November 17th, 2008 by Rightsideup

As predicted before the election, there’s been a massive round of post-mortem analysis focused on where the Republicans went wrong and the disastrous state the party is in at this point. Here’s a roundup of some of the pieces that have appeared on CNN.com on this topic recently (I tend to use CNN.com as my main source of main stream news – not because I think it’s particularly unbiased but simply because it often has the broadest coverage, and has recently added commentary from key figures on both sides – an interesting feature):

It’s a mix of stupid stuff, more thoughtful stuff (some of which is still wrong) and sensible thinking. The first post is just ridiculous, having as one of its main arguments that the Republican party doesn’t have a leader – did the Democratic party have a leader in 2000 or 2004? No – of course not – that’s just not the way US presidential elections work – unlike, say, UK general elections, where the leader of the losing party remains leader unless an explicit change is made.Zakaria makes some of the same arguments more thoughtfully, and though I think he’s wrong on most of what he says, it at least appears he’s thought about them.

On the other hand, I find Governor Sanford’s remarks (the second link in the list above) and those of Tony Perkins (in the last link) to be much closer to my own views on this subject, as expressed in my final pre-election thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I really think the issue for the GOP hasn’t been its ideas are stale or wrong, but that it hasn’t argued them cogently or governed accordingly when in power.

The whole ‘Joe the Plumber‘ episode towards the end of the election cycle proved that when GOP ideas are well articulated by the right people they have real appeal. Unfortunately, Joe the plumber made the case much better than John the politician, and there’s lots that the leaders of the Republican party can learn from him and those like him – and from Ronald Reagan, who was really the last leader of the GOP to do this well. Newt Gingrich has real potential in this department, but I think his role should be helping a presidential candidate formulate arguments along these lines rather than running for that office himself in 2012.

June 18th, 2008 by Rightsideup

I was watching CNN in the morning yesterday and was struck by a segment on how the flooding in the MidWest was going to affect food prices. The anchor Tony Harris was discussing this topic with Stephanie Elam, a Business Correspondent. Excerpts from the transcript (my emphasis):

HARRIS: Midwest floods not only uprooting lives but devastating the crops we eat. 

Stephanie Elam is “Minding Your Business.” 

You know, Stephanie, I can’t keep reaching much deeper into my pockets here and I know the prices are going to go up for a lot of the produce that we eat here. So give us the toll here. 

ELAM: … and more corn is actually shipped away. It’s exported from the United States than actually eaten here. This could also have an effect on the markets that way as well. 

HARRIS: You know what, I need to get in the grocery store a little more often here. You’re talking crops. I’m talking produce. 

ELAM: I know. 

HARRIS: Hello! Get into a grocery store, Mr. Harris. 

ELAM: … costs are so volatile right now. Well, if you strip those out, in May, it was up 0.2 percent versus 0.4 percent of an increase in April. So we all know what this is about. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone out there because anyone who has been to a grocery store, Mr. Harris, knows that things cost a lot more. 

I’m sure you’ve been to the gas station, though, so you know that. 

COLLINS: He has shoppers beforehand. 

HARRIS: Yes, I have shoppers.

Did you see that? He starts out by talking as if he’s personally feeling the pinch from rising food prices, but does it in such a way (the transcript doesn’t catch this of course) that it’s clear it’s a joke and he knows it – so he’s essentially making fun of people for whom rising food prices are an issue. Then towards the end we get the ultimate negation of that early statement – he doesn’t actually go to the grocery store – he has “shoppers”. How out of touch can this man be? And yet here he and his network are, reporting on the immense toll rising food prices are supposedly taking on the shrinking middle class and being smug about it at the same time. 

How about an assignment for Mr Harris? Send him grocery shopping for himself for a few weeks and see what he reports…

May 28th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN (along with other major news outlets) has been trying to talk the US into a recession now for several years, and while the jury is still out on whether they’ve succeeded yet, they still aren’t letting up. Although this article has some admirable counter-points thrown in, it still relies mainly on anecdotal perceptions rather than the facts to examine the state of the economy.

The article also highlights one of the things which, as a Brit, I find most puzzling about American politics and economics – the definition of the “Middle Class” – which appears sometimes to include everyone except Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and at other times now includes apparently almost no-one because it is being “squeezed”. Where I come from, being Middle Class is about the kind of work you do – sitting in an office rather than working in a factory, for example – not about your level of income or what you can afford to buy with it.

At any rate, quoting from that article:

Only a few years ago, Americans who considered themselves middle class were scrimping to pay for their kids’ college education.

Now, many of them are struggling to cover far more basic needs – gas and groceries.

Take Stacy and Chuck Burris. The Pittsburgh, Pa., couple view themselves as solidly middle class. In recent months, however, they’ve felt anything but.

Burdened by high cost of food and fuel, they are having trouble balancing their budget even though Chuck Burris earns a “comfortable salary” as a software engineer. The parents of five children, three of whom are grown, have essentially stopped eating out and entertaining and are considering canceling the annual family vacation to Maine. They keep to a Spartan shopping list and have planted a larger garden. Instead of buying their 12-year-old daughter summer clothes, they are turning her pants into shorts by cutting off the legs and getting hand-me-downs from family.

Never before in previous recessions have they had to cut back like this.

Without wishing to belittle this or other families’ hardships, I find it hard to understand how current circumstances could be having such a significant impact on their financial status. The article says that:

Food prices, for instance, climbed 5.1% over the past 12 months and April’s 0.9% rise was the largest in 18 years, according to the Consumer Price Index. Gas, meanwhile, hit its highest recorded price of $3.937 on Monday, up nearly 21% from a year ago and 9.7% over the past month, according to AAA.

Well, assume the weekly grocery bill is $200 – not unreasonable, I would think – and the price has gone up by 5% – that would be a sum total of $10 per week extra, or $45 per month. If gas has gone up by 20%, perhaps the gas bill (assuming filling a 15-gallon tank once a week) has gone up by 20%, from $50 to $60, and that’s another $10 per week or $45 per month. Is there really a middle-class family that’s going to be pushed into cancelling its vacation by a $20 increase in spending per week? We’re never told what the household’s income actually is, but assume it’s $60,000 per year gross (which may be conservative since the salary is described as “comfortable”). That increase represents just 1.7% of gross income.

At the same time, the article says, housing prices are falling, but unless you’re actually trying to sell your house that shouldn’t really affect your current financial status. In fact, because the federal funds rate has fallen from 5.25% to around 2% in the last year many people’s mortgage payments should actually be falling during this time, probably by a rather greater amount than those small increases in food and gas payments.

My point here isn’t to argue the specifics of this case – because we’re not given them – but rather to suggest that it seems odd that truly middle class families should be suffering so badly because of the increases in gas and food prices, since these items are typically a small percentage of people’s incomes, especially in the middle class. And that makes this article feel more like further scaremongering from CNN than real reporting. How about emphasizing instead the factual evidence cited elsewhere in the article, and helping to turn around these perceptions, instead of leading with the perceptions and burying the facts halfway down the article and later? And how much are those poll results influenced by the fact that CNN’s been polling people about whether we’re in a recession for the last three years anyway?

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?

April 7th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN screenshotIs this just wishful thinking on CNN’s part? In a story about the fact that Alan Greenspan has endorsed John McCain, the caption on the picture reads, “Greenspan said he is supporting Obama.” Obama, who is mentioned nowhere else in the article, and who does not appear to be the object of Greenspan’s support or endorsement. I wonder if CNN will correct this at some point…

Click through on the screenshot for a fuller version.

March 26th, 2008 by Rightsideup

Carl Bernstein is guest blogging on Anderson Cooper’s site (and in typical CNN.com fashion it’s not really obvious that it’s not Mr 360 himself from the word go). His subject is Hillary’s lack of candor, in light of the Bosnia / Tuzla story this week. The most striking thing about the piece is how hard Bernstein seems to find it to call Hillary a liar. He goes out of his way to avoid this construction, using almost comically contorted language and double negatives to make it implicit but never explicit, mostly quoting from his own biography of Hillary. Some samples:

Since her Arkansas years [I wrote], Hillary Rodham Clinton has always had a difficult relationship with the truth… [J]udged against the facts, she has often chosen to obfuscate, omit, and avoid. It is an understatement by now that she has been known to apprehend truths about herself and the events of her life that others do not exactly share. ” [italics added]

“Almost always, something holds her back from telling the whole story, as if she doesn’t trust the reader, listener, friend, interviewer, constituent—or perhaps herself—to understand the true significance of events…”

“Hillary values context; she does see the big picture. Hers, in fact, is not the mind of a conventional politician,” I wrote in A Woman In Charge. “But when it comes to herself, she sees with something less than candor and lucidity. She sees, like so many others, what she wants to see.”

The book concludes with this paragraph:

“As Hillary has continued to speak from the protective shell of her own making, and packaged herself for the widest possible consumption, she has misrepresented not just facts but often her essential self. Great politicians have always been marked by the consistency of their core beliefs, their strength of character in advocacy, and the self-knowledge that informs bold leadership. Almost always, Hillary has stood for good things. Yet there is a disconnect between her convictions and her words and actions. This is where Hillary disappoints. But the jury remains out. She still has time to prove her case, to effectuate those things that make her special, not fear them or camouflage them. We would all be the better for it, because what lies within may have the potential to change the world, if only a little.”

What’s behind this? Is Bernstein really worried that he’ll be sued for using the obvious word to describe this obvious behavior? Or did he get just enough cooperation from Clinton and her people in writing the book that he couldn’t go the whole hog?

The most invidious thing about all this, though, is his assertion in the third-to-last paragraph quoted above that in being an inveterate liar, Hillary is really just like the rest of us: “She sees, like so many others, what she wants to see.” No, Mr Bernstein: the rest of us may not see clearly some of our shortcomings, encumbered with beams in our eyes that obscure our self-image. But the rest of us do not stretch that lack of clarity about who we really are to invent from whole cloth stories about our past or entirely distort versions of our personal histories when speaking in front of the national news media. That honor is Hillary’s alone.

March 22nd, 2008 by Rightsideup

Jack Cafferty of CNN has an article asking whether America needs a third party, an idea apparently thrown up recently by Chuck Hagel.

The opening two paragraphs of the piece are as follows:

The U.S. needs independent leadership and maybe even a new political party.

Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican and one of the very few class acts in Washington, has a new book out, “America: Our Next Chapter.” Hagel writes, “In the current impasse, an independent candidate for the presidency, or a bipartisan unity ticket… could be appealing to Americans.”

The first line / paragraph isn’t in quotes, so I’m guessing it’s Cafferty’s own view. But it appears to closely mirror Hagel’s, as taken from his book. Because the rest of the context is missing we don’t know what the “impasse” is that Hagel refers to here. Apparently he believes there’s a big problem with the current two-party system, which is ironic in the middle of one of the most interesting and hard-fought primary campaigns of recent years, which is likely to remain a closely-run campaign as it moves past the primaries and into the presidential election itself.

It’s as if Hagel is projecting his own uncertain party political identity onto the electorate. This is the man who has famously been one of the least Republican Republicans in Congress, mulled switching to the other side and/or running with Bloomberg as an independent. It’s not at all clear that this guy has any kind of following – he just seems to have decided that he’s not really going to make it to the big time in either of the existing parties and he’s figuring out what’s next. I lost count of the number of times he held a press conference about whether or not he was running for president only to tell the assembled media he was still undecided, but I’d hate to think how indecisive he’d become if he had three parties to choose from…

More seriously, though, this idea raises its head every few years, and it’s always nonsense. Third parties – be they the Green Party, the Reform Party, Libertarians or others, have fared pretty miserably in presidential elections, and the only times they’ve affected the outcome they’ve pushed the result toward the candidate with views most like their own. The current parties may not be perfect, and most people may have to take the rough with the smooth in order to embrace one or the other, but the fact is that people tend to identify more with either the party that believes government should be solving all our problems or that individuals have the power to do so; and with the party that believes that all behavior is moral or the party that believes there should still be limits on proper behavior, and that we should teach those to our children.

Obama’s campaign is actually an interesting test of what the kind of third-party Hagel is proposing would look like, which appears to be more about not being one of the other two parties than about any independent identity. To the extent that Obama is attempting to run by focusing on higher things and obfuscating his positions on the issues, he is mirroring the Hagel strategy. But, even with a large chunk of the Democratic party behind him, charisma and a gift for oratory, the man is not running away with the nomination, let alone the election. How would he have been received if this was all he had to offer, minus the oratorical gifts and the charming persona? He would have been left in the dust long ago. Add back the gifts and personality, and the party becomes about an individual and not ideas, which is a problem with Obama’s own candidacy but also with many of the third parties we’ve had of late.

Although I used the parties’ names above, I might easily have replaced two of them with the names of Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, because they effectively were their parties. And the cult of personality is the fastest way to dictatorship and bad decisions. Yes, we elect an individual in the US, and not a party as in the UK or other countries, but always as the head of a party with a separate identity, a platform of campaign promises, and an infrastructure of elected and unelected officials to hold to account.

Hagel’s best hope for a real shot at a presidential campaign may well be in the form of a third-party or independent ticket, but the best hope for the rest of us is to stick with the two parties we have, and if they need changing, to do so from within.

March 5th, 2008 by Rightsideup

So Mike Huckabee’s finally out of the race, now that McCain appears to have crossed the 1191 delegate line. There’s a nice bit of revisionist history in the CNN piece covering this piece of news:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee bowed to “the inevitable” and dropped out of the Republican presidential race Tuesday night after an improbable run for a politician little known beyond his home state a year ago.

I think it’s been “inevitable” for some time at this point. Now it’s moved from being inevitable to being a cold hard fact. If he stayed in it at this point it would have been evidence of insanity, nothing more.

Huckabee went on to best former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by then the GOP front-runner, in the Iowa caucuses January 3, placing him among the top tier of Republican hopefuls.

I don’t recall anyone from CNN (or any of the other main news organisations) calling Mitt Romney the GOP front-runner at the time. Helpful for them to concede this fact now.

He lagged behind Romney and McCain in the next round of contests, in New Hampshire and Michigan, and trailed McCain in South Carolina. However, his victories in West Virginia and the Deep South states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and his native Arkansas in the February 5 Super Tuesday contests helped force Romney out of the race.

It’s those last few words that grate here. Romney wasn’t forced out of the race: he pulled out when it was clear that staying in was likely to be unproductive, but at the time he had more votes and significantly more delegates than Huckabee. Huckabee has now been forced out of the race by the sheer fact that McCain has won, but to suggest that Huckabee forced Romney out of the race is a gross overstatement. Huckabee did siphon away enough votes from Romney to make it hard for him to beat McCain, of course, but Romney wasn’t forced out any more than Huckabee was.

It then goes on in the next paragraph with this:

“Over the past few days, a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race,” Huckabee told supporters that night. “Well, you know what? It is, and we’re in it.”

Which suggests that Huckabee said this after Romney pulled out, and it therefore made logical sense at the time. Of course, he said this on a night when Romney was still way ahead of him and it was bravado at best and downright dishonesty at worst.

And the article finishes off with this:

“To have gone this far and outlasted so many others, I think is a remarkable story. Wish it would have ended differently, but it is what it is,” Huckabee said.

Huckabee’s exit leaves anti-war Texas congressman Ron Paul, a former Libertarian presidential candidate, as McCain’s sole active opponent.

If by “outlasted” Huckabee means “had the temerity to stay in even when he had no chance of winning despite urging from most of the party to pull out already” I guess that statement is accurate… The last paragraph is a doozy too – in what sense is Ron Paul an “active” opponent of McCain? Hasn’t he completely stopped campaigning? And isn’t the fact that he hasn’t officially conceded more about the fact that he’s stopped paying attention to the presidential race than about the fact that he’s still in it?

At any rate, glad Huckabee can add to 1191 and that he’s finally out of it and backing McCain. Wonder what’s next for him. He doesn’t seem to be considered by most of the commentators as a VP candidate, but a lot of Huckabee followers seem to think that’s the logical next step.

March 4th, 2008 by Rightsideup

cnnmakeorbreak.pngCNN has really outdone itself this time. In the headline of the main story on the site (at least at time of writing) it describes Tuesday 4 March as “another make-or-break, do-or-die primary day”. Now, I believe this is a make-or-break, do-or-die day for both Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee, but how can it be another? Did either of them do well enough last time they held a make-or-break, do-or-die primary day that they could be considered to have made and done whatever was necessary to avoid breaking and dying? By definition, this can’t be “another” one of those days, at least for the candidates still in it. And calling it “critical Tuesday” is not even as amusing as calling the big primary day “Super-Duper Tuesday”. Is it just me, or is CNN trying just a little too hard to make this more exciting?