Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fox Tales

Here we go again...
The folks over at Fox News, no strangers to journalistic faux pas, slipped on another reportorial banana peel recently while recounting the horrors of the government shutdown.
Anna Kooiman, one of those interchangeable blond-haired, doe-eyed commentators that populate the network, said on an episode of “Fox and Friends” that “We’re going to talk a little bit later in the show, too, about some things that are continuing to be funded and President Obama has offered to pay out of his own pocket for the Museum of Muslim Culture, out of his own pocket.”
Shocking? Controversial? Outrageous? Redundant? Yes. But true? No.
It seems Ms. Kooiman swallowed hook, line and sinker a story produced by something called the National Reporter, which publishes satire, not news. She later apologized, blaming “poor research.”
If you look up Museum of Muslim Culture on the Internet, you’ll discover almost instantly that it’s located in Jackson, Miss., and receives no government funding whatsoever. That’s the kind of “research” a fifth-grader could do.
And then there’s this: If the president had in fact bankrolled a Muslim cultural center out of his own pocket during a government shutdown that saw national parks and monuments closed, it would have been front-page news in every major newspaper in the country and the lead story on every network news telecast. Tea Party members would have been marching on the White House with pitchforks and torches.
It wasn’t. And they didn’t. Does that raise a red flag? It should have.
Of course, this is the same network that initially got the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare wrong and whose affiliate in the Bay Area breathlessly announced that the names of the pilots whose Asiana passenger jet crashed in San Francisco were “Som Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Low.”
So much for high journalistic standards.
Lest we be guilty of picking on Fox, it isn’t the only guilty party.
Iran’s partially state-run Fars News Agency not only believed a piece in The Onion claiming that rural Americans preferred President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over President Barack Obama, Fars actually plagiarized it — putting the story up on its website and claiming it as its own.
A satirical piece claiming that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas went into a shouting tirade after a Hooters restaurant refused to accept his government expense account credit card as payment for a $53 tab spread like wildfire over social media.
A faked story claimed a study conducted by the World Health Organization predicted that blond hair soon wouldn’t exist in the human population. The last natural blond would be born in Finland sometime over the next two centuries. There was no such study. Yet it was reported as fact on ABC, CNN and the London Daily Mail.
What to make of all this? It appears in the headlong rush to embrace social media along with its “citizen journalists,” bloggers and tweeters, critical thinking skills have been left in the dust.
The first rule of Journalism 101, at least the way I learned it, was to question everything. It may make you something of a skeptic but at least you won’t be apologizing for reporting satire as fact.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s the same skill set we use on used car salesmen and Scientologists.
Of course, it could be that Fox News, which we could charitably describe as being a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, has no interest in verifying anything that may discredit the Democrats. It would seem they believe that if it embarrasses President Obama, put it on the air and sweep the consequences under the rug.
Additionally, social media has proven that people believe what they want to believe, rational debate notwithstanding. I have received hundreds of emails over the years that purport to prove that Obama is an American-hating Muslim, aliens walk among us and that backyard barbecues can melt your contact lenses. All urged me to “pass this along.”
Indeed, an entire cottage industry has emerged on the Internet of websites that do nothing but expose myths and shed the light of truth on urban legends.
Mark Twain, a man who was not above spreading a myth or two in his day, said this: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
If he could only see us now.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Throw the Rascals Out

Being a member of Congress must be the greatest job on earth.
It pays well. There are a lot of perks. You are powerful and influential.
And besides, no matter how petty, how shortsighted, how callous, how deaf you may be to the opinions and needs of your constituents and your country, chances are pretty good you will be re-elected.
More on that later. First, let’s explore just how the American people view this august body.
A survey conducted just this past week the Public Policy Polling firm found that Congress is less popular than hemorrhoids, jury duty and toenail fungus.
Which is high praise for a bunch of political mud wrestlers who have shut down the government while making sure they still get paid.   And they may yet may boot a recovering economy back into recession.
These new results indicate a slight decline from a poll taken at the beginning of the year that suggested Congress finishes in second place to cockroaches, traffic jams and Brussels sprouts.
Want more? Congress doesn’t stack up well at all compared with other governmental institutions, a Public Policy report says. There may be long lines at the DMV, but voters still have a higher opinion of it than Congress by a 58/24 margin. Jury duty might disrupt your work week, but people will still take that over Congress by a 73/18 spread.
Perhaps worst for Congress is that it actually manages to lose out to the IRS 42/33 — there’s a big partisan divide on that one, with Democrats taking the IRS 59/23, but Republicans taking Congress 48/25.
But it’s not all bad news for Congress. It’s at least still more popular than serial killers (56/18 over Charles Manson), foreign enemies (51/22 over Syria, 49/28 over Vladimir Putin), and controversial celebrities (46/31 over Miley Cyrus, 42/33 over Honey Boo Boo, and 40/36 over Lindsey Lohan).
What’s even more astounding is that the Public Policy poll found that 8  percent of those surveyed expressed approval for the job that Congress is doing.
We can only assume that these folks are isolated wilderness dwellers, close family members of the elected or, as one wag suggested, non-recreational drug users.
So throw the rascals out, right? Well, not so fast.
According to one school of thought, these rating polls simply don’t matter. Tom Jensen, the director of polling for Public Policy Polling, was quoted in Business Insider as saying that low approval ratings overall won’t spur members of Congress to grandiose ideas of “compromise.”
“Congressional approval polls measure frustration toward the body as a whole rather than their own representative,” Jensen said.
“So even if people hate Congress in general, usually they either like their own member enough ... so that most get re-elected anyway. Most Republican voters who are unhappy with the House will still vote Republican next year and vice versa.”
There are other factors to consider, of course. A major one is that most congressional districts are gerrymandered to favor the incumbent.  Short of a felony rap, your elected representative ain’t going anywhere.
The other is that political memory is notoriously short. That gives members of Congress plenty of time to press the flesh and bring home the bacon after this current crisis, no matter how infuriating it may seem, goes away.
To look at it another way, we are unwitting witnesses to history.
According to the Gallup polling organization, Congress is well on its way to averaging below 20  percent approval for the fourth year in a row, and for the fifth year in the last six. The exception was 2009. That year, newly elected President Barack Obama was working with a large Democratic majority, which resulted in high approval among Democratic identifiers.
Prior to 2008, Congress had averaged below 20  percent approval in only two of the 31 years for which Gallup had data, 1979 and 1992.
Meanwhile, the rest of world looks on in disgust:
In Great Britain, the BBC said, “...  Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages. That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many  ...”
In Germany, the Zeit newspaper blamed a “handful of radicals,” stating, “A small group of uncompromising Republican ideologues in the House of Representatives are principally responsive for this disaster. They are not only taking their own party to the brink, but the whole country. Unfortunately the leadership of this party has neither had the courage nor the backbone to put them in their place.”
The last and best assessment comes from the French.  Le  Monde called the shutdown “grotesque” and on its editorial page, dramatically lamented, “Jefferson, wake up, they’ve gone crazy!”