Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Age of Stalemate

The language Ron Nate used to open his recent column in the Post Register helps illustrate why Americans seem to be more polarized than ever.

“Truthful economists admit that minimum wages reduce work hours, restrict growth, impinge liberty and are never the stimulus they're thought to be,” he wrote.

Nate, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, essentially asserts that there is an obvious right answer when it comes to the minimum wage, that he knows what it is, and that anyone who disagrees with him is not being truthful. There is no room in those assertions for the possibility that highly educated, thoughtful and truth-seeking economists can honestly arrive at different conclusions.

Welcome to the Age of Stalemate.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business recently polled a panel of 38 economists it considers among the country’s “elite.” It asked whether those polled agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment.”

The results weren’t exactly conclusive; 34 percent agreed, 24 percent were uncertain and 32 percent disagreed. Not a single respondent “strongly” agreed or disagreed. While the question isn’t precisely the issue argued by Nate, one must assume that he would have a strong position on the matter and would assert that any economist disagreeing with him is not truthful. In this case that would include all 38 elite economists surveyed because they all waffled.

The firmness of Nate’s position isn’t the issue. The issue is the assertion, which we should assume is what he teaches in his classroom, that any economist who disagrees with him (at least when it comes to the minimum wage) is not truthful instead of having honestly arrived at a different conclusion.

Today the arts of political compromise and honest intellectual debate are nearly lost, replaced by certitude often found in people who take positions based more on ideology than rigorous investigation. Ideologues are to the Age of Stalemate what intellectuals were to the Age of Enlightenment.

Imagine what would have happened if our Founders and Framers had adopted a similarly hard line. For starters, we’d all be speaking the King’s English, because the revolution could never have happened. We most certainly wouldn’t have come up with a Constitution.

In the Age of Stalemate, compromise is a dirty word, debate is merely an opportunity to grandstand and “crossing the aisle” is tantamount to consorting with the enemy. It would have been a simple matter for Nate to have suggested that his studies led him to a particular conclusion without calling anyone who disagrees with him a liar. But we don’t do that anymore.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't trust; verify

As I’ve not-so-subtly noted in this space on what must be a dozen or more occasions, one of the great dangers of the Internet is its capacity to spread lies, myths, and otherwise misleading or out-of-context information.

It takes well-honed skepticism, patience, effort and practice to sift through all of the nonsense that peppers us from every direction nowadays, but tools are finally being developed to assist the cause.

Introducing Verification Junkie, a new web site by Josh Stearns, a self-confessed “verification junkie” who, like me, has grown weary of so much that is bogus being accepted by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people as fact. Unlike me, Stearns has gone to great effort to do something about it beyond whining.

His effort focuses specifically on verifying claims made on social media when news is breaking, and his intended audience is journalists who might otherwise repeat wrong information, thereby giving it the credibility to become accepted as fact. He also writes a blog called Groundswell focusing on similar matters.

Among his compelling posts on Groundswell is a reverse engineering of the misinformation that proliferated after the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s worth a read:

More generally, Stearns’ Verification Junkie site compiles a list of places to go when news is breaking fast and furious and you want to separate fact from fiction. He’s compiled an impressive list of web sites, including the Report an Error Alliance, Media Bugs, TinEye and others. To visit his web site, use your mobile device to scan the QR code attached to this column, or just type into your web browser.

Stearns says he “fights for the future of journalism through media and technology policy.” It’s an important fight, long overdue and largely ignored by too many practicing journalists. There was a time, of course, when budding journalists were schooled in the “five Ws and one H”: who, what, when, where, why and how. Nowadays it seems only one thing matters: First.

So, we see police scanner calls reported as news, Twitter messages repeated as fact and the advent of “citizen journalism” in which anyone with a smart phone becomes a reporter.

For example, not long ago several local media outlets breathlessly reported that rescue vehicles were racing to the scene of a crash at the Pocatello airport. In truth, a small, private plane had tipped onto one wing, leaving the pilot, well, momentarily uncomfortable and probably a little embarrassed. This kind of “reporting” has become all too common.

Please, bookmark Verification Junkie and use it often (it’s most effective for national or worldwide news). It represents the “good” powers unleashed by the Internet, and none too soon.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Lazy journalism and reinforcing stereotypes

While looking for something else the other day I was reminded by Google that there are 17 known hate groups in Idaho.

The reference was in an otherwise delightful Forbes magazine profile of Idaho state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, the first African-American to be elected to the Idaho Legislature.
High in the story are these sentences:

       At this time, there are 18 known hate groups in Idaho. Last year, white supremacists held protest signs in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho with racist epitaphs (sic) such as ‘Honk if you want Idaho White’ and ‘Idaho for Whites. Mexico for Mexicans’.”

Idaho is an easy target, with its well-publicized history of open intolerance practiced by an ignorant few. However, here are a few statistics that these stories entirely left out:
  • According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 1,007 “active hate groups” in the United States.
  • The same organization produces of map showing the number of hate groups per state. Idaho ranks about in the middle, well behind some states like California (82), New York (38), Arizona (28) and nearly all of the Southern states.
  • And, yes, Idaho is home to more hate groups than any of its neighbors. (Wyoming has two and Utah has four – Washington is a close regional second with 16.)
My point? Too often journalists use statistics to reinforce a point they wish to make without providing relevant contextual data. It goes something like this: Idaho has a known history of hosting groups hostile to entire classes of people, therefore it is acceptable to use incomplete data if it supports the position that Idahoans are intolerant.
Clearly, one hate group is one too many and 17 hate groups are far too many. Idahoans should work tirelessly to stamp out intolerance and hate. But those facts don’t give lazy journalism a pass.
Of course, that information was important to the story. But a single additional sentence putting the data in context would have been good journalism. Instead, an Idaho stereotype is reinforced. (It should be noted that the story was published more than a year ago, and Idaho apparently now has one hate group fewer than it did at the time.)
The spunky Boise Weekly also ran a piece on the data, also leaving out any contextual information. To its credit, the newspaper did provide links to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s web site for the handful of people interested enough to pursue the details.

The Post Register is sometimes criticized for something similar – sacrificing context in the quest for brevity. The Forbes piece serves as a reminder to us that throwaway lines and incomplete data might make for compelling reading but they aren’t good journalism. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Goosegate: Life imitating art

Parks and Recreation is a clever, understated TV series based on the politics of a fictional small town in Indiana.

Goosegate is an actual and ongoing series of events happening here in Idaho Falls that would make for a good P and R episode.

Here's the plot:

The city of Idaho Falls, over many years and with the unyielding assistance of the local Rotary Club, has developed a spectacular greenbelt on either side of the Snake River where it passes through town. Included in this development are miles of lush, green grass. Green grass (a goose's favorite food). Water. People ignoring the signs imploring them to not feed the wildlife.

What you get, of course, is hundreds of geese. And hundreds of pounds -- probably tons -- of goose poop.

The city has a new Parks and Recreation director from Back East. He's a good guy -- enthusiastic, full of ideas, a real shot in the arm for our town. The director, however, doesn't like goose poop, at least at the level it is now being produced along the greenbelt. So, he meets with his citizen commission and tells them of a plan to relocate most of the geese to a wetland area well outside of town. This will be done during July, when the geese are molting and can't fly, thereby discouraging them from immediately returning to town, as it's simply too far to goose-step all the way back (sorry for that).

Alas, he hasn't informed the city council of his plan. A member of his citizen commission leaks the story to the press (that's us), including a tape recording of the meeting. We call the director, who politely answers our questions. After finishing the interview, he immediately sends an email to the city council decrying the "premature" release of information about the goose plan, declaring the commissioner's move as "unfortunate." One city councilor writes to our Deep Throat (the commissioner -- do I have to spell it out for you?) that the big problem here is that the city council had to learn about the goose move in the newspaper.

The newspaper then publishes a follow-up story with this unforgettable headline (I confess: I suggested using the term "goosegate"): "Goosegate at I.F. City Hall." It is, by far, the most popular story on our website today.

This is only the beginning, I think. Among other things, assuming the geese are relocated, what's to prevent new groups of gaggles from settling down on our greenbelt? You can almost hear them as they approach:

"What's that down there?"

"Looks like lush, green grass next to a lovely slow-moving river."

"And what are those people doing?"

"Hmmm, it looks like ... THEY"RE FEEDING GEESE BREAD AND STUFF!"

"Jim, our plans have changed. Let's stay."

"You got it, Martha. Come on gang (turning to those in the wider parts of the "V"), there's grass, bread and water down there!"