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Why Hillary Clinton’s Book Is Actually Worth Reading

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James Fallows has a very interesting column on Hillary Clinton and her book. It begins:

Most books by politicians are bad. They’re bad because they are cautious, or pious, or boring, or some even-worse combination of all three.

They’re cautious because over the years politicians learn they have more to lose than gain by taking “interesting” or edgy stands. (Something I learned when working as a campaign and White House speechwriter: In “normal” writing, your goal is to make your meaning as clear as possible, ideally in a memorable way. For a politician, the goal is to make the meaning just clear enough that most people will still agree with you. Clearer than that, and you’re in trouble.)

They’re pious because in one way or another the “revealing” stories about the authors are really campaign ads—for future elections by politicians with a big race still ahead of them, or for history’s esteem by senior figures looking back. Thus  politicians’ biographies fall into the general categories of humble-brag (most of them) or braggy-brag (Trump’s).

And they’re boring because they’re necessarily often about policy. That’s hard enough to make interesting in the hands of very skillful writers, from Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs to John Hersey and Michael Lewis. If politicians turning out books on “Our Schools: A New Blueprint!” were comparably skilled as writers, they’d be making their livings without having to bother with PACs and polls.

Of course there are exceptions. Some autobiographical books manage to be interesting because they’re written early enough not to be swathed in campaign caution (Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father), or come from a quirky-enough sensibility to avoid normal constraints (Jimmy Carter’s Why Not the Best?), or are from performers talented enough to work subversively within the constraints (Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, which is the kind of book Will Rogers might have written if he had made it into the Senate). And of course some all-out manifestos with an edge can shape the evolution of politics. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative didn’t get him into the White House, but it competed with the works of Ayn Rand on many conservatives’ bookshelves and lastingly shaped a movement.

I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton’s previous books were good or bad. I didn’t read them, because I assumed they were normal politician-books. But What Happened is not a standard work in this oeuvre. It’s interesting; it’s worth reading; and it sets out questions that the press, in particular, has not done enough to face.

* * *

On the overall interesting-ness of the book, I refer you to Megan Garber’s extensive analysis of the different personas Hillary Clinton has presented through her now very-long public career, and the much less-guarded one that comes through in What Happened. By the previously mentioned depressing standards of most political books, this one isn’t cautious (because the author  convincingly claims she’s not running for anything any more), it’s not (very) pious (because she favors an acid-humor tone), and most of it is not boring (because most of it is not directly about policy).

As an example of why it’s interesting, consider the opening scene, about how Clinton dealt with the inauguration ceremony in which she might have expected to be sworn in herself, but instead sat there watching Donald Trump take the oath. She’d wondered whether she had to show up at all, and talked with former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, each of whom had called her right after the news of her loss sank in: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

15 September 2017 at 10:09 am

The Only Problem in American Politics Is the Republican Party

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine:

Political scientist Lee Drutman argues in a Vox essay that American politics is descending into what he calls “doom-loop partisanship.” Drutman notes that Americans have been “retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises,” each heavily racialized, in which “[t]here’s no possibility for rational debate or middle-ground compromise. Just two sorted teams, with no overlap, no cross-cutting identities, and with everyone’s personal sense of status constantly on the line.”

Drutman attributes this to winner-take-all elections, the expanding power of the presidency, and the growing influence of money in politics. I think, despite all the very real design flaws in American politics, the problems he describe stem mainly from the pathologies of the Republican Party.

It is certainly true that the psychological relationship between the parties has a certain symmetry. Both fear each other will cheat to win and use their power to stack the voting deck. “If Republicans win in close elections, Democrats say it’s only because they cheated by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote; if Democrats win in close elections, Republicans say it’s only because they voted illegally.” But while it is nottrue that Democrats have allowed illegal voting in nontrivial levels, it isextremely true that Republicans have deliberately made voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning constituencies. The psychology is parallel, but the underlying facts are not.

Likewise, there is a superficial similarity to the terror with which partisans now greet governments controlled by the opposing party. Obama’s presidency made Republicans terrified of rampant socialism and vengeful minority rule. (Rush Limbaugh in 2009 instructed his audience, “In Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ Of course everybody said the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.”) Trump’s presidency has inspired a similar terror among liberals terrified that Trump would take their insurance and deport immigrants.

Liberal fears have had a much closer relationship to reality. The reason is that the Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike. Whatever terrors of rampant Jacobinism may have gripped the economic elite, there are limits to the fiscal and regulatory pain Democrats can impose on a constituency that has a seat at the table (many seats, actually).

There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites. Advocates for labor or the poor have no voice whatsoever in the Republican elite. It took a massive national mobilization to narrowly dissuade the party from snatching health insurance away from millions of people too poor or sick to afford it.

Then of course there are the competing tribal epistemologies. There is nothing on the left with the reach and scope of the conservative media universe defined by talk radio, Fox News, and other outlets that have functioned as state media. Certainly pockets of epistemological closure exist, especially in the way social media has allowed curated media streams that exclusively cater to one’s prejudices. But the fact is that the Democratic Party is fundamentally accountable to the mainstream news media. And that media play try to follow rules of objectivity that the right-wing alternative media does not bother with.

The most striking revelation in Devil’s Bargain, Josh Green’s account of the rise of Steve Bannon, is that Bannon understood both the importance and the permeability of the mainstream news media to his ideas and messaging. Bannon knew that the right kind of research could influence the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton, and thereby deeply shape the views of Democratic voters.

Whether or not the Times was correct to use this research, and whether or not it treated Clinton fairly overall, is not the point. What matters is that Democratic politicians need to please a news media that is open to contrary facts and willing — and arguably eager — to hold them accountable. The mainstream media have have its liberal biases, but it also misses the other way — see the Times’ disastrously wrong report, a week before the election, that the FBI saw no links between the Trump campaign and Russia and no intention by Russia to help Trump. One cannot imagine Fox News publishing an equivalently wrong story against the Republican Party’s interests — its errors all run in the same direction. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 1:33 pm

Most of America’s landscape is rural. But journalists don’t go there very often.

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Margaret Sullivan has some interesting observations in the Washington Post:

Washington journalists may be obsessed with President Trump’s Russia connections. Silicon Valley reporters may be focused on the next big tech merger. And New York media types may be hyperventilating about Vanity Fair magazine’s editor stepping down.

But while most American journalists stay inside their urban bubble, the Texas Observer’s staff is laboring in the fields.

Poisonous crop-dusting is on their minds. So are the wildfires that result when agricultural land goes fallow. And so are the many communities that don’t have a hospital within several hours’ drive — or even a nearby doctor.

“There are such fantastic stories to be found,” said Forrest Wilder, editor of the Austin-based Observer, which recently became a mostly digital operation, still publishing in print six times a year.

Now, with funding from the Emerson Collective, the nonprofit group founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the Observer has added a full-time rural reporter, Christopher Collins, to its newsroom staff of about a dozen. The Observer will supplement his work with a network of freelancers.

“We’re going to really look for stories in far-flung, underreported — or unreported — areas,” Wilder said.

There are plenty of opportunities: 3.8 million of some 25 million Texans live in rural areas.

The underreporting in rural areas is a nationwide phenomenon, with an increasing number of journalists clustered in New York, Washington and on the West Coast.

And as metro dailies shrink their staffs, rural bureaus are often one of the first casualties, said Al Cross, who runs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

“Larger regional papers used to do this as a public service even though there was no advertising base for it,” Cross told me.

Now, with less revenue coming in as a result of print advertising’s sharp decline, and with year after year of newsroom buyouts taking their toll, rural reporting has taken a hit.

“It’s triage,” Cross said of newsroom decisions about what to cover. Rural reporting rarely is seen as the most critical mission.

But that leaves huge swaths of the United States without coverage. And the buying-up of small papers by chains, more beholden to stockholders than to local concerns, has hollowed out the journalism even more.

The term “news deserts” aptly describes the results: In many communities, there’s no one to cover government meetings, hold officials accountable, or report on events, large or small.

That’s a real problem. Consider the succinct question-and-answer on the Kentucky institute’s website:

“Why is rural journalism important? Because 16 percent of Americans, some 63 million people, are rural, and so is three-fourths of the national landscape.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 September 2017 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Daily life, Media

What prompted the EPA to attack an AP reporter over an accurate Harvey story?

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Eric Wemple reports in the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency is all over Michael Biesecker, a reporter for the Associated Press. His reading habits, for instance. “We are able to see who opens our emails,” says an EPA official, referring to press-release blasts sent out by the agency. “Michael very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

Scrutiny of Biesecker’s press-release consumption amped up in the summer months, after a significant dustup between the two organizations. In late June, Biesecker reported that Pruitt had “met privately with the chief executive of Dow Chemical shortly before reversing his agency’s push to ban a widely used pesticide after health studies showed it can harm children’s brains, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.”

Except that the private meeting didn’t really happen, though it was indeed listed on a schedule obtained by the AP. Scheduling conflicts prevented it from taking place. The AP ran a correction stating, in part, “A spokeswoman for the EPA says the meeting listed on the schedule was canceled, though Pruitt and [Dow Chemical CEO Andrew] Liveris did have a ‘brief introduction in passing.’”

Along with the correction, the AP ran a new story with more information about the non-meeting: “The EPA did not respond to inquiries about the scheduled meeting before the AP story was published and later did not state on the record that the meeting had been canceled.” (An EPA official protests that, indeed, the agency did respond before the story was published). The New York Times, by the way, made the very same error.

Following that episode, the EPA pulled Biesecker from its master email list. “He’s more than welcome to visit our website,” says an EPA official, noting that there are some 50 AP reporters on the blast list — and Biesecker can get the releases from them. But why de-list the guy? “We don’t think he’s a trustworthy reporter,” says the EPA official.

The evaluation of untrustworthiness, argues the official, stems from the Dow-Pruitt meeting story, plus a previous instance in which Biesecker — along with staffer Adam Kealoha Causey — wrote an article based on emails from Pruitt’s previous work as Oklahoma attorney general. “Newly obtained emails underscore just how closely Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt coordinated with fossil fuel companies while serving as Oklahoma’s state attorney general, a position in which he frequently sued to block federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions,” notes the lead of the piece.

An EPA official cited an editorial in the Oklahoman taking issue with the story. “The fact Pruitt regularly corresponded and dealt with energy industry officials as attorney general of a state where energy is the No. 1 industry should not be surprising nor should it, by itself, be considered nefarious,” wrote the newspaper.

Other alleged Biesecker infractions have also upset the EPA. In June, Biesecker forwarded to the EPA press office a news release from Investigative Reporters and Editors announcing that Pruitt had won the organization’s “Golden Padlock” award “recognizing the most secretive U.S. agency or individual.” Noted the EPA official via email, “this unnecessary email reiterates his dislike for Mr. Pruitt.”

So there was distrust in the water when Biesecker and the AP landed on Hurricane Harvey. A trail of emails shows that the wire service decided early on how it would focus its investigative efforts: Houston has long been a petrochemical hub, with $50 billion in chemical plant construction since 2013. The city’s deep roots in this industry mean that companies have left behind a fair number of messes, some of them qualifying as EPA Superfund sites. A team of AP journalists wanted to know how these sites would fare underwater.

On Aug. 17, more than a week before Harvey’s landfall, the AP requested a copy of EPA’s “screening analysis” involving Superfund sites around floodplains or in danger of sea-level rise. As Harvey later bounced out of Texas and into Louisiana, the AP sprung into action, checking out flooded Superfund sites — by foot and by boat — and pressing the EPA for information. Here’s an Aug. 30 email inquiry obtained by the Erik Wemple Blog: “How many Superfund sites are underwater? Specific locations? What monitoring are state and federal regulators doing this week? Are they visiting sites by boat? Are they sampling floodwater? What specific actions are they taking to potentially mitigate the risk of hazardous materials migrating off site due to flooding?” It continued pressing those issues over the following days.

On Sept. 2, Biesecker and colleague Jason Dearen showed the results of their efforts under the provocative and alarming headline, “AP EXCLUSIVE: Toxic waste sites flooded, EPA not on scene.” In all, the outlet had visited seven Superfund sites in the Houston region. Several hours after the AP issued its story, the EPA responded with a statementindicating that it had seen aerial imagery showing that 13 of 41 sites were flooded and were “experiencing possible damage.” The statement started out by denouncing “misleading and inaccurate reporting” on the topic.

The AP adjusted its article, but not its narrative:

The statement confirmed the AP’s reporting that the EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites, saying the sites had “not been accessible by response personnel.” EPA staff had checked on two Superfund sites in Corpus Christi on Thursday and found no significant damage.

AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot. The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.

The next day, the EPA did something that federal agencies, as a general proposition, do not do. It put a news release on the EPA websiteblasting not just a news outlet, but a specific reporter. With attitude, too. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2017 at 3:09 pm

Almost all news coverage of the Barcelona attack mentioned terrorism. Very little coverage of Charlottesville did.

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Bryan Arva, Muhammed Idris, and Fouad Pervez report in the Washington Post:

The recent attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona both involved perpetrators with ties to extremist ideologies using vehicles to kill and injure civilians. Because of these similarities, a debate quickly began about how politicians and news outlets discussed these two events — including whether it was appropriate to call both acts of terrorism.

Our research on these attacks — as well as the Orlando shootings by Omar Mateen and the Charleston church shootings by Dylan Roof — shows that news coverage framed these shootings very differently. Only the attacks perpetrated by Muslims were routinely called terrorism.

Even before we did our study, research showed disproportionately high media coverage of terrorism committed by Muslims — even though right-wing extremist groups have committed more attacks than Muslim in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, on the same weekend as the Charlottesville attack, the white nationalist Jerry Varnell was arrested for attempting a Timothy McVeigh-style bombing, but with little media attention.

Our research on the Orlando and Charleston shootings focused not on how much these attacks were covered, but on how they were covered. Our statistical analysis used a tool called topic modeling, which identifies common themes in a collection of articles and clusters them together using an algorithm. Essentially, we identified the relevant frames in thousands of articles from major national and regional U.S. newspapers.

Although the Orlando and Charleston shootings had key similarities — both were committed by individuals, involved firearms  and were plausibly hate crimes — they were not covered similarly.

First, the graph below shows that coverage of Mateen used “terrorism,”  “terrorist,”  and “radical” three to four times as frequently, while Roof’s coverage used “mental health” 3.5 times as frequently.

Even within the coverage that focused on terrorism, there were differences. Articles that discussed Mateen and terrorism focused on Islam and violence. But articles that discussed Roof and terrorism tended to focus on the question of whether his attack constituted terrorism. The coverage of Mateen didn’t really ever ask that question. This was despite weak evidence tying Mateen to the Islamic State, compared to stronger evidence tying Roof to right-wing extremist groups.

The same pattern emerged in coverage of the Charlottesville and Barcelona attacks. We gathered stories published within five days of each attack that included the names of the drivers of the vehicles. The same statistical models showed stark differences in how the coverage was framed:

Once again, coverage of Barcelona referred to terrorism and religion substantially more than did coverage of Charlottesville. Even the Charlottesville coverage that mentioned terrorism did so within the context of debating whether Fields’s attack was terrorism. The same does not appear true for coverage of Younes Abouyaaquob.

We do not believe that these differences in coverage are intentional or nefarious. . .

Continue reading.

More at the link, including charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Media, Terrorism

Not “fake news”: CNN reporter saves man in Houston

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2017 at 10:24 am

Posted in Media

Why is Trump so awkward in Washington? He’s a New Yorker.

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Very interesting column in the Washington Post by Henry Allen, a former Post editor and reporter:

Washington vs. New York — the resentful bewilderment continues on both sides.

Cats and dogs, Hatfields and McCoys, India and Pakistan, coyote and roadrunner, Cowboys and Redskins: We’re seeing it now in the White House, where New Yorker Donald Trump has taken up his awkward Washington residence.

President Trump gets it backward, to Washington ears. He boasts of his riches and calls the media “the enemy of the American people.” But as veteran columnist Walter Shapiro has said of Washington: “It’s a city where being rich counts for less than anywhere else, and being a journalist counts for more.”

The medium of exchange in New York is money brokered by Wall Street. In Washington, it’s power brokered by the media.

You can buy the Empire State Building, which has no particular power, but you can’t buy the Supreme Court, which does.

Money gets you somewhere in Congress, but it has its limits.

How do you buy Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vote on the health-care bill? Or consider the recent scrap between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who called her to complainabout her no vote on debating the repeal of Obamacare. Trump had already tweeted his disappointment. Zinke and Trump didn’t understand how power works here.

The odd thing was that the Interior Department has nothing to do with the health-care plan, but it has a lot to do with ongoing public-works projects in Alaska. Zinke, the career SEAL, and Trump, the career New Yorker, were trying to wield power.

They seem to have forgotten that Murkowski oversees the confirmation process for Interior Department nominees — a process she announced would be delayed after the Zinke phone call (while denying the call had anything to do with it). Had they noted that Murkowski doesn’t face reelection until 2022? She has power over them — them over her, not so much.

Washington understands New York better than New York understands Washington, much as the South understands the North better than the North understands the South. In the same way, out in flyover country, America’s working class understands dinner-party liberals better than the liberals understand the working class, if they even know it exists.

“Deplorables,” Hillary Clinton called them — with their regrettable guns and religion, as Barack Obama said.

Clinton and Obama thought they had the power to dismiss the biggest piece of the electorate. Democrats had been doing it for decades, after all. Finally, the blue collars spotted a messiah in Trump, thinking for some reason that he had the power to save them. So far it hasn’t happened, but he’s a New Yorker, and New Yorkers have a tough time doing things for people in Washington.

The difference can come down to the most trivial details. Washingtonians noticed when Ivanka Trump, his daughter and assistant, wore an off-the-shoulder dress with what looked like a black bra strap to her father’s speech to Congress. Dear Ivanka, Washington is not a black-bra-strap kind of town.

Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s immensely rich New York husband and another top adviser, seems to regard filling out security clearance forms the way the late Leona Helmsley, New York’s Queen of Mean, regarded taxes: “Only the little people pay taxes.”

Kushner didn’t bother including a lot of the required information on his forms, thereby attracting the attention of Washington’s intelligence community and various departments and committees of law enforcement and investigation.

But why would a New Yorker worry about these people? Trump had dismissed them as incompetent leakers, never seeming to realize that the intelligence community has no money but does have immense power. It has something on everyone. Didn’t Trump ever wonder how J. Edgar Hoover held power as FBI director for all those decades?

For half a century since I came down from New York myself, I’ve watched New Yorkers arrive. They think they have all the answers. (I thought I did, too, for a while.) You never hear them ask: “When you’ve had this problem before, how have you solved it?” After a while they begin to sense they don’t have the power they thought they’d have, the way Northerners are appalled to discover that those big Southern smiles aren’t inviting them in. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 August 2017 at 6:49 pm

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