2010 - %3, May

Democrats Looking to Increase "Fan" Base

| Fri May 28, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

Democrats may have had a techie edge during the 2008 elections, but Republicans have recently eclipsed them in Congress by pushing members to embrace social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to engage with voters. As we reported yesterday, 64 percent of GOP House members are on Twitter, while only 20 percent of Dems are (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not among them). Suddenly realizing the tweet-gap, Democrats are trying to catch up. The Hill reported Friday that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is planning to launch a "Member Online All-Star Competition" to get more Democrats into the social media world.

The Democratic contest comes on the heels of a six-week Republican "social media challenge," during which House Republicans recruited thousands of new Twitter followers and Facebook fans. According to The Hill, to kick off the new contest, Hoyer's office held a seminar Friday inviting Democrats to "Learn why your office needs to create official accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Learn how to create accounts and basic strategies for using these sites. Learn specific strategies for becoming an All-Star in the upcoming competition."

The Hill also notes that Hoyer's office circulated an email citing this "timely" Mother Jones piece to highlight "the urgency in this area." Of course, Hoyer might not be the greatest advocate for new media use himself. I thought I'd send him some Twitter love as thanks for the plug, but as it turns out, Hoyer doesn't tweet.* No word yet on whether he attended his own seminar.

*Oops! Turns out that Hoyer has been tweeting since February and somehow I missed him in my search. You can read his tweets here. And, he's got 2,114 Facebook friends to boot.

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La. Congressman Breaks Down at Spill Hearing

| Fri May 28, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

Charles Melancon (D-La.) broke down at a House Energy and Commerce hearing on the Gulf spill Thursday as he discussed the "slow motion tragedy" affecting his home state, which comes, of course, after plenty of previous tragedy in the region. "Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened," he said. "Everything I know and love is at risk."

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Friday Cat Blogging - 28 May 2010

| Fri May 28, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

Domino hopped into the TV cabinet the other night and spent most of Jeopardy! staring out at us. The only way to save this moment for posterity was by using a flash, so that means today we get to see mild-mannered Domino rip off her mask and take to the blog as LaserCat, sworn foe of digital clocks and Blu-Ray players. Beware her powers. By the next day, however, she was back to being Domino, and Inkblot was willing to settle down next to her because it was nearly 5 o'clock and he didn't want to stray too far from the food bowl. Sure enough, his attentiveness paid off and food magically appeared. Assuming you consider a can of Fancy Feast to be magic. Which he does.

Have a nice three-day weekend everyone. But don't offer your pets anything in return for a job. That could spell trouble.

Dick Durbin Takes On the Debit Card Mafia

| Fri May 28, 2010 2:03 PM EDT

Sen. Dick Durbin successfully passed an amendment two weeks ago that would limit the outrageously high interchange fees that Visa and MasterCard charge merchants for debit card transactions. This was a big win that reins in some pretty indefensible industry practices, but Visa and MasterCard are (unsurprisingly) fighting back. How? Well, they can hardly expect to gain much sympathy for either themselves or the Wall Street giants whose profits might get trimmed by Durbin's amendment, so instead they're mounting a coordinated campaign that claims it's small credit unions who will suffer the most. This is despite the fact that Durbin's language specifically exempts banks with less than $10 billion in assets and specifically requires merchants to accept all cards in a particular network regardless of which bank issues them. If a small credit union charges a higher fee than Citibank, your local 7-11 would have to take their Visa debit cards anyway.

So small credit unions are pretty well covered. But that hasn't stopped Visa and MasterCard from taking to the parapets anyway. Via Annie Lowrey, though, it looks like Durbin is fighting back. Here's a letter he sent to the CEOs of Visa and MasterCard:

It appears that, in an effort to frighten small banks and credit unions into opposing the amendment, your companies are threatening to make changes to your small bank interchange fee rates and to your network operating rules. These changes, which are not in any way required by the amendment, are unnecessary and would disadvantage small card-issuing institutions.

I ask you each to state unequivocally that you are neither threatening nor planning to take steps that would purposefully disadvantage small institutions, should the amendment become law. Further, I warn you that if your companies coordinate with each other or collude with your largest member banks to make changes to your fees and rules, it would raise serious concerns that you are engaging in an unlawful restraint of trade.

Good for Durbin. I hope he follows through with this.

The Josh Wolf Saga, Take 2

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

In 2007, the young video blogger Josh Wolf earned the unfortunate distinction of being incarcerated longer than any journalist in modern times for refusing to release his sources. His 226-day stint in prison ignited questions about whether all bloggers deserve to be treated as journalists and who has the authority to draw the line. Wolf's refusal to give federal authorities a video of an anarchist street protest earned him the respect of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which in 2007 named him Journalist of the Year. He's currently a first-year student at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where, true to form, he was recently arrested in an incident that raises similarly prickly questions about press freedoms.

The New York Times' Bay Area blog reports that Wolf was arrested late last year inside Wheeler Hall, which had been occupied and barricaded by students protesting tuition hikes. The university plans to give him much more than a slap on the wrist:

Mr. Wolf now faces a seven-month academic suspension (and a 10-page essay assignment), a punishment similar to that of many other students arrested inside Wheeler. He argues that he was in the building as a member of the press. His footage, indeed, was later used in a report by Democracy Now!, for whom he had contributed previously.

Wolf, who might as well declare himself a press freedom superhero at this point, says that he was simply putting his duty as a journalist ahead of his student's duty to obey administrators. He claims to have the support of Berkeley's journalism faculty. But Robert Gunnison, the director of school affairs for the journalism school, told the Times that a journalist's status may be irrelevant in this instance:

Shield laws do not protect reporters when police issue dispersal orders, which is effectively the threat of a trespassing charge. "We don’t have special access to property; none of us do," Mr. Gunnison said. "In general, it’s what we teach. If someone says you're trespassing, there's nothing you can do."

Wolf has certainly happened upon another interesting grey area of press freedom, and I think there are compelling arguments on both sides. While the university probably has the legal right to suspend and punish Wolf, I'm personally inclined to side with his claim that Berkeley is being unduly punitive. Wolf was inside the building to document what was happening, not to participate in the student takeover. I'd draw the analogy with reporters covering illegal street protests or trying to document a battle between opposing armies. There comes a point when the university would be justified in punishing him for being there, and that point would probably be when cops barge inside and start handcuffing people. But by then there's nothing left to see, and he's presumably going leave on his own accord.

Perhaps I'm being too idealistic, but can't idealism catch a break at UC Berkeley?

 

 

The Gulf Disaster, in Perspective

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

How big is the Gulf spill? Over at Beowulfe.com, you can use Google mapping technology to see what it would look like over your town.

Andy Revkin talked to the site creator, Andy Lintner, about what inspired him to develop it. "I realized that if more people understood the actual scale of the spill, they would be angry too," said Lintner. "That anger is necessary to force the change we need to prevent this kind of thing happening again."

I mapped it over my current home in Washington, D.C., but it stretches almost all the way up to my hometown in southern New Jersey. The thought of a giant pool of oil stretching from the Capitol dome all the way to my family's farm is indeed shocking.

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Chart of the Day: Median Voters Unite!

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Has the Republican Party lost sight of its roots? Does it need to return to a purer version of conservatism in order to return to power? Alan Abramowitz takes a look at the recent evidence in Senate races and concludes just the opposite: the more conservative a Republican candidate is, the worse they perform:

The results in Figure 1 show that there was a fairly strong negative relationship between conservatism and electoral performance. The more conservative the voting record, the worse the performance of the incumbent. Republican senators with moderate voting records like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and John Chafee generally ran well ahead of the Republican presidential candidate in their state while those with very conservative voting records like John Ashcroft, James Inhofe and Jim Bunning frequently ran behind the Republican presidential candidate.

Italics mine. Abramowitz then goes on to rerun the data while controlling for things like the strength of the challenger, the national political climate, and the presence of any major scandals or controversies involving the incumbent. The results are the same: "For every additional one point increase in conservatism, Republican incumbents lost an additional three percentage points in support relative to their party's presidential candidate."

For the time being, none of this matters. Parties that suffer stunning losses — the Democrats in 1980, for example, or Britain's Labor Party in 1979 — frequently decide that they need to double down and return to the true faith. After losing a few more elections they finally move to the center and start winning again. I imagine the same will happen to Republicans. They're sure to win seats in this year's midterm, which will confirm them in their view that hardcore conservatism is what America wants, and they'll have to lose badly again in 2012 to finally convince themselves otherwise. By 2016 they might be ready for prime time again.

The Military's Problem Isn't Gays

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, with its parades and programs honoring service to country, it's worth asking: What, precisely, do the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force still have to work out before deciding whether gays and lesbians can serve in their ranks? As a vet and ex-contractor, I know firsthand that the implementation of any new defense policy, from rules of engagement to Facebook usage guidelines, is hard and takes time. But implementation is different from deliberation—and where "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is concerned, the service chiefs seem intent on doing the latter, not the former. "We must make logical and pragmatic decisions about the long-term policies of our armed forces," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex-sailor who opposes repailing DADT. Each service's top uniformed officer gave McCain a similar letter, advocating what Conway called an "organized and systematic approach" to studying the issue.

While he's at it, perhaps Conway could study what's wrong with the Corps' new crop of officer trainees. Thirteen newly minted lieutenants are being discharged from the service after instructors at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, learned they'd cheated to pass a land navigation exam. There are a few things all Marines need to be good at: physical training, shooting, and not getting lost. Yet at least one of the cheaters told investigators he didn't see the point of the land-nav exercise in the age of GPS. "While proficiency with a Lensatic compass is important, their moral compass is of utmost importance to our Corps," Col. George W. Smith JR., the school's skipper, told Navy Times. "Their moral compass must unerringly point to do the right thing at all times. Without that, in my strongest opinion, they don't have the foundation to continue to serve as Marine leaders."

Col. Smith is right: The moral compass matters. And if the service chiefs are really serious about spending the next half a year deliberating whether homosexuals pose a threat to military reputations and readiness, their moral compasses are demagnetized. The armed services are facing a crisis of honor, courage, and commitment: a wartime record of graft, sexual assault, and dishonesty in the ranks, committed by (presumably) straight service members. A daily scan of Stars & Stripes or Military Times proves gays can't commit an offense that a dysfunctional military bureaucracy isn't already doing to itself. Here are but a few stories of note this week:

The Gulf of Oil from Space in 35 Days

| Fri May 28, 2010 11:38 AM EDT

NASA has compiled a 35-day timelapse series of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The images are from its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flies aboard the Aqua and Terra satellites. Both satellites are part of the international Earth Observing System and both orbit the globe from pole to pole, observing most of the planet every day. These images are of oil at the surface only.

 

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GOP Takes Over the Tubes

| Fri May 28, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

Back in the early aughts, liberals took an early lead in the blogosphere and never looked back. Conservatives were apparently too stodgy, too top-down oriented to make effective use of online technology. But Stephanie Mencimer reports that now the worm has turned:

When it comes to employing Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social-media sites, Republicans are whipping their opponents across the aisle, creating a growing tech gulf that threatens important implications for the 2010 mid-term elections.

Boehner, for instance, has 42,967 Twitter followers. And Pelosi? Well, she can’t have any followers, because she doesn’t tweet. Patrick Bell, the director of new media for House Republican Conference vice chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, keeps close tabs on what the Dems are up to. He says that as of January 2010, only 34 percent of Democratic House members were on Facebook and only 20 percent had hit Twitter. Meanwhile, since January 2009, the percentage of House Republicans using Facebook has jumped from 37 percent to 79 percent (as of early April). Sixty-four percent of these GOPers are on Twitter, compared with 28 percent in January last year. And 89 percent now have a YouTube channel, compared with 56 percent last year.

....[An] initiative to get more members virtually engaged appears to have succeeded wildly. In April, Rodgers launched a six-week contest organized like a "March Madness" ladder that was designed to nudge members of Congress into the Twittersphere. It seems to have succeeded wildly. This "new media challenge" is about to come to an end this week, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) duke it out for championship title as the House member with the most increased social media use. (The winner will be announced after the Memorial Day break — on Twitter, naturally.)

I'm going to take a guess here: online technology is fundamentally more attractive for insurgents than it is for the party in power. Partly this is because the party in power already has lots of other tools available for fundraising and communications. Partly it's because the party in power is more invested in leadership keeping control of its message. Partly it's because the party in power is just flat out busier with the actual work of governing. And partly it's because online chatter is riskier: if you're tweeting all day long you're bound to screw up sometime and say something stupid. That's more dangerous for the party in power than it is for the party out of power.

The political internet, at least in its current incarnation, is fundamentally crowd-based. Anyone can jump in, nobody's in control, and it's an ideal medium for people who are pissed off at the establishment (including their own establishment) and are looking for a way to break through. In other words: people who are out of power. In the early Bush era, this was liberals, and the blogosphere was the cutting edge of online activism. So liberals took over the blogosphere and made it into a liberal duck pond. Today it's conservatives, and social media is the cutting edge of online activism. So it's not surprising that conservatives are doing the same. Nancy Pelosi probably figures she has better things to do.

That's my guess, anyway. For what it's worth, though, I don't expect this state of affairs to last much longer. The internet is very quickly outgrowing its adolescence, and before long it's not going to be any more friendly to insurgents than 30-second radio spots or mass fundraising appeals. Enjoy it while you can.