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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

American Newscasters Blindly Floundering

In mid-2012, just 21% of adults in the U.S. told Gallop they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news. In 1993, the percentage had been at forty-six. Ideological differences do not seem to matter (ranging only between 19-22%). Interestingly, the 18- to 29-year-old group had the most confidence. In terms of education, the more educated one was, the less likely one was to have a great deal of confidence. Newspapers did not fare much better, coming in at 25 percent. 

 By chance, on the very day I read about the Gallop poll, I came to the conclusion that the Huffington Post must be utterly addicted to the U.S. Presidential campaign—then already at least a year old and with just less than half a year left. Nearly every headline seemed to be about something that Mit Romney had said (or not said). Every little thing was blown up into a major crisis—to the point that I had come to skip the headlines completely. It occurred to me that the Huffington Post had lost credibility, at least to me, because of its lack of perspective. The dramatics alone reaffirmed my decision to get my news from Europe, even concerning what is going on in the United States! Tellingly, very little indeed was being reported concerning the "important" presidential campaigns (Gott sei dank)

Accordingly, I had given up watching any American news channels or shows in April 2012. I had come to realize that all too often opinion was being sold as news. All too often, journalists were interviewing other journalists as experts (other than on journalism). Such interviews I would call journalistic masturbation—fit only for other journalists to watch. Just a week before the Gallop poll came out, someone casually remarked to me that if Americans would just watch the news on a European station, they would quickly realize how far off the reservation the American newscasts and news networks had wandered in terms of reporting the news.

In addition to the journalists interviewing other journalists and the “talking heads” commentators dominating the “news,” the obsessiveness on one particular story within any given 24 hours news-cycle (and limiting “international news” to two or three countries in the world where the U.S. has a particular interest) can easily give the viewer the sense that the world is much smaller than it actually is. It is a fallacy to suppose that the narrowness of coverage means it is more in depth rather than merely repetitive. Furthermore, one should not assume that the narrowness is for want of enough time in a given broadcast; typically after ten minutes in the evening newscasts of the major non-news networks (i.e, ABC, NBC, and CBS), a magazine format takes over, with "human interest" stories replacing news reports.

In short, television news is broken in the United States, and the journalists are blind to it even as they portray themselves (ironically) as self-appointed experts (i.e., talking heads) on policy. Because the correction needed is not merely by degree, it is doubtful that the situation could be rectified without a new infusion of people in the business. In the meantime, I recommend Deutsche Welle (German and English versions—webpages and television channels) and TV5 Monde (en francais), as well as the BBC.  Hopefully these European newscasts won’t follow their American cousins.


Gallup Politics, “Americans’ Confidence in Television News Drops to New Low,” July 10, 2012. http://www.gallup.com/poll/155585/Americans-Confidence-Television-News-Drops-New-Low.aspx

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Maryland and Kansas: Distinct Taxing and Spending Policy Ideologies

Coming out of the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008, Maryland “raised income taxes on its top earners . . . to preserve services and spending on its well-regarded schools — leading some business groups to warn that the state might become less competitive. Kansas, controlled by Republicans, decided to try to spur its economy with an income tax cut — which Moody’s Investors Service, the ratings agency, recently warned would lead to “dramatic revenue loss” and deficits that will likely require more spending cuts in the coming years.” Two very different political societies in one Union. This might sound familiar to Europeans looking at their own Union. Yes, Virginia, the E.U. and U.S. are indeed commensurate. 

The full essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Libya (and the E.U.): Writing a Constitution

Should writing a constitution, or “basic law,” be done piecemeal by successive amendments (e.g., the E.U.), or all at once (e.g., the U.S.)? In terms of unions of states, the answer might depend on how comfortable the state leaders are with transferring governmental sovereignty to the union. Whether at the state or union level, if “all at once” is the desired way, it is worth pondering whether a committee of a legislature should be assigned the task, or alternatively whether delegates to a dedicated convention should be selected—either by popular election or appointment by a legislature. These questions may seem antiquated where a constitution has stood for some time. Even so, in July 2012 in the midst of a legislative election, Libyans had a vested interest in the rather pressing questions.

According to the New York Times, the election in Libya selected a 200-member legislature that was initially expected to draft a constitution while it governed the state for 18 months. However, the interim Transitional National Council stripped the legislature of that authority just two days before the vote in an attempt to placate Libyans in the eastern part of the state who protested that the legislature would be stacked in favor of the more populous northwestern region around Tripoli. (One hundred members are from the west, 60 from the east, and 40 from the desert south.) “The council instead decreed a new election to choose a smaller panel to draft the constitution that would be composed of equal numbers from each region.” While sufficient and fair representation is a legitimate concern, an additional benefit of a convention is that pressing issues of governance, which are necessarily salient to legislators, can be bracketed to some extent. That is to say, a convention can have more room to look at the big picture with a more long-term perspective. Ideally, the delegates would be sequestered such that they are immune from pressing external pressures, though this is admittedly not possible at the union level, wherein the delegates represent sovereign or even semi-sovereign legislatures.

Whereas a convention at the union level must contend with the strictures placed on delegates by their respective states, delegates at the state level must deal only with local elites, rather than with entire legislatures (this is yet another reason not to conflate a state with a union thereof). Whereas a sovereign (or semi-sovereign) legislature has a legitimate right to tightly instruct its delegate, a delegate elected by the people of a locality of a state can legitimately not receive any instructions. Sequestering such delegates, who are dedicated to the sole task of writing a constitution, can effectively bracket momentary and partisan political pressures.

As the ballots were being counted in Libya, the New York Times surmised that the interim council’s last-minute change would probably be overturned by the new legislature. To be sure, the candidates for the legislature campaigned to be part of a constitutional assembly. Even so, it would be sad were the advantages of a dedicated convention beyond questions of local representation relegated or ignored, particularly given the conflict-ridden relations between the tribes and regions of Libya at the time. Getting delegates from all the tribes and regions together in a room and bracketing them from the outside such that they could sit down and take some real time to focus on basic questions of governance would be particularly worthwhile.

Concerning the value of getting a group alone to focus for a few months or so on a system of basic law, or constitution, would not be a bad idea for the E.U., particularly given its common currency and the existence of some anti-federalist states not using it. Although the states, being semi-sovereign, would have the right to appoint the delegates, the conflict-of-interest facing the states on whether to give up additional sovereignty suggests that it might be better were the citizens of the E.U. elect the delegates, perhaps in the districts used for the E.U. Parliament.

In conclusion, Libya (and Egypt) as well as the E.U. in 2012 amid a chaotic change of government and a serious debt crisis, respectively, reminded the world that basic or constitutional questions had not suddenly become passé by the twenty-first century. Setting up or establishing a new system of government, whether for a simple republic or a union of such republics, is difficult in itself, even without the inevitably pressing political pressures. Isolating some reflection dedicated to the task by people with power to propose a system of government is very important, yet strangely this point is typically discounted or disregarded altogether by people in power.


David D. Kirkpatrick, “Braving Areas ofViolence, Voters Try to Reshape Libya,” The New York Times, July 7, 2012.