My blog friend Moe got me to thinking about the dismal performance of the media when it comes to political and policy coverage. It seems that most media outlets are capable of little more than trying to predict the score — how many Republicans, how many Democrats. Finding thoughtful, well-reasoned, and, particularly, objective analysis of this nation’s needs, and how the policy ideas of the different parties might address those needs is hard to come by. TV and other outlets are filled with opinionators, not reporters, and certainly not analysts. Well, other than keeping my subscription to the New Yorker up to date, I don’t have any good answers for that.

But I do have an idea on how the media companies can atone for their lack of useful information. They could take a stand against the other great corrupter of our political processes, distortions in campaign and advocacy advertising. Here is my idea. Suppose a media company establishes a baseline fee structure for political advertisements that is, say, three times the usual rate. However, political advertisers could qualify for lower rates by having their ads rated by politifact.com or factcheck.org. The better the rating, the lower the price — all the way back down to the normal rate for an ad that rates completely true.

Sure, there would be lots of details to work through. Obviously such an idea would work much better if all the media in a given market adopted the same policy. Otherwise, a candidate could just forego paying $2000 to run a distorted spot on Channel 2, and run it for $800 on Channel 5 instead. There would have to be some worries that, once they had such power over elections, Politifact and FactCheck might lose their bearings. It happens. But hey, I’m just the big picture guy here. I’m sure there are media-savvy types who could figure out something.

What’s appealing about this is that it puts a price on political distortion. Sure, you can still run your ad that implies your opponent once voted to permit snipers to shoot disabled widows on sight — but it will cost you. And that’s what we do not have now. Currently, gross distortion in political advertising brings only benefits, but no costs. I heard recently that of the first 58 ads analyzed by Politifact, only two got their best rating. This multi-tiered pricing idea imposes a cost on distortion. Distort all you want, but your budget won’t stretch nearly so far. And no one’s free speech rights are compromised.

I doubt the various Executive Vice Presidents of Finance for the media companies will rush to embrace my idea. They will worry that this will just cost the company revenue. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe the compulsion to advertise — and even to distort — is so strong that actually the media companies will generate more revenue. And you know what? If some campaign or some advocacy group decides not to use a media outlet adopting this policy, then the media company should ask itself what it was doing permitting itself to participate in the crass corruption of democracy in the first place. Honor still counts. Or should.

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You’ve seen it on 1000 websites by now: Jan Brewer’s long, awkward pause during her opening remarks in the gubernatorial debate in Arizona. That’s a little bit embarrassing, I suppose, especially considering that those were her prepared comments. Really, though, so what? We all get tongue-tied, and for most of us we don’t have live television cameras pointed at our face to increase the pressure. I hardly think her brief confusion says anything about her qualifications for re-election.

Here’s what I find astonishing, though. Moments before her stumble, she proclaimed, “We have cut the budget. We have balanced the budget.” WTF? No, “we” haven’t. According to the state’s own reports, if you take out the budget tricks, the budget shortfall in the current FY2011 will be $1.691 billion (see page 17). That is 20% of the state’s total spending. The deficit remains in the $1 to $2 billion annual range in the projected years ahead.

To be perfectly fair, the actual budget deficit in FY2011 is projected to be between “zero and $1.2 billion,” which is a better picture than the structural deficit of $1.691 billion, and which may provide Gov Brewer with a technically defensible claim to balancing the budget. What is the difference between the two projections? Two things. One is federal stimulus money, and the other is the governor’s sales tax increase, which lasts for three years. Do y’all hear what I’m saying? The only reason the governor can lay even a remotely plausible claim to balancing the budget is federal stimulus money and a tax increase. That’s right: federal stimulus money and a tax increase. One more time:  federal stimulus money and a tax increase. Tea Party people, take arms!!!

The media? They think the important news here is 13 seconds of dead air.

I carried this over from a comment I made on another blog post, which presented a piece from Forbes. What struck me is the title of the Forbes editorial: The Fiction of Climate Science.

The problem I have here is that the science has been utterly obscured by the fog of politics. I think the global-climate-change crowd deserves our critical and skeptical eye. But I think the no-global-climate-change crowd deserves the very same scrutiny. I get why Forbes thinks it is a mistake to declare the global climate change theory right. But on what basis does Forbes declare it wrong?

All the media and political conversation about this many tenths of a degree up, and that many tenths of a degree down, are, I believe, missing the point. The better question is, have we entered a period of intense regional climate shifts, that will cause widespread human and economic disruption? There seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence that that is the case — most of the warmest years on record being in the past couple of decades, significant glacial and polar ice melting, intensification of hurricane and tsunami activity, significant changes in regional precipitation patterns, etc.

But the deafening cry from those in the media and politics is so loud that it is nearly impossible to hear the objective science. That’s from both sides. The voice of objective science has been so drowned out, it is impossible to gauge the real risk of both action and inaction. It has become impossible to either support or refute the theory of global clmate change.

I wish we had the means to quiet the non-science voices, and go forth with a full, transparent, objective and truly scientific debate — better research, study, analysis, and conclusions coming from the scientific community. And the commitment of we lay people to listen more and shout less.

I was reading another blog about how some people blur the line between real news and entertainment news (The Daily Show, et al.). The same goes for real news versus opinion shows.

The highest profile examples are certain of the cable news channels, most particularly MSNBC and Fox. These are great networks, and I watch them all the time and enjoy it. But, they do not deliver the news. Chatter back and forth between “analysts” of unknown or dubious provenance is not news.

Here is my quick guide:

  • If a media source does not present information and credible analysis of that information, it’s not news. Ask yourself if the people doing the talking are presenting original information, or commenting on the news. MSNBC and Fox present virtually no original information.
  • If a media source mostly features conservative operatives who think Obama and/or the Democratic Congress is doing all the wrong things, or liberal operatives who think they are doing all the right things, it’s not news.
  • If a media source has no reporters, it’s not news.
  • If one finds oneself agreeing all the time with a media source, or disagreeing all the time with it, it’s not news.
  • If a media source tells you repeatedly that it speaks the “truth,” it’s not news.

What is news, and where can we go to get it? Where can one find original reporting, the presentation of facts and cogent analysis? Personally, I find these useful:

  • The New York Times and Washington Post. Note to some: spare me the diatribe about the liberal NYT. I don’t often read the opinion pages. Here are the stories featured on their website at this moment: “Protests and Poltical Tensions Mar NATO Meeting,” “Financial Industry Paid Millions to Obama Aide,” and “Obama’s Farm Subsidy Cuts Meet Stiff Resistance.” All three written by real reporters. All three fact-based, none judgmental. All three of them, for that matter, neutral to negative for Obama, for those who think the NYT is in his pocket. And you can click on www.nytimes.com at any moment of any day and find a wealth of such solid, real information.
  • NPR. Same thing goes here. Lead stories on their website right now are: “U.S. Scambles to Revamp Terrorism Detainee Policies,” Iowa Gay Marriage Ban Struck Down,” and “Reaction Mixed to Planned N. Korea Rocket Launch.”
  • CNN. We have no better source than CNN for keeping us abreast of the facts of life. I have never understood the criticism of CNN as a liberal outlet. Since I have been preparing this post, they have had an indepth update from Obama’s trip to Europe, Obama’s schedule for the day, a report about two police officers killed in Pittsburgh, and an update on the Binghamton killings. Hardly the stuff of liberal bias.
  • The New Yorker. When I have the time, this magazine consistently puts out painstakingly researched and brilliantly written pieces on every conceivable subject, including the big issues of our day. On their website, the lead article today is “What Happened To Gao Zhishang?,” about what happened to a prominent Chinese lawyer. There are thoughtful pieces on Syria (by Seymour Hersh) and Afghanistan (not to mention a very funny Woody Allen piece about Bernie Madoff!).

The better we understand the distinction between news and opinion, between reporting and commentating, the better off we are.