A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2011
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 21:  Republican presiden...

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Cain is facing another potential crisis: Ginger White has come forth to apparently claim that she had a long lasting affair with Herman Cain. As might be imagined, this is not exactly good news for Cain’s lagging campaign.

Cain immediately denied the accusations, while noting that he did know the woman. His handling of the situation was better than his handling of previous accusations-thus showing that Cain has learned at least a bit about damage control. However, his lawyer released a rather odd statement which, as the pundits noted, does not seem to be the right sort of thing for a politician to issue for damage control. This shows that Cain needs to improve his organization and how it handles damage control-assuming that he is able to endure.

At this point, this is the classic “she says, he says” situation. Cain made an immediate and unequivocal denial which counts, to a degree, in his favor. After all, lying about an affair will generally do more political damage than admitting to an affair. Thus, a lie would not be very sensible and hence would (or should) be the less likely approach by Cain. Given Newt’s and Bill Clinton’s success, Cain should be aware that politicians who have affairs can do quite well.

That said, politicians have been known to lie about such things-even when the lie is far more damaging than the truth. Anthony Weiner is, of course, the most recent example of such an incident.  The statement Cain’s lawyer released also muddled things a bit-while the legalese seems to be aimed any saying that Cain did not have an affair, the overall impression is seems to create is more along the lines of  “if he had an affair, it is t the business of the media or the public.” This is hardly effective damage control and makes it seem like a set up for an admittance of wrongdoing. However, anyone who is familiar with legalese will point out that the statement is the sort of thing a lawyer would create even if his/her client did nothing at all. As such, the statement is hardly decisive evidence.

In regards to the woman, little is known about here. On the face of it, lying about this matter would seem to be a rather odd sort of thing-after all she is, as the pundits have noted, exposing herself to the full scrutiny of the media and laying her reputation on the line. Her accusation, if false, might even be considered slander or libel-given the damage such a charge could do to to Cain. As such, she would seem to have very good reasons not to make a false accusation.

However, one key point (as noted above) is that little is known about the woman, her credibility and her possible motivations. Until more information is known, the most rational thing to do is to suspend judgment on the claim against Cain.

If Cain is telling the truth, then he might be able to make a gain in the polls because of such a false attack. It would also give him some “armor” against ant future attacks of a similar nature.

If Cain is not telling the truth, then his campaign would probably be sunk. However, Bill Clinton was able to sludge with way through worse situations and hence there is a clear precedent for such political survival. Cain is, like Clinton, something of a charmer-but whether he is up to a Clinton level game is something that would have to be seen.

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Weiner Takes Beating

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 6, 2011
Anthony Weiner

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While I will write a more substantial blog for tomorrow, I would be remiss not to make a few comments about Anthony Weiner’s recent press conference.

As many began to suspect, Weiner sent the photo in question and admitted that he lied about the mater. At this point, that was no real surprise. However, the press conference did have some surprises.

First, Weiner did not blame anyone or anything and took full responsibility. Rather than blame the media, he apologized to them for his lies. Rather than blame the seducing power of Twitter and Facebook, he made it clear that his actions were his own. When asked about using alcohol or drugs, he denied both and accepted responsibility. This is, of course, the right thing to do and is somewhat unusual in this day. The usual recourse is to blame someone or something else. While Weiner was right to accept responsibility, he was clearly wrong to have waited so long.

Second, Weiner faced the media without dodging questions for almost thirty minutes. The standard tactic is, of course, to avoid the “lame stream” media and their “gotcha” questions. Weiner stood there and took the beating, answering every serious question that was asked. That was, to say the least, somewhat unusual. I almost suspect that his wife played a role in his public confession: he had a look that I had seen on other men who had been forced by their wives to do the right thing.

Third, Weiner’s wife was not present. The standard deal is that the shamed spouse is forced to stand at her husband’s side, enduring the cameras and the questions of the media. If Weiner spared his wife, then he did the right thing. If she refused to be part of the show, then she did the right thing.

Weiner might be able to recover from this, but he clearly has a lot of work to do.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 2, 2011
Anthony Weiner

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While the Weiner Incident is actually a non-incident, the media has been busily stoking (or stroking, if you want to go there) the matter in the hopes of keeping the attention of the American public.

For those who are not aware of the incident, a shot of a man’s underwear covered groin was sent, via Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account, to a woman. Weiner denies that he sent it, though he does not deny (with certitude) or confirm  that the groin is his. He claims that he was hacked. The media (especially bloggers) have turned this into a major battle. As I see it, this matter is largely a non-issue in itself, but does indicate some interesting things about the media. Before getting to that, I will address the incident directly.

Obviously, there are two main possibilities: Weiner sent it or he did not (and was presumably hacked). Hacking Twitter is obviously a very real possibility and it also makes sense that someone would try to prank Weiner with a wiener shot. It is also possible that the shot is really of Weiner and was taken from his computer. Naturally it is a bit odd that he is not denying that it is him, but perhaps he is the sort of guy who has pictures taken of his groin and hence cannot be sure that it is not him. In my own case, I would be rather certain about any photos purporting to be of my groin.

If Weiner were hacked, it really is not a big deal. Twitter is hardly a high value account and while sending such a photo is wicked creepy, it is probably not a crime. After all, the image can be shown on TV and is no worse than an underwear ad. Hacking Twitter might count as crime, but perhaps not-the legality of such things can be a bit fuzzy and much would depend on how the alleged hacking was conducted and with what intent.

If Weiner Tweeted the image, intentionally or (much more likely) accidentally, it is also not a very big deal (at least for anyone not directly involve). As noted above, the image was tasteless but tame and hence probably not a violation of any laws. Also, Weiner has been rather cautious in his claims (which lends credence to the claim that he sent the Tweet) and hence it would be harder to claim that he lied about it not being his wiener. After all, he has not (as of this writing) claimed it was not his with certainty.

While Weiner is clearly a smart guy, smart guys do stupid things all the time. Even me, although I have never sent out any Junk Tweets (or Jweets)). Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton are both smart guys, but they did exceptionally stupid things when it came to sex. As such, it is certainly possible that Weiner sent the Tweet. If he did send it, then he would have shown rather poor judgment in sending the Tweet and then trying to do damage control by attributing it to a hack or prank. He is, however, right to claim that it was not significant. However, if he did send it, then his defense could end up creating a situation that is, in fact, significant.

One of the most interesting aspects of the incident is how the media has handled it. While Weiner has given them some openings, the media folks have done their very best to make this into a story by interpreting Weiner’s actions and claims in ways clearly calculated to create the appearance of a cover up or controversy. Interestingly, this is exactly the sort of thing that conservatives generally criticize media folks about. Of course, Weiner is engaging the press rather than trying to avoid them. This, in some ways, plays into their hands. After all, if he engages with the media, then it creates the impression that it is something important enough for a congressman to spend his time dealing with. However, if he did not engage, then some media folks would take that as a sign that he had something to hide.

While the media folks should be criticized when it creates controversies over nothing, keeping tabs on public officials is part of their job, be those officials Republicans or liberal Democrats.


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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 ...
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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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Air America Radio Falls Silent

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2010
Ron Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, ho...

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Today marks the final day of the liberal Air America Radio. This network was created with the intent of providing a liberal alternative to the rather successful conservative talk radio programs.

Air America Radio’s death comes as no real surprise-after all, it had been dying slowly (and not so slowly) since its inception. Not surprisingly, some conservative folks are taking this as a sign of the decline of liberalism in America.

On one hand, this does have some plausibility. After all, Air America Radio targeted a liberal audience and its failure might indicate that audience has shrunk to the point where it can no longer sustain the company.

On the other hand, such an inference might be flawed. First, its failure might have nothing to do with the number of liberals and might rather be due to its failure to operate effectively as a business. That is, perhaps the company was not well run, did not provide content that appealed to its target audience and so on. It would be rather hasty to make an inference from the failure of this one company to the conclusion that liberalism is on the decline. I really cannot comment on its quality directly-I never listened to it.

Second, there might be factors about liberals and the talk radio format that results in liberals being less interested in talk radio than conservatives. As such, the failure of the company would reveal interesting data about liberals and talk radio that has nothing to do with the alleged decline of liberalism.

One other matter well worth considering is the nature of the inference itself. The logic used by the conservatives seems to be this:

Premise 1: The liberal Air America Radio is going out of business.
Conclusion: Liberalism is in decline.

This seems to require the assumption that how well a media company is doing is an indication of the political state of America, so the argument could be presented as:

Premise 1: The liberal Air America Radio is going out of business.
Premise 2: How well a politically leaning media company is doing (or not doing) is a reliable indicator of the political views of Americans.
Conclusion: Liberalism is in decline.

Assuming that this argument is reasonable, then the fall of Air America Radio would seem to be a happy moment for conservative folks. However, consider a cherished and common conservative claim: the mainstream media has a liberal bias. Interestingly, most media companies are doing fairly well these days. While newspapers are an obvious exception, their problems cut across the political spectrum and seem to arise from factors such as the rise of the web.

So, if the conservative claim about how the liberals dominate the media is taken seriously, then the following argument can be built:

Premise 1: Liberally biased mainstream media is doing well.
Premise 2: How well a politically leaning media company is doing (or not doing) is a reliable indicator of the political views of Americans.
Conclusion: Liberalism is doing well.

This is a rather ironic conclusion for the conservative folks.  Of course, they can reply to this line of reasoning-but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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Woods & The Right to Know

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2009
Tiger Woods
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The recent media frenzy over the Tiger Woods‘ affair(s) raises numerous issues of philosophical concern. The one that I will focus on is the matter of the extent of our right to know about what goes on in the lives of others.

One way to approach the question of the extent of this right is to borrow from the approach taken by John Stuart Mill in regards to liberty. Simplifying things, Mill took the view others have the right to interfere with the liberty of others in order to prevent harm. Beyond this, people lack the right to interfere with the liberty of others.

It can be argued by analogy that the same sort of principle can be applied to what people have a right to know about others. To be specific, a person has the right to know something about another person if not knowing this would be harmful to the person. For example, a person has a right to know if the babysitter she is considering hiring is a pedophile or not. Of course, working out an adequate account of harm would require considerable work and goes far beyond the scope of this blog.

In the Tiger Woods case it is obvious that this sort of principle would not provide the public with a right to know what is going on in his life. This is because what he did or did not do does not harm the public, although people obviously find it of great interest.  It would, of course, provide his wife and the other people involved with such a right.

This principle does, however, give people a right to know quite a bit about what occurs in the lives of elected officials. This is because their deeds and misdeeds do have the potential to cause harm to the public. Of course, even politicians do still have some areas of privacy in which the public has no right to know-namely those aspects which cannot harm the public. Obviously, mapping out these zones would be a matter of considerable work and would no doubt vary from person to person.

While the principle of harm does seem to be a reasonable basis for such a right, it might seem to be rather limited. After all, intuitively it would seem that people have a right to know things even when these things are not a matter of harm.

Another possible foundation for such a right is that people can give such a right to others. For example, when someone intentionally and knowingly provides another person with access to information then they have provided that person with the right to know. For example, if someone posts pictures of her drunken adventures on Facebook and has allowed her friends to view her photos, then she has granted them the right to know about said drunken adventures. As another example, a person can provide others with such a right because of their profession or the relationship they establish with that person.For example, if someone hires a lawyer, then that person gains a right to know about facts relevant to this professional relationship. As another example, when people enter into a relationship, then specific sorts of relationships provide a right to know. As a specific example, when two people are dating then they would seem to have a right to know certain things about each other that go beyond those that might be a cause of harm.

In the case of Tiger Woods his being a golf professional clearly does not grant people the right to know about his private life. However, Tiger Woods went beyond being a gold professional and became a professional endorser of products ranging from razor blades to cars. In one commercial, the public was even invited in to see him reading a bedtime story to his child. As such, he was clearly establishing a relationship with the public that went beyond being a just a guy who swings a club.

In such a role he crafted a reputation and image in the course of establishing a relationship with the public. The idea was, of course, that the public should trust his endorsements because he presented himself as the sort of person who could be trusted. After all, such endorsements presume the establishment of trust. While getting such endorsements depended on him being a great golfer, they also depended on him having a good reputation and a certain sort of image. As such, the image presented is a critical part of the relationship as well.

By entering into such a relationship based on trust Woods thus gave the public a right to know about what lies behind that carefully crafted image. After all, he was using his image and reputation to sell products and the public would thus have a right to know whether the image and reputation were legitimate or not.

As such, when he allegedly engaged in behavior that seems to directly contradict that crafted image, then the public had a right to know whether the claims against him are true or not.

This does not just apply to Tiger Woods but also to celebrities who build comparable relationships with the public. If they expect to be able to present a crafted image to the public in order to sell products (or ideas) then they have to expect that the public gains a right to peer behind the mask so as to see what is really back there.

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Talk Radio

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2009
Blogworld Talk Radio
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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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Media Bias & Error Part 2

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2009
Cover of "Leviathan (Oxford World's Class...

Cover of Leviathan (Oxford World's Classics)

As noted in my previous post, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy.  26% also claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.

In my previous post, I considered that one explanation for these views is that the media is biased and error prone. Of course, it is also worthwhile exploring alternative (or additional) explanations.

One possible cause of this view is that fact that folks on the right have been claiming that the media is biased since about the time of the Nixon administration. This trend has continued and it is likely that this charge has influenced the views of some people.

Another possible cause is that people are generally poor at critical thinking and hence generally do not consider their own biases. If someone is unaware of his own biases, then they will tend to see the world with an uncorrected distortion-that created by their own biases. As such, even an objective and accurate report will strike them as either inaccurate or biased (or both). To use an analogy, when students come to talk to me about a bad paper grade, they often insist that their papers are quite good. Even when I show the fallacies, grammatical errors, missing material, factual errors and such in their work, they sometimes still insist that the papers are good. In some cases I am sure they are quite sincere they truly think their papers are fine pieces of work, despite the fact that they are not. Likewise, someone who sees the world in a biased way and is not aware of his bias will tend to see anything that disagrees with his view as mistaken.

Interestingly, Thomas Hobbes wrote about this tendency. He notes in his Leviathan that people tend to regard a failure to agree with them as a sign of provocative  disagreement. As such, when folks see a news story that simply fails to agree with their beliefs, they will tend to regard it as biased, inaccurate or both.

Adding to this is the fact that sources outside of the mainstream media are highly polarized, both left and right. This enables folks to easily find sources (often blogs and web pages) that “confirm” and “support” there views. This, in turn, can contribute to their belief that the news media is inaccurate and biased. For example, folks who think that Bush was behind 9/11 can find sites to back them up and “confirm” their conspiracy theory. As another example, folks who think that Obama is not a natural born American can find sites to “support” their views.

While it is a good idea to find outside sources and use them to check on the mainstream media, it is important to make sure that these sources are credible and accurate. That can, of course, be rather challenging.

My view is that it is wise to be critical of the media (or any source). However, it is equally wise to critical of one’s own beliefs. After all, if the media can be biased, so can we.

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