otherness, in a sense, needs to be incorporated into the American dialogue.

Well, the first bullet in the side of mainstream media, and one that hits extremely close to the mark, is the medium which I am right now using - the internet. Aside from the stylistic advantages of the medium, like imbedded video, linking, instant feedback, and global distribution, the internet has begun to kill newspapers at their source, funding. Ad revenues for newspapers have steadily declined the past few years. This means that newspapers can no longer support large staffs, and even some can no longer afford printing. Some journalists are beginning to forecast that there will no print newspapers within the next two years.

Viral video, blogging, and online independent journalists are threatening mainstream media's position as the shaper of public discourse. Moveon's involvement with the Howard Dean 2004 campaign, the Dailykos, the NRO, Thinkprogress, Drudge, etc.: are all entities, independent of mainstream media, that now regularly define public discourse. Some of their exploits are catalogued in Dan Gilmore's We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By The People, For The People. Yet, that book was published almost five years ago, the role of the internet has since completely pervaded the field of media and politics. Think back to the above Hardball sketch, the number of youtube hits that "A More Perfect Union" did not have an insignificant place in the rhetoric surrounding the show (it now has 5,633,943 views, just in case you were wondering).

The internet, as a wide open medium, by its very features, incorporates otherness into its overall mechanics. Anyone can write, anyone can read, and anyone can post a video.

Access to the political process and to the voicing of opinions has never been greater or more egalitarian. And although there has been some recent controversy about the egalitarian nature of the internet, for now it appears that this medium has never been more affordable. A new report by the PEW center details this exchange.

Alternative television shows too, like the aforementioned Daily Show, and its kid brother The Colbert report, are shown to have viewers who can demonstrate a greater amount of knowledge of current political issues than other news stations. The funny bullet, if you will, as Peterson implies, directly undercuts and subverts mainstream media, portraying it as a part of the broken system of American politics ("you are...ugh...Partisan hacks").
But both internet and alternative television means nothing in the scheme of things. We all know what the biggest problem is. We all know how the mainstream media can continue to pull a veil of ignorance over our eyes. We all know the reason. There are two vital aspects of access. One, we have accounted for, the medium. Those are there, media is in place and available.

The second one is even more important. It is, in a sense, the silver bullet. Education. One needs to know how to speak before using the methods of communication now so open before him or her. Only 68.6% of high school students graduated the year I did, in 2006. And that's just the national average. Alaska's is almost below 50%. And to participate in complex public discourse one needs at least a college degree, and that rate is even lower. Of course, too, anecdotally, I know people who cheat their way through Ivies and don't learn the necessary information that allows them to participate in the public discourse. Going back to John Stewart's quote at the beginning of the blogessay, most of American's are not adults, in the educational sense.

When we talk about access, when we talk about politics, the conversation really has to begin and end with education. The first article we looked at this year, initiated a discussion about the effect of education on media bias. The final conversation we had, which centered around the egalitarian nature of the internet, included a conversation about education.

Aside from the fact that education, reading, and curiosity open people to otherness. An educated public, a public with the tools it needs, is a public so powerful that mainstream media would no longer be able to get away with any of these shenanigans. In “The Consequences of Political Knowledge and Ignorance,” Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter say this outright. What Americans know about politics matters.

Yet, there are still major problems. Even online, cloistered communities form. Xenophobia still drives American discourse perhaps even more than self interest. Talk radio, mainstream media, and other poor and imperfect mediums still shape the American conversation.

On January 20th, 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. Before he is sworn in, a popular pastor from the conservative Californian county of Orange County will lead the nation in prayer. Rich Warren's presence at the inauguration has already caused significant controversy. And in the post election media depression, developments in his story has been close to the top of the reporting wires.

Here's just a brief summary of these recent events:

This is "A More Perfect Union" on a larger, one might even say, Presidential scale. By opening the inauguration to otherness, by forcing mainstream media to cover a dialogue, by forcing conversation (even if mediated) between liberals and conservatives, pastors and gays, Obama has complicated the American narrative. This is an education for all sides of American values. This is an elevation of the American discourse.

Notice how the Fox News interviewer asked his pundit "what would you say to them [gay groups angered by the choice] today?" Notice that Rachel Maddow begs Rich Warren to keep talking because "you are making the job of making the case against you so much easier." This is what Maddow misses though. For President Barack Obama this is not a "stumble," this is an airing of religious baggage in line with the aforementioned West Wing's approach to trade with China.

Close to half, if not more than half, of American's believe what Rick Warren believes, if Prop 8 is any indication. Those people do not see themselves as bigots or as intolerant. This public airing is the beginning of dialogue that will hopefully sensitize America to different sides of the opinion, while simultaneously opening up those who have never encountered otherness before. Exposure, not isolation, is the mechanic of American democracy.

As Mark Twain says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." In a strong sense, this is the travel he is referencing, from the O.C. to D.C., from the Chattahoochee River to the Hudson River, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the bridge to no where. The above is exactly how the media should behave, according to the likes of Tocqueville and Stewart. Here is a spirited debate about one of the landmark issues of our time. This is exactly the sort of response the Media should have.

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