Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Oh, the Irony

March 9, 2011

U.S. Representative Peter King, terrorist:

[From the New York Times] For Representative Peter T. King, as he seizes the national spotlight this week with a hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims, it is the most awkward of résumé entries. Long before he became an outspoken voice in Congress about the threat from terrorism, he was a fervent supporter of a terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army.

. . .  A judge in Belfast threw him out of an I.R.A. murder trial, calling him an “obvious collaborator,” said Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist and author of “A Secret History of the I.R.A.” In 1984, Mr. King complained that the Secret Service had investigated him as a “security risk,” Mr. Moloney said.

I wonder how much money he’s either directly or indirectly helped send to those murderous thugs. That might be worthy of an investigation — more so than anything this treacherous weasel is currently grandstanding.

Why WikiLeaks Matters

December 9, 2010

I’ll preface this by saying that my professional background was in journalism and public relations — specifically in the field of sports. I worked closely with newspaper sports reporters for many years, especially those at our local daily papers. What I’ve seen happen there over the past 10+ years can help greatly in understanding why an organization like WikiLeaks is of vital importance to investigative journalism and with it, the survival of free speech and democracy, no matter what you may think about the documents they’re releasing right now, and also why the current assaults on it are so frightening.

When I graduated from college over 11 years ago and landed my first — and so far only — “real job” handling communications for a collegiate athletics department, few could see it happening at the time, but a combination of technological and economic factors was emerging that had already sent the newspaper industry into a terminal tailspin, one that has only intensified through the years.

At the time, we had three local newspapers. Two were dailies; one ran six days a week in the mornings, while the other ran six days a week in the evenings. Plus, there was a weekly, larger, Sunday paper. It was an unusual arrangement, in that all three newspapers were owned by the same family and operated out of the same building, yet they all competed with one another for stories. Because it has always been a family-owned operation, our local papers weren’t subject to quite as severe monetary pressures as their corporate-owned brethren, but they were heavily buffeted all the same.

Those outside the media business might not know this, but newspapers never made money by selling subscriptions and individual copies. Their revenue principally came from selling advertising space throughout the paper, as well as selling small ads in the classified section.

Classified section revenue began to dry up with the advent and growth of free websites like Craigslist. You can’t underestimate the difference that shift has made in the economic fundamentals of the newspaper industry. To see the extent of the damage, just take a look at the size of the classified section in your local paper today, and then locate a copy of that same newspaper from about 20 years ago, and see how large the classified section is there. Every column inch lost, and there are staggeringly many, is revenue lost.

The other source of revenue, regular advertising, has dried up as more people began getting their news online through a variety of sources, not just (and often not at all), their local paper’s web site, causing subscription rates to decline. A company isn’t willing to pay nearly as much for a print ad if far fewer people are ever going to see it.

The effect of this has been devastating. As the years went by, it became harder and harder for me to get stories from reporters into our local papers as their sports departments’ staffs, as well as the column inches with which they had to work, shrank as a result of less revenue. Plus, as the sports sections slowly got smaller, less original work from their own reporters and columnists appeared in the shrinking space. Regional and national stories were covered by stuff picked up from the wire services increasingly often. In local sports, it was a lot cheaper to cobble together bits and pieces from postgame press releases I’d fax and email in, as well as post on our school’s web site, rather than send a reporter to cover the game.

Things continued to get leaner for the three papers until, finally, a couple of years ago, the morning and evening papers were merged into one. That unified paper was not any larger than the separate morning and evening papers were, by the way. Half of the space devoted to coverage evaporated overnight.

The result of this long decline is that the space devoted to sports coverage in our local papers over the course of an average week today has probably contracted to about a third of what it was ten to fifteen years ago.

If you think what’s happened to our county-wide daily newspapers is bad, you should see what’s happened to our very local, small-town weekly newspaper. Actually, you can’t because it doesn’t exist anymore.

So what the heck does all of this have to do with WikiLeaks? It’s this: if something as popular and generally non-controversial as the newspaper sports section can be so thoroughly decimated, what do you think has happened to investigative reporting and hard news coverage? How often does your local paper send reporters to cover things like every town council, zoning committee, and school board meeting these days? The resources to do those things all too often don’t exist anymore.

It isn’t just small-town papers that have been hit in this way — our largest papers and newsmagazines have all seen significant reductions in staff and space as well. You may think that there are plenty of other news outlets to take up the slack, but that isn’t the case. Television news has never had the capacity for investigative journalism that print media had. Let’s face it: money shots of memoranda don’t make enthralling TV that attracts viewers. Popular news web sites like those of Google, Yahoo, and AOL don’t generate much, if any, content; they mostly aggregate it from — you guessed it — the ever-shrinking newspaper industry. Most bloggers don’t actually contribute any new information, they just provide their opinions on stuff — I know that’s what I do on the rare occasions like this when I’m not fulfilling this space’s usual function of making erudite-sounding fart jokes.

Paradoxically, while the number of news sources has exploded over the last decade, the number of people able to make a living doing actual reporting has diminished substantially. It’s hard to imagine an organization like The Washington Post having the wherewithal and manpower to doggedly pursue a story like Watergate all the way to its conclusion today. You can think whatever you want about the content WikiLeaks is releasing right now; that doesn’t change the fact that, at this moment, they’re just about all that we have left that’s fulfilling the kind of large-scale investigative and whistleblower role that newspapers used play to a much greater degree.

And that is precisely what makes today’s hacktivists and news organizations like WikiLeaks so vital — they are what has so far stepped in to fill the investigative journalism vacuum created by the newspaper industry’s collapse. They’re the ones who are actually providing a platform for those digging up or leaking information previously unavailable to the public, putting it out there, and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s a critically important role in any society that at least fancies itself free.

And that’s what makes the current attacks against WikiLeaks so profoundly disturbing. I know absolutely nothing about Julian Assange’s personal life; for all I know the charges against him stemming from his personal life could very well be perfectly legit. What I do know is that we’ve never seen anything even remotely like the current assault on WikiLeaks’ operational capabilities, coordinated among various governments and corporations to try to shut down servers and cut off the organization’s ability to receive donations from the public.

For all Richard Nixon’s rage at The New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, he never tried to destroy their printing presses, get ink and paper vendors to withhold ink and paper, or get banks to freeze all the paper’s assets and thereby immediately shut it down. Even if he had thought of the latter examples, there hopefully wouldn’t have been a bank, ink supplier, or paper vendor back then that would have gone along with it. As reporting on the Watergate story mounted, nobody in the mainstream media called for the summary execution of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. And presuming such things had managed to occur back then, and that the perps had gotten away with it, what kind of world do you think we’d be living in as a result today?

But that’s exactly what’s happening today, and it’s happening without charges, without trial, without convictions, and without much of a chance of any of those things happening, because it appears no actual law has been broken by WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents it has received. WikiLeaks is a news organization, not a terrorist organization. If it becomes classified as latter, then so is every news organization that has ever published anything labeled “secret” or “confidential” — and that’s just about every news organization in existence.

I know that transparency in government and business necessarily has its limitations (for example, I wouldn’t want my income tax returns or bank statements published publicly, nor do I think would anyone else want those things happening to themselves). But that does not change the fact that what is happening to WikiLeaks right now is nothing less than a full-scale assault in broad daylight on journalism and freedom of speech by an open collusion of governments and businesses. It desperately needs to be resisted by more than just a bunch of childish, mask-wearing doofuses who think pwning a credit card’s online brochure for a few minutes constitutes “payback.” Salon.com’s Dan Gilmour explains why better than I ever could:

Media organizations with even half a clue need to recognize what is at stake at this point. It’s more than immediate self-interest, namely their own ability to do their jobs. It’s about the much more important result if they can’t. If journalism can routinely be shut down the way the government wants to do this time, we’ll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy.

. . . I’m deeply ambivalent about some of what WikiLeaks does, and what this affair portends. Governments need to keep some secrets, and laws matter. So does the First Amendment, and right now it’s under an attack that could shred it.

I Can Has Literacy?!

November 12, 2010

If ever want to lose your faith in humanity, all you have to do is read through the comments section for any story on any news organization’s web site. Every once in a while, though, you’ll come across a piece of news with a comment section that ends up being slightly more comical than it is purely depressing. A great example of this can be found in today’s MSNBC Cosmic Log piece about a recently completed study of the physics of how cats lap water.

While fascinating, it’s an admittedly frivolous endeavor, as one of its investigators, MIT engineering professor Roman Stocker, said. However, here’s the important sentence from the article which an astonishing number of conservatively-inclined commenters clearly failed to either read or comprehend:

Stocker admitted that there’s not an immediate practical application to the research, which was conducted with borrowed equipment and no outside funding.

I decided to italicize and bold the key part of that key sentence just then, in case anybody reading this right now also failed to absorb that pertinent detail.

Anyhow, here are some of the gems of dim-witted comments this article produced. To highlight the stupid, the screen names have not been changed:

  • JustPhil-2336414: “It doesn’t lead to anything that wasn’t already known. It was just a way for a group of scientists to get a big federal grant to study this.”
  • DT-2238463: “Did somebody pay for this research?”
  • Pat-506741: “And this cost how much? Seriously. I’m watching TV talk about the proposed cuts on Social Security, Medicare, Farm subsidies, cutting the mortgage interest deduction, taxing employer paid health benefits. And now, cat lapping? I can tell you where I’d start cutting….”
  • Hammy the Cat: “What life changing research this was. I wonder how much tuition funding this wasted.”
  • mipak: “This is exactly why America is losing it’s edge in research: pork barrel research on stupid projects like this.”
  • wb52: “I’m sure this was funded by a government grant……..”
  • OnTheRoad-1943197: “I am so so happy that this has finally been figured out!!! Yea! How many of my tax dollars did this require?”

Go back to flinging feces at one another in trees, folks.

Ironic Quote of the Day

November 3, 2010

“Government does not create jobs.”

— Rand Paul, immediately upon finding out he landed a cushy government job.

Quote of the Election Day

November 1, 2010

“Okay, ’bout half and half. That means half of you are stupid. Discuss.”

— Eminent TV philosopher Sam Puckett

Stupid Political Pressure Groups of Yore: S.P.U.D.

October 12, 2010

From the so-stupid-it’s-hard-to-believe-it’s-true department, did you know that in 18th century Britain, there was an organization called the “Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet” (the acronym of which, S.P.U.D., may or may not have been a possible origin of the English nickname for the potato)?

The group was dedicated to keeping potato cultivation out of the United Kingdom. Its members had, in their minds, iron-clad reasons for keeping the potato out of the country, like the fact that because it was never mentioned in the Bible, therefore it had to be evil. As a member of the nightshade family, the potato probably contained atropine as well, which all God-fearing, upstanding citizens knew was the substance witches used to make themselves fly.

 

A lot of potatoes.

The face of evil, from Wikipedia.

 

So, obviously, one of the most nutritious foods on the planet had to be, to SPUD’s members, completely unwholesome, and it had to be banned. They would also make outlandish and unsubstantiated claims that the potato caused rickets, syphilis, tuberculosis, and obesity, not to mention rampant lust and general societal collapse.

Exactly how an obese tuberculosis sufferer with rickets was going to be filled with lust is frankly beyond my ability to comprehend, but at least “tuberculosis” has the word “tuber” in it. I’m sure somebody on television today could make a big chalkboard diagram highlighting that connection and demonstrating how it all relates to moral relativism and socialist conspiracies devised by the U.N. and anyone who ever met Bill Ayers to sap away our precious, but strangely undefined, American freedom.

Of course, while these fine moralists were trying to block the potato from Britain as part of their noble effort to keep lust and hyperbolic Witchcraft at bay, other, less fortunate people were dying of malnutrition that could have been prevented by the tuber’s widespread adoption. But, the fates of the little people didn’t matter when there were Big Ideas to defend at all costs.

Eventually, common sense won the day and the sanctimonious fools of SPUD were consigned to the ashbin of historical punchlines, but it took some time to do so — too much time for the malnourished unfortunates of their era.

Infer whatever parallels between then and now you’d like.

New Pornographers Concert Cancelled Due to Stupidity

September 14, 2010

Calvin College, a Christian institution of higher learning in Michigan, has announced that a scheduled show on campus by indie rock band New Pornographers has been cancelled for no other reason than the band’s name.

Calvin College’s press release, located here, is surprisingly ballsy, saying:

Regrettably, Calvin College has decided to rescind its invitation to the band . . .   After weeks of discussion and consideration, the irony of the band’s name was impossible to explain to many [my italics]. The band’s name, to some, is mistakenly associated with pornography. Consequently, Calvin, to some, was mistakenly associated with pornography . . .  We regret the message we have sent to the band and their fans with this cancellation, and any confusion this has caused generally. We have been in contact with the band to explain this regret and the breakdown in our own processes that led us to first invite them and then withdraw that invitation.

I love that the school is essentially admitting that a significant subset of its constituency has turned out to be too stupid to grasp the concept of irony, and that Calvin has called out that constituency for refusing to change its mistaken opinions despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As a result, the school has found it necessary to apologize to the band and its fans for the influence of those deliberately mistaken many in its decision-making.

Note that there’s no apology at all from Calvin College for inviting the band in the first place to those who still mistakenly associate the band with pornography, and that the school continually points out in the release that those who keep doing so are, in fact, wrong.

There’s a broader — and quite ironic — lesson in here somewhere . . .

Frightening Fun With Voting Machines

September 10, 2010

Just how frighteningly insecure are touch-screen voting machines? They’re so insecure, it turns out, that you can reprogram them to play Pac-Man instead, without any noticeable exterior tampering done to the machine.

Two guys from the University of Michigan and Princeton University did just that with a voting machine that was used as recently as 2008 in the Virginia state primaries. In fact, in ’08, this particular model of machine was “used in 161 jurisdictions with almost 9 million registered voters.”

Here’s the truly scary part: “We received the machine with the original tamper-evident seals intact. The software can be replaced without breaking any of these seals, simply by removing screws and opening the case.”

If it wasn’t for the fact that the voter would be staring confusedly at a Pac-Man game on the screen rather than a ballot, no one using the machine would have any idea it had been completely reprogrammed.

At any rate, here’s the Pac-Man voting machine in action:

While that video was simultaneously horrifying and awesome, the next one’s simply horrifying. Here’s the same model of voting machine modified to steal votes:

Cartoons of the Day

August 15, 2010

Cartoon by Adam Zyglis, The Buffalo News

Cartoon by Plante, Tulsa World

Where Else but South Carolina?

August 14, 2010

From the place Jon Stewart dubbed the United States’ political “whoopee cushion,” we now have this:

Dog Brings End to Master’s School Board Bid: Labrador mix chews up petition with almost 200 signatures

Even your dog wants you to lose.

I bet he's a plant for the other party.

Of course this is the sort of thing that would only happen in South Carolina, the home of such impossibly weird luminaries as Mark Sanford and Alvin Greene.

At least the canine-thwarted would-be politician in question, a retiree and substitute teacher named Terry Thomas, has a sense of humor about his predicament. He now says he’s inclined to believe students who give him the old “dog ate my homework” excuse.


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