Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Guessing the Future

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Guessing the Future

October is just about over and there has been no October Surprise that would change the political equation regarding the upcoming midterm elections. This looks bad for the Republicans, although they do have a marvelous "get out the vote" operation, and there's this -

    The races in Michigan exemplify the power of political and racial gerrymandering, which can make some incumbents feel safe even in a campaign year soured by the Iraq war, corruption scandals and pockets of economic misery. The contests show how drawing congressional district lines to protect incumbents makes it even harder for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need to capture control of the House.

    "It is in doubt because state and national polls assume that Democrats are spread evenly among congressional districts instead of being packed into a few districts," said pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA in Lansing, Mich.

    Republicans controlled the process of drawing new congressional lines in most states following the 2000 census, and they did a good packing Democrats into as few districts as possible, Sarpolus said. The GOP refers to it as their "firewall" against losing the majority.

    "Everyone assumes that the number of seats available are the same as in 1994," said Sarpolus, referring to the election in which Republicans gained 52 seats, taking control of the House.

    States are required to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts after every 10-year census to account for population changes. Some states, including Texas and Georgia, have done it mid-decade to capitalize on Republican takeovers of the state legislature.

    Gerrymandering - the art of drawing odd-shaped legislative districts to favor the political party in power - has been around since the early 1800s, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew a politically friendly district that looked like a salamander.

    Both parties do it in states where they control the line-drawing. When the parties share power, they sometimes get together to protect incumbents. But today's practitioners say new computer technology helps them draw favorable districts better than ever.

    "It's more exact," said Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a Washington company that specializes in drawing political boundaries.

    As recently as 1970, district maps were drawn on paper. In the 1980s, Brace said he could use computers to generate about 10 different district scenarios for a state. After the 2000 census, he could generate 1,000 of them, using detailed socio-economic data and results from hundreds of elections in every precinct.

Isn't technology wonderful? And there are the new and easily hacked touch-screen voting machines being used almost everywhere for the first time now, that offer no paper trail and no way at all to audit results. So maybe an October Surprise wasn't really necessary.

There have been a few oddball reports floating around that various administration folks we happy when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon - that scares people good and, if you think about it, leaves no alternative but war for regime change. But North Korea messed up - the test seems to be a failure. Maybe there will be an early November Surprise - they get it right. That would be a help, as people vote Republican when they're frightened. The other possible surprise would be an all-out war to take out Iran's nuclear sites, and the infrastructure that supports the - road and bridges and all communication lines and such. But although we've moved two attack carrier groups off their coast for "exercises," launching the blitzkrieg with nuclear bunker-busters and all might prove counterproductive. No votes there.

So what can we expect? Perhaps this - The news cycle for Monday, Nov. 6th, the day before Election Day, will include the delivery of the verdict in Saddam Hussein's trial, originally set for October 16th. It was posted of course - the Sunday before the vote on Tuesday, November 7th.

As Bob Harris notes -

    Which means the news cycle on Monday, November 6th, the day before the elections, will be filled with reports about the conviction of Saddam Hussein.

    Of course, this can be dismissed as a complete coincidence. If you are a complete idiot.

    The day before the nation goes to vote, the TV news reports are already baked in: Saddam found guilty! Which of course brings up the talking point: Hail Bush, vanquisher of evildoers! Because, y'know, we have such a free, independent, liberal media and all.

    Not sure if it's gonna have all that much effect, given that Iraq isn't quite the winning issue it used to be. But still, seeing the "news" being manipulated like this so far in advance - wouldn't you think that would be the story, and not just the results of the manipulation?

    I mean, the American media ain't the greatest adversarial force on the planet, but it's still the 53rd-most free press in the world, right there with Tonga, Croatia, and Botswana. Somebody at CNN must own a calendar.

That study is discussed here - we do rank fifty-third.

But why is that? Bill Montgomery, who made his reporting career covering economics, explains -

    Forgive me for belaboring the obvious here. I'm obviously not the first guy to make the point that ignoring the truth is not the same thing as telling the truth (genuflects before pictures of Paul Krugman and Stephen Colbert) but where I might go beyond most liberal critics is in arguing that the "objectivity" convention itself is primarily a commercial arrangement, not a political one. And, like all arrangements in a dynamic capitalist economy, it has a finite lifecycle, one which may be nearing its end.

    The mass media - the TV networks, the news weeklies, the large, national circulation newspapers like the New York Times - have been under enormous economic pressures for over a decade now, and those pressures are only getting worse. The mass market itself is being torn apart, into smaller and smaller niches. For most old media, the networks in particular, it's become a zero sum game. Just trying to hold the audiences they have is a losing battle. This loss of market power is one of the forces driving the trend towards consolidation (oligopoly). It's a defensive reaction in an industry that is getting more competitive, not less.

    In this kind of environment, the old journalistic tradition - balancing partisan viewpoints across a relatively narrow, centrist ideological spectrum - becomes more and more problematic. So does the old "liberal bias," which could more accurately be described as a kind of cool, technocratic disdain for populist passions, which in this country since about the 1950s, has meant the populist right. The market for that kind of centrist pabulum is receding almost as quickly as David Broder's hairline.

    Combine those commercial realities with the progressive polarization of the electorate (and the conservative reach for hegemonic power) and the old media have a serious problem: That which appeals to some bits and piece of the old mass audience may drive away other bits and pieces.

    One strategy for dealing with this dilemma is simply to avoid controversy whenever possible, and try to persuade your loudest critics -- which again usually means the populist right -- that you're bending over backwards to be "balanced." That was the initial corporate reaction in the '80s and early '90s; in fact, you often got the feeling the networks wouldn't have minded getting out of the news business entirely, if their licenses would have allowed it.

    But instead the rise of cable and its insatiable appetite for programming turned news into a profit center. It's cheap to produce, the scripts essentially write themselves and there are plenty of cross-selling opportunities (as ABC, Disney and Rush Limbaugh are busy proving). When it comes to filling air time, it's as cost effective as the reality shows, if not more so. If only the audiences didn't keep getting smaller, and older…

    What finally appears to have dawned on old media is that trying to please everyone not only doesn't keep the critics off their backs, it doesn't help them hold their existing audience or build new ones. The geezers depart for Fox News, the 18-to-35 year olds get their news from the Daily Show. So hard choices have to be made: Which slices of the old mass audience should they try to hold, and which ones can they afford to alienate if that's the price for keeping the ones they want?

    It's a triage operation, in other words - and to me it looks as if a conscious, corporate decision has been made to try to hold (or win back) the conservative "red state" audience even if it means losing the liberal "blue state" audience. Whether this is because the conservative audience is larger and more affluent, or because the strategists at Viacom, Disney, GE and Time Warner have decided that liberals are less likely to change channels when their ideological beliefs are offended, or because the more demographically desirable blue state audiences have long since "self selected" their way out of old media's reach all together, I don't know. But when Mark Halperin promises Bill O'Reilly he will feel his pain, or the CBS Evening News gives every conservative nut job in America a spot on "Free Speech," or NBC refuses to accept an ad for the Dixie Chicks because it disrepects Shrub, or Time puts Ann Coulter on the cover, I think they're making economic statements as much as journalistic ones.

    You could say: To hell with old media, they're just a bunch of senile dinosaurs anyway, who cares who they pander to? But old media, for better or worse, still set the news agenda, and still dominate the political process. And they're doing an energetic, if not yet totally successful, job of sucking up new media and sticking them in the same corporate straight jacket. If they decide, as matter of cold capitalist calculation, that one-party Republican rule is the smart way to bet, that could also be come a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Maybe I'm wrong - I hope I am. But if I'm right, then there may come a time when progressives look back and sigh for the good old days when journalistic "objectivity" still encouraged the corporate media to give the truth and conservative propaganda equal weight, instead of simply repeating the latter.

In short, there's no economic advantage is reporting that the timing of the Saddam Hussein verdict looks a little suspicious. There's no market-segment for such reporting. Doing that hits no demographic with lots of disposable income. Oh well.

The vice president may have offered a late October Surprise, but that didn't work out that well -

    WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House said Friday that Vice President Dick Cheney was not talking about a torture technique known as "water boarding" when he said dunking terrorism suspects in water during questioning was a "no-brainer."

    Human rights groups complained that Cheney's comments amounted to an endorsement of water boarding, in which the victim believes he is about to drown.

    President Bush, asked about Cheney's comments, said, "This country doesn't torture. We're not going to torture." He spoke at an Oval Office meeting Friday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Earlier, White House press secretary Tony Snow denied that Cheney had endorsed water boarding.

    "You know as a matter of common sense that the vice president of the United States is not going to be talking about water boarding. Never would, never does, never will," Snow said. "You think Dick Cheney's going to slip up on something like this? No, come on."

    In an interview Tuesday with WDAY of Fargo, North Dakota, Cheney was asked if "a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives."

    The vice president replied, "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

The political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow says this - "He was just talking about bobbing for apples. Damned liberals misinterpret everything."

This was not the October Surprise that helped at all. You can go to this video and watch White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tap-dance -

    Q How can you really make that argument?

    MR. SNOW: I'll tell you what he said. He was asked the question, "You dunk somebody's head in the water to save a life, is it a no-brainer?" And also, if you read the rest of the answer, he also - the Vice President, who earlier had also been asked about torture, he said, "We don't torture." Let me give you the no-brainers here. No-brainer number one is, we don't torture. No-brainer number two: We don't break the law, our own or international law. No-brainer number three: The Vice President doesn't give away questioning techniques. And number four, the administration does believe in legal questioning techniques of known killers whose questioning can, in fact, be used to save American lives. The Vice President says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to water boarding.

    Q Then how can you say that he's not referring to water boarding, when it was very clear, when you look at the whole context, not only that specific question -

    MR. SNOW: Does the word -

    Q - but the one before?

    MR. SNOW: Did the word "water boarding" appear?

    Q It came up in the context of talking about interrogation techniques and the entire debate that has been conducted in this country.

    MR. SNOW: I understand that. I'll tell you what the Vice President said. You can push all you want, [he] wasn't referring to water boarding and would not talk about techniques.

Who need such things a week before the election?

And you can got to this video - Lynne Cheney on CNN's Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer ranting about liberal bias, and not actually answering any questions -

    BLITZER: It made it sound - and there's been interpretation to this effect - that he was in effect confirming that the United States used this waterboarding, this technique that has been rejected by the international community that simulates a prisoner being drowned, if you will, and he was in effect, supposedly, confirming that the United States has been using that.

    CHENEY: No, Wolf - that is a mighty house you're building on top of that mole hill there, a mighty mountain. This is complete distortion; he didn't say anything of the kind.

    BLITZER: Because of the dunking of - you know, using the water and the dunking.

    CHENEY: Well, you know, I understand your point. It's kind of the point of a lot of people right now, to try to distort the administration's position, and if you really want to talk about that, I watched the program on CNN last night, which I though - it's your 2006 voter program, which I thought was a terrible distortion of both the president and the vice president's position on many issues. It seemed almost straight out of Democratic talking points using phrasing like "domestic surveillance" when it's not domestic surveillance that anyone has talked about or ever done. It's surveillance of terrorists. It's people who have al Qaeda connections calling into the United States. So I think we're in the season of distortion, and this is just one more.

    BLITZER: But there have been some cases where innocent people have been picked up, interrogated, held for long periods of time then simply said never mind, let go - they're let go.

    CHENEY: Well, are you sure these people are innocent?

It goes on. She ends up sneering that CNN wants the United States to lose this war, and that's the real issue, not anything her husband said. Sigh. She must think that "53rd" ranking is far too high. Well, maybe the press should be one more weapon in the Great War. It would help with those ratings.

Reader "DK" over at Talking Pints Memo offers this -

    We're darn near six years into this nonsense, but still the White House can beat the press corps like a drum. I'm referring to Cheney's comment that waterboarding detainees was a "no brainer," which the White House has managed to turn into a story about what Cheney really said or what he really meant by what he said.

    There's no legitimate doubt about what Cheney said and what he meant. Cheney knows it. The President knows it. So do Tony Snow and the whole White House press corps. Yet we have this spectacularly silly dance - clever people being too clever by half: Snow and Cheney's staff cleverly parsing the interview, and the press cleverly trying to trip up the parsers.

    The whole episode has been converted from a story about torture to another in the endless series of stories about the strange relationship between the press and this White House.

    The Vice President's comments came in a radio interview on Tuesday. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers was the first to report its significance in a story late Wednesday that was straightforward and direct, unburdened by the clever word games that would come later.

    The Washington Post didn't run its first story on the interview until its Friday edition. Its follow-up piece today is headlined "Cheney Defends 'Dunk the Water' Comment." I don't know how denying he meant what he said constitutes defending his own comment, unless running fast and far in the opposite direction no longer constitutes a retreat. The story also describes what it calls "ambiguities in the waterboarding debate." The "debate" referred to is not about whether torture is moral or lawful, but whether Cheney actually meant waterboarding or merely a "dunk in the water."

    The New York Times' first report on the interview didn't appear until today, in a story that deals almost exclusively with Snow's Friday press conference and the fallout associated with Cheney's remarks. It's a story about the White House "fending off" questions, as if the center of gravity in this historic departure from democratic norms were the White House press room instead of the dank corners of secret prisons or the solemn enclaves of our courts.

    No thinking person believes Cheney was referring to anything other than waterboarding. The White House is unable to explain what else Cheney could have been referring to. Yet the leading papers are unable to cut through the malarkey.

    I suppose the only thing we work harder at being in denial about than Cheney's comments is the fact that we have used waterboarding and other forms of torture. Every thinking person knows that to be true, too, and it shouldn't take Cheney's slip of the tongue to convince us.

In short - the press, as dysfunctional as it is, will keep the October surprises pro-Republican. Lynn Cheney really has no gripe. No one wants to rock the boat.

Oh, and on a minor note, there will be no report on the Mark Foley business before the election, even though all witnesses have now testified before the House Ethics Committee. The press gets of the hook on that one. They can report on the results - on just who ignored the odd fifty-two year old man hitting on sixteen-year-old male House pages so his seat would be safe - when no one can accuse them of being out to get the Republicans. That was a close call for the senior editors, who report to the bean counters. And December Surprises are meaningless, the kind of story the corporations who own the news services rather like.

And no one likes reporting on the war, in a broad way. As we see here, two critics warn that withdrawing from Iraq would "play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists" (Peter Bergen) and cause al-Qaeda to "rejoice" (Michael Scheuer).

You could report that. Or you could be even more logical, as Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly is here -

    That may be true. But what's missing here is what happens if we stay in Iraq: it will play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists and cause al-Qaeda to rejoice. This is the position that George Bush's blinkered view of national security has gotten us into: al-Qaeda improves its position no matter what happens. If we stay in Iraq, it's a substantive win because it helps recruiting and provides a cause for militant jihadists to rally around. If we leave, Osama & Co. will claim that they caused the mighty United States to leave with its tail between its legs.

    So which is worse? A substantive victory for al-Qaeda or a round of theatrical, breast-beating propaganda videos on al-Jazeera? That's actually a harder question to answer than it seems, but it's still not that hard. If our foreign policy is focused primarily on the fear of what our enemies might say about us rather than on the substance of what's really happening, we're helpless. Al-Qaeda will always claim victory, after all.

No news outlet will report that, logically, we "lose" no matter which we do. That's a killer story, in the bad sense.

Ah well, the upcoming very late October Surprise, or early November Surprise, will probably be something else entirely. It wouldn't be a surprise otherwise.

This item posted Sunday, October 29, 2006

[Guessing the Future]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik