2005 - %3, May

New York Times: "Journalism is hard!"

Mon May 9, 2005 4:44 PM EDT

If Americans Knew, an independent research institute, recently came out with a study on the objectivity of media reporting on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The study focuses on the New York Times and focuses on the number of deaths that occurred (numbers were obtained from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem) versus the number reported. The conclusion was as follows: In 2004, 149 percent (reflecting multiple stories on the same deaths) of Israeli deaths were reported as opposed to 41 percent of Palestinian deaths. More disparate still are the statistics regarding the reporting of deaths of Palestinian children. In 2004, the Times reported on 50% of Israeli child deaths versus 7% of Palestinian child deaths. The study notes,

Given that The Times had ample coverage of this issue (well over 1000 stories), it is troubling that so much critical information for American readers was omitted. Further, our findings suggest a pattern of distortion in New York Times coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inconsistent with normal journalistic standards. Such a pattern of distortion, in which readers were given the impression that the Israeli death rate was greater than its reality, and that the Palestinian death rate was considerably smaller than its reality, may serve to misinform readers rather than inform them…We assume that The New York Times is as disturbed as we have been to find these shortfalls in its quest to provide excellent news reporting to its readers.

A fair assumption, but not at all correct. Daniel Okrent of the New York Times recently wrote an editorial in response to accusations of bias on this issue. His basic argument was that the paper's doing its best, but its an emotionally charged issue, hard to be objective, and journalism is imperfect. The issue is emotionally charged and it's impossible to be objective. Nice dodge. But Okrent's response is more disturbing than the findings of the If Americans Knew report. Okrent compares the report with a boycott of The Times by the group Orthodox Caucus, referring to both as "less temperate groups on each side," as if these two things were equivalent.

Okrent notes, "After reading thousands of criticisms (as well as insults, accusations and threats) of The Times's Middle East coverage, I'm still waiting for one reader to say the paper has ever been unfair in a way that was damaging to both sides." Well, here it is: the Times' coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been damaging to both sides. Misrepresenting the death toll of the conflict could very well be leading to continued American support of certain Israeli tactics in the conflict that further prolong a push for a more effective and balanced approach to a peace process. Which means more Israelis and more Palestinians dead.

Okrent's editorial spends a lot of time focusing on the complexity of the conflict. Noting the many angry responses The Times gets in any article which broaches the topic, Okrent writes,

A report on an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Gaza that kills nearby innocents will most likely mention the immediate provocation—perhaps a Palestinian attack on an Israeli settlement. But, says the angered reader, what about the murderous assault that provoked the settlement attack? And, says his aggrieved counterpart on the other side, what about the ambush that preceded the assault? And so on back to the intifada, and then to 1973 and 1967 and 1956 and 1948—an endless chain of regression and recrimination and pain that cannot be represented in a year, much less in a single dispatch in a single day.

But this is how all conflicts work. Violence between different peoples is rarely ever the result of a single (or rational), heated exchange. All animosity is couched in historical terms. But in no way does that make daily journalism obsolete. If Americans Knew isn't asking Times correspondents to write a painstakingly accurate historical account of the tit for tat goings on every time it reports on daily goings-on, it's simply asking it to consider its inaccurate reporting of Palestinian and Israeli deaths.

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In Praise of the United Nations

| Mon May 9, 2005 3:49 PM EDT

Suzanne Nossell reminds us what the United Nations is good for. The best way to sum up her list might be to say that international organizations are extremely useful for solving certain collective action problems—like tackling AIDS or prosecuting war criminals or handling peacekeeping—that no one country can or would handle on its own.

What we've seen over the past few years, however, is that the Iraq War has transformed the debate over the UN into a debate about whether or not the body should be some sort of enforcer of international law. That's surely the wrong way to look at it; the UN can very rarely force countries to do things against their will. International law is, for the most part, only as binding as the force that backs it, period, as we've seen with regards to Sudan, Iraq, Iran and many other countries.

Indeed, because of the various competing interests in the Security Council, the United Nations, on its own, will very rarely be an adequate means of punishing "rogue" states that skirt the law. On the other hand, nor will it simply rubber-stamp ever foreign policy decision the United States decides to undertake, as many conservatives would no doubt prefer. And nor can it ever be a useful means of constraining American power, as many liberals might like. The United Nations is useful as a forum for coordinating international opinion and using it to pressure certain countries, but its utility there obviously has limits. For instance, like Gareth Evans and Ann-Marie Slaughter, I'd like to see the United Nations mandate that nations have a "duty to prevent" genocide. But after watching Western nations dig in their heels over intervention in Darfur, it would be foolish to assume that any such moral imperative would carry much weight. At any rate, if we can focus on the positive things the UN can realistically do, we'll be in a much better position to figure out how and why it needs to be reformed.

Classroom Sizes Revisited

| Mon May 9, 2005 1:42 PM EDT

For a long time, liberal school reform proposals have centered on, among other things, smaller class sizes for schools, something widely supported by parents. (Indeed, one of the complaints about No Child Left Behind is that the law doesn't put enough emphasis on this factor.) The issue is still somewhat debated on the merits, especially after a RAND report in 2000 found that reducing class size had little effect on student achievement. But now the debate can carry on, as a new study in the Journal of Educational Psychology finds that "four or more years in small classes in elementary school significantly increases the likelihood of graduating from high school, especially for students from low-income homes."

The problem, of course, is that often class-size reduction initiatives are carried out in precisely the wrong way. Here in California, former Gov. Pete Wilson decided back in 1996 to spend some $1 billion on reducing the size of classrooms, but didn't allocate a whole lot of extra money for hiring and training additional teachers. As a result, more and more uncredentialed teachers were hired, and many qualified teachers from low-income districts simply moved and found jobs in well-to-do districts. It's a savage cycle that only worsened a lot of existing inequities.

Now on some level, this wasn't just a result of Wilson's stinginess: class-size reduction is awfully costly—you have to build new classrooms after all—and many reformers think that the money would be better spent attracting new teachers via higher salaries, or training existing teachers. Indeed, the details contain one very big devil here. Still, if the benefits to class-size reduction are indeed as sweeping as this new study shows, it may be time to revisit this debate.

"The case was thin..."

Fri May 6, 2005 7:38 PM EDT

Kevin Drum notes that the American media (in this case Knight-Ridder) has finally decided to report on the July 2002 British memo that emerged just in time for British elections. The memo offers concrete evidence that Bush had been shopping around for an excuse to invade Iraq far before he ever started discussing democracy-building. Note:

Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy…It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force. The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defense, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorization...Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD.

So there was no confusion on WMDs—this makes it obvious that WMDs were a total excuse—and the memo actually notes other countries that we should be worried about. Not only does the memo acknowledge that there are no legal grounds for invading Iraq, but it makes clear that Bush and Blair had every intent of stretching, no, fabricating, a reason to invade. I'm a big fan of this memo: it does a beautiful job of revealing the devious nature of the fabrication of a justification, while at the same time exposing the underlying stupidity. It's like Pinky and the Brain. Only it's Blair and Bush. Regime change is not a sufficient legal base for military action? No kidding. And then, my favorite: "Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD."

Leaked Details on CAFTA

| Fri May 6, 2005 6:07 PM EDT

Time to trade for a second. The White House is currently trying to push the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) through Congress. As it stands right now, more and more Democrats are opposing the agreement, for a wide variety of reasons, and some Republicans who represent districts that would be adversely affected are speaking out as well. So it's not likely to pass, which looks like a good thing. Now in general, I don't much mind free trade agreements, but this one is particularly egregious in its specifics, especially the fact that it would allow the five Central American countries to "lock in" their current labor standards, which are largely atrocious. (CAFTA also comes bearing protectionist gifts to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, by imposing restrictions on Big Pharma's generic-drug competitors abroad. Why this sort of practice gets called "free trade" is beyond me.)

But back to the labor standards. How atrocious are they? Well, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) has been trying to find out, and has been asking the Bush administration for Labor Department reports on working conditions in Central America, but all to little avail. First he filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Denied. Then, after a few more congressional maneuvers, the Labor Department finally relented. So the released report is here (pdf). The labor laws and working conditions, not surprisingly, are dismal—and keep in mind that, under, CAFTA, Central American governments would no longer need to "afford internationally recognized worker rights," as they do under the current Generalized System of Preferences. Central American workers would get screwed, with little hope that they could raise their standards of living over time. And yes, it's no surprise that the Bush administration tried to keep these reports hidden for so long, but it's appalling all the same.

What Do We Pay Pre-Kindergarten Teachers?

| Fri May 6, 2005 5:22 PM EDT

The Pew Foundation has a new report out that details just how underpaid and under-credentialed our state-funded pre-kindergarten teachers really are. In general, I would agree with the conclusion drawn by W. Steve Barnett, one of the report's funders: "It's time to deliver on the promises states make to kids and treat prekindergarten with the same respect we accord the rest of our educational system."

But there's more to it than just that. Focusing on publicly employed pre-kindergarten teachers is a bit of a red herring. As we know, the United States doesn't have a very extensive public child care program. Only six percent of one- and two-year-olds are in public care, and 53 percent of three-to-five-year olds. Parents pay, on average, 60 percent of all costs for child care, and of those below 200 percent of the poverty line with children, only 21 percent receive help with costs. (More figures here.) But part of the reason this state of affairs holds is that child care is so cheap. Okay, it's not cheap for parents, but it's cheap relative to pre-school care in, say, European countries. And that's largely because the industry has managed to hold down the wages of prekindergarten teachers and other day-care workers in the private sector.

If these workers were unionized, or paid better, child care costs would soar to the point of being entirely unaffordable, just as in Europe. (More numbers: In Sweden, child care and preschool workers make 102 percent of the average female wage; here in the U.S. it's closer to 55 percent.) Virtually no one can afford private child care in Sweden, France, Austria, or Germany. As a result, a wide variety of public policy choices have been forced on those governments: Sweden and France have vast public child-care programs, while Austria and Germany have more flexible parental leave policies. The point, I guess, is that the structure of the labor market for child care largely reflects policy choices on the issue, and vice versa. (See Kimberly Morgan's work on this for more.) It's not enough just to point to low wages for certain teachers; at some point either the whole system will need revamping, or else we'll just have to be satisfied with underqualified and poverty-line teachers, inaccessible care for many parents, and a society that encourages people, by and large, not to have kids.

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Here Come the Shills

| Fri May 6, 2005 3:24 PM EDT

The subtext of the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay scandals now roiling Washington is that there's a lot of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through Congress, and it's having a pernicious effect on good, clean, democratic government. That's an important story, but it's even more important to note that the "money in politics" problem isn't just limited to politicians. As Frank Foer outlines in the New Republic this week, there's also a tremendous amount of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through right-wing think tanks and media outlets, which means that more and more, it's not just conservative politicians but conservative ideas themselves that are being hijacked by what Jacob Weisberg calls "interest-group conservatism."

To some extent, this process isn't yet complete. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, came out strongly against both the corporate goodie bag known as the 2003 Medicare bill, and have condemned the yet-to-be-passed energy bill in Congress on similar grounds. Principled small-government conservatism still exists, at least in the think tanks. But it's not at all clear how long this purity will last. Foer notes that after a few Abramoff-financed junkets to the Marinaras, think tanks from CATO to AEI to Heritage were all more than willing to tout the virtues of the odd labor regulations there. And Abramoff's moneyed connections helped reverse the longstanding conservative think-tank hostility to the Malaysian government in the late '90s.

Is it so off to think that, with a bit more money and a few industry-funded "educational trips abroad," groups like Heritage could be convinced of the virtues of massive taxpayer subsidies to the pharmaceutical and coal industries? Hardly. Already, as Chris Mooney reported in the cover story of the latest Mother Jones, an entire ExxonMobil-funded "think-tank" network has sprung up to "debunk" the science of global warming. (Those scare quotes are there for a reason.) At the rate we're going, soon there will no longer be any principled conservative ideas or sound policies, only unprincipled shilling for the highest bidder.

Health Care Experiments

| Thu May 5, 2005 4:16 PM EDT

The DLC just sent out an email highlighting some of the recent healthcare initiatives being proposed in Montana, the sort of thing that could possibly serve as a model for the nation at large:

Montana's new small-business program... will provide direct financial assistance for health care insurance premiums to offset the high insurance costs facing smaller businesses and the large number of low-wage workers in smaller firms. The assistance will be targeted at very small businesses (under 10 employees) and will be more generous for low to moderate-income employees.

These businesses will be able to purchase the coverage through a purchasing pool that can negotiate a lower price with insurance companies, a proposal advanced by Governor Brian Schweitzer. Insurance companies may be willing to offer a lower price because the premium assistance will make coverage affordable to most employees, and in turn, will help solve one big problem in today's small group insurance market: the tendency of small businesses to buy insurance when they have workers who are sicker and need the coverage. Insurance companies charge extra when they are likely to enroll sicker workers....

In Montana's purchasing pool, employees and dependents who are eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program will be automatically enrolled as part of their job-based coverage in order to maximize federally matched funding.

Finally, Montana will offer a tax credit to small businesses who currently provide coverage but who are struggling to afford it. This tax credit will send those businesses an important message to keep up the good work.

Now I have doubts that some of these proposals will work, especially that purchasing pool. (Studies have shown that similar programs, known as Association Health Plans, either have a very small impact on covering the uninsured or, paradoxically, increase the number of uninsured. Read this for the gory details.) Nevertheless, this is precisely the sort of thing that should be tried out on a state level, to see what works and what doesn't, so that when this current batch of Republicans get kicked out of office and we can finally get serious about health care reform, we have some models to examine. Another "laboratory of health care" to watch will be Gov. Christina Gregoire's proposal in Washington to restrain costs by eliminating waste. Again, I'm skeptical that in practice you can really eke that many health savings out of "information technology," but why not give it a shot?

New at Mother Jones

| Thu May 5, 2005 3:30 PM EDT

Zero Tolerance: Is the Bush administration's abolitionist approach to sex trafficking doing more harm than good? By Lisa Katayama.

Do Something... But what?: The new AU deployment won't stop the genocide in Darfur. But what other options are there? By Bradford Plumer

Fiduciary Shmiduciary

| Thu May 5, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

We all know that the Bush administration continues to waste millions in taxpayer dollars pimping a Social Security phase-out scheme that no one even wants. Worse, his Bamboozlepalooza tour is anti-efficient: the more people hear, the less they like. So what's a poor president to do? Easy. Whine about all the money your opponents are spending:

The Bush administration has warned the nation's biggest labor federation that union-run pension funds may be breaking the law in opposing President Bush's Social Security proposals.

In a letter on Tuesday to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Department of Labor said it was "very concerned" that pension plans might be spending workers' money to "advocate a particular result in the current Social Security debate."

Blah, blah. This is all very silly. But there's a more important point here that Nathan Newman touches on. Why shouldn't pension money be used for this sort of thing? After all, the fate of labor density here in America rests, to some extent, on whether or not Bush's anti-worker agenda can be stopped in its tracks. Under most current rules, pension managers are supposed to adhere to certain fiduciary standards in which they're only supposed to maximize returns on their investments. Conservatives cry foul whenever they hear about some pension manager doing "activist" investing of some sort or other. (See William Greider's article here for more on this growing practice, and the rationale behind it.) And yet taking action to oppose the Bush administration really is yet another way to maximize those returns—perhaps the best way.