Sunday, June 28, 2009

Where In The World Is The Honduras? 

Back in the 1980s, it would have been hard not to have read or watched a story about the troubles of many Central American nations. Central America was considered one of the "front lines" of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union pumping money into Cuba, and then into Nicaragua, which at the time was run by the "dictator in designer glasses" Daniel Ortega, the head of the FSLN Movement/Party. Ortega left with the end of the Cold War and is now the Nicaragua's democratically-elected president (you may have recalled the news blurb back in April when he "lashed out" against the United States in a meeting attended by President Obama).

The United States pumped billions of dollars into Central America, propping up many right wing governments in an attempt to thwart a Western Hemisphere "domino-effect." One of those countries receiving US (military) aid was the Honduras. President Reagan even ordered National Guard troops from all over the US into the Honduras as part of a series of "military exercises." In fact, there was a high profile show down between Reagan and some Democratic Governors--including Ohio's own Dick Celeste (famous for the phrase from Republican critics: "Dick Celeste before he 'dick's' you")--where the Governors refused to send their national guard troops in protest to Reagan's foreign policy.

Then the Cold War ended, and with it the media's interest in Central America. And outside political science departments across the US, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could locate a country like Honduras on the map. I bring all of this up because trouble is once again brewing in Central America, and this time it is the Honduras that has experienced a military coup that used to be as common as the changing days. And yet the press in the United States could care less. First, some background.

The Honduras had a "democratically" elected President named Manuel Zelaya, elected in 2006 to a "constitutionally" limited four year term in office, had moved for a referendum to amend the Constitution in order to limit the presidency to two terms, enabling him to run for a second term. This move apparently was opposed by the Congress, the military, and the Court, yet Zelaya pushed forward anyway with a vote set to today, but in the dead of night, the military busted into Zelaya's residence, roughed him up, and exiled him to Costa Rica, with nothing more than the PJs he was wearing. The military was apparently acting on the request of Honduras Supreme Court (I can imagine our own Supreme Court would envy such power). In his absence the Honduran Congress named the Honduran vice-president the "interim" President until the next election.

There is a bit of irony at play here that doesn't seem to be overt in the coverage I have read--the military kidnaps and exiles the democratically elected president because it believes he is acting in contradiction to the democratic process! But then again President Reagan once referred to the US supported resistance military in Nicaragua--deemed a terrorist organization by the Nicraguan people--the "moral equivalence" of our Founding Fathers.

So despite all the goings on, wouldn't the US media be interested in it? It doesn't appear so. If you look at Google News, the first several media sites listed are all foreign news outlets--the BBC and Reuters (which has a reporter based in the Honduran capitol of Tegucigalpa, and even filed a story that reads as an "Honduran-coup FAQ page"), followed by the Xinhua news service out of China. And a look at the television media sites, they aren't much better. On CNN's frontpage, titled "Breaking News"--there is a giant photo of Papa Joe Jackson. On the side, under the banner "Latest News", three links down in little letters you find "Honduran Congress names new president." To the person who knows nothing of the events, they may not think much of a story that a congress names a new president.
ABC News does a little better, with a picture of Zelaya that makes him look like Cesar Chavez, and a link titled "illegal' Honduran Coup has Obama 'Deeply Concerned". CBS News has a giant photo of Michael Jackson, circa-1984, and like CNN has a side bar with a headline that reads "Top News" and five links down in litle letters it reads: "Coup' in Honduras: Army Expels President." So you might learn something if you can get past the blaring headlines to the "King of Pop". NBC News runs from Brazil's defeat of the US in soccer to Michael Jackson to the Madoff scam. Down at the bottom of the page under a small banner that reads "Explore Other Top Stories" there is a litle link titled "Honduran President Ousted in Coup." But right beside it in a bigger box it reads: "Reader Tributes, Michael Jackson: 1958-2009". And finally, Fox News has a giant artistic photo of a "Jackson 5" Michael Jackson and a title that reads "Artists Pay Tribute to Jackson". Other stories are about Governor Sanford of South Carolina, who has his own "Latin America" problem and a story about fallen pitchman Billy Mays. Like NBC, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, under a link titled "News Happening Now," you go two links and find "Honduran Military Ousts President During Siege." You could be forgiven for missing it because right next to it is a link that reads, in bold lettering, "Florida Mayor Arrested After Found Nude at Campsite." What is worse is that each of that 3/5 sites all point to the same source: AP, though CBS tries to distort the sourcing by crediting CBS/AP.

This is dismal. There is no mystery that foreign news has all but dried up in the US press, but this is not news that takes place in a remote place on the other side of the world, but instead right in our own backyard. And given the US commitment to supporting democratic regimes the world over, you would think that the US press would find it interesting that one is being threatened in our hemisphere. But if anything highlights the pitiful state of US media, it is the fact that Michael Jackson, who died days ago, continues to get above the fold, front page treatment, and not the exile of a country we call an ally (though given that Zelaya is cozy with Hugo Chavez and the military isn't, I doubt you will hear much protestation from the Obama administration--just check the White House frontpage to see what I mean, which could also be a reason why there is muted coverage in the US).

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Boogie Man Is Real (if you are a Republican) 

Republicans, knocked completely out of power for the first time since 1994, are looking for a foothold to relive those glory days leading up to the 1994 election when everything seemed to break their way. Having lost in 2006 and 2008, and gaining no traction in the first 6 months of a new presidency, they have come up with the solution to their problems: They are doing nothing wrong, but instead have been conspired against by the liberal media.

First, to "operationalize" their terms: The liberal media equals ABC, CBS, and NBC. It also sometimes includes the NY Times and the Washington Post, but to be honest, the newspaper industry has been so devastated, it seems that they are no longer directly in the sights of the conservative right. Not included in the media is Fox News, talk radio like Rush, Hannity, and others, and conservative opinion writers such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer. And, to add to the hypocracy, none of these Republicans raised a peep when George Bush or Dick Cheney camped out on Fox News when they wished to spin a negative story or attack their opponents, or when the Bush administration fed disinformation to conservative outlets like the Drudge Report. AND, to make their case about liberal bias, they did so on Fox News, all with the nodding approval of the morons who anchor Fox News segments.

Here is what I mean. In early June, intellectual heavy weight and Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith announced the formation in the Congress of the "Media Fairness Caucus" because of concern surrounding "unfair reporting by the mainstream news media." And, for those of you who think there are limits to Republican hyperbole, try this one on for size--Representative Smith told knucklehead Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer that the danger of liberal media bias is a greater threat than "a recession or another terrorist attack..."! Worse than 9/11! This is how eyes wide shut some Republicans and conservatives have become.

The goal behind the MFC is similar to the goals of the "Conservative Opportunity Society" of the 1980s--then it was the goal of backbench Republicans to be as outlandish as possible and to pick high profile fights with the Democratic Leadership in order to draw media attention. Once they garnered the media attention, they could then use that platform to highlight their policy differences with the Democrats, and if successful, parlay that into wins at the ballot box. Thus if you are looking for a rationale behind "liberal bias is more dangerous than terrorism," there you have it.

The most recent high profile fight (with conservative media providing as much attention as possible) is with ABC, and its devotion to the Obama health care reform plan. The MFC has begun to run ads attacking "a national TV network," or ABC, for turning over control of the network news to the Obama administration. The MFC sent off a letter to ABC News President David Westin, complaining of the "exclusive arrangement from which the President and his viewpoint stand to gain." To his credit, Westin came back swinging:

Sadly, some inside government and within the private sector see every issue as material for a sort of political high theatre, to be used to gain votes or energize political bases or simply to raise funds. I would have thought that a subject as important as the health care received by the American people would rise above this sorry spectacle. Our citizens need and deserve more.

Smith's MFC began with a dozen lawmakers signing on, but have since grown to 40--good luck reading most of their names!

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Friday, May 29, 2009

What's Worth Reading 

Are you interested in the topic of interest groups and American politics, both from a theoretical and practical level? Robert C. Lieberman of Columbia University writes in Foreign Affairs an abbreviated, annotated syllabus of major readings designed to bring you up to speed. It is worth collecting, particularly if you are an undergrad or grad student who is looking for a short cut to comprehensive examinations.

While it is a decent list, there are a couple of readings that are missing--readings that I think make an important contribution to the research on interest group theory, American politics, and, from Foreign Affairs standpoint, the making of American foreign policy:


This is a selection of my favorites, and it certainly does not include the comprehensive list. These are important works that I felt were left out of the collection listed byLieberman. Feel free to add on to his and my list!

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Does This Suprise Anyone? 

Mark Milian, blogging at the LA Times, has a blurb today about the Sunday news program Meet the Press may be losing its lead to its competitors, ABC's This Week and CBS's Face the Nation, and the question I ask is if anyone is really surprised?

Gregory, who got the job in large part because of his posturing (some say "Peacocking") as a member of the White House Press Corps during the Bush administration, is not an appealing figure as a moderator (and certainly nowhere near the man whose shoes he stepped into). Some would say that any host of MTP was doomed given the larger than life personality of Tim Russert, but I disagree. There are others in NBC's rank who would make decent moderators (and there are certainly a number of reporters who don't work for NBC but could have been recruited for the job).

Gregory is an abrasive character, and for it his questioning is less like prosecutor-grilling-defendant and more like noone-is-really-interested-in-your-answer-because-they-are-all-wowed-by-me. Thus I was sure that NBC would lose out to either ABC or CBS (it was ABC that was the at the top of the heap in the 1990s that caused NBC to shift from Meet the Press to Meet the Press with Tim Russert. It seems that NBC may be better off going back to a roundtable of reporters asking questions to invited guests. At least it would jive with the title.

At the end of the posting, Milian notes that many in the business feel we have reached a "golden age" of television with the Sunday morning public affairs programs, but I would disagree. The Sunday programs have devolved in response to the live action roundtable babbling that is Cable News programs. All of the Sunday programs now leave just 30 minutes for interview, and then 30 minutes with a roundtable gathering of reporters and pundits, whose volume may be just a bit below that of "Crossfire" but is equally inane. Why is Sam Donaldson still on television, if not for his colorful opinions (and terrible rug)? These 30 minute segments add nothing to our basic understanding of what is going on in politics, and is instead nothing more than pad one liners from the politicos to inside gossip from reporters, fresh from Saturday evening cocktail parties. If this qualifies for the "golden age," then I dread what the future will bring.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Senator Switch 

That is how Fox News described Senator Arlen Specter's switch today from the Republican Party to the Democrats. The Hill has a lengthy post from Specter on why he has come to this decision, which for many seemed obvious years ago:

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.

Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

For Democrats, this must be the kind of news you sit and savor, having had a number of their Party members bolt ship over the past several decades. And for the Republicans, this speaks to the kind of trouble they will have in the Rustbelt States, where evangelical partisanship of any stripe does not fly.

And for the Democrats, they probably should contain their glee and continue to monitor their vote from Connecticut. With news of Specter's defection and with Senator Al Franken set to arrive anytime now (or as soon as Norm Coleman does what Al Gore did in 2000, and face reality about winning without any chance of winning), I would not be surprised to hear that Senator Lieberman decides it is time to join the Republican ranks.

There are some questions set to be answered, such as where does Specter stand via seniority, for instance? What will be his standing in Committee? Despite his recent outrage about the exercise of presidential power, this was a guy who bent to White House demands that no witness (either nominee or official) be required to swear to tell the truth.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Journal Nerd 

Jay Cost, writing yesterday at Real Clear Politics, doesn't help those of us who teach higher education for a living by equating reading an academic journal with being a nerd: "As a politics nerd, I have several subscriptions to very nerdy academic journals." Oh yes, blogging on a political website for a living is the epitome of machismo and verve. But that is not why I write here today.

Cost has been wowed by an article appearing in the most recent issue of "Political Behavior" that examines the political effect that Jon Stewart has on his audience. The article is written by a former colleague of mine, Jonathan Morris, who, along with Jody Baumgartner (both at East Carolina University) have cornered the market on the political effects of Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Fox News on our political system.

In this particular article, the author wants to know if Stewart was more critical of Republicans than Democrats during the 2004 party conventions and if so, whether that caused his audience to become more critical of the Republican nominee--George W. Bush. The findings? That Stewart (and his cast) were far more critical of Republicans than Democrats (which really is no mystery), and that the audience did indeed turn more critical towards Republicans during their convention than they did when the Democrats held theirs.

In Cost's analysis of the paper, he notes that one should not take this finding too far since Stewart's audience size is "fewer than Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and just 1.2% of the total number of people who voted for President last November." And that most of his audience is predisposed to be critical towards Republicans anyways.

While the caveats are warranted, there is something that Cost leaves out. There is an impact that is not considered in his analysis. It is what Matt Baum calls the "watercooler effect." The conversations that individuals have with friends and co-workers based on what they see or hear that interests them. So what of the network of the individuals who watch Stewart everynight? This "secondary" or "ripple" effect of individuals who may the cherished "Independents" of American politics, whose vote could go either way and look to important cognitive shortcuts to make their decision? At the voting booth, do they recall what their (best friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/brother/sister/boss/etc) had to say about Republican policy based on what they saw from "The Daily Show"? Or, what about the individuals--again the "Independents"--who see a posting of Stewart on YouTube after they were sent there via email from a friend?

All I am saying is that, sure, there are limits to the influence that Stewart has, but while we should caution against over-estimating, we should also caution against under-estimating.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Online Conference, 4/16/09 

Tomorrow at 8 a.m. EST, there will be an online conference (appropriately so) covering YouTube and the 2008 Election in the United States--One of the first of many conferences to come to assess the role of new media technology on elections here and abroad.

Given the candidate-centered nature of campaigns here in America, all candidates try to exploit the newest and best technologies to give them the needed edge over the opposition, and thus sets the trends for other democratic countries where the political party plays a greater role over campaigns.

The information about the conference can be found below:


Tomorrow’s YouTube and the 2008 Election Cycle in the United States Conference will stream live for the duration of the conference at the following URL:


http://youtubeandthe2008election.hosted.panopto.com/CourseCast/Student/Default.aspx


User: guest
Login: youtube


A complete program is available here: http://www.umass.edu/polsci/youtube/final_program.pdf

Things get started at 8:00 am EST

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fairness Doctrine Electric Boogaloo 

The Federalist Society as a very nice primer on the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine is something of a boogie man used by conservatives (particularly talk radio) to whip up support among conservative Republicans and Libertarians--a boogie man because there is little reason to expect that it will ever be reinstated. Instead, it seems to me to be another indicator of the problems within and among conservatives in the US to find legitimate issues with which to rile Americans toward their side.

The Fairness Doctrine, which was designed to force broadcasters to broadly explore all angles of cultural, political, social, and religious issues, was put in place in the 1940s by the FCC and lasted until the mid-1980s, finally falling victim to a Reagan veto of a bill supported by congressional Democrats, who attempted to override a FCC decision to abandon it.

Democrats have, from time to time, attempted to reinstall the Fairness Doctrine, not because there is a real need to force commercial broadcasters to offer more diverse and heterogeneous programming, but because the moment that the Fairness Doctrine was vetoed, political talk radio (read: Rush Limbaugh) exploded across the country, and for Democrats, neutralizing talk radio is one more way to make politics difficult for Republicans.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Origins of The Daily Me 

Nicholas Kristof has an OpEd in today's NY Times about the problem of increased polarization as a result of the death of newspapers and really conventional news in favor of "online" news. He refers to Nicholas Negroponte, at MIT, who he says has come up with a concept known as "The Daily Me." This is a tendency to only seek out news that conforms with our pre-existing beliefs about politics, culture, etc. And he is right--this is a big problem as the news media becomes fragmented. The problem though is the ideal of "The Daily Me" originated first with Cass Sunstein, former law professor at the University of Chicago and now Obama insider. In 2002, Sunstein published "Republic.com," a treatise warning about the effects that online communication would have on civil discourse. In fact, his first chapter is titled "The Daily Me."

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

You're So Pretty. Can I Come In Now? 

As I tell my students, one of the biases that is profound upon the news gathering/news production process comes from the media "beat" system, put in place long ago as a way to bring efficiencies to the news. You assign a reporter to a particular agency/institution/corporation where news is highly likely to happen. From this all sorts of problems emerge: For instance, the reporter comes to identify with the source and over time (and not a long span of time), comes to like the person, thus is not as likely to write critical stories. Or, even worst, as a result of the competitive nature of the news business, the source can leverage the reporting by threatening to cut access to one reporter if the reporter refuses to play ball. Rather than all reporters on the beat standing together, the opposite works. And then, there is the problem of the Beat Sweetner.

Because a reporter is told by his or her employer to gain access to his or her new beat, they feel flattery is the best way in--hence the sweetner. As this article by Michael Calderone in "Politico" argues: "The problem...is that beat reporters 'are kind of captives to this bureaucracy, [and] they know that some laudatory pieces at the outset will pave goodwill in the future.'" The problem? Jonathan Alter, of "Newsweek" argues: "It's emblematic of the way Washington journalism often works. The problem is when a reporter puts the ease of their working relationship ahead of the interests of the reader."

The problem begins at the outset of a new administration, or when new control comes to the Congress. All reporters look to buy future cred with the power structure by writing puff pieces or flattering profiles. One way to break the conflict of interest is to have a reporter who is not covering the beat write the piece (or better yet, why write puff pieces anyway? Aren't they supposed to be the watchdogs?) Another way to break up the symbiotic relationship is to term limit reporters. Break it up by cycling reporters every year or two.

As Calderone notes, it is not a problem that this is done during the honeymoon period of a new administration, but anything after the first 100 days (although it would be great to get away from the "first 100 days metaphor") or the first six months, whichever your prefer, is doing a disservice to the reader or viewer.

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