Does Harry Reid keep bills from coming up for a vote?

Every Republican sHarry_Reid_official_portrait_2009_cropenator quoted in this article from The Hill says that they had to insert some measures into the National Defense Authorization Act because Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader (for a few more hours) has been preventing bills from coming to the floor. However, there is no context, no information tell the reader whether or not that’s true.

Talking points are just that, an easy soundbite intended to be repeated over and over so that people will remember and come to accept it as true, because they have heard it a lot. Talking points are often not true, and almost always over-simplified even when they do contain some truth. In this case, Reid has blocked a lot of bills, but is it more than Republicans who have held the same position? Are there reasons such as poison-pill amendments that make otherwise good legislation unacceptable?

Adding that kind of context would make the article more useful for the reader. Given that the explanation for adding public lands amendments to the NDAA is Reid’s alleged contrariness, it would be directly relevant.

There is more to journalism than transcribing quotes, folks.


New York Times’ David Carr and the business of journalism

The challenges that the Internet has created for the traditional journalism business model is old news by now, but the New York Times’ David Carr details some of the tactics newspapers are trying to cut costs, such as buyouts, layoffs and paying reporters in gift cards for taking double-duty as delivery drivers.

So far, the only one of these phenomena I’ve encountered is layoffs—I’ve lost two jobs in 11 years to cost-cutting, and seen the same thing happen to dozens of colleagues over the years. There is no doubt, though, that times are hard for ink-on-paper businesses. (I am not sure that will always be the case, but it is for now.)

Journalism is an industry struggling to adapt to the new era; as I see it, there are two possible solutions.

Option One is give up allegiance to print. If the world is getting its news online, that’s where you need to give it to them. The downside of this, as traditionally print operations are finding when they try to do this, is that online journalism as both much more competitive (many more people able to enter the field, as Carr explains) and much less profitable.

Option Two is make your print material exclusive, valuable and not freely available online. The downside of this is that it won’t work for a daily newspaper. It would be next to impossible to create material regarding local news that is so exclusive and unique that it entices any significant number of people to pay for it. It is a model that could work for more specialized media though.

The truth is that journalism is an industry in transition, and where it ends up may not look much like where it started. For me and my colleagues trying to survive the evolution, this is what the Chinese proverb would call “interesting times.”


This guy posted a screen-capture comparing headlines. What happened next made me smile.

While reading an article at Salon,I noticed that the sidebar was showing a textbook example of SEO-friendly web headlines (Rolling Stone) vs. clickbait (Upworthy). Take a look.

Screen cap of headline stylesRolling Stone’s heds are simple, declarative and most include at least one name. Upworthy’s are vague, teasing and designed to entice the reader to click through to the story to find out what the heck is going on.

SEO-friendly headlines are more likely to bring in readers from Google or other search engines (are there other search engines?) They run the risk, however, of making the reader feel that the headline has provided enough pertinent information; clickbait heds, by contrast, are less likely to produce search engine hits — they are usually spread virally — but may entice a larger percentage of people to go to the article to find out what it’s all about.

Upworthy-style headlines, to be honest, annoy me; but they are effective. More clicks = more ad revenue, so there is an obvious incentive.

In my years as a web editor, I’ve become acutely aware of how different the web is. Headlines might seem like a small detail, but in fact, the headline is probably the single most important element of the presentation. The headline plays a major role in leading people to find your content in the first place, and then to drill down from a homepage to the individual article. Balancing clarity (good for search engines) with intrigue (good for encouraging click-throughs) is a constant challenge.


Ben Bradlee: No safe line except the truth

If you are a journalist of a certain age, you were almost certainly inspired by the figures of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men. Bradlee will forever look like Jason Robards in my imagination, but it is true his portrayal in the book and movie made an impression on me.

At Bradlee’s funeral, Carl Bernstein said: “We live now in an era when too many of us run afraid. . . . The dominant political and media cultures [are] too often geared to the lowest common denominator: Make noise, get eyeballs . . . manufacture as much controversy as can be ginned up. Ben lived and worked in an ungerrymandered world. He lived off the main road. There was no safe line except the truth.”


Who quackwatches Quackwatch? A case study in fallacy.

This article, by Dr. Dwight Lundell, challenges the conventional wisdom about cholesterol and its relationship to heart disease. What he says is nothing new to me, I’ve been reading up on this for a while and a growing number of doctors are questioning or outright rejecting the long-held assumptions. (Read the article for the details—that’s not my purpose here.)

Lundell was a heart surgeon for about 25 years and bases his conclusions in part on his observations of various patients.

On QuackWatch appears this article, by Dr. Stephen Barrett, titled “A Skeptical Look at Dwight Lundell, M.D.” Barrett’s goal is to undermine Lundell’s arguments about cholesterol.

Barrett challenges Lundell’s credibility with two lines of argument:

Lundell was disciplined several times during his time as a surgeon for lapses in treatment, mostly related to inadequate record-keeping, but also inadequate post-operative care of a patient in at least one case;

Lundell experienced some financial trouble, and pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

These arguments might undermine Lundell’s abilities as a clinician, or in the paperwork requirements of medical care, and they certainly suggest you would prefer not to lend him money. But they say absolutely nothing about his thoughts on cholesterol, inflammation and diet.

Barrett’s argument is nothing but ad hominem, that is, an attack on the other person’s character rather than an actual refutation of his case. If everything Barrett says is true, and he has the citations to validate his allegations, then we can agree that Lundell has some serious character flaws. However, that proves absolutely nothing about the validity of his science.

Ad hominem arguments are designed to cast an opponent in a bad light so that an audience will tend to doubt or disregard his position on the relevant issue even though there has been no evidence presented that addresses that position. It is a tactic adopted most often by those who have no real evidence to present.


The Ferguson Crackdown

If you doubt the value of a free press, consider the assault on the media covering the tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, this week.

The situation was very tense there for days after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a local police officer, for unclear reasons. As the community began to protest, the St. Louis County Police rolled in with military gear, unnecessarily escalating the situation enormously.

The only reason we know about any of that is because reporters were on the ground covering it. The police did all they could to prevent them from fulfilling their mission of informing the public, including briefly arresting a couple and firing tear gas at an Al Jazeera camera crew.

I am sure there are some who would welcome a media blackout so that the heavy-handed militarized police could do whatever they wanted with impunity. Those people, I argue, don’t understand how America is supposed to work.


What Isn’t Said

Liberal media bias? Try this on:

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and Fox News both report on a mayor upset about the closure of the hospital in his small North Carolina town, which resulted in the death of a heart attack victim.

Both reports link the closure to the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.”

savesignHowever, to read the Fox Report, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mayor Adam O’Neal blames the law and the president. O’Neal is a Republican and no fan of the ACA. The Fox News piece is headlined “North Carolina mayor walks to Washington to bring focus to ObamaCare’s effect on rural hospitals.”

However, the Fox piece omits some very important information that puts the mayor’s objections into context. As Milbank reports, his real objection is to his state’s Republican leaders who refused to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion.

Milbank: “If the governor and the legislature don’t want to accept Medicaid expansion, they need to come up with another program to assure that rural hospitals don’t close,” the 45-year-old mayor said. Otherwise, he continued, “they’re allowing people to die to prove a point. That is wrong, and I’m not going to be a party to that.”

Fox: A North Carolina mayor on Sunday was just a few miles away from finishing his 273-mile walk to Washington to draw attention to the closing of his small town’s local hospital and the plights of other rural facilities caught in financial bind created largely by ObamaCare, a changing economy and less federal funding.  … The mayor and others argue that an increasing number of small, rural hospitals have been shuttered since ObamaCare was signed into law in 2012.”

As far as I know, there’s nothing factually wrong in either report. But by correlating the hospital closures with the passage of the ACA, Fox implies a direct causation that skips over the part where the state could have taken funds to keep the hospitals open, but didn’t.

It is a form of manipulation I call “lying with the truth.” The facts are correct, but the careful omissions and implied connections weave an implicit narrative that is not at all true.


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