Objectivity Versus The Appearance Of Objectivity

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A couple of stories in The Oshkosh Northwestern caught my eye this morning. The first was an editorial – which appeared on the front page to stress its importance – by Stewart Rieckman, general manager and executive editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern. In it, Rieckman expresses his dismay and apparently sincere regret that a few Northwestern employees (it’s not clear if they were reporters) signed the Walker recall petitions-

Credibility and trust are hard earned values that professional journalists must zealously guard. Our ethical guidelines are built around protecting those values because our readers demand and deserve objective and neutral news reporting. So it is with regret that today I must report to you that five Northwestern news employees were among 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists who exercised poor judgment and signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker. They were wrong. It was a breach of Gannett’s principals of ethical conduct that prohibit involvement in political activity, which would include signing the recall petitions.

The principle at stake is our belief “that journalists must exercise caution and not become involved with issues that may cause doubts about their neutrality as journalists.” Engaging in political activity is foremost. That belief is even more critical in an era when journalism is under a microscope and our credibility is routinely challenged. Ironically, I became aware of the ethics violation two days after a Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team broke a story exposing 29 circuit judges who signed recall petitions.

It is little consolation that none of the Northwestern news employees who signed petitions are involved with reporting or editing or assigning political coverage. None of the employees serves on the Investigative Team. But the fact that any of Gannett Wisconsin’s 223 news employees did sign the petition is disheartening. It has caused us to examine how this could have happened, how we will address it and how we will prevent it from happening again.

All citizens, including journalists, have a right to hold their own opinions about political issues. Journalists can and do vote in elections. But journalists who work within a professional news organization must hold themselves to a journalistic standard. That is, journalists have a first responsibility to be trusted. They have a first responsibility to protect the objectivity of the news they are covering for their readers and their community. They have a first responsibility to protect the credibility of the news organization for which they work. And so, journalists must make every effort to remain neutral and impartial when reporting or presenting the news. Journalists must go to extra lengths to guard against even the impression of favoring a candidate or a position.

As much as I respect Rieckman’s demand for objectivity in news reporting, I have to point out that his argument in the editorial is fallacious, because it fails to clearly distinguish genuine objectivity from the mere appearance of objectivity. The mere appearance of objectivity, which Rieckman is demanding of his employees by prohibiting them from signing petitions, does absolutely nothing to insure the objectivity of their reporting, since their honoring the prohibition might only serve to hide their biases. In fact, it is arguable that forcing journalists to forgo political activity on their own time might actually make it more likely that they would manifest unconscious political biases in their reporting. It is certainly better for readers to have access to the reporters’ political views, since readers can then make informed judgments as to whether bias is seeping into the reporters’ coverage or not. Finally, doesn’t it make sense that reporters who are open about their own views would be more careful not to let those views influence their reporting than reporters who are forced to keep their views secret?

The second story that caught my eye is related to the first. A jury found former state senator Randy Hopper not guilty of drunken driving, leaving only suspension of his license as a possible penalty for refusing to take an intoxication test after arrest-

Former state Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac has been found not guilty of drunken driving and operating left of the centerline. A jury of six women returned the verdict Friday afternoon. Circuit Court Judge Robert Wirtz on April 25 will rule on a charge of refusing to take a test for intoxication after arrest. Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Renee Schuster said the pending charge carries a greater penalty against Hopper and can be counted as a prior offense if Hopper were to commit drunken driving in the future.

She said that even though deputies have the authority to force a blood draw from any drunken driving suspect, it is policy at the Sheriff’s Office to not do that on a first offense unless there is a circumstance like a crash causing injury to another person. District Attorney Dan Kaminsky confirmed Schuster’s comments. Hopper faces the potential of having his license revoked for a year, as opposed to the six-to-nine-month revocation an OWI carries.

Hopper said on the stand Thursday that county employees were out to get him because of his support while in office of a budget reform bill and eliminating collective bargaining for most state employees. Hopper said he did not trust arresting deputy Nick Venne during the arrest.

Defense attorney Dennis Melowski focused on how the Hicken family of North Fond du Lac [who were the witnesses to the purported drunk driving] had what he considered a political bias against Hopper because they had signed the Gov. Scott Walker recall petition. When special prosecutor Frank Endejan first called the three family members to testify, they told Melowski they had “no dog in the fight” against Hopper. Melowski later recalled Tim and Tammy Hicken to have them discuss the Walker recall. Melowski also revealed to the jury that Officer Venne signed the recall petition against Hopper. … Endejan did not make it clear to the jury that police and firefighters were exempt from losing collective bargaining rights. Melowski said that fact did not matter.

So the jury apparently bought the defense attorney’s argument that the witnesses and the police officer were not credible because they were “out to get” Hopper, the only evidence of this being the fact that they had signed the Walker recall petitions. If this is an accurate characterization of the jury’s reasoning, it is just as fallacious as Rieckman’s. For a law enforcement officer’s (or witness’s) ability to be objective depends on his or her capacity to be aware of potential biases and to deliberately set them aside; it most certainly does not depend on the capacity to hide opinions by never publicly manifesting them!

Thinking While Driving

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According to a story today in USA Today, talking or texting on a cell phone isn’t the only way to endanger yourself and others on the road. Concentrated thinking about anything causes similar distraction, at least if these researchers are correct-

The group, led by Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s AgeLab, found that a driver’s ability to focus on the driving environment varies depending on the “cognitive demand” of a non-driving activity. That is, the deeper the level of thought in a driver’s mind, the less he focuses on his surroundings.

Good drivers routinely scan the road ahead and around them, looking for potential hazards that they might need to react to. When drivers face even light levels of cognitive demand, they scan the road less, Reimer says.

“In the past, the emphasis was on whether you’re distracted or not distracted,” he says. “This is too simple of a categorization. There are levels of cognitive demand, and those levels are statistically distinguishable.

“The level of thought going on has a relationship to how much a driver is aware of the driving environment,” he says.

Thinking while driving: there should be a law against it. Maybe when a cop pulls you over, the first thing he or she should look for isn’t an open container, but an open book (or an audio book), or any other tell-tale trace of thoughtfulness. College professors, of course, should be immediately suspect.

And The Winner Is…

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Well, we’ve had a lot of fine candidates in the past week or two to choose from, but the winner of the Most Moronic Statement By A Politician, March 2012 edition, goes to… Rick Santorum!!!

The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.

(This comment might win the Most Cynical Statement as well, since it’s very hard to believe that Santorum is really as ignorant of basic physics as he sounds).

Setbacks For The Wisconsin Republican Agenda

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This has been a notably bad week for Wisconsin Republicans. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued a strongly-worded permanent injunction against the voter ID (otherwise known as “voter suppression”) law, writing-

…voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression… A government that undermines the very foundation of its existence – the people’s inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote – imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people.

Niess is the second Dane County circuit judge to issue an injunction against the law; Judge David Flanagan had previously granted a temporary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch. Flanagan, however, has been criticized for his having signed a recall petition against Governor Walker. No such charge of bias has been raised against Niess.

Speaking of recall elections, Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board ordered recall elections against all four GOP senators that had been targeted in the petition drive, and same order is expected soon for Governor Walker and Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch-

The Government Accountability Board voted unanimously to agree with GAB staff members’ findings that enough valid signatures were filed against all four senators and recalls against Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three other GOP senators should go forward.

The board also voted to ask a judge for an extension from March 19 to March 30 for its deadline to order the elections, meaning the recall primary could be held on May 8 and the general recall election on June 5. With no extension granted, the recalls would need to happen on May 1 and May 29. The GAB will ask Dane County Judge Richard Niess for the extension at a hearing Wednesday.

Recall elections against Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are also expected to go forward.

On Monday, Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of the GAB, said that about 930,000 signatures were filed against Walker. The GAB said nearly 26,000 had been struck so far, and some 905,000 valid signatures appear to have been filed. Recall organizers had said that number was more than 1 million.

Later Monday, the GAB said that of the 842,860 filed against Kleefisch, there were 813,735 found to be valid. The board’s staff continues to search for duplicate signatures.

The numbers reported so far targeting Walker and Kleefisch are far higher than the 540,208 valid signatures required to trigger recalls.

No recall elections of Democrats seem to be on the horizon.

Finally, a large rally in Madison over the weekend suggests that many Wisconsinites remain enthusiastically committed to the recall efforts-

Thousands of pro-union demonstrators descended on the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday to voice their anger at Gov. Scott Walker and his conservative agenda, using the anniversary of the passage of his signature collective bargaining law to rally support for efforts to remove him and five other Republicans from office.

An estimated 35,000 people, including many members of public employee unions who lost nearly all their collective bargaining rights because of the Republican-backed law, chanted, drummed and waved anti-Walker signs. It was a re-enactment of a scene that played out daily in some form or another in the weeks leading up to the decisive vote.

“We’re baaaack!” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, told the crowd at the Capitol Square, eliciting a roar of approval. Neuenfeldt, whose union organized the rally, said Walker has sold out Wisconsin residents to benefit big business, and he called those gathered to redouble their efforts to recall Walker from office.

Of course, the same electorate that swept Republicans into power 14 months ago could rise up to save the six targeted politicians, as a recent poll suggests-

Most Wisconsin voters approve of the job embattled Governor Scott Walker is doing and oppose the effort to recall him from office before the next election.

A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey finds that 52% of Likely Wisconsin Voters at least somewhat approve of Walker’s job performance to date, while 46% at least somewhat disapprove. These findings include 40% who Strongly Approve of how the Republican governor is doing and just as many (40%) who Strongly Disapprove.

However, these results no doubt reflect the huge number of pro-Walker political ads that the Governor started running months ago. Whether they will hold up or not when the electioneering gears up on the Democratic side, no one knows. But for political junkies, the next couple of months promise to be quite a ride.

Living In The Anthropocene Era

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Given the dim-witted ignorance of science currently being manifested by prominent Republicans (from Rick Santorum’s cynical climate-change denial to Rush Limbaugh’s obvious misconceptions of how the birth control pill works), it was refreshing to read a story this week in a magazine as popular as Time outlining very concisely the influence billions of human beings are having on the natural world-

For a species that has been around for less than 1% of 1% of the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history, Homo sapiens has certainly put its stamp on the place. Humans have had a direct impact on more than three-quarters of the ice-free land on earth. Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity now takes place in ecosystems where people play a significant role. We’ve stripped the original forests from much of North America and Europe and helped push tens of thousands of species into extinction. Even in the vast oceans, among the few areas of the planet uninhabited by humans, our presence has been felt thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Through artificial fertilizers – which have dramatically increased food production and, with it, human population – we’ve transformed huge amounts of nitrogen from an inert gas in our atmosphere into an active ingredient in our soil, the runoff from which has created massive aquatic dead zones in coastal areas. And all the C02 that the 7 billion-plus humans on earth emit is rapidly changing the climate – and altering the very nature of the planet.

Human activity now shapes the earth more than any other independent geologic or climatic factor. Our impact on the planet’s surface and atmosphere has become so powerful that scientists are considering changing the way we measure geologic time. Right now we’re officially living in the Holocene epoch, a particularly pleasant period that started when the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago. But some scientists argue that we’ve broken into a new epoch that they call the Anthropocene: the age of man. “Human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth is already an undeniable reality,” writes Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist who first popularized the term Anthropocene. “It’s no longer us against ‘Nature.’ Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.”

To carry this line of reasoning one step further: with the advent of genetic engineering and the growing understanding of human psychology and neurology, it is also we who might decide what human nature will be. That old Existentialist adage, “existence precedes essence,” used to apply just to one’s own self-understanding; the suggestion was that, from the subjective viewpoint of lived experience, one first finds oneself existing, and then discovers that one’s “essence” or “nature” follows from what one chooses to do. But now it appears that this might soon become true not just from a subjective point of view, but also from an objective, scientific one: it seems that not only human nature, but also nature itself has become our responsibility. And given our track-record up to now, this should certainly cause some angst.