Friday, December 21, 2012

The NRA is not stupid ...

These thoughts were passed along to me from a friend's spouse. If he posts them himself I'll link. Till then, I thought it important to share this insight now, early in the debate:

"The NRA is not stupid. They are trying to re-frame the gun debate and tangle everyone up in an issue that is ridiculous. 

"Instead of focusing on "How can we prevent assault weapons from falling into the hands of lunatics," they want the question to be "How can we arm the schools."

"A vigorous debate about arming the schools is a good way to prevent a REAL debate and action on the more central issue at hand: limiting access to weapons of war. This is exactly the fight that the NRA wants since its really a diversion that they hope occupies us for 6 months, after which it will be much easier to stop gun legislation from passing."

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Friday, December 07, 2012

Alaska becoming a swing state? Not so fast, Mr. Silver

I took mild issue with Nate Silver on Twitter yesterday about his article "Alaska: Future Swing State?" I said it was "proof that Silver is better with numbers than analysis."


Ted Cuzillo (@datadoodle) asked what I’d have said if I was his editor and promised him more than 140 characters in reply. Here goes:


First, I’m a longtime Nate Silver fan. We were practicing data-driven journalism in Alaska in the 1980s (check this Time Magazine piece). I made myself look smart in 2008 by paying attention to him earlier than most folks, was one of the few who recognized him before his first talk at the TED Active gathering a year later, and I won bets based on his projections this year. (I’m retired now and Margaret Sullivan can’t tell me who to bet with).


My complaint with his Alaska post boils down to this: it has the feel of something written quickly to meet a deadline without much thought. It takes a couple of interesting facts—Obama lost Alaska by less in 2012 than 2008, and many of its immigrants come from states far bluer than Alaska—and spins them into a conclusion that doesn’t make sense even with its classic question mark headline. It’s a nice contrararian twist, but nobody I know who follows Alaska politics gives it much credence.


Of course, future is a big word, so I won’t argue Alaska won’t be a swing state sometime in the future. But I will argue that it won’t be soon. I’d be willing to bet Texas is in play before that.


I grew up in Anchorage and practiced journalism there for 25 years. Much of that time the state really was in play, electing a moderate and environmentalist Republican governor over a gung-ho developer and turning the State House into a frat party filled with dissident, under-30 Democrats. But those days are long gone.


I was in Juneau the weekend McCain named her to the ticket and talked for days with Alaska politicos about the stunning news. I was back for two weeks this year in April on a book tour (Write Hard, Die Free, since you asked) and heard from folks from Fairbanks to Juneau about where Alaska is heading. 


The truth is, the current governor is far more conservative and pro-oil than Sarah Palin, though perhaps not as nutty. (Hard to tell; his nickname is Capt. Zero). He’s worked tirelessly to return billions of tax dollars collected from oil companies, thwarted only by a bipartisan coalition controlling the State Senate. 


As of the last election, that coalition is gone. Voters sent pure, pro-oil Republicans to Juneau instead.


I’ve argued Alaska has become a classic oil colony, at least as enthralled as Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, and there’s voter behavior continues to demonstrate that. The fact that oil revenues fund an endowment paying Alaskans $1,000-2,000 per person each year looms over the state’s political landscape like Denali.


Nate’s most persuasive arugment is really just an undeveloped notion: that because many immigrants come from more liberal states (California and Washington mainly) those new arrivals will probably make the state more liberal. But that assumes facts not in evidence, namely that the people who leave California for Alaska are as liberal as the people who stay in the sunshine. Could they instead be people for whom California has become too liberal, refugees from the welfare state?


I don’t know. Neither does Nate.


Anyhow, this is much more ado than the subject deserves. I didn’t intend to make a big deal out of it. But I promised to expand on my snap Twitter opinion, and now I have.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

Manifestations of Nate Silver's analytical journalism in the 1980s

With all the Nate Silver inspired debates about analytical journalism going on, I can't resist referring to the work Richard Mauer, Larry Makinson and others did at the Anchorage Daily News in the 1980s-1990s.

Using a Macintosh 512 and Fourth Dimension database software, we computerized all state campaign donation records long before the State of Alaska had done so. We kept databases of sources. We put the headlines, front page and classifieds online with a BBS system long before the World Wide Web was born.

Not suprisingly, this is noted in my book, Write Hard, Die Free.

See story below for some early recognition from Time magazine

 in 1986.

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Today we face another crisis too valuable to waste

A veteran political observer I know is fond of quoting the aphorism, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

It means, among other things, that sometimes only crisis can break through governing gridlock and make things happen. In today’s climate that feels truer than ever.

I argued after 9-11 that President Bush in that rare moment of global solidarity with the U.S. had a chance to reshape the geopolitical landscape. Terrorists in al-Qaeda and the Taliban needed to be destroyed. But so did the epidemics of poverty, disease and ignorance that were the breeding ground of those attackers. A generation of citizens would gladly have enlisted into such a battle backed by leadership and national resolve, and might have done great good.

That opportunity was squandered, like so much else, in the bombs over Baghdad.

Today we face another crisis too valuable to waste, and there will be opportunity for a newly reelected President Obama to make good on this one.

The crisis is climate change. It’s been upon for a long time, but now it comes to the fore in a way that could animate meaningful response. Upon the solid foundation of what we know beyond reasonable doubt about climate crisis, add layers of the Sandy superstorm disaster; the understanding that our national infrastructure is old and eroded in any case; and the certainty that our economy still needs invigoration.

A resolute second-term president with a majority in the U.S. Senate could perhaps turn these ingredients into a national crusade with winners on many fronts. Citizens, sickened by a multi-billion dollar mud bath of partisan campaigning, could be rallied by a persuasive president with an optimistic vision for the future as understandable as it was comprehensive. The Senate would need to use the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster; fine, do so immediately. The House, perhaps at least mildly chastened by election results, would be easier to engage. 

I’m too old for simple naiveté. But I’ve also read enough history to know societies with great leaders and extraordinary circumstances can accomplish unimaginable feats. Israel’s founder and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion said of his country, “in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” In this day, no less than his, we need them.


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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whatever happened to facts?

For several years now I've been giving a talk at journalism conferences and classrooms I called "Whatever happened to facts?" I took as my starting point a brilliant headline from The Onion, which said, "One in five Americans now believes Obama is a cactus."

Clay Shirky, in characteristically sweeping and insightful style, today weighs in on roughly the same subject with a different (though not contradictory) tack. One of his conclusions? This isn't such a bad thing. 

The headline on the Poynter Institute excerpt reads ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’ He’s right about that, and it changes things.

For 40 years, I played "you-bet-your-career" on roughly these assumptions: that verified information is more valuable than rumors, opinions or speculation; that broad debate yields better results than narrowed discussion; and that an open mind is more productive than a closed one. 

Playing by the rules of the time, I won big. I had a satisfying and, I’d argue, productive career.

But as Shirky makes clear, whether we like it or not, the old rules have been irrevocably altered. Let me offer a few observations to supplement his argument about that.

People have been arguing about “What is truth?” at least since Aristotle and there never has been a consensus. (The Vatican could make Galileo kneel and mumble, but he didn't change his mind.) Newspaper journalists certainly did not find the key to that puzzle, but we did develop working tools that helped us manage. In “News Values: Ideas for an information age” Jack Fuller called these “the truth discipline,” and while I never heard it described that way in a newsroom, I learned and incorporated the principles into my bones.

In answering journalists’ more circumscribed question—“Is this true enough to print?”—we went through a simple but effective process: Had we talked to everybody involved? If there were documents, had we gathered and read them? Had we compared these events to others like them? What had otherwise been said or done about it recently? And so forth.

When it seemed appropriate, we’d also rely on citation of authority: university professors, or learned jurists or published authors. Shirky’s paper makes short work of this practice.

I continue to believe that an honest scientist who’s been studying something for 30 years is more to be trusted than a previously unknown activist with a website. In general it seems like most people would agree with that, but in specific we find many people don't.

- More than half the GOP voters in the presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi this election said afterward that they believe President Obama is a Muslim. 

-In Texas, Republican members of an elected textbook review commission eliminated reference to Thomas Jefferson from a list of inspirational revolutionaries and defeated a proposal to include the thought that “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

- And in 2010, a Pew study found belief in global climate change fell from 79% among U.S. adults to 59% — despite the fact that scientific consensus has grown more certain over the same time.

Sure, bring on your truth vigilantes, for all the good they do. PoliFact would vote the assertion there were “death panels” in Obamacare as the Lie of the Year, but two years later variants still surfaced at the vice presidential debate. The president pleaded “Get the transcript” when his challenger questioned his Rose Garden remarks about Libya at a presidential debate this week; we did, but soon found partisans raging about whether “act of terror” means the same thing as “terrorism.”

All of this makes it harder to be a journalist the way I tried to be for all those years, but that pales in comparison to the obstacles it creates for being a citizen. Put plainly, we can’t have a democracy without civic conversation, and we can’t have civic conversations without a shared vocabulary. The one traditionally supplied by the press was imperfect, but it was intelligible.

The state of journalism today is a classic example of what physicists call a phase transition, the transformation of a system from one state to another. In physics that’s defined by turbulence, uncertainty and chaos, a place where “complexity is maximal.” Sure sounds like the news business to me.

The good news is that phase transitions lead to something new. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t want to change from ice to water, or from water to gaseous steam. Change you will, though you’ll still be H2O.

David Carr has discussed an emerging news ecosystem “in which we 'move toward correctness' and truth eventually emerges.” That seems sensible to me, and I want to close by suggesting a few ways in which we are learning (or could learn) to get there quicker.

- The reputation marketplace. When he established eBay, Pierre Omidyar had a problem. He could connect record collectors in Alaska with suppliers in New Jersey, but how could he convince me to send money to a guy I’d never heard of? His answer was the system of mutual ratings by which buyers and sellers vouched for one another and built up credibility by honest performance. The process is vastly more sophisticated today but at its heart honest performance is still what we want to rate and promote in journalism. (Omidyar, interestingly, is running a journalistic enterprise in Honolulu today. Disclosure: I did some work for them);

- Algorithmic authority. We generally trust Google’s secret rating system to sort our search results, placing the best ones (by some criteria) on top. It’s far from perfect but in practical terms it works, kind of like the old “truth discipline” journalists once used. We can incorporate the algorithmic lessons learned by Google and countless others into our search for journalistic authority, as well;

- Provisional authority. Wikipedia has taught us many things about authority, most of them helpful. We’ve learned not to look to the iconic site for an immutable answer; what it says may change before tomorrow. But at the moment it represents something like an evolving consensus of the facts, as well balanced and presented as feasible. News reporting has always been like that, though we didn’t admit it. We can learn from and use Wikipedia as we improve;

- The authority of transparency. Replacing the “view from nowhere” with a discussion of “where are you coming from”—Jay Rosen’s now famous challenge to the press—certainly can speak to credibility. In my view this isn’t a zero-sum decision (all or nothing, all the time) but it surely will be a fundamental component in the new news ecosystem. Services like Talking Points Memo prove that every day;

- Transparency Two: Show your work. When your fourth grade teacher assigned math homework, it probably wasn’t enough to turn in the right answers. Chances are you were told to “show your work” to prove you knew what you were doing. Journalists have always done a little of this and are starting to do more. But showing some links and posting some documents isn’t enough. It would be relatively easy and valuable, I believe, to turn up this dial up to 11. There are many ways to practice this principle; you can find some beginning steps here.




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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The "postmodern sublime"

This is taken from a blog post I did in July 2008 at Etaoin Shrdlu:


Utopian or distopian? At the moment, things feel precisely like the condition social theorist Fredric Jameson described as “the postmodern sublime” – the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. Will CareerBuilder’s trustworthiness and value-added features be able to compete with the fraud-and-freebies world of Craigslist? Will readers value verified and edited stories more than group-sourced wikinews? Can somebody figure out how to pay for the professionalism we think these tasks demand?

And will somebody discover a cure for baldness and aging before the terrorist biologist brews up a virus that eats us all? Stay tuned for the conclusion in a future episode.

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