August 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Teddy unbound, Capa: propagandist or opportunist?, charging for online news, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for commandeering his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WAS THERE EVER A “ROAD NOT TAKEN” FOR EDWARD MOORE KENNEDY? Or did Kennedy’s upbringing and family expectations narrow his career options to only that of a life in politics? The obituaries of the Massachusetts Senator, who died August 25 at 77 years of age, emphasized his decades-long involvement in American politics. Newsweek described him as the “Senate’s great lion… fighting for the poor and the dispossessed” and the New York Times characterized him “as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate.”

Yet, strangely, for much of his time in the public eye, Teddy Kennedy never seemed totally comfortable in his role as standard-bearer for American liberalism, a mantle inherited from his fallen brothers, Jack and Bobby. There were signs that, even if he soldiered on, the fourth Kennedy son was conflicted about embracing the family’s political legacy.

What was behind the recurring episodes of inappropriate behavior (cheating at Harvard, reckless driving in law school, decades of binge drinking, vulgar public displays, womanizing, the tragedy of Chappaquiddick)? Was this risky acting out Kennedy’s way of expressing an unresolved internal conflict? Was Teddy Unbound trying to reject what at times had to seem like crushing expectations by his self-destructive behavior? (New York’s Eliot Spitzer—another Harvard-educated Democrat with a dominating, wealthy father—destroyed his own political career through similar out-of-bounds conduct, in Spitzer’s case with call girls.) In context, Kennedy’s famous inability to offer a coherent answer to Roger Mudd’s question as to why he was running for the Presidency in 1980 made more sense—he was running because he was expected to, not because he wanted to.

There were only fleeting moments when Teddy Kennedy could have fashioned an independent life. In 1955, the Green Bay Packers approached him to try professional football after college–was he tempted at all by the offer? In 1960, he was ready to leave Massachusetts and move out West if Jack lost the presidency, but his brother’s victory meant Teddy was tapped to run for the “Kennedy seat” in the Senate. He could have resigned after Chappaquiddick and looked for a fresh start in private legal practice or education, but he apparently couldn’t envision a different destiny.

The next generation of Kennedys has been much more ambivalent about entering political life, perhaps better understanding the tradeoffs and sacrifices involved. Caroline Kennedy’s brief foray into politics ended in January 2009 when she dropped out of contention for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York, citing personal reasons. It was clear, however, that she didn’t have the stomach for the rough-and-tumble of Empire State politics (Rep. Gary Ackerman questioned her readiness for the job, comparing her to Sarah Palin and Jennifer Lopez) or for media questioning or financial disclosure. And now former Congressman Joseph Kennedy has decided not to run to succeed his uncle in the Senate. That should be viewed as a healthy development—democracies and family dynasties are a bad match.

DID PHOTOJOURNALIST ROBERT CAPA FAKE HIS ICONIC SPANISH CIVIL WAR PHOTO, “THE FALLING SOLDIER“? Fresh research by José Manuel Susperregui, a Spanish academic, questions whether Capa’s 1936 photo, long a symbol of resistance for supporters of the Spanish Republic, actually depicted the death of militiaman Federico Borrell in Cerro Muriano or whether it was staged in community called Espejo, at a considerable distance from the front lines.

Was Capa fashioning propaganda, rather than recording history, or did he opportunistically “tart up” the photo to make it more saleable? Some have argued that, staged or not, the photo captured the truth of the bloody Spanish internecine struggle and it remains historically significant. Yet if Capa faked it, and the evidence strongly suggests it, then the photographer violated the basic tenets of his craft by misrepresenting it as real. It is particularly ironic that one of Capa’s famous dictums on photojournalism was: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

AMERICA’S LEADING NEWSPAPERS SHOULD BE CHARGING FOR ACCESS TO THEIR ONLINE NEWS BY THE NEW YEAR, and it’s a long-overdue response to the challenge of the Internet aggregators, such as Google news and others. As I argued in May, the existential threat posed to the traditional advertising model for newspapers means a paid content approach is a must for survival. Journalism Online LLC, which provides a system for charging for online content, “has signed affiliate agreements with publishers representing 506 newspapers and magazines and a Web audience of more than 90 million monthly visitors.”

IF FLORIDA’S TIM TEBOW LEADS THE GATORS TO ANOTHER NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, his third, should the quarterback be considered the greatest football player of all time? Or if he wins the Heisman Trophy for a second time? Tebow is being compared to gridiron legends like Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Sammy Baugh, O.J. Simpson, Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders and Archie Griffin. Certainly there’s never been a college quarterback with Tebow’s ability to mix bruising runs and accurate passes, but he has played on a very deep and talented team the past four years.

How would Tebow fare at the helm of a faltering Division One team? Would he be as effective as an Archie Manning (Ole Miss) or Roger Staubach (Navy) were in manufacturing wins for overmatched teams?

For impact, how does Tebow compare to former Syracuse running back Jim Brown, another candidate for the best of all time label who was ranked the No. 1 NFL player in the history of the league by the Sporting News? Brown finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1956, his senior year, despite rushing for 986 yards, the third highest total nationally that season, in only nine games. Notre Dame’s Golden Boy Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman aided by voting that split along regional lines. Hornung, a quarterback and defensive player in college, was Tebow-like in his versatility.

IF VENEZUELA’S LEFT-WING STRONGMAN HUGO CHAVEZ WANTS TO ATTACK THE CAPITALISTIC PASTIME OF GOLF, a ban on the game is the wrong way to go. Rather than closing courses, Chavez should democratize the “bourgeois sport” and underwrite a program of subsidized golf lessons for Venezuela’s young. His nation’s consolation prize will be that after his regime falls (as it inevitably must), Venezuelan golfers will be wildly successful on the PGA tour, no doubt diverting large amounts of prize money from the gringo pro golfers.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM NEW ENGLAND’S POET, ROBERT FROST  (1874-1963): “Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

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June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Why isn’t the New York Times charging for its online news content?

What are they waiting for?

Why haven’t America’s ailing newspapers, plagued by slumping circulation as readers flock to the web, begun charging for the news they are currently offering for free online?

Why hasn’t the country’s leading paper, the New York Times, led the way in moving from an online advertising-only economic model to one that includes subscription revenues? Is it denial? A stubborn refusal to change a flawed strategy? Risk aversion?

By now, the existential threat to newspapers is clear. Several major newspapers have been forced into bankruptcy; two venerable metros have recently closed (the Rocky Mountain News) or switched to online publication only (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Rapidly declining newspaper circulation figures suggest that the reader shift to the web is accelerating.

The publicly-traded New York Times Company, owner of the New York Times, has seen its financial position deteriorate and its stock price slide over the past several years as the disruptive effects of the Internet, coupled with the economic slowdown, has caused dramatic declines in print advertising. The suddenly cash-strapped company has been forced into a series of dramatic steps: borrowing $250 million from Mexican oligarch and billionaire Carlos Slim; threatening to shutter the Boston Globe, one of its newspaper holdings, if the unions there didn’t produce $20 million in savings; and suspending dividend payments to shareholders (and to the controlling Sulzberger family members).

The picture isn’t all bleak. The website of the New York Times (www.nytimes.com) attracts large numbers of unique viewers, some 19 to 20 million “uniques” a month. Even discounting that number for repeat visits (as media observers like Alan Jacobson argue is necessary), the nytimes.com traffic dwarfs the one million daily purchasers of the print edition of the paper.

Paying for the news

But the Times has resisted charging for its online content, unlike the Wall Street Journal, which reserves its news content for paying web customers. (Visitors can access the Journal‘s opinion and commentary at no cost.) While other newspapers dither, the Journal has announced it will introduce micro-payments for individual articles to its website in the fall.

In contrast, the Times has embraced the “information longs to be free” mantra, envisioning an advertising-only supported Internet future. The focus has been on building traffic and seeking to “monetize” this audience through advertising. (A brief excursion into paid content, Times Select, which charged for online access to New York Times columnists, was abandoned.) Yet the Times has discovered it can only charge online advertisers a fraction of what it gets from print.

Since online advertising revenue represents only some 10 percent of the company’s revenue, it’s puzzling why the Times hasn’t moved towards a paid content model. A quick back-of-envelope calculation suggests that if 10% of current nytimes.com unique visitors could be converted to online subscriptions, the Times would add some 2 million paying customers overnight.

How much would this be worth to the Times? It depends, of course, on the price, on how much online subscribers are willing to pay for digital news. It’s unlikely the Times can command the $600 or so it asks from print subscribers, but even matching the Journal‘s current online annual price of $103 would generate considerable revenue. While there might be some short-term drop off in online advertising because of lowered traffic, the Times could make the argument that the remaining visitors represent loyal and committed readers (with, no doubt, attractive demographics.)

And if the Times adopts an online subscription model, it’s more than likely the rest of the newspaper industry will follow its lead. Establishing paid online content won’t solve all of the economic and financial issues facing American newspapers, but it will represent a start in changing the dynamics.

Some newspaper publishers may hesitate at charging for news content because they worry Internet consumers won’t pay for it. To the extent that what they offer isn’t unique or relevant, they may be right—but there has always been a market for “journalism that matters.” What matters differs from community to community, but those editors and publishers who can identify and deliver it should have a viable business, although not with the monopoly profits of the past. That does suggest that news organizations of the future, even elite ones like the New York Times, will have to be more focused in coverage and leaner in staffing.

What lies ahead?

Shifting to an online paid model isn’t without risk, and without pain. Google and other news aggregators may steer visitors towards free content sites, reducing traffic to the newspapers’ paid content. Everyone in the online news enterprise has to be prepared for a reduced audience. Any negative impact on civic discourse can be somewhat mitigated by following the Journal‘s practice of allowing free access to commentary and columns. In the short term, newspapers will most likely see their web presence diminished; publishers and editors will have to remind themselves that survival comes first, Internet bragging rights second.

In any event, it’s not an attractive future for those who lived through the post-Watergate monopoly years when elite newspapers attracted the best and brightest to journalism, newspaper companies were awash in cash, and stock prices climbed. Today’s sobering reality has encouraged many in the industry to cast about for what could be termed non-market alternatives: newspapers supported by government-subsidies or nonprofit foundations.

Are these non-market-based alternatives to a downsized, lean newspaper future viable? University of North Carolina journalism professor Penelope Muse Abernathy recently looked at four different scenarios for “saving” the New York Times in order to “preserve and protect its unique journalism and watchdog role in the 21st century.” Three were nonprofit solutions: setting up an endowment to support the news department’s annual $200 million budget; foundation support aimed at underwriting news coverage; and the purchase and operation of the paper by an educational institution. The fourth solution involved the intervention of an “angel investor” who “would be willing both to adequately compensate the Sulzberger family members and to assume or retire the debt and other liabilities.” (Full disclosure: I worked with Abernathy at the New York Times Company when we were both in management roles there.)

On the idea of endowing the Times, Abernathy wonders who would invest the necessary $5 billion “…if there was the opportunity to buy all the assets of the Times for less (based on current valuations) and restructure the costs and debt load for the 21st century.” On the second option, she questions whether the cyclical nature of foundation grants would provide enough stability for underwriting the news, and suggests that just to cover the annual costs of the Times’ foreign news coverage ($60-$70 million) would require a $1 billion endowment from an “enlightened philanthropist” and additional grants and contributions.

The university option has drawbacks as well. Is there a university, she asks, willing to “devote considerable management bandwidth to transforming the Times business model, on both the revenue and cost side, in order to get the ROI more in line with other alternative investments it might pursue”? Considering the economic pressures on higher education, the answer is likely to be “no.”

Abernathy touches only briefly on the angel investor or White Knight scenario for the Times, noting that the sale of the company to an individual investor could “precipitate a renegotiation with the unions and result in a restructuring of the Times’ costs to make it more competitive and better able to survive and thrive in the digital age. Certainly an individual investor would have a better chance of maintaining the laser-like focus needed to implement transformational change.” Finding an investor willing to take on the challenge, whose motives (vanity? power? political causes?) pass journalistic scrutiny, is problematic: a purchase engineered by moguls David Geffen or Carlos Slim could further erode the distinction between news and editorial at the Times, or present troubling conflicts-of-interest in coverage.

Market solutions and independence

Adjusting to the new market realities appears the best way for the New York Times and other newspapers to preserve their independence. It will allow them to avoid schemes where they are beholden to politicians (government subsidies), wealthy donors (non-profit alternatives), or White Knights with questionable motives (the Slim/Geffen option). Further, market pressures often spark innovation. Abernathy cites the thinking of Yale’s Richard Foster on this question; Foster “argues that, historically, companies in the throes of creative destruction have been much more likely to achieve transformational change if they stay in the for-profit arena.”

There is an audience willing to pay for news on the web. While the economics of paid content and some web advertising will not support mega-bonuses for publishers and lavish expense accounts for foreign bureaus, it should allow for focused quality journalism. It may also leave us with those civic-minded publishers who, as the old saying goes, seek to make money so they can publish newspapers, and not the other way around.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

April 2009: Nobody asked me, but

Kant and the torture debate, Coors Field East, and other observations

With tip of the ballcap (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

THE RECENT DEBATE OVER TORTURE HAS FOUND THE NATION’S CAPITAL FILLED WITH… KANTIANS. The 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, famous for his advocacy of duty-based ethics, argued that universal maxims, once established, should be followed no matter the circumstances or consequences. President Barack Obama and many liberal Democrats have taken a decidedly Kantian position on what they call torture (and neo-conservatives call “enhanced interrogation techniques”), maintaining that it should never be employed under any circumstances, and that captured terror suspects should be interrogated only under the restrictive rules of the Army Field Manual.

Obama and his allies have undercut their profession of Kantian absolutism, however, by considering the question of whether the CIA’s waterboarding of Al Qaeda terrorists was effective (they say it was not, although Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated that those harsh interrogations did  produce “high-value information”). But as any self-respecting Kantian knows, the utility of an action is immaterial to its morality. To put it another way: if you decide torture is always wrong, if you make its abolition a Categorical Imperative (in Kantian terms, an unconditional moral law) it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. Kant on this question: “Do what is right, though the world may perish.”

A different strain of moral philosophy, consequentialism, holds that the morality of an action should be judged by its results. This, of course, is the philosophic position taken by the circle around President George W. Bush. They argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved American lives by staving off additional post-9/11 terror attacks.  Consequentialism is a more pragmatic approach, which is perhaps why the philosophic movement advanced by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey was called Pragmatism. It’s a theory with clear appeal for results-oriented Americans.

What if the CIA takes an Al Qaeda leader into custody who is likely to know the operational details of a planned attack on the New York subways? Under Kantian principles, you would refrain from torture (or “enchanced interrogation techniques”) no matter the consequences, no matter the potential loss of life. Would CIA head Leon Panetta and Obama hold to their Army Field Manual standard for interrogation, which one critic argued “is so anemic, that it goes below the level of coercion associated with police station level of interrogation”? Panetta has sent mixed signals about how far he would be willing to go, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in his confirmation hearings:

“If we had the ticking bomb situation and I felt that whatever we were using wasn’t sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president and request any additional authority that we would need.”

Establishing an absolute ban on torture but seeking “additional authority” to “enhance” interrogation could easily mutate into a policy very much like the Bush Administration’s. Or as the Who once sang: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The most puzzling aspect of the torture debate is President Obama’s decision to release memos from the Bush years dealing with enhanced interrogation, and then “making it clear that he does not intend to press charges against those involved in the decision-making or the interrogations. ” Why trigger a national debate over the issue if you aren’t going to seek a resolution either through prosecution or Congressional hearings? (For the record: I take a Kantian position against any use of  those techniques, like waterboarding, which have been regarded as torture for centuries and “shock the conscience.”)

MONEY CAN’T BUY LOVE, IT’S SAID, AND THE NEW YORK YANKEES WILL ONCE AGAIN PROVE THAT IT CAN’T PURCHASE THE AMERICAN LEAGUE PENNANT. The Yanks are off to a slow start, dropping their first five games to their hated rival, the Boston Red Sox, and watching home runs sail out of the new Yankee Stadium at record pace (some are calling it Coors Field East!). All this despite (or perhaps because of) the highest payroll in major league baseball!

COUNT ON COLUMNIST FROMA HARROP FOR UNCONVENTIONAL INSIGHTS, nowhere more apparent than in her recent musings on the state of marriage circa 2009: “A Nation of Unwed Drudgery.” Harrop looks at the growing trend of  single motherhood and notes that the fathers involved often go AWOL, walking away from their responsibilities for childrearing. The result: “Most such single mothers become beasts of burden.” To provide some context: when Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the dangers to social cohesion presented by illegitimacy in his controversial 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the illegitimacy rate stood 22 percent for black Americans and 8 percent nationally. Today, those numbers are 71 percent and 38 percent.

It is hard to imagine how many of the pressing domestic challenges, from income inequality to crime to inadequate education, can be effectively addressed without confronting this breakdown in the nuclear family. That will require changes in government tax policy to support married couples, a change in the cultural attitudes about unwed motherhood, and a recognition that silence about these issues no longer suffices. Can these disturbing trends be reversed? Difficult, but not impossible.

WHAT IS GLOBAL CAPITALISM’S FUTURE? Paul Kennedy offered his predictions in a fascinating Financial Times essay in March. Kennedy discounts the prospects of an egalitarian, Marxist alternative, and instead posits a “new post-excess neocapitalist political economy.” He adds:

It will be a system where the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years.

“DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO” MUST BE THE MANTRA OF THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY, as its hard-ball negotiating tactics with the Boston Globe hardly match up with the editorial positions taken by the Times on employer-labor issues. The New York Times Company has successfully pressured the unions at the Globe for major concessions (including cuts in health care and other benefits) and threatened to shut down Boston’s leading newspaper if it didn’t get those givebacks. It’s not the stance you would expect from an organization whose flagship newspaper has long carried pro-union editorials (including support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would eliminate secret ballot elections on the question of union representation). Full disclosure:  In the past, I worked for both the New York Times Company and the Boston Globe.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN WRITER SUSAN SONTAG (1933-2004): “I envy paranoids. They actually feel someone is paying attention to them.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserve

March 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama the Adaptive Communicator, the Oliphant cartoon controversy, and other observations

With tip of the umbrella (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

ALREADY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS SHOWING THE ABILITY TO ADAPT HIS COMMUNICATION STYLE to the audience, occasion, and purpose. Will history see him as the Great Adaptive Communicator?

It’s now conventional wisdom that Obama can deliver a brilliant set speech, although he has often toned down the soaring rhetoric when it doesn’t suit his political ends (witness his somber and workmanlike Inaugural Address). Despite mixed reviews from media critics, the new President has quickly mastered the prime-time news conference, one which plagued many of his predecessors in the White House. Where Obama has struggled, surprisingly, is in less formal settings where he lets his guard down (for example, the Jay Leno Special Olympics kerfuffle or Obama’s “gallows humor” joviality on “60 Minutes”).

Some conservative pundits have mocked Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter in public appearances, but his recent news conferences prove the President can think quite well on his feet without a canned script. He knows he gives a smoother, more telegenic performance with the teleprompter, and that’s why he turns to the device.

I think Obama will prove to be a master of presidential news conferences, as well. Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, he doesn’t disdain the press (or at least openly show that he does), and he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of fielding questions.

What Obama has apparently realized is that the President can control and shape a East Room news conference to his liking. He can pick and choose the questioners. He can slow down the pace of the proceedings by stretching out his answers (which meant just 13 questions in his last hour-long press conference). He can ignore the intent of any given question and, even when pressed on it in a follow-up, always has the last word. And if he keeps his emotions in check, and sticks to his message, he can avoid any “gotcha” moments.

The media hopes for something newsworthy from a presidential “presser”—a dramatic revelation, an insight into the president’s thinking, a policy shift. They are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Obama’s performance at his last formal news conference (before leaving for the G20) was panned as “professorial” by many in the mainstream media. Obama sounded “like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell” according to Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. True, Obama largely repeated his administration’s talking points on the economy, but that doesn’t mean the news conference wasn’t a success—from a presidential perspective.

I’d argue that Obama’s professorial style worked quite well: he projected the three C’s—confidence, competence, and calmness—which is what a national leader must project during troubled times. What about substance? Obama’s long, discursive answers—which annoyed many commentators—signaled that he has a detailed grasp of economic policy, which was enough for his audience—the average voter worried about his or her job and future—if not for Beltway journalists.

POLITICAL CARTOONIST PAT OLIPHANT STIRRED CONTROVERSY in March with Jewish groups objecting to what they called anti-Semitic elements in his cartoon on the Gaza situation. (The cartoon featured a headless goose-stepping soldier and a fanged Star of David looming over hapless Gaza refugees. You can view it here). The Anti-Defamation League called it “hideously anti-Semitic” for using “Nazi-like imagery and hateful evocation of the Jewish Star of David.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center said “the cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I’ll defend Oliphant’s right to create and distribute the cartoon. And while likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi aggression is both deliberately provocative and ludicrous, it’s not prima facie anti-Semitic. The ADL and others are correct, however, in deploring Oliphant’s choice of imagery because it draws on a particularly ugly and hateful legacy.

ARE ASPECTS OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (“G”) MORE LINKED TO NATURE, AND LESS TO NUTURE? Here’s how ScienceDaily summarized a recent study (from the Journal of Neuroscience): “…UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.”

Thompson and collaborators scanned the brains of identical and fraternal twins, measuring signal speed, and then compared those findings to results from traditional IQ tests. We inherit how much of a key substance (myelin) we have in our brains that allows for these fast signaling bursts.

IS “DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DRIVE” THE MOTTO FOR TOP OBAMA AIDES WHEN IT COMES TO American cars? According to Politico, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner owns a 2008 Acura TSX, and other Obama economic advisors also own Japanese cars (Larry Summers has a 1995 Mazda Protege, Peter Orszag drives a Honda, and Austan Goolsbee, a Toyota Highlander).

Politico also reported: “A survey of West Executive Drive, where White House staffers park, revealed only five American cars out of 23 –a Dodge Grand Caravan, two Ford Escapes, a Jeep Cherokee and a Cadillac.”

And Obama’s car czar, Steve Rattner, apparently favors Mercedes, according to cityfile. (President Obama does own a Ford).

It is a bit awkward for the new administration to advocate massive taxpayer-backed loans for the Big Three when its top staff drives non-American brands.

HOLD THAT OBITUARY FOR CAPITALISM, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN PAUL KENNEDY in a fascinating Financial Times essay focusing on the wisdom of past economic thinkers.

Kennedy predicts that in the post-crisis economic system:

…the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years. Homus Economicus will take a horrible beating. But capitalism, in modified form, will not disappear. Like democracy, it has serious flaws – but, just as one find faults with democracy, the critics of capitalism will discover that all other systems are worse. Political economy tells us so.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM CHARLES DICKENS’ NOVEL LITTLE DORRIT: “A person who can’t pay gets another person who can’t pay to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking-match.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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July 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Veeps and Swing States, Che’s dark legacy, the Big Dig and the Big Lift, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO WOULD JOHN McCAIN AND BARACK OBAMA SELECT FOR THEIR RESPECTIVE RUNNING MATES if they put aside all considerations except winning key swing states? For McCain, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge represents the best choice for the GOP ticket to contest Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and perhaps even New Jersey (more so than McCain-Romney). For Obama, Hillary Clinton as VP would provide the most lift in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida by appealing to ethnic working class Democrats and older women.

Yet it’s unlikely Ridge and Clinton will be the vice presidential choices. Ridge’s pro-choice stance makes him a difficult sell to Republican evangelicals. Obama doesn’t want to share the stage, or spotlight, with the more experienced Clinton. So, it can be argued, the candidates will not let Electoral College math drive their VP-picks and that’s where political decision-making veers from the rational.

IT WAS TELLING THAT COLOMBIAN COMMANDOS DISGUISED THEMSELVES IN Ernesto “Che” Guevara t-shirts to trick Marxist guerrillas into freeing 15 kidnap victims. That the brutal Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, idolized Guevara—the Argentine revolutionary icon—is yet another part of Che’s dark legacy, albeit a predictable one. That an American director, Steven Soderbergh, should seek to glorify this ruthless proponent of a failed Marxist ideology (as he does in his new movie) is less understandable.

THE LAND OF THE BEAN AND THE COD can now proudly lay claim to the world’s greatest public works boondoggle—the mismanaged Big Dig. The Boston Globe reports that the error-plagued project (grandly entitled the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel) “will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion…” The debt will not be paid off until 2038, according to the Globe, and the state government’s solution to the crushing debt? Borrowing more! It was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

JEFF JACOBY OF THE BOSTON GLOBE quarreled with Sen. Obama’s oratorical treatment of the Berlin Airlift (in Obama’s July 24th speech), with the often-fiery conservative columnist zinging the Democratic presidential hopeful for failing to mention President Harry Truman’s pivotal role and the courage of the U.S. pilots involved. Jacoby added:

…Obama seemed to go out of his way not to say plainly that what saved Berlin in that dark time was America’s military might. Save for a solitary reference to “the first American plane,” he never described one of the greatest American operations of the postwar period as an American operation at all. He spoke only of “the airlift,” “the planes,” “those pilots.” Perhaps their American identity wasn’t something he cared to stress amid all his “people of the world” salutations and talk of “global citizenship.”

Jacoby’s criticism is partially valid, but the Berlin Airlift was a combined Anglo-American operation, with more British pilots (39) dying than American (31) during the course of the nearly year-long resupply effort. (The 1950 movie “The Big Lift” offers an in-depth look at the harrowing conditions faced by pilots flying into Berlin.)

SPEAKING OF ANGLO INFLUENCES, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN THE NEW BATMAN MOVIE “THE DARK KNIGHT.” The two stars, Christian Bale (England) and Heath Ledger (Australia), the director (Christopher Nolan, a Brit), and two key supporting actors, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman (both Londoners) prove that Batman isn’t as American a franchise as you might think.

THE LATE DALE DAVIS, PUBLISHER OF THE SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS USED TO JOKE THAT every American man believed he could do three things well: drive a car, make love, and run a newspaper. Of course whether that proverbial guy actually could perform adequately was a completely different question, Davis would add. Sam Zell, the Chicago “turnaround maven” who engineered the takeover of the Tribune Company for $8.5 billion in 2007 has discovered that running newspapers these days isn’t as easy as it looked from the outside, and BusinessWeek calls it “a transaction that’s shaping up to be one of the most disastrous the media world has ever seen.”

As Zell slashes newsroom payrolls, sells many of Tribune’s papers, and belatedly admits he misjudged the financial situation, the question now becomes whether this self-described “grave dancer” will run the company into the ground. Zell’s hand-picked former Clear Channel executives clearly don’t know what they are doing. It adds up to hard times for some of the country’s major metros (like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.)

IT’S A TOSS UP AS TO WHETHER RAPPER LUDACRIS OR ACTOR JON VOIGHT demonstrate better the absurdity of entertainers pontificating about politics. Ludacris embarrassed the Obama campaign by releasing a rap video insulting both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, while Voight contributed a pro-McCain op-ed to the Washington Times warning about Obama’s plans to introduce socialism to the United States. With celebrity friends like these, who needs enemies?

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM JOURNALIST THEODORE “TEDDY” WHITE: “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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