Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Non-Partisan vs. Non-Ideological

A blurb in the recent ChronBlog story by reporter Todd Ackerman concerning a recently released study of the potential damage to Texans of not passing health care reform got me thinking about what it means to be non-partisan vs. non-ideological, and whether or not the media does enough to ensure organizations are properly labelled.

The quote:
A week after a Texas agency reported health care reform legislation would cost the state's Medicaid program an extra $20 billion over the next 10 years, a non-partisan foundation says inaction will exact a greater price.
The foundation in question? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation a group whose stated mission is "to improve the health and health care of all Americans." By "improve" it can be implied that they mean "reform" as in "support the public option" reform, which is what a large portion of the material on their website is in favor of.

Are they "non-partisan"? Apparently, I could find nothing on their website to convince me otherwise.

Are they "non-ideological"? No, and therein lies the problem. Not with them (everyone should have an ideology that they believe in) but in the way the newspaper (either Ackerman or the editors) have decided to present them.

Too often in the media the code-word 'non-partisan' is understood to mean 'neutral' or 'without bias'. In this case a cursory look through the foundation's web-site reveals that such a neutrality does not exist. They have, I hate to say it because it always muddies the waters, a bias towards health care reform with a public option. Now, it could be argued that the Republican-controlled Texas Health and Human Services Commission has a bias against the public option, a valid argument that should be considered when evaluating their study. But the same rules should apply when evaluating the RWJF study as well. Bias is not bad, especially for/against heated issues, provided it's fully disclosed and presented accurately by the media when they report it. Too often, many in the media (MSM and otherwise) fail this simple litmus test of fairness.

What this leads to are charges of "librul bias" or proof against from partisans who like to view things in terms of right and wrong. It obscures the debate behind a veil of false neutrality that is impossible to maintain. For some reason America is the only Country where our media refuses to openly declare their bias. Perhaps, as a result of this, we are among the most uncivilized as well?

These are things to keep in mind the next time you read a news story on a major issue. If you see Planned Parenthood (an open advocate for access to abortions & birth control) listed as a "non-partisan advocacy organization" while the Right to Life Coalition is listed as "a conservative organization" you can see where ideological-bias creep is slinking into your news. Would that the newspapers, TV and radio media admit that, we'd be a lot better off than we are today.

In Britain there's no question where the media lie. The Guardian considers itself the left-leaning voice of the LibDems, while the Times views itself as the voice of the Labour party leaving The BBC as the rather conservative outlet most likely to provide favorable coverage to the Torries. American media is much the same: CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times are all solidly liberal news outlets while Fox News and the Wall Street Journal can be relied upon to present the news with a conservative lean. We all know it, it's just some sense of media enlightenment that prevents them from saying it. Some archaic American sense of fairplay that we hold on to tighter than outdated moral regulations from our Puritan past.

For those of us in Houston, the biases of the media are fairly obvious. ChronBlog is pro-big government, pro-Metro, anti-death penalty, pro-choice, and pro-immigration in their editorial lean. This is not a bad thing, but something that must be considered when reading their copy. It also goes a long way to explaining why an advocacy group advocating for health care reform with a public option is listed as "non-partisan" but no mention is made of their obvious ideology. Unfortunately most news consumers are too busy in the hustle of their daily lives to go check these organizations out. The result is they walk away provided an incomplete picture by those whom they trust to present them the straight story, no chaser.

Attitudes such as this lead to even more disturbing gaffes, such as the architect of a towing program not being correctly identified as such when he created a study on the same program, a Metro columnist lacking even the minimum amount of required skepticism especially when pet projects are on the line, and a "transportation watchdog" column frequently short on the "watchdog" meter. All of these are things that short-serve the local community, an putting aside of the journalists' responsibility to the public in favor of catering to pet causes. Want one more?

Chron-Eye for the death row killer guy - Journalism driven by the anti-death penalty activism of the wife of the Editor in Chief.

All of these ideological quirks would be tolerable, if the media didn't try and hide behind an increasingly translucent veil. Just come clean.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Thought about the How

For a long time, especially during the run of Lose an Eye, most of my blogger navel-gazing was focus on the "why". "Why" am I blogging? Is it in an attempt to sway policy? To increase page views? For others? For myself? Interesting questions that all focus on the "why" of blogging. One thing that I never contemplated (but probably should have) was "how".

How am I structuring posts? How am I getting my content? Is it original, or mainly cribbed from outside sources? In the early days of my blog most posts relied strongly on extensive blockquotes from outside sources. (usually As time passed I noticed that I moved away from blockquoting and toward a format that was more driven by original content with hyperlinks back to source material, but only in passing with limited (or no) blockquoting.

As the blog matured the attribution improved as well. This is something that I think is vital to blogs going forward: providing full and complete attribution to quoted text. This is especially important if you have a tendency to refer back to past blockquotes as "your blogging" in current posts (Something I see done quite often, and used to be very guilty of myself). All of which raises a larger question: If you are a cut n' paste blog, can it really be said that you "blogged" an issue? Or did you just highlight someone else's point, a la a feed reader etc.?

These are the questions of "how" that bloggers don't often ask themselves. Questions that probably need to be asked if blogging is to ever mature beyond its current state. This doesn't mean that any model is right/wrong, superior/inferior or preferable over another, but it does imply that bloggers need to have some idea of how they are doing what they do in order to accentuate the why that they are doing it.

Because, most of us, know why we blog, even if we don't want to admit it. There's a certain ego-stroke associated with having your thoughts put out there and then to have them given credence by others, no matter how small the audience. Even those of us who primarily blog for ourselves know this to be true. In short: We all know why.

What we don't think about is "how?" How to get that message across? How to have my ego stroked at a sufficient level to keep me from going off on other people constantly? Some bloggers have figured this out, and some haven't. Have I? Probably not. One thing that the Almanac was created for is to allow me some further flexibility of form than I had with LaE. That's why the "Houston Area Asides" is now my Diigo feed. This also allows me to incorporate news of the Nation, World and whimsy alongside that of Houston and Texas. The food blog and sports blog are linked here as well. For all of the teasing about my number of blogs, in reality I only have one, with different sections to help me organize. I find it cleaner and easier to maintain that way, but my output has not significantly increased or decreased, I'm just placing the same amount of posts in different places.

As far as content goes the evolution of blogging (in my opinion) is moving more toward original content and away from heavy blockquoting with no value add.* I also think that multi-media is going to the new norm. Look for changes in that area coming soon to the Almanac, especially cross-platform with other bloggers. From podcasts to videocasts all of the major blogs will have these features in the future.

One things for sure in almost any medium: The one constant is change. Just like Isolated Desolation ran its course and passed on so did LaE and I'm sure there will be a time in the future that the Almanac will as well. I foresee a time in the future when I'll stop blogging, moving to another medium entirely.

These are the 'how' questions that need to be asked, and they have been on my mind a lot lately, especially as I'm moving forward with this blog, and wrapping up some unfinished business from LaE. (Read: the Houston Political Dictionary)

With that in mind I'm going to create a simple poll to the side of this to get input from my small readership. Very simply: How do you structure your blog? The poll closes on October 5th. If you answer "other" please put your explenation in the comments, they will be approved for publication as soon as possible.

Think about it and answer.

*When I speak of blogs I mean blogs that are not Party Blogs. Those blogs will always be driven by outside content because they are nothing more than a reflection of how a party feels about issues that affect them. The role of the Party blog is not to drive conversation, nor is it to examine arguments. Their role is to dutifully regurgitate the argument of the side with which they disagree despite the fact that the labels they are using are outdated, or just blatantly false.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What did he know and when did he know it?

Yes, it's a recurring theme: A large majority of Americans don't trust the media.

But why?

What is it that the mainstream media has done that makes it so heinous, rating even below lawyers on the trustworthiness scale?

Some of the fault, undoubtedly, lies at the front doors of executive offices, people who have gutted the newsroom in favor of light-hearted fare, leaving overburdened reporters to pick and choose what information is worthy of mass public consumption without the benefit of thoughtfulness and discussion. And sure, some of the blame must rest with new technology, on the shoulders of the Internet journalist who's redefined the standards of media pushing 'being first' to the front of the line ahead of 'being right'. Gone are the days of editors-in-chief laying out their product beside print copies of their competitors and going over the details with a fine toothed comb. For one reason: Very few newspapers have competition these days and, for another, editors don't seem all that interested these days in doing that type of hard work. Layoffs and downsizing, followed closely by rehiring (cheaper) help, is currently required learning in Running a Newspaper 101.

Primary among the reasons newspapers (and the rest of the media) have lost the public trust, in my opinion, is the lack of competition. With no competing interest the onus for reporting on well-sourced, credible information has been removed. As a matter of fact, holding back information in order to promote internal agendas* has become the rule of the day, especially at ChronBlog. (once the newspaper of record in Houston, now Houston's biggest political/social blog)

To see an example of this, on a micro-level, one need look no further than the writings of the Chron's lead sports columnist, Richard Justice. I've said before (on other blogs) that I find Mr. Justice to be a fine writer. His prose, when properly edited, can be elegant and, at times, engrossing. His 'background' columns telling stories from sports days past are among the best you will ever read. What he lacks is a complete and utter inability to analyze current sporting events and place them in anything resembling meaningful context. He's also either very unobservant, or intentionally withholding from the public information.

How do I know this? Because in his recent blog post on the firing of Cecil Cooper he let readers know something that should have been revealed long ago, had he been paying attention:
Players have been wearing t-shirts asking, ''Really?'' Really, as in, ''Did he really just do that?''
In a season when the Astros were struggling, where fans were clamoring for a reason why, this bit of trivia could have gone a long way in explaining the problem, and shedding some much-needed light on the Astros' clubhouse circumstances.

Would the players in question have been angry? You bet. But that's something that a quality sports writer has to learn to deal with. The facts are that Justice and his colleagues have unequalled access to players before and after a game, they're in the locker room frequently and, if the claims they were wearing the shirts under their jersey's is true, should have seen those shirts, asked questions about them, and reported this fact much, much sooner.

Is this a little thing? In the grand scheme of it all, yes. Tiny. I'll even go so far as to say minuscule. But these minuscule items start adding up, reporters in close contact with public figures discovering, and then withholding, valuable information from the public in an effort to retain "access" to the personalities they cover. On a stage where the 'facts' matter, politics, chumminess of this type can lead to reporting that runs counter to the public interest. Consider Kathy Walt who penned a glowing piece on Rick Perry in 2004 before bolting the Chronicle and joining Perry's staff. Or Alan Bernstein who left the Chron to work for Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia (although, as near as can be determined, at least never did anything as egregious as the Perry love-fest). When retaining access becomes more of a priority than obtaining information the news media takes a big step back. It cannot help but do so.

Reporters love to play a game called "connect the dots". After any big disaster or negative story there are legions of writers who, benefiting from the clarity of hindsight, engage in a game of "who knew what and when". The public reason for doing this is to "get to the bottom" of said issue. The overriding reason is to (hopefully) create scandal and either sell copy or drive ratings. At times (Watergate for instance) such information is a useful tool in unravelling the Gordian knot of political intrigue. Unfortunately these situations are few and far between. Often, there is no criminal intent to be outed, and the 'knowledge' of who knew what only stands to stoke the fires of partisanship and scandal that talking heads and party-bloggers hold so dear. In my view, however, playing a game of connect the dots with the media industry might just unravel what's going so wrong in the industry.

Who knew what and when did they know it? And do they have an obligation to the public to tell us what they know when they know it to be true?

*It's widely known, among political hacks, that Jeff Cohen's wife is an anti-death penalty activist. Because of this ChronBlog is strongly anti-DP in their editorial slant. Despite this these facts are never disclosed. How this effects the "news" you consume is a different matter, for a different post.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How not to win an award for your Metro Column

It's no big secret that ChronBlog is The only newspaper among the 10 largest publications to have never won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. They've been nominated, and probably should have won for their outstanding coverage of the Ike aftermath. Two sections of ChronBlog that have no chance of being nominated, much less winning, if they continue on in their current state are the local/Metro columns.

Remember the 18% concerned about the press being fair? It's possible that all of them are reading the column of Lisa Falkenberg. Now, granted, L'il Red's column is opinion, so it's not held to the same journalistic standards as is say, a Metro news story on City Hall. That being said even an opinion piece should really try harder than Falkenberg did in today's effort.

It's not the subject matter that's of concern, (Houston is a city of increasing diversity. This diversity is a strength.) nor did go out of her way to ridicule those who don't see things as she does. (A sad literary device that she resorts to all too often.) Nope, the shortcomings in this column stem from an unprofessional habit of hers to view some information uncritically.

The example: This following excerpt focusing on Garnet Coleman:
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who grew up in Third Ward, said Houston today is what it's always been working toward.

“This is the utopia I've been looking for,” he said. “I was always taught Houston — it's not Dallas — it's an open city, as they say. And because it's an open city, if you work hard you can succeed.”

Sure, he said, some people see the demographic shift as threatening, like “their way of life is being stripped away” and they try even harder to draw the lines.
There's considerable evidence that Garnet Coleman is not someone to lecture others on the folly of having their life stripped away as the following excerpt from a Live Oaks Blog post authored by property rights activist Brian Phillips:
Coleman, who is described as having "partial control" of the special tax district for the area, used his political power to begin buying land in the Third Ward. He then attached deed restrictions to the property mandating that it be used solely for rental housing. The taxing district, which was formed for the specific purpose of encouraging development, is now being used to discourage development.
Lest you think this is nothing more than baseless accusations from an Ayn Rand disciple, Steve Inskeep of NPR penned this excerpt in his report on the Third Ward:
Coleman, the son of a Third Ward physician, is convinced that most of the residents of the new townhomes are likely to be affluent and white. And he was not ready for the poorer residents of this area, many of them renters, to be squeezed out.

"I'm an egalitarian like everybody else," Coleman said, "and talking about the racial aspect of this, or saying this is born of race, is not something I feel absolutely comfortable with."
Maybe he's not comfortable, but the question is on the table.

The Chron's Jr. columnist decided to leave it there, and run Coleman's veiled implications without question, and without challenge. Not only is that poor journalism, but it's a disservice to the City that she supposedly is serving (if, as do many, you view journalism as a vital public service.) A quality Metro columnist would at least pose the question, let readers decide for themselves. There's certainly nothing illegal about the actions of Rep. Coleman, and nothing that flies in the face of house ethics rules. Some might say that his influence over the demographics of an area he represents are unethical on a societal level, but that's for the voters in his district to decide.

They might decide he does a good enough job representing them to keep him in office, however, since ChronBlog has shown no interest in reporting this local story (getting scooped, again, by a national outlet on a local matter) the point is moot.
Further evidence that ChronBlog's so-called "watchdog" role is being sublet out to bloggers, non-profits and national news services.

Meanwhile the number of people who view the media as fair and accurate drops lower and lower.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Media Matters: 18% say press "fair"

According to this poll which also says that around 1 in 3 people consider the media to be accurate. This presents a rather big problem for a media industry thats shedding profits and employees at a record rate.

To get a picture of the problem from a local perspective I offer up two examples of shoddy, biased, reporting found in today's ChronBlog.

1. Today's Move It! Column by Carolyn Feibel. As first mentioned by Kevin Whited this type of "reporting" is commonplace in ChronBlog. Not only is the Citizen's Transportation Coalition constantly provided a platform for their views, but often those views are presented without challenge. Missing from the local transportation debate, in the media, are the voices of groups such as the Houston Property Rights Association or Paul Magaziner's Corridor's United. There are several groups out there who support the expansion of the Grand Parkway and oppose MetroRail. Some of them have valid reasons for doing so. Failure to present all sides of the debate is the great failure of ChronBlog, especially on transportation.

2. Serving up nutritional advice for Houston Schools by Jennifer Radcliffe on the Chron's "School Zone" blog. Granted, the standard for Blog reporting is a little bit more informal than the standard for a full-on newspaper report. There are some blogs, mostly independent, or Chron.commons reader blogs, in the Houston blogosphere with seemingly no standards for reporting truthfully, or correcting errors if printed. That being said the information in this blog totally excludes any dissenting voices in the issue of HISD nutrtition in favor of a relatively small group who's taken it on themselves to push for local, organic foods in schools, despite the fact that there's increasing evidence they are no more healthy than traditionally processed foods. What locally grown organics are, is more expensive. Yet, in the story, there's nothing mentioned that this might not be a universally accepted idea.

Here at Harris County Almanac we are always opinionated, but make every effort to be fair to those opinions with wich we disagree, providing them with a full airing. While the Lose an Eye era of my personal blogging career is over, you can expect to still find media watchdogging here, on Harris County Almanac, in the form of occasional op-ed pieces. My goal is not to take a political side, but to hopefully expand the debate.

It is important to note that not all posts on the Almanac are going to povide an open forum for debate. My goal with this project is not to engage the reader (as it was with LaE) but to expound further on issues that interest me such as media fairness, accruacy, etc. Because of this comments will be moderated, and anonymous comments will not be allowed. If you want your post to stand, put your name on it. Even if you were deleted at LaE the odds are, if you're topical, your comment will make it through the moderation process. One thing I'm not going to do here is get into an online pissing match. This is not about "media bias" it's about media fairness and accuracy, areas that I feel are truly what is leading to the declines in readership, and what people really are pointing to when they bring up bias. I can provide you with a Million anecdotal pieces of evidence why the media is/is not biased. I have no desire to broach that subject here.

Because the media is expanding I will also include blogs, and independent, online-based media sources in our conversation as well, with the notable exception of partisan blogs, which I feel are more house organs than legitimate sources of information.

Expect posts here to occur sporadically, because they'll show up whenever I find an article that suits me, or when I find examples of stories written with fairness towards all sides.

We're often told that without an independent media we cannot have a thriving democracy. This mantra has been forced down our throats by, well, the media, for many years now. The problem, in my mind, is that we're already in a place where there's no quality independent journalism taking place within the confines of the MSM, leading us to a place where our Democracy is threatened because information is travelling primarily through the hands of amateurs and partisans for whom skepticism is a one way street.

It's the mission of Harris County Almanac to work against that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

For your viewing pleasure

106.9 The Point should be contractually required to play this sone once a day until we start paying attention to the true cost of the snake oil our elected officials, community leaders and media (both MSM and alternative) are peddling.

The Truth Will Out.

At first I thought this video was a parody, some kind of political joke of the type you see poli-bloggers cribbing together in some weak-assed attempt at humor. (Or something the Harris County Republican Party might throw in You Tube in hopes of riling up the base.)

Imagine my surprise when I found out it was true. Even worse, there are people out there defending this behavior. Honestly defending it.

And now, there's word that ACORN is going to sue. Despite the fact that they've admitted to firing the employees in the video? On what grounds?

Libel? Not likely. It's not libel if what's being said actually happened, and from all accounts ACORN employees bent over backwards, to the point of advising for breaking the law, to try and get this couple into a home so they could export minors in from Ecuador and turn them into prostitutes.

Was it partisan advocacy journalism? You bet.
Was it criminal? Hardly. Except on the part of ACORN it seems.

It takes a special kind of stupid to fall for this ruse. Stupid that's a little less isolated at ACORN than they'd like to admit. Not pervasive perhaps, but not a one-off either. (Four locations, four similar results, and not one person even questioned what was going on)

That's not libel, them's the facts.

It's so bad that the Senate has stopped their funding and Democrats are shedding ties to the organization like a baby-seal coat at a PeTA rally in the Mojave Desert.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the truth will out. After all, the attack's against Tom Delay and Abramoff were initially characterized as a "left-wing smear campaign" as well. If you have no defense you attack your accusers. It doesn't hurt to have a partisan-blind group of followers who are willing to go to bat for you as well. Always a nice touch.

DEVELOPING: More on the guy who made the videos.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BMW Vision

It will never hit the market in its current form, hopefully the diesel engine and electric technology gets incorporated into something that uses many of the design cues however.

It's 'bite the back of your hand' beautiful however.

Yet another reason why predictions of the automobile's death are premature. Car companies are going to work to ensure that their product is viable in whatever economic environment emerges from this current re-shuffling.

Here in Harris County our transportation movers and shakers don't seem to have a clear grasp of this, and they're moving ahead with transportation designs reflecting decades past.

Also: Tim Spell of ChronBlog provides a glimpse into Audi's future

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A change in structure

In case you haven't noticed the "local news" section is now gone from Harris County Almanac. Many more changes to come.

Sports Section