On Media, Media Matters, and Other Matters

There’s never been any point in denying that the vast majority of the journalism industry is liberal, and that a liberal bias in pervasive in its output, but it was once possible to deny that there was nothing conspiratorial about it.

It’s just a matter of like-minded people being drawn to the business, we would assure our more paranoid conservative friends, and a resulting group-think mentality. It’s not as if journalists at competing businesses are coordinating their coverage to serve a partisan political agenda at the direction of some government propaganda bureau.

Then came the “Journolist” scandal, in which a series of e-mails leaked to The Daily Caller exposed that numerous well-read journalists from competing businesses were communicating with one another as well as liberal professors and activists to coordinate their coverage to serve a partisan political agenda. Now the same Daily Caller has revealed that the self-proclaimed “media watchdog” Media Matters for America has weekly strategy sessions with the White House communications department and routinely passes along stories to compliant reporters, an arrangement unlikely to calm our paranoid conservative friends.

The series is full of juicy tidbits, including the bizarre and heavily armed behavior of Media Matters head David Brock, and the group’s ruthless efforts to discredit Fox News and other sources perceived as hostile to the liberal agenda, but most of it won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the group. The group is well-funded by leftist billionaire George Soros, was founded by self-proclaimed liberals, and has publicly acknowledged that its mission is to counter the insidious influence of whatever conservative media might exist. What’s most newsworthy is that the non-profit and therefore supposedly non-partisan group acted as conduit between government officials and compliant journalists.

In addition to the weekly conference calls with the White House communications department and the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, Media Matters would also meet with White House representatives at a weekly face-to-face meeting with a variety of liberal organizations. Media Matters denies there was any coordination, but past administration talking points eerily echoed Media Matters language, and even stalwart liberal Alan Dershowitz is troubled by the White House’s relationship with a group that is also known for its hostility to Israel.

The connection to the White House is important because Media Matters clearly has influence on a variety of news outlets. The sources quoted by The Daily Caller boast of the big-time by-line stars that would use Media Matters material, including Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, Brian Stelter of The New York Times, Jim Rainey of The Los Angeles Times, and Sam Stein and Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post. The sources also state that “The entire progressive blogosphere picked up our stuff,” and that might also have some effect on public opinion.

This would all be quite worrisome if anyone still believed what they hear and read on the news

— Bud Norman


Unfunny Valentine

Today is Valentine’s Day, which obliges us to forgo our usual glum political and economic assessments in order to address the matter of people falling in love.

People do still fall in love, we presume. Not often in our circle of acquaintances, at least not lately, and not even an old school chum who used to fall in love with an exasperating frequency, but there must be somebody out there still doing it. Many of the people we have Facebook-befriended announce on their pages that they are in a relationship, which is not necessarily the same as falling in love, as we understand the modern parlance, but surely a few of these vaguely familiar people must be feeling some deep emotion or another.

The lack of romance among the company we keep isn’t just a result of advancing age. We make a point of socializing with the young folk from time to time, and have found them generally disinclined to fall in love. Indeed, the young nowadays are often quite cynical about the very idea. There seems to be some “hooking up,” as the youngsters so delicately put it, but that’s also not necessarily the same as falling in love, and judging by the hard luck stories we’re forced to endure there doesn’t even seem to be as much of that as in the past.

If you’ll forgive the brief interjection of a glum political and economic assessment, the younger set’s romantic desires might be constrained by its bleak financial prospects. Parents’ basements are notoriously lousy bachelor’s pads, wining and dining are increasingly expensive, and the prospect of parenthood is downright daunting to a debt-laden twenty-something with an unmarketable bachelor’s degree. The contemporary aversion to romance seems to have predated the economic downturn, however, and even the most financially well-off young people we know seem content to parlay their success into a series of relationships rather than fall in love.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of all the divorces over the past many years, something our young friends mention with depressing regularity, or the sweeping social changes that have obliterated the traditional sex roles and mating rituals without having settled on any universally recognized new ones. There certainly isn’t much falling in love going on in the popular culture, where romance once ruled but is now reviled. Violence is more common across the cultural spectrum than any kind of love, and there’s usually an ironic detachment from both.

We no longer keep up with the latest pop music, which is even more of a young person’s pastime than falling in love, but what little we hear of it as we scan across the radio dial is more likely to be an angry screed than a soulful declaration of love. The couples on the television sit-coms seem to insult one another constantly. Romantic comedies remain a popular movie genre, but they always seem to find the notion of romance comedic. Romance novels still sell in large numbers, but are not considered respectable. There might be romantic poetry in print, but no one reads poetry.

Despite it all, though, there’s bound to be someone out there falling in love. It just keeps happening, no matter what. To those hearty souls willing to take the risk, defy the odds, and let hope triumph over experience, we wish you a happy Valentine’s Day. Here’s hoping it all works out.

— Bud Norman

Debts and Riots

The news reports from Greece give a horrifying account of the rioting, arson, and strikes there, but none offer any explanation of what the rioters, arsonists, and strikers want.

They obviously don’t want the austerity bill that was passed by their parliament on Sunday, which is easily understandable. Included in the bill are 150,000 public sector layoffs, a 22 percent cut in the minimum wage, a 20 percent cut in monthly pensions above €1,200, a 40 percent cut in the pensions of all retirees below the age of 55, and the income tax extended to all people making more than €5,000 a year. Such painful measures are not expected to boost the economic fortunes of a country that has been mired in recession for five years and suffers 21 percent unemployment, either, as one needn’t be a hard-core Keynesian to see how a largely government run economy will be affected by deep cuts in government spending.

What they do want, though, is less clear. The Greeks are discovering what many a profligate individual has learned over the years, that living on borrowed money eventually ends badly. There are no painless solutions, and all options seem to end in austerity.

Some of the rioters are reportedly communists hoping that a Marxist state will arise from the ashes, but if communism were the answer the Greeks would be getting bailed out by the Soviet Union. Others are no doubt hoping for some other form of government or non-government, but they can’t suggest one that comes with enough money to pay the enormous bills that have accumulated. Most are just venting their frustrations, if human nature is the same in Greece as elsewhere, but there is no precedent for rioting, arson, and strikes improving an economy.

Without the austerity bill, Greece won’t receive a promised €8 billion bail-out, and without it the country will be forced into default and an even greater economic catastrophe. As Prime Minister Lucas Papademos put it to the New York Times, “It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and a social explosion. The state would be unable to pay wages and pensions and cover basic operational costs such as those of hospitals and schools. The living standard of Greeks would collapse, and the country would be dragged into a spiral of recession, instability, unemployment and misery.”

Worse yet, Papademos seems to think, “all these developments would lead, sooner or later, to Greece’s exit from the Euro zone.”

Even if Greece does retain its European Union membership, which may or may not be a good thing, the austerity measures and the resulting bail-out hardly put the country on a sound financial footing. The plan hopes to have Greece’s debt down to a staggering 120 percent of its gross domestic product by 2020, and involves a 70 percent cut in payments to the saps who invested in the country, a bad haircut that’s likely to scare away foreign capital for years to come.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, President Barack Obama has proposed a budget that would add $1.33 trillion to the national debt this year and a mere $901 billion next year. These developments are, one hopes, unrelated.

— Bud Norman

Of Frisbees and Freedom

To a Kansas boy of the 1960s, California seemed the promised land. The siren songs of the Golden State blared through the tinny speakers of every transistor radio, its alluring image flickered through every television and shined from every drive-in movie screen, all promising endlessly sunny days of hot rods, bikini girls, beach parties, and an unrestrained rock ‘n’ roll freedom unknown to the staid and stiff-necked prairie.

Now we see that you can’t even toss a Frisbee on a Los Angeles beach.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has imposed a $100 fine on anyone so irresponsible, so reckless, so dangerously anti-social as to toss a Frisbee or football on the beach, with the penalty escalating to $200 for a second offense and $500 for habitual recidivists. That a California government would prohibit footballs from its beaches is not surprising, given the manly nature of the sport and the offense a pigskin might give animal rights advocates, but a ban on Frisbees, the most ingenious creation of the venerable Wham-O corporation and a cherished pastime of slackers everywhere, proves that the California dream is dead.

The rule represents a relatively small loss of liberty, and will likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of Los Angelinos who don’t indulge in the Frisbee habit, but it’s yet another outrage in the accumulation of petty tyrannies that is gradually overwhelming civil society. It’s not just the 2,000-page bills that seek to regulate entire industries, but the rules being added at every level of government that tell people to buckle up, wear a helmet, sort your garbage, buy the toxic light bulbs, act according to government dictates on hundreds of decisions that were once left to you, and then submit to a search of your pockets at City Hall when you go to pay the fine.

So many rules make outlaws of everyone, no matter how mild-mannered and conscientious. When a father playing catch with his son is a scofflaw, the same as some Frisbee-tossing hippie, it has become impossible to not run afoul of some regulation or another. As people discover they can’t possibly be in compliance with all of the thousands and thousands of rules, many will inevitably decide they need to obey any of them.

The overabundance of rules is everywhere in America, but is always worse in locales once famed for their tolerant and permissive attitudes. California’s Frisbee ban is but the latest in a long, long list of nit-picking rules promulgated by that state. New York City won’t let you put salt on your French fries, much less carry a gun or exercise other rights taken for granted in more benighted areas of the country. Don’t even get us started on Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Martha’s Vineyard, N.Y. College towns are the worst, with even free speech under assault from the forces of we-know-best.

There are no beaches here in Kansas, but those of us who resisted the seductive charms of California can console ourselves with the knowledge that our state is still wide open for Frisbee-tossing. They can take that Frisbee when they pry it from our cold, dead fingers.

— Bud Norman

Enter Santorum

Savvy political observers will downplay the long-term significance of Rick Santorum’s Tuesday night sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where few delegates were at stake and the campaigning was light, but there’s no denying the short-term effect. Santorum has at least temporarily supplanted Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to putative front-runner Mitt Romney.

Despite a significant disadvantage to Romney in funding and organization, the former Pennsylvania senator might fare better in the challenger role than did his many successors, all of whom faded under the spotlight. He seems a likeable guy, unlike the scowling Gingrich, and in a regular blue collar background kind of way, unlike the blue-blooded Romney, and he’s not a foreign policy fruitcake, unlike Ron Paul. The more orthodox conservatives will point to his past support for earmark spending, No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug entitlement, and other Bush-era heresies, but his right-wing credentials are at least as righteous as Gingrich’s, more consistent than Romney’s, and don’t entail the foreign policy nuttiness of Paul.

Santorum’s conservatism on social issues is unquestioned, and although that has not been the main theme of his campaign it will certainly be the old-line media’s favorite storyline in the coming months. Santorum has the same position on gay marriage as Barack Obama, but he will be portrayed as a heartless gay-basher. Despite his clear and consistent declarations that he will not seek to ban contraceptives, his personal opposition to the practice will be offered as proof that he’s a modern day Anthony Comstock. Never mind that Santorum belongs to the same Catholic church as John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, it will be duly noted with undisguised disdain that unlike the others he actually believes in all that stuff.

For the most part American political discourse has been blissfully free of the social issues since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and Santorum probably prefers it stay that way, but the old cultural conflicts that have been kept on the back burner are starting to boil over into the news. The resent decision by the White House to force Catholic hospitals and schools and other religious institutions to provide insurance covering contraception and abortifacients is one example, a judge’s ruling to overturn California’s popular referendum against gay marriage is another, and Santorum’s past and present opposition to abortion will now be one more.

A renewed culture war will not only distract attention from the historically weak economic recovery, the looming debt crisis, and a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, among other more pressing problems, but the left will also expect to find itself on the winning side. They might be in correct in that calculation, but the White House has been widely criticized by members of both parties for the insurance ruling, that was a popular referendum that the judge overturned, and Obama’s abortion policies are arguably further from the center than Santorum’s. Obama has lately been mentioning his own religious convictions, partly in an attempt to sell his domestic policies with the old social gospel pitch, and several of his most ardent admirers have assured he doesn’t really mean any of it, but the fact that he feels the need to resort to religious language suggests there’s still a sizeable audience for it.

A continued emphasis on economics would serve Santorum well in the primary race, and especially in a general election if he gets that far, that fact he unabashedly holds religious beliefs should not be an insurmountable problem. If it is, this country has bigger problems than Barack Obama.

— Bud Norman

Prophylactic Government

They’re a bossy, intolerant, holier-than-thou lot, these irreligious people. Not all of them, of course, and we hasten to add that some of our best friends are godless heathens, but too many of the unchurched are self-righteously determined to impose their non-beliefs on everyone.

The latest example is a ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services that the “Obamacare” law requires all large institutions to offer their employees insurance covering contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, even if those institutions are affiliated with religions that object to such practices.

News reports about the ruling have stressed its effect on Catholic institutions, and thus far the Catholic church has been the most vociferous in its criticisms, but people of all religions will likely feel threatened by the new policy. While most Protestant denominations and other faiths take a more permissive view of contraception than their Catholic brethren, at least as far as married couples are concerned, many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are as steadfast as the Catholics in their opposition to sterilization and abortion. All people who still cling to a faith in a power higher than government knows that there’s something in their creed that will eventually bring them into conflict with an unrestrained secular state, and we expect that many of them will decide that this is as good a place as any to draw a line.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the policy “strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventative services,” but it seems a strange equilibrium. The respect for religious belief is merely rhetorical, the increase in access to services is entirely tangible, and in the end people of faith will have to either pay for something they find sinful or stop providing needed services to the public.

That seems an appropriate balance to a post-religious sensibility, which marvels that anyone still believes in such archaic notions as the propagation of the species, and in the most fevered imaginations of the post-modern left it’s a necessary counterweight to the brutal theocracy of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” that is always looming yet never arrives. From a religious point of view it’s pure bullying by a government with no respect for religious freedom, and we hope that more than a few agnostics and atheists who cherish their liberties will also recognize the dangerous precedent being set by a policy that forces people to act contrary to their most cherished beliefs.

— Bud Norman

Super Silliness

Such is the quarrelsome nature of modern America that you can’t even play a football game without provoking a day’s worth of controversies.

We don’t mean the arguments about which quarterback is better, or what defensive scheme might have worked best, or why your team is a bunch of limp-wristed sissies. Those sorts of arguments are a longstanding football tradition, and are arguably the reason they play the game. We mean the incessant cultural and political clashes that people hope to escape from when watching football, but which show up at every Super Bowl.

It is by now an annual tradition, for instance, that one of the many advertisements that interrupt the game will cause a brouhaha. This year it was a spot with movie star Clint Eastwood making a pitch for Chrysler, although you might not have known from that copy, which was a hard-boiled paean to the great American spirit of something or another. If not for a Chrysler logo that briefly and inconspicuously appeared toward the end one would have never known the ad was talking about a bailed-out, Italian-owned headquartered in a decaying, crime-ridden city with a third world literacy rate.

We’re reluctant to criticize Eastwood, partly because of his long and distinguished career in cinema, partly because he’s the rare octogenarian who could whip us in a bar brawl, but the spot seemed an effort to repay President Obama’s bail-out largesse with some tax-payer funded campaign advertising. Eastwood denies this interpretation, saying that “I am certainly not affiliated with Mr. Obama,” but he surely noticed that the ad never got around to mentioning the sponsor’s product.

There’s also an annual controversy over the half-time show, which this year featured the veteran performer Madonna and some big name, red-hot young acts we’d never heard of. Having come of age in a blue jean-clad era of rock ‘n’ roll when anything smacking of show biz was disdained as inauthentic, we were struck by the spectacle of the performance, which featured a cast of thousands and enough high-tech stagecraft to supply a George Lucas sci-fi epic. The general effect of it all harkened way back to the era of Busby Berkeley, but with just enough post-modern poutiness to make it seem contemporary.

Those hoping for another “wardrobe malfunction” to reveal some tantalizing part of Madonna’s still-toned physique were disappointed, as the only shock-the-squares moment came when a leggy young woman in a Cleopatra-goes-to-Vegas costume made an obscene gesture on camera. Once again, the cutting edge seems to be getting dull. Also among the guest-starring performers were a hirsute duo calling itself LMFAO, which we’re told is a text-messaging acronym that contains profanities — we’re guessing the “F” and the “A” — but that went largely unremarked.

The only other non-football controversy we’re aware of concerns the gorgeous wife of the gorgeous quarterback on the losing team making some profanity-laced comments in the aftermath of the game. We’re inclined to let it slide, as they say, in part because it was a spontaneous slip rather than a deliberate provocation, and in part because she’s gorgeous.

As for the many arguments about the game itself, those are mostly beyond our football knowledge, except to say that we’re happy Eli Manning won’t be remembered as the Dom DiMaggio of football.

— Bud Norman

Crunched Numbers

Anyone tuned in to the hourly news updates wedged between the right wing rants and golden oldies on Friday’s radio broadcasts might have gotten the impression that happy days are here again. The networks touted the latest monthly jobs report with such enthusiasm that listeners were likely tempted to pop open a bottle of celebratory champagne, but after a closer look we settled on another cup of coffee.

While we’re happy for the 243,000 Americans who reportedly found a job in the past month, we couldn’t help noticing that another 1.2 million Americans dropped out of the labor force altogether. This went unmentioned on the radio news briefs, as did the fact that the number of people at work or seeking work actually fell from 64 percent to 63.7 of the country during the boom month.

Some of those who departed from the labor force were retiring baby boomers, heading off to enjoy a comfortable and determinedly hip dotage, but we suspect that most of them are relative youngsters who didn’t hear about the roaring economy and simply gave up the effort of finding a job. If they are all retirees, we foresee an even greater economic problem as a shrinking pool of empty-headed twenty-somethings take on the chore of providing for such a rapidly expanding population of self-indulgent sexagenarians.

We also note that the “raw” numbers, or the data before they have been seasonally-adjusted into more presentable shape, seem rather bleaker. The smart fellows over at the Zero Hedge site, who write with all the literary panache of a caffeine-crazed financial analyst but seem to know what they’re talking about, looked over the same numbers and declared the much-heralded 8.3 percent unemployment rate a “propaganda number.” They note that without the mass exodus of workers from the labor force the current unemployment rate would have rose to 11.5 percent.

The champagne is still on ice, and awaiting the day the unemployment rate begins to rise because more people are starting to look for work.

— Bud Norman

Trump Card

You’ve heard of Donald Trump, of course. Trump’s fame is somehow so pervasive it is impossible not to know that he’s a wealthy real estate developer, appears on some sort of “reality” television program, and has conspicuously bad hair. By now you even know that he’s supporting Mitt Romney for president.

The presidential preferences of Trump are of little importance to serious students of American politics, but should provide ample material for satire. Alas, our scant knowledge of the reality genre in general, and Trump’s contribution in particular, precludes us from contriving a proper spoof. We understand there is a program featuring a person called “Snooky,” and thought there might be some humor in speculating how she might choose between people called “Mitt” and “Newt,” but doing the necessary research seemed too onerous.

The very idea that anyone might pay attention to celebrity endorsements invites ridicule, but recent events have far surpassed the satirist’s ability to exaggerate to comic effect. A daily perusal of the Drudge Report has informed us that “gangsta” rapper Snoop Dogg and schmaltz-rock crooner Barry Manilow have both endorsed Ron Paul, while action movie star Chuck Norris favors Newt Gingrich, and we doubt that the combined efforts of Moliére, Jonathan Swift, and William M. Gaines could improve on that. There must be some joke to be made about the fact that no celebrities seem to be endorsing Rick Santorum, but we can’t think of what it might be.

More serious political commentators will no doubt weigh in with a sober analysis of the endorsement’s effect on the Republican primary race, although few will be able to resist a joke about Trump’s hair, but we see little effect at all beyond a slight boost to Romney. Trump’s admirers seem to be drawn to his combativeness and cockiness, judging by the phone calls to talk radio shows, and would thus be likely Gingrich supporters. Trump’s detractors, on the other hand, are unlikely to let his opinions sway them in any way. Those who have no opinion of Trump, if any exist, will have to make their minds up on their own.

The only real significance of Trump’s endorsement is that in the event of a Romney nomination it prevents him from launching a threatened third-party campaign that would greatly improve the chance of the incumbent winning re-election. That’s another argument for the Romney candidacy, and a better one that Trump is likely to make at any press conference.

— Bud Norman

Downbeat Reading

Few things in life provide the emotional stimulation of depressing literature, so our bookshelves are well-stocked with such grim fare as Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” and Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” but for unrelentingly gloomy reading nothing can top the latest offerings from the Commerce Department and the Congressional Budget Office.

A stiff drink is recommended before delving into the Commerce Department’s look back at the past three months of the American economy, which reports that the nation’s gross domestic product increased by a mere 2.8 percent annual rate during the final quarter of a year, meaning that the economy grew by only 0.7 percent during the holiday shopping months. The figure is ugly enough at first glance, but upon closer examination it becomes even more gruesome.

Slog through the Commerce Department’s bureaucratic prose and you’ll discover that 75 percent of the growth was due to businesses restocking inventories with as-yet unsold goods, which they will not continue to do indefinitely. Careful readers will also note that the Commerce Department arrived at its GDP number by assuming an inflation rate of just 0.4 percent, an assumption that will seem suspicious to anyone who has shopped for groceries in recent months.

Another stiff drink, perhaps hemlock, is recommended to anyone reading the Congressional Budget Office’s look ahead to the next decade of the American economy, which paints a picture of our economic future as disturbing as anything Hieronymus Bosch ever put on canvas. The CBO predicts the unemployment rate rate will rise to 8.9 percent by the end of the year and to 9.2 percent in 2013, that GDP growth will be only 2 percent in the coming year, and that the budget deficit will be $1.08 trillion in 2012 and very high years to come.

Again, the ugly numbers get uglier with a closer look. The report modestly admits that “Many developments could produce economic outcomes that differ from the CBO’s forecast,” citing a “significant worsening of the of the banking and fiscal problems in Europe” as one example, and when that one inevitably develops the current gloomy predictions will seem wildly optimistic.

All of this is bad news if you’re looking for a job, but even more so if you’re hoping to hang on to your current job as president of the United States, which might be the only ray of hope to shine through such dark clouds.

— Bud Norman