A radical suggestion for the presidential debate…

Please keep in mind that the purpose of the debate is not supposed to be to make the moderators look clever, or to promote anyone’s candidacy, or to stir up the “horserace” aspect of the campaign that so obsesses political junkies.  It’s supposed to be about informing the voters as to what their choices are.

You don’t facilitate that by getting the leading candidates to regurgitate whatever has already been reported about them ad nauseum or to pick petty fights with each other over subtleties and minutiae; you do facilitate that by actually giving the other candidates a voice.

I have a suggestion: Perhaps your moderators for the upcoming debate could actually direct more of their questions toward the lesser-known candidates!

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Undecided Voter (again)

If I was standing in the voting booth at 9 pm on election day holding up the counting, they would have a good reason to complain and I would deserve their scorn. But complaining now, in the middle of the evening rush, that I haven’t yet bothered to place my order is just childish petulance. Hey, you in the media! I don’t really care how tired you are. It’s not time to go home yet!

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Bias in reporting about the Tea Party?

Thank you so much for putting this all in “perspective”! What did we learn from this, even before any actual issues were discussed?

  1. If you want to find the “Tea Party”, you go to the “Bible Belt”; and you do not merely go to the Bible Belt, but you look for the Moral Majority; and you do not merely look for the Moral Majority, you seek out “Jerry Falwell’s” Liberty University, the central asylum for the misogynist, evolution-denying, gay-hating, xenophobic, flat-earth Christian Right.
  2. Tea Partiers are inherently untrustworthy. They can’t even be expected to be honest about whether or not the Tea Party has leaders. Of course it has leaders: we found them, at Liberty University! Well, technically it wasn’t Liberty University but Lynchburg, VA — but that’s the same thing, right? And, since these are the “leaders” of the Tea Party (we told you so!), what they say naturally reflects what the Tea Party stands for. In its entirety.
  3. Tea Partiers all speak in funny rural accents that good, sophisticated, intellectual NPR listeners automatically associate with ignorance, racism, parochialism, and lunatic faith. They are rustic.
  4. Tea Partiers are all fundamentally ignorant people with empty heads and no curiosity, just primed to be brainwashed by the manipulations of the right-wing media machine.
  5. Tea Partiers learned everything they know about politics and government from FOX news. Which means the Tea Party is really directed by Glenn Beck.

So, of course, having already gotten all that background, we can safely, sanctimoniously, and in good conscience, ignore everything else that is said by anyone interviewed because, well, it’s all the product of ignorance and superstition….

Do you think that maybe your pre-judgement — dare we call it “bias”? — about what the Tea Party is, what it stands for, and who supports it, might have skewed your reporting on it just a bit?

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The ethics of “instant” news reporting

Instant reporting serves the business needs of news outlets — it attracts viewers — and the entertainment needs of the general public — it is titillating.

But instant reporting serves no journalistic purpose. And, therefore, journalistic purpose cannot be used as an excuse for getting the news wrong in the interest of getting it quickly.

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Structural Media Bias

…in the real world, tucking opposing views into the last paragraphs of a long story does not constitute either equal time or balance. It may be that a few news junkies have the time and luxury to read every story from beginning to end, but most people don’t. Most people read a newspaper more haphazardly…

…Most people will never get to the last paragraphs of a long story to see the “balance”. And hence, for them, such “balance” may just as well have been omitted.

I believe this is a source of much of the contention about whether particular press vehicles have “liberal” or “conservative” bias. If you analyze the full content of what appears in print, you will get a different answer to that question than if you could, somehow, assess instead the impression left with the majority of readers.

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The Supreme Court vs. The Powerless

Recently The New York Times has taken to criticizing the newly ‘conservative’ U.S. Supreme Court for rulings that respect and enforce Constitutional limits on the authority of the Congress and of regulatory agencies and of lower courts and of individual citizens to extract money and penitence from “powerful” individuals and corporations for perceived misdeeds. More often than not such criticism scarcely mentions the legal principles involved in the rulings or even the individual circumstances of the cases; rather, it invokes a misty-eyed empathy for the unfairness of the result, where “unfairness” is most often adjudged strictly in terms of whether or not the downtrodden were lifted up and/or the powerful diminished.

I wrote this to point out what should be obvious: that Supreme Court rulings are supposed to turn on points of law not on the degree of sympathy for or animus against particular litigants.

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15-year-old “women without husbands”: reporting on statistical analyses

Although I agree wholeheartedly that there is a general ignorance among both reporters and editors (and, by the way, among lawyers, and politicians, and “activists”, and a lot of humanities professors, and even some social scientists, and ecologists, and economists, and physicians) about those subjects, and that much better vetting of such stories is essential, the real problem goes beyond those narrow bounds.

The broader problem is that statistical and mathematical and scientific ignorance is magnified by a fundamental disconnect in language between those who generate such information and those to whom it is reported. Sometimes that disconnect is the result of simple misunderstanding. But often it is intentional – a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch used to manipulate public opinion.

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News or Business?

We seem to live in an era of instant news. Local television stations send out live satellite truck to the middle of nowhere every time a storm moves in so they can broadcast a “live report” of the fact that it is raining or snowing. Presidential candidates debate each other and five minutes later reporters and pundits are declaring a winner and moving on; by two days later everyone has moved on and no one is reflecting on what was said in the cold light of day. Plane crashes and car chases are broadcast in real-time. Every Presidential speech or scandal investigation or policy announcement is speculated upon and judged so much before it happens that the actual event is almost an anticlimax. Every natural or man-made disaster in the world is followed within minutes by reporters taking to the airwaves and into print reporting whatever rumor or misinterpretation emerges from the chaos, most of which must be corrected later because it is so inaccurate as to constitute misinformation. And to what end?

I, for one, would rather be well-informed than instantly informed. Should that not be the real goal of journalism?

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The “Arrogant” Press

…You cited people writing about gun control who know nothing about guns, and mentioned a need to find more “red state evangelicals” for the newsroom. But it goes well beyond that. As a former military officer (many years ago), I cringed every time I saw a Pentagon press conference during the wars in Iraq: It was clear that almost all the reporters not only knew nothing about military operations but were also incapable of — and to all appearances had no interest in — understanding strategic or tactical or operational security considerations; and it was also clear they had no respect for those of whom they were asking questions. I see the same thing often in business reporting (or any reporting having to do with economics), in science and technology reporting, in pretty much any reporting of anything having to do with mathematics (like reporting on the results of statistical studies in medicine and sociology), and on and on…

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Double Standard on the Right?

The perception and appreciation of analogy — of discerning the common characteristics that make two superficially dissimilar situations or events essentially similar, or the divergent characteristics that make two superficially similar situations or events essentially dissimilar — is one of the fundamental skills of human reasoning that allows us to learn from history, to avoid the mistakes of the past and to progress despite those mistakes. It has been my observation that in our modern approach to education we no longer emphasize the teaching or the learning of those skills — and that therefore those skills have atrophied in Western culture — or at least in American culture — to the point that we are in danger of losing their benefit entirely.

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