A Philosopher's Blog

The War on Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2016

One long standing Christmas tradition at Fox news is perpetuating the mythological war on Christmas. While it is not a self-evident truth that Christmas is safe in the United States, the idea that there is such a war is as absurd as the claim that there is a war on pizza. Like Christmas, pizza is liked (if not loved) by nearly everyone. While Christmas is not here year round, during the Christmas season (which seems to be October to January) the trapping of Christmas are as ubiquitous as pizza.

A long-standing Fox tactic has been to scour the United States for the few incidents that can be cast as attacks on Christmas and then elevate them into a war. This same approach could be used to “prove” that there is a war on pizza—there are, no doubt, a few incidents that can be cast as attacks on the truth and goodness of pizza. The problem is, obviously enough, that a few isolated incidents do not constitute a war—especially when the incidents tend to be presented in an exaggerated manner. What is rather ironic about Fox pushing the idea of this war is Christmas is supposed to be a time for peace on earth and good will towards all. As such, Fox seems to have its own perpetual war on the spirit of Christmas.

This year has seen a slight modification to the war on Christmas script. Breitbart and Fox recently suggested that a Jewish family was responsible for the cancellation of A Christmas Carol, which was supposed to be put on as a play by students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While it is true the family wanted their child excused from the play, the play was cancelled for other reasons.

One of the reasons is that changes in the education requirements set by the state make it difficult for the needed classroom time to be used to prepare for the play. This does point to a real problem in public education but does not constitute a war on Christmas.

The second reason the play was cancelled was to be respectful of the cultural and religious diversity of the students. While some might be tempted to see this as a war on Christmas, being respectful of religious diversity in the public schools does not constitute an attack on Christmas. One way to look at this situation in a different light is to imagine that a public school was putting on a play with religious content that you strongly disagree with. If, for example, you are not a fan of Islam, imagine that the school was putting on a play about Ramadan. Or, as another example, that the play brought back that old-time religion and glorified Saturnalia. If either of these plays were performed at a public school, Fox and Breitbart would most likely cast these incidents as evidence of the war on Christianity.

An incident in which one’s faith fails to dominate is not evidence of a war on that faith or its holiday. Rather, it just shows tolerance and respect for others. Going back to the pizza analogy, to decide to not have a strict pizza only policy for school lunches is not a war on pizza. While most people like pizza, making everyone eat it all the time is hardly fair or tolerant.

Since I grew up “acting” in school Christmas plays and watching them, I do have considerable sympathy for the view that something valuable would be lost if schools cancel their Christmas plays. One solution is to have generic holiday plays. Another is to have a diversity of plays around the holidays to expose children to diverse religious views and holidays. These options do have problems, but are perhaps better than cancelling the school Christmas play. Or perhaps not.

The untruths presented by Fox and Breitbart are morally problematic, but this is compounded by the fact that it was suggested that a Jewish family was responsible for the cancellation. As would be expected, there were the usual responses to this story from the internet: calls to identify the “responsible” family and to act. As many other incidents have shown, these sort of online attacks can quickly escalate into unrelenting harassment and worse.

This ties into a classic anti-Semitic narrative and is consistent with the safe-space that Trump has created for bigotry. While people who are not Jewish or have little knowledge of history might be inclined to dismiss worries about the anti-Semitism inherent in such suggestions, this should be regarded as a real problem. While it would be a slippery slope fallacy to say that this story (or other incidents) will inevitably lead to something terrible, it would also be a mistake to not be concerned about where this path leads. After all, this sort of thing has played out in many times and places and it is best to address such things when they are small. After all, it is easier to extinguish a match than a forest fire.

It must be noted that Slate and other news sites claimed that a Jewish family fled the country out of fear they would be harmed as a result of this story. While the family did express concern, it is now claimed that they left for vacation. While some might be tempted to accuse Slate and others of running fake news because of their mistake, there are two easy and obvious replies. The first is that there seems to be no intent to deceive people with a claim that was known to be untrue—Slate and others presented the information available at the time. The second is that Slate and others updated the report to reflect the new and presumably correct information. Correcting errors is not something that is done in fake news.

If the error by Slate and the others was due to failing to properly investigate the claims, then they can be justly criticized for not being properly diligent. However, if the error was not due to negligence on the part of Slate and the others, then this should be regarded as a mere mistake—and one that was corrected. Slate could also be criticized for going with the original dramatic headline about the Jewish family fleeing the country; but the main criticism should still be on the error. This one error does not, obviously enough, invalidate the rest of the reporting—the other claims stand or fall on their own.

While Fox News’ war on Christmas and Christianity myths have merely been annoying and stupid in the past, they have the potential to cause real problems in the year to come. I certainly hope I am in error about this and hope that Santa did not give America a big box of lies and hate for Christmas.


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Fox & the War on Cops

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2015

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.


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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.


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Opinion Over News

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2013
The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my critical thinking class I teach a section on critical thinking and the news media. One of the points I focus on is the importance of distinguishing between someone presenting an opinionated perspective and someone engaged in actual reporting.

Obviously, any report is going to be colored by the perspective of the person presenting it, but there are clearly degrees and important distinctions. It would be an error to merely assume that all reporting or opinion giving are equal-that is, that everyone is just as bad as everyone else.

Interestingly enough, MSNBC is the leader in relying on the presentation of opinions over reporting, at least according to this study. While I try to avoid watching MSNBC, the study is consistent with my own experiences with the network and there seems to be little reason to doubt this. Naturally, one can easily check on this matter by enduring a marathon watching session of the station. Apparently 85% of MSNBC’s airtime is composed of the presentation of opinions.

While MSNBC leads the way in opinion over news, FOX and CNN have also cut back on actual news reporting. Fox News is mostly (55% opinion). CNN is still mostly news.

One obvious reason for the dominance of opinion is that chatter tends to be cheaper than investigative journalism. Since news is a business and the business of business is making money, it is hardly surprising that the news corporations have slashed back their reporting budgets. Since they still have hours to fill, opinion segments provide the media equivalent of pink slime-a cheap filler product.

A second reason for the dominance of opinion is that such material can be more entertaining than the news-in many ways, the pundits at Fox and MSNBC (and to a lesser extent CNN) are putting on news theater that aims more at entertaining than educating. This, obviously enough, ties back into the idea that the business of the news corporations is to make money.

A third reason is that Fox and MSNBC are strongly linked to political agendas. Fox is, obviously enough, very closely tied with the Republican party. While MSNBC seems to be less formally linked to the Democrats, this could be chalked up to the nature of the Democratic party rather than a lack of desire to have such a relationship. As might be imagined, objectively reporting on the facts generally does not do much to advance a specific agenda. In contrast, opinion segments are tailor-made to do just that.

This dominance of opinion should be of concern for those who wish to be well informed rather than well propagandized. As might be suspected, I would suggest avoiding MSNBC-something I have done for years.

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Snookered by Fox

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2010
The current logo of Fox Television
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Shirley Sherrod was condemned by the NAACP and fired by the USDA on the basis of an edited video clip of her speech. This clip, posted by Andrew Breitbart, was selectively edited to show only what appeared to be racist comments. However, the entire clip reveals the truth.

Breitbart seems to have intended the clip as a return shot in response to the NAACP’s accusation that the Tea Party tolerates racism. The point was, of course, to show racism at a NAACP meeting, thus showing that the NAACP was inconsistent. Apparently Breitbart could not find actual evidence of racism, so perhaps he resorted to manufacturing the evidence by posting the edited version of the clip. If so, this is clearly a morally reprehensible act of deceit. If, however, he merely acted in ignorance of the full clip, then he would only be guilty of not engaging in proper research before posting the clip.

Of course, he would not be the only one guilty of a failure to do research. As noted above, the NAACP and the USDA rushed into action on the basis of the edited clip and not the full version. In what seems to be an effort to dodge blame, the NAACP now claims that they were snookered by Fox News. I would have thought that the folks in the NAACP would be aware of  the nature of Fox News. As such, they should have been a bit more critical. In any case, they should not have relied on such a limited number of sources. After all, such a serious condemnation should have been backed up with equally serious research and due diligence. To fail to do so is both a professional and a moral failure. Blaming Fox in no way mitigates their responsibility.

The same applies to the USDA. While it is understandable that they would wish to act quickly, it is clear that they acted far too hastily. The source of the edited clip should have been considered and, of course, the entire clip should have been viewed. Such a review would not have taken very long and both professionalism and ethics demand that such a proper review take place before a person is fired.

While the clip probably did not have exactly the effect that Breitbart expected, the situation might be seen as a win for certain people. After all, the NAACP took a hit as did the Obama administration. On a more positive note, the situation did an excellent job of exposing how poorly charges of racism are handled. I would like to hope that this incident will result in some positive change, but I suspect the lesson will not stick.

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There Was the News

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2010
Front page of The New York Times on Armistice ...
Image via Wikipedia

The news, it seems, is in danger. The most obvious sign is the fact that printed news media is not doing as well as it once did. However, other forms of news media are facing challenges as well.

One obvious factor is the web. Newspapers, which were having a hard enough time competing against TV, have not fared very well against this medium. Part of this is simply the way advances in technology work (when was the last time you heard a town crier or received a telegram?). Part of this is due to the  disease of “freeitis” that infects the web. For some odd reason, many of the folks driving the expansion of the web were able to sell business on the idea that they could make money by providing stuff for free. While this has helped Google (they make good money putting ads among all that free content), this has not worked out so well for the news providers. After all, it makes little sense to pay for news that you can get for free on the web.  Amazingly enough, few of the geniuses behind this realized that free stuff generally does not generate much in the way of profits without there being stuff that is not free.

Obviously enough, news companies need to find ways to monetize the news on the web. While it will be difficult to cure people of freeitis, it can be done. People will, after all, pay for content. The success of iTunes, Kindle and so on have shown this. However, the news folks will need to step up to the challenge.

Another factor is consolidation. Most of the media is now owned by a very few large corporations and this has helped reduce the number of news sources. While this allows large news companies to exist and gain the advantages of having considerable resources, it does tend to thin out the alternatives. This can, as some have claimed, lead to media bias due to a lack of diversity.

This challenge is a tough one. After all, getting the news can be an expensive operation and this seems to require that news companies be large. For example, a small town newspaper or blogger probably cannot afford to send journalists to Iraq to cover the war or even to Washington to report on politics there. That said, smaller news operations can do well, provided they find a niche. Interestingly enough, local bloggers and news has been doing quite well in some places. After all, CNN is not going to cover a local clam festival in Maine or the local events in Tallahassee, Florida.

Yet another factor is that the news business model is based primarily on advertising. As such, the news has to provide what will attract an audience. One effect of this is the existence of partisan (biased) news services. Fox News  and MSNBC rather clearly present a political agenda and even CNN has been accused of a liberal bias.

But, someone might point out, Fox News is doing great. How is this a problem? The problem is not that Fox News and others are not providing content. Rather it is that they are not really providing news. While a degree of bias is unavoidable, there is a clear and meaningful distinction between news reporting and commentary masquerading (often very poorly) as news. We are in an ocean of news, but it is a case of  “water, water all around…but not a drop to drink.”

In terms of fixing this, the fix lies with mostly with us. The media folks give us what we want and if we want pseudo-news, that is what they give us. As such, we need to be more critical of the news and push the media folks towards being fair and balanced. We also need to push for higher quality content.

It might be wondered why this matters. That is, why worry about the news? Why not just let the news media become partisan fluff and let the blogs take over?

One selfish answer is that most bloggers need the news. After all, it is rather hard to write about current events, politics and so on without a source of information. Like most bloggers, I shamelessly make use of the news. I am, however, careful to credit my sources and provide links to the originals. I also make a point of subscribing to news magazines even when I could get the information for free.

That said, much of the information in the news is provided to the news companies by governments, businesses, press agents, and non-professionals (like the iReporters of CNN). In reality, news companies devote few resources to investigative journalism. As such, bloggers and their kin could do a lot of what the news folks do now (that is, get emails from politicians and companies).

However, the professional news agencies do engage in journalism and investigation that the bloggers and their kin lack the resources to do. Additionally, the professional organizations have (or often have) credibility that arises from a review process that bloggers and the kin generally cannot match. Naturally, their are bloggers who are professional grade and news organizations do make serious mistakes (and suffer from bias). Interestingly, bloggers who become professional grade often transform from being just bloggers to true news folks and editorialists. As such, what might occur is not so much an extermination of the news in favor of blogging, but an evolution of both blogging and news towards a somewhat new form of information and commentary. After all, the traditional news folks have moved towards the web and many bloggers have started moving towards the roles played by the traditional news folks.

Another answer is that the news, despite its problems, is a critical part of democracy and having informed citizens. It is no accident that the founding fathers provided protection for the press and also recognized the importance of the news. The folks in the media often serve a vital role in exposing problems and dangers-such as corrupt politicians, dangerous products and so on. As such, the news folks are an important part of our society and social system. Professional news and professional commentary are well worth preserving. While times seem tough now, I have confidence that this is primarily a transition and evolutionary phase for the news-rather than a slide into extinction.

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Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 15, 2010
Single Payer Insurance is the way.
Image by freestylee via Flickr

As I follow what is supposed to be the “war to end all wars” over the health care bill, I see various poll results presented by the media folks. Interestingly enough, they tend to vary in their results. To be specific, some show that Americans favor the bill while others say most Americans are against the bill.  This raises the obvious question of how this is possible.  Naturally, what follows applies to polling in general and not just the health care polls.

First, polls have margins of error. This is the number, expressed as a percentage, by which the sample is likely to differ from the population as a whole. For example, if a poll reports that 53% +/- 4%  of Americans think the existing health care bill should be revised rather than scrapped, the margin of error is 4.2%. So, the actual percentage of Americans who have this view is likely to range from 49-57%.  Obviously enough, a poll of the same population could thus get a result within that range, perhaps 49%. As such, the errors inherent to polling can yield different poll results. Naturally enough, folks with an agenda will tend to pick the polls that match their views.

Second, polls can be affected by the wording of the questions.  For example, a poll that asks “do you favor extending Medicare/Medicaid style benefits to all Americans” will tend to garner more positive responses than “do you favor socialized medicine for all Americans?” As such, the desired poll results can often be generated by creating questions that are slanted in the desired way. So, if someone wants to “show” that Americans favor the bill, then questions that use positive slanting can be employed. If someone wants to “show” that Americans are against the bill, then negatively slanted language can be used.

Third, the order of questions and the context being presented can also impact the results. For example, if a question about the health care bill is preceded by a question about massive budget deficits, then the results will tend to be against health care. But, if a question about the bill is preceded by a carefully crafted question about pre-existing conditions, then the results will tend to favor the bill. As with the wording of the questions, this allows people to load polls to get the results they want.

Fourth, the available answers can be restricted. For example, a question that asks “do you favor passing the bill exactly as it is or starting over” provides only two options when, in fact, there are many alternatives. As such, the poll will not accurately capture the opinions of those being polled.

Fifth, people change their minds over time. So, a poll taken yesterday might reflect what people thought yesterday and this might be rather different from what people thought today.

Sixth, polls can be biased. For example, if Fox News conducts a call in poll, then they will get people who are interested enough to call in (one bias) and will tend to get mostly Fox viewers (another bias). The same sort of bias situation also applies to MSNBC, for those who think I’m singling out Fox.

All of these factors (and others I have not mentioned) allow such differing poll results.

As far as what people should do, the rational thing is not not put your faith in one poll (even one that is properly done). A more sensible approach is to consider the results from as many legitimate polls as possible. Of course, people generally tend to just stick with the poll that confirms their own belief.

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Talk Radio

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2009
Blogworld Talk Radio
Image by jdlasica via Flickr

CNN recently did a series of segments on talk radio. One fact that struck me is that about 90% of talk radio hosts are classified as conservatives. This, of course, puts a number on the liberal perspective that conservatives dominate talk radio. Naturally, conservatives point out that liberals dominate the other media venues, with the obvious exception of Fox News in the TV arena.

Naturally, there has been considerable speculation about the conservative dominance in radio. Over the years, various implausible explanations have been provided.

One poor explanation is that the dominance is due to Rush’s skills as an entertainer. While it is true that he is a master of his craft, this would not explain the success of all the other conservative hosts nor would it explain the dearth of liberal hosts. After all, it is often claimed that Hollywood is awash in liberals and surely someone among these folks would have the talent to make her/his voice heard.

Another poor explanation is that the big corporations are conservative and hence unfairly keep the liberals off the air. Of course, this runs contrary to the fact that there are plenty of liberals with money and the fact that mainstream media is regarded as being liberal, despite also being owned by the corporate masters. Also, there is the failure of Air America-a liberal attempt at liberal radio that was well funded.

A third poor explanation is that talk radio appeals to the uneducated and is not a suitable medium for the complex enlightenment that is liberal thought. While it is true that talk radio tends to be lacking in intellectual rigor, it is also true that liberal ideas can (and are) be pitched at a level suitable for talk radio. Further, to cast the listeners of talk radio as simpletons is to do them a grave injustice.

One hypothesis that has some plausibility is that the conservatives were able to stake out their territory in talk radio and dig in. Since there is only so much air time, for a liberal to get a show would seem to require that they cut into an established radio show. Of course, this explanation does have some weaknesses and does not account for why liberals have yet to succeed in getting more of the market share.

Naturally, it would be well worth considering the differences between the people who listen to talk radio and folks who do not. For example, perhaps their is a factor here relating to jobs. Maybe folks who work jobs that allow them to listen to the radio more would tend towards being conservative (or at least being entertained by conservative talk). Or maybe conservatives are more inclined to like purely audio media as opposed to visual media. In any case, the conservatives are dominating the airwaves.

Another hypothesis worth considering is whether there is a difference between liberals and conservatives in regards to the skill sets needed to be appealing in talk radio. For example, it has been claimed that actors and journalists are more liberal than other folks, so perhaps there is a link between modes of expression and political leanings. So, conservatives might have a tendency towards talk, while liberals have greater visual skills. Or there might be no connection at all.

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Fox Fight

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
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While Fox News presents itself as “fair and balanced”, it has recently been the target of intense criticism from other media folks as well as the Obama administration. Naturally, it is important to put this into an historic perspective: administrations have had such tiffs with the media in the past and media organizations have had spats against each other as well. As such, there is really nothing new here other than the players in this particular fight.

The main criticism against Fox News is that it is suffers from a clearly biased perspective. Some critics go so far as to assert that Fox does not really report the news, but that it merely serves to present a political agenda under the guise of reporting. Naturally, folks point out that other media organizations are liberally biased and Fox’s supporters assert that Fox is merely being honest.

While perfect objectivity is impossible, there are clearly degrees of objectivity and fairness. Some journalists are true professionals in this regard. While they are honest about their own views, they are able to consider other viewpoints fairly and present relatively unbiased reports and analysis. Others are clearly true believers and make no attempt to consider alternative views, except to assert how wrong they are. The folks at Fox seem to largely fall towards the unprofessional end of the spectrum. Of course, the same can be said of some other news organizations. For example, MSNBC seems to have some rather significant liberal bias.

I have watched Fox and have tried to be objective in my assessment of their handling of the news. While I do expect the commentators to express opinions (that is their job), the bias is clear and evident. Of course, folks who agree with the Fox agenda will generally not see this bias-they will think that Fox is telling it like it is. This, of course, does provide grounds for dispute and it can be argued that Fox is not biased and is, in fact, the only news agency that is getting it right. Showing bias does, after all, require establishing a baseline of objectivity/neutrality and that point is contested territory.

However, even if a baseline for objectivity is in dispute, a relative baseline can be established. By comparing Fox to the other news agencies as well as independent sources, it is possible to get a picture of relative bias. On this measure, I suspect that Fox will still seem biased.

Also, even without using a baseline, a degree of bias can be discerned by the way the reporters report. To use an analogy, consider the paper I have my Intro to Philosophy students write. One part of the paper is a summary of the Apology and the goal is to clearly, concisely, accurately and in their own words convey the key points of that dialogue. The objective is not to comment, criticize, assess, speculate, or otherwise evaluate and it is rather easy to see when a student deviates from summarizing. The same sort of standard can be applied to reporting in order to check for when a reporter has ceased reporting and is now commenting and presenting a view. The second major part of the paper is an argument section and in this section the students present their position on the issue and argue for it. This, of course, corresponds to news commentary and editorials. However, this is quite distinct from summarizing or, by the analogy, reporting. While journalists do go beyond reporting, they do so in various degrees. The more this is done, the greater chance there is that bias is involved-especially if the commentary has a consistent ideological leaning. The folks at Fox seem to have a significant tendency to go from reporting to commenting without making it clear that they are doing so, thus suggesting the possibility of bias (or at least a failure to understand the distinction between a report and an editorial).

Now, in regards to the administrations fight with Fox, they are ironically helping Fox out. After all, Fox’s viewers will tend to be against Obama and the administration’s words and actions serve to reinforce the views of such people. While Obama and his people have the right to decide which news shows they visit, it does not seem appropriate for the administration to get into this sort of brawl with Fox, even if Fox is distorting facts.

A final remark I have, inspired by the wrestling episode of South Park, is that perhaps Fox is like the WWF of news: it puts on a morality play to entertain the viewers and merely pretends to be a real news agency, just as the pro-“wrestlers” pretend to really be fighters.

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Fox and the Pong Herpes

Posted in Humor, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2009

Fox News recently aired a segment in which it was claimed that herpes (and other diseases) could be transmitted by playing beer pong. While the desire to keep the public informed about health threats is a laudable one, the news segment was based on a hoax.

Of course, this is not the first time that news agencies have accepted hoaxes or jokes as real news. While people do (obviously) get taken in by such things, a major news agency should at least take a few minutes to research a story before presenting it to the public. While it is funny to hear that a news agency made such a foolish error, it is also worrisome. After all, if the beer pong story can slip by without any critical assessment, this entails that other hoaxes and jokes can slip by as well.

This is not to say that we should expect the news folks to never make mistakes. But, it is quite reasonable to expect at least some minimal effort at confirmation before running a story-especially when a credible source is lacking.

Fortunately, this sort of thing is relatively rare and the news is generally reliable. But, this incident does serve to remind people that they need to critical when they watch the news.

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