The Laboratories Of Democracy At Work

Amidst all of the focus on the federal government government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have forgotten that, in our system of government, it is the states that have the power to make the truly important decisions.  They’re about to be reminded about that.

51ryo5scx7l._ac_sy400_The response to COVID-19 has actually been a good illustration of how America is supposed to work — and why we’re called the United States in the first place.  The federal government can offer guidance, and can coordinate how the national stockpiles of ventilators and masks and hospital gowns are distributed among the states according to need and forecasts, but it is the states, each a separate sovereign government with a separate sphere of responsibility, that have made the really big decisions about how to deal with the scourge of COVID-19.

States can, and do, take different approaches to issues — which is why Justice Brandeis long ago described states as the “laboratories of democracy.”  In Ohio, we’ve been under a state-ordered lockdown decree for weeks, and most states have similar lockdown orders, but each of the orders varies in terms of who may work, who is considered essential, and what businesses may operate.  Notably, a number of states, primarily in the middle swath of the United States, have not issued lockdown orders at all.  (And, in case you’re curious, those states for the most part have low rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths, according to the New York Times state tracking tool.)

I say above that we’re going to see a real reminder of the importance of state decision-making very soon because we’re rapidly approaching the point where the states that have been shut down are going to be deciding when, and how, to get back to work.  On Friday, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects to issue an executive order on reopening businesses in this coming week.  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t given a deadline, but has said he also is working on an order to reopen the state for business.  We can expect many other states whose statistics are at the low end of the coronavirus incidence rate list to also be looking to get back to normal, and probably sooner rather than later.

Having a state-centric approach is unnerving to some people, who think centralized decision-making is by definition better decision-making.  Having the states act as “laboratories of democracy” in deciding how to reopen after a pandemic seems like the right approach to me, however.  The United States is a big country, and conditions differ significantly from state to state, in ways that are directly relevant to dealing with shutdown orders and pandemics.  Some states are rural, some are industrial.  Some states are densely populated, and some are so wide open it’s breathtaking.  It makes no sense that Wyoming, say, should be on the same timetable as New York or subject to the same requirements as New York.  In reality, governors and state officials know their states far better than federal officials ever could, and they can and will make decisions that are tailored to the needs of their specific constituents.

We should all pay attention, because we’re getting a real-life, real-time civics lesson — and the lessons will continue in the coming days and weeks.  If the national news media is smart, they’ll start paying a little more attention to the different states and how those state officials are deciding how to restart things.

Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.

Waiting For GoMueller

Every week, it seems, there’s an article about the timing of when Robert Mueller will finally complete his investigation and present his report on President Trump.  Some articles report that “insiders” who are supposedly privy to the workings of the investigation team confidently predict that the report will be out next week; other pieces are written by savvy pundits who have read the tea leaves and concluded that Mueller is timing his report for this or that reason and next week the report will be out.

1551885010588But the report never comes.  The stories speculating about the timing of the Mueller Report remind me of the plot of Waiting for Godot, where Vladimir and Estragon wait, and wait, and wait for Monsieur Godot’s arrival — but he never shows up.  And then the articles that predicted that this would be the week for the Mueller Report get flushed down the memory hole, and new articles that predict that next week will be the week that we get the report, for sure, take their place.

The constant anticipation of the Mueller Report has gotten to be so bad that Newsweek — which I didn’t think still existed, frankly — is reporting that some aged and sick Americans are desperately trying to hold on to their thread of existence just so they can finally read Mueller’s findings.  It’s a pretty thin story — based on the comments of one person who regretted dying before he could read the Report, a reaction to those comments from another senior citizen, and a quote from a third person who thinks her mother would have said the same kind of thing before she joined the Choir Invisible — but it sure seems weird that being unable to read the Mueller Report is the one regret voiced by people who are dying.

The constant fixation on the Mueller investigation and the breathless anticipation of its ultimate report seems pointless to me.  Investigations take time — the Mueller investigation has been going for about two years, already — and good investigators play their cards pretty close to the vest.  At this point, why worry about when, or credit anyone who claims to have special insight into the timing of the report?

One of these days, Godot is going to finally get get here.  Mueller and his team will finish their work, publish their report, and everyone will have the chance to review it.  Until then, Vladimir and Estragon need to stop waiting and get on with their lives.

The Handshake Analyzed ‘Round The World

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at the G-20 summit.  Presumably they had something important to discuss — but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage.

gettyimages_810247620-0No, newspapers around the world were more interested in the Trump-Putin handshake, and more specifically which of these leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries got the better of the other during the handshake.  The New York Post even consulted a body language expert who concluded that Trump “won on points” because he used the palm-up approach, which apparently is some kind of domineering power-play technique that allows the handshake to proceed to a vise-like grip.  From the breathless analysis, you’d expect that President Trump carefully considered, but ultimately didn’t use, the “knuckle-roll” approach to really let ol’ Vlad know who was boss.

The reporting on this brief incident make it seem as though these two leaders were behaving very consciously during every instant of the handshake encounter.  Perhaps that is so at the international leader level, but for most people a handshake is a pretty unconscious event.  You meet someone, you reflexively stick out your hand — a tradition that apparently stems from ancient times, where the open hand indicated you weren’t holding a weapon — and give the other person’s paw a basic shake.  It’s only a noteworthy incident if the other person’s hand is weirdly damp, or their handshake is incredibly limp, or they try the bone-crusher approach.  Absent something like that, the handshake moment passes by in a flash without a thought and you get into the substance.

In our modern media, though, substance just isn’t as interesting as trying to read “body language” and speculating about what each twitch and eye movement meant and being distracted about meaningless minutiae.  Next thing you know, the media will be asking Putin what he thought about President Trump’s hand size.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin actually focused on something more meaningful.

Media Row

Ohio might not be the hottest battleground state this time around, but that doesn’t mean that the news media is uninterested in the Buckeye State.  Along Third Street, in front of the Statehouse, are the antenna trucks and equipment trucks and multiple tents to protect the talent from the rain.

It’s weird to see these network reporters sitting on chairs and standing on boxes, staring intently into monitors, and realize they are talking to people half a continent away.

Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

Hillary’s Bar Exam Failure

Recently I was reading an article and ran across the statement that Hillary Clinton had failed the District of Columbia bar exam when she took it back in the ’70s.  I was startled because it was something I’d never heard about her background, so I actually did a search to check on whether the statement was true.

D03G3PBS07 A FEAIt was.  In the summer of 1973, Hillary Rodham took the D.C. bar exam.  817 people took the exam, and she was one of the 261 who did not pass.  She also took, and passed, the Arkansas bar exam, so rather than stay in Washington, D.C. she moved to Arkansas, where she and Bill Clinton later were married.  According to the link above, she kept the D.C. bar exam result a secret from her friends until she made a reference to it in her autobiography, Living History.

I mention Hillary Clinton’s bar exam failure not to bash her for something that happened more than 40 years ago — lots of famous and accomplished lawyers and politicians have encountered an initial failure at the hands of the bar exam — but simply to note how selective the reporting on political figures can be.  Story lines somehow get set, and facts that are inconsistent never get mentioned.  Hillary Clinton is portrayed as a brilliant law student at Yale who worked on one of the congressional Watergate committees, then went on to achieve great success with the Rose law firm in Arkansas before Bill Clinton was elected President.  Her failure on the D.C. bar exam is a clinker in that story line of unbroken accomplishment and gets discarded.  Do you think a failure on the bar exam by, say, a politician like George W. Bush would be overlooked — or that we would hear about it, over and over, as evidence in support of the narrative that he wasn’t really very smart?

This reality is a significant failing by the news media and the punditocracy, and it does a disservice both to political candidates — whether they have a positive narrative or a negative one — and to the public.  It assumes that the general population can’t really sift through the good and bad of a public figure’s life and reach a fair judgment about them, so facts get edited and blemishes get removed until the story line leads inexorably to one conclusion.  We’re told, over and over, that someone is a genius or an idiot — and then, when contrary facts are disclosed, it comes as a shock.  I’d much rather get the facts, good and bad and in-between, and come to my own conclusion.  And by the way, stories where people overcome some adversity tend to be much richer and more interesting than airbrushed sagas of ever-increasing triumphs.  Take Lincoln, for example.

 

The Proper Victorian Gent And The Donald

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s.  As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.

victorian-vest-1I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign.  The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place.  It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire.  Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.

Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention.  On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio.  Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free.  Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage?  In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention.  And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.

Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues.  With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it.  With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety.  This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.

Strange Bedfellows

This is the weirdest political campaign I can remember — weirder even than the awkward George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fandango in 1992 — and yesterday it got even weirder with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Trump is supposed to be the anti-establishment outsider . . . but now he’s trotting out endorsements from establishment figures like sitting governors, like having credibility with the establishment means something?  It’s a very mixed message for the guy who supposedly doesn’t give a rat’s patootie for conventional politics.  And the timing of the Christie announcement seems pretty political, too.  Trump got trounced and humiliated in the Republican debate, there’s a lot of buzz and discussion of that fact . . . and then Trump trots out Christie to try to change that narrative.  It may be smart politics, but it’s also conventional politics.  Trump is playing the game, just like everybody else.  Will his supporters ever see that?

635852763638255334-josephIt’s also pretty laughable that pundits are saying that the Christie endorsement, and other, similar announcements that may be forthcoming, will “legitimize” Trump.  Really?  As far as I’m concerned, you could trot out hundreds of governors, senators, and mayors to praise Trump to the skies, and he would be no more “legitimate” than he is now.  Trump will be “legitimate” only when he takes the responsibilities of a presidential candidate seriously and starts actually learning something about the issues.  I don’t want a President who’s going to wing it, and endorsements aren’t a substitute for actual hard work.  Until Trump starts to do some studying and show some knowledge — which will happen on the 12th of Never — he’s just showing contempt for what is supposed to be an important exercise in democracy.

The Christie endorsement makes me lose a lot of respect for the news media, and for Chris Christie, too.  The media is Trump-obsessed, and the Christie endorsement just made all of the news channels give free air time to Trump so he can engage in his antics and belittle his adversaries.  They’re playing Trump’s game because he’s a polarizing figure who will make people tune in and drive up their ratings, and his outrageous statements provide daily news stories that make their jobs easier.  The press hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory this year.  And Christie has lost whatever claim he had to being a credible national figure.  Christie is no dummy; there’s no way he can legitimately believe Trump is best suited to sit in the Oval Office.  Christie obviously is betting on what he thinks will be the winning horse.  Maybe Christie just wants to be one of those unidentified “top men” the Trumpster is always talking about using to get things done if he becomes President.

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

Bloggers And The First Amendment

Senator Lindsey Graham — who seems to be quoted about every topic under the sun — misspoke earlier this week.  In discussing a “shield law ” that Congress is considering in the wake of the Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of journalist email and other news-gathering information, Graham asked whether “any blogger out there saying anything” deserves First Amendment protection.  He later corrected himself and said that every blogger enjoys freedom of speech.

Of course, that’s right.  Every American enjoys freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, and there isn’t any exclusion for bloggers.  Graham’s misstep, though, is one of those instances where a politician’s statement reveals a deeper truth about their actual beliefs.  Graham is an old-line politician who is struggling with the modern world, where the traditional daily newspapers and nightly network broadcasts that he grew up with are fighting a losing battle to hold on to an audience, and any person with a computer and a camera can contribute to the national dialogue about issues and events.  At the root of his comments are these core questions:  how do we deal with these new guys, and who are they, really?

Bloggers must be a pain for politicians.  The traditional methods of controlling the media — having a press secretary who interacts with those pesky reporters and answers their questions, wining and dining the big-time reporters and throwing them a scoop now and then to stay on their good side — just don’t work with bloggers.  There are too many of them, and they don’t go to press conferences or call press secretaries for comments.  They tend to be out in the real world, reacting to what politicians are actually saying, observing the politician actually interacting with the citizenry, and (often) reading the bills and committee reports to try to understand what the politicians are actually doing.  The teeming mass of bloggers makes political manipulation of the press a lot harder.

That doesn’t mean that bloggers are any better or purer than traditional reporters — just different.  Most bloggers come at the issues from a clear ideological bent, and their stuff should be read and weighed with that reality in mind.  Their postings aren’t edited by professionals or subjected to the fact-checking and publication standards that exist at good daily newspapers.  But there is no denying that bloggers — awkward stepchildren of the modern world that they are — have made, and increasingly are making, significant contributions to the national dialogue about the issues of the day.

I’m glad Senator Graham corrected his misstatement and recognized what should be undeniable:  bloggers, like all citizens, are protected by the First Amendment.  It’s just a bit troubling when one of our elected leaders makes such a fundamental blunder in the first place.

Manti Te’o, And Hoaxing Weirdness

The Manti Te’o Star Football Player Fake Dead Girlfriend Story is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard, on more levels than I can possibly identify.

One significant part of the weirdness, for me, is this:  how can you have a “girlfriend” who you’ve never really met?  I recognize that the internet, cell phones, text messages, tweeting, and social networking sites permit long-distance, virtual relationships.  Before you took that significant emotional step and started calling someone a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” though, wouldn’t you want to satisfy yourself that the person actually existed?  Wouldn’t you want to walk with them, smell their hair, and see how they looked when they laughed or ate their food?  Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I think a lot of the “girlfriend” concept is satisfying yourself that the person in question is someone you like to be around, and not just some disembodied voice you hear on the phone at night or get an “LOL” from in response to a text message.

Another part of the weirdness is trying to figure out the motives of whoever was involved in perpetrating a colossal hoax.  Why would anyone put the time and effort into maintaining such a complicated bit of deception?  What satisfaction would any stranger get by concocting a phony person, convincing Te’o to fall for the facade, and ultimately making him look like a naive and pathetic Mr. Lonelyheart?  Aside from being astonishingly cruel, you’d have to think that anyone involved in implementing such an elaborate, time-consuming scheme needs to get a life of their own.  And if Te’o was involved, why did he do it?  He had a great career at Notre Dame; why would he feel the need to add a gloss to it by inventing a non-existent girlfriend and then knocking her off?

A final part of the weirdness:  why did the sports news media just swallow this story without doing very basic fact-checking — like trying to confirm some of the core elements of the story?  It makes you wonder how many of these heartwarming, overcome-all-odds sports stories that we hear are outright fiction.

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.

Storm Politics

These days, we seem to see everything through the lens of the presidential election — even a potentially catastrophic storm like Hurricane Sandy.

Rather than focusing on the storm and its potential human cost, much of the media buzz today seemed to be  about how the storm would affect the campaign.  Would Sandy interrupt Mitt Romney’s apparent momentum?  Would it allow the President to be “presidential” and therefore give him an advantage?  Would Mitt Romney continue to campaign and risk a backlash from disgusted voters?   Would the storm delay the release of economic figures on Friday, or be used as an excuse to delay the release?  Could the disruption caused the storm and potential power outages affect early voting, or cause the President order some kind of delay of Election Day?

In this instance, the politicians showed better sense than the nattering talking heads.  President Obama — who is our current President, after all — canceled his campaign appearances and focused on doing his job in connection with the hurricane and disaster preparedness.  Mitt Romney canceled his campaign appearances, suspended fundraising activities in the affected areas, asked supporters to help victims of the storm, and turned his campaign offices in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia into centers for collection of relief supplies.  The candidates and their campaigns, at least, recognize that there are more important things than squeezing in a few more campaign appearances when a dangerous storm is hurting some of our fellow Americans.

It makes you that maybe there’s some hope that our political leaders, ultimately, have their priorities straight, even if the news media doesn’t.

Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.