Thursday, December 26, 2013

Global Warming Vignette

The drought had lasted for years, water was rationed and tanker trucks were set up at strategic locations where men and women queued in long lines holding containers whose capacity was regulated by the water authority. Armed men walked up and down the line checking the containers and the ID of their bearers. Cattle lay dead in the fields, or pirouetted wildly in their thirst-driven madness. Brush fires burst out spontaneously; entire hillsides were blackened and smoldering, and the air was acrid with smoke and ash that burned throats and reddened eyes. The people in lines looked like bandits, wearing dampened handkerchiefs and cloths over their mouths. Some collapsed and lay where they fell, like the cattle in the fields. The states bordering Texas had set up road blocks to prevent people abandoning the Lone Star state and potentially overwhelming the water and other resources of their states. Pitched battles broke out between unofficial militias and the national guards of several states. Thirty-six states had declared disasters. The United States was threatening war with Canada over its curtailing of Columbia River water.

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Dark Money" Funds Climate Change Denial Effort: Scientific American

A Drexel University study finds that a large slice of donations to organizations that deny global warming are funneled through third-party pass-through organizations that conceal the original funder

By Douglas Fischer and the Daily Climate

The largest, most-consistent money fueling the climate denial movement are a number of well-funded conservative foundations built with so-called "dark money," or concealed donations, according to ananalysis released Friday afternoon.
The study, by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, is the first academic effort to probe the organizational underpinnings and funding behind the climate denial movement.
It found that the amount of money flowing through third-party, pass-through foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funding cannot be traced, has risen dramatically over the past five years.
In all, 140 foundations funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations from 2003 to 2010.
Meanwhile the traceable cash flow from more traditional sources, such as Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, has disappeared.
The study was published Friday in the journal Climatic Change.
"The climate change countermovement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on global warming," Brulle said in a statement. "Like a play on Broadway, the countermovement has stars in the spotlight  – often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians – but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers."
"If you want to understand what's driving this movement, you have to look at what's going on behind the scenes."
Consistent funders
To uncover that, Brulle developed a list of 118 influential climate denial organizations in the United States. He then coded data on philanthropic funding for each organization, combining information from the Foundation Center, a database of global philanthropy, with financial data submitted by organizations to the Internal Revenue Service.
According to Brulle, the largest and most consistent funders where a number of conservative foundations promoting "ultra-free-market ideas" in many realms, among them the Searle Freedom Trust, the John Williams Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.
Another key finding: From 2003 to 2007, Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were "heavily involved" in funding climate change denial efforts. But Exxon hasn't made a publically traceable contribution since 2008, and Koch's efforts dramatically declined, Brulle said.
Coinciding with a decline in traceable funding, Brulle found a dramatic rise in the cash flowing to denial organizations from Donors Trust, a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation, the assessment found, now accounts for 25 percent of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations promoting the systematic denial of climate change.
A call and e-mail Friday night to Donors Trust was not returned.
Matter of democracy
In the end, Brulle concluded public records identify only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars supporting climate denial efforts. Some 75 percent of the income of those organizations, he said, comes via unidentifiable sources.
And for Brulle, that's a matter of democracy. "Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible," he said. "Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square."
Powerful funders, he added, are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise doubts about the "roots and remedies" of a threat on which the science is clear.
"At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One Cold December Day

One cold December day one year ago twenty kids aged 6 - 7 were shot dead by a twenty year-old severely disturbed young man whose mother thought she could bond with her son through guns and shooting. He shot and killed her on that fateful day, then went to Sandy Hook elementary school, shot his way in with the Bushmaster semiautomatic his mother taught him to shoot, and then, moving inexorably down the hall and into classrooms, shot the kids and their teachers multiple times using the semiautomatic and its extended magazine. Then he shot himself in the head with his mother’s Glock 20 pistol.

One year since that cold Saturday morning, December 14th, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when an unimaginable tragedy was visited upon parents and loved ones preparing to celebrate a blessed holiday. One year ago, and every year after, the shock, the pain, the grief, the loss will be felt again, and again, and again, forever. 

One year ago an outpouring of shared grief and sympathy was followed by outrage and  angry calls for more effective gun control measures. Ninety-percent of Americans favored tougher gun control measures, but a Senate bill, co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat, that would have strengthened the background check system was met with strident opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and other gun rights organizations. It was blocked by Senate Republicans -- all but 4 voted against the bill -- joined by 4 Democrats. They voted “nay” because they were afraid -- not afraid that the bill didn’t do enough to protect more kids from gun violence, but afraid that voting for the bill would hurt their chances of being reelected.

Fear is the lingua franca of the NRA and the gun lobby at large. They have demonstrated their power at the ballot box, most recently when they successfully orchestrated a recall of two Colorado legislators who voted to strengthen Colorado’s gun laws. Their threat is explicit and credible; go against us and we’ll throw you out of office.

More disturbing perhaps than the gun lobby’s campaign of intimidation towards lawmakers is their campaign to change the very core of America’s culture of openness and generosity of spirit. The NRA and its ilk have convinced their adherents that we live constantly under threat -- threat of rape, robbery, and murder; threat of natural disasters that turn into bloody anarchy; and the threat that a tyrannical government is bent on wresting their treasured guns from their “cold, dead hands.”

The NRA has made manifest this dystopian view of America in the laws it sponsors. Teaming with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), it crafted the infamous “stand your ground” law that allowed George Zimmerman to go free after he followed, confronted, and shot 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. Not to be confused with Castle Doctrine, this law allows individuals to use deadly force if they feel threatened anywhere they have a legal right to be without any attempt to retreat. It’s the embodiment of the “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude, and it has resulted in a significant increase in homicides across the 26 states that have enacted such laws. Some of the other cases in which the stand your ground defense has been used successfully beggar the imagination.

As of this writing, 11,413 gun deaths have been reported since Sandy Hook. The toll is undoubtedly much higher, close to 33,000, largely because suicides by gun are rarely reported. As a nation, we have done nothing to stop the mayhem. But we Washingtonians can do something to at least demonstrate our commitment to stem the tide here in our own backyard -- pass Initiative 594, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility’s background check proposal (

The gun lobby will fight this with lots of money geared towards feeding the paranoia of gun rights activists, fearful of losing their guns, and legislators afraid of losing their elected office. The rest of us, afraid of losing our children, must fight back by ensuring I-594 gets on the ballot and then voting it into law.

One year ago, and every year after, the shock, the pain, the grief, the loss will be felt again, and again, and again, forever. Let us do this small thing, take this small step to say, We are with you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?

Posted By Patrick J. Deneen On December 5, 2013 @ 10:03 am In Conservatism,Religion | 82 Comments
Pope Francis not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan
Since the release of Evangelii Gaudium [1] there have been countless articles and commentary about the economic portions of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation. Some of the commentary has been downright bizarre, such as Rush Limbaugh denouncing [2] the Pope as a Marxist, or Stuart Varney accusing [3]Francis of being a neo-socialist. American conservatives grumbled but dutifully denounced a distorting media when Pope Francis seemed to go wobbly on homosexuality, but his criticisms of capitalism have crossed the line, and we now see the Pope being criticized and even denounced from nearly every rightward-leaning media pulpit in the land.

Not far below the surface of many of these critiques one hears the following refrain: why can’t the Pope just go back to talking about abortion? Why can’t we return the good old days of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI and talk 24/7/365 about sex? Why doesn’t Francis have the decency to limit himself to talking about Jesus and gays, while avoiding the rudeness of discussing economics in mixed company, an issue about which he has no expertise or competence?

There are subtle and brash versions of this plea. At “The Catholic Thing,” Hadley Arkes has penned [4] a characteristically elegant essay in which he notes that Francis is generally correct on teachings about marriage and abortion, but touches on these subjects too briefly, cursorily and with unwelcome caveats of sorts. At the same time, Francis goes on at length about the inequalities and harm caused by free market economies, which moves Hadley to counsel the Pope to consult next time with Michael Novak. The upshot—be as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics.

On the brash side there is Larry Kudlow, who nearly hyperventilates [5] when it comes to his disagreement with Pope Francis, accusing him of harboring sympathies with Communist Russia and not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. (R. R. Reno, who is briefly allowed to get a word in edgewise, wisely counseled Kudlow not to fight the last war—or, the one fought three wars ago, for that matter.) Revealingly, Kudlow counsels the Pope to concentrate on “moral and religious reform,” and that he should “harp” instead on “morality, spiritualism and religiosity,” while ceasing to speak about matters economic. Similarly, Judge Napolitano, responding to a challenge from Stuart Varney on why the Pope is talking about economics, responded: “I wish he would stick to faith and morals, on which he is very sound and traditional.”

These commentators all but come and out say: we embrace Catholic teaching when it concerns itself with “faith and morals”—when it denounces abortion, opposes gay marriage, and urges personal charity. This is the Catholicism that has been acceptable in polite conversation. This is a stripped-down Catholicism that doesn’t challenge fundamental articles of economic faith.

And it turns out that this version of Catholicism is a useful tool. It is precisely this portion of Catholicism that is acceptable to those who control the right narrative because it doesn’t truly endanger what’s most important to those who steer the Republic: maintaining an economic system premised upon limitless extraction, fostering of endless desires, and creating a widening gap between winners and losers that is papered over by mantras about favoring equality of opportunity [6]. A massive funding apparatus supports conservative Catholic causes supporting a host of causes—so long as they focus exclusively on issues touching on human sexuality, whether abortion, gay  marriage, or religious liberty (which, to be frank, is intimately bound up in its current form with concerns about abortion). It turns out that these funds are a good investment: “faith and morals” allow us to assume the moral high ground and preoccupy the social conservatives while we laugh all the way to the bank bailout.

The right’s contretemps with Pope Francis has brought out into the open what is rarely mentioned in polite company: most visible and famous Catholics who fight on behalf of Catholic causes in America focus almost exclusively on sexual issues (as Pope Francis himself seemed to be pointing out, and chastising, in his America interview [7]), but have been generally silent regarding a century-old tradition of Catholic social and economic teaching. The meritocracy and economic elite have been a main beneficiary of this silence: those most serious about Catholicism—and thus who could have brought to bear a powerful tradition of thinking about economics that avoids both the radical individualistic presuppositions of capitalism as well as the collectivism of socialism—have spent their energies fighting the sexual/culture wars, even while Republican-Democratic ruling machine has merely changed driver seat in a limousine that delivers them to ever-more exclusive zip codes [8].

In the past several months, when discussing Pope Francis, the left press has at every opportunity advanced a “narrative of rupture,” claiming that Francis essentially is repudiating nearly everything [9]that Popes JPII and Benedict XVI stood for. The left press and commentariat has celebrated Francis as the anti-Benedict following his  impromptu airplane interview (“who am I to judge?”) and lengthy interview with the Jesuit magazine America. However, in these more recent reactions to Francis by the right press and commentariat, we witness extensive agreement by many Catholics regarding the “narrative of rupture,” wishing for the good old days of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But there has been no rupture—neither the one wished for by the left nor feared by the right. Pope Francis has been entirely consistent with those previous two Popes who are today alternatively hated or loved, for Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke with equal force and power against the depredations of capitalism. (JPII in the encyclical Centesimus Annus [10] and Benedict XVI in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate. [10])  But these encyclicals—more authoritative than an Apostolic Exhortation—did not provoke the same reaction as Francis’s critiques of capitalism. This is because the dominant narrative about John Paul II and Benedict XVI had them pegged them as, well, Republicans. For the left, they were old conservatives who obsessed with sexual matters; for the right, solid traditionalists who cared about Catholicism’s core moral teachings. Both largely ignored their social and economic teachings, so focused were they on their emphasis on “faith and morals.” All overlooked that, for Catholics, economics is a branch of moral philosophy.

I think it is because of the left’s “narrative of disruption” that the right is panicked over Francis’s critiques of capitalism. These Vatican criticisms—suddenly salient in ways they weren’t when uttered by JPII and Benedict—need to be nipped in the bud before they do any damage. Of course, all along Catholic teaching has seen a strong tie between the radical individualism and selfishness at the heart of capitalism and liberationist sexual practices, understanding them to be premised on the same anthropological assumptions. (If you don’t believe Catholics about this, just read Ayn Rand.) While Hadley Arkes laments that Pope Francis did not speak at more length on sexual matters, if one reads his criticisms of the depredations of capitalism with care, one notices that he uses the same phrases with which he criticized abortion—namely, that abortion is but one manifestation of “a throw-away culture [11],” a phrase as well as in Evangelii Gaudium in his critique of capitalism (Section 53 [12]). If one attends carefully to Francis’s criticisms of the economy’s effects on the weak and helpless, one can’t help but perceive there also that he is speaking of the unborn as much as those who are “losers” in an economy that favors the strong.  Like John Paul and Benedict before him, Francis discerns the continuity between a “throw-away” economy and a “throw-away” view of human life. He sees the deep underlying connection between an economy that highlights autonomy, infinite choice, loose connections, constant titillation, utilitarianism and hedonism, and a sexual culture that condones random hook-ups, abortion, divorce and the redefinition of marriage based on sentiment, and in which the weak—children, in this case, and those in the lower socio-economic scale who are suffering a complete devastation of the family—are an afterthought.

The division of the fullness of Catholic thought in America has rendered it largely tractable in a nation that was always suspicious of Catholics. Lockean America tamed Catholicism not by oppression (as Locke thought would be necessary), but by dividing and conquering—permitting and even encouraging promotion of its sexual teachings, albeit shorn of its broader social teachings. This co-opted the full power of those teachings, directing the energy of social conservatives exclusively into the sexual-culture wars while leaving largely untouched a rapacious economy that daily creates few winners and more losers [13] while supporting  a culture of sexual license and “throw-away” children. Without minimizing the seriousness with which we need to take issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty, these are discrete aspects of an overarching “globalization of indifference” described by Francis. However, we have been trained to treat them as a set of autonomous political issues that can be solved by one or two appointments on the Supreme Court. Francis—like JPII and BXVI before him—has upset the “arrangement.” Rush and the gang are not about to go down without a fight. If only they could get that damn Marxist to talk about sex.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Scummy Telemarketer Taken to Court

At the Federal Trade Commission’s request, a U.S. district court has temporarily shut down a Brooklyn, New York-based operation that allegedly used deception, threats, and intimidation to induce elderly consumers to pay for medical alert systems they neither ordered nor wanted.

In its complaint, the FTC charges that telemarketers for Instant Response Systems call elderly consumers – many of whom are in poor health and rely on others for help with managing their finances – and try to pressure them into buying a medical alert service that consists of a pendant that supposedly allows them to get help during emergencies.  In numerous instances, Instant Response Systems allegedly has falsely claimed during sales calls that consumers who did not order the medical alert service have, in fact, bought the service and owe the company money -- often hundreds of dollars. 
The company also allegedly has shipped bogus invoices and unordered medical alert pendants to consumers without their consent, has repeatedly threatened consumers with legal action in order to induce and coerce payment, and has subjected them to verbal abuse.  In addition, the FTC contends that Instant Response Systems has illegally made numerous unsolicited calls to consumers whose phone numbers are listed on the National Do Not Call Registry.
According to the FTC’s complaint, consumers who tried to contact the company to dispute the false charges or find out how to return unopened packages often were unable to reach anyone.  If they did reach a representative, they allegedly faced threats, verbal abuse, and demands that they pay for the product.
Based on this alleged conduct, the FTC charged the company and its principals with making illegal misrepresentations to consumers, violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by calling phone numbers on the DNC Registry, and violating the Unordered Merchandise Statute by sending consumers pendants they did not order.
The defendants charged in the case are Instant Response Systems, LLC, also doing business as Response Systems, B.B. Mercantile, Ltd., Medical Alert Industrial, and Medical Alert Services; and Jason Abraham, also known as Yaakov Abraham, individually and as an officer of Instant Response Systems.  Abraham was previously sued by the FTC in 2003 for selling international “drivers’ licenses” and phony university diplomas.
The Commission vote approving the complaint was 5-0, with former Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch participating.  It was filed under seal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn Division, on February 25, 2013, and the seal was lifted on March 7, 2013.
The FTC appreciates the assistance of the New York State Office of the Attorney General in helping to investigate and bring this case.
NOTE:  The Commission authorizes the filing of a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest.  The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendant has actually violated the law.  The case will be decided by the court.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC's online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.  Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.
Mitchell J. Katz,
Office of Public Affairs
Arturo DeCastro,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
(FTC File No. 122-3041)

Is this the headquarters of the medical alert telemarketer that's

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday Redux

The United States is largely responsible for the distrust and antipathy Iranians feel towards America. The Geneva Deal formulated by the Obama Administration on November 25, 2013, is a promising first step in the effort to open up meaningful dialogue with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and the possibility of a normalization of relations somewhere downstream. It would be a major mistake for the Republican Party to sabotage this effort for political gain.

Black Friday

America's retailers are again promoting "Black Friday," the go-crazy shopping day after Thanksgiving, when "fantastic deals" are being offered, and stores are hiring extra security personnel to manage the stampede of frantic shoppers pressing against the closed doors, waiting to burst through and snatch up the last X-Box One, Barbie Fashionista doll, or gigantic flat-screen TV they really can't afford, even if it is half price.

The Shah's Imperial Guard Shooting at Protesters, Black Friday, Tehran, Iran,
September 8, 1978
Thirty-five years ago another Black Friday occurred, one that made inexorable the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran and the ouster of the country's leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This was the massacre of protesters in Tehran's Jaleh Square on September 8, 1978, by troops loyal to the Shah. The day was labeled "Black Friday" by the opposition, and the event radicalized further an already fervent opposition movement, making compromise with the regime, practically impossible.

I arrived in Tehran two months after Black Friday and experienced first hand the chaotic period leading up to the overthrow of the Shah, and the storming of the American Embassy the following year. I made it a point to learn about Iran's history before I went there, and continued to follow the country's troubled road to its current impasse with the U.S. after I left.

The Pahlavi Dynasty

The United States was a reliable backer of the Pahlavi dynasty, although during World War II, the US stood by when Great Britain and the USSR arrested the then Shah and sent him into exile. The three nations then took control of Iran's oil resources, secured a transportation corridor, and using Iran's resources, supplied the war effort. It was during this time that the Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was installed as the head of the rump state and told exactly what he could and could not do.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Early 1950s
The United States agreed to grant Iran its independence at the end of WWII, although the USSR balked, delaying the withdrawal of its occupying forces until 1946, after trying and failing to create an autonomous state in the northern provinces of Iran.

Iran formed a parliamentary form of government and in 1944 the election of the Majlis (lower house of parliament) was the first genuine democratic process most Iranians could remember. Unfortunately for the Iranians, Britain and the US found Iran's oil too attractive to risk losing to what the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service ("MI6") perceived to be a looming communist movement in Tehran.

Operation Ajax

Just nine years after Iran began opening its state to opposition parties, the United States and Britain, through the machinations of their intelligence services, undertook to overthrow the government of Mohammad Mosaddeqh, elected prime minister in 1951. Britain owned and operated the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and prevailed upon the US to help make sure things stayed the way they were, with the UK deciding how much Iran would earn from the use of its oil reserves, and the Shah deciding who, besides he and his family, would receive the millions of dollars flowing into the government's coffers.
Mohammad Mosaddeqh, 1952
In 1953, in an operation the CIA code named TPAJAX, or in some circles, Operation Ajax, Mosaddeqh was toppled, thrown in jail, and then after several years, placed under house arrest, where he died. The coup preserved the Shah's power and served to protect Western economic and security interests, including Western ownership of Iran's vast oil infrastructure. As Stephen Kinzer wrote, "It also transformed a turbulent constitutional monarchy into an absolutist kingship and induced a succession of unintended consequences at least as far ahead as the Islamic revolution of 1979."

Nuclear Cooperation Between the U.S. and Iran

During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, the United States supplied Iran with modern military weapon systems and even nuclear technology. Looking back, one can say that the foundation for Iran's current nuclear program was laid by the United States in 1957 under Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. The US even supplied Iran's Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) with a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that was fueled by highly enriched uranium. The U.S. and Iran negotiated a nuclear cooperation agreement as late as 1975, approved by President Gerald Ford and signed by Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. In it, the U.S. explicitly permitted Iran to fabricate U.S. nuclear material into fuel for use in Iran's reactors and for pass through to third countries with which the U.S. had agreements. The Shah was open about his intent to build, with U.S. help, as many as 23 nuclear power stations by the year 2000. American nuclear architect-engineering companies were ecstatic.

Unfortunately, Humpty-Dumpty fell off the wall in 1979 and we haven't been able to bring all the pieces back together again. After initially eschewing nuclear development, Ayatollah Khomeini, who came to power after the revolution, changed his mind and agreed that the program should go forward. Iran sought help from Germany, and then Russia, which helped complete Bushehr, to date, Iran's only nuclear power reactor.

The Current State of Affairs

Various intelligence sources showed that Iran pursued not just a peaceful nuclear program, but a nuclear weapons development capability, as well, although a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate judged that Iran stopped work on nuclear weapon's development in 2003, but was  "keeping the door open" on restarting its nuclear weapons program.

It is clear from recent developments that Iran is more open now that at any time in the recent past to consider a permanent halt to any efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration has been working quietly for months to open a dialogue with Iran and seek a mutually agreeable path forward towards that end. The agreement, reached just a few days before Thanksgiving, provides Iran with about $7 billion in relief from international sanctions in exchange for curbs on uranium enrichment and other nuclear activity. All parties to the so-called "Geneva deal," pledged to work toward a final accord next year that would remove remaining suspicions in the West that Tehran is intent on building nuclear weapons.

 This opening with Iran is promising. However, Republicans in Congress, joined by some Democrats, are critical of the deal. They want to continue sanctions, and even impose new ones, which they argue are working. Republicans, heartened by Obama's vulnerability over the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), are quickly labeling the accord, "Obama's deal," and even before hearing the details, calling it "disgraceful," and an obvious attempt to distract the public from the ACA "debacle."

All this Republican hullabaloo is to be expected from a Republican Party that acts with a knee jerk negative spin to anything the current White House does. Nevertheless, in this particular case, it would be a shame if Republican intransigence managed to scuttle an agreement as critically important as this. That would truly be a BLACK FRIDAY spelt large.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

False Equivalency

Objectivity Does Not Mean Neutrality: The Danger of False Equivalency in the Media
David Guttman, Common Dreams, October 25, 2012
What happens when public officials don’t tell the truth? Traditionally it’s been the role of the media to point this out. It is the role of the media not only to uncover hidden deceit, but also to point out deceit in plain sight. The media should not and cannot hide behind the phony gauze of neutrality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
It is the job of the media to distinguish between the two, and to clearly and blatantly point out the discrepancies to the public.
And yet, too often, they do not. The media, too often, reports what officials say and how they say it, and doesn’t delve into the substance and accuracy of the statements.
The truth is objective, a presentation of both sides of an argument is not necessarily objective.
When a topic is noisily debated, journalists go to pains to present, with equal space and import, both sides of the topic. Usually this is a good thing. The public should know the arguments from all sides of a contentious issue.
But sometimes, and this may sound overly simplistic, but it remains true, there is only one credible side to a debate.
The earth is getting warmer, and man-made carbon emissions are causing it.
Humans evolved from apes. You cannot cut taxes by 20 percent and close enough loopholes to be revenue neutral without raising taxes on the middle class.
Study after reputable study has shown these statements to be true. (Admittedly there have been fewer studies of the last claim because it is so much newer, but every reputable study has found the above statement accurate). Yet we still see news stories in which “experts” from both sides of the argument are called upon and given equal standing to make their case.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and unabashedly liberal New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote about this phenomenon in 2000.
“If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’ After all, the earth isn't perfectly spherical.
That analysis is equally applicable today. The mainstream media (with the exception of nakedly partisan outfits like Fox News and MSNBC) are so desperate to appear unbiased that they go out of their way to point out inconsistencies on both sides of the political spectrum even when it may not be appropriate.
This false equivalency, the effort of the news media to remain at the political center of an argument, no matter the merits or truthfulness of either side of the argument, is sometimes labeled as a bias towards objectivity. This is a false and misleading turn of phrase.
Journalists should always exhibit a bias towards objectivity. Being objective -- dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings -- is always the goal. The trouble comes when objectivity is confused with neutrality.
It is fine to be partial, indeed it is imperative if, after a careful examination of the facts, one concludes that the truth lies on one side of the argument. This is being objective. Examining the facts on their merits and presenting the truth is a journalist’s job.
Granted, on many issues there is legitimate debate and disagreement, but this is not always the case, and the media should not treat every issue as if both sides have equally valid points.
The truth does not always lie in the center. In fact, it rarely does.
A journalist’s job is to report the truth, not to neutrally report what both sides say and stake out a safe position in the middle.
This insidious practice of false equivalence takes two general forms.
First, and most obviously, journalists act as spokesmen for both sides of an argument without delving into the substance of what either side is saying. Or, in an effort to appear unbiased they’ll point out the obvious flaws in one side’s argument while nit-picking questionable claims or secondary inconsistencies in the other side’s argument.
The second form is tougher to spot. It involves giving equal time and equal billing to both sides of a technical argument when, among those in a position to know, there really is no disagreement. There are issues--abortion, gay marriage, the role of government, etc.--on which reasonable people can disagree. These are issues in which one does not need technical knowledge or expertise to have an informed opinion. Of course, more knowledge always helps. But you don’t need to be an obstetrician to have a valid opinion on abortion. You don’t need to be a pastor to have a valid opinion on gay marriage. You don’t need to be a senator or a political science professor to have a valid opinion on the role of government.
But some arguments--arguments that have great political import--cannot be productively waged by average citizens, political pundits, or even elected officials.
Some arguments are highly technical, and when they’re waged in a political forum, the only opinions that should be cited are those of actual experts.
The topic where uninformed opinions are most egregiously cited in an attempt to give equal footing to a specious argument is global warming.
If you are arguing about global warming and climate science, you need to talk to climate scientists.
And, among climate scientists, there is no argument, there is no debate.
The earth is getting warmer. Humans are causing it with their carbon emissions. And there will be negative, and likely grave, consequences for humanity.
The facts: A 2010 paper, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” conducted a broad study of the climate science community to see if there was any sort of consensus on climate change. It was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors, William R.L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, analyzed the data and publications of 1,372 climate scientists. They had two primary findings: First, 97-98 percent of climatologists support the “tenets of anthropogenic climate change” (human caused global warming). Second, “The relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”
In essence: nearly the entire relevant scientific community believes in global warming, and those that don’t are significantly less accomplished than the rest.
There is almost no issue which gets 98 percent agreement on one side.
The research and consensus on human-caused global warming is as conclusive and convincing as any scientific subject of our time.
And still neither the public nor, more importantly for our purposes, the media is convinced.
One of the most egregious examples of false equivalence with regards to climate change came just a month ago from one of the media organizations most often accused of having a liberal bias, PBS.
On Sept. 17, the PBS NewsHour ran a story on Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a self-described “converted skeptic” on climate change. Muller publicly renounced his skepticism in a July op-ed in The New York Times after analyzing the results of a multi-year study that he ran, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Incidentally, the Berkeley project was funded in large part by the Charles G. Koch foundation, normally no friend to climate science. Muller’s conclusions are striking in their lack of ambiguity:
Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.
By itself, this seems like a modestly interesting story. One of the few (2-3 percent) remaining, reputable climate skeptics has come full circle. But instead of running a story on Muller’s conversion to the mainstream, PBS felt the need to “balance” Muller’s story with an “expert” from the other side. And thus, about four minutes of the 10-minute story are given to an interview with Anthony Watts, a television meteorologist with no scientific background.
So basically, PBS has a story about one of a tiny, tiny minority of climatologists who are skeptical about climate change who has changed his mind and embraced the majority view. For some reason PBS felt the need to balance this story with nonsense from an irrelevant and non-accredited source.
It gets worse. At the end of the broadcast segment, anchor Judy Woodruff directs viewers to the PBS website for more video on the subject. On the website is a 10-minute interview with Watts. If we’re just going by time, that’s 14 minutes of video for Watts (who represents the views of 2-3 percent of the scientific community, despite not being a scientist) and about six minutes for Muller, the convert.

The online interview, conducted by Spencer Michels, is outrageous.
Michels begins: “Let’s start out with the basic idea that there’s debate in this country over global warming. There’s some people who call it a complete hoax. There are some people who completely embrace it. So where do you stand in that spectrum?”
The basic premise for the interview, which Michels lays out himself, is entirely false. There is no debate over global warming! Anyone who calls it a “complete hoax” is either a crackpot or woefully uninformed. The percentage of climate scientists who deny global warming is so small that it is literally statistically insignificant.
And who cares where Anthony Watt stands? He’s a TV weatherman! Why does he have any authority to speak on this subject?
We’re not done yet.
PBS, predictably, took heavy criticism for the piece. The day after it aired, PBS responded on its website with this quote: “Spencer will have another blog post today offering the views of other scientists in the broadcast concerned about the threats of climate change.”
In case you missed the misleading innuendo in that statement, here it is: Other scientists? Watts is not a scientist. For that sentence to read truthfully, PBS would need to replace the word “other” with “actual” or “real.”
A subsequent correction on the PBS website included this statement: “Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post implied that Anthony Watts is a scientist. As we reported on the broadcast last night, he is not.”
Great, thanks for clearing that up. So why was he given 14 minutes of airtime in a piece about complex scientific issues?
Other examples of climate change false equivalence are less blatant, but perhaps more insidious for their subtlety.
Every time the tiny minority of deniers is giving equal standing, they’re given undeserved credibility, even if it’s just subconscious, in the eyes of the public. The more the media says or even implies that there is an argument, the more the public believes that there actually is one.
Every time the Washington Post publishes a sentence about global warming like this one: “For years there were only a handful of researchers on both sides of the debate,” the idea of a debate is legitimized in the public consciousness.
Not only is that sentence completely inaccurate--the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the side of man-made climate change is not at all a recent development--but it presupposes that there is a debate to be had.
That sentence was published on March 5, 2012, so false equivalence is still very much an issue in the media.
On March 13, 2012, The New York Times published an article that reported rising sea levels caused by global warming pose a risk to coastal communities. The headline, the lead and the bulk of the article are informative and do a good job of presenting the issue without feebly resorting to presenting the opinion of the “other side.”
But the 11th paragraph of the 21 paragraph article contains this nefarious statement:
The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.
Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group, said that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”
The author has succumbed to his worst journalistic instinct, the need to air both sides of an argument, even when no argument exists. Not to belabor the point, but a view held by 2 percent of experts does not deserve equal time.
What’s worse, the phrasing and sequencing of these two paragraphs makes one believe that the quoted skeptic, Myron Ebell, is a climate researcher. He is not. He is a spokesman at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank advocating free markets and limited government. Why he’s qualified to rebut the research and analysis of climate scientists is a mystery.
A look at Ebell’s biography on his employer’s website, confirms that false equivalence is alive and well. Ebell has given his inexpert opinion on ABC, NBC, PBS, the BBC, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Sky TV, Al Jazeera, Fox News, NPR, and Air America, among others.
It’s worth noting that the three examples I’ve cited (with thanks to Joe Romm on who brought them to public attention) come not from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but from PBS, The Washington Post, and the New York Times, three of the organizations most often mentioned when people complain of a liberal bias in the media.
Journalists are not stenographers. Journalists should not just report what officials say, they should critically analyze and evaluate statements and put them in the context of a broader story. When statements are false, journalists should say so.
More and more these days the task of evaluating the veracity of what officials say is being delegated to specialized “fact-checkers.”
It’s a bit disconcerting that regular journalists are no longer able to do this in the course of their work. The rise of fact-checkers seems like it could lead to a slippery slope of journalists no longer being expected to fact-check the information they report.
As evidence, witness the conservative uproar when Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney’s false claim about President Barack Obama’s statement on Libya in the last presidential debate. That’s not her role, we were told. Well, of course it is. She’s a journalist, so when she hears a lie she should inform the public.
Romney said Obama did not refer to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi as an act of terror. Actually, he did, and Crowley told the audience as much.
Just because she didn’t call out every misstatement doesn’t mean she shouldn’t call out any. She should point out as many as she can.
Even if it’s not a great idea to give them a separate title and distinguish them from journalists at large, fact-checkers still perform a crucial role. But too often they abandon objectivity in a misguided pursuit of false balance. They assume that the center is always the right place to be, and therefore there must be an equal number of misstatements and lies on both sides of the political spectrum.
In 2009 and 2010, PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check organization from the Tampa Bay Times, chose Republican claims (2009: Obamacare includes death panels; 2010: Obamacare is a government takeover of health care) for its “Lie of the Year.” So, apparently, they felt the need to appear neutral (not objective) and in 2011 PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” was the Democratic claim that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.”
Neutrality is nice, but not at the expense of objectivity. The Democratic claim wasn’t even a lie, much less the lie of the year.
The claim refers to Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget which House Republicans voted for by a spread of 235-4. The budget would change Medicare--for everyone 55 and younger--from a program covering a prescribed number of medical benefits into a program that essentially gives seniors a check and tells them to buy health insurance on the private market. Every independent analysis said that the check would not grow fast enough to keep up with medical costs.
Republicans did vote to end Medicare. Medicare is a program that guarantees public health insurance for seniors. The program that Republicans voted for would give seniors a (likely insufficient) check to try to buy insurance on the open market. It’s an entirely different program.
Granted the program would still be called Medicare, but that’s just nomenclature, not substance.
Writing on NPR’s website, Frank James explained: “PolitiFact’s logic, distilled to its essence, is that if a program continues to exist with the same name, albeit in radically changed form, it is inaccurate to describe the original program as having been ended.”
By this logic we could turn Yosemite and Yellowstone into parking lots and it would be a lie if anyone said that the National Parks program had ended.
We could disband the CIA and give everyone a check to pay for their own private intelligence and it would be a lie to say the CIA had ended.
PolitiFact defended their “Lie of the Year” by saying that Democrats, “ignored the fact that the Ryan plan would not affect people currently in Medicare.” So what? That doesn’t change the fact that Republicans actually did vote to end Medicare as it has existed for its entire 46-year existence.
If there’s one thing that almost everyone can agree on (other than humanly caused global warming) it’s that political statements are far too often false, misleading, or outright lies. For PolitiFact to choose a true statement, which at best is modestly misleading, as its “Lie of the Year” smacks of the worst form of false equivalence.
PolitiFact is not alone among fact-checkers fitfully searching for falsehoods from both sides so as to appear neutral.
After a Romney campaign ad about welfare work requirements was roundly debunked as false, Romney spokesman Neil Newhouse infamously said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
During his speech at the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton referenced Newhouse’s statement: "I couldn't have said it better myself,” Clinton said. “I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."
The AP’s fact-checkers, apparently desperate to find something to refute in Clinton’s speech, responded with this:
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were "legally accurate" but also allowed that he "misled people, including even my wife."
In an hour-long speech notable for its heavy emphasis on policy and detail, the AP responded to an uncontroversial statement by bringing up a nearly 15 year old scandal that is completely irrelevant to any current topic. Exactly which fact was checked here?
The AP fact-checking example is truly idiotic and is the dregs of the dregs of false equivalency. But, again, sometimes less blatant examples of false equivalency can be just as insidious as the laughable ones.
After the most recent presidential debate, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler fact-checked three claims by Mitt Romney: Romney claimed his jobs plan would create 12 million jobs in four years--as Kessler reported, that number is cobbled together from three different studies that both do not assess Romney’s plan specifically and look at a longer time period than four years.
Romney claimed President Obama would raise taxes on the middle-class by $4,000 per year--simply false.
Romney says middle-income taxpayers will no longer pay any tax on interest of capital gains—but the middle-class already pays virtually no taxes on interest or capital gains.
So we have three blatantly false or misleading claims which Kessler does well to refute. But, in the name of balance and neutrality, Kessler also attempts to debunk three claims that Obama made in the debate: Obama said that he bet on American workers while Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt--Romney wrote an op-ed with that very phrase in the headline and repeated it on television interviews. Romney argues that G.M. did go through bankruptcy, but it did so with $80 billion in federal backing, a crucial difference especially at the time, when credit markets were frozen.
Obama said they’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the earth--Kessler admits this is true but quibbles about the kind of pipeline and says that, percentage wise, that’s not that much pipeline.

Obama said: “I said I would cut taxes for middle-class families, and that’s what I’ve done, by $3,600.” Kessler complains that Obama cut taxes by $3,600, but not in one big tax cut, in a few smaller ones. He also says that some of the tax cuts may expire, none of which refutes Obama’s claim.
If there isn’t an equal amount of mendacity on both sides of a political campaign, then efforts to make it look otherwise obfuscate the truth and do the reader no service.
Journalists should not be bound by tenets of neutrality, but by tenets of objectivity. If those overlap, that’s great, it makes a reporter’s job that much easier and less controversial. But if the interests of objectivity and neutrality diverge, a journalist’s loyalty lies with the truth, not with the political or rhetorical center.