If 35 Economists Said the Sky Was Green

The top economic story of the early week was the wonderful (sic) news of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) that “more than 80% of top economists believe that the recession that started almost two years ago is finally over.  But most don’t expect meaningful improvement in jobs, credit or housing for months to come.”

The 35 of 43 economists giving the economy a thumbs-up made their pronouncements based on a prediction of 3% growth in the U.S. economy in the 3rd quarter.

Now if there is no improvement in jobs, credit remains tight and the housing market continues to stagnate, then who really cares if the recession is over or not.  It seems to me that Sarkozy is right: we are measuring the wrong things.  I want the economists to say a recession is over when jobs are growing, not the collective wealth as measured in GNP.  Until jobs grow and the suffering of millions of unemployed ends then the economists might as well be saying that the sky is green.

Media Miss the Peace Prize Point

I wondered the other day how the media would spin the news that our President won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The answer was what I suspected it would be, but didn’t state in my post of October 9: In its effort to even-handedly present two sides of an inconsequential question—does President Obama deserve the Peace Prize—the news media has missed the point of this year’s award: President Obama won it for not being Bush, for being the president at the moment the U.S. has begun to slough off the bloody and short-sided unilateral bullying and the lawless abandonment of international law of the Bush years.

I don’t think I really have to prove my point that the media has focused on “Does he or doesn’t he (deserve it)?” But here goes:

And over at the New York Times, besides its even-handed article about the does-he-or-doesn’t-he controversy on Saturday and a number of Op/Ed pieces, we heard on Sunday from that broken record called Maureen Dowd who once again used a news story or trend as a springboard for bashing the Clintons.  She presented her view on the does-he-or-doesn’t-he controversy within an imaginary dialogue in which President Clinton expresses enraged envy that President Obama won the award and he didn’t.   She just completely makes it up.

For those who care, here are some other recent Clinton-bashings by Ms. One-Trick-Pony:

And what side do I support in the “does he or doesn’t he” non-controversy?: The Nobel committee told us why they did it and why Obama, as the symbol of the U.S.A., deserves the award.  In this instance, not being Bush is quite a lot, and enough.

Blaming the 70s for Child Rape

Conflation is when you confuse or equate two things that are not equal or do not have similar characteristics.   In the article titled “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Changed World” on the front page of today’s New York Times, Michael Cieply uses conflation to try and demonstrate that back in the 70s, sex with those under 18 was considered okay, not taboo as it is in today’s more righteous times. 

But the only piece of evidence Cieply gives us is that in the 70s there was once a fictional movie in which a 17-year-old girl has consensual sex with a man in his 40s (Manhattan, 1979).

There are two conflations at work here:

  1. The conflation of a fictional plot with an actual event: The two are not the same.  You can cite a number of fictional works to support the assertion of a trend, but you can’t use one fiction as your sole proof.
  2. The conflation of consensual sex with a 17-year-old with the rape of a 13-year-old:  In both the 1970s and today, the attitude of people towards a 17-year-old getting it on with someone older was/is lot different from their attitude towards raping a 13-year-old.  Virtually everyone in the 70s and virtually everyone today agreed/agree that rape of a 13-year-old is wrong and should be punished.  But both in the 70s and today, the range of opinion related to consensual sex with someone a few months under the age of consent has varied, with many wanting to know the specific conditions and circumstances before passing judgment. 

The premise of the article—that people in the 70s were more forgiving of child rape than people today—is wrong, wrong, wrong, which is why it remains unproven in the body of the article.

Cieply fills the article with bits of opinion by some self-proclaimed experts, none of it backed by any facts.  Here’s the most specious example:

Joelle Casteix, the southwest regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, traced the changes in attitude toward sex with minors, among other things, to a change in the movies.

“The kids of the ’70s were raised with films — ‘The Omen,’ ‘The Demon Seed’ — that put adult sensibilities into children,” said Ms. Casteix, whose group last week called for continued pursuit of Mr. Polanski at a demonstration in Los Angeles. “But a lot of changes in the ’80s, the Reagan era, made people look at their kids a little more and realize they were children.”

The expert is saying that the films of the 70s made children more adult-like, until Ronny Reagan rode in wearing a white hat to save the day.  How does that explain “An Education” (2009), “Tadpole” (2002) or “The Opposite of Sex” (1998)?  How does it explain “Wicked Little Things” (2006), “Them” (2006), “The Ring” (2002), “Whisper” (2002) or “Pet Sematary” (1989)?

A Nobel for Not Being Bush

I like Barack Obama.  I voted for him for president.  I like his domestic agenda for the most part. I like the empathy he expresses for the downtrodden.  I applaud the initiatives he has undertaken that won him the Nobel Prize for Peace, just announced a few hours ago, even as I am sorely disappointed that he has not yet taken all of our troops out of the sinkholes called Iraq and Afghanistan. 

I therefore hope that no one will now take it as an insult of our president when I write that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George Bush!

Just read from the committee’s announcement: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama’s calls for peace and cooperation but recognized initiatives that have yet to bear fruit: reducing the world stock of nuclear arms, easing American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change.” 

Or from the Associated Press story: “The Nobel committee praised Obama’s creation of ‘a new climate in international politics’ and said he had returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions like the U.N. to the center of the world stage.”

 It’s not too hard to read between those lines.

While the Associated Press mentions that the award could be seen as a “slap” at Bush, it only did so in the ninth paragraph, after a quote from Lech Walesa (which is a sure signal that the important parts of the story have already been told!).

I’ll be interested to see if the news media and commentators spend much time on the “He’s not Bush” angle.  I’m also eager to learn the reactions of Rush, Glen and the rest of the lying right-wing crowd.

The Frugality Myth

There have been two views in the news media concerning the new frugality, the idea that we in the U.S. are spending less on personal stuff than we did before the recession. 

  1. Those who say the recession has wrought a deep and permanent change in our spending habits, so that any adults alive today will remain frugal until they pass away. 
  2. Those who say that profligate spending will replace this new frugality as soon as the economic hard times have ended.

The underlying premise, of course, is fallacious, to whit, that we are now frugal.  Much of the decline in personal spending results from the increase in unemployment; in fact, an article by James Surowiecki in the most recent New Yorker says by that standard, maybe spending isn’t down as much as it should be.  BTY, Surowiecki is in the “this soon shall pass” camp.

How can I make such a bold assertion when retail sales are down everywhere?

  • Our six percent savings rate—up from spending more than we were making on an annual basis—is still laughably low compared to virtually all other developed countries.  What we’re not saving, we’re spending!
  • Our carbon print per capita is still much higher than any other developed nation.
  • People are still gambling, and what can be less frugal than gambling?
  • A majority of the country is still overweight or obese, suggesting people are still not frugal with their food budgets.

Yes, we’ve cut back, but just because you cut back, that doesn’t mean you’re frugal.  For example, years ago, L.A. county asked residents to voluntarily cut back water consumption by 10%, so people began exchanging water bills for comparison.  My uncle did this with one of his work associates and discovered that the guy’s son used about twice as much water as my uncle’s family of six.  Even if this guy cut back 10%, I don’t think anyone would have said he was frugal with water.

My point is not to make an argument by anecdote, but instead to create an analogy to help explain why I don’t think our society has become frugal.  When you net out the decrease in personal spending that stems from unemployment, the cutting back that people who have jobs and money are doing is not enough to accuse the U.S. of frugality. Not even close.

So what is the ideological subtext of debating if our nonexistent “new frugality” is temporary or permanent?  I think that the idea is to support retail sales, since it makes us feel good to be frugal now and makes us feel that we don’t have to cut back anymore than we already have, which would further lower sales of discretionary products and services. 

Now I’m not saying that there is a conspiracy, but rather a buzz that becomes a debate that is deemed newsworthy by key editors, all of whom share the same basic ideology and the same basic need for advertisers.  Pundits and experts pick up the debate as it has been defined and decide to chime in.  For a fuller explanation of the total process, I recommend William Domhoff’s The Powers That Be.

Speaking of the Devil “They”

No sooner did I post a rant about syntactical mistakes that editors (and teachers) hate to see, in yesterday’s blog on ways to get the media to toss away a news release, when low and behold—I pull from my mailbox an incredibly embarrassing example of the offense that gets made fun of by editors perhaps more than any other: the use of “they” for “he’, “she” or “it.”

Here is the headline from a 9” X 6” postcard sent by Fragasso Financial Advisors, a financial planning firm:

 Did your advisor talk with you during the downturn?

What did they say?

The mistake, of course, was to use “they” to refer to “your advisor,” since “advisor” is singular and “they” is plural.   Of course, to write “What did he or she say” is pretty stiff, as are all the variants: he/she, he or she, heshe, shehe, et. al. 

I would rewrite it as “Did your advisors talk with you…,” pluralizing “advisor” so that “they” can refer to it. 

If the text were for a speech, radio ad, TV or other spoken application, “they” would be useable, if not preferred.  Spoken language is always less formal than written nonfiction prose.  On the other hand, those elements of language that arbiters most resist changing usually have to do with logic and there is nothing logical about a single entity being referred to as plural entities.

An open question is why the firm uses “advisor” instead of “financial advisor?”  The less precise term could refer to a wide range of professional service vendors and thus lends an element of inaccuracy, or perhaps imprecision, to the headline.

Six ways to get the media to throw out your news release

Every day, reporters and editors endure an overwhelming tide of news releases and story ideas—in their email inboxes, in the mail, by fax.  From this ocean of information they hope to fish out a few stories that are truly newsworthy to their audience.  Some stories cry out for coverage, and I don’t just mean acts of violence or the snafus of politicians.  For example, it’s newsworthy when two large companies merge or if an international rock star gives a benefit concert. 

But what if the story is smaller? Why do some get selected and some don’t?

Although I have been a public relations professional or news reporter for more than 25 years, I still can’t tell you how to guarantee media coverage of a smaller news story or one that may be part news and part feature. 

But I can share a number of mistakes that will typically guarantee that the news release ends up in the trash bin.  When I was a television news reporter years ago, not a day went by in which I did not see at least one news release with one of these mistakes.  And, judging from the complaints I hear from reporters and the news releases that I see on company websites today, these mistakes are still quite widespread. 

Here are six of the most common errors that organizations and marketing agencies make when approaching the news media:

1.  Send the news release to a reporter or to a media outlet that would never consider covering the story because it’s not in their editorial scope.

2.  Send it to a reporter in a way that he/she doesn’t like and perhaps doesn’t use.  While most reporters like email, some still prefer facsimile transmissions or even regular mail.  It’s best to find out ahead of time what each reporter prefers.

3.  Write the news release from the point of view of your organization or its customers and not from the point of view of the audience for the media outlet. 

4.  Use too much jargon or make the news release too technical.

5.  Make syntactical errors that virtually all reporters know are wrong.  For a full list of some of the more common of these glaring writing mistakes, see the Associated Press Style Book or any edition of Strunk & White.  Here are two examples:

  • Misuse of “comprise:” saying that “animals comprise the zoo” when in fact “the zoo comprises animals”
  • Referring to a company as an animate object or a plural object in the use of pronouns, “the company who…” and “the company and their employees…” are both wrong.  It should be “the company that…” and “the company and its employees.”  Don’t trust the word check function in Word on this point: it is just plain wrong to say “the company who” and “the person that.” 

6.  Use some overworked words that signal that there is more hype than news.  Our research shows that many reporters and editors automatically delete email that contains words they hate to see; the words that will most commonly turn off reporters include “solutions,”  “scalable,” “state-of-the-art” and that enduring classic of hyped language, “unique.”  By the way, a recent study showed that the media receive a news release containing the word “solution” every eight minutes.

The common theme in these mistakes is lack of knowledge of or respect for journalists and the news gathering process.  It is a lack of knowledge that causes organizations to misuse words or send a news release to the wrong reporter.  It is a lack of respect for the process that is at the heart of focusing the message of a news release on something that is important to the organization, but not to anyone else.

The best way to approach reporters is to treat them like you treat a customer: know what makes them tick, understand how your product—the news story—helps them out, communicate in the language they like to use, and make it as convenient as possible for them to work with your organization. 

This ad is about as slimy as it gets

The back page of the first section of yesterday’s New York Times had one of the most cynical, manipulative ads I have ever seen.  From The Center for Consumer Freedom, the headline reads in ultra big letters: YOU ARE TOO STUPID, with junk or junky food standing in for several letters:

  • A donut standing in for the O of YOU
  • A slice of pepperoni pizza for the A of ARE
  • A cheeseburger followed by the bird’s eye view of a can of soda—circle of aluminum with tab—for the two O’s of TOO
  • A chocolate chip cookie eaten into the shape of a U and an ice cream cone with a scoop of chocolate for the U and I of STUPID.

The ad continued: “(YOU ARE TOO STUPID) …to make good personal decisions about food and beverages.  The New York Department of Health/Hype has used your tax dollars to launch an advertising campaign to demonize soda.”

The ad goes on to rage against food cops, closing with, “It’s your food.  It’s your drink.  It’s your freedom,” and then sends you to ConsumerFreedom.com

Oh yes, there’s a lovely photo of a family of four at the table, in shape and as white as can be, about to dig into a big pizza in an unidentifiable location that has restaurant lighting.  All have extra large sodas by their side.

This ad is about as slimy as it gets.  It disregards the fact that bad nutrition, overeating and the obesity that they cause have been tied to a vast range of ailments and an enormous increase in health care costs.  The ad lauds the importance of choice as overriding all other concerns the way that any organization does that is trying to avoid regulation or taxation of its product or service.  It’s same the tactic tobacco companies took in attacking ”no smoking” ordinances, even injecting an almost mystical desire for freedom into their advertising, especially to women.  Could automobile makers have once raged against stoplights or mandatory automobile insurance?

Worst of all, like the promulgators of the “brother’s myth” and creationism, this ad tells people lies that they want to hear.  

And if lies and distortions are ice, then this ad is just the tip of a giant iceberg called The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF).

The CCF mission statement says that it’s “a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices.” 

On its home page, we see links to articles and “studies,” all in one way or another communicating that people can eat or drink whatever they damn please and it’s nobody’s business and besides, it’s all healthy for them, which is why government regulation is bad.  Some examples:

  • A section on obesity attempts to prove that being morbidly overweight is not bad for your health, including a white paper that supposedly refutes Center for Disease Control mortality statistics.  This is for real! I did not make it up.
  • A home page article refutes the “bad publicity” that high fructose corn syrup has gotten for adding empty calories to virtually all processed foods.
  • Another home page article reviews a recent book that attacks locavores, which is a movement dedicated to improving the quality of food consumed while using less energy by stressing the eating of locally-grown fresh foods.
  • A part of the Food & Drink section focuses on the benefits of genetically modified food. 

Lurking within virtually every article on the CCF website is the ideological subtext that a corporation would never sell you anything that was bad for you.

Who would contribute to an organization that is the nutritional and health equivalent of those that fight the idea that our globe is warming because of human activity?  I don’t know because there is no information about the organization, its board of directors or its executive director.  The boilerplate in news releases and other material gives only a hint of who is behind this outrage:

“The Center for Consumer Freedom is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by restaurants, food companies, and individual consumers together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.”

Gays and Straights and Everyone Else, Too

My response to a comment that my good friend Paul Sheldon made about my September 10 entry on GQ led me into some interesting waters, so I thought I would just make it today’s blog entry. 

Paul writes, “GQ is basically a fashion magazine and ‘read’ for the ads, not for the text.  I always heard that GQ stood for GayQueer, but that redirection does not change your basic premise (I agree).”

My response: Although I think some studies show that a higher percentage of gay men than straight men are interested in fashion it would still be wrong to dub a fashion magazine as “gay,” unless of course, the magazine’s stated audience were gay men (or the wider GLBT market); GQ has never done so.  Plenty of straight men, sometimes called metrosexuals, have a keen interest in high fashion style. 

In short, the remark is mildly homophobic.  I know Paul well and he definitely is not a homophobe, and in fact supports freedom of expression and lifestyle pursuit for all groups (except perhaps warmongers, if I can put words into Paul’s mouth).  I just feel I have to point it out, and hope that if I ever write anything even mildly homophobic, racist or sexist, that someone points it out to me.  

And yet, by interjecting the topic of a sub-group into the discussion of the “fashion as weltanschauung,” Paul makes me think a little more deeply about the pervasive issue of the use of the news media to commoditize the pursuit of happiness.

In fact, there are a large number of lifestyles for which there are magazines that indoctrinate men (and women) into the idea that by purchasing a certain set of products and services, you will be living this lifestyle and thereby achieve either general happiness or the sexual pleasure you seek.  Let’s see, there’s…country, motorcycle, grunge, several varieties of Christian lifestyles, sports, tech geek, fitness.  And let’s not forget Disney! 

So it’s not just what you choose that defines your existence and your relationship to others and to objects, it’s also what your attitude is to the all-encompassing cultural imperative to consume as the primary or only way to express or pursue your choices. 

By the way, I think the deep recession has affected U.S. consumption patterns far less than what the media is reporting.  Even with the cutbacks, those with jobs or abundant assets are still spending at levels that seem fantastically regal by even the elevated standards of western Europe.  To say that there has been a real turn in the attitude of Americans towards consumption since the recession began is a bit of ideological subtext meant to make us feel good and virtuous for our profligate ways.

A Crisis Plan for Acorn

Here is what I would have told Acorn if it had asked me to handle the crisis involving two employees who were videotaped advising a fake pimp and prostitute how to defraud the government:

  1. Fire the people and immediately announce you have fired them because they are rogue employees.
  2. Demonstrate that the company has ethics and malfeasance policies that it enforces and communicates to employees on a regular basis.
  3. State that the organization is doing a full-scale investigation that will look into how policies can be improved to prevent a reoccurrence.
  4. Remind everyone with easy-to-understand facts how much Acorn helps people.
  5. Announce results of the investigation, which will likely reveal that these are isolated instances of rogue employees, and make sure you include at least three concrete steps the organization is taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  6. Consider rolling the head of an executive who takes the blame for poor oversight.

What I just described is the standard crisis communications strategy when a corporation steps into the deep stuff.  I have used these communications principles to help maybe 25 organizations to successfully overcome crises caused by malfeasance, stupidity, acts of nature, mistakes and bad luck.  My shorthand for this strategy is: fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again.

Now it occurred to me that perhaps Acorn tried this strategy, but the news media did not let it succeed for ideological reasons.  And while it’s true that the conservative media has been after Acorn’s blood for some time now, my analysis of the news releases on the Acorn website suggests that Acorn efforts to “fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again” have been too little, too late.

Of course, it doesn’t help the situation much when in responding to the announcement that the IRS was severing ties with the group, Acorn’s chief executive lets herself be quoted saying, “We had already made that decision to not deliver these services.”  Few things are more detrimental to an organization with a social or political mission than for it to characterize that mission as just another business product or service.