Monday, July 25, 2016

Vital Media

It has been said that accurate, timely, appropriately contextualized and publicly relevant information is what is required for democracy. The problem that will always dog the media in this is that as far as the public is concerned, there is a fifth criterion - the information presented must also be interesting, desirable or otherwise PERSONALLY relevant, and that can often trump the other four. There isn't a central group or organization that shells out journalists salaries to make sure that information is made available for its own sake. Therefore, the media's daily bread depends to a large degree on their ability to present information that people are willing to pay and/or endure advertising for. (Before you hold up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio et al, as exceptions, two words: pledge drives.)

Whether the job of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Saint Petersburg Times, American Broadcasting Company, Chicago Tribune, WFAA or the Independent is to inform the public about the community and the world around them in such a way that they can be informed and active members of the community or to make money is not for me to say. And while there's nothing that says that the two are mutually exclusive, nothing prevents them from being in conflict. My personal impression is that, like any other business, many media outlets are most interested in the bottom line. And that means that, sometimes, stories that are useful to the working of democracy are bumped in favor of stories that are useful in attracting readers and advertisers. And it can also mean avoiding stories that might cause a backlash against the outlet.

To the degree that I understand that Media critics feel the media's flaw is a tendency to allow the needs of business to trump the needs of democracy (or republicanism, if you feel the need to be precise), I wouldn't say that's a flaw with the media. Businesses that fold because they ignored the desires of their customers aren't any help to civil society either. Despite the complaints of activists, the warm fuzzies that come from knowing that you've done your part to advance the free world don't pay the bills or buy food or clothing. And I also doubt that the activist assumption that accurate, timely, appropriately contextualized and publicly relevant information would, by it's very nature also be interesting, desirable and/or personally relevant.

Once the prevailing attitude among the general public becomes that the media's flaw is that they are unready, unwilling and/or unable to provide information that reliably meets ANY of the criteria, formal media outlets become irrelevant to everyday life, they will be considered vital to nothing, save perhaps some special interest somewhere. Then people who want information will turn to what they consider to be more reliable sources, be those weblogs, conversations with neighbors and friends or press releases from organizations with more credibility.

While it is an adage in business that the customer gets what the customer wants, activists tend to see business has having an obligation to look out for the public and provide what the activists feel the public needs, regardless of the business viability of such a tactic. I'm not sure that the assertion that one does a valuable service in attempting to be a jack of both trades rings true to me, given that it's fairly easy to find masters of one discipline or the other.

People on both sides of the political continuum like to complain that the media's tendency to look out for its bottom line as being both an attack on the truth (since the truth would obviously favor them) and the ability of the public to meaningfully participate in government (since objective reporting would reveal the wisdom and/or efficacy of their candidates and policies). But they don't then answer the question of how else one builds a viable business - or keeps "public-interest" reporting from being ignored in favor of what people want to know.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Hidden

When it was pointed out by Steve Inskeep that Donald Trump was polling "way behind" Hillary Clinton in certain surveys, Florida Republican delegate Dena DeCamp replied: "Yes, I know. But let me just tell you - first of all, we think people aren't really telling the truth because they don't want people to know they're voting for Donald Trump."

I've been hearing about a "reverse Bradley Effect" when it comes to Trump voters for some time, and I've been curious about it. Mainly because I don't really see voting for Mr. Trump as such a socially unacceptable thing (after all, he did win the nomination of a major political party) that people would actively hide it. On the flip side of that coin, however, the conclusion of a randomized trial of nearly 2,500 Republican and Republican-leaning Independents concludes: "The study finds that Trump performs about six percentage points better online than via live telephone interviewing and that his advantage online is driven by adults with higher levels of education." The presumption there is that social desirability bias prevented some of the people who had been selected to answer questions via a live telephone interview from owning up to their support for Mr. Trump.

"What happens is the elites, the establishment all pile on. The average citizen will not tell pollsters the truth," Newt Gingrich, a Trump surrogate, said Tuesday morning on Fox News. "You get much better results for Trump for example in a computerized online poll than a telephone poll because people don't want to tell the pollster something they think is not socially acceptable."
The Trump Effect
Similarly, there is an article from The Guardian from few months ago that also notes a secret constituency for Mr. Trump that ranges all over the political spectrum, from people who saw themselves as otherwise natural supporters of Republican candidates like Senator Ted Cruz to diehard Senator Bernie Sanders supporters. And one of the threads that ran through that story was how "the left’s stranglehold on the national conversation" was stifling the ability to speak their minds about things. Which is a point that I've heard raised in other discussions of secret Trumpism - the idea that what is viewed as a active, vocal and somewhat dangerous minority within the America public has made any disagreement with them dangerous, and so much as breathing a word that they find unpalatable becomes grounds for consequences from harassment to outright violence.

And in this, we see not only the concept of a silent majority, but of a silenced majority - a populace too afraid of the potential blowback of open honestly to engage in it, even when their words are unlikely to attributed to them later.

This narrative strikes me as one that serves several different functions. One is that it allows for selectively ignoring polling that one disagrees with (which I feel creates problems for candidates, because it downplays the need for outreach). Another it that is casts Trump voters as victims of an oppressive liberalism, which becomes another reason to view that liberalism as morally suspect at best. And it allows supporters of a Trump presidency to see themselves as the vanguard of a majoritarian movement, and not a vocal and passionate minority. It will be interesting to see how this narrative plays out, especially once the election had been decided. Does it quietly fade away, or does it change with the times and become something new.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Conor Friedersdorf is wondering:

I cannot help but wonder if there are American communities that would be well-served by the presence of Amnesty International human-rights observers to document the human-rights abuses that happen on a weekly basis; I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the folks who govern America from the federal to the local level were as determined to significantly decrease the murder rate in poor black neighborhoods as they are to prevent all violence at the RNC and DNC with professional police officers who do not abuse the delegates or the media or party officials.
For myself, I wonder: What's in it for them?

What's in it for Amnesty International to set themselves up in poor and minority neighborhoods and produce a grim litany of the problems that residence face on a regular basis? Greater legitimacy? More donations? A higher level of influence? Likewise, what's in it for officials from federal, state and local government to commit to making marginal parts of the country as safe as gatherings of the influential and connected? More tax dollars? Higher approval ratings? A greater political legacy?

Policing costs money. Ubiquitous, high-quality policing costs a LOT of money. And despite the general sentiment that one often hears expressed that claims that people are priceless, the fact of the matter is that we often look for the return on investment of the goods and services we offer to people, and where that return is perceived to be lacking, the investment dries up.

The observers from Amnesty International and the massive police presence are there because they serve someone's purposes, and those purposes are considered to be worth the monetary outlay needed to fulfill them. Poor communities don't have the resources to lay out that money themselves, which is part of what makes them poor in the first place. But another part of what makes them poor is they're not valuable enough to anyone else for others to foot the bill, either.

Human-rights campaigners would likely consider it a major victory if they were able to document clear rights abuses associated with the Republican National Convention. And heads would roll if there were a reasonably serious criminal act, "terrorist" attack or protest-fueled riot at the event. In short, people are watching, because they care what happens, and that scrutiny drives AI and the law-enforcement community to spend resources. That same level of scrutiny, or perhaps any level of scrutiny is absent from poor and minority communities.

When that changes, if it ever does, then we'll see the calculus of involvement change with it.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Why Are So Many Millennials Having Children Out of Wedlock?” strikes me as an odd title for an article. I get the feeling, sometimes, that we see so many articles on childbearing among the unmarried because it’s the only time that most people will ever be able to use the term “wedlock” in a sentence and keep a straight face. (Or maybe it’s bait for older people and conservatives, who sometimes appear to view marriage as a life sentence for the crime of being sexual.)

But the general gist of this article is that “Millennials” are forgoing marriage because there aren’t that many decent “medium skilled” jobs out there, and so their prospective partners don’t bring in enough money to be good matches. And that’s where the article strikes me as strange. I understand the idea that the higher the level of one’s education and the more one is paid, the more attractive one becomes as a potential partner. When I was a young college freshman, driving my father’s Mercedes convertible onto campus immediately raised the interest level in me from what seemed like zero to a constant buzz. Love may make the world go around, but it shares that distinction with money, and the perception thereof.

So I understand the idea that: “Men without well-paying jobs are not seen as marriage material. ‘These men would be less desirable as marriage partners because of their reduced earning potential,’ writes [Andrew] Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins and the main author of the study.” Okay, this explains why people in the “Millennial” generation aren’t rushing to the altar. There simply aren’t that many men in the “well educated and well-paid” segment of the overall demographic. So we have “Out of Wedlock” taken care of.

What the article doesn’t explain, at all really, is the “Having Children” bit. It seems to take it as a given that the ages of 26 to 31 are just the time to have a child or three. And in doing so, leaves what strikes me as the important question of the article unanswered. Because in my mind’s ear, I can sort of hear the conversation that the article sort of assumes is taking place:

Jane: Jack’s a nice guy, and I’m going to have his baby, but I don’t know if I want to marry him.
Jill: What’s wrong with him?
Jane: He’s got a pretty shit job, and doesn’t make much money.
Jill: Less money than raising the child by yourself?
Because maybe it’s just me, but I always sort of figured that a guy who’s undesirable as a marriage partner because he’s broke would be pretty undesirable as a parenting partner for pretty much the same reason. I must have slept through the part of biology class when they went over how babies are made of money. And before you give me any grief about how the welfare system makes having children profitable - I worked in social service for years. Anyone who tells you that the state provides more money than it costs to raise a child is an idiot. I dealt with enough foster parents who felt that they’d been ripped off by having to meet a child’s expenses out of their own pockets to know.
They also found that in areas where men outnumber women, a women is more likely to get married before having a child. The reasoning for this has more to do with money than love. “This is consistent with the idea that when women are in short supply, they can bargain more effectively for marriage or a partnership prior to childbirth,” the authors write.
This reading of the data makes childbirth seem like as inevitable as one’s birthday - a fixed point in time that’s useful for judging whether or not other events have happened, but not a choice in and of itself. And maybe for many people born in the years between 1980 and 1986 having a child became seen as something other than a choice to be freely made. But if that’s the case - there’s a story in that, and one that we should likely know.

So, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to answer the question of “Why are so many unmarried Millennials having children?” a good place to start is why they seem compelled to have children when they know that they aren’t going to have a financially stable partner to offset some of the costs. Simply treating childbearing as a given ignores so much of what’s at stake in favor of a well-worn narrative of youthful poverty that we don’t learn anything useful.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghost Bike