Monday, January 25, 2010

A Very Bad Week for America

America and democracy just had a very bad week.

The biggest headlines were garnered by the truly shocking victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.  Brown won the Senate seat that had been held for decades by Teddy Kennedy and will represent the only state to vote for George McGovern.

That surprise was the result of democracy in action.  The people of Massachusetts have spoken and it is what it is.  The bad part is that somehow the will of the people doesn't matter any more in the Senate.  For the first time in my lifetime, it now takes 60 votes to pass anything.  Now that Brown has joined the 40 other GOP Senators from the Confederacy and the Wilderness states, they can essentially make sure that nothing happens in Congress this year even though they represent states that have just 20 percent of the population.

In short, the will of 80 percent of Americans can be thwarted by representatives of 20 percent due to a quirk in Senate rules.  I'm pretty sure that's not what the Founding Fathers--or anyone else--had in mind.  Not good for America.

Then the Bush-stacked Supreme Court checked in with a 5-4 ruling that gives corporations the right to spend an unlimited amount of money on political advertising.  During the health care reform debate we have already seen how little corporations care about the welfare of the people and how much they care about promoting their own profits.

More than $500 million has been spent on Congressional health care lobbying by the drug and health care companies.  That's about $1 million per member of Congress.  That's over and above the millions that the drug and health care companies recently contributed to the campaigns of Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, the ranking members of the Senate committee that gutted the final bill.

As a result, we will end up with either no health care reform at all or some watered-down version that will accomplish little.  This is occurring at a time when 50 million Americans are uninsured and more than half of all personal bankruptcies are due to a catastrophic illness.  No one who is not on Medicare is happy with their health care insurance which costs more and more each year and covers less and less.

The Constitution begins with the words "We the People"--not We the Corporations. It seems like a strained interpretation at best to grant profit-making companies unlimited access to mind-bending advertising in the name of free speech. At the end of the day, we will certainly end up with more lies, distortions, and half-truths designed to get Americans whipped up and angry over provisions that are probably in their best interest but which might cost companies profits. Not good for America.

Finally, it seems that pundits on both sides of the aisle have deemed Obama's presidency an abject failure and are counting the minutes for just three more short years before we can replace the bum.

I find all this fascinating and yet another step forward in the lies and distortions become fact mode of our media and the perpetually angry people who are...well, perpetually angry.

I mean we do have a president who has put in place economic policies that caused the stock market to rise more than 60 percent creating more than $5 trillion in net worth for average Americans. That 10 month rally began at a time when most experts were advising investors to put their money in safe t-bills at zero percent after their portfolios had already been destroyed.

He is also a president who has made it very hard for the terrorists around the world to raise money or recruit new suicide bombers since he has reached out to dialogue with our international friends and enemies instead of lecturing and threatening them. His earning the Nobel Peace prize was not all that popular on Fox News but it was a good sign that the rest of the world appreciates what he has been doing.

But the election in Massachusetts and the reaction of the media and markets is sending a message to our friends and enemies that the American people may not be firmly behind our president anymore. As a result, our creditors (the same friends and enemies around the world) have pulled back from our markets causing the biggest one week decline of the year in stock prices. Not good for America.

So we've had a rough week. That much I know for sure. As far as the deeper meaning of all these developments is concerned I don't really have a clue. As always, I'm pretty sure that most of the pundits have it wrong. I'm also completely certain that the anger that I see in emails, blogs, and the broadcast media will only rise since there seems to be so much money to be made from that approach.

As far as the long term impact is concerned, we'll all just have to stay tuned. But there IS one thing I know for sure.

None of it is good for America.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Windows and Mirrors

Any house that we would want to inhabit should have a good number of both windows and mirrors. The windows are needed so we can look through them and see what is going on outside the house.  The mirrors are needed inside so we can look back at ourselves critically with an eye toward self-improvement. 

The balance is important.  In a house with only mirrors and no windows, we might conclude that we are perfect just the way we are since we would have no external standards or basis for comparison.

I started thinking about this after having lunch with a friend of mine who is truly an expert on the situation in the Middle East. He works as a consultant to armies and governments here and around the world advising them on a broad range of strategic and security issues. When I'm with him I sometimes don't know if I should feel super safe or scared to death.

He was talking about Al Jazeera, the Arab owned and operated TV news station that is carried around the world but is the only news option in many Middle Eastern countries.   "Television news is supposed to be a window to the world," he said. "It is supposed to broaden your horizons. But the way Al Jazeera operates, it is really a mirror--not a window. Their viewers don't get to see what's outside. All they get is what's going on inside flashed right back at them and the call it news."

In many Arab countries, Al Jazeera is the only news source available. Most citizens there don't have the choices that we have in the Western World.

But despite our limitless choices, we live in a society where millions of us have voluntarilty wrapped ourselves in a windowless news and information cocoon where the only thoughts, information, and opinions we choose to hear are those that confirm the beliefs we already had to begin with.

There is actually a name for this phenomenon--or pathology. It is called Confirmation Bias. It is defined by multiple sources as "a tendancy of people to prefer information that confirms their prevailing beliefs or hypotheses regardless of whether or not it is true. It can lead to disastrous consequences--particularly in military or political situations."

When I was a television news reporter a few decades ago, it was harder to avoid the windows and surround yourself with mirrors. There were 3 national television networks and they all broadcast the news in a pretty straight-forward manner. I can remember being told that a really good reporter or journalist was one whose personal beliefs on a issue were impossible to determine.

I watched Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley for many years and they became my role models  To this day I have no idea what their personal politics were or how they voted. And I really didn't care. I was using them as a window--to inform me what was going on in the vast world outside. That was their job--not to tell me how I should feel or which candidate to support.

During my 10 years as a reporter, my editors repeatedly hammered home the need to be fair and objective and not let any personal feelings I might have get in the way of my reporting.  They were also obsessed with fact-checking and accuracy.  I never had to run a retraction because I never reported anything as fact that wasn't true.  If we couldn't prove it, we didn't report it. 

But times have changed and the architecture of our media houses has changed as well.  We now have a proliferation of 24-7 news, opinion, and reality shows (often undifferentiated) coming from dozens of television networks.  Most of the time there is just not that much compelling news going on, so virtually all television, radio, and internet news programming is geared to provide us with flash, controversy, and titilation. 

For decades we have been able to listen to sporting events broadcast by the home town announcers who want our team to win every bit as much as we do.  Our Confirmation Bias causes most of us to prefer listening to our sporting events that way.  But now we can get our news the same way--delivered by celebrities who are more concerned about being the first with exclusive details on the Balloon Boy than they are about determining if they are promoting a hoax.  They are pushers of of biased presentations designed not to inform us but to feed our addiction and make us feel smart about the beliefs we already have.
A person on the political Right can get all his television news from Fox and when he is in his car he can choose from literally dozens of perpetually angry people who creatively and loudly blame Liberals and Democrats for all of the real and imagined horrible crimes and disasters that afflict us daily. If this person is ever away from radio and television, he can go on line to hundreds of websites devoted to the same agenda while sorting through the dozens of forwarded emails he receives daily from his friends hammering home the same message.

It is possible, although slightly more difficult, for a person on the political Left to do the same. They can get all their news from MSNBC and listen to National Public Radio and Democracy Now in their cars but the choices are far more limited and lack the volume and their inability to match the visceral anger of the Right  Liberals also tend to forward fewer emails. 

But let's be honest.  Fox made $700 million last year--more than all the other cable channels combined.  Its CEO Roger Ailes made $23 million.  There are dozens of angry Right wing radio hosts for every angry Leftie and Rush and friends are making millions while their Liberal counterparts are on NPR and living on food stamps.   Fox is in a class by itself since it creates the news and promotes phenomena like the Tea Parties, sends its "reporters" to appear in them--often for a big fee, then reports on the very news they have helped create, and they make a fortune every step of the way.  There are living in the mirrored penthouse cocoon while the Left wing wannabes like MSNBC are in the mirrored housing projects. 

It's partly because they're better at it but mainly because their customer base is so much larger.  My friends on the Left who live in an information cocoon know they are doing so and they're comfortable with it because they believe they are smart and Right wingers are stupid.  My friends on the Right actually believe they are getting Fair and Balanced news and that Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh are giving them a broad view of the world.

But the net effect is the same. Millions of people now go through life feeling well informed and very much on top of the major events in the world even though they spend all their time looking in the Confirmation Bias mirrors and they have no enthusiasm for windows at all.

Four years ago, the Vice-President Dick Cheney came here to Tucson to make a fund-raising speech. The local newspaper did a story on the accommodation requirements of the V.P. I was quite taken by the fact that Cheney's advance team told the hotel that only two things were absolutely required. The first was that there be decaf coffee, 4 cans of regular Sprite and a tub of ice in the room. The second was that all the TVs in the room be tuned to Fox News before Cheney arrived.

The Vice-President of the United States was so determined to be only exposed to the Fox version of events that he didn't want to run the risk of having the TV stop on CNN or MSNBC even for a second as he was searching for his TV mirror. So it had to be set up in advance.

I read that article shortly after President Bush stated in a interview--without embarrassment--that he never read the newspapers or watched or listened to radio or TV news. He said that his staff filled him in on all the news he needed to know. I was later able to better understand how Bush spent four days riding his bike and clearing brush in Crawford, Texas after Katrina--apparently oblivious to the tragedy that the rest of us were watching unfold on TV. Bush wasn't watching TV, and none of his staff had the guts to break the news to him.

Many of my liberal friends are different--but no better. They tend to be more aware of a broader range of opinions and points of view that are floating around. But they just assume that the positiions they agree with are so logical and superior that everyone will gravitate in that direction. They are dissmissive of views to the Right of them in a very condescending and annoying way.

At the end of the day, my Right wing friends would rather die than read the New York Times, watch MSNBC, or log on to the Huffington Post. My Left wing friends would never watch Fox News, read the editorial page of the Fox-owned Wall Street Journal, or boot up the Drudge Report. Not only would they never look out the window to see what's going on in those other places--they would look at me as though I was crazy for even suggesting it.

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the importance of pluralism--the ability to find the partial truth in the opinions of those with whom we disagree. Or at least to try. That was the reason that this committed Jew leapt at the chance to study Buddhism for several days with the Dalai Lama and his teachers. It was an amazing experience during which I looked through a window and learned from Buddhist wisdom in a way that I hope has made me a better Jew and human being. 

But unless we as a people start replacing some of the mirrors in our houses with windows, we are going to end up like the millions of people under repressive regimes who watch Confirmation Bias disguised as news all the time. The sad difference is that those people have no choice.  We do.

We chose to leave a house that had both windows and mirrors.  We chose to abandon a history of national dialogue and a level of civility based on windows and mirrors that served our democracy well for centuries.  Instead we have allowed modern technology and the profit-hungry media to brick over all the windows and have chosen to surround ourselves with mirrors.

And all we have to show for it is more and more anger, hatred, lies, and distortions. Instead of getting all our information and feedback from those mirrors, maybe we should spend more time looking long and hard into them and taking a good look of what living in our new house has done to us as a people.

Both the blessing and the curse of democracy is that we own the results of the choices we make.  We will get the kind of government and the level of civil discourse the we demand and deserve.  But we won't find it by only looking in the mirror.  We need to look out the window and find a higher standard for our national dialogue and our own behavior.