Saturday, 11 June 2011

Scenes From My Saturday - Guitar and Government

Every Saturday morning, a nice Swedish man comes to my house and tries to teach me to play the guitar. I say "tries" because I'm a bit old to learn, and my fingers are clumsy and I don't have a great natural sense of rhythm. But he's patient and we do the best we can.

Today, as he was getting his guitar out of the case and while I was making him a cup of tea, he asked me out of the blue, "So how's Barack Obama doing?"
Me: Oh... Pretty well I think. I mean, the economy isn't as good as we'd like. So he's got a lot of work to do there. But then, the Republicans are doing worse. 
Him: Oh really? 
Me: Yes, well you see they don't really have a plan to make the economy any better. All the things they want to do would just make it worse.

Him: Yes, it's always very easy for the opposition to say "it should be this way" because they don't have to do anything." 
Me: Well, that's the interesting thing. You see, in the last congressional election REpublicans actually took control of the House of Representatives. So they have started actually passing all these really unpopular bills. But they don't become law. Because they don't control the Senate of the Presidency.

Him: [Confused look.] 
Me: Ok, basically, Republicans control the House of Representatives. But not the Senate. And Democrats control the presidency. But not the Supreme Court. So Republicans have been using their majority in the House to pass lots of really unpopular bills. Like eliminating Medicare - that's the government programme for health care aimed at the elderly.

Him: But didn't Barack Obama recently pass a bill that does the opposite? 
Me: Yes, Obama's health care bill last year offered health care for all through a combination of private and public sector providers. Republicans want to do the opposite, and that's becoming more and more clear to the voters.

Him: It sounds like the people who created the US Government were very clever. It's not good to have the same Party in control of everything. 
Me: Yes, it's called the Separation of Powers. The President has to have his nominees confirmed by Congress. Congress can't pass laws without the President's signature. The Courts can rule Congresses laws unconstitutional, but the judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  
Him: It must make things very stable.  
Me: Well, yes. But it's better if you are happy about the status quo. If you want change, it makes that really hard to achieve.  
Him: Yes, I suppose things could easily get... constipated.  
Me: Yes. Constipated is a good word for it.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Being the Media: A Cautionary Tale

As the 2012 Presidential election very slowly starts to ramp up, with the shape of the Republican field now starting to chrystalise (Pawlenty, Romney, Santorum - IN. Donald Trump - OUT.) the media is starting to make judgements about who they will choose to cover. Early media attention to a fledgling primary campaign is like gold, and a lot of the candidates have relatively low name recognition. So the decision the media takes about who to focus mainstream television coverage on in these early races can be very influential in setting the stage for the race.

So it's worth pointing out that while former Republican Governor Mitt Romney was announcing his candidacy for office, to respectable and appropriately fact-checked coverage, much of the media was spending their time doing this:
As they left the clambake she attended Thursday in New Hampshire, Palin’s two-SUV caravan traveled at 52 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone as it peeled away from the hosts’ neighborhood. Both cars blew through a stop sign about a mile later. They did 70 mph in a 55 mph zone on I-95 — and then, after they got off, without signaling, flew right past a flashing sign informing them they were going 45 mph in a 35 mph zone...
On Tuesday, the bus nearly hit a biker turning off of Pine Street in Philadelphia.
On Wednesday, after a police escort led the bus through a closed section of the Lincoln Tunnel, the bus ran at least two red lights racing up Sixth Avenue and through Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan. Before long, a cop pulled up, pointing out to the first reporter trailing the bus how many lights they were running. The reporter apologized — but begged to stick with the bus. The perplexed cop let him go. 
On Thursday, the story was much the same. Palin’s two SUVs — used for minor events and tight spaces — braved the tiny, winding streets of Boston’s North End. And when the bus joined them, the trailing car in the entourage ran two red lights after the bus barely made it through the yellow, as did the media caravan, leaving behind a traffic jam for the locals. 
The reporters who are speeding, tailgating, cutting off other cars, blasting through roundabouts and passing on the right in an effort to keep up, say they have no other choice since they never know what Palin’s up to or where she’s headed — and aides typically won’t tell them anything. Once they’re on the road, they’re filing urgent updates by phone and figuring out unorthodox bathroom breaks, like the reporter who pulled over to relieve himself on the side of the highway going from Gettysburg, Pa., to Philadelphia — drawing notice from both Palin aides and the rest of the trailing press.
The reporters say they, "have no other choice". I can think of at least one other choice they could make. Hypothetically, they could not cover Sarah Palin's family holiday. 

Bear in mind, unlike Romney, Sarah Palin is not a Presidential candidate at this point. She's a reality TV star, former half term governor and Fox News commentator. And she refuses to release details of her bus tour to reporters - that's fine. She's not making speeches to define policy on important issues, she's not meeting with party leaders, she's not even spending time talking to voters and constituents about the issues. She's just driving around, visiting tourist attractions and occassionally mangling American history. 

But the media just eats this stuff up like candy.

And you know, I think I understand why. Time for an embarrassing personal revelation.

Here are this blogs most visited posts of all time and the respective number of hits:

I've written 51 posts about Health Care reform policy, an issue very near and dear to my heart and the single most important legislative debate of the past 2 years. I've written about the Supreme Court, Gay rights, women's issues, and a lot about politics and polling in general. None of them could break into the top 10 by popularity.

In total, I've written 554 blog posts since my first post three years ago. And if you took everything ever written on this blog that ISN'T about Sarah Palin - that's 545 out of 554 posts that didn't even mention her name - and added them together, they equal collectively about a tenth of the total readership of my famous Sarah Palin Facebook page investigation. I'm not sorry I wrote that post, nor am I sorry it got a lot of attention - let me be clear about that.

But every day since then, literally hundreds of new visitors come to the blog to read that one post. It's probably the most read thing I have ever written, maybe the most read thing I will ever write. And I like being read - it's why I write. So even though I'd rather not be writing about the former Governor of Alaska, I'm dealing with this niggling temptation - I could draw people to my page with just a few disparaging references to her. It's comparatively easy. Then, I tell myself, I could weave in the things I really want to talk about - enthusiasm for the President and his policies, the case for voting Democrat. The case for voting AT ALL, especially as an American Abroad (don't forget, US citizens living overseas can vote from abroad in all federal elections - that means any election for Congress OR President).

The clicks could be mine. And I want them. I REALLY want them.

But at the end of the day, I'm just me. I don't have employees to pay, or investors to satisfy. I don't accept advertising on the blog, and I am lucky enough to be able to make a good living outside of my blogging-and-politics hobby. So the only pressures on my are internal - wanting to build a readership - and not instituational or financial.

Imagine what it's like for MSNBC. Or CNN. If they know that they can get viewers or clicks with an easy to acquire cutaway shot to Sarah Palin mangling a Paul Revere reference, and they equally know that they will have to work hard to build an audience for any coverage that investigates the reasons why, for example, the May unemployment figures took a discouraging downward turn, of course they're going to go with the Palin footage every time.

She knows this. The media knows this. And it doesn't matter what they think of each other - Palin can throw out all the "lamestream media" quips she wants, but she needs them and she knows it. Fortunately for her, though, she also knows that she'll always have them with her. Careening down the road, blowing through stop signs, and panting to stay in site of her magical mystery tour.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama's administration has been  orchestrating an almost miraculous recovery of the US Auto Industry - which after federal support at the crisis hour has now fully repaid the government investment, and is profitable for the first time since 2004.