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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September 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama: Electoral College winner, popular vote loser?, Why Palin’s policy cram course isn’t working, Ageless athletes, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL SEN. BARACK OBAMA WIN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTE, AND THUS THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, but lose the popular vote on Election Day 2008? It’s not an entirely implausible scenario. The Democratic presidential nominee leads Republican candidate John McCain in the national polls (as can be seen in RealClearPolitics’ poll compilation), and has moved ahead, narrowly, in a series of polls in several key battleground states won by George W. Bush in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina. Based on the polls, Obama’s Electoral College lead has begun to expand.

But it’s more than likely the national polls will tighten again, and the race will remain very close on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s relative vote-garnering strength in blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey suggests that he will keep the contests there closer than George Bush did (and Bush won the 2004 election by some 3 million votes over Democrat John Kerry). Further, if McCain can improve on Bush’s 2004 showing in populous California (where Kerry won by 9.9%) and New York (Kerry by 18.3%), and stay close to the Bush 2004 vote totals in the rest of the country, McCain could very well top Obama nationally when all ballots are tallied, while still losing in the Electoral College because of a few key battleground states switching to the Democrat.

Take New York state, for example: if McCain can increase his vote share to 45% (not an impossible level, considering that Bush reached 40% in 2004), it would represent an additional 300,000-400,000 votes for the Arizona Republican versus Bush’s totals. Prior to the Wall Street bailout crisis, McCain had pulled within 5-8 percentage points of Obama in New York, and it’s likely he can stay within 10 points of the Democrat.

Yes, Obama may win a number of formerly red states, with victories in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, appearing likely, but they will be narrow wins, and his net vote gain won’t offset McCain’s likely improvement over 2004 in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

If this scenario plays out—where Obama triumphs in the Electoral College, and McCain wins the popular vote—will the Illinois Senator’s legitimacy be challenged (as Bush’s was in 2000)? Will Republicans suddenly decide that it’s time to abandon the Electoral College? If this happens, it wouldn’t be the first role reversal in Campaign 2008.

THERE’S A REASON WHY SARAH PALIN’S FRANTIC CRAM COURSE IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC POLICY IS FAILING, as could be seen in her one-on-one interviews with Katie Couric—you can’t cram for context. Gov. Palin’s inability to discuss any Supreme Court rulings she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or to cite any of John McCain’s regulatory achievements, or to provide a coherent defense of her foreign policy bona fides, proves that you can’t manufacture a personal body of knowledge in politics and American government overnight.

It is, of course, possible for a candidate to memorize a list of policy positions, but the problems surface on follow-up questions that go beyond the campaign briefing book. If you haven’t followed the American civic debate closely over the years (and the Alaska governor was vague about what she reads and where she gets her information when questioned about it by Couric), you’re not going to be able to answer in depth.

Palin’s struggles bring to mind the educator E. D. Hirsch’s views on cultural literacy, that students need a common core of knowledge to make sense of what they encounter in the classroom. It is not enough for students to decode the literal words in a text, Hirsch argues, if they don’t understand their meaning and context. It appears that Palin does not have a baseline understanding of constitutional government, or of many of the key issues in American foreign policy, and making up that knowledge deficit during a contested political campaign is problematic, to say the least.

CAMPAIGN 2008 HAS PROVOKED A NUMBER OF “OVER THE TOP” PRONOUNCEMENTS. Two quick examples from the Right: Tony Blankley’s bizarre column “Media Campaigns Hard for Obama,” in which he tries to link mainstream journalists who he claims favor Obama to Nazi propagandists; and Archbishop Raymond Burke’s argument that the Democratic Party risks becoming “the party of death” because of its support of abortion.

TWO SEEMINGLY AGELESS ATHLETES set personal records on the last Sunday of September, proving that peak performances can come late in a career! New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, 39 years old, won his 20th game of the season (a 6-2 win over the Red Sox) for the first time in his long major league career. And New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who is about to turn 39, threw six touchdown passes, a personal best, in the Jets’ 56-35 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Fittingly, Favre was wearing a New York Titans throwback jersey.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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August 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Palin and the Iron Lady gambit, American voters and racism, Country crossover, and other Campaign 2008 observations

With a wave of the political banner to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…(campaign version!)

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN MCCAIN’S CHOICE OF ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN AS his running mate is, conventional wisdom holds, a risky move for the Republican standard-bearer because of Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience. But Palin exudes a certain toughness—from her willingness to take on the Alaskan political establishment to her lifelong NRA membership—and McCain may be counting on the “Iron Lady” factor: voters are more likely to vote for a hard-edged, conservative (e.g., Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir) than for a softer, more conciliatory female candidate. The new-found respect for Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed by many on the Right was generated, it can be argued, from Clinton’s perceived “toughness,” especially on foreign policy (she did, after all, threaten Iran with “obliteration” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons).

IF BARACK OBAMA LOSES HIS HISTORIC RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, WILL WHITE RACISM be the cause? That’s been the theory advanced by some pundits, including Jacob Weisberg of Slate (“Racism is the only reason Obama might lose“) and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann (“The Color-Coded Campaign: Why Barack Obama Isn’t Doing Better in the Polls“).

But as Matt Bai noted in his op-ed, “The Race Isn’t About Race,” in the New York Times:

While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.

Bai has it right, it seems to me. The question boils down to this: would white working-class swing voters cast a ballot for a very liberal Senator named Barry O’Brien with, in Bai’s words, “remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy…”? Enough of these culturally conservative voters didn’t support the liberal John Kerry nor the (then) centrist Al Gore. Why would yet another Ivy League-educated candidate, whose dispararging comments about working class voters (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) have been widely publicized expect to automatically pick up the support of Reagan Democrats?

WITH REAGAN DEMOCRATS IN PLAY, SUDDENLY COUNTRY MUSIC IS POLITICALLY CORRECT, as Sen. Obama chose to play Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” after his acceptance speech at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were George W. Bush supporters (and the song was featured in the 2004 Republican campaign), but Brooks said that they were “flattered” by Obama using the song: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. ­Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” (Another Brooks and Dunn song, “That’s What It’s All About,” has been playing at McCain rallies.) In another crossover, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was the country-tinged song played after Sen. McCain announced Sarah Palin as his VP pick, a song Entertainment Weekly noted was “by Bon Jovi (a prominent Democratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played a Democratic convention event earlier this week).”

KID ROCK, THE DETROIT SINGER/SONGWRITER, DOESN’T THINK MUCH OF CELEBRITIES ENDORSING POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Kid Rock (AKA Robert James Ritchie) commented: “I truly believe that people like myself, who are in a position of entertainers in the limelight, should keep their mouth shut on politics because at the end of the day, I’m good at writing songs and singing.” He added: “What I’m not educated in is the field of political science. And so for me to be sharing my views and influencing people of who I think they should be voting for … I think would be very irresponsible on my part.”

Meanwhile, former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has picked up momentum in his race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat. The two are now tied in the latest public opinion polls. Should Franken win, will more liberal Democrat celebrities decide to run? Among those mentioned as possible candidates: Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi, and George Clooney.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM ARGENTINE FABULIST JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986): “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Critiquing Campaign 2008’s coverage

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Exit poll error? It’s the Shy Tory Factor, not the Bradley Effect

While early exit polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, and broadcast and cable news networks consequently delayed calling a winner in the election, when the actual ballots were counted Sen. Hillary Clinton had carried the Keystone State by some 9 percentage points.

Some pundits quickly suggested that the gap between the exit polls and the final tally reflected the Bradley Effect—white voters telling pollsters they had voted for the black candidate, when in fact they had not (an effect first identified in California’s 1982 gubernatorial election lost narrowly by Tom Bradley, an African-American—hence the name.) It wasn’t the first time in Campaign 2008 that Obama’s strong unweighted exit poll numbers did not translate into actual votes—the Illinois Senator had “underperformed” in New Hampshire and in several Super Tuesday states, according to a compilation of early exit polls by Brendan Loy. Loy further noted that: “… Obama generally does 7-8 points worse in the actual results than he did in the leaked, unweighted exit polls.”

But it’s unlikely that the color of the candidates caused the exit poll problems. Instead, it appears that the Shy Tory Factor influenced the exit polls in Pennsylvania, a global phenomenon that has surfaced in numerous past elections where race wasn’t a consideration. The Shy Tory Factor is when conservative voters provide misleading answers to pollsters or refuse to participate in exit polls (where it is called “non-response bias” by pollsters). It has been seen in elections in England, France, Italy, Australia and the U.S. More conservative candidates perform better at the ballot box than they do in pre-vote polls and exit polling. (Reuters, for example, noted that “exit polls have not always proved reliable in Italy” in reporting on the recent election of conservative candidate Silvio Berlusconi.)

What’s behind it? The prevailing theory is that these Shy Tory, or Shy Conservative, voters opt out of polling, or offer misleading answers, because they don’t view the elite media, who sponsor the opinion and exit polls, as truly neutral. They realize that their candidate (Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John Howard) is not the choice of liberal reporters or mainstream commentators and consequently they are more reluctant to share their preference with intrusive pollsters.

The practical effect of the Shy Tory Factor is to skew poll results. Take Pennsylvania. While Clinton supporters may not be “Tories” in ideological terms, they are older, less-educated, and more likely to resent the media anointment of Obama. Their motives for refusing match the Shy Tory model. If these Clinton voters shied away from exit polls, it means backers of the other candidate (Obama) were oversampled. The Clinton-Obama race had further complications. Refusal rates for exit polls are historically greater among older voters to start with. Most exit poll takers are young (students, etc.), and it would not be surprising if—despite being trained to avoid interviewer-caused selection bias—these temporary workers gravitated to polling younger voters, who have continued to favor Obama.

Vote fraud?

There is, of course, a third possible explanation for the disconnect between the exit polls and the tabulated vote—that of election fraud. After the New Hampshire primary, some on the Left suggested that Sen. Clinton’s victory involved rigged voting machines, and others (such as posters on The Brad Blog and TruthDig ) have questioned the validity of the Pennsylvania primary as well.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls has contributed to these conspiracy theories. (“Mystery Pollster” Mark Blumenthal has researched exit polling’s historical inaccuracy.) They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections. For starters, exit polls carry a margin of error—supposedly about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well, and higher in primaries. And like all polling, exit polls rely on a representative sample of voters that is projected to all voters (which is what the “weighting” process is all about). As can be seen with the Shy Tory Factor, when given voters won’t participate, it skews the sample. (See this interview with Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research for a frank assessment of the problems with exit poll samples). The exit poll refusal rate has been growing in the U.S. It was an average 35% nationwide in the 2004 presidential election and is higher for older voters and in more conservative areas of the country.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional election exit polls.

None of this will, however, convince the conspiracy buffs who believe that the Clinton machine—borrowing alleged Republican tactics—manipulated the primary voting process in states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania by a conspiracy targeting electronic voting machines. Such a vote fraud enterprise in practice would require the complicity of hundreds of election officials, computer technicians, etc., spread across numerous precincts, and would also demand a breathtaking level of coordination and planning. And everyone involved would be committing numerous felonies as well. But if you believed the Republicans were capable of such crimes in 2004, it’s not as hard to believe that the Clinton campaign would engage in vote fraud as well.

A media creation

There are some ironies in these exit poll problems. Exit polls, after all, are a media creation. They allow network anchors and political commentators to pontificate about voter preferences and beliefs. They allegedly tell us how given groups (whites, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Jews) voted, and why they voted the way the way they did (contributing, one could argue, to the public practice of identity politics). If media cheerleading for Obama has increased exit poll refusal rates among Clinton voters, then the lack of balance in the coverage of the Democratic race in 2008 has contributed to the margin of error in these surveys.

The Edison/Mitofsky Research folks don’t like to talk about refusal rates, because they know it raises questions about the validity of their exit polls. A strong argument can be made based on the 2004, 2006, and 2008 results that the accuracy of exit polls has been so compromised that they should be abandoned as an analytical tool in political news coverage. And other than a few media executives and polling firms, who would be sorry to see them go?

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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That tangled Democratic nominating process

The struggle within the Democratic Party between Clinton centrists and left-of-center Obama “progressives” has shifted to the party’s inconsistent, contradictory, and—dare it be said—undemocratic presidential nominating process. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the bitter 2000 election, Democrats embraced the principles of “counting every vote” and “insuring election integrity,” but they have now discovered, to their dismay, that electoral fairness is easier to achieve in theory than in practice.

The debate over the role of the so-called superdelegates has highlighted internal tensions in the party. Superdelegates were created in the early 1980s as a way for greater participation by party elders; a more cynical view held that these delegates were meant to block fringe candidates advanced by the left wing of the party (vide: George McGovern). Since they are drawn from the ranks of elected officials and party stalwarts, in theory superdelegates should represent the interests of the Democratic Party writ large at the national convention.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama’s supporters, including many vocal activists on the left, have rejected the idea of superdelegates exercising any independent judgment. Instead, they have insisted that the some 795 superdelegates should ratify the “will of the people” by awarding the nomination to Obama, the likely leader in the popular vote and pledged delegate count after the final primaries.

A flawed process

Yet the argument for crowning Obama by affirmation is less clear-cut than his adherents make it; his lead over Hillary Clinton is, in part, a reflection of a deeply flawed and inconsistent process. Obama has benefited from the exclusion of the Florida and Michigan primary results, and from proportional rules for the awarding of delegates.

Nor is it clear how the “will of the people” should be defined. For example, should senators who are superdelegates vote for the candidate with the largest national pledged delegate count, or for the winner of the popular vote in their state’s primary? Superdelegates John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy are Obama supporters, and yet Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly for Clinton; in Washington state, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are backing Clinton despite their state’s vote breaking for Obama.

And the Obama camp’s enthusiasm for “the will of the people” has been somewhat selective. Obama supporters successfully blocked any re-vote in Florida or Michigan, effectively disenfranchising million of voters, because they knew Clinton would likely prevail in any do-over of those primaries. Hardly an advertisement for electoral fairness.

The Democrats’ proportionality scheme for delegate selection has proved problematic, as well. By awarding pledged delegates based on a candidate’s proportional share of the vote, rather than by winner-take-all, the Democratic National Committee has ensured political gridlock: neither candidate will achieve the magic number of 2,024 delegates before the August convention without help from the superdelegates. Further, the application of proportionality has been inconsistent from state-to-state, with complicated allocation schemes in some precincts and congressional districts in places like Nevada and California.

Proportionality has also encouraged the practice of identity politics. When either of the Democratic candidates has trailed badly in a given state (say, Clinton in Mississippi, or Obama in Ohio), the end-game strategy has been to target specific ethnic and racial voting blocs—exacerbating divisions within the party—in the hopes of winning delegates based on proportional support.

Those undemocratic caucuses

State caucuses, perhaps the most undemocratic part of the process, have greatly benefited Obama and his motivated and well-organized activists (the now famous “latte liberals”). The caucuses have effectively disenfranchised many working class voters without the free time, or patience, to sit through a lengthy political meeting. Even worse, the caucuses operated without secret balloting, the foundation of any free election!

The Clinton campaign has also played electoral games. Clinton kept her name on the Michigan ballot when the other Democratic candidates withdrew, and she changed her position and called for the Florida primary results to be recognized after she won. Further, Clinton supporters have been reduced to arguing that Obama’s red state primary victories shouldn’t count as much as Clinton’s blue state strength in the Northeast, Midwest, and California.

Surveying this tangled mess, Will Rogers’ observation that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat seems apt. Ironically, the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton seems tailor-made for intervention by the superdelegates. More than half of registered Democrats will not have expressed their preference in the primaries/caucuses, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo has noted, and it seems reasonable to have a mechanism for their representation. As most superdelegates are elected officials, they are ultimately accountable to the voters, who could—in theory–unseat them in the next election cycle if they were perceived to have betrayed Democratic principles.

Yet, in the end the Democratic superdelegates are likely to take the path of least resistance and award the nomination to Obama. If Obama wins the trifecta of the most pledged delegates, the largest popular vote total, and the most number of states (a probable outcome), no matter how flawed the process may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Obama could be denied the top spot on the Democratic ticket.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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