Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mencken on "balanced" journalism

I'm the process of rereading Alistair Cooke's Six Men, and one of the men he profiles is famous curmudgeon H.L. Mencken. I just came across the following passage, which dovetails nicely into my previous rant about the misplaced focus on so-called "balanced" journalism.

Cooke says that Mencken "reserved his serious praise for unvarnished pieces of reporting that tried to strike a balance between the known and probable facts, no matter whose side they came down on. He taught me, what I confirmed many times on the road, that there is no such thing as ideological truth, and that to the extent that a reporter is a liberal reporter or a Communist reporter or a Republican reporter, he is no reporter at all. This is not the same as saying that a good reporter is nothing if not 'objective,' and that outside the blank reportage of the news agencies every touch of anger, humor, or irony amounts to special pleading. There are times when the most seemingly fair-minded compilation of 'facts' is dedicated, unwittingly or not, to giving equal weight to two sides of an argument and leaving the reporter at the end firmly on the fence. There are other, and rarer, times when what looks like a frankly partisan commentary is actually a carefully archaeological dig which produces a set of surprising facts that will bear only one interpretation."

When "balanced" news coverage leaves the reporter (and the reader) "firmly on the fence," nothing has been accomplished. A good reporter exposes "facts that will bear only one intepretation." And just because there's only one intepretation doesn't mean that the reporting is unbalanced or unfair. After all, 2+2 can only equal 4, there's no point in bringing in an opposing viewpoint to debate it.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The death of the shared experience

Youngsters might not believe this, but there was a time when all Americans could gather 'round the water cooler and be able to talk about the one thing they all experienced yesterday. Maybe that was watching the same television show, or listening to the same album, or going to the same movie, or even replaying the same sporting event. America used to be a bit more homogeneous, media-wise, so that when something big happened, we all experienced it. That's not the case today, where media fragmentation (call it "mass personalization," if you insist) makes it harder for us to have shared experiences with our neighbors and co-workers. I think we're the worse for it.

Take, for example, television. Back when we only had three networks (plus PBS plus a local independent or two), it was likely that a big TV show would be watched by the majority of people you ran into the next day. This sort of shared television experience dates back to Your Show of Shows and I Love Lucy, and continued well into the 1980s. Think back (if you can) to the last episode of M*A*S*H, and what a big deal that was. Compare that to the last episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and ask how many people you know watched it, or even knew about it. Not a lot, I'd wager. Now that we all have 100+ channels of stuff to watch, the likelihood that any two of us are watching the same program is slim. I have people come up to me and ask if I caught the latest episode of Desperate Housewives, or of American Idol, or of Lost, and I'm at a loss; I've never watched any of these programs, and I'd wager that those who watch one haven't watched any of the others. Conversely, I can ask my friends what they thought of the Quentin Tarrantino-directed season finale of CSI, or of who they think will be the next president on The West Wing, and I'm just as likely to get blank stares in return. We're all watching programs off our individual wish lists, and thus are not sharing a common experience.

The same thing with music. I just read where Mariah Carey claimed her 16th number-one single; only Elvis and the Beatles have scored more U.S. number-ones. The thing is, I know all of those Elvis and Beatles records, and I don't know a single one of Ms. Carey's supposed number-one hits. It's not that I don't listen to music, because I do; it's just that I don't listen to that particular slice of the musical spectrum. Radio today is highly fragmented, so that the stations that play Mariah Carey will never play a song by Coldplay or Fountains of Wayne, and vice versa. You could go your entire life and only be exposed to a small segment of contemporary music, which isn't the way it used to be. Back when I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, most radio stations played a fairly broad variety of music. A top 40 station back in the day could play a Motown tune and then a Beatles tune and then a Frank Sinatra tune and then a Bob Dylan tune, one right after another; you won't hear that sort of variety on any radio station today. Music-lovers of my day got exposed to all sorts of different styles; kids today don't. They lack the shared experience (and its broadening results) that used to be common.

I could go on and on about the lack of shared experiences, in movies and sports and news coverage and you name it. Our society has become increasingly sliced and segmented, and I think it's to our detriment. Yeah, we may think we're being better served, but in reality we're becoming more isolated. The only shared experiences we have is when disaster strikes (the 9/11 attacks, the Columbia space shuttle crash, etc.); day by day, we only see what little we want to see -- not all that we should. There's something to say for being exposed to new experiences, and to being intellectually and culturally well-rounded. We need a little more breadth, at the expense of our own self-absorbed depth.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Journalism: Impartial vs. balanced

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR last week, and her guest was Kenneth Tomlinson, the controversial chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If you've been keeping up on the story, Tomlinson (a Republican appointee) has been taking flack for his attempts to inject right-wing viewpoints into PBS programming -- in spite of the lack of viewer-perceived bias in the existing programming. (Read Bill Moyers' recent speech to the National Conference for Media Reform to get his view of the situation; Moyers was a tad peeved that Tomlinson hired an outside consultant to vet Moyers' old show NOW for perceived left-wing bias.)

Anyway, Tomlinson (who was trying his best to divert the discussion -- he kept pleading "can we just turn down the heat?") was trying to make his point that journalism (on PBS and elsewhere) needed to be "balanced." That is, if Moyers presented a lefty view, his show also needed to present the righty stance. This approach is, as Moyers has pointed out, now standard operating procedure at most of the major media outlets, especially at the cable news networks.

You see this "balanced" approach in action on the shouting heads shows. The discussion starts with either a brief reporting of a news item (typically by an good-looking but air-headed correspondent doing a stand-up in front the White House or Capitol building) or the statement of provocative opinion ("John Kerry is un-American!"). What follows is a pundit from the right and a pundit from the left then proffering their opinions on the topic. There's no reporting involved and no real analysis, just a lot of left and right bloviating. The viewer is left with no clear notion of what the facts really are.

This notion that the public is served best by hearing opinions instead of fact is lazy (and low-cost) journalism, if it's journalism at all. (It's closer to entertainment, if you think pundits are remotely entertaining.) Truth is not served; facts are not dispensed. As Moyers said in his speech: "Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference."

Still, Tomlinson kept arguing for this sort of "balanced reporting." The problem is, reporting shouldn't be balanced. Reporting should be factual; it should seek out the truth. There's nothing balanced about the truth. The truth simply is; there's no competing viewpoint. If there was a fire at a downtown warehouse last night, those are the facts. There's no need for (nor way to fashion) a competing viewpoint to these facts. Would we have Chris Matthews report the fire on Hardball, then have a fire chief and an arsonist debate the matter? I think not.

You see, Tomlinson and many, many others in government and media today are confusing balanced coverage with impartial coverage. Websters defines "balanced" as: A state of equilibrium or parity characterized by cancellation of all forces by equal opposing forces. The definition for "impartial" is much different: Not partial or biased; unprejudiced.

We want our news coverage to be truthful and unprejudiced. This is not achieved by balancing one viewpoint against another. Again, the truth does not have opposing viewpoints. Facts simply are; they are not debatable. (That's despite the fundamentalists' tendency to dismiss science fact as unproven theory -- but that's another day's topic.)

Unfortunately, by applying a "balanced" approach to news coverage, we end up diluting the real truths. Think back to the 2004 presidential campaign, when George Bush's National Guard record came up. Instead of discussing the facts (he skipped out on his obligation), the media tried to present "balanced" coverage, thus confusing the truth of the matter. Same thing with the issue of the build-up to the Iraq war; there were lots of facts to report (such as the total lack of WMDs), but the media lost the story by presenting opposing opinions that "balanced" the actual facts to create a virtual reality somewhat short of the whole truth.

The thinking, I suppose, is that if a media outlet goes hard after a story, it will be seen as attacking the subject, and be accused of engaging in advocacy journalism. (And what, I ask, is wrong with advocacy journalism? Aren't journalists supposed to be advocates for the truth?) To temper these criticisms, then, factual reporting is diluted with "balanced" opinions. Thus the facts are lost in the ensuing rounds of opinions and pseudo-analysis. As I said, it's lazy journalism, and it serves to turn virtually every event into a left vs. right discussion.

Of course, not every event has to or can be defined in terms of left-and-right politics. Think of how past events might have been significantly altered if this sort of "balanced" reporting had been in effect at the time. Consider the rise of Nazi Germany; can you imagine having a British pundit debate a Nazi pundit on Hitler's merits? The facts of Hitler's horrible reign are indisputable; to have presented the issue in a "balanced" fashion would have served to legitimize the Nazi evil.

And that, ultimately, is the main problem with this so-called balanced reporting. It legitimizes illegitimate positions; it positions baseless opinions and outright lies as equally important to facts and the truth. When striving for the truth is supplanted by this type of artifical balance, partisan opinion cancels out the facts, leaving the issue at hand stranded in a sort of toothless middle ground. By insisting on "balance," the truth is weakened. And that isn't the way life really is, people.

Facts are facts, and debating them doesn't make them less so. It's time for our news media to regain some testicular fortitude and once again report the facts, to strive towards the truth -- impartially, and without prejudice or the need to present artificially opposing viewpoints. Report what is, and if the powers that be don't like the truth, they'll just have to live with it.

But that's just my opinion (not a fact!); in this instance, it's okay that reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, May 16, 2005

11th Top Ten Album

I don't know how I overlooked it, but I left probably my favorite album of the rock and roll era off my Top Ten albums list. This one's an odd pick for many, but I hold that it's 1960s musicianship and Wall of Sound production at its peak. The album I'm talking about is the legendary Phil Spector Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You. This isn't a normal rock record in that it's all remakes of traditional songs; there's only one original here, but it's the classic Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The performances here, by Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector and the Ronnettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and the Crystals, are all goosebump-making. Even better, the backing instrumentals (by Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kaye, and the other musicians known informally as the Wrecking Crew) are cooking with gas, the height of L.A. studio playing in the 1960s; these cats are good and they know it, and this album catches them playing their collective asses off. The arrangements and production are classic Wall of Sound, dense and full of reverb and echo. Everything on this album is so good, so right, so perfect in what it does, it rises to the top of my favorite albums list no matter what the season. How could I ever forget it?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Ten favorite albums

I'll take a break from complaining about things to make a list of my ten favorite albums of all time -- a desert island list, if you will, and for no particular reason other than that's what I feel like doing today. And note that I used the word "album;" all of these recordings just happen to date back to the vinyl era, which either shows how old and set in my ways I am, or how inferior popular music has been in the past twenty years or so.

The only rule to this sort of list is that greatest hits and live albums are excluded; I've also limited my list to so-called popular music, so there's no jazz or classical here. That out of the way, let's get to it -- in alphabetical order by artist, of course.

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

This one not only makes my top ten, it makes the top five -- and possibly the number-one slot. The instrumentation is awesome, the voices heavenly, and the songs alternately heartbreaking and inspiring. Brian Wilson is a genius, and this is his masterpiece.

The Beatles: Abbey Road

Any top ten list has to have a few Beatles albums on it, and it's tough choosing the leading contenders. While many would put Revolver, Rubber Soul, or the White Album higher on the list, Abbey Road makes my list because it's the boys at their peak, in terms of songwriting, performing, and producing. And there's no better swan song than the final lyrics: "And, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make."

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

No question, Sgt. Pepper always makes the list. This album -- along with the album it inspired, Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds -- changed the face of popular music forever. It's the first album to be all of a piece, and if that isn't enough, all the individual bits are classics on their own. And can you think of a more dramatic closing than the big long chord on the end of "A Day in the Life"? I certainly can't.

Carole King: Tapestry

Why? Just because. Just because it was the top-selling of all time (at least until that freak Michael Jackson came along). Just because it established the whole singer-songwriter thing, for better or worse. Just because it's a kick watching a formerly faceless songwriter become a big star on her own. Just because all the songs are so damned good. Just because.

Joni Mitchell: Blue

You know, this one wouldn't have made my list until recently. I've long blamed Mitchell for inspiring some of the most wretchedly excessive navel-gazing female guitar strummers that have foisted themselves on us over the past thirty years or so, but that doesn't mean that Joni herself was one of them. This album holds up surprisingly well, in fact it gets better with age. Again, with me it's all about the songs, and these are classics -- "Case of You," "My Old Man," "Carey," all of them.

Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis

Oh, man, is this one fine album. I could talk about the voice, about the sound of the recordings, or about the quality of the backing musicians, all the best there is. But what puts this album over the top are the songs, from the likes of Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, and other top songwriters of the day -- "Breakfast in Bed," "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," "Just One Smile," "Just a Little Lovin'," "Son of a Preacher Man," and on and on. I can listen to this album over and over and over and it never gets old. It just doesn't get any better than this.

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Any number of Springsteen albums could have made this list; a strong argument could especially be made for The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle. But it's Born to Run that pulled everything together. The songs are simply Springsteen's best, from "Thunder Road" to "Jungleland" to the title track, and the production shows Bruce's love for and mastery of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. This album never fails to hit me hard.

Steely Dan: Katy Lied

How to pick just one Steely Dan album for the list? While many would choose Aja as Becker and Fagen's best, and argument could also be made for Pretzel Logic or The Royal Scam, I come back to Katy Lied as their best (and least pretentious) combination of catchy tunes, obscure lyrics, and crystal-clear production. I especially like the piano sound on this one; it gives tracks like "Doctor Wu" and "Bad Sneakers" a special sheen.

Al Stewart: Year of the Cat

Al Stewart doesn't make anyone else's top ten lists, but this album has long been a personal favorite of mine. To my ears, it's as close to perfect as an album can get, filled with literate lyrics and a classy Alan Parsons production. The title song is as good a piece of writing as you're going to find, and all the other songs are almost as good. Personal favorite: "Sand in Your Shoes," with the wistful final line, "I never got the letters that you said you'd send to me..."

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Again, there are a number of Stevie Wonder albums that I could have listed. Very strong argument could certainly be made for including Innervisions, Talking Book, Fulfillingness First Finale, or even Music of My Mind. But Songs in the Key of Life is epic, Stevie's two-and-a-half disc masterpiece; every song on here is memorable. It's really the peak of his artistic career.

Honorable mentions include Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and -- if you bend the rules a bit -- Nanci Griffith's One Fair Summer Evening and the Phil Spector Back to Mono boxed set. And one final mention to Brian Wilson's long-awaited and recently-released Smile, which very well might have been the top album of all time had it only been released when it was supposed to have been, back in the 1960s.

Anyway, these aren't necessarily the best albums ever released (although some no doubt are), they're just my personal favorites. But that's just my opinion, of course -- reasonable minds (and ears) may disagree.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

More social insecurity

More thoughts on the so-called Social Security "crisis"...

The current administration is being just a little bit sneaky by talking about solving the "crisis" (actually a short-term cash crunch) and instituting private accounts all in the same breath. That's because these are two very separate issues, and instituting one (private accounts) doesn't in any way solve the other (the cash crunch).

First, the cash crunch. It's simple math, really. At some point in time (projected to be 2042 or so), the shear numbers of the Baby Boomer generation start to overwhelm Social Security's cash reserves. That is, in about thirty-five years or so, there will be more people drawing benefits than paying into the fund, hence the cash crunch. Of course, the cash crunch is only temporary; at some point after 2042, the Baby Boomers start to die off, and then we'll be left with more people paying into the fund than withdrawing from it -- the mirror-image cash surplus awaiting the retiring Gen X'ers. Still, if nothing is done to shore up the fund in the meantime, something will have to happen in 2042; the expected something being a reduction in benefits paid, to the tune of 75% of the current level. Not an immediate "crisis" (again, I'll probably be dead before this hits), but something to plan for.

The easiest way to fix the short-term cash crunch is to simply funnel more money into the fund, and the easiest way to do this is to raise the cap on contributions from its current $82K level to $100K or so. Today, you only pay into the fund for your first $82K in yearly income; anything you make over $82K isn't subject to the Social Security tax. Simply raise the taxable level a bit, which is relatively painless to do (and has the added benefit of not affecting lower- and middle-income workers), and the problem goes away. Voila!

The issue of privatizing Social Security is something entirely different, although the Bushies would like you to think they're somehow connected. Funneling currently public funds into private investment accounts doesn't do one thing to solve the cash crunch, and actually accelerates it; if some percent of SS funds no longer flow into the general SS fund (instead being funneled into private investment accounts), then that's even less cash on hand to pay out to the retiring Baby Boomers. So in terms of solving the SS cash crunch, privatization is a non-starter.

What privatizing SS would do is turn our current social insurance plan into yet another investment scheme. And, while it's possible that some savvy citizens could earn more on their funds than the government currently does, it's also probable that some citizens will earn less. That's the way investing goes, you know -- there are winners and there are losers. And unless you're very diligent and somewhat lucky, you're more likely to be a loser than a winner. Do you really want to risk your retirement income like this?

Besides, as I wrote in my last post, Social Security was never designed to be an investment. Social Security is an insurance plan against running out of money when we grow old. "Rate of return" doesn't factor into things when you're dealing with insurance; reliability does. Our current system is highly reliable, a very effective insurance for our golden years. I (and most Americans) see absolutely no reason to change from the insurance model to the investment model. Besides, if we want to invest, we can -- that's what IRAs and 401(k)s are for.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Social Security: Insurance or investment?

The Bushies have miscalculated badly on the Social Security issue. First, they're having difficulty convincing today's what's in it for me in the short term populace that a funding crunch thirty-odd years into the future is a "crisis." (Hell, I'll be dead by the time things come to a head -- what do I care?) Second, they've badly misestimated the average American's desire for security without risk -- exactly what Social Security was meant to ensure in the first place.

You see, the Bushies and their fat-cat Wall Street friends want to convert everyone in America into one of the "investment class," by letting them invest part of their Social Security funds into private (or what they call "personal") accounts. The problem is, the average American doesn't want to be an investor. They view the stock market as Las Vegas for capitalists -- and while they're okay with playing the slots in Sin City, they're less wild about gambling away their retirement money. What they want for retirement is a big cushy ol' safety net -- the type of retirement insurance that Social Security promises -- not the high-risk gamble that the stock market presents. (And those few who have done some investing in the past are no doubt still tending their deep bruises after the market crash of a few years back; if they're like me, their IRAs and 401(k)s are still partially submerged.)

The difference is that the Bushies view Social Security as some sort of investment (and argue that your dollars can be invested better elsewhere), while the average American views Social Security as an insurance plan. You put in your X number of dollars a month, and then when you need the insurance, it's there. You're covered, and it's not about the return on your investment -- because insurance isn't an investment, it's protection. Social Security was never intended to be an instrument of investment, it was meant to be an insurance policy for when we're old. The Bushies not only see it in the wrong way, they see Americans equally incorrectly. Investment is risky (and we don't like risks), and don't you dare go messing with our old-age insurance.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.