2012 - %3, October

Pass the Cheetos, Kal-El: Superman Becomes a Blogger

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 4:35 PM EDT

A confesson: I'm basically a Superman stan, since I was a child, and when I started working as a journalist, I'd joke to people that as a kid I had always wanted to be Superman, but now that I was grown up I wanted to be more like Clark Kent. 

As someone who came to professional journalism through blogging, I was excited to see that DC Comics, as part of its reboot of the DC universe, is recasting Clark Kent as a disillusioned reporter who quits the Daily Planet to become a blogger after becoming disgusted with a corporate takeover of the Metropolis Daily Planet. DC has increasingly incorporated elements of print journalism's decline into its products (in the animated feature Justice League: Doom, Superman literally tries to talk an aging laid off reporter out of throwing himself off the roof of the Daily Planet), but I didn't expect DC to take the story this far. According to a USA Today interview with writer Scott Lobdell, Superman leaves to start "the next Huffington Post or Drudge Report."

"I don't think he's going to be filling out an application anywhere," the writer says. "He is more likely to start the next Huffington Post or the next Drudge Report than he is to go find someone else to get assignments or draw a paycheck from."

Drudge and Huffington Post are actually very different entities. The former is today a right-wing aggregator whose primary objective is shaping the coverage of national news outlets, while the latter aggregates but also runs an extensive news-gathering operation whose reporters regularly scoop their more august rivals. There was a time when mainstream media referred to blogs derisively. But now that the medium is professionalized most understand that blogging is form, not content, and that good reporting is good reporting whether it's done by a website or by a nightly news broadcast. The "upstart" veneer to news blogging is largely gone—it's now something professional writers are simply expected to know how to do.

How well Superman's writers understand that will determine the longevity and effectiveness of this latest change. For it to be something more than a timestamped gimmick, Clark Kent's motivations for being a reporter have to stay essentially the same: Journalism in the public interest is just another way that Superman tries to save the world. 

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Friday Cat Blogging - 26 October 2012

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 2:49 PM EDT

This morning Domino was basking in the sunshine playing with her new catnip mouse. (It's the bright blob on top of her paws.) This afternoon will be a little more stressful, featuring another trip to the vet. Hopefully the news won't be too bad.

If you need an additional cat fix, check out this LA Times profile of the guy behind the Henrí videos. I didn't know this, but it turns out Henry is his neighbor's cat. He himself lives alone. It takes all kinds, I guess.

2012 Most Racialized Election in Past Two Decades

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 1:36 PM EDT

John Sununu, the surrogate the Romney campaign uses to promote crazy uncle memes they can't afford to be associated with themselves, told Piers Morgan yesterday that Colin Powell was endorsing Barack Obama mainly because, hey, Powell's a black guy and endorsing Obama is the kind of thing you do in order to stand with "somebody of your own race." Atrios:

What's "amazing" (horrifying) is that while old white dudes like Sununu instantly jump to the idea that the main thing which drives African-American voting habits (congratulations, Senator Steele) is racial solidarity, but would freak if you suggested white people are more likely to vote for white people.

Funny he should mention that. The Washington Post reports today that this year's election is the most thoroughly racialized in the past 20 years:

The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago.

....Nearly half of all of those who supported Obama in 2008 but now say they back Romney are white independents. Overall, whites make up more than 90 percent of such vote “switchers.” Romney’s advantage here comes even as 48 percent of white voters in the tracking data released Monday said Romney, as president, would do more to favor the wealthy....Most whites, with and without college educations, saw Obama as doing more to favor those in the middle, not the wealthy.

Do you think John Sununu was unaware of this when he made that comment? If you answer yes, please contact me immediately. I've come across an exciting opportunity to help a Nigerian widow collect her inheritance and I think you might be able to help.

BLAME THE UNITED NATIONS FOR ALL CAPS WEATHER SERVICE BULLETINS

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 12:40 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias is unhappy that the National Weather Service continues to issue its bulletins in all caps, as if they were still using an old-style teletype. I direct his attention to this survey from 2006:

NWS Customer Survey for Official and Experimental Products/Services

Name of Product/Service: Use of mixed case and extended character sets in NWS text products

1. On a scale of 0 to 10 (10 highest), rate technical quality of this product/service (e.g., forecast accuracy, timeliness, problems with display). Etc.

And to this notice from two years ago:

BEGINNING MAY 28 AND CONTINUING THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15 2010...

NWS IS SEEKING USER FEEDBACK ON THE PROPOSAL TO CHANGE ALL NWS TEXT PRODUCTS TO INCLUDE UPPER AND LOWER CASE ALPHABETIC CHARACTERS RATHER THAN ALL UPPERCASE AS IS PRESENTLY DONE. ADDITIONAL PUNCTUATION AND OTHER CHARACTERS THAT ARE PART OF THE INTERNATIONAL REFERENCE ALPHABET NO. 5 WOULD ALSO BE PERMITTED.

And finally to this 60-page document from November, 2010:

2.1 Characters, Case, and Punctuation for Narrative Text. Narrative text uses upper case and only the following punctuation marks in the text: the period (.); the three dot ellipsis (...); the forward slash (/); the dash (-); and the plus (+). Use of other characters may inhibit the proper dissemination or automated processing by certain users’ systems.

The goal of the NWS is to move to mixed case letters with additional allowed punctuation in its text products, while maintaining current text rules in products that are under the purview of the [World Meteorological Organization] requirements listed in the document above or that are required under international or national agreements. Until such changes are officially announced via Public Information Statements, offices will abide by the rules in the paragraph above and in the following sections of this document.

In other words, NWS is on it!  But apparently international conventions are slowing things down. However, last year, a few select NWS offices began using mixed case, and NWS apparently offers a "non-operational product" nationally that also uses mixed case. What's more, they want your feedback, since this will "help the NWS better plan the eventual transition of all NWS text products to mixed case and the expanded character set." I have helpfully retyped this public information statement since it was, of course, originally issued in all caps.

The US Economy Is Kind of Meh

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 12:02 PM EDT

A couple of years ago, wonky bloggers started really digging into new releases of economic data. When GDP numbers were released, you could find a dozen posts diving deep into the weeds and explaining why the numbers did or didn't really matter: defense spending was artificially up, inventory gains were wacky, the timber industry had an unusually good quarter, etc. etc.

Then that got tiresome, as everyone realized that there are details like that every quarter. Most of the time, the headline number is pretty much the best indication we have of how the economy is doing.

Now we've entered a third phase, in which the fashionable thing is to discount even the headline number because it's just going to get revised next quarter anyway. So who knows?

I have a feeling that people who are new to economic analysis go through these phases routinely, while the wise old hands nod along and wait for them to pass. Now a new generation has done this, and a few years from now we'll all be nodding along with a smile when a fresh batch of kids comes along and discovers that GDP reports and employment reports come with loads of detail to analyze and are always revised once or twice before they settle down.

In the meantime, GDP grew 2% last quarter. That's not terrible, but not great. We need to do considerably better if we want to get unemployment down to acceptable levels. And like it or not, that's about as much as we know: the economy isn't terrible and isn't great. It would be nice to know more, but we don't.

Obama's Ground Game Advantage May Not Be As Big As It Looks

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

The chart below has been making the rounds over the past couple of days. It shows how many field offices each campaign has in the top ten swing states, and it's pretty stunning. Obama has twice as many offices as Romney in Virginia. Twice as many in Florida. Three times as many in Iowa. And more than three times as many in Ohio.

What's going on? Our working assumption should be twofold: (a) the Romney campaign has plenty of money, and (b) they aren't idiots. So what's the deal? I've been meaning to mention something about this, but today Seth Masket does it for me. He makes three suggestions, and I suspect the third one is probably correct:

He's counting on field organizational efforts from the parties, church organizations, and other allied groups to do the same sort of things that the Obama offices are doing.

There's been a disconnect in the ground games of the major parties for some time. Democrats tend to rely on paid, professional operations, while Republicans rely more on volunteer efforts, largely from evangelical churches. This is something that actually works in the Republicans' favor, since volunteer efforts from friends and neighbors tend to be more effective at switching votes than professional phone banks. (Also cheaper.) On the other hand, the professional organizations are often more thorough, and are better at the actual logistics of getting people to the polls.

In any case, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what's happening here. This is just a difference in the way the parties handle elections these days, not necessarily an indication that the Obama organization is kicking Romney's ass.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 26, 2012

Fri Oct. 26, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

Cpl. Frank P. Wippel, a rifleman with 1st platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, scans the surrounding area for enemy during Exercise Croix du Sud at Camp la Broche, New Caledonia, Oct. 13. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Erik Brooks.

What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 7:03 AM EDT

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose "jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea." The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls "blue zones"—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island's demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can't explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people "with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria," but "live no longer than average Greeks." So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians' good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We've learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.

Romney-Ryan's Real Poverty Plan: Soak the Poor

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

So what would Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan do for the poor and the working class if they were elected? Let's recap:

  • They would allow the payroll tax holiday to expire. This would immediately raise taxes on everyone, and would hit the working poor especially hard.
  • They would repeal Obamacare, which would immediately kick about 17 million low-income earners and their family members off of Medicaid.
  • In addition, they want to block grant Medicaid and cap its growth. In some states, this wouldn't have a big immediate impact. In other states, conservative governors and legislatures would use their newfound authority to limit enrollments and cut benefits substantially. Over time, all states would have to cut enrollments dramatically, probably by another 15-20 million within a decade.
  • If they pursue the cuts outlined in Paul Ryan's budget plan, they would cut funding for SNAP (food stamps) by more than $100 billion over the next decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that this would reduce enrollment in the program by at least 8 million people.
  • They would cut funding for Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health organizations. This would especially hurt poor women, since they don't have the resources to pay for services at full-cost clinics.
  • They would cut the college tax credit, the child tax credit, and the earned-income tax credit. All of these are programs designed to help the working poor.

This is a short post. Sometimes it's better to lay out the facts simply and starkly, because Romney's priorities really are pretty stark: He wants to cut taxes on the rich and cut spending on the poor. That's Romney's real poverty plan.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

The Money shot

 

quote of the week

"What is especially striking is that the ads are concentrated on fewer markets than 2008, meaning that a smaller number of Americans have witnessed the onslaught of messages in the race for the White House." —Erika Franklin Fowler, codirector of the Wesleyan Media Project. Since June 1, 915,000 election ads have run, compared with 637,000 during the same period in 2008. The WMP has visualized its findings in a series of charts like the one below. See the rest here.

 

attack ad of the week

Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS dark-money nonprofit has doled out $4.2 million on an ad buy in Ohio and Wisconsin, its first with a direct appeal to "please vote Mitt Romney for President." Crossroads claims tax-exempt status as a "social welfare" group, which can not make political activity its primary purpose. (Previous ads had only asked viewers to "tell President Obama" to do something.) "Nonprofit groups are allowed to undertake some political activity as part of their missions as long as it's not the central thing they do," Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio told NPR.

 

stat of the week

$60 million: The amount various groups spent this Tuesday on independent expenditures. Of that, $18 million—the biggest independent expenditure in Federal Election Commission history—came from the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. Rove's Crossroads network pitched in another $12 million, $8 million of it targeting Democratic Senate candidates in eight states. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was the third highest spender with $9 million.

 

chart of the week

This week, outside political spending by nonprofit groups that don't disclose their donors eclipsed $200 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's more than all previous election cycles combined and nearly double the amount spent in 2010. It's also probably far less than the actual total: Only ads explicitly supporting or opposing a candidate and issue ads that run within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election have to be reported to the FEC. Of the disclosed dark-money spending, $74.1 million has been spent against Obama, compared with just $5.1 million spent against Romney.

 

 

more mojo dark-money coverage

Sean Eldridge Wants to Curb the Influence of Big Donors—Like Himself: This young Democratic player is putting together a bipartisan effort to get big money out of politics. Of course, it's going to take a lot of cash.
23 Ballot Measures to Keep an Eye On: Pot legalization, gay-marriage bans, and more of 2012's most important state props and amendments (and the money behind them).
Inside the Dark-Money Group Fighting Reform in Montana and Beyond: The secretive American Tradition Partnership has ushered in a new era of "funny money with no legal constraints" in Big Sky Country. And it's just getting started.

 

more must-reads

• A look at how Obama or Romney might address—or ignore—Citizens United after the election. ProPublica
• Wal-mart heir rebels against conservative family's donations, donates to pro-Obama super-PAC. Washington Post
• Right-wing Christian nonprofits praise the Koch brothers at an Anchorage fundraiser. Truthout
• Super-PACs haven't been as dominant as some anticipated. NBC News