Embrace The Bias?

With the recent gaffes from NPR execs, conservative opponents of publicly-funded radio and television have taken fresh aim at the popular radio producers. Many conservatives have had a hard on for de-funding NPR (federal contributions make up about 10% of NPR’s budget) mostly because they believe that the network, along with PBS (the television network) and CPB (the actual organization that gets most of the federal funding) are all liberal fronts.

I’ve been listening to NPR for years now. These days, this consists of Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, Planet Money, occasionally the Diane Rehm show, and This American Life (technically produced by PRI, which gets only 2% of its funding from the federal government). I have yet to observe a systemic liberal bias in the content on NPR, and that’s during a time that spans from me associating with the Republican party, to my participating in a Democratic caucus and beyond.

I’m sure some particular shows do have a noticeable liberal slant. I won’t dispute that personalities like Bill Moyers or Tavis Smiley have particular political perspectives, and if those were the only personalities that someone caught on NPR or PBS, then I couldn’t blame them for thinking there was some bias there.

But take the shows like Diane Rehm, Talk of the Nation, or PBS Newshour, which regularly have guests and roundtables from all different perspectives, and specifically balances at least the two major parties during political analysis. I challenge you to find definitive cases of the hosts or producers imposing their political or ideological bias on the shows.

The complaint I tend to hear is not that the shows are obviously biased (like almost every second of Fox News is) but that they are more subtly biased via things like story selection. This sentiment is concisely provided by the second letter (from a self-described progressive) in this post over at the Daily Dish:

…If they would just say, “Yes, our story selection is directed at mostly rich, mostly white, mostly liberals.” OK, now we can all move on.

If conservative detractors would largely agree that public radio/television’s alleged bias is in story selection rather than story coverage, then they’ve already conceded the argument. Even if you agree that NPR’s story selection is directed at “mostly rich, mostly white, mostly liberals” (which I don’t concede; but maybe I’m just blinded by being mostly rich, mostly white and mostly liberal), in order for that to mean that the network has a liberal bias per se, then you have to agree that those stories themselves, even when covered completely fairly, lend themselves to a natural liberal interpretation. Such criticisms devolve to arguing, in effect, the adage “reality has a liberal bias”.

And is that grounds for labeling the coverage of such stories as biased? There are no liberal facts or conservative facts, just facts. If the facts lend themselves to a liberal interpretation (or a conservative interpretation), then that’s what the facts lend themselves to. Accepting that is not liberal or conservative bias, it’s just being rational. Avoiding facts inconvenient to your preconceived worldview, on the other hand, is not balance, it is obstinacy.

NPR should not ’embrace bias’ in their journalism or their hosts, they should stamp it out. Does that mean their personalities can’t have opinions? No, they can, but if they are reporting on facts or moderating guests’ discussions, then they should be as objective as possible, challenging and exploring all views as appropriate in order to better inform their audience (as opposed to entertaining their audience).

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The Heresy Of Mitch Daniels

Andrew Sullivan is drooling over the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels:

As Dish readers know, Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, seems to me the kind of man the GOP desperately needs: a real fiscal conservative, socially inclusive, open to serious tax reform and politically adult conversation to regain the center ground. Here’s why the Dish loves him so:

Let’s raise the retirement age, he says. Let’s reduce Social Security for the rich. And let’s reconsider our military commitments, too. When I ask about taxes—in 2005 Daniels proposed a hike on the $100,000-plus crowd, which his own party promptly torpedoed—he refuses to revert to Republican talking points. “At some stage there could well be a tax increase,” he says with a sigh. “They say we can’t have grown-up conversations anymore. I think we can.”

The Heresy Of Mitch Daniels – The Daily Dish

From Politico:

Daniels, once the Hudson Institute’s chief executive, described himself as an acolyte of [Herman] Kahn’s and marveled at the creative thinking evident in his 1982 book, “The Coming Boom.” Daniels recited from Kahn’s book: “It would be most useful to redesign the tax system to discourage consumption and encourage savings and investment. One obvious possibility is a value added tax and flat income tax, with the only exception being a lower standard deduction.”
Mitch Daniels open to VAT, oil tax hike – Politico

While I’m happy to see at least one Republican leader try to discuss fiscal policy intelligently, here are some problems I see with the above positions:

Increasing the retirement age has become the mantra for tinkering with Social Security formulas, from both the left and the right. As the standard argument goes, people are living longer and longer, thus they need to work longer before retirement. The problem with this idea is twofold: firstly the motivation for it is not that people are living longer, it’s that we need to shore up Social Security (or at least, there is a perception that we do). From that perspective, increasing retirement age is simply a cost-cutting measure, and should be seen as at least neutral with cutting benefits in general. Secondly, the rationalization that people are living longer does not imply that people are more able to continue working longer (much less desire to). People are living longer because of advances in medical technology for the very old, but are people at 65 healthier and more able-minded than people at 65 were ten years ago? I don’t know the answer to that, but I haven’t heard any of the proponents of this policy say so.

My second disagreement is with the idea that “It would be most useful to redesign the tax system to discourage consumption and encourage savings and investment.” Why? It might be useful at certain stages in the economic cycle, but I don’t see why it would necessarily always be useful. I would prefer the government try to reduce the distortionary effect of taxation, not use it to manipulate people into becoming consumers or investors. Let the public decide when consumption, savings or investment is right for them. From my nascent understanding, a VAT is less distortionary than the income tax, so in that respect, it may be preferable. But it’s not like we’ll have one or the other, we’d have both. With that in mind, the government should look to balance out any anti-consumption effect of a VAT with anti-savings effect of the income tax. This way, the government gets funded, and individuals are unencumbered in managing their own finances.

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Sam Harris and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

I agree with much of what Sam Harris writes. When I don’t agree, it’s usually a question of degree. For instance, Harris recently ignited debate at his TED talk, in which he advocated science as an arbiter of moral decisions. While I support this effort in principle, I fear Harris is a bit too optimistic on the prospects of science to  develop from a historically descriptive practice to a normative one, or, to put it another way, to rise above Hume’s (in)famous “is-ought” problem. In fact, one could review history and make a plausible case that science is often at its worse when it is used prescriptively. (The expected counterargument is that those examples are not examples of science, but pseudoscience used to further decidedly non-scientific agendas.)

I am not writing this to debate science’s role in morality, though. I believe a thoughtful debate can be had there. Rather, I am reacting to Harris’ recent article, Ground Zero Mosque from The Daily Beast. His first two sentences perhaps best sum up his position:

Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself.

Harris’ answer, in case the obviousness escaped you, is no.

Continue reading

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Talking Over Torture

Conor Friedersdorf responds to Jonah Goldberg’s continuing attempts to frame the debate over water-boarding as a debate over semantics: Talking Over Torture | The American Scene

Goldberg is absolutely wrong to argue that there are no good responses to the ticking time bomb scenario. Perhaps he means that he chooses to pretend like nobody is making them. This makes sense, since the neocon crowd is quite adept at plugging their ears and yelling their mantras (not to mention running their own cable news networks) in order to drown out any opposing viewpoints. In fact, Friedersdorf’s analysis, as well as the comments of Mike Farmer’s above, provide two excellent responses to the ticking time bomb scenario.

I humbly offer a third Continue reading

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Andrew Sullivan: As The Onslaught Continues

As The Onslaught Continues – The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

I was reading the above article by Andrew Sullivan, and I got to thinking: the Vatican is welcoming all the misogynists and homophobes in the Anglican community to rejoin the Catholic church… how about the remaining Anglicans invite all the priests who’d like to get married or come out of the closet over to their side*. The Vatican gets the congregations, the Anglicans get the clergy. Sounds like an even trade to me.

* They can keep the pedophiles.

Update: Apparently, Dawkins beat me to it.

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What 10,000?

A reader spars with Andrew Sullivan over which administration(s) deserve credit for the Dow hitting 10,000: The Daily Dish – Dissent of the Day

Allow me to offer a different dissent:

In 1999, when the Dow hit 10,000, the unemployment rate was 4-4.5%. In 2009 when the Dow hit 10,000, the unemployment rate was 9.5%.

Let’s not start uncorking the champagne just yet.

Most Americans don’t enjoy a lot of benefit directly from the stock market. Even for those of us who have significant savings there, it’s mostly tied up in retirement accounts.

Yes, growth can lead to jobs. But it doesn’t necessarily have to. And until it does, the recession will not be over for most people, especially those looking for a job. So why don’t we all sit back, take down the “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging over Wall Street, and maintain a little bit of cautious optimism instead?

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NYT: Justices Are Pressed for a Broad Ruling in Campaign Case

There seemed little question after the argument in an important campaign finance case at the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the makers of a slashing political documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton were poised to win. The open issue was just how broad that victory would be.
Justices Are Pressed for a Broad Ruling in Campaign Case – NYTimes.com

The idea that corporations or other groups have constitutionally-protected rights by way of their corporate personhood is ludicrous on the face of it. Corporate personhood is a legal fiction that is convenient for business matters (esp. contract law and torts), but ought not be taken too far.

If we discard the notion that corporations have constitutional rights above and beyond the rights of their human constituents, then we can see that Congress should have broad leeway in regulating corporate participation in our political process.

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