What Changed the FCC Chairman’s Mind?

On the occasion last week of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s passage of “net neutrality” regulations, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Commission, announced that it was “the proudest day of my public policy life.”  It’s not known whether that statement is a reflection of how little Wheeler feels he’s accomplished in life, or an embarrassing attempt to take credit for something that was forced on him.

What we do know is that the regulation that passed with his vote – and those of the other two Democrats on the Commission – was not the much sounder one Wheeler initially proposed, but a radical version that carries within it opportunities for mischief and much worse than that.

So what happened to change Wheeler’s mind?  The most obvious explanation is the interjection of President Obama who, a few weeks before the vote, publicly stated his view that the FCC should subject Internet service providers (ISPs) to utility-like regulation.  This is the explanation for Wheeler’s switch held by most insiders, and there’s no doubt that these FCC commissioners, their notional “independence” notwithstanding, move like earlier ones to the music of their parties and the presidents who appoint them. >> Read More

Free Speech and the Academy

So here we are as a nation, at the intersection of fear and despair, and what do we get?  A blessing on the activities of the latter-day Hitler Youth among the nations “progressive” collegians!  This, courtesy of a piece written by one Lucia Graves, as published in National Journal.

Under the title “The Case for Protesting Your Commencement Speaker,” Graves manages to assemble, in the fewest number of words, more non sequiturs, straw men, and fallacies than should be permitted any professional journalist.

Of course some might argue that Graves is neither professional nor a journalist.  Having formerly written for the Huffington Post about energy matters, where she demonstrated the same facility for agitprop that she displays in the NJ piece, Graves more closely resembles a wannabe editorialist or MSNBC commentator than a journalist or reporter.

For those who get the picture already, and would rather not inflict on themselves the whole of Graves’s opus, it’s perhaps enough just to know the subtitle of her piece: “These students aren’t silencing debate.  They’re creating it.”

That statement sums up nicely the quality of what Graves has to say about the recent travesties at Rutgers, Haverford, Smith, and numerous other colleges, where students and faculty have succeeded in shouting down, or otherwise causing the cancellation of appearances at campus events, of speakers who have said or done something that gives offense to the PC police and student/faculty progressives.

Graves’s argument is reminiscent of one made by a protester at Brown University who, fresh off a successful shout down of the New York City chief of police, averred that the affair “was a powerful demonstration of free speech.”  As written at the time, the Brown case was a powerful demonstration of free speech in the same way that a mugging is a powerful demonstration of free will.

Similarly, the protesters of which Graves speaks “created debate” only in the sense that, by their actions, they have demonstrated the peril in the growth and nurturing of a mindset and a movement that are, at bottom, fascistic.

Given her inconsequence and modest ability, one might wonder about the need to criticize Graves at all.  Indeed, the criticism here is pretty tame compared to the kind she gets in the (highly recommended) comments her piece attracted in NJ itself.  Moreover, one should hasten to commend (even as Graves objects to) a number of liberal outlets, including Slate, Vox, the Nation, and the Daily Beast, which have roundly criticized the campus thuggery.

Even so, there remain reasons to criticize Graves, most notably because she’s far from alone, and the disease of which she’s a carrier is found not just on campus but off campus as well.

Witness, for instance, the latest chapter in the ongoing attempt by “climate change” activists to isolate and censor climate scientists who say or do things that indicate any degree of skepticism about the subject.

As reported, Swedish climate scientist Lennart Bengtsson’s scholarly paper was rejected for publication by a leading scientific journal after one reviewer criticized it on the grounds that it would provide fodder for climate change skeptics.  Bengtsson’s crime?  He and his four co-authors suggested that climate is less sensitive to greenhouse gases than has been reported by the UN’s IPCC.

When, as now, too many people believe that the ends justify the means, even the most basic of human rights, like freedom of speech, can be targeted by propagandists.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Opinion Journalism vs. Objective News Reporting

The rise of opinion journalism, not just among cable and the newer media but elements of the legacy media as well, magnifies the problem of the dearth of objective news reporting.  About five years ago even the Associated Press announced a turn toward opinion, euphemistically referred to as “accountability journalism,” while the Washington Post and the New York Times have for years now been foundering in the stuff.

Makes one wonder where to turn (outside, perhaps, of the business and financial journals) for investigative and feature news that is not in service to some political party, ideology, or special interest.

And what a loss!  At the very moment that this country desperately needs an independent, credible, and objective press to describe and chronicle the country’s manifest economic problems, there’s practically nobody in the Fourth Estate who commands widespread trust and respect.

For all the talk about the new media, much of it online, is there anyone so credulous as to believe they’re getting unvarnished facts in a “news report” published by such as Slate, Salon, or the Huffington Post?  Or, at the other extreme, by Breitbart, Drudge, or Newsmax?

Nor is there any relief to be found in the product offered up by outlets like Politico, an online journal that has never spotted an issue of such gravity it can’t be covered by resort to rumor, superficiality, and the banalities of horse race journalism.

The complete failure of the media to adequately explain complex policy issues first became unavoidably clear during the presidential election of 2008 when, despite the obvious nature of our economic distress at the time, the media demanded precisely nothing of substance on the subject from McCain or Obama.

This failure has also been a persistent feature of the coverage since of the Affordable Care Act, sequestration, the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing,” and unemployment.  A recent headline from Mediaite, summarizing a new Pew poll, put it this way: “Biased, Frivolous, And Liberal: Poll Shows Most Americans Still Distrust The Media.”

A number of academics have aided and abetted the collapse of objectivity as a journalistic standard, premising their arguments on the sophomoric notion that objectivity isn’t attainable.  Of course it isn’t attainable if there’s no interest in attaining it, but it’s not like objectivity is a Zen koan or some such. What’s required is editors who are smarter and tougher and more fair-minded than the reporters who work for them, and owners who care about the editorial product itself and not just the ads the editorial product attracts.

The need for objective news reporting grows in proportion to the number and kinds of societal problems, especially those with an important economic element.  Take, for instance, the recent scandals centering on the actions of the IRS.

For most political reporters, and most politicians, the targeting of conservatives by that agency is only of real importance if it can be shown that the president or senior administration officials ordered it.  But that’s just exactly backwards.  The targeting is vastly worse if there was no Administration input; if, instead, these were just the acts of a politicized bureaucracy.

Indeed, the accuracy and value-free qualities of government data collection and government-supplied information are indispensable to this or any well functioning democracy.  Whole markets, after all (not to mention laws and regulations) turn on the truthfulness and clarity of data such as that supplied every month by the Commerce and Labor departments.

A story posted on Aug.11, by Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Weil, adds a wrinkle to the subject. According to Weil, the Justice Department admitted to having grossly overstated the number of mortgage fraud cases the department had filed as part of a multi-agency Mortgage Fraud Working Group.  Weil characterizes the false numbers originally given out as appearing to have been “willfully filed,” and only belatedly corrected because of the pressure put on by some other Bloomberg reporters.

In the larger scheme of things, this particular example of governmental malfeasance is probably not going to bring down the Republic, but the point of it all is to say that if the nation’s news media were to multiply Bloomberg’s reportorial effort by, say, a hundred (or a thousand) additional examples, the media might resurrect their own faltering reputations, and help sustain our democracy in the process.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

David Stockman Riles the Commentariat

Unless you’re a demagogue or an ideologue (or, like Paul Krugman, both), it might have occurred to you that this country’s outsized money printing by the Fed and our ongoing fiscal deficits are going to end badly; that the debts being piled up, at the velocity of a hurricane, will never be repaid (indeed couldn’t be repaid other than with greatly devalued dollars); and that the likely end result therefore is going to be destabilizing inflation, and the passing along to future generations of staggering debt.

To harbor such thoughts is not only rational but wise, and undoubtedly on the minds of millions of Americans.  Which – along with the fact that he’s promoting a new book – perhaps explains why David Stockman recently wrote a lengthy op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he elaborates on these concerns, and lays the blame on Keynesianism and what he regards as other destructive concepts, past and present.

Titled “State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America,” Stockman’s piece is powerful stuff and so, of course, has attracted the wrath of legions of the “progressive” members of the commentariat.  Taken together, their criticisms speak volumes about the impoverishment of the progressive mindset but almost nothing about Stockman’s concerns.

Indeed, one gets the impression that the important thing for the sort of people encountered at places like the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and New York Times was to be early to the scene; rather like a contest, the winner would be the person who scored on Stockman the first and punchiest ad hominem attack.

So it is that Stockman’s piece is variously described as “spittle-filled,” a “horrific screed,” and the “unfortunate rant” of a “cranky old man.”

None of this is unprecedented, of course, and in fact it positively guarantees that Stockman’s book will be a best seller. But there’s something a little creepy about the invective employed by people who profess to come by their opinions as a consequence of sweet reason.  Creepier still is the intolerance displayed by Krugman, who characterizes his employers’ decision to publish Stockman’s piece as “mysterious.”

Whatever else one might say, the only people who would question the Times’ decision to publish Stockman’s piece are those who think that only their own views deserve a hearing.

Nobody is going to agree with everything that the gentleman wrote, but the decision to publish his piece was not only not mysterious, it was correct and, if anything, belated.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


We’re All Centrists Now

The excitement is almost more than a person can bear.  From one corner of medialand to the other, progressives are on the march!  From out of New York comes the report, sure to send a frisson through who knows how many strange people, that Keith Olbermann is joining Al Gore’s Current TV.  As Olbermann’s PR firm put it: “He and his new partners will make an exciting announcement regarding the next chapter in his remarkable career.”  Remarkable indeed, since if codswallop were diamonds, Olbermann would be the shiniest man on television.

Meanwhile, Arianna Huffington, than whom no one better amalgamates progressive politics and uber commercialism, just sold the Huffington Post to AOL for more than $300 million.  And as for those cranks who have qualms about AOL acquiring a property with HuffPo’s pronounced political slant, not to worry, because Arianna says it isn’t “left” since only 15 percent of the site’s traffic goes to the politics section.

Indeed, Huffington’s denial of being a purveyor of liberalism is a familiar refrain these days.  Over at the New York Daily News, Josh Greenman recently wrote that the success of Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and Fox News proves the nonexistence of the “dominant liberal media,” while John Harris, the editor of Politico, has opined on the subject in print and on the air.

Interviewed on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show last month because he wanted “to rebut” Hewitt’s earlier claim that Politico has veered left in the last two years, Harris mostly avoided answering Hewitt’s questions, and this week published an essay in Politico where he claimed that most reporters “might more accurately be accused of centrist bias.”

So what to make of all this?  Why the rush to deny liberalism and lay journalistic claim on the center?  Several theories present themselves.  The first is opportunism and the second is obfuscation.  Beyond these lurk other possibilities, such as: (1) that certain reporters see the political handwriting on the wall and want not to be seen as among the victims; or (2) that many political reporters just don’t get it; that when they say, as Harris says in his Politico piece, that they “believe broadly in government activism” they’ve just conceded conservatives’ principal complaint, and cannot then go on and blithely characterize that stance as “centrist.”

The ideological composition of the citizenry differs by country, but in the USA the math is clear: There are at least twice as many conservatives as liberals, and not to take anything away from Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, or Roger Ailes, this is the primary reason for their success: They have delivered products that appeal to a large number of people whose views are, and have been, badly underrepresented by the vast majority of news organizations, political reporters especially.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Free Press and the Huffington Post

As some have noticed, a few pieces on this blogsite were originally published on the Huffington Post.  I started writing at HuffPo, in November of last year, because I wanted to occasionally write things that I felt were inappropriate for the Media Institute’s blogsite, and because I knew there were a few regulars there who, like me, were unhappy with the illiberalism of today’s “progressives.”

So it was that the first piece I wrote was a kind of introduction to all such called "The Orphan of the American Political System," in which I argued that it was a strange and unfortunate thing that liberals and libertarians were not allies.  (Because this piece had nothing to do with the media, and was overtly political, it wasn’t cross-posted, until now, on this website.)

Published in HuffPo’s “Politics” section, "Orphan" attracted a fair number of supporters and detractors — in other words pretty much what I expected, and all was well.  It wasn’t until I wrote blog number six, in February of this year, that the trouble began.

"The Intrinsic Menace in ‘Media Reform,’" published on Feb. 22, was a criticism of the “media reform” movement generally, and of the Knight Foundation, the FCC, and the group that calls itself Free Press specifically.  Among the subsequent commenters were Charles Firestone of the Aspen Institute, who challenged my characterization of the Knight Commission (a collaboration of Aspen and the Knight Foundation) and Timothy Karr of Free Press.

Karr’s comment was a classic.  In the finest tradition of political activists everywhere, Karr dealt not at all with the substantive points in my piece, but instead resorted to ad hominem attacks on me and The Media Institute, and faulted the editors of the Huffington Post for publishing it.

This last bit turned out to be a thing of some moment, about which more later, but Karr had more to say.  Lot’s more.  Just one day after the publication of "Intrinsic Menace," Karr wrote a piece for his own blog (Media Citizen) titled "When Corporate Shills Attack."  And three days after that he published, on the Huffington Post, a piece titled "Announcing the (Unofficial)Post Shill Watch," and cross-posted it the same day at Daily Kos.

The burden of both pieces, if that’s the word, was two-fold: HuffPo was allowing “corporate shills” (like me) to enter its progressive sanctum sanctorum, and it was not requiring said bloggers to state their organizations’ sources of support.

Had this been all that Karr said it wouldn’t have been an issue. Criticism by Free Press, after all, is considered by many, myself included, to be a thing of no importance, such is that organization’s tedious and transparent “mission.”  But it wasn’t all that he said.  In his Media Citizen blog, Karr also said that I personally had blocked publication of comments he had submitted to HuffPo — that in fact I had blocked his comments no less than five times.

And that was a lie.  Not only had I not done so, I wouldn’t have done for the simple reason that, as the head of one of the country’s leading First Amendment organizations, censorship is not my thing.

So this was unacceptable, and the only question was what to do about it.  After considering other approaches, I decided to ask HuffPo for their help.  As I put it in an e-mail to an associate editor there:

(Tim Karr) is saying on other sites that I have blocked him from commenting on my post at HuffPo.  He claims that he has been blocked five times.  I don’t know if he has in fact been blocked — he has a comment up there now, to which I responded — but I know, as you know, that I certainly didn’t block him.  Since, however, you are the only people who can prove my innocence of Karr’s charge, I hope you’ll find the time and a way to do so.

Thus began a frustrating exchange of notes that went on for eight days.  To my point that Karr had accused me of blocking his comments, the editor initially suggested that Karr was referring to someone else.  To Karr’s claim that I had blocked him five times, the editor suggested I write a piece for HuffPo with a link showing that one comment had been published.  And because Karr had published his accusation on his own blog (Media Citizen), well, there wasn’t much that HuffPo could do about that.

Finally, on March 5, I got a reply to a note I had sent the day before, in which I bluntly questioned why HuffPo was reluctant to tell Karr that I had not blocked his comments.  Much as I had expected, the editor’s note revealed that it was HuffPo itself that had blocked his comments, that they had done so because his comments were critical of HuffPo’s editors, and that Karr had been informed of this in a phone conversation.

I was relieved to hear this, and I thanked the editor and told him it was all I needed, but this affair left a bad taste in my mouth.  It would, after all, have been an easy thing for HuffPo to reveal Karr’s lie by commenting on his "Shill Watch" post on HuffPo itself, though of course that would have required that they publicly own up to blocking his comments themselves.

The bad taste got worse less than a month later when, on March 31, HuffPo announced “new blogging guidelines.”  As described on their website:

In an effort to be as transparent with our readers as possible, we require HuffPost bloggers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest related to the issue they are writing about.  If a blogger receives payment or income from a company, organization, group, or individual with a financial stake in the issue he/she is weighing in on, that information must be disclosed at the bottom of the applicable blog post.

For those who have opened the hyperlinks provided above, these words will sound familiar.  In fact, they sound exactly like what Karr was demanding. As he wrote in his Media Citizen blog:

I respect Huffington Post for building a home for many of us who seek an alternative to the mainstream mouthpieces that dominate news and commentary.  But they do not, unfortunately, require the kind of disclaimer I’d like to see regarding a new crop of contributors who are using the site to push corporate agendas.  I’m hoping that will change soon.  (Emphasis added.)  

Apart from the appearance of an inordinate amount of influence that Free Press has at the Huffington Post, there are many things wrong with this guideline, the most obvious being the way it lumps together people who work for organizations as diverse as law firms, corporations, PR firms, and nonprofit organizations, and implies moreover that bloggers’ opinions amount to “conflicts of interest” wherever they derive any income from entities that have a “financial interest” in the subject being blogged.  It also has the (deliberate?) effect of letting people whose contributors have an “ideological interest,” like Karr and the Free Press funders, off the disclaimer hook altogether.

If, as appears to be the case, HuffPo’s new disclaimer guidelines are a consequence, in whole or in part, of lobbying by Free Press, about whose funding we know next to nothing, the irony is almost too rich for human consumption.

But for the Huffington Post, this is not the worst of it.  Despite its left-leaning editorial slant, one can see in HuffPo the potential for dialogue.  It’s inherent in the openness of the site itself, and it’s implied by Arianna Huffington’s history and in her published views.  But at Free Press dialogue and debate are treated as bourgeois concepts, best abused or neglected, and if the Huffington Post allows them to influence their editorial policies they stand to lose not just a diverse readership but their credibility as well.

“Whale Wars”: Just Another Fish Tale

If you believe, as I do, that Greenpeace is to conservation what televangelism is to religion, all that  would need to be said about Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” is that the “captain” of the Sea Shepherds’ vessel, Paul Watson, is a co-founder of that organization.  Because, however, Greenpeace disputes Watson’s claim, amidst what appears to be a long-running feud between them, perhaps more may be required.

So here’s some.  As reported on Wikipedia, Watson has, at one time or another, been involved in campaigns on behalf of wolves, sharks, seals, dolphins, American Indians, and now whales.  Along the way he has relieved himself of opinions like his belief “that ‘no human community should be larger than 20,000 people,’ human populations should be reduced to ‘fewer than one billion,’ and that only those who are ‘completely dedicated to the responsibility’ of caring for the biosphere should have children.”

Though the fact of it may not have reached Animal Planet, Watson has also developed quite a revealing take on the media.  As he says in his book, heroically titled Ocean Warrior: “Survival in a media culture meant developing the skills to understand and manipulate media to achieve strategic objectives.”

But enough about Watson.  It’s the show that’s the thing, and a good critique of “Whale Wars” was published earlier this month on the Huffington Post.  The author, Richard Spilman, harpooned the series for its approving portrayal of vigilantism and feckless grandstanding.

“So what’s the problem with Whale Wars?” he asks.  “The problem is that it is cheap exploitation in praise of what is nothing less than eco-terrorism.  It is the glorification of vigilantism on the high seas.  And oh, by the way, the Sea Shepherds do almost nothing to protect the whales where they really do need protection.”

Mostly what they do is speed around offending ships in inflatables and attempt to loft stink bombs onto their decks, all the while flying and wearing the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger, an amusing choice of insignia considering that they don’t actually fight, or even scare, anybody.

In any contest between whales and whalers I would root for the whales.  But if the choice is between whalers and the Sea Shepherds, I’m with the whalers.

Whither Journalism? Part II

If journalism of a satisfactory depth, independence, and scale is going to survive, it will have to be produced by professional journalists employed by profit-making organizations.  As such it will require revenue streams that are sufficient for the purpose.  As a practical matter this means that newspapers will have to find ways of getting paid for access to their online content.  Advertising by itself will not do the trick.

But given the growing number of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news aggregating sites who specialize in opinion pieces (RealClearPolitics, Huffington Post, Drudge) there is a real question of how professional journalists can distinguish themselves from the rest of their online competition.

The view from here is that the question answers itself.  Professional news organizations, newspapers especially, should rid their online news pages of opinion and concentrate instead on the production of news and feature stories that run deep and straight down the middle.

Unfortunately this is the precise opposite of what is in vogue today, with media organizations like Newsweek and even the Associated Press moving in the direction of more rather than less opinion in their news stories.  It’s a mistake.

Opinion is the cheapest commodity in the world, precisely because everybody has one.  No need for inside or expert sources, for special expertise in the subject matter, or even for any real writing ability.  Opinion gains recognition in direct proportion to the extravagance of its expression.  As such, opinion is the “killer app” not of newspapers but of the blogosphere, which is why a site as undistinguished as Daily Kos attracts such a large number of visitors.

The problem for newspapers is compounded when the opinions they express in their news and editorial pages are too one-sided politically.  To give one example, the New York Times, which is losing paid circulation at a ferocious pace, reads these days very much like a house organ in its support of the Democratic party and policies.

To believe that this is not spotted, and resented, by people who are, say, Republicans or conservatives, is an exercise in self-delusion.  Even if one wants to argue that Republicans and conservatives are not in the majority today, they represent a very large minority for any business needing to sell itself to the public at large.

In any case, the main point is that newspapers and other professional news organizations should concentrate on doing those things, like in-depth and objective coverage of domestic and foreign affairs, which neither the news aggregators nor the bloggers have the talent or resources to do themselves.

Whatever their future revenue streams — from advertising and micropayments or walled content — it’s going to be necessary for the “mainstream media” to finds ways of distinguishing themselves from their online competitors.  One way of doing that would be to practice first-rate journalism and rigorous objectivity in the reporting and analysis of the news.