Behind surveys with ideological subtext lies an attempt to subtly shape the views of the audience

The number of surveys that news media are placing on their websites for their online followers seems to multiply daily. Most of the surveys reflect only the views of the respondents. Since the respondents self-select to take the survey, the validity of these surveys for the nation as a whole or even for the universe comprising the audience for the media outlet is virtually always suspect.

Take for example the Yahoo! survey of which presidential candidate would receive their vote featured on its web page the day before this past election: 53% of the respondents said they would vote for Romney and only 47% for President Obama. Of course the actual results were flipped, with Obama winning 51% of the vote and Romney a mere 47%. Clearly either Yahoo! users or those who answer Yahoo! surveys are more Republican than the voters.

These quick-and-dirty surveys usually ask one or at the most a few questions.  But even with one question, they often seem to be making a point as opposed to gathering information. These media surveys often reduce to attempts to convince the public of something rather than to gather information.  The persuasion comes in how the question and the answers are phrased.

Here are a few recent examples of advocating an ideology in the one-question Yahoo! survey, which changes every day or two on its home page:

Survey Question: Are you planning to shop on Cyber Monday?

Yes, I don’t like crowds

No, I prefer to shop in person

The assumption is made that, no matter what, you’re going to shop for Christmas/Hanukkah/Holiday presents. But what if you’re not shopping on Cyber Monday because you don’t celebrate holidays, don’t celebrate by exchanging gifts, are boycotting the holiday, make your own presents or have already shopped online for the holidays. By giving one and only one reason for not shopping on Cyber Monday, the question assumes that the only possible reason not to shop on the Monday after Thanksgiving is that you are participating in another way in the great American potlatch of materialism  called the Holiday Shopping Season. The subtext of the question supports the basic American ideology of consumerism.

The next example, also from Yahoo!, is even more manipulative:

Survey Question: Do you support a tax hike for the wealthiest Americans?

Yes, it’s needed to fix the deficit

No, it will hinder economic growth

We see in the characterization of the “no” answer one of the great hoaxes that conservative economic writers and pundits have been perpetrating on the American public for decades: that raising taxes on the wealthy will hurt economic growth. It’s just not so, as recent studies have shown. The further up the economic scale you go, the more money you take out of the economy. The wealthy invest most of their money without investing in new jobs or the economy—for example, by buying stocks and bonds on the secondary market (where the money doesn’t go to a company that’s hiring, but to another investor). Every bit of the money that the government takes in is spent (except what’s used to pay down the debt, which is owned primarily by the rich and foreign governments). World economic history has shown that higher taxes on the wealthy almost always lead to economic growth and virtually never hinder growth.

The “yes” answer also serves as an ideological shill. There are a great many progressives, including myself, who think the deficit is not such as critical problem, but propose raising taxes on the wealthy to improve our infrastructure of roads, bridges, mass transit, public spaces and education; support the development of new technologies; or help the people hurt by the last six years of deep recession followed by slow growth.  The survey question leaves out these option.

Yahoo! is not then only one that’s trying to freeze the debate about economics in conservative terms. Here is a recent Washington Post online survey:

Survey Question: Would you be willing to pay more in taxes to help shore up the deficit?



In this case, the only reason given to raise taxes is to pay down the deficit (which is what I think the imprecise “shore up” means). And again, there are many people who would be delighted to see their taxes raised to kick-start the economy or help people in need, but would not want to pay more in taxes to pay down the deficit at this time. It’s something that the Washington Post doesn’t even want us to bring up, let alone consider.

The accumulation of little nuggets of propaganda—in these silly surveys, in the details and assumptions of news stories, in the experts quoted in articles—allows many false notions to parade around in the marketplace of ideas as truth. The news media accepts these false notions and wants us to do the same.



Some gifts you can give our society and economy on Black Friday

With the great American holiday of Black Friday in two short days, I wanted to suggest some gifts that my cherished readers can get for American society to celebrate the holiday season. Note that I wrote “get,” and not “buy,” since these gifts do not involve commercial transactions.

Gift Idea #1: Boycott Wal-Mart until it stops its anti-union activity, and email the company to tell it that you’re not shopping at Wal-Mart until its store and warehouse employees are covered by certified unions. If enough people boycott Wal-Mart, it will be forced to unionize, just as grape farmers were forced to accept a union for farm workers after the successful boycott of grapes led by Cesar Chavez in the 1970’s.

You may be wondering how unionizing Wal-Mart will help our society. It’s simple: The more unionized workers there are, the higher the wages of everyone else. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country, one known for giving very low salaries to their employees (except the executives!).  If Wal-Mart were unionized, wages would increase across the board across the country.

If history can serve as a guide, with higher wages will come some increase is prices, but employers will have to swallow a good part of their increased costs. Those that don’t adjust will lose market share to the entrepreneurs and innovators who are willing to take a lower profit margin.

The net effect of unionizing Wal-Mart will therefore be to rebalance the distribution of wealth, with less income and wealth in the hands of those on top and more in the hands of the middle class and the poor. One of the lessons of economic history is that nations with a relatively equitable distribution of wealth thrive; examples include the United States in the 50’s and 60’s and Europe in the 14th century after the Black Plague drove up the cost of labor. And yes, nations in which the distribution of wealth becomes increasingly less equitable suffer precipitous economic declines; examples include the Roman Empire after about 200 CE, Spain in the 16th century, several of the Chinese dynasties and the contemporary United States.

Right now the U.S. government provides billions of dollars of subsidies to Wal-Mart because so many of its employees qualify for food stamps. Another effect of unionizing Wal-Mart will be to make a big dent in the costs of the food stamp program, thus lowering government costs.

Those who want to give the precious gift of a just society and a growing economy to the United States can email Wal-Mart about your boycott at, check the “Financial Information” box, click “Next” and then leave your message on the page that appears. And instead of buying at Wal-Mart, go to your local merchants and to national companies that treat their workers with the dignity of a fair wage.

Gift Idea #2: Write your Republican Senators and Congressmen and tell them that you will not vote for them if they take the Norquist Pledge not to raise taxes or do not recant the pledge if they have taken it in the past.  The pledge, first proposed years ago by right-wing political operative Grover Norquist, has become part of contemporary Republican ideology. Before the most recent election, 238 of 242 Republican Congressional representatives and 41 out of 47 Republican Senators had signed Norquist’s pledge, promising to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

The problem is that the federal government has been starved for revenues since the Bush II temporary tax cuts went into effect about 10 years ago, during which time we have fought two purposeless wars that have drained the federal treasury. We have to pay our debts, but just as importantly, we have to have the funds to keep investing in the economy by rebuilding our infrastructure. And we need money to respond to natural disasters like Sandy and man-made ones like the bursting of the real estate bubble that sent the country into an economic nosedive in 2007 and 2008.

But since they control the House of Representatives, the Republicans stand in the way of raising taxes. (In my heart, I believe that they would be delighted to raise taxes on anyone making less than $1.0 million or so a year. I base this belief on the Republican tax policies of the last 30 some-odd years, which have shifted the burden of paying for everything the government does from the wealthy to the middle class.)

Right now the Republicans are particularly vulnerable to reason, as they see that they have lost the election and surveys show that most Americans want to raise taxes on the wealthy. Telling Republican Representatives and Senators that getting your vote depends on their voting “Yea” on tax increases could prove to be particularly effective at the current moment, when President Obama is negotiating with Congress about new taxes.

So give some gifts that can keep on giving for years. Tell Wal-Mart and the Republicans that we won’t put up with their policies that are creating a nation of rich and poor.



Possible Twinkies demise gives journalists another chance to equate bad food with good times

When I look back in fond nostalgia to childhood foods, I often remember the Syrian and Eastern European delicacies that my mother made for us at holidays. I can often almost taste the sweet fresh corn on the cob in the summer and the tangy mussels that would come in a bucket.  I sometimes conjure steaming images of oversized potato knishes and hot pastrami sandwiches we used to get at the neighborhood deli. Perhaps my most sentimental memories are reserved for the turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes we had at Thanksgiving.

My food nostalgia never includes packaged baked goods like Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread: They never were very good, and certainly not as good as the corn rye we got at the bakery or that the various cakes and cookies my mother would make, sometimes without a package mix, or we would occasionally buy in the bakery. I stopped eating Hostess-type packaged junk sometime in my teens and never returned to them.

When I’m reminiscing about childhood foods with friends and family, no one ever mentions these Hostess products either, even though, regardless of their age, almost everyone I know ate them at one time or another.

Nevertheless, it didn’t surprise me that the news that Hostess may close down and that these baked concoctions of white flower, sugar or corn syrup, food coloring and lots of preservatives instigated collective moaning and hand-wringing by the mass media. Reporter after reporter have mourned the loss of these products (and they are more product than food) as if we had suddenly lost a part of our collective cultural heritage, akin to all the monuments in Washington crumbling or misplacing all the episodes of “The Andy Griffin Show” and “You Bet Your Life.”

Writer after writer has come forward with his or her own defense of Twinkies and dirge for their possible demise. Here are some examples:

“Except that Twinkies aren’t merely a snack cake, nor just junk food. They are iconic in ways that transcend how Americans typically fetishize food. But ultimately, they fell victim to the very fervor that created them.” (Associated Press)

“When news broke Monday that beloved treat-maker Hostess would not be forced to shutdown after all, Americans breathed a joint sigh of relief.” (Business Insider)

“If my insides are particularly well-preserved, it’s not because of the steamed broccoli crowding my dinner plate. No, it was the Twinkies. My longtime habit of consuming the famously imperishable cakes — with a preservative no doubt passed down from King Tut’s mummifiers — surely must have infused me with their elixir….Perhaps, it’s for the best that I wouldn’t have one last bite. They couldn’t live up to my gauzy memories of them. And maybe the Twinkie hoarders will pass them down like heirlooms to their children.” (Chicago Tribune)

“I don’t want to live in a world without Twinkies… The Austrians have their Strudel, the Italians their tiramisu, the French created crepes. But the Twinkie is an American original.” (Fox News)

“A world without Twinkies! How can it be?! I haven’t eaten a Twinkie since the third grade. But, when the demise of Hostess was announced last Friday, I, along with most of America, got swept up in Twinkiestalgia. Watching the six o’clock news, it dawned on me that my kids had never had and might never have a Twinkie in their young lives. What kind of life is that? What kind of mother would I be if one of those infinite-shelf-life treats never passed their lips?!” (The “Today Show” website)

“The Twinkie is an institution and a distinctly American one at that. It was the dessert that Edith packed in Archie’s lunchbox. It became part of legal nomenclature (the “Twinkies defense”). And its supposedly eternal shelf life only added to its stature as a pop-culture icon…No one, it seemed, had eaten a Twinkie (or Sno Ball) in years. Their affection for the brand was largely an exercise in nostalgia. The Twinkie took them back to their childhood – and knowing it was still there (and could be had at any time) meant there was always a comfortable (and cheap) portal to a time when life was safer, simpler and more innocent. It’s the Twinkie as, yes, Proust’s madeleine.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“Consider the Zen of the moment when you take a bite, that taste of something so simple yet decadent, Godiva for the everyman, and, for many, the savory hint of childhood and innocence. Can that small pleasure be had any longer without fear of diet-busting self-loathing?” (Baltimore Sun)

The common themes running through the commentaries are 1) nostalgia for what are imagined were simpler, better times and 2) defiance of what the reporters postulate are the food police who want to take away our every culinary pleasure and replace them with good food.

The nostalgia aspect is just weird: there are so many good things we can remember about the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and every other decade of the last century that it seems absurd for pundits to give bad-tasting food that was also bad for you a second thought.  We all have individual memories and we also share in collective memories, both happy and sad. For example, people my age can reminisce about where we were when the first men landed on the moon (I am proud to write that I watched the first moon walk sitting next to my uncle, who led the team that engineered the fuel that propelled the rockets) or about the first time we heard the Beatles. But Twinkies?

When the mass media tries to create a collective memory for all of us, there is usually some ideological or business reason behind it, and that brings us to the second common theme in the encomiums to Twinkies: the assertion that there is a dichotomy between food that tastes good and food that’s good for you. The mass media often asserts this dichotomy: when discussing fast food, balanced diets, foods you can buy at state fairs, what to make at holidays or for Superbowl parties and what to feed your children.  It’s a false dichotomy, but every time a writer makes it or assumes it, it helps to sell more of the crap.  It also undercuts efforts to address our growing epidemic of unhealthy lifestyles.

I can see why someone might grab a package of Twinkies from the food vending machine for a late afternoon snack, even though I wouldn’t do it. And I can understand why parents’ might find it easy to slip a package of Ding Dongs into their kids’ lunch bag, although I never did. And certainly there are a number of people around who can’t distinguish between a Twinkie and a piece of fruit, some home-made cookies or even cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on a piece of buttered whole wheat toast.

But these instances do not make a case for elevating Twinkies, Ho Ho’s and the other edible dreck from Hostess into the pantheon of American culture. The very fact that these brands are threatened by poor sales suggests that they brands do not hold any special place in our collective hearts, at least not until the mass media starts to brainwash us with phrases about “pop-culture icons” and “savory hints of childhood and innocence.”

Of Petraeus the betrayer and DesJarlais the anti-choice abortion counselor

The news media is still wringing its hands in torment over the loss of their military darling, General David Petraeus, to the vagaries of carnal affection.  While some have wondered why an affair should force a resignation since it’s a private matter, most editors, writers and pundits have bereaved the inevitability of resignation.

The thought process that leads to automatic resignation starts with the idea that a CIA Director could be blackmailed into acting in the worst interest of the country to avoid being found out.  Few seem to remember that Petraeus is an old hand at doing what’s not right for the country. He was, after all, architect of the “surge strategy” in the Iraq War that postponed the inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops from the morass of anarchy created by the U.S. invasion. The surge did give the U.S. a flimsy justification for claiming success, so in a sense, Petraeus constructed one of the most costly fig leaves in recorded history, the cost unfortunately computed in both human lives and wasted money.

Petraeus probably “cooked the books” in reporting progress during the Iraq War surge, as reported by MoveOn, most notoriously in a 2007 full-page ad in the New York Times. The same mainstream media that are now surgically investigating the Petraeus affair raised a collective voice back then to defend Petraeus and condemn MoveOn for its clever headline, Petraeus betray us.”  Funny, isn’t it:  The mainstream media pretty much accepted the Bush II Administrations lies about weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi support of Al Qaida, torture as a mere aberration in the lower ranks and the success of the surge. Yet they are digging deep to uncover every tawdry nugget of the Petraeus scandal.

In other words, the mass media that botched the investigation of an important public issue show a great deal of competence and professionalism going after all the details of an extramarital affair.

My own view is that Petraeus should never have been given the job of CIA Director. Once confirmed, however, engaging in extramarital sexual congress should not have warranted dismissal. Now if Petraeus was in some way going to benefit from any deals that ”family friend” Jill Kelley was trying to broker for exorbitant sums, then he should not have been given the face-saving option to resign, but instead been summarily dismissed.  (Petraeus’ paramour instigated the investigation that “caught” Petraeus when she suspected that the general was servicing Kelley and so sent her imagined or real rival some threatening emails, which the well-connected Kelly turned over to an FBI friend).

Petraeus’ private affairs should never have become front page news. Not so for Tennessee Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais, formerly a physician. Unsealing his divorce records of a decade ago has revealed that DesJarlais’ former wife had two abortions on his advice and that he urged a patient whom he had impregnated to get an abortion.

Certainly DesJarlais behaved unethically to sleep with a patient, although they were both consenting adults. But as far as the abortions go, who cares? Abortion was legal then and is legal now.

Except that DesJarlais says he’s pro-life.  It’s the hypocrisy of wanting to prevent other people from doing what you yourself have recommended multiple times that makes DesJarlais’ private matters fair game for the media.

How Mark Twain might have imagined the 2012 presidential election

Friends, I remember the time centuries back when the souls of all the deceased presidents of the United States residing in heaven had their shorts up in a bunch because God’s hands-off policy was failing America. It looked as if the country, left to its own devices, was going to elect an incompetent liar. This Mitt feller told some of the biggest whoppers they ever heard up there, and these boys could all spin a good yarn from time to time.

The presidents were shaking in their boots that Mitt’s anti-government, anti-tax agenda would send the country into a long-term recession, while enriching his cronies, making a mess of the land, taking away basic civil liberties and allowing our public infrastructure to go to potholes and outages.  God agreed that the selfish Baby Boom generation was making a botch of things praying to the false gods of the free market and social control.  But she was disinclined to intervene in earthly matters.

After much hootin’ and hollerin’ by all the presidents, except Hoover and Reagan who were taking their mid-morning naps, God agreed that she would allow them to concoct one plan to save the United States from Mitt Romney.

But that was the easy part. The presidents in heaven were stumped as to how to defeat Romney and his big wad of cash. How do you answer bald-faced lies that are repeated so many times that they start to sound true and feel true? The “Big Lie” worked in Germany in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and it looked like a lot of big lies were going to work in 2012.

After scratching their heads for days—proposing and then rejecting idea after idea, John Quincy Adams, the bright bulb of the bunch, says, out of the blue, “We need the help of the president who didn’t make it into our august company.”

Suddenly waking from a snore, Reagan intones, “You mean the one who sits at the right hand of the devil.”

“Well you can’t believe everything you hear about a president,” John Q. snorts back. Honest Abe, FDR and Big George agree with John Q., so he carries the day.

The deceased presidents summon Lyndon Baines Johnson from hell and tell him the problem.

LBJ cackles an oversized Texas laugh and says, “You just have to get these peckerwoods to where they need you real bad.”

With that, LBJ raises his hand and waves it around and a storm named Sandy forms in the Atlantic Ocean. With the aplomb of a circus ringmaster, LBJ announces, “Watch now, we’re going to take this one oversized Republican peckerwood named Chris Christie and we’re going to make him do all our campaigning for us. We’re going make him say that guv’ment is good.  He’s going to praise our guy as if he were a saint.”

And that, friends and neighbors, is how Barack Obama won the 2012 presidential election. At least according to legend.