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Published: Fri, 26 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 26 May 2017 07:22:26 -0400


3 Ways We're Reliving the Watergate Culture War

Wed, 24 May 2017 14:45:00 -0400

Whether or not we're reliving the Watergate investigation, we sure do seem intent on reenacting the Watergate culture war. That isn't just true of Donald Trump's critics, who are understandably eager to compare the 37th and 45th presidents. It's true of Trump and his team, who keep echoing arguments offered by Richard Nixon and his defenders four decades ago: 1. The double-standard defense. Complain about something Trump has done, and someone is bound to ask why you didn't say a peep when Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama did some other bad thing. (You will get this response even if you protested Clinton or Obama's action quite loudly.) The most prominent person to talk like this, of course, is Donald Trump himself: With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017 But this defense is a lot older than the present president's political career. Throughout the Watergate investigation, Nixon complained angrily that his predecessors had gotten away with the very activities that were getting him in trouble. In his 2003 book Nixon's Shadow, the Rutgers historian David Greenberg lays out some examples: "If I were a liberal," [Nixon] told [die-hard defender Baruch Korff], "Watergate would be a blip." He compiled a private catalogue of behaviors by others that he believed excused his own. On the basis of comments J. Edgar Hoover made to him, he frequently claimed, not quite accurately, that Lyndon Johnson had bugged his campaign plane in 1968. When Nixon was chided for spying on political opponents, he shot back that John and Robert Kennedy had done the same. And as precedents for his 1972 program of political sabotage, he regularly cited the pranks of Democratic operative Dick Tuck, who had hounded Nixon since his 1950 Senate race. During the Watergate Hearings, [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman testified that "dirty tricks" maestro Donald Segretti was hired to be a "Dick Tuck for our side." There's more—much more—but you get the idea. Now, Nixon may have gotten his facts a little scrambled when it came to that alleged airplane bug, and some of the supposed precursors to his crimes didn't actually fit the bill. (He seemed convinced that Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers was comparable to the Watergate break-in—a bizarre analogy, though if you've been following the debates over Edward Snowden you've probably heard worse.) But broadly speaking, the president had a point. Many American leaders had abused their powers, sometimes in ways that resembled the Nixon scandals, and the press hadn't always been quick to trumpet the news. Like Nixon, JFK had wiretapped reporters and used the IRS as a political weapon. LBJ may not have bugged Nixon's plane in 1968, but he did spy on Goldwater in 1964. And both Kennedy and Johnson, like many others who have held their job, presided over enormous violations of dissenters' civil liberties. You can make a decent case that Nixon's misbehavior was even worse than theirs, but you can see how the man could get a little resentful about the uneven attention. The trouble with the double-standard defense is that it isn't much of a defense. The crimes of prior presidents aren't a reason to let Nixon off the hook; they're a reason to rein in not just one abusive president but the whole imperial presidency. The same goes for any Trumpian abuses today. 2. Intimations of a "coup." Then as now, each side accused the other of plotting a coup. Rumors that Nixon was planning to seize dictatorial powers circulated not just on the political fringes but in official Washington; many of the president's foes feared that fascism was on the way. After Nixon had Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, Rep. Parren Mitchell of Maryland asked, "Will democracy as we have known it survive, or will fascism come to dominate in this country?" West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd compared the move to a "Brownshirt operation." Meanwhile, the president's defenders tried to wri[...]

Trump's Saudi Trip Wasn't a Break From Tradition

Mon, 22 May 2017 19:02:00 -0400

Want to see the disconnect between America's actual foreign policy and the way many media professionals imagine it? Check out Anne Applebaum's Washington Post column calling Donald Trump's stop in Saudi Arabia a "bizarre and un-American visit." Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia, a longstanding beneficiary of U.S. largesse, was a "very strange choice for a first trip abroad" because the last four presidents made their first foreign stops in Mexico or Canada instead. This critique is more about optics than substance, but she's right to see a shift here. The last five presidents, not four—and six of the last seven—had their first foreign excursions in either Canada or Mexico. Ronald Reagan never visited Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush didn't go there until the last year of his presidency. Barack Obama, on the other hand, visited in June 2009, not much later in his presidency than Trump, although he had made nine other foreign trips before then. Obama also visited the kingdom a record four times. (No other president had visited more than twice.) This shift doesn't reflect a specific policy goal of the Trump (or Obama) administration so much as a broader realignment of American priorities. Counterterrorism has taken on an ever more central role in U.S. foreign policy, and Saudi Arabia is America's largest Muslim-majority ally in the Middle East, despite its record of supporting the sort of Islamist extremism that contributes to terrorism. The U.S. has a long history of linking up with murderous dictatorships when it suits America's short-term foreign policy goals, with little regard for potential blowback. The unquestioned alliance with Saudi Arabia is part of that proud tradition. Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia was Trump's first stop overseas, but what's really troubling is that the president has abandoned his campaign rhetoric questioning such relationships. Applebaum is aware of Saudi support for Islamism; indeed, her second complaint is that Saudi Arabia is a "strange place to speak out against Islamic extremism" because the government there subsidizes certain strains of extremism. True enough, though there really isn't a perfect venue for a speech on Islam. Obama delivered his first-year Islam speech in Cairo, the capital of a secular murderous dictatorship—and also went to Saudi Arabia first to, in his own words, seek the king's counsel on Islam. A similar amnesia afflicts Applebaum when she objects to Trump's participation in the sword dance, a traditional Saudi ritual. "[U]ntil now," she claims, "American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don't endorse their culture. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance." There's just one problem with that take: George W. Bush also participated in the sword dance when he visited Saudi Arabia. And U.S. presidents regularly "endorse" Saudi culture by participating in various cultural activities while there. It's U.S. spending, not a sword dance, that underwrites the Saudis' reactionary and repressive regime; it's U.S. spending, not a medal or a bow, that raises thorny questions about how much responsibilty we bear for Riyadh's repression at home or its brutal war in Yemen. But acknowledging that means acknowledging that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a longstanding, bipartisan project, and not simply the product of a single American president who appears enamored with strongman leaders. After complaining that the Trump administration appeared to embrace repressive Saudi culture, Applebaum also manages to complain about Tillerson denouncing human rights violations in Iran. "Yes, Americans are often hypocritical about where and when they promote human rights," she writes. "But to denounce human rights in Iran while standing in Saudi Arabia, a place where there is no political freedom and no religious freedom, brought hypocrisy to a whole new level. Better not to have said anything at all." Saudi Arabia and Ir[...]

How Deregulation Gave Us FM Radio, HBO, and the iPhone

Mon, 22 May 2017 14:14:00 -0400

"We've gone to a modern [broadcast] system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission," says Thomas W. Hazlett, who's the FCC's former chief economist, a professor at Clemson University, and author of the new book The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. "And we have seen that the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned...That comes from deregulation." So-called net neutrality rules are designed to solve a non-existent problem and threaten to restrict consumer choice, Hazlett tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. "The travesty is there's already a regulatory scheme [to address anti-competitive behavior]—it's called antitrust law." Greater autonomy and consumer freedom led to the development of cable television, the smartphone revolution, and the modern internet. While we've come a long way from the old days of mother-may-I pleading with the FCC to grant licenses for new technology, Hazlett says, "there's a lot farther to go and there's a lot of stuff out there that's being suppressed." He points to the history of radio and television. Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson exercised extraordinary control over spectrum allocation, which they used for their own political and financial gain. With liberalization, we now have hundreds of hours of varied television programming as compared to the big three broadcast networks of the '60s, an abundance of choices in smartphone providers and networks as compared to the Ma Bell monopoly, and more to come. Hazlett also discusses his views on current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, how the FCC delayed the arrival of cable television to protect incumbent broadcasters, and "the most infamous statement ever made by an FCC regulator" in a 1981 Q&A with Reason magazine. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel. Music by RW Smith. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: HI. I'm Nick Gillespie for Reason. Today, we're talking with Thomas Winslow Hazlett, an economics professor at Clemson, a long-time Reason contributor, former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, and author most recently of the epic new book, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. Tom, thanks for talking to us. Thomas Hazlett: Thanks for having me, Nick. Nick Gillespie: Your book is a masterful counterblast, I think, to the intellectual status quo when it comes to broadcasting, cable, Internet, especially related to things like spectrum auctions and net neutrality and whatnot. Your large argument is that government inhibits innovation rather than encourages it. Is that accurate? Thomas Hazlett: Yeah, that's the starting point, but I certainly go farther, a lot farther in this book, because there has been significant liberalization, and we learn a lot from the directions we've gone. We see the suppression through administrative allocations of spectrum, which just means that we have this Mother-may-I system where the government's in charge of who does what in wireless and has to give explicit permission. We've gone from a system like that to a modern system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission. Nick Gillespie: Right. Thomas Hazlett: We have seen that what we call perhaps the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned. We have these emerging networks and these ecosystems. That comes from deregulation. Nick Gillespie: Is it deregulation or is it government ... I guess and different examples, and we'll talk about those, but sometimes it's explicit deregulation, or the government saying, "We're going to get out of this. We're not going to do anything." Other [...]

HBO Ignores Madoff's Victims in Favor of Family Drama

Fri, 19 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Wizard of Lies. HBO. Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. Sorry, guys. Showtime has decided not to offer advance screenings of its reboot of the milestone of television weirdness, Twin Peaks, which premieres this weekend. This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb. So instead of an incisive analysis of boogalooing and backwards-talking midgets, I can offer only the observation that every criminal breeds his own cult. Just as there are women who want to marry Charles Manson, there are people anxious to buy Bernie Madoff's underwear. And Madoffian salirophiliacs compose much of the audience for The Wizard of Lies, HBO's windy new docudrama on the decline and fall of the all-time Ponzi champ. The $65 billion collapse of Madoff's smoke-and-mirrors trading empire in 2008 would seem to offer great dramatic potential. Unlike the largely faceless, institutional banking collapse around the same time that triggered the Great Recession, the Madoff scandal had an easily identifiable villain driven by evil intention rather than carelessness. And his betrayal was breathtakingly personal; the thousands of victims included most of his friends and even his in-laws. There was even a potential hero: Harry Markopolis, an investment officer at a rival firm who for a decade fruitlessly warned that Madoff's returns were too good to be true. All these elements are present in Wizard, not to mention a marquee cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, with frequent Oscar nominee Barry Levinson producing and directing. Yet it all comes together with much more fizzle than sizzle. Much of what's wrong with Wizard can be traced to Levinson's decision to go with a script by three relatively inexperienced writers (including his son Sam) that begins relatively late in the story—the day before Madoff's chicanery was exposed—and concentrates mainly on the damage he did to his own family. That precludes any real examination of any of the characters on their way to the top; all we see is their precipitous fall. Madoff's fraud is believed to have begun in the 1970s. His sons Mark and Andrew were both traders for the company, and his wife Ruth its bookkeeper in the early days. But they all denied any knowledge of his scheming, a claim grudgingly accepted by investigators (who never charged any of the three with anything), if not the public. Wizard follows Mark (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards) as they're bullied to the line of sanity and ultimately beyond it, alternately by their parents for disloyalty—the boys were the ones who revealed the fraud to federal authorities, then refused to help raise bail money for their father—and by friends who were wiped out. More fascinating, in a bug-under-the-magnifying-glass sort of way, is the case of Ruth (crisply played by Pfeiffer), cagey enough to give away a small fortune in jewelry before the cops can seize it, but utterly oblivious to the cracks in her cocoon of wealth and social standing until the mounting rage of her friends-turned-victims gets her kicked out of her regular beauty salon. Despite the mounting toll, she can't break away from her husband of more than five decades. As they lie in bed, awaiting for the effects of what will turn out to be a botched mutual attempt at a suicidal overdose of sleeping pills to take effect, Bernie murmurs a poignant goodbye: "We had a wonderful life." Without even a glance, she replies: "Yeah ... until you ruined it." This is all well and good, and might have made a good episode of Showtime's barbarous Wall Street drama Billions. But, having expressed every cogent thought in its head in the first 50 minutes, Wizard drags along for another tortuously repetitive hour and half, a long day's journey into utter banality. De Niro's strangely mannered turn as Madoff does not help. Long stretches of phlegmatic resignation punctuated by seemingly random bursts of sociopathic rage ("They di[...]

For Trump, the Beginning of the End Has Begun

Thu, 18 May 2017 15:18:00 -0400

This is, from everything I have been able to gather this week, the beginning of the end of Donald Trump. The New Yorker and Slate, longtime impartial observers of our 45th president, declared the man who "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters" has been done in by nothing more than the Comey memo. The memo that no one, including The New York Times, which reported its existence, has seen but is sure to bring about impeachment proceedings. "A Presidency of ideological meanness and unsurpassing incompetence has moved into another, more recognizable realm," New Yorker editor David Remnick opined gravely. "The usual comparison is with the Watergate era." And we all know how that turned out. Why, it was only last week the firing of the author of the phantom memo, former FBI director James Comey, was the beginning of the end of Trump and his administration. "The White House," a sanguine Frank Rich speculated, "will be outwitted and outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by the events to come. Let's not forget the good news that came out of the Comey firing: It turns out that Trump, who has no idea of what is required to be a competent president sitting on top of the vast federal government, also turns out to have no idea of how to be a competent gangster sitting on top of what increasingly seems to be a somewhat-less-vast Trump-Kushner family criminal enterprise." Last month, it was the Russians and their possible meddling in the presidential election that marked the beginning of the end and so much more for Robert Mueller, the new special counsel digging into that Russian relationship, has some pretty important questions to answer. "The questions will be answered in due time, but the situation could be worse than an illegitimate president," Jason Easley wrote. "It is now possible that Donald Trump is a ticking time bomb that was put in place by Putin to destroy democracy from within. "The United States of America can't have a literal Manchurian president." But if this beginning of the end of Donald Trump was followed in order by two discrete beginnings of the end, when, exactly, might the beginning of the end have begun? To find out, you must go back to June 16, 2015, the day Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president. While current technology makes it nearly impossible to trace to the minute the first declaration of the beginning of Trump's end, it was clear by early July eminent journalists and politicians were warming to the task. I'd like to thank Judd Legum, editor-in-chief of Think Progress, for doing my legwork for me. Between July and October of 2015 no fewer than 33 people predicted Trump's end had just begun. "Since the day that Trump's presidential campaign started, pundits from across the country have declared the "beginning of the end" of his run," Legum said. "So far, they've been wrong every time." Being wrong has deterred very few. Entering primary season in 2016, Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University was certain Trump had enough of the right stuff to become the Republican nominee, but never president. "The man remains a spectacularly unpopular presidential candidate," Drezner wrote. "Within a crowded GOP field, Trump's jerk persona and heterodox ramblings clearly draw enough support for him to do well. In a general election, he's such an undisciplined, unmitigated disaster that there's talk of Democrats retaking the U.S. House of Representatives." In June it was Trump's insensitive comments about the mass shooting in Orlando that were sure to do him in. A month later it was the speech he gave accepting the Republican Party's nomination for president. Not only was Trump soon to be finished but it was the start of the demise of all of conservatism, according to the dispassionate Salon. Something as simple as an insensitive comment to a mother about her baby in Ashburn, Va. could bring Dana Milb[...]

The New York Times' Tax Coverage Goes Off the Rails

Mon, 15 May 2017 16:00:00 -0400

Binyamin Appelbaum is one of the more fair-minded and accurate reporters at The New York Times. For an example of his best work, one might look back to his reporting from Hazleton, Pa., in October of 2016. So it was particularly dismaying to read Appelbaum's dispatch over the weekend in the Times, under the headline "Trump Tax Plan Will Not Bolster Growth, Economists Say." The Times news columns have been openly campaigning against Trump's tax cuts, from the moment they were rolled out. The paper's day one front page headline was "Tax Overhaul Would Aid Wealthiest." Its day two headline was "Trump's Plan Shifts Trillions To Wealthiest." Even by that low standard, though, the Appelbaum story was something to behold. It's worth taking a careful look at as an example of the techniques that the press uses with the effect of distorting the debate about the tax cut. The first ingredient is a headline that goes beyond what the story itself says. Buried in the penultimate paragraph of Appelbaum's article are two estimates of how tax cuts might bolster growth. "The Tax Foundation thinks 0.4 percent is a reasonable estimate of the best case. Mr. Holtz-Eakin said that he regarded 0.5 percent as an upper bound on the potential benefits," the story says. It's not clear whether these estimates are of any tax cuts or of Trump's tax cuts in particular. But the Tax Foundation blog carries an article that says just a cut in the corporate tax rate to 15 percent—without the individual rate cuts Trump is also proposing—would generate "something more like 0.4 percent over the budget window: a sustained period of 2.3 percent growth instead of 1.9 percent growth, until the economy is eventually about 4 percent larger." So the headline about "will not bolster growth" is inaccurate. The cuts would bolster growth, at least by some estimates, just not by the amount that Appelbaum has arbitrarily set up as a goalpost. The way the Times describes these growth numbers—as decimal percentages—is itself a kind of spin. Using language like "0.4 percent" makes the growth sound small. But higher annualized growth rates compound over time. When, in other articles, the Times talks about other percent-based fees—say, those charged by money managers to public pension funds—it uses real dollar figures to make the numbers sound larger: "almost $750 million in direct investment expenses," "an additional $1.8 billion over five years and almost $8 billion after 15 years." The U.S. annual gross domestic product is about $18 trillion, so a "4 percent larger" economy means $720 billion—or $720,000,000,000—more goods and services produced each year. That is nothing to sneeze at. At that is just the effect of a corporate tax reduction, not other growth-inducing steps such as personal income tax reductions, deregulation, increased energy exploration and production, a stable dollar, or (if you buy the idea that this is stimulative) a military buildup. Nor are the growth numbers the only way that this Times article uses numerals in a misleading way. The newspaper is also spinning when it comes to tax rates. The article says: "there is little evidence that current rates are high enough to discourage people from earning as much money as they can. When Mr. Reagan took office, the top tax rate was 70 percent; now, it is 39.6 percent." The Times-chosen comparison of "70 percent" and "39.6 percent" makes the current rate appear low. It would have been accurate, however, to write, "When Mr. Reagan left office, the top individual income tax rate was 28 percent; now, as the Times reported on its front page back in 2013, in California the combined top state and federal income tax rate is 51.9 percent, while in New York City it is 51.7 percent. Even for lower-income individuals, the combined effects of means-tested benefit phase-outs and marriage penalties can create all kinds of perverse incentives, as the University of Chicago econo[...]

The Base Rhetoric of Mainstream Taxation Talk

Sun, 14 May 2017 10:15:00 -0400

Lenin reportedly said, "The best way to destroy the capitalist system [is] to debauch the currency." If by "capitalist system"* we mean only what Adam Smith called "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty," we could improve on the quote: the best way to destroy it is to debauch the currency of rational communication, the language. George Orwell of course understood this well and made it the centerpiece of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a book on the German liberal social-critic Karl Kraus (Anti-Freud: Karl Kraus's Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry), Thomas Szasz distinguished between noble and base rhetoric and rhetoricians—that is, those who use language to reveal (e.g., Kraus) and those who use it conceal their value judgments (e.g., Freud). Szasz pointed out that the conservative "radical" intellectual Richard Weaver, lamenting the neglect of rhetoric as an academic subject, described what Szasz called "the movement away from the value-laden language of theology, poetry and prose, in short of the 'humanities,' and toward the ostensibly value-neutral languages of the 'sciences.' This attempt to escape from, or to deny, valuation is, for obvious reasons, especially important and dangerous in … the so-called social sciences. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purpose than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and nonvaluational semantic screen." Szasz here was referring to scientism, which Kraus despised and attempted to expose in his work. Base rhetoric is what social engineers must engage in or else they would be, in Oscar Wilde's words, "found out." We can see the base rhetoricians in action whenever they talk about taxation. From the terms of their discussion, you would never know that the money in question actually belongs to particular individuals, who obtained it through voluntary exchange or gift. Rather, the terms suggest that it belongs collectively to society, with the government being its agent of distribution. The only question, then, is: what's the fairest distribution? How else are we to explain the routine designation of tax cuts and repeals as "tax breaks?" We don't usually call letting someone keep his justly acquired possession a break. And how are we to explain why people are chided about paying their "fair share" without a standard of fairness ever being proffered? And, finally, how else are we to explain the term "tax expenditure," which is attached to any policy that enables people to reduce their tax "liability" by jumping through one legal hoop or another? These hoops are often called "loopholes," though that term can mean both deliberate and inadvertent features of legislation that provide opportunities for people to keep some money out of the government's hands. The concept tax expenditure implies that the government's budget is the entire GDP. When anyone calls for a new tax or a tax increase, that person wants government personnel to threaten force against others who fails to surrender their money to the state. But almost no one speaks in those terms. If tax advocates did that, their rhetoric at least would be value-laden and honest (and only in that sense noble). Instead, such people engage in base rhetoric. They speak in ostensibly value-neutral language when in fact their meaning is value-laden: they implicitly claim that their plans for the money are superior to the plans of those who now possess it. Weaver wrote that "language … is … sermonic. We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words that we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some small part of it, in our way…. Language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching." (Szasz got these quotes from R. L. Johannesen, R. Stricklan[...]

Left Rebrands Environmental Regulations As Environmental Protections: New at Reason

Fri, 12 May 2017 13:30:00 -0400

(image) "Trump signs order at the EPA to dismantle environmental protections," declares a March 28 headline in The Washington Post. An April 27 article in the Post described an "effort to remove environmental protections." Two days later, another Post article stated that Trump's term in office has "already seen multiple rollbacks of environmental protections." And the Post isn't the only publication pushing such language.

Whatever happened to environmental regulations? Many mainstream and activist publications appear to be following the advice of University of California, Berkeley linguist and fierce political progressive George Lakoff to reframe issues. Protections sound so much nicer than regulations, don't you think?

Police Investigate a Cult Killing; It Turns Out to Be a Rock Video

Fri, 12 May 2017 12:01:00 -0400

(image) "It all began one peaceful Michigan morning," narrator Rafael Abramovitz explains, "when a farmer named Robert Reed woke up to check on his corn field. Farmer Reed looked up towards the sun that morning and saw something strange floating across the sky. It wasn't the usual flock of Canadian Geese. It looked more like a UFO, if you ask him."

So begins the tale of the time the FBI investigated the death of a man who was in fact still alive, as told by the tabloid show Hard Copy. It was 1989. The UFO turned out to be some weather balloons with a Super 8 camera attached. After they landed on his farm, Reed turned his find over to the police, thinking it might be a surveillance camera searching for marijuana. When the cops developed the film, they discovered what they took to be a cult murder or some similarly grisly crime.

A yearlong investigation followed, and in the course of it the FBI was called in. Eventually, the police figured out the truth: The supposed snuff film was actually lost footage from a Nine Inch Nails video. The crew had attached the camera to the balloons to get some low-tech aerial shots, and their helium cinematographers then blew away. The "murder victim" was Trent Reznor, and he was very much alive. Indeed, he was somewhat famous.

In the Hard Copy report, Reznor is amused by the whole thing. The cop they spoke with also seems a little amused. The one person trying very hard not to seem amused by the mistake is Abramovitz, the reporter, who's intent on making Reznor the villain of the piece, blaming him for a "wasted year of police work that could have gone into solving some real crimes." And if Abramovitz had anything to do with the tongue-in-cheek "reenactments" that accompany his narration, I suspect that deep down he was chuckling about it too.

The report aired in 1991, complete with some closing comments about the alleged dangers of rock videos. It is a work of art:

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(Via Dangerous Minds. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Maybe Donald Trump Isn't Actually a Master Media Manipulator

Wed, 10 May 2017 11:29:00 -0400

(image) If there's one trope of the Trump years that we can definitively retire now, it's the idea that the president is constantly winning some 13-dimensional chess game devoted to distracting us from unflattering stories. Where a more adept politician would be trying to change the subject from the Russia probe, Donald Trump just can't help drawing attention to the very subject he wants people to ignore.

When Sally Yates and James Clapper testified to the Senate subcommittee investigating Russia's alleged interference in last year's election, another president might have chosen that moment to unveil a major policy initiative—or, if he didn't have any initiatives handy, to hold a photo op with some girl scouts. At the very least, he would have tried not to talk about the story. Instead Trump ran to Twitter to insinuate that Yates had leaked classified information, a tweet that amplified rather than disrupted the day's event. Then he plastered a message onto his Twitter banner declaring that Clapper had "reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is 'no evidence' of collusion w/ Russia and Trump." This was widely derided for misrepresenting what Clapper had said, but from a PR perspective it did something even more unforgivable than lying: It ensured that the first thing anyone visiting Trump's Twitter page would see would be a reference to the Russia accusations.

That was Monday. Tuesday he fired his FBI chief—that is, he fired the head of the bureau investigating his campaign's alleged links to Moscow—while clumsily shoehorning a hey-you-know-I'm-innocent remark into his letter dismissing the director.

Naturally, this prompted speculations that Trump is trying to cover up something serious. And that may well be true. (You needn't believe the more far-out Trump/Russia conspiracy theories to think a probe into the president's business dealings in Russia—or anywhere else, from China to New Jersey—could turn up something unethical and/or illegal.) But it's also entirely possible that we're watching a dumb guy with a big ego throwing a tantrum because he can't control the media agenda. Politico's piece on the lead-up to the firing claims that Trump "had grown enraged by the Russia investigation" and was "frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn't disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe..." And so he made a move that guaranteed his TV today would be talking about virtually nothing else.

According to the Politico report, "the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise." Funny how that works out. If you could stuff the Streisand effect into a suit, it would look like Donald Trump. This isn't 13-dimensional chess; it's 13-dimensional 52 card pick-up.

Documentary on Prison Boom Fails to Provide Facts or Context

Fri, 05 May 2017 14:52:00 -0400

Independent Lens: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. PBS. Monday, May 8, 10 p.m. Watching The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, I was reminded of an old movie joke. Q. How many surrealist directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. November. Airing as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary film series, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is not really surrealist, just torpid and self-consciously arty. It's the sort of stuporous film in which you get languid shots of trains rolling endlessly along a track, images to which aesthetes can assign virtually any metaphoric value—the inexorable human will to free movement, the industrial world's uncaring despoliation of the environment, the quiet desperation of Americans awaiting delivery of their breakfast Cheerios—without fear of contradiction by actual reported facts, which are few and far between in Twelve Landscapes. Twelve Landscapes is rooted in a clever (conceptually, anyway) attempt to make virtue out of necessity. Making a documentary about America's burgeoning prisons (population 2.2 million and growing all the time) is an exercise in frustration because it's nearly impossible to get cameras inside them. So Canadian filmmaker Brett Story approached from the opposite direction, with a series of vignettes about how incarceration affects the world outside. But lots of thing can go wrong between conception and birth. Story's affection for the tedium of cinema verite, her rejection of journalism for aesthetics, and, most fundamentally, her neo-Marxist certainty that the driving force behind American penology is corporate conspiracy all combine to make large chunks of Twelve Landscapes nearly unwatchable. The fact that a lot of New York City chess hustlers learned their trade in prison (if it is a fact; if Story has any evidence beyond the assertion of a single player, it's not to be found in in Twelve Landscapes) is an interesting tidbit. But the key word is "tidbit"; watching guys stare at chessboards for four minutes is even more excruciating than it sounds. I thought it was interesting to listen to the musings of a California inmate who's part of an all-female forest-fire-fighting crew ("I think of myself as a hero, and [even though the prison rules prohibit me from talking to them] sometimes I can tell that the public does, too") until I learned—and not from the film itself—that she's actually an actress playing a composite character whose lines were collected from many different interviews. Story's refusal to use narration or otherwise provide facts to establish context for her vignettes actually damages her own arguments at times. The fact that people in Wheelwright, Kentucky, think their local prison is an economic boon to their community would have a lot more impact if Twelve Landscapes had mentioned that the surrounding counties host more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities; pockets of depressed rural America are becoming unlikely headquarters of the prison-industrial complex, welcoming correctional facilities that the suburbs don't want. Yet even with that detail added, the prison boom in Kentucky is more interesting than significant. Does Story really believe that America's enormous prison population was produced by the tawdry manipulations of powerful Appalachian political forces? A bit of actual reporting might have disclosed that—depending on whose numbers you believe—somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges. Even at the low end of that spectrum, ending the drug war would result in enormous savings in both dollars and broken lives. For all its flaws, though, the small-ball approach of Twelve Landscapes sometimes hits the target. There's a fascinating interview with th[...]

Free to Adapt

Fri, 05 May 2017 13:40:00 -0400

One of my favorite books about architecture is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, a text that treats buildings as dynamic, evolving systems. It is shot through with disdain for architects who treat a structure as a "statement" without much thought for the practical impact on the people who actually live or work in it, and it bubbles over with appreciation for the trial-and-error process of adjusting, adapting, and maintaining a building over time. Put another way, it has a healthy skepticism toward grand plans and a respect for autonomous activity and evolved order. In 1997, three years after the book came out, the BBC turned it into a six-episode documentary. Brand scripted and hosted it; Brian Eno composed the music; writers ranging from Christopher Alexander to Joel Garreau appeared in it, along with a lot of people discussing places they've lived in, worked in, built, or rebuilt. Twenty years later, the series is still worth watching. Here's episode one, which chastises arrogant starchitects and praises buildings that are able to learn over time. "This building grew into its glory gradually, over 500 years," Brand says of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. "Who was the main architect? Time." src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode two celebrates what Brand calls "low-road" buildings, from storage modules to mobile homes—places where "you spend less money and you get more freedom." This one is probably my favorite installment: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode three looks at ways to apply the lessons of low-road buildings to other structures, making them more open to adaptation and change. Brand also reprises his book's caustic comments about the geodesic domes he promoted in his days running the Whole Earth Catalog: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode four is a jeremiad against zoning and other sorts of controls that get in the way of experimentation and adaptation: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode five, on maintenance, is as much about how buildings die as how they live: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And then there's the final episode, which describes the different layers of a building, each evolving at a different rate. It concludes with a tribute to "the great survivors among buildings," which "are only sometimes distinguished-looking. What they have is an offhand mastery that seems haphazard, and layers and layers of soul." And there, with some closing shots of the home Robinson Jeffers built for himself on the California coast, the series ends: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> (Hat tip: Dan Colman. Reason interviewed Brand back in 2010; to read that, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

Brickbat: Fascinating

Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) In Winnipeg, Nick Troller has had a personalized license plate on his vehicle that reads "ASIMIL8" for the past two years. Around it he has a frame that says "We Are the Borg" and "Resistance is Futile." But now, Manitoba Public Insurance has demanded he return the license plate. It says two people have complained the word "assimilate" is offensive to indigenous people.

Plan to Roll Back Internet Regulations a Boon for Business and Innovation

Tue, 02 May 2017 00:30:00 -0400

Libertarians, rejoice—a U.S. regulator took the bold step of deciding that his office simply doesn't have the jurisdiction to control major parts of the internet. Last Wednesday, the free market-friendly Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled his plan to roll back the FCC's controversial 2015 Open internet Order (OIO), which granted the telecommunication regulator expansive discretionary authority over how internet Service Providers (ISPs) can operate and compete. Pai's plan is a real win for those who believe businesses should not need government permission before innovating. But don't expect the so-called "net neutrality" hardliners to accept this proposal without a major fight. Their reactions last week were predictably apoplectic. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) set the tone on Wednesday, promising a "tsunami of resistance" against Pai's deregulatory move. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) clutched his pearls and warned that rescinding the OIO would "destroy the internet as we know it." A writer at Gizmodo scoffed that Pai's position was one "only the strongest free-market libertarians" could support (is that supposed to be an insult?). The political group Free Press, a dogged OIO supporter, bemoaned that if Pai succeeds, "the internet as we know it will be gone for good." But hysterical critics have a hard time answering exactly how the internet was able to become the engine of innovation that it is today without the expansive FCC controls only granted through the OIO in 2015. Radical Regulation The 2015 Open Interent Order broke from years of established federal policy by reclassifying ISPs as "common carriers" for FCC purposes. In legal terms, the OIO applied Title II of the 1934 Communication Act to ISPs. This meant that web-service providers such as RCN and Time Warner were to be treated less like part of a competitive and cutting-edge industry and more like an arm of the Ma Bell telephone monopoly of Norman Rockwell's America. Specifically, the change would prohibit certain kinds of content-delivery differentiation, placing the FCC in the position of picking winners and losers by being able to determine which service innovations are allowed and which are not. For providers, the imposition of Title II regulations meant uncertainty, new fees and compliance costs, and a major new power center just waiting to be captured by commercial interests. For consumers, it meant less choice, higher prices, and a worrying channel for new government censorship of speech. For libertarians, it was merely more of the same: Yet another government regulator deciding that it should have more power to tell businesses and consumers what they can and cannot do. It is hard to overstate just how radical of a departure the OIO was from the preceding years of light touch regulatory authority over internet activities. For years, U.S. internet policy was guided by a remarkably laissez faire approach encapsulated by the Clinton administration's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce. This extraordinary document instructs the federal government to "encourage industry self-regulation wherever appropriate" and "refrain from imposing new and unnecessary regulations" on commercial internet activities. And if that's not clear enough, Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act states that any "service or system that provides access to the internet" should be "unfettered from Federal or State regulation" like the OIO. Accordingly, America today is home to the world's most successful and competitive technology companies, and consumers have access to a dazzling array of telecommunication services at affordable, competitive prices. (And thanks to Pai's new plan, we can cont[...]

No, Trump Won’t Change the First Amendment, But It Matters That People Want To

Mon, 01 May 2017 13:50:00 -0400

President Donald Trump's willingness to alter the terms of the First Amendment as part of his desire to censor critical press of him is firmly established: See his constant complaints of "fake news" (to be fair, his complaints are sometimes correct) and his desire to "open up libel laws." The president has no direct influence over the content of libel laws because they're state-level laws. There are many pivotal Supreme Court rulings on the relationship between libel laws and the First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press. Trump would have to rewrite the First Amendment in order to get what he wants. Trump is not going to be altering the First Amendment. Let's just start with that. Even if he weren't an extremely divisive president, it would be quite the uphill battle. But it is worth taking note at how establishment officials looking to maintain influence within the Trump administration respond. It's worth separating out what is possible from what is likely. The coverage of Sunday interview between ABC's Jonathan Karl and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on This Week seems designed for the purpose of keeping this fight between Trump and the press on front burner, as if the president's absence from the White House Correspondents Dinner and counter-rally didn't already have that effect. Priebus knows that Trump isn't changing anything about the First Amendment and that there will be no changes to libel laws in the near future. But he is not willing to say that. He can't. He won't. So during his Sunday interview with Karl he says "It's something we've looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story." We don't know what "looked at" means (perhaps a Google search of pages that explain state libel laws?), but some media analysts are concerned about the implications that this might actually happen. It probably won't, but the media benefits from playing up this conflict as much as Trump does. Let's take a look at where that conversation shifted after talking about libel laws, because that's where I'd rather we were paying attention. Trump has also said he would like to criminalize flag-burning, which Priebus also vaguely defended in a similar fashion. There is a lot of popular support for laws against burning flags, though when truly pressed, a majority of Americans tend to come down against a constitutional amendment. The wording of the poll question matters. Trump is not alone in his desire to change the First Amendment in ways that benefit his particular world view, and if nothing else, his efforts should be use as an object lesson. Priebus complains that the press has been irresponsible in its reporting. This is not a new complaint from government officials targeting the press. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the New York Times itself (a noted Trump target) hosted commentary by Michael Kinsley suggesting there needed to be some sort of oversight over what the press was allowed to publish. Americans have a remarkable facility for looking for exceptions to the First Amendment and deciding that some controversial or unpleasant statements simply are not valid forms of speech. On the other side of the aisle, there's a concerted push to invalidate the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision by attempting to amend the Constitution to deprive corporations of legal personhood and of their right to free speech. And we more prominently have the current push to insist that "hate speech" does not qualify as "free speech" and the belief by many poorly educated Americans (some of whom are actual politicians who should know better). These comments by Priebus should be reminders that if [...]