June 14th, 2008 by Rightsideup

From a speech Obama gave in Philadelphia (you know, in Pennsylvania, where bitter people cling to guns and so on):

“They’re going to try to scare people. They’re going to try to say that ‘that Obama is a scary guy,’” he said. A donor yelled out a deep accented “Don’t give in!”

“I won’t but that sounded pretty scary. You’re a tough guy,” Obama said.

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said. “Because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

Look at that second last line, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”. Would anyone else – especially a Republican, get away with this? Would McCain? Wouldn’t people on the left be crying out that this was irresponsible rhetoric? Pointing out that there was a mass shooting less than 2 years ago in Pennsylvania? And so on? But Obama gets away with this scot-free. Another free ride for Mr Obama. And that’s going to be the story of the campaign, unfortunately. Which means McCain needs to be that much better because he has even more than the usual bias against him with this guy.

May 9th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN reports on a study done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism into the Daily Show. That anyone would waste time on a project like this seems pretty funny to begin with, and it’s also not entirely clear what the purpose of the study was: whether to assess bias in the show, or to determine whether people who watch the show get their news from it.

At any rate, CNN reports the findings on bias as follows:

While Stewart aims most of his firepower at Republicans, the show is actually pretty balanced in its bookings, the study noted. Of the clearly partisan, 15 guests were conservative and 18 were liberal. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain was a guest on Wednesday’s show.

This appears to be an attempt to reduce bias to compliance with the Fairness Doctrine. If the Fairness Doctrine was the only measure of bias, then every news outlet could easily be exonerated of any bias. But we all know that the bias shows itself in many different ways. The questions asked of guests – whether softball or hardball questions, the views shared by anchors and commentators, the selection of news items to focus on etc. are all examples of bias which aren’t addressed by the Fairness Doctrine alone.

In fact, the first sentence of the paragraph quoted above explicitly states Stewart’s bias against Republicans. That’s the problem, and it seems bizarre to have an entire article about the rest of the investigation with this throwaway remark at the end, which confirms the bias in the Daily Show that should have been the focus of the article.

And it’s not just the opinion of the CNN journalist who wrote the article. That remark is based on one of the findings from the study itself:

Republicans in 2007 tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew. From July 1 through November 1, Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush Administration alone was the focus of almost a quarter (22%) of the segments in this time period.

Why wasn’t this the headline? Instead, the headline is about the fact that people don’t think the Daily Show is really a news show. Who knew?

February 11th, 2008 by Rightsideup

My previous post took the IBD to task for misrepresenting the views of one scientist – Ken Tapping – in its article on global warming. Dr Tapping had responded to my email by saying the article was “rubbish” and explaining that in his view CO2-caused climate change is the biggest challenge facing us today, and that solar cooling might only mask the effects for a few years.

There was a second scientist quoted in the paper – Tim Patterson. Unlike Dr Tapping he apparently doesn’t check his work email late on Friday nights or over the weekend and so only responded this (Monday) morning. His response – as I had assumed from what I’ve read/heard about him elsewhere – was that his positions had indeed been accurately characterised in the article.

He attached to his email two papers from colleagues (which I’ve posted here and here) which support his thesis. So it appears that not every source quoted / cited by IBD in this case was misrepresented, which is a small mercy.

February 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week dissecting Mitt Romney’s campaign, but a lot of them have focused in particular on the Mormon connection. Those that have done so have focused on one of two things:

  • Whether Mitt’s Mormonism hurt his campaign
  • Whether Mitt’s campaign hurt Mormonism

The first question has had far more coverage during the course of the campaign, with polls showing percentages ranging from mid-teens to over half of certain groups saying they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Now, we all know the stock answer to these polls, which is, in Mitt’s words, “If you’d asked people in the late 70s whether they would vote for a divorced actor for president, they’d have said no then too.”

Ultimately, people make up their minds based on the candidates which are available, despite their theoretical preferences (and it is for this reason that McCain will get the support of most Republicans even though many would say he wasn’t their first choice). But prejudice does matter, if it’s strong enough, and especially when there is an alternative candidate with some of the same desirable qualities but not the one that gives them pause.

If Mike Huckabee hadn’t been in the race, Mitt might have captured more of the votes of Southern evangelicals than he did, because those most likely to baulk at voting for a Mormon wouldn’t have had an obvious alternative. Would their distaste have been strong enough to get them to vote for a candidate with a weaker position on the values issues that are most important to them? And would their churches and pastors have been as vigorous in slamming Mormonism if he was their best hope of putting a social conservative in the White House? Mitt Romney and his people need to do some serious, statistically significant polling, especially in the South, to determine how much this was a factor, because there’s no point running again in four or eight years if this is a major sticking point. It’s not going to just go away, and I’m not sure there’s anything Mitt can do to change perceptions even if he’s proactive about it.

So, on to the other question – whether his campaign hurt Mormonism. I’d argue that it had three primary effects:

  • It raised Mormonism’s profile, with far more positive, negative and neutral articles appearing in the press than in any other similar period since (and perhaps even including) the Salt Lake Olympics
  • It highlighted both to members and non-members the uglier side of the Mormon question – all the objections that other religious groups but also atheists, all kinds of journalists and various activists and professional anti-Mormons have to the Church.
  • It forced the Church to take a stand about how active to be in defending itself and spreading its own message while a member was running for President.

The first point can be taken either way. The old trope about all publicity being good publicity is over-simplistic, but missionaries certainly got more questions than before, which likely presented them with more opportunities to teach. It got profiles of the Church, some of them neutral, some positive (which was a pleasant surprise), and of course some negative (the PBS series being a prime example), in front of people who knew little or nothing about the Church, and likely stimulated missionary opportunities in that way too.

One of the less pleasant side-effects was the way in which the extra publicity the Church got presented some of the more virulently opposing views to Church members who are normally sheltered from them. Any Church member who spends any time on the Internet looking for information about the Church outside of the official site knows how much of this stuff is out there. But for many members, lds.org has everything about the Church there is to know on the Internet (and all credit to the Church for the huge steps it’s taken since it first had a simple holding page for the first few years of the Internet just 10 years ago).

For them it was unsettling, and some reacted by rejecting everything they were told, even those things with a basis in fact. They flooded the comments sections on blogs and articles, where their relative ignorance about the more nuanced elements of Church history was perfect fodder for opponents who used this as further evidence of the sheltered existence Church members sometimes live. I doubt any of this did huge damage to Church members and their faith, and it probably did them some good in that it forced them to know a little more about our history and therefore make more informed decisions about that faith.

Lastly, the Church leadership took a studiously neutral position during the campaign, and in some ways was too quiet, as it has itself acknowledged this week. It was so careful not to be seen to be endorsing Romney’s campaign that it said very little other than restating some of its core doctrinal positions and the occasional press conference. Elder Ballard’s call to action at BYU Hawai’i went some way towards giving members of the Church position to answer the critics in a way that arguably carries more authority, but we’re all still amateurs at this game and I’m not sure how much impact it has had yet.

I think the most positive thing to have come out of all of this, though, is that Romney’s campaign hasn’t done the Church any lasting damage, and in fact has probably prompted members to come out of their shells and do a better job of telling our own story. I’m not sure the rest of the world comes out of it as well, since there is considerable evidence of real bias exhibited by voters. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s also been some good progress.

February 9th, 2008 by Rightsideup

On the whole I’ve been fairly sceptical of the whole global warming thing and have tended to side with those who suggested that either:

  • Too little was known to be as conclusive as some are and want us to be
  • A mountain was being made out of a molehill in terms of actual temperature change, or
  • We didn’t know for sure what was causing rising temperatures and so attacking one cause might be a big waste of time and money.

I haven’t changed my views on this, and so I at first read this article in Investors’ Business Daily with interest. However, something about it didn’t ring true, and I eventually realised that it cited several people without actually quoting any of them. I figured the two people actually mentioned in the article shouldn’t be too hard to find, and sure enough I quickly dug up email addresses for both. I sent them each an email asking whether their views had been accurately represented and whether they agreed with the gist of the article.

Dr Ken Tapping, who is cited in the article as follows:

Kenneth Tapping, a solar researcher and project director for Canada’s National Research Council, is among those looking at the sun for evidence of an increase in sunspot activity.

wrote back to my email. His first line is:

The article is rubbish.

An inauspicious start, to say the least. He goes on to say:

I believe that global climate change is the biggest problem facing us today. As yet we have no idea of exactly how serious it can get or where the tipping point may be.

The lateness of the start of the solar activity cycle is not yet enough to be something to worry about. However, even if we were to go into another minimum, and the Sun dims for a few decades, as it did during the Maunder Minimum, it could reduce the problem for a while, but things will come back worse when the cycle starts again.

So, in short, his views have been completely misrepresented (or, since he hasn’t actually been quoted and no views have explicitly been ascribed to him) he has technically only had his name used in a misleading way. Needless to say, he’s frustrated about this.

I note that the original article has no forum for comments of feedback so there’s no way to attach caveats to the article in a public place. In addition, it’s been picked up in other places across the web by global warming sceptics so it’s like any bad rumour and at this point very hard to rein in.

Since I’m largely sympathetic towards the thrust of the article, I find this all the more frustrating. Either there really are scientists out there who hold the views cited in the article, in which case they should have been the ones quoted, or there aren’t and therefore the article should not have been written. Either way, it’s extremely dishonest journalism. And it simply provides more ammunition for the global warming enthusiasts since it fits nicely with their narrative about scientific consensus.

February 8th, 2008 by Rightsideup

A two-fer from the WSJ today, but this one was actually via the Freakonomics blog, which had a shorter and more interesting take. Stephen Dubner suggests that there are still some biases which are more acceptable than others, as he originally suggested in the Freakonomics book. Among these are biases against Mormons (he also illustrates that bias against Hasidic Jews may be another example).

As we wrote in Freakonomics, evidence from the TV show Weakest Link suggested that bias against women and blacks was considered less acceptable than bias against Latinos and the elderly… Based on today’s newspapers, at least, it looks like Hasidic Jews and Mormons probably wouldn’t have done so well on Weakest Link either.

The WSJ article itself is a little long-winded and unstructured but cites lots of people talking about the problem without much insight. But this will be a theme well worth revisiting in a few months. If Romney is going to come back, that makes sense if his main problem was his perceived lack of commitment to big ideological stances. But if this was the real reason he didn’t win, he might easily pour millions more dollars down the drain if he ran again.

January 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

Time’s debate scorecard for last night’s debate demonstrates some incredible mental dexterity from Mark Halperin, who gave McCain a winning B grade (Romney got a D). The following quote is the first two thirds of his blurb on McCain’s performance:

As a testament to his suddenly strong position in the battle for the nomination, he showed off all of his worst traits — and still won! Alternately cranky, elderly, caustic, equivocating, inarticulate, passionless. But he flexed his ability to intimidate Romney as needed, usually with an arch one-liner that was 3/5 mean-spirited and 2/5 light gag. Made little effort to defend his own tax record or negative Florida attacks, and failed to drive a positive message.

And this is the guy who won? It reads like satire. The idea that Romney was intimidated bears no relation whatsoever to what actually happened in the debate, where Romney stood very firm and countered all of McCain’s smears. In the last third of Halperin’s summary he suggests that questoiners and the other candidates treated him as the front runner. No doubt the questioners did – this has been their line for the last several weeks, even when McCain was badly lagging Romney in the delegate race. But given there are only two serious candidates left in the race, who else was Romney to go after? Huckabee? Paul?? And McCain certainly focused his attention on Romney – does this mean he thinks Romney is the front runner? The whole thing is bizarre, and another sign that the media is desperate to have McCain as the nominee – either because they believe he will implode or because they like his centrist positions better than Romney’s conservative stance.

January 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

I’ve been increasingly frustrated over the last several weeks by the media’s insistence that McCain, not Romney, has been the front runner. It happened despite Mitt’s wins in Michigan and Nevada and his strong second place showing in two more states. He was leading by a wide margin in delegates until Florida, and had he captured just a few percentage points more there would now be streaking ahead instead of lying in a close second.

The usual story is that, since Romney has outspent and out-campaigned (horror of horrors) the others in some key states, that his results don’t really count. To which you have to counter, “have you seen who he is running against?” and “have you seen the stories they write on Mitt?”

First, who he’s running against. McCain and Giuliani have been the only serious candidates in this thing from the start. Ron Paul certainly has his small but vocal fan base, and Huckabee and Thompson likewise had their niches, but the front runners in national polls all along have been McCain and Giuliani. McCain has run previously and as such has high name recognition and a following built up over the last eight years. Giuliani was the high profile mayor of the first mainland American city to be attacked in living memory. These guys don’t need the advertising because if anyone doesn’t know who they are at this point, it’s not because they haven’t seen enough ads but because they are completely disengaged from the political process.

Then you look at the stories which have been written about each of the candidates from the beginning of the campaign. Paul has lots of articles about his plucky Internet supporters, Huckabee benefited from stories about his (brief) “surge” in the polls just before and after Iowa (and perhaps the occasional piece about weight loss and the Fair Tax). But all the pieces about Romney are in one of four camps: “he is outspending all the others with his vast personal fortune”, “can a Mormon really be elected?”, “Romney is a flip-flopper” and “isn’t he too perfect?” All the other candidates have at least merited a serious evaluation of their policies and achievements, but not Mitt.

So what’s he supposed to do but go on the attack, advertise like crazy to get awareness of his candidacy but more importantly awareness of his positions and achievements out there? And when through this well thought out strategy he takes, as he puts it, two golds and two silvers and leads the early running, who do the media call the front runner? McCain. Which is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy, since people like to vote for winners.

All of this goes back to the fact that these primary campaigns have always been about momentum, and the media has always enjoyed the opportunity to call the election by anointing front runners. Their frustration this year has been that simply calling one candidate a front runner and writing off others hasn’t been enough because it’s been such a tight race with at least two real contenders on each side. But they keep reverting to type by attempting again and again to call the election prematurely for their favoured candidate. It hasn’t worked so far (except perhaps by pushing McCain over the top in Florida) but we certainly have to hope that the electorate is smart enough to recognise that there are two front runners on both sides and vote their consciences and not what the media tells them to.