Fake News Beats The Real Thing In a Laugher

Serious news types regularly bemoan the younger generation’s new habits — “They get their news from things like The Daily Show!” Horrors!

Pretty good source, I’d say. It only took the Good Grey New York Times five days to catch up with Jon Stewart. A week ago, Hillary Clinton hit all the network Sunday talk shows in a regal romp through somnolent traditional journalists feeding her cues for clumps of her stump speech. But she regularly, on every show, erupted in eerie laughter at some of the tougher questions. It was like Rudy Giuliani getting a phone call from his current wife in the middle of five interviews in a row.

Jon Stewart Tuesday night ran a collage of these laughkeymessages. Seeing them one after another made them look like what I think they were — scripted, calculated attempts to show that Hillary is “human” and “warm” and “has a good sense of humor.”

This Sunday’sNYTimes has a story about the laughs. Five days after Jon Stewart took the trouble to show his audience context, pattern and meaning — something good journalism is supposed to do.

Does it matter if Hillary is now erupting, as Frank Rich writes in a Times piece today, “in a laugh with all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer”? A little it does. How people act, how they carry themselves, gives us a look into their souls, according to historian Edward Gibbon. So rather than carrying yet another story about the horse race of meaningless polls or another round of “he said she said” soundbites about who has enough experience, Jon Stewart gave his audience a look inside Hillary Clinton. And Stewart will regularly, when a politician or government official says today he’s for motherhood, show a clip of him speaking against motherhood a couple of months before. Context. Part of responsibly presenting news.

I’m proud to say I get some of my real news from fake journalist Jon Stewart. Oh, gotta go, my third wife is calling…and she’s laughing.

-Bruce Benidt

Embracing and Abjuring Bullshit, and Making Us Think

A lot of communications fodder in Thursday’s Strib.

My favorite — MnDOT and other road and bridge types around the country wanting to change the nomenclature of substandard bridges so the people who drive over them aren’t scared. It’s a good little lesson on what happens when internal jargon — the thing we fight our clients to ditch — gets loose and runs around naked in public. Terms like “structurally deficient” don’t really mean a bridge is unsafe, the engineers say. “Fracture critical” shouldn’t make us take a detour. OK, so use more accurate words, and use that national language, English.

MnDOT’s proposal? “Car dealers no longer have ‘used cars.’ They instead switched to ‘previously owned.’ Can’t we similarly come up with nomenclature that is less of an issue?” Not if you think like hucksters, you can’t. Let’s not descend to bullshit and make the problem worse. How ’bout “previously safe bridge”?

But the Strib itself admirably avoided bullshit when the paper announced that Susan Albright is done as editorial page editor. None of this “pursuing other interests” or “spending more time with her family” cover-story nonsense. She and the new/old once-and-future temporary understudy publisher disagreed on whether to focus on local editorials and leave the national and global stuff to the syndicates. Temp publisher wants mostly local; they disagreed and parted ways, telling their readers about the issue and the disagreement. Great model for honest communication. Top execs can differ, can argue, can walk, and tell the public about it, and the company doesn’t crash. And its constituents feel honestly dealt with and not condescended to by PR types crafting vapid messages. A tip of the Hatlo hat to the local paper.

And in Katherine Kersten’s column, there’s a thought-provoking question for liberals. “It’s hard to imagine a pro-life Democrat bucking the party orthodoxy as (Rudy) Giuliani has and retaining any chance to win the presidential nomination,” she writes, while positing that there are in fact a lot of moderate Republicans running for office. It’s a challenging point. Giuliani is a long way from the nomination, but a lot of Republicans like him, despite the fact that he is, apparently, sort of, at least used to be, kind of pro-choice. Would a Democrat who believes abortion should be illegal make it? Is abortion a litmus test more for the Dems than for the Repubs? Kersten did what she’s supposed to do — make us think.

Grammar Confessional

OK. I’ve just looked up the difference betweeen “complimentary” and “complementary” for the millionth time. I cannot, ever, remember which is which.

I get stopped in my tracks contemplating “it’s” and “its” way too often, even though I had a sign on the inside of my locker as a kid that read “No apostrophe for the possessive” in a vain attempt to get the rule to sink in.

Nine times of 10, I type it “reasearch” (although to my credit, I usually catch it).

And, abandoning a personal, two-decade windmill tilt, I’ve largely stopped fighting for adherence to the AP rule about not capitalizing professional titles when they follow names.

There. I feel better now. Word people, the Grammar Confessional is open.

— Hornseth

Weathervane War Coverage

I don’t typically dwell on the past. For instance, while I still don’t understand how the Vikings could idle the most potent offense in NFL history in it’s 1998 NFC Championship game loss to the mediocre Falcons, I don’t rehash that debate. Anymore. Much.

But I have to admit every time I get into a discussion about the current conduct of the Iraq War, I lapse back into the reasons we never should have gone to war in the first place. Every time. Instead of a debate about 2007, I find myself still wanting to rehash the 2003 debate. You know, the one that never really happened.

But I need to move on. Really. We all do. We need to learn from the mistakes of the 2003 non-debate, and the blunders of the early “win the peace” non-strategy so we don’t repeat those mistakes in the future. But the fact is we’re there, it’s a quagmire and we have to figure out what to do next.

Just as the media did a poor job stimulating a national debate in 2003 about whether to invade, because support for invasion was strong, it is now doing a poor job stimulating a debate in 2007 about whether to immediately evacuate, because support for immediate evacuation is strong. Instead of covering “whether to evacuate,” it is almost exclusively covering “how fast to evacuate.”

That debate about whether to evacuate can’t be skipped. In 2003, it was simplistic and dangerous to say “Saddam is bad, so invading Saddam is automatically good.” Likewise in 2007, it is simplistic and dangerous to say “The war is bad, so immediate evacuation is automatically good.”

As much as I oppose this war and would love to bring our troops home, Colin Powell’s words haunt me: “You break it, you buy it.”

America needs to have an honest debate whether most Iraqis will be better or worse off with us occupying their country. We need a debate about whether the region will be economically and politically more stable with us in or out of Iraq. We need a debate about whether terrorism will get better or worse if we evacuate abruptly. We need a debate about whether any of this is likely to change if we give the Generals more time. And we need a debate about the opportunity cost of diverting so much time and money away from other critical national security needs to address this one.

The news media and Congress need to prove they are more than simply a windsock of contemporary “evacuate now” public sentiment, and stimulate a more thoughtful national debate in 2007 than it did in 2003.

– Loveland

Ugly Speech, Ugly Speakers, But It’s all Free

Free speech is often ugly, vile, abhorrent. That we protect vile speech is how we know we’re free.

Iran’s president Ahmadinejad comes to the US and speaks at Columbia University. Many say he shouldn’t have been allowed to speak. I believe firmly we need to hear from all countries, no matter how much we dislike what they do or how much harm they mean us and our friends. Closing our ears only breeds ignorance. So bring Ahmadinejad on, let him talk.

The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, in introducing Ahmadinejad today, listed the speaker’s sins. Bollinger called Ahmadinejad a “petty and cruel dictator” and said Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust makes him look “simply ridiculous.”

Bollinger gets to have free speech too. I doubt he would have said such tough things about a high Chinese government official, despite that government’s despotism. We think China’s OK, because it’s a big market. And they own half of America, so we better not piss them off.

What if George Bush came to speak at Columbia? Would Bollinger say in his intro, “your continued insistence that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11 makes you simply ridiculous?”

Now, I’m not comparing Bush to Ahmadinejad. I’m talking about how Bollinger is teeing up a bad guy, and I’m wanting us to think about what it would be like if somebody were to call Bush on his just plain old lie about Iraq. Nor am I comparing the Holocaust to Hussein’s Iraq, although Hussein was a smaller version of Hitler. Denying the Holocaust is ignorant, insulting, outrageous. But it’s free speech, and we need to let even appalling speech be free.

What do you think? Should Ahmadinejad have been allowed to speak at Columbia? Was Bollinger right in vilifying his invited guest rather than introducing him? Was Bollinger just covering his butt because he’d invited a bad guy to speak at his university? What are your thoughts?

Dimming Coverage

If you search Google News today for “global warming,” you will get over 26,000 stories. If you search for “global dimming,” you will get four. (If you search for “Britney Spears,” you will get over 12,000, but that’s another post.)

Nobody is winning Oscars, Grammies or Nobels decrying global dimming, so it’s largely off the radar of the mainstream news. But the PBS science program Nova is raising the fascinating question of whether pollution regulations that improve human health might be inadvertently aggravating global warming, since certain types of pollution may dim the sun’s warming affect on the earth, thus partially offsetting the global warming occurring from elevated CO2 levels. Or something like that.

If human-driven global dimming is happening on a grand scale — and the scientific community seems to believe this is a much bigger “if” than global warming — it would be one of the most important issues of our times. Think about it. It would mean that pollution regulations might cause global warming to happen much more quickly than anticipated. It would mean we face serious questions about whether we should reverse regulations to control things such as particulates and sulfate aerosols (which comes from coal and fossil fuels).

Thank goodness we have Nova and other news outlets who don’t avoid complexity and controversy. Because anything as consequential “global dimming” requires a bit more in-depth probing from the news media than our little Britney is getting.

– Loveland