Disagreements About Disagreeing And Agreeing to Disagree (Or Something Like That)

I don’t know what it is about the Economist, but they have this knack for publishing useful commentaries related directly to whatever’s being bandied about here on the SRC. 

Here’s another.  We’ve had considerable back-and-forth here of late about the state and implications of polarization in U.S. political discourse. Is it good or bad? Both, these guys say.  But when it gets out of hand like it is now, mostly bad.  Worth a look.

And partisanship pundits will be pleased at the prospect of more polarity-pondering pleasures in the just-published, critically acclaimed weighty tome referenced within the column. 

— Hornseth

Voting By Calculator?

When Pew Research asked voters what they wanted in their presidential campaign news, “candidates’ positions on the issues” was the leading answer (77% wanted more, 17% wanted less). All other issues, such as “candidates personal backgrounds and experiences” (55% more, 36% less), ranked much lower.

This doesn’t surprise me. People at the water cooler who say “I just want hear about their stands on the issue” come across as more thoughtful than those of us saying “I just want to see how they hold up on the Daily Show.”

Yes, stands on the issues obviously matter. A lot. So, why don’t we just call off the rest of the campaign, pull up one of those presidential candidate calculators, peck in our answers, and cast our ballots based on what the calculator tells us? You know, the wonk version of match.com.

The issue calculators are instructive and fun, and I’d encourage folks to give one a whirl. The feedback it gives you might surprise you.

But the implication behind the candidate calculator is that issue stands are the whole enchilada, and that’s a dangerous way to think about voting and news coverage. After all, just because my crazy Uncle Louie agrees with me on 100% of the issues, doesn’t mean he would be my best choice for President. Trust me on this.

Moreoever, some of the most important issues the next president will encounter are not listed on the candidate calculators, because we don’t know about them yet. Before President Bush was elected, we didn’t expect terrorists to fly jets into office buildings, New Orleans to be underwater, scores of middle class families to lose their homes to foreclosure, or $95 per barrel oil.

We need to guage what kind of person and leader the candidates are to try to learn how they will handle the unknown issues on the horizon. Are they an engaging enough personality to rally support behind their positions nationally and internationally? When you look at their body language, which of the issues seem to be passionate priorities and which seem to be obligatory after-thoughts? How likely are they to get caught up in scandals that prevent them from doing their job well? When it comes to negotiating with opponents, are they more stubborn/resolute or flexible/wishy-washy?

I’m probably more interested in public policy positions than most, but I hope the news coverage never gets too issue-centric. I still want to see the fluffy debate questions, up-close-and personal profiles, unscripted candid camera moments, and Oprah/Letterman/Stewart/Babba Wawa gab fests. Because brief glimpses of unprogrammed candidate humanity informs our guts, and our guts should guide our votes at least as much as the issue calculators.

– Loveland

Polar Observation on Polarization

At St. Joan of Arc church Sunday morning, polar explorer Will Steger preached, as he said, “to the choir.” It’s a very liberal congregation.

He told of ice shelves crashing off Antarctica, the Northwest Passage opening up, rising ocean temperatures, starving bears and other global warming horrors.

But the most challenging thing he said wasn’t that we each need to reduce our own carbon footprint. It was his observation of how polarized the American public and our politicians are on dealing with the environment, and on so many other issues.

“We’re part of creating that divide,” he said, “by polarizing the other side.”

And our challenge, I took from him, is to stop it. Not stop global warming (which we need to do or our kids will pay a horrific price) but stop pushing people we disagree with away.

From the top of the world, Steger sees global warming as a human, not a scientific, problem. That’s perspective.

Hear it again. “We’re part of creating that divide,” he said, “by polarizing the other side.”

— Bruce Benidt

MinnPost and the Expectations Game

I don’t know the extent to which MinnPost set the expectations bar so high for itself. But however it happened, it was awfully high.

My impression was that moderate- to left-leaning news junkies in the Twin Cities were expecting Journalistic Jesus to be walking amongst them upon MinnPost’s launch. Freed of the shackles of evil corporate journalism, the MinnPosters would surely unleash a cornocopia of journalistic wonderment upon the twin towns that would make the likes of Ben Franklin, Edward R. Murrow, Hunter Thompson, David Halberstam, and Woodstein blush.

Of course that didn’t happen. Of course it couldn’t happen.

Though MinnPost is an evolving start-up still on wobbly legs, it has already proven itself to be a news source that adds considerably to the local news scene. In fact, I’d go quite a bit further and say it is a higher quality news source than the alternatives – local TV news, blogs, and the metro dailies. Their smaller staff obviously doesn’t cover as much ground as the metro dailies, and it doesn’t do breaking news at all, but the coverage of community issues is generally as good, and frequently better.

So, why are the blogs filled with uncharitable reviews of MinnPost? To be sure, much of the criticism comes from Stribophobes who wish ill of anyone who has ever set foot in 425 Portland Avenue. But the criticism goes deeper than that, and it seems mostly to be about the expectations game. That certainly was my issue. I just expected more.

The expectations game is particularly important in politics, where candidates are celebrated for coming in third place if they were expected to place fifth and pilloried for winning if they were expected to win by more. But the expectations game applies in all aspects of public relations, as MinnPost found out.

So how about a little PR hypothetical? What if MinnPost had intentionally kept expectations low, by simply starting with no fanfare whatsoever? If it had, it would have started with many fewer first day readers, members, sponsors and advertising. It would have had much less community buzz. But it also would have had lower expectations to overcome. From a PR perspective, would an unheralded launch have helped or hurt?

— Loveland

Stuff It, Wolf

Just watching the Democrats’ debate from Lost Vegas, and I’m amazed not at how Edwards is going after Clinton, but how nobody is going after Wolf Blitzer.

Wolfie is poking at the candidates like a kid poking a snake with a stick, hoping for something lively to happen. Something that will boost ratings and coverage. Blitzie, knowing how much fun it was to watch Hillary squirm during and after the last debate over whether undocumented immigrants should be given drivers’ licenses, decided to drag that dead horse back on stage and hammer it again.

So he asks Obama if he supports giving drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens. Obama says it’s not that simple, we first need to reform the entire immigration system. And Wolf barks “but do you support giving drivers’ licenses blahblahblah.” Obama tries a few words on a broader and more complex answer, and Wolf pounces again. As if he’s saving the Republic. “This is a question where there seems to be an opportunity for a yes or no answer,” Wolfman Hack says. And he goes up and down and pushes each cowed candidate for a yes or no answer.

And nobody looks at him calmly and says, “Wolf, in your simplistic view of the world and breathless sound-bite infantile conception of journalism, there might be a yes or no answer. But I think your viewers are smarter than you are, and realize that you can’t just look at one tiny step in something complex. It’s like saying do you believe, yes or no, that we should clean up the blood on the kitchen floor, when the real question is should we patch up the thumb your kid just sliced off cutting up baloney, and should your kid have that knife, and in fact where the heck were you when your kid decided to make his own lunch?” Or something like that. Maybe just “shut the fuck up, Wolf.”

Dennis Kucinich at least had the guts to bite back a little. “I don’t accept your words, Wolf. They’re not illegal aliens, there are no illegal human beings. They’re undocumented immigrants.” And the Woofer interrupted him to push for his yes or no fix.

If I ran the world, I’d have a debate where the candidates are invited on to a stage, and no journalists are allowed. Just get the candidates up there and start the cameras rolling. See how they deal with one another. Actually have them debate, see how they ask questions of one another, see if they can listen, see if they can say things that make one another think, see if they call one another on their bullshit, have them show us who they really are and how they think.

Cage match. No refs.

No Wolf.


A Dime’s Worth Of Difference?

Since I panned MinnPost for not bringing much new to the news scene in its first edition, I should note that it posted at least one article today — “Higher gas taxes don’t always mean higher prices” — that adds a lot to a heretofore stale local policy debate

Since the gas tax debate began several years ago, dozens of stories have been written by many different reporters. During that time, I have not seen one story that raised the very valid question raised in this article: Does a dime per gallon gas tax increase necessarily lead to a dime per gallon increase in your gasoline bill?

The answer may surprise and inform you. It may also spark deep disagreement. And surprising, informing and provoking more deeply informed discussions should be what MinnPost strives to bring to the local news scene.

– Loveland

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Reading a NYTimes review of Vicente Fox’s memoir, and saw a quote that shows a little step in bridging the divide between people with opposing views.

It’s simple: don’t slam the person, critique the idea.

Fox, the former president of Mexico, calls George Bush “a loving Christian.” He writes, “I am absolutely certain that George W. Bush did what he believed he had to do (after 9/11), in order to protect his country and the world from evil…. The sad thing is that he was so deeply, deeply wrong.”

Fox doesn’t call Bush a bad person. But he says very clearly that his decisions have been bad. That’s a big difference. And in communication between people, acknowledging common motives makes the criticism easier to hear.

Fox doesn’t pull punches. In the review he’s quoted as calling Bush a “windshield cowboy” who speaks “grade-school-level Spanish” and is the cockiest man Fox has met. These are fair-game observations and assessments. But they don’t slam Bush’s character, or his heart.

It’s a small but significant step.