BRAIN DRAIN

Posted in Rants on April 18th, 2018 by Ed

In my course on Media & Politics one of the themes I harp on is the centrality of newspapers to American journalism. This is a point that needs to be made to people under the age of 25 because reading a newspaper or finding one in the driveway every morning are experiences they do not necessarily have. To them, getting news from a newspaper is what using the telegraph would be to people of previous generations. These kids, like many adults, now get their news from "the internet" writ large, and they do not have any clear or meaningful mental differentiation between the the website of a newspaper (e.g., New York Times Dot Com) and any other site providing news. The same holds true for TV news networks – CNN isn't a TV station to an 18 year old; it's just one of many places on the internet that offers news.

It is not difficult for them to grasp that the business model of newspapers in the current media economic landscape is…perilous. Physical newspapers have a shrinking and aging audience. Newspapers' websites are competing with internet-only entities with vastly lower overhead costs. And their costs are lower, of course, because most of what they are doing is re-reporting things from newspapers. Same for TV news networks and their online entities.

The problem, as I emphasize, is that the vast majority of actual reporting is done by newspapers. Browse the various online news aggregators and pay attention within the stories. They inevitably link to or reference a story "originally" or "first reported in" a major newspaper. It's not as if Slate is hiring and sending out reporters. Some of the largest online entities have a skeleton staff of correspondents (maybe a DC / White House person) but they certainly don't have reporters working, you know, the city hall beat.

It's an inverted pyramid; as newspapers cut more and more staff (either due to legitimate economic necessity or takeover by venture capitalist types who just want to "run a lean operation") there is less and less reporting. And that's bad, especially when the number of "media outlets" re-reporting the work done by actual on-the-ground journalists grows. It's like quadrupling the number of car dealerships, making them all sell the same car model, and then not producing many of them.

Check out this story of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his mid-action photo of a car hitting protesters in Charlottesville – a photo he took on his last day working for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The next week he started a job…running the social media account of a brewery. Why? It pays more and has more stability. While I don't begrudge the individual for choosing, as I would, the best paying and most stable career option, it's an incredibly sad commentary that our system better rewards tweeting for a beer company than producing iconic, sometimes world-changing journalism.

Mr. Kelly is hardly alone. Anecdotally, I know a ton of journalists (not including freelancers) and every one of them sweats out having a paycheck from month to month. Staff cuts and ominous meetings with the new managing editor and ombudsman are commonplace to the point of numbness. When the opportunity arises, they frequently switch careers. They stop doing real journalism and almost inevitably transition into more lucrative but (I say this without judgment) more frivolous work. Lots of kids used to grow up wanting to be a reporter like April O'Neill or Clark Kent; nobody grew up wanting to be a Brand Ambassador for a skincare pyramid scheme. Yet we all choose the latter eventually because we all need to eat. I get it. It's incredibly hard to make a lower middle-class income in journalism, a few high profile media outlets aside. I'd take the beer tweets job too, man.

In short, this is a totally unsustainable model. Almost all mass media depend on newspaper reporting as primary source material to endlessly repackage as "different" pieces as the ability of newspapers to survive financially (and employ actual reporters) shrinks every day. This edifice will collapse, and soon.

"IT'S AFRAID!"

Posted in Quick Hits on April 16th, 2018 by Ed

Extremely Neil Patrick Harris voice, from Starship Troopers.

Let's just consider the Hannity thing a gift. It is not substantive or important, but watching these idiots react when they get cornered is one of the few silver linings of being alive right now. For people who had to suffer through McCarthy, this must be what it felt like when Ol' Joe was on his last legs, done in by alcoholism, hubris, and stupidity.

Also, tonight was the first time I have attempted to watch Hannity in probably fifteen years, and I still cannot believe that people actually watch this. Imagine watching this every night. Think about what that would do to your brain after a couple years.

END OF THE LINE

Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2018 by Ed

In 2015 a Ph.D. and MD team of researchers published a paper, "The Myth Regarding the High Cost of End-of-Life Care," that struck me as very interesting. One important component of debates on healthcare costs is the perceived high cost of treatments that do not meaningfully extend life or improve the quality of life – the perception, in other words, that doctors throw every procedure and medicine available (at patient insistence) at people who are unavoidably terminal.

The Aldridge-Kelley paper is one of just a few proper studies I've come across that characterizes it as a myth (see also this University of Michigan analysis). Their conclusion that end-of-life costs comprise about 13% of all healthcare spending and thus is not out of line with common sense expectations is contradicted by data thrown around in every healthcare policy debate I've ever seen. In fact, a Medicare study argues that end-of-life spending on healthcare is unchanged over 20 years.

This is an issue, in other words, in which we seem to be influenced heavily by anecdotal evidence ("Well, my grandmother…") and numbers sourced from groups like insurance companies or issue activists with an agenda. Of course Insurance, Inc. likes the narrative that they're forced to cover pointless procedures on dying people.

In fairness, my take on the methodology of the studies mentioned above is that they all define health care spending in a way that is likely to under-count true spending. They exclude the cost of prescription drugs, for example. The estimates they offer could reasonably be characterized as conservative. However, their underlying conclusion remains persuasive in the context of the really big medical expenditures that naturally accompany the end of life – hospitalizations, hospice or nursing home stays, major surgeries, implants, drugs administered as an inpatient, and so on.

The news item about Barbara Bush brought this point back to mind. She's 92 and has reached the point at which she and the other people involved have concluded that she's dying and medical care is futile now beyond providing palliative treatment. And really, isn't that what usually happens? How common is this straw man really, the dying person who demands putative miracle cures right up to the very end?

In some ways high end of life costs are unavoidable. That trip to the ER after a major car accident and the ten surgeries that follow are the cause of mortality and they can't be distributed throughout life. Hospice stays and hospitalizations are other examples of incredibly costly things that aren't going to happen unless…well, unless you're in failing health. And for every single one of us human beings, failing health is a process that begins at different points but always ends with death. Many of us are lucky enough that "failing health" and death are relatively proximate on our timeline. Whenever it happens, unless we die of unnatural causes, it's very likely to be expensive. Nothing about that is new.

It is worth remembering that the available data does not support the argument that end-of-life care is disproportionately expensive. A cynic might even wonder if it is yet another attempt to blame the individual for spiraling costs of the ridiculous system – "industry" is a better term, in fact – that so many Americans in positions of power seem dead-set against changing. The way people use a badly flawed system is a symptom, not a cause, of those flaws.

THE SHIFTING STORY

Posted in Quick Hits on April 12th, 2018 by Ed

On short notice I did a take for The Baffler with probably the best title ever – "Attorney-Tyrant Privilege." Ha. Get it. See what was done there.

My adviser in graduate school was known for her work, which I've mentioned many times here over the years, on the "constructed explanation." That is, when an event happens in politics there is an industry of media and political insiders who work to propose various explanatory narratives. Over time, one or two of these are settled upon as "the" explanation. Similarly, parties as organized coalitions have a running narrative that, in the age of Trump, requires more regular updating than usual.

Check it out, I'm pretty happy with this one.

WE MUST APPEAL TO IDIOTS

Posted in Rants on April 9th, 2018 by Ed

There are bad arguments, and then there are arguments that are offensive and insulting in addition to being bad. James Traub offers up the latter in this widely-circulated piece from The Atlantic this weekend. For those interested in a more complete takedown rapidly written up by Jamelle Bouie, the title of which says everything you need to know about how bad the initial argument is: "Democrats Shouldn't Give In to White Racism." Kinda embarrassing that that needs to be said.

This is nothing new. We have been hearing variants of this argument from within the Democratic Party since the 1960s – "In order to appeal to the majority of whites, we need to be willing to throw minorities under the bus." Ergo, the more the Party does to stand up for the rights of and issues of particular relevance to African-Americans and Hispanics, the more it will push away white voters of the kind who (in Traub's words) inherently see the appeal of a "message of collective responsibility and common purpose." But they also, you know, don't like black people very much.

The last time we saw this strategy in practice – trying to build a white majority by pandering to racist tendencies and throwing minorities in the meat grinder – was during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Despite the near-worship with which many Democrats see him today, there is unequivocal evidence that "Welfare Reform" and "Sentencing Reform," two positions the 1990s Democrats adopted explicitly to steal the GOP's thunder in the never-ending battle to appeal to white reactionaries, have inflicted more pain and suffering on black and Hispanic communities than can adequately be conveyed in this space. Sentencing reform will, from the perch afforded us by history in a few more decades, be recognized as one of the most shameful moments in Democratic politics. And they embraced it willingly in a calculated effort to appeal to the kind of white voter who thinks the problem with this country is that not enough people (wink) are being locked up in prison.

The fundamental flaw in this logic has always been apparent and is never explained. It presupposes some additional value gained from building a *white* majority, as if one white voter is worth more than one vote. It makes even less sense here in 2018 than it did in the mid-90s given our changing demographics to throw the moral high ground in the crapper in a (likely failed) attempt to woo the kind of white voter who wants a social welfare system but is also kinda racist when as an alternative the Party could make a better effort to appeal to the 30% and growing of the electorate that is not white. Rather than, as Traub suggests, dialing back on the ol' equality for all thing in order to appeal to some stereotype of a midwestern blue collar white voter why not, say, try to push up black turnout by a couple percent by going hard on problems with racial disparities in policing and the justice system as a whole? Or maybe try holding out on DACA for more than two days so the nation's millions of Hispanic voters don't feel like the old, white Democratic leadership is always going to sell them out at the first opportunity?

Traub may not be a person who holds racist beliefs. I don't know him. But what he's proposing here is racist on a very fundamental level. It is racist because it implies at every stage of his logic that getting more white people to vote for Democrats is what really matters here. I thought winning elections and having a coherent ideology that differs from the increasingly batshit Republican Party was most important. Everything about recent elections – the huge numbers of eligible non-voters, the changing demographics of the electorate, the disparity in issue preferences between younger and older voters – suggests that there are more votes to be won by taking positions that appeal to the 50-60% of eligible Americans who are not voting than to craft shameful appeals to white "moderates" that require backing down on commitment to full equality for LGBTQ people, African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos, and other marginalized groups that should see the Democratic Party as their natural political home for some reason more compelling than "The GOP is even worse."

It is difficult to say which part of this argument is worse: that someone is proposing that the Democrats throw African-Americans under the bus for the umpteenth time to try to appeal to whites who want stuff from the government but don't like black people, or that even the most cursory look at reality suggests very strongly that it wouldn't work anyway.

DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK

Posted in Quick Hits on April 6th, 2018 by Ed

I'm very excited about this piece for The Nation. It draws parallels between the contemporary rhetoric around "race and IQ" and other forms of scientific racism and the once wildly popular "racialist" movement in the US. It combined three popular ideas – eugenics, scientific racism, and immigration restriction – into a stew of white supremacist ideology that dominated both high- and low-brow circles from the end of the 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

The idea that scientific racism was repudiated after World War II is a myth that, if at all, only holds true among elites. Belief that there are scientific, genetic, or biological differences that prove the superiority of white Europeans has never gone away. People merely learned that it was not socially acceptable to say it out loud. Now it's becoming more acceptable and people are responding predictably.

NPF: WHAT A DAY

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 6th, 2018 by Ed

I'm confident enough in the appeal of this story about a sports happening that I declined to use the "Skip This If You Hate Sports" tag.

First, a very brief dip into National Hockey League rules. A team forfeits a game if it does not have two goaltenders in uniform. This is intended to ensure that if one is hurt, the game can continue because goalies are not exactly interchangeable parts. You can't simply grab another player and tell him to play in goal, if for no reason more complicated than the dozens of pieces of equipment worn by hockey goaltenders having a custom fit.

A handful of times per year a team will suit up what is known as an Emergency Goalie. This happens when one of the two real goalies suffers an injury and is ruled out at the last minute. Ordinarily a team would call up a goalie from its minor league team to replace him, but sometimes (for example, a sudden onset of the flu the day of the game) it isn't possible. So, an emergency goalie is anyone they can put a uniform on and stash at the end of the bench to fulfill the "two goalies" requirement.

Note that this person is not expected to play. He's simply a guy who can put on a goalie's kit, sit on the bench, and if absolutely unavoidably necessary, stand in the net without falling down. Common ways to get an Emergency Goalie include putting a uniform on the team's goaltending coach (usually a retired goalie of advanced age), calling the local rec league team and signing the goalie to a 24-hour contract, or using one of the team's "practice" goalies (for example, the team equipment manager will sometimes put on goalie gear just to give the players something to shoot at during practice).

On March 29, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves with one injured goalie replaced by a minor-leaguer, Collin Delia, who was to back up the usual second-stringer. But then the backup injured himself during warm-ups, making Delia the starter and leaving the Blackhawks in need of a second body on very little notice.

Just an hour before the game the team reached out to a local Beer League goalie – I imagine a list of guys to call in an emergency is maintained – a 36 year old Certified Public Accountant and just-for-fun hockey player named Scott Foster. He was playing with the other middle-aged guys at a facility right down the street from the United Center. They told him that if he could hurry over, he could tell his bar friends that he got to wear a Blackhawks uniform for one night. He took a cab and they slapped an ill-fitting extra jersey on him.

Unusually in what has been a horrible season for Chicago, the team jumped out to a 6-2 lead with 14 minutes left in the game. Delia, who played fine up to that point, said he felt leg cramps. In a more important game the coach most likely would have left him in, but in a meaningless game with a big lead and just 14 minutes left, Emergency Goalie Scott Foster was put in the game. A real game. A guy who worked 10 hours behind a desk and then took some shots on the ice (probably with a couple beers in him) found himself playing goal behind guys like Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

And he did fine. Winnipeg (a favorite to win the championship this year) was coasting in a game they didn't need to win, readying themselves for the playoffs. So it's fair to say they weren't playing their asses off. But still, this guy took 7 shots from the best players in the world and stopped them all.

Not much has gone right for the 'Hawks this year, so they seemed to enjoy this even more than Foster did. He was named first star of the game for what will undoubtedly be the only 14 minutes he will ever play in the NHL.

Imagine being an amateur church choir singer and getting a call asking you to rush down to Broadway to appear in a show in an hour. That kind of plucked-from-ordinary-life storyline rarely happens outside of movies. It was fun to watch it happen, and something about the story was obviously compelling to all of us and our boring lives – every media outlet in the US, and a lot around the world in places where nobody cares about hockey, ran with it. Hell, Money magazine reported it.

Something like this could happen to you someday. Will it? Nah. But it sure is fun to see it happen to someone.

TIP OF NOSE

Posted in Rants on April 4th, 2018 by Ed

Listening to Trump talk about the southern border and Mexico makes it more apparent than any other issue (China and tariffs being a close second) how much the guy literally just says whatever he thinks of to get through the moment with zero forethought, ideology, or long term strategy.

If he's mad at Mexico and immigrants, Mexico has a weak border policy and Mexico sucks.

If he's mad at the American political system and immigrants, Mexico has a strong border policy and Congress won't equal it.

As was blatantly obvious before the election, there is no policy, no *anything* lending coherence to these outbursts. He says whatever will square with, at most, his previous four or five sentences, and then moves on. It's like writing non-canon fan fiction; as soon as that rant is over, it's like nothing that was said ever happened. It's self-contained and has no effect on anything before or after it.

On the plus side, some of the "Never Trump" right-wingers who voted for him anyway are probably starting to recognize how useless all their theories about how he would grow into the office were.

Oh, who are we kidding. They don't reflect on their decisions.

A PRINCIPLED WELCOME

Posted in Rants on April 2nd, 2018 by Ed

Americans seem all to grasp the plot of 1984 and other dystopian depictions of the omniscient surveillance state while, unsurprisingly, learning entirely the wrong lesson from them. That has contributed more than anything else to the modern dilemma of how to get the benefits of using the available technologies without surrendering our privacy to unregulated non-governmental entities.

A moron, or someone who knows what it is about but has never actually read it, uses 1984 to illustrate the point that we must be absolutely vigilant against any attempt by The Government to limit our precious freedoms. Yet these same people willingly, even eagerly, endorse the growth of an unregulated data scraping colossus dressed in the platitudes of the libertarian wet dream of a free market.

I have written many times that I don't express any outrage over things like Facebook, Google, our smartphones, etc collecting data about us because from the beginning I had no expectation that those entities would respect my privacy and information. Only a dolt would use Facebook without assuming that every single thing on the site is collected, sifted, and sold. That's how they're making money. I don't lie awake at night paranoid that my iPhone is spying on me, but I also expect that every task I perform with it is similarly creating bits of User Data somewhere. I don't enjoy or approve of it, but I recognize it as a tradeoff I am making. I reap the benefits of this technology and in return the companies behind it profit from using my habits to target ads at me or to sell to third-party marketers. Simply put, I'm not upset because I have always known it was happening.

The thing that people in general, and right-wingers in particular, have always misunderstood about the value of the sci-fi dystopia genre is that it was never going to be The Government here in real life. We'd never have a government forcing us to install listening devices in our house (as, famously, in the TVs in 1984). It was always going to be Big Business. And they were never going to force anything on us. They were going to make us want to do it, and to pay them for the privilege. So while Uncle Freedom and the middle aged patriots were putting on stupid tri-cornered hats and waving guns around to protest Big Government, the free market quietly began to do every single thing the evil government was purported to be planning.

Surveillance? No government could ever devise a system that tracks and monitors us as effectively as the one we've happily chosen for ourselves. Invasion of privacy? For the right price, every word you've ever typed in an email or anywhere on the internet has left a trace that can be unearthed. Control of the news? Look at what the President does with a simple, free Twitter account to lead the media around by the nose, or how state-sponsored propaganda networks like RT and Fox News have come to dominate the landscape.

Imagine the blood-curdling outrage that would result from the government forcing every news network to recite some kind of creed during every broadcast; yet when a company called Sinclair does it, well that's fine. Because it's not the government. And as long as it's not the government, the deluded logic goes, our Freedom really isn't at risk.

It is enough to make me skeptical that the right was ever really worried about Freedom and Privacy and Liberty at all, but merely the idea that the state or anyone else would engage in policies they didn't like. Because when the iron fist of 24 hour surveillance and propaganda comes from the libertarian or nationalist far right and free market – as it most certainly has – they don't seem to mind nearly as much. The First Lady suggests kids eat more vegetables and everybody loses their shit; one unaccountable corporation takes control of a huge share of local media in the U.S. and puts them on a propaganda script and those same vigilant patriots are either silent or downright enthusiastic.

If being oppressed by the state is so frightening, why is being oppressed by private enterprise no real cause for alarm among the fierce freedom advocates on the right? Maybe – just maybe – they're down with totalitarianism as long as there's no risk that it will express even a passing interest in advancing the public good. Perhaps the scariest part of 1984 in their reading was not the surveillance state but that the government fed everyone.