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21 posts from December 2009

December 30, 2009

Darcy James Argue wins "Best Debut" in Village Voice poll

Darcy James Argue, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Congratulations to my partner, Darcy Argue, on his outstanding showing in this year's Village Voice Jazz Critics's poll. Darcy's album, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam) placed first in the Best Debut category and fourth overall.

It's a brilliant album, the culmination of years' work. Any reasonable person would have told you that it was impossible to move to New York and become a big band leader in the 2000's, but Darcy showed everyone.

Congratulations also to my friend Linda Oh who also made the list for her Entry (Linda Oh Music).

December 28, 2009

What's next for health care reform?

J. Lester Feder of The Nation has a good summary of the next steps for health reform.

The Senate passed its version of the bill on Christmas Eve. Now, congressional leaders will combine the House and Senate versions of the bill to create a hybrid bill known as a conference report, which must pass both the House and the Senate before the president can sign it into law.

On the whole, the House bill is more progressive than the Senate version. For example, the House bill includes a public option, but the Senate bill doesn't, thanks to Joe Lieberman. The House bill would pay for reform by taxing the wealthy, the Senate version would tax high-cost health care plans.

Chances are, the final bill will look more like the Senate version. Amanda thinks that many observers are underestimating Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

I’ve been a little cowardly and not posting too much on the actual Senate bill because I don’t want to deal with the “kill the bill” crowd---or worse, people starting to talk third parties and other such nonsense---but I have been tweeting in support of getting through this process with our wits about ourselves, including reminding people that, contrary to mainstream media insinuations to the contrary, the House does matter.  The continued dismissal of Nancy Pelosi’s power has left me really uneasy, because I detect more than a whiff of unintentional sexism to it, though part of the reason that people overlook Pelosi is that she’s a publicly unassuming person.

Sadly, thanks to the institutional filibuster, the House really doesn't matter as much as the Senate. As Nate Silver explains at 538, Pelosi has way more flexibility than Reid when it comes to passing health care. Nate estimates that Pelosi has between 240 and 245 potential "yes" votes for final passage, of which she only needs 218. So, she can afford to lose some of the progressives who voted for the bill the first time if she makes up that support from more conservative Dems who voted "no" the first time. Reid absolutely needs 60 votes or the whole thing goes down in flames.

This flexibility is a drawback when it comes to negotiating in conference. Pelosi and Reid both want the final bill to pass. Reid knows that if the bill deviates from Ben Nelson's strictures on abortion, or Joe Lieberman's prohibition on the public option, the bill will die. In all probability, Pelosi can pass a bill without a public option. There's no way Reid can pass a bill that includes one. So, Pelosi has a lot less leverage in conference.

Harvard prof flouts NYT freelance rules with 3M junket

New York Times freelancers are forbidden to accept freebies of any kind from potential news sources. Travel writer Mike Albo recently lost his freelance shopping column over a junket he wrote about for another site. Now, Harvard business school prof and freelance Times columnist Mary Tripsas is accused of writing a puff piece about the 3M "innovation center" in Minnesota after visiting the facility on 3M's dime.

In an interview with the nytpicker blog, Tripsas said she thought it was okay because 3M invited her to speak as a Harvard professor and was unaware of her NYT affiliation. Tripsas doesn't explain why she's so sure 3M didn't know. It's an odd assumption to make, given that she writes a regular column under her real name. She admits that she didn't tell her NYT editor that she had a financial connection 3M. That's a clear violation of the Times' policy.

It's perfectly reasonable for a professor to give a talk at 3M, and it's standard in academia for the institution that invites the prof to pay her way. I wouldn't even have a problem with Tripsas writing about that trip as long as she made it clear that she found out about the center through her day job, at 3M's expense.

In general, freelancers should get more leeway than staff writers as far as accepting travel subsidies, review copies, and other freebies to offset their reporting costs. If you have the resources of the newspaper of record at your disposal, you have no excuse for taking free stuff from the people you cover. If you're paying your expenses upfront out of a freelance fee that might materialize in two months' time, it's easier to justify taking a subsidy. The New York Times could afford to send Tripsas to Minnesota. That's what should have happened if she wanted to write about the innovation center for the Times.

Note that this level of independence is a luxury that is contingent on institutional support. As more of the journalistic workforce goes freelance, news institutions are losing control over how their reporters cover the news. That's a hidden cost of downsizing and outsourcing. If you want independence, you have to pay for it.

This is equally true for less obvious free resources like press releases and official spokespeople. Staff reporters who get paid to cover their beats intensively can develop their own leads. Those with less support, be they staffers or freelancers, are apt to be more dependent on canned material distributed by interested parties. A junket and a press release are basically the same media strategy. They're both designed to make it easy to cover some event that the sponsor wants to draw attention to. If a reporter had to assemble the material contained in the average press release from scratch, it would take hours. Time is money.

Institutional prestige doesn't automatically equal credibility. However, there are certain aspects of crediblity that big institutional news outlets can use to distinguish themselves from their smaller, scrappier competitors. Independence is a big one. Steve Coll had a great article in the New Yorker a couple months ago about working for a big international newsroom during the last days of the golden age of print. He notes that his paper could afford not only to fly him to distant outposts, but also to back him in court if his coverage sparked a lawsuit. Sadly, those days are long gone at most papers.

It's reasonable for newspapers to expect their full-time staff writers to abide by conflict of interest policies on their side projects as well as their work for the paper. It's ridiculous to expect freelancers like Mike Albo to follow NYT rules when they're off the NYT clock. Albo got canned for accepting a free trip and writing about it for the Thrillist. Freelance journalists usually cobble together a living from various sources, including day jobs that may or may not bring their own conflicts of interest. If the paper isn't supporting them, you can't expect to micromanage the rest of their lives.

The NYT conflict of interest policies represent an ideal. That ideal doesn't come cheap. If the NYT wants the added measure of credibility that comes with independence, it has to be willing to pay for it.

December 27, 2009

Media payola

Most North American journalists will tell you that it's unethical to pay for an interview. So, officially established news outlets never do it. In reality, they do pay. Gawker explains how this works: News outlets claim to be paying for the rights to a photo of the subject, with the tacit understanding that buying a picture will lead to an interview.

According to Gawker, Flight 253 hero Jasper Schuringa made about $18,000, ostensibly by selling some lousy photos of himself to CNN, ABC, and the New York Post. In fact, the photos were just a fig leaf. Schuringa was reportedly quite upfront about the fact that he would only talk if he got paid. I don't begrudge Schuringa the money. If anyone deserves a holiday windfall, it's that guy. It's not his job to uphold media standards.

That said, media outlets shouldn't pay for interviews. The practice creates glaring conflicts of interest, real or apparent. Journalism is supposed to be about finding the truth, not bribing people to say what you want to hear.

That said, if a news outlet insists on paying for interviews, it should be absolutely transparent about doing so. We should at least know that a source was paid for their appearance. These days, if a blogger gets a free review copy of a book, they have to include a disclaimer to that effect in their review. Yet, CNN doesn't feel obliged to tell us that it landed a Schuringa interview because of deep pockets rather than journalistic acumen. CNN, ABC, and the New York Post should join their media counterparts in the UK and admit that they pay to play.

December 22, 2009

Dispatch from the war on Christmas: Dogtivity

I wonder who was offended by the dogtivity scene in the window of this Carroll Gardens pet supply store. Judging by the neighborhood, I'm guessing it was either a Christian or a cat person. I doubt a secularist killjoy was responsible. Carroll Gardens has plenty of human/barnyard/camel nativity scenes and nobody seems to mind.

December 20, 2009

COP15: Obama's high handed pseudo-deal

Barack Obama declared victory and went home. Too bad it was in Copenhagen and not Kabul:

Late on Friday night, President Barack Obama announced that an agreement had been reached, establishing a minimalist accord that would not set a firm schedule with hard-and-fast targets for reducing emissions. But after Obama held a press conference to declare semi-victory—"this is going to be a first step"—and jetted back to Washington, European officials said nothing was in the bag. [Mother Jones]

That evening, Obama sat down with the leaders of four major emerging economies: Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. A Brazilian diplomat who attended the meeting told Kate Sheppard and David Corn of Mother Jones that the major sticking point was international verification of emissions. The U.S. and China had been at odds over verification throughout the summit.

A bit of background: The U.S. won't act on climate change unless China does. China agreed to reduce emissions, but balked at international monitoring. Earlier in the summit, China's foreign minister implied that he was willing to scuttle the talks over verification. Understandably, the U.S. isn't prepared to commit to anything based on China's unverifiable promises. So, the summit was paralyzed for days while the world's two biggest emitters fought over verification.

According to the Brazilian diplomat, Obama floated a new phrase during the eleventh-hour negotiating session: "examination and assessment" of emissions. It was language China could live with. 

Unfortunately, as Sheppard and Corn explain, the draft that came out of the meeting was extremely weak in other ways. The non-binding agreement contains no specific emissions targets and no hard and fast promises of climate aid to developing countries.

The draft sets the goal of somehow raising $100 billion a year for climate aid by 2020. It doesn't say who's going to contribute what, or when. Developing countries know that such vague promises are all but meaningless.

Worse, the draft struck all references to a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees and substituted "less than 2 degrees." This is a life and death distinction for many small island states and low-lying countries. Negotiators wrangled for days over the maximum temperature increase. With a stroke of a pen, Obama's side deal erased hard-won concessions for developing countries.

Obama announced that a deal had been struck and left for D.C.. But it wasn't his deal to strike. The COP in cop15 stands for Council of Parties. By any reasonable standard, a deal at Copenhagen means a deal adopted by the 192-member COP.

COP rules say that any deal has to be adopted by unanimous vote. So, by preemptively declaring victory, Obama basically handed his 12-page document to the world and said "Here, sign this."

As Sheppard and Corn explain, the last-minute meeting was an end run around Europe and the developing world:

The Obama agreement was a sly maneuver. The United States sidestepped the official proceedings and found a way to separate major developing nations from poorer ones—while skating past European desires for a more comprehensive and binding agreement. Though European negotiators first declared they were not on board, as the final evening of the summit entered the wee hours, Europe conceded. At a 2:00 a.m. press conference, dour-looking European leaders announced their unhappy support. "This accord is better than no accord, but clearly below our ambition," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "We have to be honest."

So, it's hardly surprising that other countries balked when they were asked to vote for the Obama Accord, which they had no say in drafting. Can you imagine a better way to piss off a roomful of negotiators who have been sweating blood for two weeks than by rewriting the whole deal behind closed doors?

In the end, the COP merely "noted" the agreement instead of adopting it.

It's great that the U.S. and China were able to move forward on verification. That's a major diplomatic achievement for Obama. The Obama Accord could even pave the way for a stronger agreement next year.

Yet, by trying to hype a solid side deal as the Copenhagen Accord, Obama reinforced the stereotypes that have stymied climate change negotiations to date. Throughout cop15, developing countries have complained bitterly that the developed world is ignoring them.

By overselling the agreement Obama confirmed suspicions that the accord is just a figleaf to cover a failed summit.

There is a silver lining here. If conservatives hear that Obama pissed off smaller, weaker countries in Copenhagen, they'll want a treaty for sure.

December 19, 2009

Stupak aide schemed with McConnell staffers over health bill

I hate to say it, but Politico wins the afternoon: One of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI)'s aides was caught conniving with Sen. Mitch McConnell's staff and other top anti-choicers over abortion funding in the Senate health reform bill...

An aide to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) coordinated opposition to the Senate health bill’s abortion compromise this morning with the Republican Senate leadership, according to a chain of frantic emails obtained this morning by POLITICO.

Stupak, in an interview with POLITICO, called the Senate bill’s abortion position "unacceptable" – but disavowed his staffer’s collaboration with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“I never talked to McConnell about the health care bill,” said Stupak, adding that “I did not authorize the email [which] “was sent without my knowledge.” 


Guys - when will we see your letters of opposition to the managers amendment?? We need them ASAP!” wrote Erika Smith, the Stupak aide, at 9:23 this morning, less than an hour after the amendment had become available.

The email’s recipients included key staffers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Right to Life, the Family Research Council, as well as Autumn Fredericks Christensen, aide to top pro-life Republican Chris Smith, and Lanier Swann, a McConnell aide.

A minute after Smith sent out her plea, Lanier reiterated it to the list.

“Nelson is telling people in the building he will vote yes. If there was any time to weigh in against this deal —- THIS IS IT,” Swann wrote at 9:24 a.m.

The frenzied correspondence began when the anti-choicers realized that Ben Nelson might supply the critical 60th vote to defeat a GOP filibuster and put the Senate health bill on the road to passage. Part of the price of Nelson's vote would be to tighten restrictions on abortion funding under health reform, though not as severely as the notorious Stupak amendment to the House bill.

Stupak claims he didn't know what the aide was doing. I don't believe that a congressman's aide would enter into dialog with the Senate Minority Leader of the opposing party on the President's signature piece of domestic policy without a nod from her boss. McConnell is, of course, determined to kill the bill at any cost.

If Stupak doesn't fire this aide today, I'll assume he knew and approved of what she was doing. Allegedly, Stupak opposes abortion funding because he's such a devout Catholic. Well, Bart, the Bible has a lot more to say about lying than it does about abortion. 

December 16, 2009

FBI-linked white supremacist walks

Great, the white supremacist radio host who threatened the life of reporter Max Blumenthal and others is a free man. Turns out, the FBI hired him to do that sort of thing. (Link fixed)

December 14, 2009

Copenhagen: A death panel for countries like Tuvalu

Born_in_tuvalu_tee  The tiny nation of Tuvalu has taken center stage in Copenhagen. 

"I woke up this morning crying, and that's not easy for a grown man to admit," Tuvalu's chief climate negotiator, Ian Fry, told hundreds of delegates in the Bella Center in Copenhagen on Saturday. "The fate of my country rests in your hands," he said, his voice breaking. Global warming is an existential issue for Tuvalu and other small island nations. If global warming goes unchecked, these countries will literally be wiped off the map. For countries like Tuvalu, COP15 is effectively referendum on their continued existence. Will the rest of the world step up, or will it write them off?

Tuvalu and its supporters want a treaty to protect island states. They also seek legally binding emissions targets for all countries geared to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. 

During the aftermath of the Iranian election, supporters sported green twitter icons to show their support for the protesters. In that spirit, I decided to change my twitter icon to an "I heart Tuvalu" button. The picture is from Tuvalu's official Cafe Press store. Join me!

December 12, 2009

Naturopath tells Fox viewers that coffee will make them fat

In other woo news: Fox News invited Ann de Wees Allen to tell its viewers that black coffee will make you "fatter than a pig." This segment is a textbook example of how not to do science journalism. The voice over identifies de Wees Allen as "Doctor"--without mentioning that she claims neither a medical degree, nor a doctorate. Her website says she's a doctor of naturopathy. Fox also neglects to mention that Allen appears to have a sideline selling something called "Skinny Coffee"--an alternative to that fattening old joe.

The segment gives roughly equal time to a real dietitian who explains that coffee can't cause weight gain on its own, on account of it having no calories. Besides, she says, if plain coffee were causing massive weight gain, dietitians would have noticed by now.

Obviously, if you drink cream and sugar with your coffee, or use it to wash down cookies, those calories add up the same as any others. And there's evidence that even non-caloric sweeteners can stimulate the release of insulin, which in theory could make some people hungrier and/or more likely to store extra calories as fat--but that hypothesis hasn't been proven. But if coffee is "worse than five hot fudge sundaes" as "Doctor" Allen claims, there are a suspiciously large number of skinny coffee drinkers out there.

There are equally plausible mechanisms by which coffee might contribute to weight loss. Caffeine is, after all, a stimulant. As such, it tends to increase activity and boost metabolism.

I couldn't find much evidence that coffee consumption affects body weight either way.

By putting Allen up against a real dietitian, Fox News is inviting the inference that her views should be considered on par with those of a licensed health care professional. Like quacks throughout history, naturopaths have schools that hand out credentials, but naturopathy is pseudoscience. It is irresponsible of Fox News to give this quack a platform.