Friday, July 29, 2011

More on Phony Balance, the Phony Crisis & the Phony Study

Yesterday, liberal columnist Paul Krugman returned to his theme of the perils of false "balance" in the press, particularly in coverage of the current debt "crisis," where, in the name of "balance," news reports have repeatedly presented both the Democrats and the Republicans as being at fault for a problem that is, in fact, entirely the fault of the Republicans:
"Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. As you may know, President Obama initially tried to strike a 'Grand Bargain' with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The [New York] Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter’s preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter’s preferences.

"But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? 'Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.' A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side--or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over--is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!"
Krugman sees the obvious problem with this:
"...this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault."
Krugman had written about this same problem earlier this week and his comments drew a typically stupid retort from Newsbusters' Noel Sheppard, who completely misrepresented them as a condemnation of a balanced press and even as a call to censor conservative views about the debt "crisis."

It seems at least part of this misrepresentation--put more bluntly, a direct and blatant lie--is, like so many others, official policy over at Newsbusters: Krugman's latest remarks on the subject have drawn another retort from one of the Media Research Center's muck-merchants, one that repeats the lie. This time, it's from Scott Whitlock, MRC senior news analyst. In Whitlock's telling Krugman "urges more bias" in the press, and is "complaining about too much fairness."

Like Sheppard, Whitlock tries to refute Krugman's characterization of press coverage of the debt ceiling by referencing a phony MRC "study" on the subject and like Sheppard, he misrepresents that "study":
"In fact, as a July 26 Media Research Center report found, journalists have not made an effort to be 'centrist.' The MRC found that 66 percent of network stories mainly blamed the Republicans for the debt ceiling impasse. Only 20 percent found the Democrats at fault."
This writer slashed that "study" into bloody, quivering sausages Wednesday when Sheppard first pulled it out of his hat; in brief, it's a phony bit of ill-conceived propaganda in the worst sense of that word, entirely dependent for its conclusions on wholly subjective judgments that are, to the extent that people are allowed to read them, demonstrably absurd.

Even if one accepts it on its own terms, however--and that includes pretending as if it exists--it neither refutes Krugman's analysis of the press coverage nor supports Whitlock's assertions about it. Krugman's complaint is that too many press reports are portraying both sides as "equally intransigent." The "study" merely asserts that press reports are blaming Republicans more than Democrats, adding up attributions of blame within a report and grading who was the target of the most such attributions. That doesn't even address Krugman's point, much less refute it. Whitlock's claim that the "study" shows that "only 20 percent [of press reports] found the Democrats at fault" is a misrepresentation--the actual finding was that only 20% of reports were judged to have blamed Democrats more than Republicans. Whitlock's assertion that the "study" shows that "journalists have not made an effort to be 'centrist'" is, likewise, false: of 202 stories about the debt ceiling mess, 56% were judged, by the authors, as assigning no blame at all to either side (their "conclusions" were based on only 44% of the initial sample). That, alone, is enough to falsify Whitlock's claim on its own terms.

But one can play with the offered numbers in an entertaining way: when that big, discarded sample is included, over 73% of the news stories examined were judged to blame no one, to mostly blame Democrats, or to blame both sides equally--146 out of 202 stories are judged by the authors as not mainly blaming Republicans for a problem that is, as I wrote in that earlier blog, 100% the fault of the Republicans.

And that's if one grants the absurd, subjective judgments of the "study" any merit (and that it hasn't any is rather painfully evident). Not only is the MRC gang unable to manufacture a phony study that convincingly poses as a real one, they can't even properly represent the findings of the one they do cull together. One could almost feel sorry for them, if they weren't such bastards.

--j.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Phony Balance, A Phony Crisis & A Phony Study

The current debt ceiling "crisis" has thrown a spotlight on a particularly damnable practice of the corporate press, the elevation of "balance" over accuracy. Columnist Paul Krugman issued an appropriately impassioned complaint about this yesterday:

"Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating--offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

"So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent--because news reports always do that."
Krugman argues that the press and pundits need to "break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault" in this matter because holding to it amounts to affirmatively misleading the public.

Over at Newsbusters, associate editor Noel Sheppard isn't about to touch the merits of that argument. He offers, instead, a fanciful strawman "interpretation" of it as a condemnation by Krugman of "balance and centrism," a call to "censor conservative views about the debt ceiling," an insistence that "the news media... only report the side he [Krugman] agrees with." Sheppard is both a profoundly stupid man and a chronically deceitful one--I leave it to the reader to judge which of these defects are at play here.

Sheppard seeks to refute Krugman by arguing that, actually, the big three network newscasts "have consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate" and he has a new study to cite that shows it. Except it turns out to be just another phony "study" by his Media Research Center of the kind the MRC is notorious for grinding out and it neither refutes Krugman nor backs Sheppard's characterization of it.

The MRC's "About" page asserts that the organization aims to prove the liberal bias of the press "through sound scientific research." It mentions science a few times, actually. Makes them sound serious. In practice, the MRC gang treats "sound scientific research" as some sort of liberal trick and steers well clear of it. Their standard game, when it comes to assembling a "study," is to invent some ridiculous, phony, completely subjective standard, one they engineer specifically for the purpose of having the press fall short of it, then collect all the examples of the press falling short of it and report these as "findings." The aim is partisan distortion and obfuscation.

In the present case, there apparently isn't even any actual "study" readers can see and to which I can link. Instead, the MRC analysts' results are recorded in this column by MRC Deputy Research Director Geoffrey Dickens. But even if we humor the conceit that there is some sort of "study" here, the information about it we're given is sufficient to place it in that dismal tradition of MRC 'studies." As Dickens tells it, analysts looked at every story about the debt ceiling from the three networks' morning and evening programs from 1 July 1 to 22 July. He reports their methodology thusly:
"Analysts reviewed each story, then tallied all reporter statements and soundbites which clearly assigned responsibility to Republicans or Democrats. If the majority of statements within that story assigned blame to one party or the other, it was scored as 'blaming Republicans' or 'blaming Democrats.' If the story contained a balanced number of statements, it was recorded as 'balanced.'"
While Sheppard used the results generated by this methodology to refute Krugman, a glaringly obvious hole in it--more like a gaping chasm--is the very one Krugman identified; the assumption that both sides are to blame for the current situation. If they aren't, then the reports the "study" identifies as "balanced" are, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of reality, not "balanced" at all.

And to be crystal clear, when it comes to the matter of the debt ceiling, Republicans are solely and entirely responsible for making it a "crisis" and keeping it one. Not just partially responsible or even mostly responsible. 100% responsible.

Raising the debt ceiling is a routine housekeeping matter for the government.[1] Failure to do so, however, would result in a disastrous default and because of this, Republicans, primarily those in the House of Representatives, have attempted to use it for blackmail, refusing to support any effort to raise the ceiling unless they're granted extraordinary budgetary concessions, concessions they wouldn't be able to get under the normal budget process. In their insistence on linking the current debt ceiling to the future budget process,[2] they assumed full responsibility for the present situation. The "crisis" is their arbitrary creation and they can end it at any moment, merely by passing a single sheet of paper containing a single sentence that alters a single number.

Obama and congressional Democrats chose, very unwisely, to negotiate with the hostage-takers and have offered up to the Republicans deep spending cuts, including cuts in "entitlement" programs, but because Obama's plan also involved some increased revenue from Big Money, Republican House speaker John Boehner abandoned the negotiations (while, in the Bizarro world of the nut right, the far-right press has loudly, repeatedly and falsely asserted the Obama has offered Republicans nothing). Democrats hold the White House and the majority in the Senate and the cuts offered by Obama are absolutely anathema to the Democratic base and to the overwhelming majority of the public as well, yet they were still offered as part of a compromise. As Peter Hart put it over on the FAIR blog yesterday, "by any reasonable standard, the White House and the Democratic leadership have made an array of drastic compromises in order to win favor with Republicans." The only reason there isn't a deal is that Republicans have been unwilling to compromise on anything on their end. They control one part of one house of congress but are demanding a capitulation by everyone else so complete that they've walked away from proposals so heavily stacked in their favor that even offering them could spell political doom for Obama. Again, the Republicans are entirely responsible for the lack of a deal.

So when the MRC gange comes along and does their little "study" and pretends as if a "balanced" report on the matter must equally blame both sides, they're shoveling the same rancid fecal matter they always have.

And there's even more stink on it.

The Dickens article asserts that, of the stories that assigned blame to someone for the current crisis, "the skew was lopsidedly anti-Republican," with 66% of stories "mainly assigning them the blame for the impasse," while 20% suggested Democrats "bore more responsibility" and 14% were "balanced."

Given that Republicans are demonstrably 100% responsible for the current mess, it would, indeed, be a scandal if 34% of press stories either blamed Democrats more or blamed both sides equally but there's no reason to believe these results bear any relationship to reality.

Relevant to Sheppard's attempt to use these results against Krugman is the fact that MRC isn't dividing reports that blame both sides from those that blame only one side. Those who carried out the "study" are, instead, dividing the reports into categories based on their subjective judgment of which side a report blames more than the other. A subjective judgment of a subjective judgment by people who are demonstrably incapable of rendering sound objective judgments.

If the MRC's long history doesn't sufficiently make that last point apparent, the few examples cited by the article as representative of an anti-Republican slant do the trick. Amy Robach and Ann Curry from the Today Show questioned whether Republicans were wasting time or putting on a show for their constituents by insisting on debating proposals everyone acknowledged had no chance of passing. Merely by asking what seem like glaringly obvious questions, they were both judged to be blaming Republicans. CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes was judged as blaming Republicans based on a story in which she reported on Democratic complaints about House majority leader Eric Cantor, even though she asserted in that report that Cantor was being made a "fall guy" by the Democrats. Most hilariously, ABC News' Jake Tapper is said to have "used the words of former Republican Senator Alan Simpson to shame the GOP." Simpson is, of course, a very conservative fellow, a die-hard Republican and a hyper-partisan to the point of rather extreme obnoxiousness but a report was judged as "blaming Republicans" because it included his views. And so on.

If that sort of grasping at straws doesn't do it for you, this next part will be a treat.

The MRC threw out most of its initial sample. About 56% of it. While the "study" encompassed 202 stories, MRC's conclusions are based on only 85--always a huge warning sign. 56% of reports were judged as assigning no blame at all and even if we embarked upon the fool's errand of accepting these demonstrably flawed subjective judgments, this is hardly the mark of a press corps dedicated to blaming Republicans. That number alone is enough to put the lie to Sheppard's claim that the "study" shows the press has "consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate." If we accept the "study," the press hasn't consistently cast anyone as the villain.

With what does this leave us? A manufactured political "crisis,"[3] a "media watchdog" that acts as propagandists for those responsible for it and a press corps that does things like this and faces only the complaints of lefty bloggers for it as it threatens to mislead the nation over a cliff.


Joy!

--j.

---

[1] During the Bush Jr. administration, it was raised 7 times.

[2] Raising the debt ceiling doesn't involve new spending; it merely allows the government to cover the spending congress has already authorized, a fact that, notably, is barely mentioned in press coverage.

[3] Albeit one that is a manifestation of a real political crisis--the behavior of the Republican party.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Newsbusters & Me, Part 3

The Media Research Center describes its mission as being to "prove" a "strident liberal bias" exists within the national news media--one that "undermines traditional American values"--and to "neutralize" the impact of this bias on American politics. In brief,

"The mission of the Media Research Center is to bring balance and responsibility to the news media."

At some point in the recent past, this was somewhat altered. The ranting about "strident liberal bias" and the rest was left in place but the current version of that "in brief" sentence reads:

"As 'America's Media Watchdog,' the MRC seeks to bring balance to the news media."

A wave of the flag, while all talk of "responsibility" is dropped, and it would be impossible not to note the obvious symbolism. It isn't that the MRC has changed from a more to a less noble mission--they never had any sort of noble mission in the first place. It's that, by dropping the pretense of "responsibility" while waving the flag, they're being a little more honest. But just a little.

The way the MRC gang goes about trying to bring "balance" to the news media is to complain about the fact that any views with which they disagree are given any time at all in the news media. The MRC dubs, as "liberal," just about anyone who offers any view that can in any way be interpreted as out-of-sync with the far right (as they define the far right, which they represent as simply "conservatism"). Of the articles that appear on the Center's Newsbusters blog, a large portion are devoted to simply complaining about the fact that someone somewhere offered a "liberal" (as they use the word) point of view, the implication being that this shouldn't happen.[1]

Today, for example, Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS News' Face the Nation, asked a pair of senators why, with the looming matter of the debt ceiling yet unresolved, the Senate is going to waste time debating a balanced budget amendment that everyone, on all sides, knows has no chance of passing. This drew a complaint from Newsbusters' Noel Sheppard. Though Sheppard suggests, in his closing sentence, that Schieffer was somehow poorly informing the public about the measure, he offers nothing to support that. Rather, his objection in the article is simply that Schieffer quite reasonably called into question the wisdom of setting aside a much more pressing matter in order to have a futile debate on a measure that, while apparently beloved by Sheppard, has no chance of passing.

Sheppard offered another example of this today as well. On "The Chris Matthews Show," the host asked a panel of journalists, "of the Republicans running for president, which one offers the best chance of becoming a great president?" None of the panelists picked one. Sheppard didn't like that. Mainstream journalists, operating in a profession that puts a premium on "objectivity," always tend to be non-committal on such questions and three of the four panelists simply dodged it.[2] Sheppard, of course, presents their failure to endorse as potentially great any of the candidates as evidence of the irredeemable liberalism of the press, which is a non-sequitur that both ignores that big, obvious reason they would dodge the question and presumes that no conservative could fail to find at least one of the 2012 Republican candidates to be "great." The latter puts a lot of Republicans in an awkward position--throughout this year, "undecided" or "someone else" has usually polled, among Republicans, ahead of any of the named candidates.[3]

This is what many--maybe most--Newsbusters articles are "about," mere complaints that anyone with a different point of view was given any time at all. That these points of view are so often alleged to be different based on willfully negative, counter-intuitive and even counter-factual and completely irrational "interpretations" bespeaks how little actual substance is available for an org devoted to exposing "liberal bias" in the press to cover.

While preaching "balance" in the press, the MRC gang doesn't practice anything like "balance" in the way they manage their blog. When I tried to sign up for Newsbusters, they took a month to approve me.[4] There were long delays, I was told, because they had so many applications and tried to weed out troublemakers, by which, from the composition of their regulars, they seem to mean "liberals who may offer something other than blind cheerleading for the team." Somehow, I slipped through but I didn't last long.

In my time, there, I would sometimes get pulled into side-arguments with the other posters but for the most part, I tried to offer substantive criticism of Newsbusters' work.

The regular posters there did not appreciate this effort.

The Newsbusters' regulars, it should be said, are some of the absolute worst I've ever encountered in all my years of poking through the right wing of the internet. Virtually every time I wrote anything, I was reflexively met with charges that I was a black-hearted liar, that I was a hypocrite and so on--basically any charge that would in some way discredit me. I was even accused of plagiarism, after I cut-and-pasted some of my own words. This was the response to every substantive criticism. More than half a dozen posters seemed to have nothing better to do than follow me around and append to my every utterance these same sorts of accusations. They couldn't, in even a single instance, substantiate their charges--the charges had no basis in reality--but making any sort of substantive case wasn't the point. I was a "liberal" (though I'm not) and to them, that meant I was, by definition, guilty of all of those things.[5] Their endless barrage of charges amounted to a deployment of the Big Lie technique against me and they seemed too deluded by their own fantasies to even realize it.

Whoever is charged with overseeing quality control at Newsbusters--very concerned about troublemakers, remember--allowed this to go on day in and day out. When, however, I offered a substantive critique of a column by MRC head Brent Bozell (the details of which are recounted here), my Newsbusters account was suspended and the critique deleted from the site. While I've been kicked out, all of those other right-wing posters--the ones who devoted all of their energy to libelous attacks on me and the few other liberals who managed to get through the filtering process; the ones who never offer a single substantive comment on any subject; the ones who act as nothing more than an amen corner for Newsbusters' writers--are still active.

That's "balance" at the MRC, the kind they give every indication they'd apply to the rest of the press.

--j.

---

[1] Even comedians making jokes about conservative political figures end up in Newsbusters' crosshairs (the writers display a particularly intense obsession with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart).

[2] The fourth, Time's Joe Klein, picked Barack Obama, who has, indeed, ruled as a Republican president in all but name. But Klein said he was a great Republican president and "great" simply isn't a word one can justify applying to the Obama.

[3] Two days ago, in the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, 58% of Republicans declined to express a preference for any of the Republican candidates, and of the candidates themselves, only Mitt Romney draws double-digit support (and he only manages 13%).

[4] This is in sharp contrast to the way the MRC's liberal, democracy-friendly counterparts handle such matters. If a reader wants to comment on an item from Media Matters For America or FAIR, it's a simple matter of offering the comment (at the FAIR blog) or taking a few seconds to sign up then make it (at MMFA).

[5] One technique that was constantly employed was a demand for "sources" for even the most incidental parts of anything I'd written, which I quickly learned wasn't a legitimate request for sources but was, instead, just another way of accusing me of lying--insinuating I didn't have any and trying to get me to stop what I was doing and go look up things that those demanding the source could just as easily Google themselves. Any mainstream news source I would provide was then immediately dismissed as "liberal" and thus "bullshit." The high-point--the low-point?--of this part of the saga came when, to prove some rightist figures had said what I'd quoted them as saying, I posted some links to the raw video and audio of them saying it but because this raw audio and video was archived at Media Matters, it too was dismissed as a liberal lie. Rush Limbaugh never made sexist comments at all, right?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Newsbusters' Newst Deal: A Depressing Lie About the Great Depression

On this week's edition of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," reactionary columnist Ann Coulter told the Nation's Chris Hayes that his mother, because she is a government employee, didn't have a real job and is, in fact, just "a drain on society." Standard fare from Coulter, a vapid cretin who has made her fortune peddling ugly, brainless insults to an ugly, brainless audience. Among that audience is counted Newsbusters' associate editor Noel Sheppard, an exceedingly stupid and perpetually dishonest man who, yesterday, felt compelled, by these personal qualities, to offer Coulter an "attaboy." An ill-intentioned moron praising a bird of like feather is hardly news but in the midst of it, Sheppard let fly a Coulterish howler regarding the Great Depression and the New Deal and I decided I'd jot down some remarks on it.

On "Real Time," author Amanda Foreman had asserted that "government does not create jobs." Eventually, a surprised Bill Maher asked: "During the Depression, government didn't create jobs?" Recounting this part of the exchange, Sheppard jumps in:
"Once again Maher showed his stupidity. The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.2 percent. After federal spending tripled from $3 billion to $9 billion, unemployment was 17.2 percent ten years later.

"Liberals just can't get it through their heads that all the money and New Deal programs thrown at the Depression did little to solve it."
The Great Depression only began toward the end of 1929. That 3.2% estimated unemployment rate is from the pre-Depression economy. Pre-New Deal, as well. The New Deal didn't begin until 1933, by which point unemployment was a staggering 24.9%. That's the proper baseline for evaluating the effect of that era's spending  on unemployment. There's a good reason Sheppard didn't use it--unemployment was dramatically reduced during the New Deal, and, in fact, never went that high again. By 1937, it had been cut down to 14.3%. A mini-recession hit in 1938 and bumped it up a bit,[*] but the massive government spending that came with World War II finally beat back unemployment, ended the Depression and, in fact, made the U.S. the most powerful economy in the world; the years that followed--years of largescale government intervention in the economy--saw the greatest economic boom the U.S. has ever experienced.

These are facts that dumb liberals and stupid ol' Bill Maher have gotten through their heads. It's likely that Sheppard has gotten them through his head at some point in his life as well and just preferred lying to sharing them with his readers.

--j.

---

[*] Unemployment, during that recession, briefly rose to 19% and in recent years, it has become a common practice, among conservative commentators, to compare unemployment as it stood at the beginning of the New Deal to unemployment as it stood at the trough of that recession and to argue that the New Deal wasn't able to accomplish much. A big lie but nowhere near the scale of the one offered by Sheppard.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Newsbusters & Me, Part 2

Yesterday, Terry Krepel over at ConWebWatch wrote about a comment from Brent Bozell, the head of the Media Research Center. Bozell was complaining about the criticism of crackpot Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann by Chris Matthews, the mouthy dunce who hosts MSNBC's Hardball. "He [Matthews] would never in a million years wage that kind of insulting attack on Hillary Clinton," fumed Bozell. Krepel points out that not only has Matthews "insultingly attacked Hillary Clinton" but at least two of those attacks have been reported on Bozell's own Newsbusters blog. In the first, Matthews had suggested that Clinton owed her political career to sympathy generated by her husband's philandering. In another, Matthews, in 2008, was complaining about Barack Obama potentially tapping Clinton to be Secretary of State:

"Why would he pick her? I thought we were done with the Clintons. She's just use it to build her power base. It's Machiavellian. And then we'll have Bill Clinton, too. I thought Obama didn't want drama... She's just a soap opera. If he doesn't pick her, everyone will say she's been dissed again, we'll have to live through that again."

Krepel leaves the matter at these two examples but, in fact, they're not only fairly typical of Matthews' very long-running series of insulting attacks on Hillary Clinton, they're actually rather mild compared to some of the other things he's said. In 2001, he told an MSNBC colleague "I hate her [Clinton]. I hate her. All that she stands for." Indeed, Matthews has hated Hillary Clinton since at least the mid-1990s and it is a hatred that has often seemed obsessive. In 2008, David Brock, the founder of Media Matters For America, put together a list of just some of the things Matthews has said of her; "she-devil", "Nurse Ratched", "witchy", "uppity", "a fraud", "anti-male" and on and on.

In short, Bozell's suggestion was, in fact, a lie of monumental proportions. A thing directly and brutally contrary to reality. Back in March, I wrote about another incident, in which Bozell bizarrely suggested that, at the time of the Iraq war, the press had been very hard on Bush and, by contrast, was allowing Obama a free ride on the Libyan intervention.

Liars lie for a reason and what both of these have in common is that they exemplify the agenda of Bozell and his organization. Purporting to be a "media watchdog," the MRC is, in fact, devoted to preaching to a very dismal choir a very dismal line, the same one preached by nearly all right-wing media outlets. It tells an extremely conservative audience that, though the public is with them, they are persecuted. Those carrying out the persecution are "elites," identified, in this up-is-down-and-black-is-white narrative, as liberal intellectuals, liberal academics, liberal journalists, liberal entertainers, liberal Democratic politicians or just plain liberals.[1] Politics is reduced to a simple contest between good and evil, with liberals filling the "evil" role[2], and "liberal" is the default designation for anyone who isn't identifiably of the far right on every conceivable issue--those so tagged are often, in reality, conservatives whom outlets like the MRC just decided aren't conservative enough or aren't conservative in the right ways.

This manufactures an incredible amount of politically useful resentment in the target audience--no one likes being persecuted--but its most important effect--and, arguably, its intent--is to completely destroy the confidence of that audience in anything that doesn't originate from far right sources; to beat back the very idea that there is an objective fact on which everyone can agree and to make momentary political utility the thing which dictates the audience's perception of reality. In their telling, the MRC gang and other like-minded orgs give it to you straight. Just about everyone else is probably an enemy with a malicious agenda. And they're always enemies--there's rarely any room allowed for any honest disagreement. Chris Matthews, by virtue of his sometimes disagreeing with the far right, is tagged as a "liberal" and from that, it follows that he would never use his privileged position of prominence in the press to attack Democrat Hillary Clinton in the same way he just attacked reactionary Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Cretin-MN). Similarly, the corporate press is irredeemably liberal and it follows that it must have been very hard on Bush over the Iraq war and, in stark contrast, easy on Obama over the Libyan intervention. It's all about telling a tale that is politically useful at the moment. Reality doesn't even enter into the equation.

The article that, a few weeks ago, prompted me to join Newsbusters was an Alex Fitzsimmons piece from 28 April that seemed a perfect example of how far-right media groups like the MRC generate their own little self-contained world and carefully keep out real-world considerations that could burst this bubble. Fitzsimmons was upset that MSNBC's Chuck Todd, in an interview with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), declined to blame the Obama administration for rising gas prices.

"After making excuses for the Democratic president, Todd boldly asserted that 'there doesn't seem to be any expert that believes' Obama could have done anything to prevent the price of gasoline from eclipsing $4 per gallon.

"Perhaps the morning anchor meant to say there doesn't seem to be any liberal experts who are criticizing Obama for not doing more to curtail rising gas prices: the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, offered the president some policy advice on this precise issue." [italics in original]
Fitzsimmons quotes three "experts" from Heritage. They recommend battling high gas prices by cutting back barriers to further domestic oil drilling. Further, "Wicker noted that he and 28 senators recently introduced a resolution to 'send a message to the president' in support of streamlining the review process for oil permit applications." Fitzsimmons adds:
"And just so NBC's political director knows, Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) joined the chorus of congressional opposition to Obama's squelching of offshore oil drilling."
Taking this a step at a time, there's a basic logical problem in trying to heap blame on Obama policies for $4+/gallon gas: gas actually went over $4/gallon during the Bush administration, well before Obama had even been elected and as high as it has been under Obama since Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives, it has never risen as high as it was under Bush.

Next, the idea that further domestic oil drilling won't significantly reduce the price of gas at the pump isn't, as Fitzsimmons would have it, a concoction of "liberal experts." It's an uncontroversial conclusion that is broadly shared by experts of all political stripes, including the Bush Energy Department only a few years ago. In 2010, PolitiFact subjected the question to a fairly detailed examination and came to the same conclusion. It's pretty basic math.[3]

Upon whom, on the other hand, is Fitzsimmons relying for his assertion that Obama policies are to blame for high gas prices? His three "experts" are from the Heritage Foundation, an organization that has received millions from Big Oil interests who would directly benefit--and benefit big time--from greater and easier domestic drilling. The total investment of Big Oil in Heritage is unknown, as Heritage is secretive about its donors, but it has received over $4.1 million from Koch family foundations alone--as in, Koch Industries, the largest privately-held oil concern in the world--and one of the "experts" cited by Fitzsimmons (Nicolas Loris) actually worked for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation before moving to Heritage.

Fitzsimmons approvingly quotes all of those senators who are beating up on Obama. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the one Todd was interviewing, has, in his political career, received $456,810 from oil and gas interests. Though Wicker claimed to have 28 senators behind his resolution, the link provided by Newsbusters lists only nine, but they're enough to make an important point. Wicker is one of them. Here are the rest:

Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska): $140,605
Thad Cochran (R-Miss.): $228,485
Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.): $293,300
Richard Shelby (R-Ala.): $353,200
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): $523,689
Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana): $807,844
John Cornyn (R-Texas): $1,734,950
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas): $2,141,025

The numbers beside their names are how much the oil and gas industry has spent on purchasing them over the years (all numbers courtesy of the Center For Responsive Politics).

To summarize, Fitzsimmons is advancing an extraordinarily improbable proposition but it's one that, if believed, would benefit a particular--and particularly conservative--industry, and while he completely misrepresents as "liberals" those who reject it (which is, in Newsbusters Land, a dismissal of their views), every one of his own sources has ties to that industry.

Of course, the fact that they're paid shills doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong but to put it as kindly as possible, it does make a strong case that anything they say on this matter is to be viewed by any reasonable person with extreme skepticism. Fitzsimmons merely reproduces their views, presents them as entirely credible and doesn't disclose any of the info I've just recorded here, while completely ignoring obvious drivers of high gas prices such as insane speculation and oil-company profiteering.

Is Fitzsimmons merely incompetent? Probably not. Certainly unethical as hell but he's hardly alone in that. In context, his article was just one of many. The MRC had, for a long time, been pimping the notion that Obama's alleged--and mostly imaginary--resistance to further domestic drilling was driving up the price of gas. Part of this has to do with politics. The oil industry is very kind to the Republican candidates favored by the MRC and this is the line the industry wants pimped. The public is very angry about high gas prices and has largely been blaming the industry (and speculators) for them, so there is a strategic motive for wanting to try to divert anger away from it and toward the Obama administration. The big reason the MRC is pimping this line, though, is probably the same reason all those others are; the same reason the MRC doesn't disclose that those others are; the same reason the MRC pimps climate-change denial: the organization has received a fortune from the oil industry. Since 1998, the MRC has received $412,500 from ExxonMobil. Fitzsimmons didn't disclose this, either. Neither has anyone else at the MRC who has written about this subject or any other touching on Big Oil.[5] All while they work to destroy their audience's confidence in everything except orgs like their own.

That's how things work at the MRC, where political fantasy stands in for "reality," those who pay the piper call the tune and those who dance to it never know the difference and probably wouldn't care if they did.

--j.

---

[1] This "elite" is never defined as corporate CEOs, business associations, investment bankers, the super-rich that have such a disproportionate share of wealth, their sycophantish mouthpieces in the press or their purchased lackeys in government or any of the other interests that, in the real world, actually run the U.S. A lower-middle-class workaday journalist is, by this narrative, part of an "elite"--the head of ExxonMobil is not.

[2] When I offered this analysis in my first "Newsbusters & Me" post, conservative reader Mark81150 objected: "No dude, I don't think the American left is pure evil, just knee jerk reactionary, authoritarian to it's core, savagely hostile to opposing views, and utterly unable to process irony or the hypocrisies of it's own positions." And, he added, it is "intellectually thuggish." A distinction without a difference, to be sure, but one Mark was tellingly unable to perceive.

[3] And even the microscopic effect further domestic drilling would have wouldn't take place for years, as it takes years to establish a drilling operation.

[4] Since 2004, the MRC has also taken in $15,005 from Koch family foundations. Not exactly a princely sum, but worth a mention.

[5] Climate change denialism was invented by Big Oil and has been a major project of the industry for decades; the MRC--what a surprise--pimps hardcore denialism, and no one who writes any of its constant articles on this discloses its financial relationship with the industry.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Reply To Mark81150

My first "Newsbusters & Me" post on Wednesday drew a pair of responses from a conservative fellow who goes by the handle "Mark81150." My reply:

In my original post, I'd written that "much of the American rightist elite has, for years, waged open war on the notion that there is any such thing as an objective set of facts about anything" You take issues with this and write:

"What we wage war on, is that leftwing OPINION can be presented as 'objective fact' a slight [sic] of hand the left has used for decades."

But you offer, as your only example of this, the matter of global climate change, which, you write, "is routinely used by the left to say the right isn't dealing in reality." You characterize this conclusion as "a very hyper partisan slant at best, an outrageous lie in truth." You are unequivocal on it:

"...when a leftists states global climate change is catastrophic and man caused.. that's an opinion based on some junk science.. not a 'fact'"

To state the obvious, Mark, you're not a scientist working in the fields related to the study of climate change. Neither am I. Neither are most people. For our info on this, we either have to extensively study the matter ourselves or rely on experts who have. Someone over at Wikipedia has helpfully assembled an article, loaded with links, documenting the world scientific consensus on global climate change. That consensus, stated in brief, is that climate change is happening and it is caused by human activity. The article notes an important fact:

"No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion; the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which in 2007 updated its 1999 statement rejecting the likelihood of human influence on recent climate with its current non-committal position."

Whether or not the world's scientists are right about it, that consensus is a fact, not "left-wing opinion," and people--even "leftists"--who reference that consensus--that fact--aren't offering "an opinion based on some junk science." They're referencing what the experts on this subject have overwhelmingly concluded about it, based on mountains of science that have been tested, re-tested, and re-re-tested from every conceivable angle and that get higher and higher with every passing year.

The near-uniformity of the experts on this doesn't mean those experts are right, of course. Science is never closed to challenge--that's one of its basic tenets. It does, however, place, on deniers what any objective observer would be forced to conclude is a staggering burden of proof. To support your own position, you, the non-scientist, would not only have to demonstrate those ever-growing mountains of science are incorrect; you would also have to believe that either the entire global scientific community is made up of a bunch of dummies who have, for years, been taken in by "some junk science" (that you're brilliant enough to see through), or that, without any apparent motive at all, they have undertaken a conspiracy to lie about it that is global in scale and that stretches back decades. Instead, all you offer is the claim that "there are a large number of climate change skeptics in the world of science" and a link to a Business Insider article listing 10 prominent climate-change "skeptics." Just ten. And even of those, some aren't outright deniers, not a one of them has ever published their "theories" about global warming in a peer-reviewed journal and some aren't scientists at all.

More significantly, several of them (Plimer, Ebell, Michaels, Happer) are de facto mouthpieces for business interests--big business interests--that would be negatively affected by any legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. In fact, the auto industry, utility companies, Big Coal, and most especially Big Oil invented the climate denial industry in the late '80s and have kept it going ever since. You complain that deniers are branded as heretics by "people who have a financial vest [sic] interest" in so labeling them, and trash Al Gore for making money from warning about climate change while you parrot an insanely improbable line that was invented and is wholly sustained by industries that have a direct and massive financial interest--their sole interest with regard to the topic--in having you swallow that line.

In short, this is actually a perfect example of how "the right isn't dealing in reality." Or at least of how you aren't.

It's also a perfect illustration of my own point, the one you were trying to refute.

Who is really kidding himself?

--j.