Thursday, August 11, 2005

On the Media, On the Other Side? 

Sometimes when I'm forced to be up early on Saturday morning, I will listen to NPR's On the Media, if for no other reason than to roll my eyes at how seriously journalists tend to take themselves. This past weekend, though, I was struck by the unquestioning assumptions embodied in a report on William Laurence, the NYT reporter who was basically embedded (and some contend in bed) with the Manhattan Project (emphasis added):
BOB GARFIELD: Sixty years later the dropping of the bomb remains one of the great historical controversies. What I find so stunning about this is that at the contemporaneous moment when the world had to make up its mind, the New York Times, in effect, became a propaganda tool of the U.S. government...

DAVID GOODMAN: That's right. And the very debate that you elude to about was the atomic bomb an appropriate response, well Americans really wouldn't know if they don't know the reality of what happened on the ground. ... I think that this story has some very important modern parallels, certainly in the case of the Iraq Wart [sic] and in the case of the New York Times, with the, I would say, credulous, uncritical reporting of Judith Miller, among others. Anytime we see the drums of war, we should really be looking to journalists to challenge those in power, not to become a megaphone for those in power.
So here we basically have David Goodman laying out the media's responsibility, especially in times of war, as being in oposition to the government, a position that Bob Garfield apparently accepts without comment.

After all, who cares if "those in power" might be right? And they still want us believe they are unbiased and fair?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Stem Cell Debate Simplified 

In addition to the intentionally misleading verbiage often employed in discussing this issue that I previously discussed, as with almost any other political debate there is more than a modicum of "gotcha" being played. We turn to Jeff Jarvis for a fine example of this technique:
[T]his morning, I thought I heard Sen. Sam Brownback say that this would be the first case of using taxpayer money to intentionally end human life. Uh, Senator, what about capital punishment and war?
Thanks for advancing the debate, Jeff.

While Jeff is technically correct that both capital punishment and war use federal funding to end human life, it is really quite easy to break down the issue of embryonic stem cell research to a few clear benchmarks by which an individual's position may be defined:
  1. No embryonic stem cell research should happen at all
  2. No federal funding of embryonic stem cell research
  3. Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research limited to existing strains
  4. Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research limited to stem cells that may be collected from blastocysts discarded after in vitro fertilization therapy
  5. Unrestricted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, including the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes
Often the rhetoric used leaves the impression that Bush and all those backward Republicans are sitting on level 1 like Luddites. The reality, though, is that Bush's policy is sitting at level 3 and Senator Brownback was obviously speaking about the current proposal to move to level 4.

There is no argument that some Americans are completely opposed to any research or federal funding, but we have already crossed that Rubicon and are unlikely to retreat unless alternative stem cell sources are demonstrably superior. Likewise, I feel confident in saying that those who support unrestricted funding are also likely to be dissatisfied, as for most Americans the intentional creation of an embryo just to harvest its stem cells feels a little too much like human experimentation for comfort. Therefore, when all the innuendo and passion is stripped away what is generally being discussed is if we should, as a country, set our policy at level 3 or level 4.

It should be recognized, however, that to open the door to research using discarded blastocycts also opens the door for the potential abuse of this provision, and these dangers need to be discussed, as Senator Frist recently has. This is an important issue that needs to be discussed with logic and consideration rather than with ad hominem attacks and snark.

Public Service Announcement 

In the interest of the public good and true to my good-nuke background, I plotted a lowest-cost curve of BellSouth Domestic Long Service rates. The results are as follows:

If monthly use is ...then the cheapest plan is ...
0 - 5 min.Standard Rate ($.18/min)
6 - 19 min.One Dollar Plan ($1/month + $.10/min)
20 - 90 min.30-Minute Plan ($2.95 for 30 minutes, $.09/min after that)
60 - 160 min.60-Minute Plan ($5.95 for 60 minutes, $.08/min after that)
160 - 380 min.Nickel Plan ($5.95/month + $.05/min)
381 + min.Unlimited Long Distance Plan ($24.99/month)

(appologies for any excess spaces, but Blogger isn't playing well with my <table> tags)

This, of course, doesn't take into account any possible benefits derived from bundling various specific combinations of services. Neither does it account for wide distribution of monthly use, especially in the border regions (for example, if your average usage lies slightly above 20 minutes, but your distribution is very wide the money saved during low usage months using the $1 plan may offset the slightly higher cost during high usage months).

Here at submandave, we do the geeky math so you don't have to.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bumrush the "Stem Cell Ban" Meme 

Recent articles and posts about Senator Frist's “change of heart” on stem-cell research (which isn't really a change at all, but we'll discuss that later), continue to rehash the tried and untrue popular meme that ties the words “Bush,” “embryonic stem-cell,” “research” and “ban” all together very neatly. In their discussions, even the esteemed Glenn Reynolds, Roger Simon and Bill at INDC are quick to leave the impression, if not say outright, that these words belong together. While I assign no malicious left-wing conspiracy intent to them, it does not escape me that the common wisdom (such as it is) on the matter is precisely what the left-wing would wish it to be. Neither does it escape me that this common wisdom is at best inaccurate and misleading and at worst an intentional misrepresentation of the issues at hand.

Bush has banned stem-cell research based upon his religious views

I'll bet a paycheck that a majority of casual news consumers along with a substantial number of news junkies would agree that the preceding statement sums up the controversy. How, then does this square with President Bush's well considered remarks on August 9, 2001, when he became the only president to have ever federally funded embryonic stem-cell research? And while I'm not one to casually drag the ghost of Bill Clinton out to make a partisan point, there is no denying that in 1999 the National Bioethics Advisory Commission “recommended [to President Bill Clinton] that publicly funded research go forward,” with the caveat that “embryos not be created solely for research purposes.” When President Clinton subsequently rejected this recommendation, though, I remember no hue and cry in these same quarters. I use this séance not to say “Bush is better,” but rather to highlight what to me is obvious partisan rather than pricipal motivation on behalf of Bush’s greatest critics.

Ignoring inconvenient facts to make your point has always been a staple of the political life, but it has also become a far too common occurrence in the Main Stream Media, as well. I believe that one reason many politically-focused blogs find themselves in ascendancy today is their willingness to examine and present all facts, good and bad, and to attempt to demonstrate by logic and good writing how the truths exposed best support one's positions. This candid examination of facts is in my mind tantamount to the trust the readers place in the individual blog authors, and trust is the coin of the realm in privately published on-line media. To support the wrong assumptions inherent in the “Bush has banned stem-cell research” meme, either by repeating them or failing to challenge them, betrays that trust. As such, I will try to present the facts I know about this issue:
Now, getting back to Senator Frist's “second opinion,” as it was referred to in a political cartoon Glenn linked to. The press got itself in a tizzy over the Senator “opposing Bush’s ban” so fast it failed to notice that this “reversal” is really little more than a restatement of a position he first made public July 18, 2001.
Q: What is the basic difference between Senator Frist's and President Bush's positions?
A: The Senator supports the harvesting of stem-cells from blastocysts (or pre-embryos) left over from in vitro fertilization therapy that would otherwise be discarded.

Q: How does Senator Frist's position differ from the recommendation President Clinton rejected?
A: Not at all, since both explicitly ban the creation of embryos solely for research purposes.

Q: So why the new announcement the other day?
A: Because the availability and condition of the stem-cells that existed at the time President authorized funding have been reevaluated and Senator Frist now feels they are inadequate for the research desired. The Senator also emphasized shortcomings in the current proposal that could provide loopholes for abuse of the limitations established.
So the basic facts that are (in some cases) intentionally muddied or ignored are:Bush's ban on federal funding

This is an important issue, one that deserves more than a four or five-word sound bite that is factually wrong. I have no problem with someone disagreeing with the President’s policy, nor with an accurate examination of the Senator's varying support. I do, however, have a problem with straw-man arguments that are based upon patently false premises and with those who aid in masking these false impressions rather than exposing them. You don’t have to agree with the President to say the argument most commonly used against him is pure bunk; you just have to be honest.

Update: For clarity, I'm not calling any of the above mentioned bloggers dishonest, but I do think that by not clearly highlighting the errors in the "Bush's ban" meme they tacitly help others to be dishonest. Maybe I'm ranting over semantics, but it seems that the word "ban" in this context clearly implies a complete prohibition on the said activities while an alternative, such as "limitation" not only more accurately represents the reality of the issue but also does not cary the partisan political baggage the MSM and others have tied to the phrase "Bush's ban."

Update: Oops, in my attempt to clarify I left out the word "not" (italicized above). I've also clarified that Senator Frist's support has always been for federal funding of stem cell research.

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