Friday, May 13, 2005

A Lesson in Media Doublespeak

Okay boys and girls, today's lesson begins with vocabulary. Here are two terms you need to be aware of and comfortable using when studying misadventures in media - factuality and equivalency. Factuality, while rooted in the word fact, has more to do with perception. A statement can have varying degrees of factuality, depending on the issue and the person stating said "fact". Remember President Clinton's grand jury testimony, "...depends what your definition of the word is is...", that's factuality. Likewise, a person can have a high or low factuality rating, depending on his or her dexterity in dealing with the issues. A complementary term is equivalency, unrelated statements made by opposing commentators at irrelevant times used to equilibrate factuality. A good rule of thumb in dealing with issues of factuality and equivalency, "when in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

Next let's try a reading comprehension problem dealing with our two new words. Daniel Okrent has until recently been the ombudsman for the NYTimes, hired after their Jayson Blair troubles to review and advise on accuracy issues. He was interviewed recently by Salon (with a nod to Two Glasses). Let's read through an excerpt of what he has to say about working at the Times:

Gail [Collins - the op-ed page editor] didn't want me commenting on the opinion pages. I was hired by the news department and, despite the rabid assertions of the Times' enemies and detractors, the two really have nothing to do with each other. But [publisher] Arthur Sulzberger decided that I should be able to comment on the editorial pages as well, so it began with Gail being understandably leery: "Who is this person who is going to pass judgment on opinions?"

Then pretty early on in the job, I began to nag a couple of the columnists and Gail about the question of factual errors, or the allegation of factual errors. When I told Gail I was going to write about it, I said, "I want a statement: What's the policy? Why don't you have a policy?" And then she gave me a policy and I quoted from the policy in my column and I ran it in its entirety in my Web journal.

It's a very complicated issue about when is a fact not a fact in the context of opinions. I'll illustrate it: William Safire continued to refer to an al-Qaida's leader's connection to Saddam Hussein. The various government reports said there was no connection. Safire kept writing that there was a connection. Many people challenged him on it. I went to him on it. He said, "I know there's a connection."

Well, who is to say? Just because this report said so doesn't mean that there isn't a connection. He was relying on his sources. Many people thought I was a total wimp for not challenging him and insisting that there be a correction. But if you turn it around, and put it in the context of a Paul Krugman column, when Krugman makes an assertion that he knows to be the case, then in that case the Safire critic would probably defend Krugman. So when is this being motivated by ideology and when is it really being motivated by a quest for accuracy? Those are two different things and so you have to be really careful.

So using what we have learned, William Safire's belief there is a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam has a factuality of say 0, because it has been proven repeatedly to be untrue. Safire himself however must have a very high factuality rating, because even though what he claims as truth has been proven factually errant, he is given the benefit of doubt. Paul Krugman, on the other hand, has a low factuality rating, because Okrent questions his believability despite a lack of evidence on which to base questioning Krugman's accuracy. A blatant Safire untruth has the equivalency of any statement Krugman has ever made. Read the passage over a few times. Ready to move on?

Now let's try another reading and critical thinking exercise. Kenneth Tomlinson is the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He was on Bill O'Reilly's show recently. Lets read a bit of their conversation:

On the May 12 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly asked Tomlinson, "Now, you said that you have never had any conversations with any Bush administration officials about PBS? Is that true?" Tomlinson replied, "That's true."

O'Reilly also asked Tomlinson whether he was "firing any Democrats" at CPB; Tomlinson replied, "No," adding: "No witch hunts in there at all."

At the conclusion of his interview, Tomlinson thanked O'Reilly and stated: "We love your show."

Use the previous example and this handy website to estimate the factuality of Ken Tomlinson, describe his factuality rating and provide an equivalency for his O'Reilly visit. Points will be given for originality, but obviously not for accuracy.


Thursday, May 12, 2005


After my recent post concerning the death of public broadcasting, this is going to sound a bit like I'm proclaiming it Deathwatch, day 2 - MSM, but really it's more like a roll call of the good, the bad and the ugly in media current events. Let's start with the good.

Bill O'Reilly - I can hear the piercing scream from the blogosphere, "You said the good and O'Reilly in the same sentence!" Don't panic. The good is the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board, which stood up for itself and accuracy in the media and to its very readers in an Editorial Journal today. Seems recently O'Reilly held the Chronicle up for ridicule based on information that was not merely inaccurate, but entirely erroneous. For each falsehood O'Reilly boasted the HC was able to present fact-checked, accurate rebuttals. And then to its readers the Editorial Board made this demand, "...take the time to read the editorial carefully, rather than relying on someone else's careless characterization of its contents." Seems more than a few people complained based on O'Reilly's lies, without checking the source material for themselves first. This is the legacy dittoheads leave future generations of red voters, encouraged by Bush, the church and conservative media - don't ask questions or look for your own answers, stay the course, support the troops, fear God, drink the Koolaid.

The bad comes to us courtesy of ABC News. I know you've heard what hard work journalism is nowadays. In the words of ABC's The Note today, "Brides gotta run, planes gotta stray, and cable news networks gotta find a way to fill a lot of programming hours as cheaply as possible...We say with all the genuine apolitical and non-partisan human concern that we can muster that the death and carnage in Iraq is truly staggering. And/but we are sort of resigned to the Notion that it simply isn't going to break through to American news organizations, or, for the most part, Americans...What is hands down the biggest story every day in the world will get almost no coverage..." because it is too hard to break away from the left teat that is corporate media milk money and the right teat that is administration swill and do the job that has been done by news people for the last century, report the news. When a majority of our country is getting their information either from Bill O'Reilly and his ilk, or from MSM outlets run by the Gang of 500, we as a nation are in big trouble.

Which brings me to the ugly Michael Medved, a talking head for the Salem Radio Network, who had an on-air meltdown arguing with Hans Riemer of Rock the Vote. Medved repeatedly challenged Riemer to back up his claims that: Bush favors privatization of Social Security; that he defines privatization as "allowing the individual worker his or her choice to set aside money in a managed account with parameters in the marketplace"; and that there are members of Congress who support the complete privatization of Social Security. Reimer provided complete documentation for his ascertains, to which Medved replied, "Liar, liar, liar, liar, liar, liar." And this guy has 1.8 million listeners. Scary.


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Real IDea

All around the blogosphere today people are talking about the passage of the Real ID act, which mandates uniformity in drivers license requirements and creates a national database for the information. It was requested by the DHS as a way to track possible terrorists and was tacked onto the end of the war appropriations bill to ensure full cooperation, passing 100-0. Very smooth move by the administration, appealing to both post 9/11 and support the troops sensibilities. What could possibly be the problem with that? Let me count the ways:

First, isn't it about time we stopped writing a blank check on the Iraq War. During the election Team Bush chastised Kerry for claiming the war had cost $200 billion, "we're no where near that amount." As of today they have spent some $350 billion since 9/11 to protect us from terrorism, about $150 billion at home and in Afghanistan and $200 billion in Iraq. Are we safer? In the last two years acts of terrorism have quadrupled worldwide and this figure does not include violence in Iraq, which are still classified as acts of war. Millions of dollars are missing, Halliburton is getting millions in bonus money, while still being investigated for over-billing. When is it time to call timeout.

Second, there are some interesting ramifications to this bill. Seems the cleaver people who wrote it had other things on their mind than just making drivers licenses harder to get. This article questions whether the Real ID bill is just a Trojan Horse, containing an end-run around the constitution in the form of an exclusion from judicial review. Its a bit complicated (all the better to fool you with, my dear) but the just of it is with the passage of the Real ID bill, the Director of Homeland Security has complete and total immunity from the courts in respect to a very certain and small piece of law. Once passed it opens a can of worms whereby congress can pass any number of laws, completely outside the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, or any court for that matter. If so, forget worries over the nuclear option, the GOP can pass anything it wants, give it immunity and no court can touch it. Its constitution-busting at its brashest.

Third, and this one that really gets me steaming, there was a provision in the bill that would allow for the use of the information collected from Real ID to be used as a basis for a gun-owners database, and it was removed because it would have made the bill unpassable. Now get this, the GOP can destroy democracy as we know it be eliminating the checks and balances between the three branches ( an impartial court being the test used to judge democracies worldwide), but they cannot piss off the NRA. For 25 years there has been a need for a governmental database of gun-owner information and it has made the NRA twitch and foam-at-the-mouth just by mentioning it. It has been called too costly, too large to manage effectively, and unconstitutional. Now, the money to do the deed is there, the ability to administrate the data is available, and we have overturned the constitution. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE THE PROBLEM?

Fourth, and most intriguing, Atrios(Sleight of Hand) and Digby are trading posts about what might actually be afoot in the Real ID business. Seems between this bill, the nuclear option hubbub, the fervor over so-called activist judiciary, the courting of the religious right,the filling of the government with anyone who will drink the Koolaid, all signal a conservative party that seems "freakishly confident" like they have nothing to lose; or possibly no way to lose. Why would they worry about their actions if they were certain they would win any and every election necessary. I'm not much of a conspiracy theory buff, but it does answer a few nagging questions. Why is the administration so cock sure about everything, in the face of such obvious failure? Why do they pander so shamelessly to the religious right, NRA and corporate interests? Why does Tom DeLay believe he is above all law? How can they fearlessly throw our Constitution into the maelstrom? Is the GOP bulletproof?

I leave you this one final link. It may have nothing to do with the rest of the post. Then again it might.