Man Without Qualities

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Those Fluctuations In The Skin-to-Credibility Equation

What does ABC’s move to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman say about fluctuations in the skin-to-credibility equation used to structure network news? Put another way, it should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that there is not enough quality skin revealed on network news – and Koppel and his ilk are definitely a big part of the problem.

A fine understanding on the parts of those reporting the story that their, personal, lives and positions could be directly affected by the matters they are reporting probably has a lot to do with the size of the kerfluffle arising from the whole affair.

But the reporting also obscures that basic question of why people as physically unattractive as Koppel, Jennings, Rather and other old fogies still have such a literally visible presence in the survival-of-the-cutest jungle of modern television journalism.

At first it seems odd that a “head” has anything substantive to do with selecting the content of news he or she presents. Does a typesetter (if there still are such people) have anything substantive to say about what goes into a newspaper? Why aren’t the “heads” just a specialized kind of actor or actress, skilled at the authoritative and slightly hysterical tone characteristic of American newscasters, but presenting material prepared off screen by other, more articulate, uglier people. Basic principles of specialization of labor suggest such divided roles.

But that has never been the case. It appears that television news audiences have valued – or at least have been thought to have valued – having the person reading the news actually determine what is read, and not just how it is read. Many ancient polls verified that Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America”, and, to a news division, a trusting audience is money in the bank. Mr. Cronkite’s reputation was largely based on his truly impressive ability to pronounce of the word “billions,” when that was still real money, an ability he wielded gloriously until it was eclipsed by Carl Sagan’s inflationary “billions and billions,” a development which may have influenced Mr. Cronkite’s decision to largely withdraw from public view.

The networks have labored mightily to create the impression that the structure of their news divisions has continued essentially unchanged, an apparent constancy designed to rival the austere permanence of the pyramids of Giza. Younger, often blonder, women, such Mses. Sawyer and Couric, were ratcheted onto the original chassis with full and obligatory – if never believable - denials that their appearance and sex had anything to do with the matter. But the unstated message that the lead “head” determines the agenda has been weakening. In the case of Ms. Couric and some others, it is scarcely there at all – notwithstanding her gigantic compensation. In general, the increasing dominance of women newscasters seems to be correlated to a gradual reversion to the division of labor suggested by basic economic principles discussed above. It may be that the networks have been themselves sexist here, but more likely they are merely exploiting the ambient sexism of the society. They would likely prefer to eliminate expensive dinosaurs such as Koppel and Rather entirely.

But the pace of change is accelerating, and the change itself is becoming more visible. Greta Van Susteran seems to have been required to undergo a serious facelift to accommodate here recent move to FoxNews. Then there was the whole Paula Zahn dust-up, with CNN first asserting and then denying the relevance of Ms. Zahn’s being “just a little bit sexy.” But anyone who has seen Ms. Zahn conduct an interview with her marvelously shapely and well-preserved gams pinioned under her unnecessarily front-less desk knows that they are a big part of her appeal. Walter Cronkite never did that – indeed, it’s a kind of apocalyptic image just to imagine him trying. Of course, when Mr. Cronkite was in his prime it made sense for newscasters to wear clothes on television – almost everybody on television did all the time. That is no longer the case. In another carefully managed CNN effort, word is out that recent CNN hire, Andrea Thompson, has posed nude.

The Promised Land to CNN - if the Andrea Thompson drill is any indication - is Naked News, which has emerged out of Russia. Naked News features attractive, stripping, eventually naked, newscasters (it seems inappropriate to refer to them as “talking heads”). The phenomenon has spread to Europe and now Canada.

But the whole approach seems misguided. It is just too hard to include a large amount of actual nudity into popular mass media. Besides, revealing flesh is pointless if the quality of the flesh revealed is not exceptionally high. And the fact is that it will be very difficult to get the best looking people to bare all in front of a network news audience.

Which is why I suggest "Bikini News."

Why not frankly admit that the news presenter has nothing to do with selecting or writing the news presented. The presenters will be bikini-clad with top-flight bodies – but never nude? This should allow the networks to hire the most physically attractive people - who would be deterred by the need to perform nude. For example, compare the respectable but hardly awe-inspiring women on the Canadian Naked News with the famously top-drawer quality featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue! Or, those with other preferences may want to check out what the current captain of the Harvard water polo team is up to these days.

Avoiding actual nudity would also allow for the relatively easy hiring of young, reasonably intelligent people – thereby avoiding the annoying impression that the news presenter does not understand the copy being read, but also allowing their replacement if they put on a few pounds, age or sag. Ugly, troll-like, more articulate people can work diligently behind the scenes to create the copy and the agenda. Economic rationality might be restored.

The network news divisions seem to be having a good deal of difficulty mastering the new model. For example, in a confused gesture, CNN has apparently indicated that it will be willing to assimilate Ted Koppel should the opportunity arise – thereby significantly setting back the progress CNN has made with the Zahn/Thompson hires. This is evidence that the news divisions resemble the telecom companies that emerged form the breakup of the old AT&T monopoly. It just takes a while and a different kind of approach to deal with new market realities. But nobody learning that the young, pretty and almost transhumanly intelligent and articulate Peggy Noonan was relegated to writing copy for the constipatory Dan Rather, could help but question whether the networks have been doing the cost/benefit arithmetic right for a very long time.
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A Canticle of The Sun

In The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, one of the lesser-known stories of Edgar Allan Poe, a mesmerist (hypnotist) places the eponymous patient in a mesmeric trance just before he is about to die, thereby locking for weeks the patient’s soul within a body no longer capable of sustaining life. The story recalled itself to me yesterday morning, when one of my favorite relatives collapsed from a heart attack across her breakfast table, the prelude to a now common scenario in which the extent of the damage to the brain is vast, but the answer to whether true death has occurred appears trapped in a kind of linguistic crystal. Can a beautiful person come to this kind of end? Her soul’s escape denied by iterated total internal reflection within a prism of medical terminology?

As she lies dying, and a room for her on which we lavished such care and expectations stands empty, there is plenty of time to think. Is it as stupid to plan for the arrival of a seventy-seven year old woman as it is for a seven-month fetus? But old people are supposed to die – it can’t hurt this much. As the Marschallin of Der Rosenkavalier says it “When we are living our lives away, time is absolutely nothing. And then, suddenly, there is absolutely nothing else.”

There are two poems that have also presented themselves. Neither was written originally in English, and neither has what I consider a completely satisfactory translation. So, with all that unleashed time, I have prepared a version of each, working from existing translations. One poem was written by a Christian saint, the other by a Roman emperor who was anything but saintly.

Animula, blandula, vagula

Little, gentle, wandering soul,
My body’s guest and friend,
To what far places are you borne?
Naked, cold and pale.
As the warmth and joy of life,
You loved so slips away.

The Canticle of The Sun
[Saint Francis]

Thank you, God, for brother sun, whose radiance gives us the day and a glimpse of your own face.
Thank you, God, for sister moon, and for the shining stars of heaven. you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Thank you, God, for brother wind, for fair and stormy seasons and every kind of weather, which nourish all that you have made.
Thank you, God, for sister rain, so useful and humble, precious and pure.
Thank you, God, for brother fire, who lights our night, beautiful and playful, robust and strong.
Thank you, God, for mother earth, who sustains us with fruits and herbs, and flowers of many colors.
Thank you, God, for those who forgive their fellows for love of you, and patiently bear their sickness and other trials.
Thank you, God, for sister death, who comes to us all, but only once to those who live in your power and love.

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Monday, March 04, 2002

Make the World Safe For Democracy, And Reconsider Whether to Vote

It is election time, and many people are again urging us all to vote. On the op-ed pages of newspapers and from the management of local and national broadcast outlets, apparently disinterested “good government” advocates urge all eligible voters to exercise their franchise rights. Politicians emulate at least the form of such “good government” advocacy; generally making “get out the vote” efforts that are in fact intended to get out only the vote of sympathetic constituencies. What the politicians are up to is neither straightforward nor sinister, but at least it’s easy to understand the interests behind the advocacy. What’s more curious is the agenda of the “good government” advocates. Is it better if everyone who can vote does vote – at least if the voter makes some effort to learn about the candidates and issues? The answer is likely “NO.” That appears to be especially likely for a voter who attempts to evaluate the candidates and issues on an individualized basis.

By way of example, in November 2000, Hillary Clinton wrote a simulated “good government” column addressed to young voters urging them to vote, a column fairly representative of the genre. The point here is not to embarrass Ms. Clinton, or to focus on her not entirely transparent agenda. Ms. Clinton’s column is instead chosen as an example because it is compact, well crafted and reasonably representative of both versions of the genre (that is, efforts by “good government” advocates and politicians simulating such efforts), containing only a few non-distracting points which are characteristic of her approach.

Ms. Clinton caps her column with the standard request that voters not “throw this precious privilege away.” But why not? In a related area, the First Amendment right of free expression is also precious, but we don’t normally say our fellow citizens “throw this precious privilege away” when they remain silent about matters of their choice (of course, in an extreme situation we might think otherwise). We are normally grateful to their discretion and judgment. We often say that they are being “responsible.” The extension of the right of free expression to more people doesn’t terminate the validity of the various considerations that counsel us to keep quiet about things with which others are more familiar – at least if there is no indication that such “others” have substantially opposed interests.

Ms. Clinton observed: “Why, then, are Americans turning their back on this privilege -- the cornerstone of our democracy? In 1960, 63 percent of the electorate voted. By 1996, that number had dropped to under 40 percent, leaving us to ask: What will it take to remind the American public that voting is not just a precious right, but in Lyndon Johnson's words, ‘the first duty of democracy?’” That much of the fall-off in voter participation between 1963 and 1996 was attributable to the lowering of the voting age, not “Americans turning their back on this privilege,” is typical of Ms. Clinton’s style of rhetorical slight-of-hand, but even without her implicit misrepresentation, the percentages she cites appear correct. They also appear low in comparision to some other countries, in which voter turn out can exceed eighty percent.

The first indication that Ms. Clinton is in serious intellectual trouble is her reference to Lyndon Johnson. When a writer as sophisticated as Ms. Clinton believes that she must find her support for a “duty” to vote in the words of Lyndon Johnson – who was not regarded as a man who spoke frankly (although he was often rude) or as a deep thinker (although he was often wily), one has to ask whether she could have done better. Surely there are quotes from Jefferson and other great American political thinkers supporting the existence of such a duty? In fact, none of the great early American political thinkers appears to have strongly expressed the sentiment that voting is normally a duty of every individual – moral or otherwise. Some of their writings do show conviction that every voter “is a trustee as well for others as himself and that every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others as well as on his own,” as Daniel Webster put it. Similarly, Samuel Adams also thought that one should not just vote one’s own interest, because a voter “is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.” Such references to the “trust” which a voter is executing suggest belief in a voter’s obligation to others, an obligation perhaps extending to an obligation to vote in the first place. But this seems to stretch the meaning of the “obligation” here: what Adams and Webster seem to be saying is that the obligation of “public trust” arises if the vote is cast, not that there is a moral duty to cast a vote in the first place.

So Ms. Clinton’s did seem to need to rely on later, less august authority. But, Lyndon Johnson? A man generally regarded as a highly divisive figure? And this in what was supposed to be her “non-partisan” column?

According to Ms. Clinton, the major factors discouraging at least young voters are that such voters “feel ignored by politicians; they feel their vote doesn't really count; and they say that they don't get the kind of information they need to make an informed decision.” She does not answer any of these concerns. There is not even a pretense at addressing the first concern, that voters “feel ignored by politicians.” The second concern is addressed simply:

“If you are skeptical about whether your vote can make a difference, think about this: If indeed you care about education and jobs; if you care about the Supreme Court and individual rights; if you care about hate crimes, the military and foreign policy; if you care about health care and welfare reform, or paying down the national debt; if you care about global warming and protecting the environment, you owe it to yourself and your country to vote.”

But if a “vote doesn’t really count,” then a vote won’t mean anything in the resolution of any of these issues – so there is nothing here to answer the second concern. Similarly, her response to voters’ concern “that they don't get the kind of information they need to make an informed decision” is to suggest: “If you'd like to use the Internet to learn more about the candidates and issues, you can start here:;;;;” Ms. Clinton does not say that using the Internet will address this third concern – she just suggests a few web sites to start with IF you want to use the Internet. But these suggested web sites just provide general information which looks like it came from wire services, and can be obtained from any number of previously and publicly available sources. That is to say, these web sites just provide more information which voters do not think is “the kind of information they need to make an informed decision.”

Yes, Ms. Clinton does not meaningfully address a single one of the three factors her own column selects as the most important suppressors of voting. This is typical of such speeches and editorials. Why?

Perhaps sweeping “good government” screeds do not persuasively argue that every eligible voter should vote because this is clearly not true. The most obvious cases are those in which the voter is ignorant. If a candidate is just a name on the ballot to a particular voter, the voter probably should not vote in that race. This is equally true where the voter knows nothing about a direct initiative that appears for approval on the ballot. Especially as government has grown more complex, it has become more difficult for any voter to obtain and analyze relevant information. For example, recall the extent to which Ms. Clinton went to conceal her agenda and methods when she convened her "national health care task force" in the early days of her husband's first term. It is sometimes said elected bodies (such as the European Parliament) can develop a legitimacy problem due to low voter awareness and turnout, as Kirsty Hughes asserts in her article Is This Europe's Philadelphia? Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2002. But all government must be democratic, and where it reaches a size and complexity that outstrips the inability of the electorate to follow what’s going on, there SHOULD be a legitimacy problem, simply because democratic oversight IS lacking. Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist by asking voters to participate “in the dark” just makes a sham of the process.

Nor will it do to assert that individuals have the obligation to educate themselves sufficiently. The “ignorant voter” problem goes much further than voters who have not bothered to read the papers. It is just not the case that everyone is capable of acquiring and assimilating politically relevant information, even where government is simple and small – but especially where it is large and complex. Indeed, once a voter’s ability to acquire and assimilate such information drops below a certain point with respect to professional political operatives, any participation by the voter is more likely to result in votes that are determined by manipulations of such professionals and against the voter’s interests. Voting simply does not make sense if the net likelihood of voting is against one’s own interests (or the interests of the voter and whatever other group of people the voter owes a “trust”). It is obviously not possible for every eligible voter to absorb and understand enough information to effectively police elected politicians once government assumes remote, complex form.

The whole “good government” approach that advocates that everyone should vote needs to deal with another model: Why isn’t it better for many or most people NOT to vote in many or most cases, and to leave the decisions to other people who care more and are better at evaluating and acting on politically relevant information? To some extent, the truth of such a model is unavoidable. Children, for example, are not eligible to vote in large measure exactly because they are thought not to be capable of assimilating and applying political information. Children have many other rights - Constitutional rights of criminal procedure, for example. How can their exclusion from the franchise be justified, especially in the not-infrequent cases where the children are taxpayers. Wasn't the Revolution fought over the principle of "No taxation without representation?" Other groups are also excluded from the franchise.

The concept of “virtual representation” – under which one group (for example, children) are seen to be "represented" on the ground that they share the same interests as others (in the case of children, the adults around them) who do have the right to vote – is essential in filling the democratic gap. The concept of “virtual representation” is sometimes discussed in this country as if it had been discredited by the Revolution. But that is clearly wrong, as the above example indicates. It is true that the colonies' thought it was impossible to consider themselves represented in Parliament unless they actually elected members to the House of Commons, an approach in conflict with the principle of "virtual representation," which in this case was taken to mean that the rest of the community was "represented" on the ground that all inhabitants shared the same interests as the property owners who elected members of Parliament.

Post-Revolutionary America retained many restrictions on the franchise on the basis of the “virtual representation” theory, including exclusion of non-property owners and women who were property owners (of course, slaves were also excluded, but on different grounds). Assurances of virtual representation failed to assuage the anger of nineteenth century women just as it had the colonials. Exclusion of male property owners sometimes led to violence, including a full scale revolution in Rhode Island in the 1840's.

But expansion of the franchise does not end the validity of “virtual representation” considerations, any more than the expansion of the right to free expression ended the validity of considerations which lead many people not to engage in political speech. The expansion of the franchise just recognizes that the evaluation of when to apply such “virtual representation” considerations are for the eligible individual to determine with respect to his or her own vote. In short, if there is any moral obligation or civic duty to vote, then there must sometimes also be a moral obligation and civic duty not to vote.

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Interesting Enron Link

Kausfiles links to an interesting article by Matt Miller, with whom I had not previously been familiar. Miller is careful to avoid a broad defense of Enron's Skilling, but is not shy about pointing out some of the excesses and inconsistencies of the man's (and Enron's) wilder critics. This article seems further evidence of a growing skepticism regarding the Enronian vast conspiracy. The article also suggests that there may be a wider, deeper understanding developing that what went wrong at Enron is potentially a lot more interesting and profound than playing the matter as if it were a lost episode of "The Untouchables," as much of the media has been doing - led by the excitable New York Times. But the matter is far from settled - and actual, even criminal, fraud is still a possibility.

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