Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Campaign Ads

Last Tuesday, the political media consultant who nearly a quarter century ago introduced us to Willie Horton—the subject of one of the most patently racist presidential campaign ads of the post-Civil Rights era—made news when the brainchild of his first official effort for the Romney general election campaign hit the air.

To judge from his current production, Larry McCarthy has toned down the rhetoric over the years; the 60-second ad —titled “Basketball”—is simply shot, and features a mother lamenting her grown children’s inability to find jobs and stop spending their days shooting hoops in her driveway.

The ad, which is part of a larger $25 million effort to influence the presidential election, was bankrolled by the pro-Romney super PAC Crossroads GPS (headed by Karl Rove), but it never once mentions the presumptive GOP nominee. And while the pensive mother makes it clear that President Obama is to blame for her family’s predicament, the gloom and doom characteristic of much of McCarthy’s earlier work is noticeably absent; the most unsettling thing we are presented with is a poorly executed rapid-aging gimmick. (All that money and they couldn’t afford good CGI?)

News of McCarthy’s ad burned through the media landscape this week, a day before it was scheduled to begin running in 10 swing states. The votes are now in, and by most accounts the first major multi-state ad campaign of the 2012 general election went off with a whimper, not a bang. But don’t count on things staying that way. Click here to read at The Philly Post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why truth in journalism is more important than balance

Last November I offered my opinion on why the credibility of American journalism is suffering from a blind adherence to impartiality at the expense of truth.

In my weekly column for Philadelphia magazine's The Philly Post I noted: "[The] three most essential qualities of information in news are factualness, accuracy and completeness. Blind impartiality obscures all three. Bowing at the false idol of objectivity leads journalists to counter factual information with innuendo in the name of equal time while treating 'truth' as relative and equating 'fairness' with getting all possible versions of a story no matter how mundane or misinformed."

This is a phenomenon that New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “View From Nowhere,” and it is the subject of an enlightening piece of commentary by Mathew Ingram published yesterday by GigaOm.

Here's a snippet:
"Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be buying newspapers — a move that is probably as much about cash flow and real estate as it is a long-term investment thesis — but he can’t possibly buy them all, and that leaves the rest of the industry struggling to try and confront the issues that are causing their decline. One of those issues is the ongoing disruption in the advertising world, but another is that the product newspapers offer is arguably increasingly out of touch with what readers want. The monolithic, ruthlessly objective, single-voiced editorial style that newspapers have grown so accustomed to doesn’t work in a world where anyone and everyone can be a publisher, a reporter, a columnist or an editorial writer."
Later Ingram continues:
"In many ways, the “View From Nowhere” developed over time as the newspaper business stopped being about independent voices and became more of a professional phenomenon — in other words, an industry made up of a few large chains owned by corporate conglomerates. Among other things, the practice of objectivity was designed to make these businesses appear less politically controversial and therefore more appealing to advertisers, who were trying to reach a mass market. But just as advertisers seem to be deserting that model, readers are also gravitating towards outlets with strong voices, regardless of whether they happen to be traditional or mainstream sources."
As the comments to his piece show, not everyone agrees with Matt and myself on this issue; a goodly number apparently still believe that if you get someone on the record talking about climate change, for instance, you had better draw a source from the increasingly tiny and inconsequential community of climate change skeptics to make sure the reporting is "balanced." To do anything less is to open oneself up to accusations of bias. But I'd argue that just because a piece of reporting is unbalanced, that doesn't mean it is biased. That's because balancing facts with lies doesn't lead to truth -- it just leads to watered-down facts.

As Bill Moyers once noted: A free press is “one where it is okay to state the conclusions you’re led to by the evidence.” 

Whether or not you agree, I encourage you to read the rest of Ingram's piece here. I won't promise you it's balanced, but if truth is what you seek, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Report of the Day: The Dumbing Down of Congress

Press Release via the Sunlight Foundation:

The U.S. Congress speaks at nearly a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis. Using the CapitolWords.org website -- which features the most popular words and phrases in the Congressional Record since 1996 -- Sunlight reviewed the vocabulary and sentence structure of what members of Congress are saying.

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from a high of 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Flesch-Kincaid test was used to conduct the analysis, which equates higher-grade levels with longer words and longer sentences. Click to see the Full Analysis.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Horse Doping Reigns in the Sport of Kings

This Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another will join a field of a dozen young colts at Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, for a chance to win $1 million and a shot at the coveted Triple Crown. As they take their places at the gate, these majestic creatures, and the jockeys riding them, can count themselves part of a noble and enduring tradition—one that remains practically unchanged from ancient times but for one major exception: Most, if not all, of the thoroughbreds running in the 137th Preakness Stakes will be under the influence of at least one performance-enhancing drug.

As unsportsmanlike as that may sound, it is hardly unusual for the sport of kings—although there is an increasingly vocal minority of veterinarians, breeders, owners and jockeys who would like to see it otherwise.

In some cases, the doping involves administering illegal substances, such as anabolic steroids, snake venom (a natural painkiller), and “milkshakes” of sodium bicarbonate, water and sugar that are force-fed into a horse’s stomach through its nose. According to the New York Times, 18 of the top 20 U.S. thoroughbred trainers have been cited at some point in their careers for illegal doping. (Doug O’Neill, who trains I’ll Have Another, has himself been sanctioned repeatedly over the years.)

Yet more often than not, the drugs horses receive are completely legitimate, despite the fact that they are administered just hours prior to race time and have a measurable effect on how long and how fast the animals can run. That’s because unlike almost every other country that hosts the sport, the U.S. maintains notoriously lax regulations governing pre-race doping. Click to read at The Philly Post