Archive for January, 2011

The Times Narrative

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Over time humans build up internal narratives that help explain the world and keep things in order. When observed events are consistent with these notions, our narratives are confirmed. Other events are dismissed or ignored. This is even a problem with supposedly objective scientists. Experimental results consistent with our previous notions are accepted with little thought, while results that are inconsistent with currently held theories are given additional scrutiny. This scrutiny is in direct proportion to the difference between new results and what was expected.

This resiliency of ideas and world view serves us well. Without it our lives would be all sail and no rudder. However, to this intellectual underpinning we need to bring an openness to new evidence. This is especially true in journalism. Journalists are not only constantly called upon to provide the facts about a story, but to decide what stories are important, and perhaps speak to larger truths. A news organization might always print facts, but a slanted selection of stories provides a distorted view of the world.

On the pages here, we have noted how columnist Paul Krugman leaped blindly to the conclusion that the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was caused by harsh political criticisms of Conservatives. It turns out that the shooter was delusional and of confused political opinions at best. Krugman has a world view and the shooting of Giffords so resonated with his notions, that he felt he could fill in the relevant information without bothering to wait for the details to emerge. The facts that surfaced were inconsistent with Krugman’s world view.

One can partially excuse the rash writing of a columnist. After all, they are paid to be opinionated. Why, as scientists would say, let data get in the way of good theory.

However according to William McGowan, in Gray Lady Down: The Decline and Fall of the New York Times, the Times has succumbed to the temptation to let internal narratives shape the news. McGowan is not a reflexive Times hater, gleefully jumping on the paper as its circulation plummets. The Times has been liberal for decades, but for many years this liberalism did not taint its news coverage.

Former executive editor Abe Rosenthal recognized that New York is Liberal and so are many who write for the Times. To keep the news straight he sometimes had to tack a little Right. The result was balance in the news side of the paper.

Indeed, even while the editorial page was distinctly Left and while the infamous Vice-President Spiro Agnew was railing against the press, and the Times was endorsing Senator George McGovern for President, the National Review, the quintessentially Conservative magazine, found the Times news coverage fair. They conducted an audit of stories that had a “distinct left-right line,” and concluded that:

“The Times news administration was so even handed that it must have been dismaying to the Liberal opposition… Were the news standards of the Times more broadly emulated, the nation would be far better informed and more honorably served.’’

Rosenthal was given broad authority to run the Times by publisher Arthur Sulzberger until Sulzberger’s passed on publishing responsibilities to his son Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. The younger Sulzberger is a sixties-era Liberal who has overseen the journalistic and economic decline of of the Times. He has systematically changed the Times from the national newspaper of record, to the party organ of the Left wing of the Democratic Party.

In Gray Lady Down, McGowan documents this decline, beginning with the excessive political correctness in news room hiring and followed by the collapse of journalistic standards. Sulzberger has been embarrassed by stories revealed as fraudulent, but he seems oblivious to the relationship between the reduction journalistic standards, in general, to the all too frequent sensational journalist failures.

Perhaps the clearest example of systematic and persistent narratives driving the Times to embarrassing behavior was the case of the Duke Lacrosse Team. A young black woman accused some members of the Duke Lacrosse Team of rape. It did not take too long before the woman’s story began to fall apart, but the story resonated so well with the Times’ internal narrative that it could not cover the story straight. As McGowan explained, in their coverage, “the Times’ script reflected a pattern of white supremacy deeply embedded in American culture…’’

Responsible press coverage would not have jumped to a single point of view and would have calmed the waters with careful fact-based dispassionate posts. Instead, it inflamed the situation both in news coverage and editorial comment. Ultimately, without help from the Times, the accused individuals were declared innocent and the prosecutor was sent to jail for of prosecutorial misconduct. A vigilant Times would have led the country toward the truth. Instead, their coverage dragged its feet, unwilling to give up its preferred narrative of Southern white racism by the privileged.

The Times will probably not collapse financially despite its current precarious position. It has too much momentum and respect garnered in earlier decades. In addition, there are probably too many liberals in New York whose internal narratives resonate with that of the Times for circulation to collapse entirely. However, until there is a new publisher and a return to journalistic standards of the Times under Rosenthal, the paper’s influence will wane into loud and embarrassing irrelevance.

Krugman Deconstruction

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

We can mark the specific time when the political controversy surrounding the “Tragedy in Tucson’’ began. Just a couple of hours after the news broke, Dr. Paul Krugman posted a blog blaming the attack in Tucson on a “climate of hate” presumably perpetrated by the Right.

Krugman’s accusations were soon undermined by the facts, though Krugman’s own grandiosity makes him incapable of conceding an error. The alleged perpetrator, Jared Loughner, apparently suffers from severe mental disturbances. There is no political connection to any group. Loughner is profoundly delusional. The cause of his actions arise entirely from his intensely disturbed mind.

Charles Krauthammer recently wrote the definitive piece describing the Left’s predisposition to leap to accusation with little proof and with less thought, especially when Conservatives are a convenient target. Nonetheless, if only out of intellectual curiosity, it is of some interest to deconstruct further Krugman’s instant analysis.

Krugman concedes that there are extreme and intemperate voices on all sides of the political spectrum, but “Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the [R]ight.’’

From the standpoint of argumentative effectiveness, we would expect the clever Krugman to offer the clearest and most persuasive example of a prominent Conservative or a Republican inciting violence. This is what Krugman managed to conjure up: “It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be `armed and dangerous’ without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.’’

Perhaps, Krugman was ill-informed, but his example is terribly weak. It turns out that if one looks at the entire quote and not the three words carefully excised by Krugman, Bachman wanted her constituents to be armed with information with which to make their cases. —Oops. And this was presumably the sharpest arrow in Krugman’s rhetorical quiver. Is that too martial a metaphor?

Much more subtly, Krugman speaks of those on the Right of using “eliminationist’’ rhetoric to de-legitimize political opposition. The word “eliminationist’’ is not a common term and its use by Krugman is curious and revealing. The term was coined in 1996 by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, referring to deep-seated anti-Semistism of pre-War Germany and its exploitation by Nazi propaganda to make the German people accomplices to the Holocaust. Later is was used by David Neiwert in his book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right to draw a connection between Nazis and the American RIght.

Krugman borrows this association of the Right in the US with Nazi behavior by the deliberate use of the term “eliminationist.’’ It is is a skillful way of demonizing and de-legitimizing his political adversaries, precisely the same acts of bad faith he accuses the Right of. Perhaps this is rank hypocrisy or perhaps something more.

With the tragic events of the last week, we are all becoming more familiar with psychological terminology than we care to be. I am sure that Krugman is a fine fellow who appreciates beauty, basks in the aroma of flowers, and enjoys the sound of children at play and the softness of puppies. However, his impromptu blog last week probably says more about Krugman than it did about the situation in Tucson. When speaking of the Right, Krugman’s political mania is touched, and he reverts to the mechanism of “projection.’’

Paul Ryan: No Rubber Stamp Debt Ceiling Increase

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Many or even most Congressmen are conscientious after a fashion. However, the most important skill set for re-election is not wonky immersion in policy details, but the ability to walk into a crowded room and create an immediate rapport with constituents. While some politicians nurture core beliefs or at least dispositions, they often rely on aides and especially a few fellow Congressmen who have the aptitude and the seriousness to study policies in detail. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), now Chair of the House Budget Committee, is one of the followed Congressmen.

This afternoon, Paul Gigot, Chief of the Editorial Board of the the Wall Street Journal interviewed Congressman Ryan at the National Press Club in a forum sponsored by and the Manhattan Institute

The reader can obtain their own impression of the exchange by viewing the interview on C-SPAN. However, it was clear that Representative Ryan believes that substantive budget discipline can only be obtained if President Obama compromises. This is in not likely to happen. Hence, much of the work of this Congress will be to set the stage for Americans to make a choice in 2012.

The first real test between the President and Congress will occur when the debt ceiling has to be increased this spring. While it is clear that no one wants the US to default on its debt, Ryan says that Congress will not be a “rubber stamp.’’ There will not be a naked debt ceiling increase bill. Any bill that increases the debt ceiling will include as many spending concessions as Congress is able to negotiate

Gigot reminded Ryan of the fact the government shuthown in 1995 backfired on the Republican Congress and in large measure guaranteed the election of President Bill Clinto. Doesn’t this mean that Congress is likely to blink in any budget showdown. Perhaps the one bit of news this afternoon, is that Ryan suggested that Congress willl pass a debt ceiling increase bill with budget cuts and try to arrange it so that President Obama will either have to sign the ceiling increase or he will shut down the government. Unlike 1995, Ryan believes people understand that budget discipline is needed now to forestall greater austerity in the future as the Baby Boob generation retires.

If experience ins any lesson, Ryan and Congress will not be able to phrase the budget question to their benefit. The press will be happy to make it appear that it is Congress that is holding the government hostage. The best the Republican Congress can hope for is to make it clear that Obama refuses to cut the budget.

Keep Your Hands Off My Social Security

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions. — Thomas Jefferson, 1785.

Last year during the protests by the Tea Party, some on the Left smugly mocked the protesters who wanted the government to keep their hands off their social security. At face value, this appeared to be hypocrisy or stupidity. On one hand, one of the key themes of the Tea Party is limited government. On the other hand, some Tea Party followers wanted to make sure that the government program they benefited from was unaffected by any new government action.

However, the confusion of some of these protesters can be traced to the fact that they have bought into the government’s myth of Social Security. It is not portrayed as an income transfer program paid for by taxes, but rather as a social insurance program into which people invest, much like any retirement program. Many social security recipients are convinced they are just getting out what they put in. Hence, they believe they own the same proprietary interest another person might have in their 401(k) investment. The Roosevelt Administration and successive administrations have deliberately cultivated this view of Social Security so that people would not feel that it was an income redistribution program which might loose popularity. The government wanted Social Security recipients to feel an entitlement to the payments rather than the an embarrassment about being beneficiary of welfare program.

While the Franklin Roosevelt Administration described Social Security one way in public, they were forced to argue something else entirely in court. The Federal Government does not have the Constitutional authority to institute a mandatory social insurance program, so they argued that payments into the social security system were really taxes. Even so, it was not clear that the Federal Government had the authority for this tax. In Helvering v. Davis an intimidated Supreme Court acquiesced to this large increase in Federal power.

At present, there is a similar misrepresentation about the nature of the medical reform package passed last year. During the 2008, presidential campaign, then Senator Barack Obama made a “firm pledge” to not raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 per year.

The final medical reform legislation included an “individual mandate’’ compelling people to pay for some form of health insurance. In an seminal interview George Stephanopoulos challenged President Obama on whether this mandate constituted, in effect, a tax increase on those at all income levels, including those making less than $250,000. Here is the exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it’s still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That’s not true, George. The — for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase…

Recently, there have been a number of suits challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate. The Administration has now argued in court that the mandate is essentially an exercise of Congress’s power to tax.

If a policy requires one public face and a contradictory legal argument to buttress it in court, even if wise, such a policy serves to undermine trust in government and weaken the moral authority important for the implementation of that policy.