July 23, 2011
So, the politics of abortion can get worse

As I hang out with Mrs. Prof as she recovers from giving birth, I am spending an inordinate amount of time web surfing, even for me. (At least I am today, since I got a decent night’s sleep last night!)  As I was reading an editorial-aggregation site, I ran across an editorial from a FOX News contributor on health issues, Dr. Keith Ablow. His piece was titled, “Men Should be Allowed to Veto Abortions.”

Ablow offers a rationale—one I am not convinced by, but a rationale none the less—but his argument is neatly summarized in his editorial’s last paragraph:

"It’s time to give men their due as fathers—from the moment of conception. Allow men who want to be fathers, and who could be good parents, to compel the women they impregnate to bring their children to term."

So yes, everyone, the politics of abortion, as tough and vicious as they already are, can get much, much worse.

April 26, 2011

From Media Matters: Fox News’ Shepherd Smith has kindly confirmed that Barack Obama is a US citizen. I am sure this will put an end to the whole matter.


July 23, 2010
The REAL lesson of the Shirley Sherrod story

So it turns out that a blogger edited a speech given by a mid level Department of Agriculture employee in a way that made her look like a racist. He released the doctored account, and a media feeding frenzy ensued, led by FOX News. Notably, the blogger is explicit about his intent in presenting the out-of-context tape: he intended to attack the NAACP, where Ms. Sherrod spoke, because the NAACP had accused elements of the tea party movement of being racists. 

As it happens, I was only tangentially aware of this when the story broke: I was traveling in Wisconsin, and when I listened to the broadcast of her comments on FOX radio, I couldn’t hear a thing for all the mike feedback.

Then, in the kind of piling on and gut check reactions that so characterize political life today, Ms. Sherrod got fired by her boss and got publicly upbraided by the President of the United States. Not, to say the least, how any of us might wish to be fired—if we were going to be fired.

Notably, both Secretary Vilsack and President Obama, through their spokespeople, claimed to be proud of their swift action in eliminating a racist from the Department of Agriculture. Indeed, one admitted that firing Ms. Sherrod was proactively required by the media environment today: waiting to discuss the issue, or otherwise taking time to assess what she said and why she said it, was expected to create a media firestorm. Firing Ms. Sherrod would, it was assumed, kill the story instantly.

Ah, sweet irony: Ms Sherrod’s story was taken wildly out of context, and she was not only not a racist, she was the kind of real world hero who both helped a farmer she had racist feelings about, and engaged in the kind of personal soul searching that, at its best, makes all of us better persons. Firing her to kill the story in fact only added fuel to the fire and turned an embarrassment into a nightmare. The Obama administration was, as they say, hoisted on its own petard.

But here’s the thing: what happened to Shirley Sherrod is the inevitable result of the political media culture we’ve built today. One seeks to be first with a story so that people at large click on your site to find out what’s going on. The more outrageous the better; facts and complicated contexts disappear in a haze of ginned up “events” of alleged depth and meaning. As attention to the “story” builds, “mainstream media” (whatever they are) note the attention paid to it and report it—perhaps obliquely, in the style of “we don’t know if this is true, but lots of people are talking about it,” but now often directly—e.g., “Shirley Sherrod got fired for making racist statements.” Partisans of each side find reinforcement of heir points of views in their niche casted web sites and news outlets. Gawumph: “news.”

It happened to Shirley Sherrod. It happened with the ACORN “pimp tapes.” It happens when Photoshop is used to “make a point” in a campaign or a rally. It is the way we make “news” today.

So will we change it? In the future will we, as President Obama suggested, take the time we need to find out the facts of the case before making judgments and taking action? Will we, in other words, look before we leap in this modern era of instantaneous communication and global competition?

I’ll put my answer this way: if you think the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

April 1, 2010
Missing the point

So the big buzz of the day is, LL Cool J doesn’t want an interview he did a few years ago to shown on Sarah Palin’s debut special on FOX, “Real American Stories.” 

The promo materials for “Real American Stories” have trumpeted the fact that Sarah Palin would be talking to various people about their struggles to succeed against long odds and personal struggles.  This is exactly the kind of schlocky human interest story stuff one imagines Palin excelling at: the Horatio Alger story updated to modern times. It’s a slow pitch right through the middle of her strike zone.

Much of the coverage of this matter has focused on the political: that LL Cool J is a rapper/actor and presumptive liberal and does not want to be associated with Palin on FOX.  Which may all be well and true, but really misses the point: that Sarah Palin isn’t actually interviewing 2 “guests” on her show at all.  Instead, material LL Cool J and the country music singer Toby Keith taped years ago for other interviews is being “repurposed”—FOX’s phrase—to fit Palin’s show.

This is sampling gone wild.  We have now reached a point in our digital age where one can claim to be doing a newsworthy interview without ever talking to the person you are interviewing.  The next obvious step is to not bother to wait for the interviewees’ answers.  One can simply insert the desired answer in the appropriate place.

Of course, we’ve sort of been doing THAT for years.  But we’ve been doing it on the “fake” news, not the “real” stuff.

Pandora opened a box, and evil came to the world.  We can only hope that now that the threshold between real and fake news appears to have eroded entirely, we are smart enough to recognize the difference.