Try this at home, it’s fun

I didn’t mean for it to happen, I swear…but I was driving home and had the radio on—yes, terrestrial radio; sue me—and before I could think to change the station or to flip over to the music on my phone, there it was.  Like a regularly scheduled feature, I became conscious to the news report on what I think of as the president’s outrage of the day: the thing about which the president is feigning outrage and saying words that clankle off the ear as one tries to parse sense from nonsense.  In today’s case he was accusing Google and other Internet sites of intentionally skewing their search results to feature news articles which cast him in a negative light.  (It’s what we old guys in the news business would refer to as “bad news” from his point of view, and something that most people who live in the public eye know is coming their way, can’t be avoided entirely; Trump refers to this as “fake news” or sometimes “Fake News” or some other times “FAKE NEWS!”)  What’s more, he was promising to “address the situation without providing evidence or giving details of action he might take.”  Put that down as the shock of the day, right?

And it occurred to me, what would I find if I Googled “what the hell did Trump say today” and so when I got home I did just that.

I haven’t been keeping track of all of the surprising, strange, unusual, odd, bewildering, outrageous, incorrect, untrue, misleading, ridiculous, self-centered, tone deaf, racist, ill-intentioned things he has said…initially it didn’t seem like it was something that would happen very frequently, but then because I got so woefully behind the curve so goddamn fast it was pointless to try to catch up.  But I don’t have to, because Matt Kiser’s already doing it.  When I Googled “what the hell did Trump say today” the first entry returned was a link to What the Fuck Just Happened Today?, a selection of news headlines from Trump’s America with links to the source stories.  (Click on the audio embed at the top of that page today and listen to a bit of Shep Smith’s incredulosity on the “Google story” du jour.)

Other fun stuff for sharing today:

https://twitter.com/mileskahn/status/1033736771287351296

…and this, which isn’t fun but is important to pass around to as many as we all can, since we live in Trump’s America:

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#JeSuisCharlie

What happened in Paris this morning?  Well, for starters, it’s not about cartoons:

…this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.

What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count.

Read Ezra Klein’s essay.  And this one by Joe Randazzo, a former editor of The Onion.

If it turns out that members of Al Qaeda or some other radical “Islamic” sect carried out this attack, the saddest, most profoundly ironic thing about it will have been that the satire worked. It did its job. It so threatened its target, cut so deeply at the truth, that it resorted to the most cowardly, most offensive and despicable form of lashing out.

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

It’s about freedom—of speech and of religion.  Yes, I know that the people who committed the murders in Paris today probably aren’t Americans with an American’s sense of those freedoms—more the reason why people who do have an American’s sense of freedom should be spreading the message.

Where do we go from here

It’s been an amazing couple of days.  Thanks to leaks of government documents and the hard work of some reporters, we’ve learned that the government has been collecting data on our telephone calls—three billion phone calls a day—and essentially watching from inside our computers while we work on the Internet.  Government officials say this is for our own protection, that it’s a good way for them to gather information that can prevent terrorist attacks.  The programs began while George W. Bush was president, and have continued under Barack Obama.

I’ve tried to get my head wrapped around the rapid-fire revelations of the government’s massive system of spying on its citizens; not a rogue operation, but a system pursued by the administration and authorized by Congress and the special Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Courts.  I see that the stories are falling off of the front pages, but we need to fight becoming complacent about this Patriot-(Act)-ic intrusion into our privacy.

On Wednesday news broke of a secret order to Verizon forcing it to turn over metadata of all of its customers calls…we think this includes business, residential and cellular, and we think there are probably similar orders for other telephone providers, but the orders themselves are so secret that the companies can’t acknowledge if it exists.  On Thursday we learned that the government has been tapping directly into the central servers of the major Internet companies to access emails, pictures and videos, etc.  Late Thursday night government officials confirmed the program but insisted it is targeted only at people outside of the United States.  They even claimed that the programs have succeeded in stopping terrorist attacks, although that claim seems dubious.

By Friday the president himself tried to assure American citizens that these programs were for their own good and that we have nothing to fear.  He said, “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”

Really? Well, that’s a load off of my mind; thanks for clearing that up for me, B.

I wrote earlier this week, “We cannot be such a craven and cowardly people that we’re willing to let our government spy on us constantly and record our activities and our associations in the name of protecting us from terrorist threats.  If that’s true, then not only have the terrorists already won but the American example of an open and free society is lost.  What the hell would the Founding Fathers think of us if they knew we were willing to abandon our liberty to a government that assured us it is only looking over our shoulders and listening to our phone calls for our own good?”

Only the ignorant or the naïve have ever expected total security in this world, or absolute liberty and privacy.  That’s not the world we live in.  There are crazy religious extremists who are killing innocent people out of a deluded belief that they are doing God’s will, and nothing more than common sense is needed to know that we have to take reasonable measures to protect ourselves from them.  (There are crazy religious extremists who trying to turn our country into a theocracy of their own denomination out of a deluded belief that that is God’s will, and we need to step up and stop that attack, too.)  I have no doubt that these programs have some positive effect when it comes to gathering valuable information against potential terrorists; what I object to is that these effective programs are targeted at all Americans. Jack Shafer put it well: it’s not that I object to the government pursuing terrorists and suspected terrorists…

What’s breathtaking about these two government surveillance programs that the Guardian and the Washington Post have revealed is that they’re vast collections of data about hundreds of millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing and not part of any civil action.

And, “Ultimately, it will be about the government’s pursuit of all the digital breadcrumbs we produce as necessary by-products of day-to-day life—and phone records and Web data are just a small part.

Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn’t sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act that it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.

Warning: slippery slope ahead…

UPDATE: A short time after I posted I ran across this: the NSA suggested to the Bush White House that the government needed to reconsider how it could effectively spy on people in the Digital Age, although it promised to (of course) obey the law and respect the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Well, yeah…

There are also a couple of pertinent new tweets worth a look over there on the rail, too.

It’s still the economy, stupid

Any system that tries to make candidates for public office come together in one place to talk about what they intend to do if elected is a positive for civic discourse. This week the two major party candidates for president of the United States met on a stage in Denver to talk about domestic issues and that meant, mostly, our country’s economy. They kinda sorta agreed that the fiscal situation is bad and something should be done, and yet the only thing we clearly remember out of the exchange is a lame crack about Big Bird? This is why we have a problem.

Our government’s fiscal affairs are a mess, but the only talk that gains any traction is about something that doesn’t really make a difference. Business columnist Loren Steffy calls it the Big Bird Syndrome, “when politicians imply they will fix the country’s massive fiscal problems by eliminating what amounts to chicken feed in federal spending.” Even though we all agree that a federal deficit exceeding $1 trillion must be reduced—for our own good—the people sucking around for our votes are too afraid of losing support to be serious and specific about how they propose to solve the problem. So they tentatively nibble around the edges:

Perhaps we need to cut these programs because they’re inefficient or we don’t believe government should fund them or we simply don’t like them. But as a deficit reducer, it’s like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of Grand Canyon and saying you’re fighting erosion.

There are thousands of variables in this equation—spending programs, entitlements, tax rates, deductions, exemptions—and the Simpson-Bowles Commission did a great job envisioning how they might all be leveraged to make progress in reducing the deficit. That framework is still over there on the shelf waiting to be tried if anyone is interested…in Denver both candidates “praised the deficit-cutting framework” without “embrac[ing] the politically unpopular choices” it offered. (What, were the politically popular choices already taken?)

The U.S. government budget works the same as your personal budget and mine; it’s on an entirely different scale, but the basic principles are consistent. From time to time your family and mine spend more than we make, just like Washington, and it’s not always a bad thing: that’s how we pay for houses and cars and educations for our children, for disaster relief and war mobilization. But when we do it as a matter of course, as a way to pay for the “nice to haves” in our lives, and do it over and over for a long enough time, it pushes us into a pit that is damn hard to climb out of.

In that pit, we spend more and more of whatever money we make to repay the interest on the money we borrowed to buy the things we couldn’t afford but thought would be nice to have as well as the borrowed money itself. As the percentage of our income required to pay for the borrowing gets larger, the percentage available to pay for today’s needs gets smaller, and if we don’t reduce our spending to match the available income we have to borrow more to keep up. If there’s no increase in income, or no reduction in expenses, the process repeats and repeats and we spin further and further into debt. This is how banks and credit card companies and loan sharks get rich.

Paying back the loans is hard. Assuming you have no lottery windfall, it probably means doing without or with less for a while (but after you pay back the loan you have more money to spend on what you need or what you want or to save for future spending). That’s not to advocate for trying to pay off the entire national debt right away, but we can’t keep having such a high percentage of our income committed to paying interest—that keeps us from paying for other things that we decide are worth doing, or from reducing the tax burden (hey, how about that concept!). We can’t keep borrowing forever. Growth in the economy will contribute to more revenue without raising tax rates, but the economy isn’t growing fast enough today to make a dent.

This is still the most important issue facing the president and Congress, without exception. But I didn’t hear anyone on that stage in Denver suggest that you or me need to act like responsible adults and do the hard work that’s required: they have plans with lower tax rates (yeah!) and shrinking deficits (wowser!), with milk and cookies served all along the primrose path to solvency!!

They’re telling us what they think we want to hear. They believe we won’t vote for them if they tell us the truth: the economy is a sand castle near the water’s edge, and the tide is coming in…we all have to pitch in, sacrifice some, to protect and strengthen its foundation before the damn thing collapses of its own weight. And, they vaguely promise they have the road map to a solution, and drop only subtle hints about the condition of the road we’ll have to take to get there.

The next two “debates” between the candidates for president and vice president offer another opportunity for some straight talk on this subject. We, and the people who’ll actually be doing the asking in Danville and Hempstead, should be insisting that they give it to us.

ESPN: The Worldwide Sellout

A blind man can see that the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports is no giant of journalism, but the hype-pool of Super Bowl week is no excuse for the eyewash ESPN put out yesterday masquerading as an Earth-moving event of epic proportion.  It was pathetic; it was sad; and it goes to the heart of my belief that many in the news media compromise their integrity every day in covering sports stories, giving control over what they ask and what they publish to the players and the teams.

Loads of reporters have wanted to interview Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose great career came to an unexpected (and perhaps only temporary) stop when he missed this entire season recovering from neck surgeries.  They’ve especially wanted to talk to him since (1) his contract is expiring and everyone wonders if he’ll come back to play with the Colts, or if the team will drop him to save money and use the first pick in the upcoming draft to secure his successor, (2) the Super Bowl is being played in Indianapolis on Sunday, (3) Manning’s brother Eli, the quarterback of the New York Football Giants, is playing in this year’s big game, and (4) anything new to report on would be a blessing.

They’ve all wanted the Big Get, but Peyton Manning has declined the offers, which is his right, until yesterday, when he agreed to an interview with ESPN’s Trey Wingo.  But you and me, the great unwashed American tee wee viewer, we had to be sharp to notice that the interview was arranged through the good offices of Gatorade, which granted ESPN access to its spokesman Manning so he could talk about a Gatorade promotional event.  As such, Gatorade leveraged its position to turn a “news” interview with a hard-to-get person at a time when he’s even more in the news than normal into a commercial for Gatorade (Manning was interviewed with Gatorade bottles lined up behind him, for crying out loud!); as a business with a product to promote, that’s Gatorade’s right.

But it only works when ESPN agrees to the charade.  Check out the interview, parts 1 and 2.  I give Wingo credit for repeatedly trying to get Manning to talk about his injury, his unfortunate public disagreement with his team’s owner, and his contract situation, all things that Manning didn’timage want to discuss—all the reasons why he hadn’t been talking to anyone lately.  As for Manning—and this is particularly true in part 2—I give him credit for not straying from his intended topics.  But for a guy who is so good on camera in so many commercials and interviews, and when he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” I thought he looked uneasy throughout, as if he were seated on something not flat or soft.  When you think about it, that isn’t surprising for a guy who agreed to be interviewed but knew he wasn’t going to be responsive to most of the questions.  I’m not the only one he thought that the very camera-friendly Manning looked uncomfortable in this “interview.”

I’m not saying you can’t do an interview arranged by a press agent or a corporate sponsor, but if you put yourself out to the public as an independent journalistic voice then you don’t roll over (insert inappropriate sexual metaphor here, if desired) and let the flaks have their way with you.  This interview wasn’t live to air—ESPN had the time, and every right, to edit it as they saw fit before airing it, or not to air the damn thing at all if they determined that it wasn’t newsworthy.  What they aired was an embarrassment…or should be.

And then I think about Newt Gingrich, and the traction he’s getting complaining about presumptuous reporters asking uncomfortable questions during campaign debates.  (Jack Shafer takes him to task for pouting and blaming journalists.)  Gingrich is smart enough to know that asking hard questions is what reporters are supposed to do, and also smart enough to know that a lot of people will find him brave for “standing up to” the hated left wing liberal news media.

Remember, most people don’t see any substantive difference between the reporters covering the candidates for president and the reporters covering high school football.  When those people see that “the media” is willing to surrender control of the content of an interview and allow a pro football quarterback to hawk a promotion put on by his sports drink company but conspicuously refuse to answer any question of substance, we shouldn’t be surprised when they think it’s inappropriate “gotcha” journalism for reporters to ask a pointed question of a candidate for president.  And we sure as hell shouldn’t be surprised when the candidate exploits those feelings for his own benefit.

Thank you, Worldwide Leader, for your contribution to journalism education—the bad example.