Monday, September 26, 2005

A Savage Notion

Reported, not verbatim, but as close as memory allows:

Radio commentator Michael Savage has tackled the difficult problem of Cindy Sheehan's motivation, and boy, does he have her pegged.

Savage opines that Sheehan looks like she wanted, when she was younger, to be in one of those "Girls Gone Wild" videos, but was "too ugly at the time." Now she's found a way of getting media attention, and she's milking it for all she's worth.

Savage also explains why it is that, as he reports, the U.S. forces in Iraq are expending "250,000 bullets for every terrorist" killed. It's the fault of Cindy Sheehan, Ted Kennedy and "other subversives" who are keeping the United States from bombing entire towns where the terrorist hang out, "killing them all."

Thank you, Mr. Savage, for that astute assessment. We lesser mortals stand in awe of your keen analytical skills.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Straight Talk in Ithaca

Kudos to the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, which minces no words when explaining evolution's scientific status to its visitors:

Is evolution 'just a theory'? A "theory" in science is a structure of related ideas that explains one or more natural phenomena and is supported by observations from the natural world; it is not something less than a "fact." Theories actually occupy the highest, not the lowest, rank among scientific ideas. ... Evolution is a "theory" in the same way that the idea that matter is made of atoms is a theory.

Is it true that there is lots of evidence against evolution? No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred.

Is evolution against religion? No. ... Science deals only with material reality; religion deals with the spiritual, the moral and the ethical.

These quotes, which appeared in today's New York Times, come from a pamphlet the museum has produced to help train docents and staff members to deal with increasingly strident creationist challenges.

Do Times news reporters read their paper's Science section? I hope so. If they would only remember these straightforward answers the next time they have to write an article dealing with Intelligent Design, we might be spared a mountain of drivel. To start with, Jodi Wilgoren's notion that, in contrast to an open-minded general public, mainstream scientists are dogmatists who "shun [Intelligent Design] as heresy".)

Defending an Absurdity

The two religious words that became part of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 are hardly the most important issue before the courts these days. And yes, people have gotten used to them over time. But the reasoning on display in Monday’s New York Times editorial on the subject has me scratching my head.

According to the Times, the 1954 Act of Congress that inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge was “absurd” and “should never have happened.” I’m in complete agreement.

However, the editorial goes on to defend the phrase on the grounds that it “has become part of the backdrop of life”, that it “hardly amounts to a prayer”, and that “[n]o child is required” to say it.

Perhaps there is, or should be, a legal grandfather clause for absurdities that should never have happened. On the other hand, perhaps it makes sense to revisit old mistakes and correct them if possible. That’s a question that’s up to the courts to decide, and so far, at least the Ninth Circuit seems to incline to the latter view.

(It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Congress tried its Pledge tinkering only ten years later, after the Supreme Court had ruled, in Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963, that the First Amendment prohibited legislation that did not have a “secular legislative purpose”.)

What’s stranger is the implication that “under God” is Constitutionally inoffensive because it’s not a prayer. This totally misreads the history of church/state jurisprudence, perhaps under the influence of the popular framing of the issue as one of “school prayer”. In fact, prayer has never been the only issue; Abington dealt with Bible readings as well:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools . . . .

But even if the case law weren't so clear on the issue, the defense of “under God” as “hardly . . . a prayer” would make little sense. No one has ever claimed that prayer is the only form of religious speech. And if “under God” does not directly address the Deity, it still has a perfectly recognizable religious function: it’s a creed.

It's hard to imagine any court objecting to the Lord’s Prayer in public school while assenting to, say, the daily recitation of the Nicene Creed (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . . .”). While “under God” pales in comparison to any of the full-blown Christian creeds, it does asserts at least two theological propositions: first, that there exists a being properly designated as God, and second, that the United States has a specific (and perhaps special) relationship with this being.

President Eisenhower, who signed the 1954 legislation in the Pledge and presumably understood its intent, said it more eloquently, but his interpretation was the same:

From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.

As to the Times’ final argument, that in any case no child is required to say “under God” when reciting the Pledge (or, for that matter, to recite the Pledge at all), this is an old argument with an equally old answer. It was addressed 42 years ago in the Abington decision, which endorsed as “altogether dispositive” the lower court’s opinion that:

The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises [i.e., Bible readings] does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony . . . . The exercises are held in the school buildings and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities and during school sessions.

If the New York Times is going to set itself up as a better interpreter of the First Amendment than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, it would be nice if it could find a less obviously flawed set of arguments.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Remembering the Victims

As we remember the three thousand who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa., let’s not forget that they were only the first of 9/11’s victims.

Without the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have been possible. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, the Bush Administration was from the very start developing plans to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. What they lacked was a rationale. O’Neill described one NSC meeting this way:

It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’

9/11 gave Bush what he was looking for: public and Congressional support for invading Iraq as part of the “War on Terror”. As a result, 1896 American servicemen and –women have lost their lives in Iraq, along with 197 other members of Coalition forces and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. These too are victims of 9/11.

And that may not be all. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, a third of the Louisiana National Guard was in Iraq, along with half its equipment, including high-water vehicles, generators and Humvees. Rescue efforts were delayed as troops had to be called in from other states. We’ll never know how many died waiting for help that would have come in time had the Louisiana Guard been at full strength.

The Bush team has been telling us for years that the proper measure of our response to the horror of 9/11 is how we felt on that day. It's been all too easy to turn our grief and anger into a conviction that the enormity of the wrong done to us justifies any response.

Three thousand died four years ago at the hands of a small band of fanatic terrorists. Perhaps ten times as many have died since, because a small band of fanatic neoconservatives were allowed to use the terrorists’ crimes as a pretext for their own adventurism.

They’re all victims of 9/11 and we mustn’t forget a one of them.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Best. Caption. Ever.

This claims to be a screen capture from Ireland of a news report on Sky TV. The good people at Snopes are calling this "Undetermined" until they can confirm that it hasn't been manipulated somehow.

Bear in mind that if this is authentic, it came from a Rupert Murdoch outlet (which is either an argument against its authenticity or a reason to savor it all the more). But even if it isn't, it's hard to think of an image that better sums up the last five years.

Thanks to Daily Kos for the hotlink.

Post Bias Revisited

On Tuesday I wrote about the Washington Post’s failure to fact-check a false assertion by an unnamed Bush Administration official. The official claimed that as of Saturday, September 3, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco had still not declared a state of emergency, and the Post reported that assertion without qualification, as if it were true. As a quick Google News search (or a call to Blanco's office) would have revealed, the assertion was grossly false; Blanco had in fact declared a state of emergency on Friday, August 26, three days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall over the Gulf Coast (and one day before President Bush himself declared a state of emergency in Louisiana).

At the time, I thought it was unlikely that anyone at the Post was intentionally passing on Bushist spin, and instead attributed the lapse to pure laziness. For one thing, unless we assume that the reporters and their editors knew that source’s claim was false, there had to have been some laziness involved in their failure to confirm it before publishing it. But on further reflection I wonder whether the reporters had some reason to persuade themselves it wasn’t necessary to check the claim: they trusted Karl Rove their source; they were trying to curry favor with Rove their source; or perhaps they were even in sympathy with Rove’s their source’s attempt to deflect blame from the White House. Something like that.

Why am I rethinking this at this point? Simple: I’ve seen another Katrina-related Post article that seems to have been ghost-written by a right-wing spin artist. Here are the opening two paragraphs:

The raging debate over what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has provided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) an opportunity to emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, stirring Republican criticism that she and other Democrats are seeking political gain at a moment of national crisis.

Clinton has long maintained that she is focused solely on serving the interests of her New York constituents. But she was on all three network morning shows yesterday to promote her call for returning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to independent status, and for creating an independent commission to investigate what went wrong when the storm hit and the levees gave way in New Orleans.

So, first, Clinton is a brazen opportunist, taking advantage the debate over the aftermath of Katrina to further her own political ambitions "to emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party".

To emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party? As Media Matters points out, this is pure Republican spin:

She is a former First Lady; is a senator from the nation's third-most populous state; has had prominent speaking roles at the last four Democratic National Conventions; and heads the Senate Democratic Steering Committee. Polls have found her to be the most admired woman in America. She hardly needs an "opportunity to emerge as a national spokeswoman."

Second, Clinton’s media appearances calling for an independent FEMA and a commission to investigate what went wrong in the response to Katrina somehow contradict her stated commitment to serve the interest of her constituents. How? The Post doesn’t say, but again the implication is that Clinton is using Katrina to muscle her way onto the national stage when, to be consistent, she really should be quietly tending her own garden in New York.

In fact, all the contradiction here belongs to the Post, not to Clinton. Readers who read only the first few paragraphs of the article will have missed this perfectly reasonable explanation for Clinton’s outspoken interest in FEMA, which doesn’t appear until paragraph 12 (of 16):

One Clinton adviser said the New York senator has chosen to speak out so forcefully in large part because of her longstanding opposition to the shift of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, and because of her concerns that an ill-prepared FEMA poses problems for her constituents in a state regarded as a prime target of terrorist attacks.

Wow. Clinton cares about FEMA because
  • she represents the state of New York in the U.S. Senate,
  • FEMA’s mission is the task of “responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters”, including terrorist attacks, and
  • New York is regarded as a prime target of terrorist attacks.

Even then, this reasonable explanation is put in the mouth of an unnamed Clinton advisor, whereas the “but” that contrasts Clinton’s actions with her stated focus on her constituents is in the reporter’s own voice. The advisor said, in paragraph 12, that her words and actions are perfectly consistent, but the reporter reports, way up in paragraph 2, that they are not.

Is it just laziness that causes a reporter from the reputedly liberal Washington Post to write such a biased presentation of Hillary Clinton’s response to Katrina? Is it just that it's easier to go with the flow of Administration spin than to buck it? Perhaps. But it looks worse than that.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The flight was reportedly scheduled by a guy named Corrigan . . .

CNN reports that the city of Charleston, South Carolina scrambled to prepare when informed by FEMA that a planeload of refugees would be landing in half an hour.

"We called in all the available resources," said Dr. John Simkovich, director of public health for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"They responded within 30 minutes, which is phenomenal, to meet the needs of the citizens coming in from Louisiana," he said.

The plane never arrived. As "a line of buses and ambulances idled ... at Charleston International Airport", the refugees disembarked 400 miles away, in Charleston, West Virginia.

The CNN report was received with particular interest in Columbus, Georgia. Not to mention Moscow, Idaho; Toledo, Ohio; and Rome, New York.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Damn Liberal Media

Editor & Publisher points out that the Washington Post yesterday quoted a “senior Bush official” as saying that “as of Saturday [Louisiana Governor Kathleen] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency."

Later the Post ran a correction. The “senior Bush official” had in fact gotten the date wrong, not by hours or even days, but by more than a week. Blanco declared a state of emergency on Friday, August 26.

It’s easy to understand why the Bush people might want to spread this particular bit of misinformation. As E&P notes, “[t]his, of course, was meant to make the governor look foolish and spread the blame around for the disastrous response to the disaster . . .”

The real question, which E&P hints at but doesn’t ask outright, is why the Washington Post would help them. Not just why, as E&P wonders, the Post would quote an unnamed source, but why it would take the word of such a source without taking into consideration the source’s motives and without attempting to corroborate the source’s claim.

The White House is currently under withering fire for its botched response to Katrina, and is doing its best to mount a defense. You’d think that any competent reporter would be aware of this, and would thus look askance at any statement from within the Administration tending to discredit or deflect blame onto other parties. At the very least, you’d think a competent reporter wouldn’t print such a statement without making some attempt to find out if it was true. And, absent this level of competence on the part of the reporter, you’d think the editor would insist on corroboration.

But no: not only did the Post accept the word of an unnamed source with an obvious agenda, they failed to fact-check it. If they couldn’t have called Governor Blanco’s office, how about a quick check of Google News? It took me just a few minutes to come up with the correct date (here, here, and here, for example). Is this beyond the capacity of the Washington Post staff?

If this were, say, the Washington Times rather than the Post, it might be tempting to chalk this one up to political bias, since the Times’s bias quite clearly runs in the pro-Bush direction. The Post is another story; along with the NY Times and Dan Rather, it’s one of the Right’s “liberal bias” poster children.

No liberal bias here, though. This is, purely and simply, a laziness bias.