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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Michael Smerconish

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Michael Smerconish

Last Build Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 09:22:25 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

What Ails News: Entertainmentitis

Thu, 12 Mar 2009 09:22:25 -0600

Sedlacek then pulled a knife, stabbed two parishioners, and cut himself before congregants could restrain him.

Curious about what could have motivated Sedlacek's "death day," I went online to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Scanning the paper's Web site, I was surprised to find that the murder wasn't atop the list of most e-mailed stories.

No, that distinction belonged to a recipe for St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake.

"Be careful not to overbake it. If it isn't jiggly in the middle, it is overbaked. It will still taste great, but it won't be gooey," offered a brief item that accompanied the recipe. Overbaked? More like half-baked. And yet so symptomatic of the entertainment-oriented sound-bite world we live in.

There's no depth anywhere. No "there there," as a famous writer once said.

And it's no wonder newspapers are dying when they can't fulfill the desire for instant entertainment gratification.

Think I'm stretching? Consider a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examining whether GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin's appearance negatively affected perceptions of her competence.

University of South Florida psychologists Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg divided 133 undergraduates (ages 18 to 25) into two groups.

The first was told to record "thoughts and feelings" about Palin; the other did the same for actress Angelina Jolie.

Within each group, half were instructed to record their thoughts about the "person" while the other half considered the "person's appearance."

The finding? Participants who focused on Palin's appearance thought her less competent and said they were less likely to vote for her and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

If you apply that to a conventional TV newscast, it would mean that directing viewers' attention at an anchor's appearance might cause the audience to deem the product less competent. But we all know competence isn't the goal - viewers are.

That's why TV news anchor Katie Couric's legs always got plenty of play on the "Today Show" and why fair and balanced give way to legs and lipstick on Fox News. The anchors are all hotties. Many would fit in as well on a runway as they do at the news desk.

Here's another. Right now, the de facto head of the opposition to the White House has no political portfolio. He wasn't elected to anything. Rush Limbaugh's world is sound-bite-driven. It's entertainment, not policy. But as Democrats hyperbolize his influence and Republicans capitulate to it, the talk-show host has somehow become the voice of a political party.

In today's new media world, there's more information - and less substance - than ever. Pass the St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, and put your feet up because "American Idol" is set to begin, even if the singing takes a backseat to the contestants' back stories.

"It's the first time in eight seasons we got some of everybody," said judge Randy Jackson this week. He was imitating James Watt when he reflected that one contestant is blind, another is Puerto Rican, a third an Indian-American and another a mother who lost her home in a tornado.

If you can't hold people's attention for more than 30 seconds, it isn't treated as news in today's cycle. All of which reminds me of something I've often heard St. Joe's basketball coach Phil Martelli say, and that I once had him scrawl on a basketball as a keepsake: People often fail because they trade what they want most for what they want now."

And lest you think you've read this far for nothing, here's your reward: A link to the gooey butter cake - Just don't overbake it.

Where's the GOP's Rick Santelli?

Thu, 26 Feb 2009 05:34:52 -0600

The day's headlines hit on the hefty price tag: "Housing Bailout at $275 Billion" reported the Wall Street Journal, while "$275 Billion Plan Seeks to Address Crisis in Housing" led the front page of the New York Times. That's also the day we met Rick Santelli. Since 1999, Santelli has been providing CNBC with financial reports from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Last week, he launched a rant that immediately made headlines of its own. "The government is promoting bad behavior," Santelli said of the president's plan, and suggested a referendum to decide whether to "subsidize the losers' mortgages" or reward "people who can carry the water instead of drink the water." The folks behind him cheered as he asked: "President Obama, are you listening?" A few hours later, Santelli's picture was headlining the Drudge Report. Santelli told me that he regretted using the phrase "losers' mortgages," even though it accurately encapsulated what he wanted to say. "This is more about the people I bump into every day, whether it's on the train, in restaurants, outside walking around . . . Chicago. I think that there's a silent majority, maybe up to 90 percent, that are doing everything right. And I think they need to be treated more fairly," he said. The next day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs shot back: "I would encourage him to read the president's plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows. I'd be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I'd be happy to buy him a cup of coffee, decaf." That Santelli - hardly a household name - caused the stir he did is telling. Especially considering that all but three Republicans in Congress opposed the stimulus plan. Not one of them attracted the kind of attention the CNBC contributor did. Not even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's address to Congress stirred such commotion. I don't think that attention is totally attributable to Santelli's delivery or language. Plenty of politicians and economists have expressed desperation in the current economic climate. And hardly anyone batted an eye when Thomas Friedman wrote that the request by GM and Chrysler for $20 billion in government aid made him feel like the country is "subsidizing the losers." Rather, Santelli managed to cut to the heart of what many people throughout the country are thinking: The hard-earned money of the "silent majority" is bailing out the decisions of the careless few. Consider the results of a Rasmussen poll released on Monday: "Fifty-five percent of American adults say the federal government would be rewarding bad behavior by providing mortgage subsidies to financially troubled homeowners." Santelli articulated something where the GOP has offered little more than token opposition. In the face of a popular president and a difficult economy, the GOP still looks like the party of old ideas. First, they regurgitated the "tax cuts, less government" talking points during the stimulus debate. Then Santelli displayed the competence and passion the GOP could not. But is Santelli right? Let's ask Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a man once referred to as "probably the most important economist in the world" by the New York Times Magazine. He's worried, he told me, that discussions on the economy are "very formalistic. They're real debates - you know, tax cut or spending increase - but they don't get to the values. "That is, what kind of country do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to live in? That's what we should be debating, not the formal issue of whether the stimulus on a tax cut is this or that or spending by next Sept. 30. It's what kind of world do we need to create right now given all the challenges we have?" I think Santelli got closer to that question than anyone on the right. We know President Obama was listening. The question is, was the GOP? [...]

Flying Blind on the Stimulus

Thu, 19 Feb 2009 06:20:45 -0600

Sure, on the president's side you have some serious expertise. Consider Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council, former Treasury secretary and one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history, who said the stimulus package was necessary to avert "a vortex of declining employment, falling incomes, reduced spending, increased financial distress, less lending, reduced employment, reduced spending, and so forth." The list goes on. About 200 prominent economists, including a dozen Nobel laureates, signed a petition pledging support for the stimulus package. Paul Krugman, himself a Nobel economics winner, has called for an even bigger government footprint than the one the president signed. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner might have to run TurboTax on his computer, but he also ran the New York Fed. He's no dope. So it should be easy to believe that Obama and his economic brain trust are poised to steer the country out of recession, right? Not necessarily. On the other side sits the conservative Cato Institute, which recently placed full-page ads in the country's major newspapers to express disagreement with the president's plan. Among the 200-plus who signed that petition was Michael Munger, chairman of the political-science department at Duke. Munger, who holds a doctorate in economics, told me the president had mischaracterized the nature of the objections. The issue isn't that the Cato petition signers are simply "philosophically" opposed to government intervention. It's that government intervention doesn't work. "All we're doing is funding things that were already set up, that would have been done anyway by the state. So the point is not that I think the government has no business. The point is that what they're doing is going to do more harm than good. I find it outrageous that he would misrepresent the position of 400 professional Ph.D. economists," he said. Like Summers, Krugman, Geithner and the hundreds of economists supporting the stimulus plan, Munger and his allies are impressive. And these competing views leave many Americans stuck in the middle of two opposing "expert" opinions. When I raised that with Mun-ger, he said stimulus supporters know that the statistical realities don't bear out their case. "But they're desperate," he said. "They're hoping that by giving some sort of sense of confidence - the idea that someone is in charge - that they can reverse this by giving people a sense of confidence." Which is starting to remind me of global warming. Loads of experts and a similar number of opinions. On one hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change deemed it "unequivocal" and "very likely" that global warming, if it truly exists, is spurred by human activity. Meanwhile, Weather Channel founder John Coleman has called it "the greatest scam in history." Once again, the rest of us are stuck somewhere in the middle, unsure of whom to believe. So what do many people do? They suit up in their partisan jerseys and pick a side based on where the enemy is camped. Unsure about global warming, but think Rush Limbaugh is God? It must be a fraud. Concerned about spending our way out of the economic morass, but a fan of the president? Endorse the stimulus. How else to explain that every Republican member of the House sided against the White House? It's partisanship masking a lack of understanding of policy. No wonder there are more pundits like me on TV offering opinions about a subject we know very little about than economists who presumably have at least an inkling of what's going on. And who'd want to listen to the economists who have gone the way of the weatherman: all sorts of gizmos, but no window to see outside? Despite all the Bloomberg-driven data available - from unemployment rates to inflation to rising debt and stalled GDP - is there one economist who can honestly say: "I told you so?" I don't think so. Instead, they make their living looking backward. Which anyone can do. This is why despite the very [...]

Torture Must Remain an Option of Last Resort

Sun, 25 Jan 2009 00:38:21 -0600

His actions came as no surprise. Candidate Obama made clear his opposition to harsh interrogation techniques. And in his second full day of office, the president also signed an executive order to close Guantanamo. I hope the president reconsiders. No one, including me, is "for" torture. But let's evaluate that option with common sense in the context of limited information published about actual implementation. One well-documented case is that of Mohammed, who continues to boast of his role in murdering 3,000 innocents. Logic dictates that those assigned to question Mohammed were our most skilled interrogators. If those individuals could procure information from Mohammed with quiche and a warm blanket, they would have done so. Therefore, if the interrogation included coercive measures, it would not seem a leap of faith to conclude that less strenuous measures failed. There was great deliberation about how to approach Mohammed and other high-value detainees, and their treatment was approved by no less than the secretary of defense and vice president. In other words, this was not Abu Ghraib, a case of aberrant soldiers acting outside their authority to degrade and humiliate other human beings. To the contrary, extreme methods were implemented on the recommendation of individuals with expertise in such matters and in consultation with the military chain of command. The techniques were to be used sparingly with prisoners who were believed to possess information that could save lives. For the entire hullabaloo about waterboarding, only three prisoners at Gitmo are said to have undergone that method. Among those who have acknowledged the need to keep all options on the table in such limited instances are law professor Alan Dershowitz, former President Bill Clinton, and Sen. John McCain. Writing for the Wall Street Journal in November 2007, Dershowitz observed: "Although I am personally opposed to the use of torture, I have no doubt that any president - indeed any leader of a democratic nation - would in fact authorize some forms of torture against a captured terrorist if he believed that this was the only way of securing information necessary to prevent an imminent mass-casualty attack. The only dispute is whether he would do so openly with accountability, or secretly with deniability." In an National Public Radio interview, Clinton recommended that Congress draw a narrow statute "which would permit the president to make a finding" in the case of a ticking-time-bomb scenario. The commander in chief, Clinton added, would have to "take personal responsibility" for authorizing torture in such extreme cases. The idea of responsibility is one that even McCain has acknowledged. McCain as a presidential candidate spoke against torture. But in 2005, he told Newsweek: "You do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it." And in February, McCain voted against legislation that would limit U.S. interrogators to methods approved in the Army Field Manual, which disallows physical force. Critics argue that Americans are above such barbarism, that torture doesn't work, and that it produces false information. Well, no one ever responded better to an argument like this than David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who observed: "While it is good that there be a world full of peace, fraternity, justice and honesty, it is even more important that we be in it." As for the efficacy, again, think of those charged with the awesome responsibility to get information from the likes of Mohammed. Surely they don't relish using harsh techniques and would not recommend doing so unless they believed that all other measures were exhausted, and that the most extreme measures could work. If the experts thought these techniques useless, there would be no debate. Sadly, given security considerations, their voices cannot be heard in this argument. But if our interrogators think these derided methods must be kept in our arsenal, who are we to second gue[...]