|Man Without Qualities|
Friday, May 20, 2005
David Gergen observed on "Hardball" the other night:It strikes me that this might be one of those famous tipping points, that, when you have a series of blunders, scandals, what have you, in the mainstream media, that, at a certain point, . . . the public gets fed up. And because so many people died here as a consequence of this, the publication, I think there's a lot of anger out there. You can see it in the blogs. . . . You can see it in the conversation today. I think the public may have just had enough.
Well, it strikes the Man Without Qualities that journalistic standards are analogous to modules in the operating system of a computer: the consumer doesn't really care much about the workings of the operating system, but he or she sure gets mad fast when an operating system bug disrupts the applications software.
For example, when MicroSoft Windows causes a little hourglass to hoover interminably on the screen or causes the computer to "crash" when it is supposed to perform a key function, most consumers do not have an urge to read any little error explanation card that may pop up detailing the underlying operating system defect - or otherwise investigate the details of the operating system bug. Rather, the consumer has a strong and economically rational desire to look into possibly acquiring some other operating system on which the applications software might run better.
And so it is with journalistic standards. Taranto is exactly correct to note that Newsweek's use of flimsy sources is a technical point that isn't of that much interest to nonjournalists. What level of sources and other evidence (no docments were adduced) is appropriate and necessary to confirm a story or fact surely lies at the technical heart of journalistic operations systems.
On the other hand, nonjournalists (that is, "viewers" and "readers" and other "information consumers") sure have interest in (one might say "outrage over") unreliable, inflamatory stories and charges which are the products of defects or bugs in those same journalistic operations systems! But most of those nonjournalists have about as much interest in the technical details of the journalistic bug that produced the disaster as computer users have in the technical operating system bug that produced that permanent little hourglass or that "crash."
And the nonjournalist has a strong and economically rational desire to look into possibly acquiring some other source or sources of information than the mainstream media outlet harboring and, in this case, actually defending that bug. No operating system software company would dream of doing anything comparable. Is it a wonder that most of the mainstream media is contracting? Was it a wonder that computer consumers rose up against MicroSoft?
Compared to Newsweek and much of the rest of the mainstream media, MicroSoft is all about the consumer.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Mickey Kaus suggests that the Republican "nuclear option" may be defeated by Democrats caving on the appellate judge cloture vote, saving their big guns for the almost-sure-to-come Supreme Court fight:
Perhaps the most serious flaw in Blackberrier's proposal is that it is utterly inconsistent with a great many important (and very high decibel) positions taken by the Senate Democratic leadership for years, and would almost certainly strip the Democrats of most of the credibility they will need for that all-important Supreme Court dust up.
Is that just a nit?
Specifically, Blackberrier ignores the fact that the Democrats have spent years demonizing these very same mid-level appellate judicial candidates and hollering that Dems must filibuster now - for the very same reasons Dems filibustered each of this crop of candidates when Mr. Bush nominated them previously. And the Blackberrier's proposal would also allow the President to place his "farm team" of appellate court judges in position for that Supreme Court appointment - which would be a disaster the Democrats are fuming now and fumed when they last rejected these nominees. (The current media bring yet another hi-decibel Democratic howl: "The Senate is not a rubber stamp for the executive branch," [Democratic Senate leader] Reid said. "Rather, we're the one institution where the minority has a voice and the ability to check the power of the majority. Today, in the face of President Bush's power grab, that's more important than ever." - emphasis added. So, Senator Reid informs us, what's going on in the Senate today is more important than ever - and it's appellate judges they're considering today.)
But wait! Hasn't something changed? Isn't a strategic gimmick warranted now? Don't the Republicans have the nuclear option now? No - not until they actually successfully use it, because nobody will know for sure that the Republicans have the votes for their nuclear option until the last vote is cast. So nothing of huge significance has actually changed since the last time the Democrats filibustered these same candidates.
Worse for the Democrats, they have been arguing that there are effective remedies if Republicans do successfully use the "nuclear option." The Democrats say they will hurl the Senate into chaotic paralysis and bring the Republican outrage to the voters - who will, the Democrats have assured us these many months (nay, years!), storm the polls in the next election and whup the Republicans into line! If that's all true then it's important for the Republicans to be disciplined now, so that the sacred filibuster rule can be restored before the big Supreme Court fights. Do the Democrats now concede that the voters will not rise up over the elimination of the judicial filibuster (and probably will view it as a good thing) - and that the Democrats cannot paralyze the Senate over such a procedural reform without having lots of voters rise up against them? And, if most voters don't care much, then how do the Democrats explain what the heck they are doing with this Blackberrier's shenanigan, anyhow?
If the Democrats concede all that now they will have very little left regarding the nuclear option when they "have" to filibuster that Supreme Court nominee - they will have to depend mostly on sliming him or her. Can one imagine the Democratic Senate leadership attempting to use many of the same arguments against such a candidate that the Blackberrier's theory posits have already been used against the current crop of appellate nominees but are now to be abandoned in a procedural gimmick? My guess is that the Democratic and Republican leaderships have imagined such a thing - and that the resulting Democratic winces are matched by Republican grins.
What about this:
[Blackberrier's strategy would result in] no climactic roll-call vote, unless the Dems miscalculate. ... When a Supreme Court appointment comes up, of course, Dems would have to filibuster--but then Frist would have to set his precedent when everyone's paying attention, as opposed to now, when everybody isn't because it looks like an obscure insider rules change about mid-level appellate judges.But the Democrats and their "friends" in the media have made very sure that people are now paying attention - and have been paying attention, whether they like it or not. For example, the New York Times is treating its readers to no fewer than nine articles on the subject datelined today, including wire service items (Heated Senate Showdown Opens On Judges and Analysis: Frist's Hardball May Backfire and Brown Seen As Model for Filibuster Fight and Pressure by White House Is Being Applied With Care and Fight on Judges and Filibusters Opens in Senate and Excerpts From Remarks on Filibusters and On One Side, Women and Blacks; on the Other, the Same and Fight on Judges and Filibusters Continues in Senate and Fight on Judges and Filibusters Opens in Senate).
Voters seem not to care much about what the Times and other Democratic media "friends" care about in this matter, but voters are pretty fully informed on the issue. So they'll know a lot about the Democratic inconsistencies implicit in the Blackberrier's proposal - and that will further strip the Democrats of credibility if they avail themselves of that proposal.
POSTSCRIPT: The above observations might be summarized this way:
If the Blackberrier's proposal is acceptable to the Democrats, they could achieve exactly the same benefits (no precedent until Supreme Court fight) without many of the costs (loss of credibility in Supreme Court fight) simply by agreeing to let all of the current crop of lower appellate court nominees through as part of a backroom deal, which really would largely stay below the radar of most voters. Many efforts have been made to broker such a deal - and those efforts have failed. That failure pretty well indicates that the Democratic leadership is aware of the huge costs of even a backroom deal letting these nominees through - and the costs of the Blackberrier's proposal would be much larger than those of such a quiet backroom deal. Indeed, the Blackberrier's proposal is so bizarre and spectacular that carrying out the proposal would itself attract huge attention and demands for explanations far beyond the underlying Senate fight - all of which could be avoided with a backroom deal. Yet, there is no such deal - and Senator Reid has squarely indicated that any deal that would let all of the current appellate nominations through (as the Blackberrier's proposal would do, of course) is unacceptable to the Democrats: "I've tried to compromise and they want all or nothing, and I can't do that," Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters after a meeting with Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
UPDATE (Taranto's take):
Kaus makes an important assumption that strikes us as highly dubious: namely, that the Dems would be better off defending the filibuster during a Supreme Court nomination fight, "when everyone's paying attention." We'd say the opposite is true. Whatever the merits of a particular nominee, who but a partisan (i.e., someone now paying attention) would think it fair to deny him a vote? Indeed, if there's one advantage for Democrats in abolishing the filibuster now, it is that it would relieve the pressure on them from far-left interest groups to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee.
All very reasonable. But I continue to believe that people are "paying attention" right now. And the costs to the Democrats of backing down now by simply allowing the votes would be huge, as noted above.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The "us" in this case being the French and the "they" being everyone else in Europe:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Britons described them as "chauvinists, stubborn, nannied and humourless". However, the French may be more shocked by the views of other nations.
Ah! That old adage!
CBS is canceling the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," insisting the decision was made because of poor ratings and not Dan Rather's fraudulent story about President Bush's military service. CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said: "This was a ratings call, not a content call."
The CBS content/ratings distinction carries more than a wiff of the disingenuous given the plunge in CBS News Neilsen ratings following the Rathergate fiasco, as reported on DRUDGE on September 16, 2004:
CBS executives on both coasts have become concerned in recent days that Dan Rather's EVENING NEWS broadcast has plunged in the ratings since the anchor presented questionable documents about Bush's National Guard service.
Well, the story seems to have "developed" into permanently low ratings for Rather's remaining vehicle, "60 Minutes, Wednesday" - and now its cancellation "for low ratings." Yes, a CBS-appointed investigative panel had concluded that documents used in the Rathergate story "could not be verified" (i.e., were presumptively fraudulent) and that the CBS operatives had been hilariously willful and negligent in their handling of the materials, but Moonves said that the panel findings didn't figure in the decision to cancel 60 Minutes, Wednesday. "Not even slightly," he said. But he didn't say: not even indirectly.
Notwithstanding the increasingly obvious link between the declining trustworthiness of the mainstream media and its declining audience, many mainstream media seem determined to immolate themselves in honor of the likes of Newsweek and CBS News. The Los Angeles Times, a particularly odd case in point, yesterday issued an amazing editorial that led with this:
According to chaos theory, the flapping of a single butterfly's wings can trigger a hurricane halfway across the globe, a phenomenon known as the "butterfly effect." Now the Bush administration thinks it has detected something that might be called the "Newsweek effect." It says the magazine's publication of an item in its May 9 issue, alleging that U.S. guards flushed the Koran down a toilet in order to humiliate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, was a cause of riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan last week that left at least 14 people dead. We'll leave it to the scientists and philosophers to debate the finer points of chaos theory. What we can say here is that the "Newsweek effect" is exaggerated.
See - the Los Angeles Times explains that the connection of all that rioting to the Newsweek article is just so much White House manipulation and hooey, which will presumably come as a surprise to Newsweek, which is running this story:
May 23 issue - By the end of the week, the rioting had spread from Afghanistan throughout much of the Muslim world, from Gaza to Indonesia. Mobs shouting "Protect our Holy Book!" burned down government buildings and ransacked the offices of relief organizations in several Afghan provinces. The violence cost at least 15 lives, injured scores of people and sent a shudder through Washington, where officials worried about the stability of moderate regimes in the region. The spark was apparently lit at a press conference held on Friday, May 6, by Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket legend and strident critic of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Brandishing a copy of that week's NEWSWEEK (dated May 9), Khan read a report that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo prison had placed the Qur'an on toilet seats and even flushed one.The Los Angeles Times approach will also likely surprise the Washington Post, which ran a story on May 11 asserting that the riots were triggered by "a report that interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba" and to the New York Times, which ran a story on May 12 stating that the "demonstrations were started on Tuesday by students angered by a report in Newsweek that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention center had desecrated the Koran by flushing a copy down the toilet." And, of course, the The Los Angeles Times dismissal will also likely surprise the radical clerics and extremist political agitators who have been busy inciting the riots by citing Newsweek, as well as to the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan - which have also attributed the rioting to Newsweek and want the magazine held liable for the damages caused.
Not content to deny the causative nexus that even Newsweek and its sister publication, the Washington Post, now see clearly, the Los Angeles Times claims that, for that paper, "The more interesting question may not be how Newsweek goofed, but why the Muslim world is so ready to believe the story." So the Los Angeles Times sees clearly that the "Muslim world" did read and believe the Newsweek report - and did riot - but concludes that the causal connection between the two was no more than that arising from the beating of a butterfly wing.
But wait! There's more! The same Los Angeles Times editorial not only denies any significant causal connection between the Newsweek article and the subsequent rioting, but goes on to suggest that the journalism standards Newsweek employed in running the article are the same as those used throughout the mainstream media - including at the Los Angeles Times: "[T]he use of anonymous sources, on which the Newsweek article relied, raises questions of motivation and credibility that news organizations (including this one) ignore at their peril." The Times editorial does not actually disclose how often the Times ignores those "questions of motivation and credibility" - but neither does the editorial part ways with the amazing and now-infamous assertion by Michael Isikoff, one of two reporters who perpetrated the Newsweek story, that "There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here." The Los Angeles Times seems to agree.
The Times editorial may be compared to the take at the Wall Street Journal, which terms the original Newsweek article a "thinly sourced allegation":
Less reassuring, however, is [Newsweek's]contention that the story is a routine error."There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here," said Michael Isikoff, who was one of two reporters behind the story. Certainly we all make mistakes. But if printing such an explosive allegation based on the memory of what a single, anonymous source claims he read is standard Newsweek procedure--no documents were even produced--its readers must wonder about the rest of its content too. The more consequential question here, it seems to us, is why Newsweek was so ready to believe the story was true. .... We have all been reading a great deal lately about both the decline of media credibility, and the decline of both TV news viewership and newspaper circulation. Any other industry looking at such trends would conclude that perhaps there is a connection.
As the post-Rathergate CBS News viewership numbers and today's cancellation of 60 Minutes, Wednesday indicate, the connection the Journal perceives is very strong. And the Los Angeles Times itself seems to be leading the way into the oblivion of precipitously declining circulation, with a loss of almost 13% in six months - a rate that if continued in one year would cause the Times lose over 25% of its fully or partially paid subscribers. And it is perhaps no coincidence that Michael Kinsley - the man behind the bizarre Los Angeles Times editorial described above - seems utterly clueless as to what is causing the implosion. Indeed, in a recent column Mr. Kinsley actually addressed declining newspaper circulation, offering up this causal nexus (I am not making this up):
Some evil force is causing people to stop reading newspapers! Newspaper circulation figures, which had been drifting decorously downward for years, have started to plummet.
Yes, and that "evil force" is the fact that people don't believe the information provided by the mainstream media very much, Mr. Kinsley. And that's probably largely because of the crummy journalistic standards and out-of-touch, tendentious reporting that now plagues so much of your industry.
Enjoy the "plummeting" ride down!
UPDATE: Maguire completely nails the Newsweek/riots causality connection denied by the Los Angeles Times editorial. After reading his posts, it's hard to see why deniers of this causality should not be classed with other loony deniers of important historically-obvious facts (perhaps former members of O.J. Simpson's criminal jury are now part of the LA Times ediorial board). Essentially, the only argument left to the deniers seems to be to ask their opponents in one form or another a question equivalent to: "Why do you have such absolute certainty about this causation?" Of course, there is no absolute certainty in real life about almost anything - and no media outlet, including Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times ever avails itself of that standard, except when they are absolutely determined not to connect the causation dots.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
It is always a good idea to pay close attention to Gary Becker, who recently scribed a timely Wall Street Journal article advocating removal of the many unnecessary regulatory obstacles to building nuclear power plants. As always, Professor Becker's reasoning is lucid:
The excellent safety record at American nuclear plants, growing imports of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels at high prices, and increased concern over the pollution and global warming caused by fossil fuels, has made the case for reducing regulatory obstacles to new American nuclear power plants compelling.... [N]uclear power currently supplies about 20% of all electricity generated in the U.S. Yet this is much smaller than the 70% supplied by nuclear power in France, one-third in Japan, and about half in that highly improbable country, Sweden.
Is the matter really this straightforward? Well, maybe not. Professor Becker claims that uranium is "plentiful" - which, at present rates of consumption, it is. But would it remain "plentiful" if much more of the earth's energy was taken from that source than is now extracted? Sometimes it's a good idea to pay close attention to physicists from the California Institute of Technology, some of whom - such as Richard Feynman - display natural talents as entertaining bomb-throwers of a very high order, in addition to their considerable scientific skills. In this case it seems a good idea to pay attention to a recent book by CalTech Provost-and-Physicist David Goodstein and his recent book Out of Gas: The End of the Age Of Oil, which can be searched through Amazon's on-line technology, and which notes (on page 106) that, subject to some uncertainties, currently known uranium reserves would be enough to supply all of the Earth's energy needs (at the world's current level of energy consumption) for only 5 to 25 years.
Would it be worthwhile to build a world wide uranium fission reactor economy if the world's uranium really gives out in 5 or even 25 years - just at our present rate of consumption? Now the "uncertainties" noted above include the facts that estimating uranium reserves is a less developed skill than estimating (say) oil and gas reserves, and that additional now-unknown uranium reserves would presumably be discovered if its price and need increased. So maybe the world has more uranium than even a 25 year supply.
And maybe not. Against these positive "uncertainties" one should consider a major negative: the world's demand for energy is rapidly increasing, especially in developing countries such as China and India. Indeed, much of the recent surge in prices of "fossil fuels" (the same surge that makes uranium more cost competitive with conventional fossil fuels than in the past) has been attributed to that additional demand. Of course, the energy component of future world economic growth is not set in stone - and might drop dramatically. But a dramatic increase in economy-wide energy efficiency is by no means sure, and one is left with the very real prospect that future world-wide economic growth may require a great deal more energy. What happens then?
Well, one thing that could happen then is breeder reactors. Breeder reactors produce lots of plutonium, which is a perfectly good nuclear reactor fuel. One can get the impression from articles on breeder reactors that they could produce unlimited quantities of additional nuclear fuel - but Goodstein says that breeder reactors would multiply the energy available from uranium by a hundredfold. That's still a lot of leverage. But current generation breeder reactors use liquid metal coolant and are considered in many quarters to be much more potentially unstable than "conventional" reactors - which already upset large parts of the public. Moreover, while "conventional" reactor design has progressed, and those reactors have arguably become safer, publicly available reports of breeder reactor technology do not seem to suggest that the same is true of breeder reactors. Perhaps more research and development in the field of breeder reactors might address that problem. And perhaps breeder reactor technology is already more advanced - but classified. Who knows?
In addition to reactor stability issues, the plutonium produced by breeder reactors raises security issues qualitatively similar to those raised by "recycling" uranium. Professor Becker notes that other countries (France and Germany) have dealt with such issues in the "recycling" context. Presumably he would consider those examples to also address the security issues created by plutonium in the breeder reactor context.
If what Professor Goodstein says about known uranium reserves is correct, it is hard to see how uranium can reliably be expected to be the major energy source of the future as Professor Becker seems to suggest unless breeder reactors are built to leverage the world's uranium reserves. Professor Goodstein raises the interesting prospect of fission reactors fueled by neither uranium nor plutonium but isotope 232 of another element, thorium, an isotope which can be converted into the fissible isotope 233 uranium - and then burned. Professor Goodstein notes that natural thorium seems to be about 3 times as abundant as uranium.
That's a start.