Shameless Hedonism On CNN: Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”

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I’ve recently gotten hooked on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series on CNN, now in its second season. So far this season, he’s been to Jerusalem, Spain, and New Mexico, with Copenhagen up next. Bourdain is a chef who has morphed into a world traveler and experience-gatherer extraordinaire. His personality is both appealingly laid-back and quirky, much like the folks he gets to know on his weekly explorations. He clearly has an insatiable passion for eating, drinking, and perhaps other drugs (at least off-screen). Given my own limited, semi-vegetarian palate, I find his willingness to eat anything occasionally nauseating, but his liberality in this respect is just a mark of his consistency. For it’s not just pleasant sensations that he craves, but unique experiences of all hedonistic tonalities. And in a world becoming increasingly homogenous and predictable, the fact that someone has dedicated themselves to luxuriating in the particular aspects of place is, well, particularly refreshing.

I would embed a preview, but the episode I found on YouTube has been taken down, and, as far as I can tell, CNN does not allow its video content to be embedded.

What Would MLK Jr. Have Said About The Trayvon Martin Case?

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At the risk of wading into the morass created by the media of late, here are my two cents about the Trayvon Martin case, which ended with George Zimmerman being found not guilty of both second degree murder and manslaughter. I’ll be as brief as I can, because even though I tried to avoid the 24-hour media coverage, I got a big enough dose of it to last me a long, long time, and I’m sure you’re feeling the same way.

The liberal pundits seem to have come to a consensus: the case is just the latest example of a long history of black victimization at the hands of racist would-be vigilantes.

The conservative pundits have also come to a consensus: the jury recognized that this was just a simple case of self-defense. Case closed.

Neither group of pundits have it right.

This clearly was not a simple case of self-defense, because Zimmerman initiated the confrontation by getting out of his car and following Martin. Martin had every reason to feel threatened by Zimmerman. There is no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman is largely morally and even causally responsible for initiating the chain of events that led to his killing Martin. However, the legal question focused on whether the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not justifiably shoot Martin in self-defense at the moment he pulled the trigger. The problem with the conservative consensus is that it ignores the questions of moral and causal responsibility in favor of the question of (mere) legal responsibility.

The liberal consensus, by contrast, at best downplays the legal question in favor of the moral and causal questions, and at worst conflates all three of them. Although I can’t blame liberals for using the case as a springboard to talk about general social ills, including the sort of implicit racism that seems to have led Zimmerman to single out Martin for suspicion, those social ills were not on trial in Sanford, nor should they have been. George Zimmerman was, and he was being tried on specific charges under Florida law. The jury decided that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty as charged. I defer to the jury’s opinion about that. I think that other liberals should do so as well.

It seems that the crucial fact revealed in the trial was that at least late in the confrontation, Martin was on top of Zimmerman and acting at least momentarily as the aggressor. We can argue about whether he was morally justified in reacting that way, or even possibly legally justified (I think it depends on further details that we will never know). But this apparent fact allowed Zimmerman to convincingly claim that he acted in self-defense. My contention is this: if Martin had not gotten into a physical altercation with Zimmerman, either Zimmerman would not have shot him, or else Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder. Hard as it might have been to resist the urge to punch Zimmerman in the nose, resisting that urge probably would have saved Martin’s life. Yes, his pride might have been wounded by his not striking out or striking back, but his pride could have healed.

I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would have agreed: Trayvon made at least a serious tactical error, one that ultimately led not only to his being killed, but also to Zimmerman being found not guilty. The wisdom of non-violence needs to be internalized.

There has been a lot of discussion on the web about what black parents should tell their children in the wake of the not-guilty verdict. Here’s a good example of it at a blog run by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I am not a parent and I am not black, but as a human being who cares about every person, I’d like to humbly offer some advice that I haven’t yet seen offered. Whatever else you tell your children, including all of the ugly history in the background, pass along this tidbit of practical wisdom that paid huge dividends during the Civil Rights era: if you get approached by someone asking offensive questions that don’t deserve to be answered – even by someone seeking to provoke you; even by someone physically lashing out at you first – don’t escalate the situation by striking back unless you absolutely have to. Hard as that might be, exercising such self-control puts you on the moral high ground, and if worse comes to worst, on the legal high ground as well.

Here’s a brief video in which MLK mentions the training in non-violence and non-retaliation given to children before exposing them to the hostility surrounding the demonstrations in the 1960s. (Of course, Trayvon Martin was walking home at night, not demonstrating, but I believe that MLK’s philosophy was entirely general, growing as it did out of his deeply held Christian convictions.)

Wisconsin Primary Results Indicate GOP Mischief

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Machiavelli – at least as he might popularly be misconceived – must be grinning in his grave…

The Wisconsin Republican Party backed six “fake democrat” candidates in yesterday’s primary election: Gladys Huber, Isaac Weix, Gary Ellerman, Tamra Lyn Varebrook, James Engel and James Buckley. None won, but, with the exception of Gladys Huber in the governor’s race, they each received a significant number of votes: their percentages ranged from 26-36%. Perhaps most disturbingly, Isaac Weix received 26% of the vote for Lieutenant Governor – that’s 197,052 apparently Republican votes in a statewide Democratic primary! Almost as notable was Jim Buckley’s taking 36% of the vote against Donna Seidel in State Senate District 29; Buckley is the guy from outside the district who seriously insisted that he was running to prevent Donna Seidel and George Soros from forming a Nazi-Communist world government (really, I’m not exaggerating).

You can find all of the election results here.

By the way, in my last post I quoted from Adam Rodewald’s investigative story in Monday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, and promised a link to it. Here it is. In a strange twist of policy for such a front-page headline story, the powers that be at the Northwestern immediately buried the story in the newspaper’s archive, rather than follow the paper’s usual practice of electronically re-publishing it on the paper’s main web site. I emailed Rodewald about not finding the story in the usual online location, and he seemed surprised; in his reply, he wrote-

“I’m not sure what happened to that story. I can’t find it either. I am looking into it and will let you know if and when the link is restored.”

I haven’t heard anything more from him, but if I do, I’ll update this post. As it stands, it’s hard to resist inferring that the paper’s departure from its usual practice was the result of political influence. But… resist… I… must…!

Did The Stimulus Stimulate?

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According to an investigative story on the front page of last Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, the answer is most definitely “yes”: although it operated invisibly to most taxpayers, the stimulus was key to getting many Wisconsin businesses through the Great Recession. In keeping with their penchant for appearing politically “balanced”, the paper “buried the lead” as best it could by using the headline “Stimulus loans oversight lacking” and by citing a number of minor gripes, including the fact that the stimulus money funneled needed credit to low-wage small businesses in addition to high-wage small businesses (isn’t it the Republicans who are constantly defending low wage jobs as being better than no jobs at all?)-

The Small Business Administration-backed loans ranged from a low of $5,000 to a high of $5 million — the most allowed under the program. In all, more than 6,000 loans were made in Wisconsin, for a total of $1.8 billion, including $260 million lent to retailers.

SBA officials say the loan program is accomplishing what it set out to do: making cash available to businesses when bank loans have been hard to come by. That did help an aluminum company in Manitowoc and a pet food factory outside Madison, for example, to create new manufacturing jobs.

But the money also was borrowed by businesses and industries with some of the lowest wages in the state.

“The SBA program was huge,” Chaudoir said. “If government didn’t do this, who knows what would have happened. People who are still debating whether the program was a success have to put themselves back to how they felt at the beginning of 2009, how afraid they were about the future.”

Some loans without question helped create jobs and trigger spending, particularly in manufacturing, the business sector that received the greatest proportion of SBA money.

Skana Aluminum Co. bought a Mirro plant in Manitowoc out of receivership and turned it into a thriving business that expects to ship 30 tons of metal this year. Skana borrowed $5 million of the $438 million lent to Wisconsin manufacturers, growing from zero to 75 employees in nine months and prompting Obama to praise the results in a 2011 visit. Skana in March employed 108 workers and was operating two shifts.

“The people of the community appreciate hearing stories like ours,” said Steve Gallimore, a Skana spokesman. “Things are looking good for us and for Manitowoc.”

Mequon-based Fromm Family Foods, recipients of $2.7 million in loans, took a dormant feed mill northeast of Madison and converted it to a facility that creates 600 tons of gourmet pet food each week. In Howard, near Green Bay, Centerline Machining & Grinding Inc. expanded into a new plant in 2010 after borrowing $817,000.

Adjustments to the loan program under the stimulus made more money available and made it easier for businesses to get loans, said the SBA’s Ness. Some fees were eliminated, and struggling businesses that met certain standards were given longer to pay.

“The stimulus was the first time we broke the $500 million mark (in one year) for loans in Wisconsin,” he said. “We clearly helped some companies stay in business, and we helped others to grow.”

Was the stimulus perfect? Of course not. Was it in some ways wasteful and inefficient? Seems likely. But when you’re trying to put out a dangerous fire, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about wasting some of the water you’re spraying on the flames.

UPDATE 4/17/12-

In an editorial in today’s paper, the Northwestern clarifies why it sees the glass as half-empty. The basic complaint seems to be that the SBA has failed to collect certain key data that would allow the paper (and taxpayers) to evaluate the overall success or failure of the stimulus-

…the devil’s not always in the multiplicity of details, but the one’s that are missing. The story in Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern examined federal loan money authorized in the stimulus and administered through the Small Business Administration.

The SBA … maintains an impressive amount of information about the loan program in Wisconsin. For example, we know the total value is about $1 billion for more than 6,000 loans ranging from $5,000 to $5 million for companies of widely divergent sizes and specialties. Some of the businesses expanded and created jobs; others refinanced and saved money and jobs, while some folded. We produced an equally impressive database and map that can tell you all kinds of spiffy things about loans, but the report failed to answer one very fundamental question: “Is it working?”

The failure wasn’t for the lack of asking. It was for the lack of tracking and oversight by the government for the facts that matter. To be sure, no conclusive answers can be drawn over such a short time frame. The goal of keeping capital flowing when banks were not lending money is a sound one. For all the facts and figures, basic information is missing. Facts that would allow citizens to make informed judgments on how their tax money was being spent, such as loan default rates, the number of jobs saved or created and businesses behind on payments.

In short, information that delivers on pledges of transparency and draw conclusions deeper than the government borrowed, loaned and declared mission accomplished.

Transparency is a good thing, as is full information. But notice that the sort of transparency the Northwestern is seeking would necessarily involve the sort of “government intrusion” into business that Republicans usually decry. Note also that news organizations as large as Gannett should not have to make do with the graphs and tables found on government web sites! Whatever happened to the days when large news organizations would collect the missing data for themselves, even if only by polling a sample of businesses that received stimulus loans?

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!

Climate Change’s Closing Door

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The Guardian reported last November that, judging by “the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure”, we likely have little more than five years left to put a lid on carbon emissions before losing the chance of avoiding serious climate change. Although I’ve never been tempted to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change, I think I’ve been relying on wishful thinking to avoid feeling too anxious about it (probably like almost everyone else), but I’ve got to admit that these warnings are starting to get to me-

The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever”, according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.

Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this “lock-in” effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world’s foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

If the world is to stay below 2C of warming, which scientists regard as the limit of safety, then emissions must be held to no more than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the level is currently around 390ppm. But the world’s existing infrastructure is already producing 80% of that “carbon budget”, according to the IEA’s analysis, published on Wednesday. This gives an ever-narrowing gap in which to reform the global economy on to a low-carbon footing.

If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available “carbon budget” will be swallowed up by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, there will be no room for manoeuvre at all – the whole of the carbon budget will be spoken for, according to the IEA’s calculations

Funny, I don’t remember hearing about the IEA report via American mass media, although given how little time they spend on reporting scientific findings, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. I’m still patiently waiting for an intrepid reporter at one of the zillion Republican debates to challenge Rick Santorum on his explicit climate change denial in the face of the ever mounting evidence. He did say recently: “You hear all the time, the left – ‘Oh, the conservatives are the anti-science party.’ No we’re not. We’re the truth party.” Surely that invites a polite question on what he means by “the truth” here, and how he would go about establishing it…

By the way, lest you think that the IEA is some liberal advocacy group whose studies can’t be trusted, it’s actually an international organization with 28 member states, including all of the following-

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Iranian Scientist?

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In case you haven’t heard, another Iranian scientist who was perhaps working on nuclear issues has been killed in Tehran. Reuters reports

TEHRAN, Jan 12 (Reuters) – An Iranian nuclear scientist was blown up in his car by a motorbike hitman, prompting Tehran to blame Israeli and U.S. agents but insist the killing would not derail a nuclear programme that has raised fears of war and threatened world oil supplies.

The fifth daylight attack on technical experts in two years, the magnetic bomb delivered a targeted blast to the door of 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s car during Wednesday’s morning rush-hour. The chemical engineer’s driver also died, Iranian media said, and a passer-by was slightly hurt.

Israel, whose military chief said on Tuesday that Iran could expect to suffer more mysterious mishaps, declined comment. The White House, struggling for Chinese and Russian help on economic sanctions, denied any U.S. role and condemned the attack.

While Israeli or Western involvement seemed eminently plausible to independent analysts, a role for local Iranian factions or other regional interests engaged in a deadly shadow war of bluff and sabotage could not be ruled out.

That last paragraph, which grudgingly admits that there are at least two competing explanations, is to Reuters’ credit. All of the pundits I’ve heard discussing this homicide have simply assumed that Israel is responsible, given the circumstantial evidence: targeted assassinations fit Israel’s modus operandi, and no doubt there is a continuous covert war ongoing between Israel and at least Iran’s proxies. But, having seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy recently, I can’t help but wonder…

Normally I deride conspiratorial thinking, but in this case I’ll make an exception, just to make a point. Has it struck anyone as odd that the Israeli defense minister apparently telegraphed this killing the day before it happened? Might it not have given the Iranians (or some Iranian faction) the opportunity to kill Ahmadi-Roshan and conveniently blame it on Israel? But why, you ask, would the Iranians kill their own scientist? Well, who knows? Maybe they suspected him of spying for Israel, the U.S., or some Sunni Arab state (the Sunnis fear the Iranian mullahs almost as much as Israel does). Or maybe he was not particularly valuable to them, and they killed him just for the sake of further driving a wedge between Israel and the West? Almost all the pundits, after suggesting that Israel was the likely culprit, go on to point out that a strategy of killing scientists, besides being morally reprehensible, is hardly likely to slow down Iran’s nuclear program much, and it gives Iran a huge propaganda advantage. But they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: that maybe – just maybe – Israel didn’t do it.

So we have at least two competing, somewhat plausible (and somewhat implausible) possibilities here, but so far no firm evidence for either of them. My point is not that we should believe that the Iranians did it; that would be nearly as irrational as, say, the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Rather, it is that we should feel comfortable putting neither forth as even “probable”, at least without further information.

Could someone please tell the pundits that?

Kathleen Parker States The Obvious Well

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Sometimes just stating the obvious with clarity is an accomplishment in our present media. Parker hits the nail on the head when she writes the following in an editorial about Texas Governor Rick Perry

That we are yet again debating evolutionary theory and Earth’s origins — and that candidates now have to declare where they stand on established science — should be a signal that we are slip-sliding toward governance by emotion rather than reason. But it’s important to understand what’s undergirding the debate. It has little to do with a given candidate’s policy and everything to do with whether he or she believes in God.

If we are descended of some blend of apes, then we can’t have been created in God’s image. If we establish Earth’s age at 4.5 billion years, then we contradict the biblical view that God created the world just 6,500 years ago. And finally, if we say that climate change is partly the result of man’s actions, then God can’t be the One who punishes man’s sins with floods, droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes. If He wants the climate to change, then He will so ordain, and we’ll pray more.

Perry knows he has to make clear that God is his wingman. And this conviction seems not only to be sincere, but also to be relatively noncontroversial in the GOP’s church — and perhaps beyond. He understands that his base cares more the president is clear on his ranking in the planetary order than whether he can schmooze with European leaders or, heaven forbid, the media. And this is why Perry could easily steal the nomination from Romney.

And also why he probably can’t win a national election, in which large swaths of the electorate would prefer their president keep his religion close and be respectful of knowledge that has evolved from thousands of years of human struggle against superstition and the kind of literal-mindedness that leads straight to the dark ages.

Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, but Perry makes you think they are.

And if you aren’t taken aback by Perry’s anti-science views, consider that he seems closely allied with leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, a fundamentalist Christian group that advocates “spiritual warfare” in order to establish a totalitarian “dominion” over all aspects of society, as recently reported on NPR’s Fresh Air.



The Funny Side of Class Warfare

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Thanks to Warren Buffett’s editorial in the New York Times last Sunday, entitled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich”, there has been more publicity this week on the growing wealth inequality in the USA than I can remember in ages. Of course, Fox News regards any discussion of the issue as class warfare. And who better to bring out the funny side of class warfare than Jon Stewart-

And here is part II-

How Not To Write A News Story

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Anyone who’s perused this blog knows where my political sympathies lie. And with media outlets like Fox News (The Conservative Channel), MSNBC (The Liberal Channel), and CNN (the Mostly Vacuous Channel), I still look to the PBS Newshour and my local newspaper – The Oshkosh Northwestern – for relatively serious and “straight news” (at least away from the editorial pages). But occasionally a reporter for The Northwestern reveals his political bias, as Jeff Bollier did near the beginning of this page 3 story entitled “Feingold urges King supporters to vote early, volunteer during rally“-

Count former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold among those who have answered Jessica King’s call for supporters to do everything they can in the final days before the Aug. 9 recall election.

Feingold is the most recent Democrat to visit the 18th Senate District to support King’s campaign to unseat state Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Empire, and help secure a Democratic majority in the Senate that would represent and support working families.

Now, I strongly support King against Hopper, but even I find the second paragraph here worded in an offensively biased way, for the clear implication is that the current Republican Senate does not represent and support working families. Arguably, it does not. But that conclusion should be argued for in an editorial, not implied in a news report about a political fundraiser. Otherwise, more ammunition is given to those who hold (falsely) that the media in general have a liberal bias.

My guess is that Jeff Bollier would reply that the second paragraph was written to express Feingold’s intentions in attending the rally, not to give a neutral description of the event’s purpose. But the paragraph is not written from Feingold’s point of view; it’s written from the reporter’s point of view. I have nothing against reporters sharing points of view with those on whom they report, but when they do, they should be extra-careful to set it aside when writing their report.

Checks, Balances, and The Oshkosh Northwestern

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The Oshkosh Northwestern, a middle-of-the-road newspaper in a politically purple region, wrote a brief editorial yesterday advocating against voting for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in the upcoming election April 5th. I think it’s noteworthy enough to reprint it here in its entirety-

One of the disturbing sidelights of the current political upheaval in Wisconsin is the erosion of the separation of powers doctrine that is occurring. It will be complete if voters re-elect Justice David Prosser to the state Supreme Court on April 5.

There can be no question that the majority of voters were demanding budget and tax reform when they elected a Republican, Scott Walker, as governor in November. Voters emphasized their demand for change by giving Republicans majorities in both houses of the legislature. And a victory by Prosser would maintain a 4-3 advantage held by judicial conservatives on the Supreme Court, giving Walker a clean sweep of all three branches of government.

If there is any doubt about the impending collapse of the “checks and balances” that three independent branches of government represent, consider this statement from Prosser’s campaign manager. “Our campaign efforts will include building an organization that will return Justice Prosser to the bench, protecting the conservative judicial majority and acting as a common sense complement to both the new (Republican) administration and legislature.

Prosser tried to new back away from that statement but cannot undo the very clear message his campaign was sending to voters. Nor can he hide is background as a Republican Speaker of the Assembly when Walker was also in the assembly.

In the legislature the budget repair bill demonstrated that the legislature had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor’s office. Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Senate, and his brother, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, speaker of the Assembly, have been unapologetic about serving as Walker’s minions to get the bill passed.

At one point, Scott Fitzgerald actually sought Walker’s permission to talk to the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to block passage of the bill. Fitzgerald then acted as Walker’s personal valet in the strategy to pass the collective bargaining provisions of the bill separately. So much for the concept that the legislative branch acts independently of the executive branch.

It will be left to researchers and pollsters to determine if voters intended to eviscerate the separation of powers at the ballot box in Wisconsin. But recent history tells us that it was not healthy for the nation when President Obama and the U.S. Congress did it from 2009-2010 and it is not healthy for the state now. Nationally, voters recalibrated the scales of power in 2010 by electing a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. If will interesting to see if Wisconsin voters do the same thing in 2012 or if they are OK with a monopolistic state government with no checks and balances.

Note that while this editorial advocates against voting for Prosser, it falls well short of endorsing his opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg; indeed, it doesn’t even mention her name. I suppose that’s not particularly objectionable, given the editorial’s implication that any competent alternative leftward of Prosser would do. However, it’s a mark of the paper’s recognition that its readership is evenly divided ideologically that it goes out of its way to draw a very weak analogy between the current condition of the Wisconsin State government and the first two years of the Obama administration. After all, no objective observer would say that the Roberts Supreme Court has been ideologically in tune with Obama’s views (recall the flap over the President’s remark about the Citizens United decision at his 2010 State of The Union address). I respect the position that the Oshkosh Northwestern has taken in this editorial; I could respect it more if it didn’t rely on fallacious reasoning to suggest “balance”.

Public Employees Already Contribute 100% Of The Money That Goes To Their Benefits

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Nice points made by David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (who specializes in tax issues) blogging at tax.com-

When it comes to improving public understanding of tax policy, nothing has been more troubling than the deeply flawed coverage of the Wisconsin state employees’ fight over collective bargaining.

Economic nonsense is being reported as fact in most of the news reports on the Wisconsin dispute, the product of a breakdown of skepticism among journalists multiplied by their lack of understanding of basic economic principles.

Gov. Scott Walker says he wants state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to “contribute more” to their pension and health insurance plans.

Accepting Gov. Walker’s assertions as fact, and failing to check, created the impression that somehow the workers are getting something extra, a gift from taxpayers. They are not.

Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

How can that be? Because the “contributions” consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.

Thus, state workers are not being asked to simply “contribute more” to Wisconsin’s retirement system (or as the argument goes, “pay their fair share” of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin’s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.

You can read the rest of the post here.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge

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I’ve occasionally mentioned sometimes overlooked but worthy public radio shows on this blog, and I think that Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” certainly falls into that category. It’s consistently intelligent and interesting. Lately they’ve been airing a series called “Science and the Search for Meaning” which is particularly thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Episodes include:

PART ONE: WHAT IS LIFE?
PART TWO: WHAT DOES EVOLUTION WANT?
PART THREE: DOES THE “SOUL” STILL MATTER?
PART FOUR: CAN ISLAM AND SCIENCE COEXIST?
PART FIVE: CAN SCIENCE BE SACRED?

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

More Media Vapidity

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Jason Linkins over at the Huffington Post provides an excellent example of how the media reduces all policy issues to a sporting event between two teams, complete with the cheerleading mantras, like “drill baby drill”-

So, as most of you know by now, President Barack Obama came straight out of the blue this week with a decision to start up some crazy new offshore drilling campaign. I thought the decision was pretty strange myself — but, hey, it’s an opportunity to ask some pretty substantive questions.

For example: What changes can we expect in terms of our oil imports from the Middle East? Has the technology of drilling gotten better–are we less likely to experience the devastation of another oil spill? How is this decision going to affect the bottom line of oil companies? Will they reinvest this money back into America’s devastated communities? Will they reinvest in energy solutions that are sustainable? In solutions that promote further independence from foreign oil? Is this going to increase jobs?

These are the sorts of things that your 24-hour news media could maybe take up in earnest. Unfortunately, they all had much better things to talk about. Who will win the political debate? Will this help or hurt Democrats? Will this earn them Republican support, on anything?

Here are the video excerpts that accompanies the post. I can’t stand to watch the whole thing, but if you watch just a couple of minutes, you’ll get the idea-