Media covers flawed survey without revealing the flaw just so they can keep opposition to global warming in the news.

First the sad news: A study released yesterday by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that only about half of approximately 570 television weathercasters surveyed believe that global warming is occurring and fewer than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activities.

Now the news media coverage, primarily following a story on the front page of today’s New York Times, used the study as a podium for expressing the view that there is still controversy over if there is global warming and what might cause it.  The bulk of the article tries to substantiate a broader opposition of meteorologists and climatologists on global warming beyond what is in the survey of TV weather personalities.  By pitting the meteorologists against the climatologists, the media coverage serves to keep the debate on global warming alive.  Of course among climatologists and other environmental scientists there is no controversy on this issue, as virtually all now do subscribe to the theory of global warming.

The media coverage makes a number of logical mistakes and the study itself has a small flaw.  As the Times article points out, only half of all TV weatherfolk have degrees in meteorology.  When I was a television news writer and reporter in the 1980’s, the TV weather people were for the most part entertainers, and that still seems to be the case to a great degree.  These TV stars are entitled to their opinion, but have absolutely no standing as experts on scientific issues. 

Now the purpose of the study was to see how TV weather personalities were contributing to science education, especially when it comes to global warming.  In fact the mission of the George Mason group is admirable: “to conduct unbiased public engagement research – and to help government agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies apply the results of this research – so that collectively, we can stabilize our planet’s life sustaining climate.”  The group knows that global warming is occurring and wants to create a body of research that can help us communicate more effectively to the public about this grave threat.  Obviously TV news weather personalities could contribute to that effort so understanding their attitudes is very important. 

But the professors make one small flaw, a very surprising one to someone with some familiarity with consumer research.  When we do consumer research, we try to divide our target market into significant segments, for example, sex, income level, size of company, education level.  We try to differentiate the segment by the factor that will give us the most information about the group, for example, when we did a survey for a maker of industrial seals, we segmented the survey respondents by size of company and customer versus noncustomer.  The George Mason study does absolutely no segmentation.  For a study with the goal of uncovering information to help improve science education, you would think that the professors would ask the survey respondents if they had degrees in meteorology or another scientific field, and then present one version of the findings with those with degrees separated from those without. 

Because of this small flaw by a well-intentioned group of researchers, the news media has an opening to conflate meteorologists with TV weather people and turn what should be a story on the sorry state of education of TV weather personalities into an argument that global warming might not be taking place.

There is also the issue of what a meteorologist’s expertise really is.  As the National Severe Storms Laboratory states, “While meteorologists study and forecast weather patterns in the short term, climatologists study seasonal variations in weather over months, years, or even centuries.”  And according to Joseph Romm on The Energy Collective website, meteorologists don’t even have to take a course in climate change, because it’s not part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service certification requirements.

So to have meteorologists chime in on the global warming debate is as helpful as having civil engineers, sociologists or theologians say their piece:  It’s not their area of expertise, and those who have developed the expertise virtually all say the same thing: our planet is warming and our species is at least in part to blame.

Believers that Obama is socialist, Muslim and anti-Christ use false evidence and illogical reasoning.

I usually don’t analyze the comments people leave on my blog, mainly because there is usually nothing much to say except, “Thanks for the kind words.”  I do want to spend a few paragraphs looking at what someone named Tom Snyder wrote about my entry of March 24 in which I share the results of a Louis Harris survey that finds that two-thirds of all Republicans think the President is a socialist, 57 percent think he’s a Muslim and 24 percent say “he may be the anti-Christ.”

Here is what Mr. Snyder writes about my statement that none of these assertions about our President are true: This is baloney. Castro just praised Obama-Care. And, he wants Obama’s cap and trade bill and amnesty for illegal aliens passed. Finally, there is indeed a notation on Obama’s school records showing his step-father considered him a Muslim. According to Islam, you cannot renounce the Muslim faith once you accept it. And, the fact that Obama went to a heretical black liberation church for 20 years proves that he’s not really a Christian. There is no one Anti-Christ, but Obama’s big government, pro-abortion policies reflect the national socialist policies of the Beast in the Book of Revelation, who IS an Anti-Christ.”

Let’s deconstruct Mr. Snyder’s evidence that Obama is a socialist, a Muslim and possibly the anti-Christ, beginning with his proof that President Obama is a socialist: “Castro just praised Obama-Care. And, he wants Obama’s cap and trade bill and amnesty for illegal aliens passed.” I guess that means that if Castro is in favor of flush toilets, anyone who uses them is a socialist.  My point, of course, is that just because someone who calls himself a socialist likes a political position that does not mean that everyone who holds that position is a socialist. 

If we pick at Snyder’s statements a little more closely, we discover more logical flaws: 1) Obama-Care has no public option, as a socialist law would have, but instead delivers some 30 million new customers to private insurance companies, just as mandating automobile insurance decades ago created millions of new customers for car insurance carriers. 2) “Cap-and-trade” is a way to regulate a free market (capitalism) without actually infringing on the right of companies to pollute, whereas a socialist solution to global warming would have the government take over industries. 3) It is absurd to call amnesty for illegal aliens a socialist position, because socialism describes an economic system, whereas amnesty for illegal aliens is a tactic for dealing with a social problem.  A laissez-faire capitalist could just as readily believe in amnesty without contradiction.

Let’s move on to Mr. Snyder’s evidence that our President is a Muslim: “…there is indeed a notation on Obama’s school records showing his step-father considered him a Muslim. According to Islam, you cannot renounce the Muslim faith once you accept it.”  Even if it were true that the President’s step-father once described Obama as a Muslim, that does not mean that the President ever considered himself a Muslim.  And even if as a youth Obama for a time considered himself to be Muslim or followed some Islamic practices, that does not mean he is caught in the Muslim identity forever, no matter what some set of Islamic religious leaders decided was religious law several centuries ago.  I am going to infer from his remarks and the fact that his link leads back to a Christian family movie-rating website that Mr. Snyder is a devout Christian. As a Christian, he should 1) believe in the concept of being reborn, which means anyone, including a Muslim or an African-American, can change one’s spots and become a different, “better” person; and 2) reject the authority of the Islamic religion, which means that the fact that Islamic law says you can’t renounce the faith has no bearing on how a Christian determines if someone is a Muslim or not.

More evidence that Mr. Snyder finds that our President is Muslim: “And, the fact that Obama went to a heretical black liberation church for 20 years proves that he’s not really a Christian.” Of course the black liberation church is Christian, but even if it were not, not being Christian does not make you Muslim.

I want to point out that the very fact that President Obama’s religion is an issue reflects an odious racism.  What would be wrong if he were a Muslim?  The ideological subtext behind the discussion is that being a Muslim is by definition a bad thing.  It reflects the belief by some such as Samuel Huntington that we are in a holy war with Islam.  I reject this analysis of current events as a racist excuse for launching wars to control natural resources.  But I will admit that for someone who believes in the holy war theory, it would be important to know who is and isn’t a Muslim.  But that “need to know” doesn’t make someone whose views you don’t like a Muslim.

Finally, let’s consider Mr. Snyder’s evidence that our President may be an anti-Christ: “There is no one Anti-Christ, but Obama’s big government, pro-abortion policies reflect the national socialist policies of the Beast in the Book of Revelation, who IS an Anti-Christ.”  Revelations is a cryptic document with lots of symbolism and fanciful language, leaving it as much open to interpretation as a book of prediction or a manual for explaining current events.  Words and phrases such as “big government,” “abortion” and “national socialism” are nowhere to be found in it.  Mr. Snyder and others can believe whatever they want to believe about the interpretation of Revelations.  It’s a great leap of logic, however, to state that someone is an anti-Christ because of a belief in positions that someone says that Revelations says are held by an allegorical figure.  By that definition, every mild anti-Semite is and was a Nazi, and we know that’s not true.

Mr. Snyder has every right to oppose the political positions held by our President and to fight against the President and his positions on the battlefield of ideas.  But saying the President is a socialist, Muslim and anti-Christ is just name-calling and nothing more.  Most of us have been brainwashed since birth to fear and hate socialism and to revere Christianity, and some of us reverted to an ugly racism in the wake of 9/11 by conflating what a small group of radicals did with the faith of a billion people.  Many therefore react emotionally when we hear someone called these terms.  Labeling has long been a cheap tactic used by political propagandists to make people dislike people and positions.  Labeling helped to turn back the tide of the progressive movement before and during World War I.  During the McCarthy era, labeling of people as communists instilled fear into the entire country.  

And labeling still works, as we can see from the Louis Harris survey that found that so many people apply these labels falsely to our President.  It sad and dangerous when name-calling replaces a logical discussion of the issues.  It’s just as disheartening though that people get away with the illogical justifications for name-calling that Mr. Snyder gives.

Survey shows lies that permeate Republican thinking; how it’s distributed symbolizes the death of print.

The news media was full of a very scary Louis Harris poll yesterday, a poll, by the way, that wasn’t supposed to be officially announced until today.  Some examples of stories about the survey:  “Poll: Most Republicans think Obama is a Muslim” and “‘Scary’ Harris poll: 24% of Republicans think Obama ‘may be the Antichrist’

First let’s consider the survey itself, which evidently demonstrates that a stubborn streak of ignorance has corrupted the Republican Party.  According to the poll of 2,230 people taken during the height of the “health care debate,” Republicans hold some very mistaken ideas about President Obama:

  • Two-thirds of all Republicans think the President is a socialist.
  • 57 percent think he’s a Muslim.
  • 24 percent say “he may be the Antichrist.”

Whether or not President Obama is the Antichrist is a matter of opinion (and a very weird question for Louis Harris to include in a poll), but it is factually inaccurate to label our President as either a socialist or a Muslim.  His handling of the financial bailout, his choice of big bankers as his primary policy gurus, his deference towards industry groups and his foreign policy decisions all speak to a reformist capitalist, that is, a capitalist who believes in government regulation of industry to create a fair set of rules and government investment to guide and grow the economy.  In short, a centrist Democrat in matters of economics.

By the way, the large number of Republicans who believe that Obama is Muslim reflects not just distrust of the President but an irrational hate of the Muslim religion.

All in all, a very disheartening survey because it’s never any good when large portions of the electorate hold false notions that will affect how they vote and what positions they will take on key issues.  Now I’m not that upset that these people hate Obama, but it’s frightening that they believe so much nonsense about the President which both forms and feeds their hatred.

As scary as the poll was, the way it has been disseminated is fascinating.  It symbolizes a new pattern of information and idea distribution.  Instead of the good old days in which the announcement of a Louis Harris poll first appeared in a news release that immediately became Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg wire stories, the news of the survey broke in a an article by John Avlon in an online tabloid called “The Daily Beast,” which is a U.S. news reporting and opinion website published by Tina Brown former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

Avlon recently published a book called Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America,” and he uses his column about the Louis Harris survey in yesterday’s “Beast” overtly to publicize his new book.  Avlon even goes so far as to say that the poll was “inspired in part” (his words) by his book, which investigates the beliefs of today’s fringe right.

Although I appreciated having the information in the survey a day early, I found that the overall direction of the article was a little bit too self-serving.  (FYI, I like Avlon, I just think he hit the wrong note in this particular article.)

My question is how did Avlon get the survey a day early?  It wasn’t on the Louis Harris interactive website yesterday.  Could it be that the Harris honchos decided that they could get the most publicity for the survey and firm by leaking the story to Avlon and letting him break it early in The Daily Beast.  What does that say about the old-fashioned practice of giving an exclusive to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or a national TV news operation?  And did Louis Harris know that Avlon would make self-serving use of the information? Didn’t this crass and explicit commercialization bother them?

Friskies is telling us to turn our pet cats into 60’s hippies by feeding them its cat food

One of the most inventive TV commercials in a long time is the “Feed your senses” spot for Friskies cat food.  At the opening of a can of Friskies, a cat steps through a silver hole that represents the can and enters a pleasantly surrealistic animated world in which turkeys spin around and salute it.  The cat then glides across a sea of wheat in a boat shaped like a fish.  Jumping off the boat, the cat climbs steps in a magical and gravity-less world of dancing cows, turkeys and other animals.  Finally, the cat jumps through another silver hole, returns to the kitchen and pounces on a bowl of Friskies wet, which must be an upscale version of cat food.  A few special effects produce the big ending: a psychedelic globe that transforms into a can of Friskies.

The highly detailed scene is rendered in a gorgeous animation of soft and friendly psychedelic colors reminiscent of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  The cat remains real as it saunters through a dreamy world of edible delights.

The background music is also from the late 60’s-early 70’s and again it’s light and friendly psychedelia—recalling the Beatles, the Cowsills, Strawberry Alarm Clock or the “Crimson and Clover” phase of Tommy James and the Shondells.  The voices are high-pitched and chipper, like those in the theme song for the TV show “Cheers,” which was an 80’s imitation of late 60’s psychedelic pop.  Here are the lyrics:

“What if one little pop could open a world of wonder
So sensory, so satisfying
The discovery never seems to stop
A journey to delicious and beyond
Exciting the cat day and night
With endless enchantment
It’s the magic Friskies makes happen
Every day in so many ways
Friskies, feed the senses”

The ad celebrates lifestyle over sustenance. “Friskies, feed the senses” turns dining into a joyous adventure, an entertainment experience similar to when humans eat unfamiliar but delicious cuisine at a fine restaurant in an exotic foreign land.  The entertainment is not just sensual, but also intellectual and spiritual, as conveyed in phrases such as “world of wonder,” “discovery never seems to stop” and “endless enchantment.”  The senses become a gateway to the soul.  In fact, the tagline, “Feed the senses” reminds me of the popular late 60’s expression, “Feed your head,” which is a  line from “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, an anthem to taking drugs if ever I heard one.  “Feed your head” is shorthand for transcending the tediousness and trouble of the everyday to enter a special, higher, more spiritual plane, of course guided by that with which you feed your head.

Except it’s for cats, and that’s what makes the spot so weird and yet so reflective of the zeitgeist.

It’s a classic advertising strategy to attach values to products, especially upscale products, and then to sell the value, not the product.  In this case the value is an undefined magical spirituality to which the cat food supposedly connects the cat.  Except no one could possibly believe that a cat can have an imaginative fantasy life as detailed as the one depicted in the spot.  Humans can, though, and in a sense, the advertiser wants the pet owner to project his or her own aspirations onto the pet (just as many people currently do with their children).

What I find most interesting is that Friskies selected the value system it did: let’s not make the cat strong or give it a long life, but let’s tend to its nonreligious spiritual life.  I know someone did consumer research.  But did the research show that this psychedelic approach would work because of general current cultural trends or because of some characteristics of cat owners?

In either case, I predict the ad and campaign will be very successful, and for one reason only: the song is an enchanting ditty.  After watching the spot a few times online, I couldn’t get the tune out of my head, which reminds me of hearing people through the years sitting at their desks, reading or working, quietly humming such classics as “pop, pop, fizz, fizz,” “it’s the real thing” and “it’s the Pepsi generation.”

The ideological subtext of just accepting that unregulated market forces rule the textbook publishing industry.

Most of the first round of hand-ringing about the Texas Board of Education’s decision to infuse inaccuracies in social science textbooks is over.  I’ve noticed a very interesting fact about the comments in the main stream news media.  Here is a sampling of what four mainstream and four regional media said about the Texas school board.  Most but not all are against the school board’s reckless pushing of one point-of-view, but for or against, they all make one assumption. 

First the sample stories:

  • Washington Post reports historians hate the changes.
  • Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Thomas Frank that looks on the school board’s actions as a much needed anodyne to liberalism.
  • The New York Times bemoans the decision of the Texas School Board to introduce so many distortions into the study of history.
  • The Economist cheerfully reviews what happened in a half-satirical tone, ending with a note that even Texas Republicans are “growing weary of the board’s antics.”
  • Columnist for Northwest Missourian bemoans the decision.
  • Kansas City Star columnist also bemoans the decision.
  • Washington Monthly reporter gives a good history of what happened in Texas
  • Columnist for the Toledo Blade likes the move to reconsider standards but is concerned that the Texas curriculum was “deliberately dumbed down by hard-core ideologues tweaking textbooks to indoctrinate instead of inform.
  • The assumption all these opinion-makers take for granted is that the textbook industry will bend over and say “yes sir” to Texas.  The underlying ideological subtext is unregulated free marketplace in which it is natural and appropriate for there always to be a seller for the buyer.

    Let’s take a look at that assumption: When a corporation or individual wants an attorney to help in creating a fraudulent business structure or covering up a crime, don’t we assume that virtually all lawyers will turn down the work?  What about when a client asks a PR agency to knowingly lie?  My agency would turn the work down and so would most agencies I know, which is the expectation stated in the industry’s ethical standards.  Accountants asked to fudge the numbers? An architect asked to cut costs by substituting unsafe materials?  A food store asked to sell unsafe food?  All against ethical standards of the industry, and mostly against the law.

    Now I know that corrupt people and organizations can always find corrupt professionals to do their bidding, unethical and/or illegal as it might be.

    But the textbook industry is much smaller.  There are perhaps a handful of publishers, whereas there are millions of lawyers, so many that you could even find one or two who would write that torture is legal.  

    Additionally, textbooks are typically written by experts in the field: historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists.  These professionals all have standards of ethics.  If the small number of textbook publishers hewed to these standards of expertise in the writing and revision of textbooks, then a body of elected no-nothings like the Texas Board of Education would not be able to dictate changes that introduce inaccuracies and lies into textbooks.

    Companies and industries walk away from “bad business” all the time.  Certainly, if the textbook industry walked away from Texas, someone would fill the void.  But that would take time and a greater outlay of resources by Texas, as new books would need to be written.  The resulting impact on the rest of the country would be smaller, because the new or rogue publisher wouldn’t have the contacts and database required to sell to the thousands of school districts across our 50 states.  I understand that the voters of Texas hate new taxes more than they like right-wing myths and homilies, so facing the need to recreate the industry in its own image, there might suddenly be a lot of pressure on the Texas Board of Education to reconsider its lunacy.

    But did one of these columnists chide the textbook publishers for rolling over and playing dead?  Did one of these columnists advocate that publishers close ranks against Texas?  Or did any of them suggest publishers’ create a voluntary set of standards that prevent any from publishing what are known to be historical inaccuracies in textbooks for public schools?  Did any of them call for associations of historians take action?  Did any even recommend that school districts outside Texas refuse to buy Texas-poisoned texts? No, no, no, no and no.

    No, because to do so would be to question, even if it’s only in a small way, the total dominance of the free market ideology in all thinking about all social issues.  The assumption that everything is for sale and that the market dictates all decisions by economic entities is so engrained in the ideologies of those who write for the mainstream media that the idea of exercising a little ethical self-control would never occur to any of them.


    Instead of telling us about issues or the money mismatch, NPR prefers a game of “gotcha” in which both sides lose.

    In every metropolitan region and nationally we have media of record, generally the largest daily newspaper and the most news-oriented radio and TV stations in cities.  Nationally, it’s the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the network news and National Public Radio.

    These are the media that set the terms of the debate.  In that context, consider today’s NPR story by Judy Rovner on the big battle in the gladiatorial arena of ideas: health care reform legislation.  Rovner dutifully analyzes four TV commercials for inaccuracies and misleading statements and finds several examples in all four ads.  Of course, two ads support the current bill and two are against it.  Rovner closes by mentioning two organizations with ads that are completely accurate, the insurance industry trade group AHIP and the consumer group Health Care for America Now.  You could not ask for two more mainstream, centrist groups, although each has expressed nominal opposition to the legislation and HCAN is very much for passing the bill.

    Rovner is using that old reliable propaganda trick, “conflation” to drive the discussion in a certain direction.  What Rovner has done is to equate the two sides by examining their views in terms of the inaccuracies that mar their respective arguments.  We get a sense that the two sides are equal because some people on each side has told a few stretchers.

    But in fact, the two sides are far from equal.  We are in fact seeing a fight between David and Goliath.

    Rovner forgets to mention that those against health care reform have spent and are spending literally tens of millions of dollars more on advertising than those in favor of the bill, so that the inaccuracies of the opponents reach more people more times and therefore have a far greater impact.  For a full picture of what money can buy when it comes to health care reform, see Michael Tomasky’s article in the current issue of New York Review of Books titled “The Money Fighting Health Care Reform.”  FYI, maybe 140,000 people read New York Review of Books.

    NPR has trivialized the health care debate by focusing on battle tactics and not the ideas at issue.  And because it is an important media leader, a media of record, it has set the tone for the entire discussion: It’s about battle tactics, winning and losing, and not about the future health of our citizens.

    This constant focus in the mainstream media on the battle, the race, the contest, instead of on the issues, has several unhealthy effects on the body politic:

    1. It takes time away from discussing the issues.
    2. It feeds into the anger that many are feeling for a variety of reasons, because if it’s a battle, we can feel angry at the other side’s dirty pool.
    3. It tends to equate the sides, thereby discounting the good arguments one side might have, since everything both sides say will be considered as battle rhetoric first and foremost. 

    Who will actually report and generate the news if newspapers die?

    Most news stories are second hand, which can mean one of several things:

    • The story is reprinted from another media or a wire service such as Associated Press.
    • The story is reconfigured using the facts and images from another story, as when TV or radio read a series of 10-15 second stories, all based on a print report.
    • The story is an update of another story.  Some stories go on for weeks or months, such as the war between Russia and Georgia, the personal life of Tiger Woods or the healthcare legislation saga.  In these cases, a very large percentage of the facts conveyed in the story have appeared in other stories by the same media outlet or another.
    • Opinion stories, which typically comment on news that has already been reported.

    What the Internet has done has been to increase the number of places that news is available, including the Internet versions of traditional news media; portals like Yahoo! and Google which aggregate but do not report news; and blogs and chat rooms which spout opinions about the news.

    The Internet has also led to some additional news origination, as organizations and businesses directly post news releases and new studies that people may (or may not) pick up without first reading about them in the news.  But the impact of the Internet on original dissemination of news is still relatively minor, maybe 5% of all news origination according to a recent study of how news originated in one city, Baltimore, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).  The study found that 50% of all news originated in print media and another 30% in TV.  No surprise there.

    It is news origination that is now under severe financial attack because it is the newspaper business that is shrinking, almost melting away like a soaking wet Wicked Witch of the West.

    For decades, newspapers lived in a world in which they charged for their information but their competitors, radio and TV, were free to the public.  A greater number of people had TVs and radios than currently own computers with Internet connections.  People who read print media such as newspapers, news magazines and cultural publications such as The New York Review of Books and Harpers always had a greater pool of information and viewpoints than those who depended solely on TV and radio.  The system seemed to work, with the help of libraries to provide free copies of print material.

    Despite the fact that newspapers were selling what the competitors were giving away, the newspaper business was highly lucrative, with enormous profit margins compared to supermarkets and car makers.  Towards the end of this golden era, one of the competitors, TV, began to change its model and started charging for its content through cable and satellite.

    Enter the Internet, which is not killing newspapers.  Newspapers are killing newspapers with a combination of greed and stupidity.

    First the greed: Once it became clear that paid circulation was going to decline, instead of sucking it up and settling for a smaller profit margin, newspapers began to cut writers and pages.  The product declined, which has naturally led to more defections.

    Stupid, for ever putting one word on the Internet for free.  In saying that, I know that just yesterday Pew PEJ announced the results of survey that shows overwhelming resistance to paying for online news; 82% say they would look elsewhere if the news site they visited started charging. (By the way, in linking, I had my choice of more than a dozen different newspaper websites that carried this Associated Press story.)

    But so what?  Before the Internet, most people did not read newspapers.

    The market for newspapers is not and has never been most people.  Instead of giving away the news on their free websites to “most people,” newspapers and wire services should charge people for an online subscription (unless they receive the print edition), jack up the rates they charge the aggregators like Yahoo! and Google, and go after aggregators that don’t pay the going rate (but not after bloggers or scholars who are quoting from or referencing articles).  Another approach might be to assess a fee to Internet Service Providers for providing access to the news for their customers, which pretty much would follow the cable network model of charging cable systems a fee per household per month.

    The problem is that for the most part, newspapers produce original news, but they have begun producing substantially less of it because the number of newspapers is shrinking and those still around are shrinking their newsrooms.  For example, PEW PEJ found that the Baltimore Sun now produces 73% fewer stories than it did in 1991 (when it published both a morning and an evening edition). The national edition of my New York Times has sure looked skimpy lately.  Interestingly enough, TV, which is the second leading news originator, is also cutting back on news gathering or creating partnerships with other stations or even newspapers to gather news together.  The result again is less news.

    So while we have more places to experience news, there is less news that is getting to us.  Since our brains are like nature and abhor an information vacuum, flying into the void have been entertainment and gossip news, sports, corporate sponsored news, pay-for-play news programming and, of course, the proliferation of fact-starved advocacy-based websites.

    If the current situation continues, we are going to slide into a new age of ignorance that will rival Charlemagne’s time for the amount of collective knowledge lost to society and the average person. 

    What tea-partiers don’ realize is that fixing sewers, roads and schools takes money and that means taxes.

    Yesterday was “Fix the Sewers” day in the news media.  A front-page New York Times story presented the sad story of many municipalities and water districts with need of making major repairs to sewer and water lines first laid more than a century ago.  The problem is that the municipalities and water districts need to raise taxes to pay for the repairs but every time revenue-raising is mentioned, some politician or another, standing up for the people, just says “no.”  The rally cry of virtually all of the citizens that the writer, Charles Duhhig, chose to quote in the article is the same: we already pay enough for our water and sewer service.

    As reported in yesterday’s Pittsburgh PostGazette, Pittsburgh provides a comic example of the contortions governments are going through to scrape together funds to keep clean water flowing in and waste water flowing out.  The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority has been taking a lot of heat for putting a $5 per month opt-out program on their customers’ bills to cover a warranty program that pays for (extremely rare) repairs to the water line that are the owner’s responsibility.

    It’s the opt-out that has people hopping mad, because the water company is collecting the money for a private company and it takes two phone calls to opt out of the warranty program.  Yesterday’s article discusses some of the reasons the water company might have agreed to this kind of deal, so unfair to customers.  Of course, politics and cronyism are involved. 

    But it turns out that in return for the help the water authority is giving it in marketing its warranty business, the private company has agreed to use some of the money it gets for warranties to fund efforts to get storm water out of sanitary sewers, thus reducing sewer overflows.  Bizarre!  Do you think water authority executives figured that they would get less slack imposing an opt-out program for a private company than raising rates or taxes?

    I think the theme song for the current era should be that old blues-rock number by Ellen McIlwaine, “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”   Everyone wants government services, but no one wants to pay for them.  And no one wants to pay for anyone else’s, even if others paid for theirs or their kids’, or would pay for them if they were in a similar predicament. 

    No money for roads, for sewers, for bridges, for schools, for connections to technology.  Plenty of money for iPods and iPhones and flatscreen TVs and electronic games.

    Instead of engaging in exercises of nihilistic demagoguery tricked out as traditional values, elected officials and those running for office have a responsibility to plan for our country’s future.  When tax and rate increases are necessary to meet infrastructural needs—and by the way create jobs— it’s not the time to score points or get greedy.  It’s time to come up with a plan and raise taxes.  If politicians and mainstream media came out in favor of the tax increases we need, as they might have done before the Age of Reagan descended, through repetition of the message they would eventually educate citizens of the need for revenues.  Of course, the more we spend on fixing our infrastructure, the less there would be for military follies.

    Right-wing changes to the Texas curriculum are “business as usual” when it comes to teaching kids about history.

    The weekend brought the news that conservatives had injected pro-Republican, pro-Christian values into the social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools, in many cases rewriting or retouching history.  The right-wingers were also able to block every attempt others made to interject more about Hispanics into the study of Texas and U.S. history and culture. 

    So what’s more obnoxious?:

    To require that the study of the Constitution includes a special focus on the 2nd amendment.


    To ask students to question if the founding fathers really wanted to separate church and state (despite the fact that so many of their families originally came to the New World seeking religious freedom).


    To refuse to mention that there were some Tejanos dying along side all the white males who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo for the freedom of Texas.

    Of course, my vote for most obnoxious change might be for the amending of the expectation that a student can “explain why a free enterprise system of economics developed in the new nation” with the following, “including minimal government intrusion and taxation, and property rights.”   I don’t think most legitimate historians would see it that way.

    The most amazing part of the story is that not one person on the Texas Board of Education is either an educator or a historian or other scholar.  For those who want some details on the Conservative educational putsch in Texas, turn to The New York Times or the Associated Press.

    After thinking about it, I’m as amused as I am concerned about these changes.  For one thing, I think the fear is overblown that text book publishers will make wholesale changes that will affect (and infect) the children of other states.  As the Times article points out immediately after playing the publisher fear card, in a digital age the impact won’t  necessarily be felt elsewhere since publishers can now use digital technology to customize text books to different states.

    It’s regrettable that the children of one of our largest states will get an inaccurate view of history and be unprepared for the cultural diversity that is rapidly becoming the defining mark of our country as whites slip into minority status. 

    But children’s history books have always presented a distorted view of the country.

    Here are some of the myths that were passed off as gospel truth when I went to public school:

    • The U.S. is a special nation (“exceptionalism”) with a manifest destiny to stretch between oceans.
    • The U.S. only intervenes in the affairs of other nations for altruistic reasons.
    • Atomic power (and by implication the atom bomb) is our friend.
    • The Russians want to overrun the United States. 
    • The old South was a pretty nice place.
    • Robert E. Lee was a great general and against slave owning but reluctantly loyal to his state.

    (This last myth always pissed me off, even in middle school, because as a young chess player it seemed obvious to me—and previously to George Washington and Mikhail Kutuzov, among others—that if you have the smaller army on your own territory that you play hide-and-go-seek and stretch out the supply lines of the enemy.  Instead, Lee attacked.  Years later I read the wonderful Lee Considered, in which Alan Nolan shows that Lee the slaveholder was not antislavery, that he endorsed Southern independence and that he lost the war by his repeated offensive thrusts.)

    Every generation puts its own the spin on the myths it tries to sell its children.  I object to the inaccuracies that conservatives have foisted on the Texas curriculum, but the fact that every school text book of every generation has similar ideological underpinnings makes it less bothersome.  I also wonder if the next Texas Board of Education will undo a lot of the damage in a few short years.

    Historical revisionism is everywhere, all the time.  I remember laughing out loud the first time I went to the History Museum in Pittsburgh and saw an exhibit of the bloody Homestead strike in which all sides acted heroically and there was no bad guy (or bloodshed for that matter).  Of course, sponsorship money for the museum came from large corporations, which certainly would not want a pro-union story told, even if that’s what the facts supported.

    The real problem is the very fact that publishers toady to the ever-changing political views of school boards instead of always presenting the consensus of the experts in the field.

    My own belief is that that truth will set you free.  We should not only give children facts that are as untainted as possible, we should also train them to always seek truth and provide them with the intellectual tools to do so.  I think children should be taught at an early age to understand the difference between science (and in science, I count history and the other social sciences) and religion, between “this is what I know” and “this is what I believe.”  Science is about “how,” religion is about “why.”  There is room for both when educating children, as long as we don’t try to pass a belief off as a fact nor teach about one set of beliefs at the expense of all the others. 

    The pro-gun army is showing its weapons and battling gun control laws. Time to push back.

    Everywhere across the country, groups are aggressively asserting their rights to carry arms and trying to overturn or roll back existing gun laws.  Is it a coordinated movement generously funded by special interests?  Or is it a sudden upwelling of collective fear that a Democratic or African-American president may somehow impose stricter gun control? 

    Who knows?

    But it sure seems as if a small but very well-funded group of people want to turn American streets into Dodge City shooting galleries.  And wherever they go, the right-wing media applauds them and our so-called mainstream media gives them extensive coverage, which merely serves to make their voices seem more plentiful than they really are.

    Here are some examples of recent aggressive pro-gun activity, with one article per example:

    • A group has been actively carrying unconcealed weapons into Starbucks, which has said it won’t ban guns in its cafes. Article
    • As I mentioned in my blog entry of February 24, Students for Concealed Carry on campus has held protests at various colleges and universities which ban guns on campus.  One example 
    • This group is now planning a series of protests in early April. Article
    • Some one with deep-pockets backing is challenging the Washington, D.C. law that forbids carrying firearms in public.  Article
    • The Supreme Court is considering another lawsuit that would overturn the ban on carrying guns in Chicago. Article
    • A proposed law would overturn the Virginia law that allows people to buy no more than one gun a month!  That’s 60 guns every five years, and supporters of the law don’t think that small arsenal is enough for law-abiding citizens! Article
    • In the current Arizona legislative session, state lawmakers have proposed more than a dozen bills to expand rights to carry and use guns and knives.  The proposed laws would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, end requirements that guns manufactured and kept in Arizona be registered, and allow university professors to carry guns on school grounds. Article
    • To tell you the truth, I’m getting scared to walk around in public, and I’m definitely not stepping foot into Starbucks until it changes its policy and bans guns in the stores. 

      I see so many situations everywhere I go in which people get momentarily angry or are arguing in public.  Road rage.  Disputes over parking spaces.  Cutting ahead of someone in a checkout line.  Looking at some young fellow’s girlfriend with a little too friendly of a smile.  A dispute over a restaurant bill.  Admonishing a thin-skinned employee.  Welshing on a bet.  Overcharging for something in a store.  A cultural difference is misunderstood as threatening or racist.  Any one of these common occurrences could flare into bloody violence if people routinely carried guns in public.  This admittedly emotional reaction is, sadly, backed up by the facts, which in most years show that more people are killed by “friendly fire” than by criminals shooting guns.

      The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is one of the best places to go to find out the facts that dispute all of the claims of pro-gun advocates.  The most poignant numbers are featured on the webpage that introduces the many pages of facts and figures on the Brady Campaign website: 354 people killed by guns on average a year in Austria, Australia, England & Wales, Spain, Canada and Germany combined.  In the United States, it’s 10,177, almost 29 times as many!

      The Brady Campaign has started a campaign to influence Starbucks to ban guns in their cafes.  The website has a sample letter and a place to sign a petition.  I recommend to my readers that with or without the help of the Brady Campaign that everyone contact Starbucks and tell it you want it to ban guns in its cafes and that you won’t be buying anything in any Starbucks until it announces a ban.