In his new book And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Bill Wasik talks to John Harris and Jim VandeHei, founders of Politico, about the kinds of stories they want to cover:

VandeHei mentioned the classic pseudo-event: a presidential press conference. At major newspapers like the Post, he said, "you feel this sense of obligation to lead your newspaper the next day with a story about what Bush said at the press conference, even if he didn't say anything that was all that revelatory, and despite the fact that it's pretty damn stale: most news consumers have not only consumed it, they've digested it and moved on."

He contrasted this with a recent Politico story that, he noted, the Post did not touch, that "ten years ago would have been confined to the inside pages of Roll Call": the revelation that Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D., Calif.) had quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and alleged that its chairman, Rep. Joe Baca (D., Calif.), had called her a "whore."

This story, VandeHei said, was "a perfect example of how media has changed. We put it upfront early on the webpage. Instantly it's linked to by Drudge and all the other blogs; Fox News is doing a story based on it; MSNBC is doing a story based on it; and then the next day, on the Colbert Report, he does twenty minutes on 'whore.' So you have just, from this perch, been able to reach significantly more people than I would have reached even at the Washington Post." The challenge for The Politico, he said, is "figuring out how to put things into that pipeline."

Well, good for Politico.  But what happens when everyone decides to quit covering the "boring" stuff and just follow the Politico model instead?  Is this really a world any of us want to live in?

But I guess what's most remarkable about this isn't that Politico was the first to popularize political gossip.  I suppose someone was bound to do it eventually.  It's the fact that VandeHei sees their primary task as "putting things into that pipeline."  Not just reporting and winning a reputation, even if it's only for gossip, but feeding the outrage machine.  Only if a story has done that do they consider it a success.  What a sad career choice for a couple of highly regarded journalists to have made.

Remember, for that brief period of time, when the Treasury Department's $700 billion "Troubled Asset Relief Program" was meant to buy up banks' actual troubled assets? You know, those groups of toxic mortgages packaged into securities, or even whole toxic mortgages themselves? (Toxic, that is, because it's doubtful these loans will ever be paid back in full or at all.) Removing those toxic assets, we were told, would bolster banks' balance sheets and free them up to lend more to businesses and consumers and get the economy back on its feet. Yet not long after, the Treasury Dept., led by then-Secretary Hank Paulson, Jr., decided instead to use TARP money to invest directly in crippled institutions. Evidently Paulson hoped this cash infusion would pad their capital reserves, let banks write down losses from these assets, and help them resume lending even with toxic assets still on their books.

The question that has since lingered over the TARP, then, has been this: What happened to those toxic assets? And how are the banks and the government dealing with them now? That's what the Congressional Oversight Panel, one of the leading watchdogs led by Harvard Law Prof. Elizabeth Warren, set out to answer with its August report, released yesterday—along with how financial institutions intend to deal with these assets left on their books going forward.

Today, the families of three hikers who've been detained by Iran since July 31st—including Mother Jones contributor Shane Bauer (whose piece we just posted today), Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal—have made a statement:
 

“It is now twelve days since our children were detained in Iran, when they strayed across the border while on a brief hiking vacation in Iraqi Kurdistan.  As loving parents, nothing causes us more heartache than not knowing how our children are, and not being able to talk to them and learn when we will hold them in our arms again.  Shane, Sarah and Josh are young travelers who share a great love of the world and a deep respect for different cultures, societies and religions. We believe that when the Iranian authorities speak to our children, they will realize that Shane, Sarah and Josh had no intention of entering Iran and will allow them to leave the country and reunite with their families.  We continue to hope that this misunderstanding will be resolved as quickly as possible.”
 
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley. 
 
Bauer has been living in Damascus, Syria since the Fall of 2008 and is a student of Arabic.  He is a freelance journalist and photographer who has written from the Middle East.  He has never reported from Iran.
 
Shourd lives with Bauer in Damascus, where she teaches English and had been studying for the Graduate Record Examination in preparation for graduate school.  She has written occasional travel pieces from the region.
 
Fattal is an environmentalist who worked at the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon, which teaches sustainable living skills.  Fattal had a Teaching Fellowship with the International Honors Program’s “Health and Community” study abroad program in the spring semester of 2009. Fattal was visiting Bauer and Shourd in Damascus prior to their hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan.
 
For media inquiries please contact: familiesofhikers@gmail.com
 

We'll keep you posted as to the status of Shane, Sarah, and Josh. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein are Co-Editors of Mother Jones. You can follow Clara on Twitter here and Monika here.

Trojan Horses

Alex Massie writes about Britain's much-loved-much-loathed NHS:

There are, I think, two essential truths in international health policy. No-one sees fit to copy the National Health Service and no-one sees fit to copy the American system.... The relevance of the NHS to American health care plans seems pretty limited anyway since, as best I can tell (though I try not to pay too much attention to these things) Obama doesn't actually plan on copying the NHS.

That last sentence really is correct, by the way.  It's true that some things aren't entirely what they seem: they're Trojan horses for something else, or maybe the camel's nose under the tent that will eventually lead to more fundamental reforms.  Both sides do this on occasion.  I, for example, happen to think that community rating (along with the cloud of regulations that accompany it) will eventually put private insurance companies out of business — or, at a minimum, turn them into little more than semi-public utilities.  I don't know how many other people agree about that, but you could certainly accuse me of pushing for community rating not just because I like it as a policy, but because I think it will eventually lead to more systematic reform of the healthcare industry.

But with the exception of a few outliers, the liberal community really, truly doesn't want a fully government owned and operated healthcare system like the NHS.  We want a government-funded healthcare system like Medicare or most of the world outside of Britain.  And unless I'm mistaken, this isn't a ruse in any way.  That's really what most of us want: basic care funded by taxes, with additional care available to anyone who wants to pay for more.  France and Holland, not Britain or Canada.

Changing Healthcare

A reader emails to say he just came back from a town hall meeting in his district and came away wondering if Obama might have bitten off more than he could chew:

It occurred to me that one of the things that helps the opponents of health reform is the complexity of the issue — big omnibus bills give opponents all sorts of opportunity to deceive. Moreover, there's a tipping point with big bills: if you try to get everybody on board by giving everyone something they want in exchange for something they don't want, you can sometime get a big program passed. But if the various interests decide they're better off without the bill, then the enemies just accumulate.

Under the circumstances, sometimes it's better just to try and eat the elephant one bite at a time — a series of bill over the first term that would whittle things down to size:

An initial bill would provide for community rating and pre-existing condition protections. This bill would have the opposition of the insurance industry, but everyone else would be for it.

After you get that done — individual mandate, small business coverage requirements, assistance to those with lower incomes for purchase. Small business would be against this part, but all those insurance lobbyists would be on board.

This is a defensible position, but I think it's also an example of a "grass is greener" approach to political process that's much too common.  Basically, whenever something is in trouble, people start to think that it would have worked if only we'd approached it in just the opposite way.

So Clintoncare failed because it was written in the White House and dumped in Congress's lap.  Won't make that mistake again!  Opponents are vilifying cherry-picked provisions of the House bill?  A watered-down bipartisan compromise would have had a better chance.  A big omnibus measure is in trouble?  We should have broken it into pieces.

Maybe so.  But I think this overrates process.  The opposition is always going to oppose, and they're going to find a way to oppose effectively no matter what you do.  If the White House creates a bill, it was "written in secret."  If Congress does it, it's a pork-filled monstrosity.  Write a liberal bill and you'll lose centrist Republican support; write a compromise bill and you'll lose Democratic support.  Write a big bill and it's confusing; write a bunch of little bills and you expend all your political capital on trivia and never get anything done.

Good presidents understand process and use it to their advantage.  But one way or another, you have to have the votes.  And one way or another, healthcare won't really be reformed unless, eventually, we pass something big.  We've been passing piecemeal legislation for a long time, and it just hasn't added up to much.  So every 20 years or so we need to take another crack at serious reform, and every 20 years or so we're going to learn the same lesson: if the public is on our side, we'll be able to pass something.  If we can't get them on our side, we won't.

For my money, the current bills wending their way through Congress are about as small as you can get and still call them serious healthcare reform.  If we can't pass some version of what's on the table now, there's really no reason to think that Obama has the political capital to pass it little bits at a time as his popularity inevitably wanes throughout his term.  It's now or never.

What Obama Is Reading

Via Rachel, Samuel Jacobs rounds up Barack Obama's post-campaign reading list here.  Usually when things like this pop up, I've read none or, at most, one of the books on the list, but I've read four on Obama's list (Eggers, Alter, Coll, and Goodwin) — and I know Friedman well enough to feel like I've read his latest book even though I haven't.  That practically makes us soulmates, literarily speaking.

Ravitch on Charters

Educational historian Diane Ravitch has had doubts about the charter school movement for a while, but lately the evidence appears to have turned her firmly against the idea.  In the Los Angeles Times today, she warns the LAUSD to think twice before allowing new schools to be run by private companies:

Because of a brilliant media campaign by charter school organizations, there is a widespread impression that any charter school is better than any public school. This is not true....A recent Stanford University study, which compared half the nation's charter schools with a neighboring public school, concluded that 46% were no better, 37% were significantly worse and only 17% were significantly better than the public school.

....The L.A. proposal for the 50 new schools has been likened to New York City's approach. But Los Angeles should be aware of two points. First, under N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spending on education has increased from $12.5 billion annually to $21 billion, or nearly $20,000 per child. Is L.A. willing to match that?

Second, New York City's new high schools started small and were allowed to limit the admission of special-education students and students with limited English proficiency for the first two years. The remaining high schools were left with a disproportionate share of the neediest students. A study this year of the new schools found that, over time, when their enrollment became similar to traditional public schools, their attendance rates and graduation rates declined.

Needless to say, the LAUSD is in a tough spot.  The research evidence on charters hasn't been very favorable lately, but then, it's not as if LAUSD's public schools are burning up the academic track either.  And no, a 50% increase in the education budget isn't in the offing either way.

I've been modestly favorable towards charter schools for a while, and I still think they're worth trying.  It might take more than a few years to get the formula right, after all, and most of the research suggests only that charters don't outperform public schools, not that they're actively worse.  (The Stanford study showed mixed results, with better results for charters in grade school and middle school but worse results in high school.)  Still, time is running out.  If charters can't start demonstrating systematically better results soon, the experiment is going to run aground.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias responds:

On average the charters are about the same as public schools, but there’s a range of outcomes within the charter sector. We need to get more aggressive about shutting down the low-performing charters, more aggressive about allowing successful charters to expand or replicate, and committed to always permitting space for people to try something new.

....There’s no “charter magic” that makes schools good, but the greater openness and flexibility of the charter sector lets us experiment and discover which things work. What we need to do is take that to step two where we act on the basis of that knowledge.

I agree entirely.  But we need to find out if step two is feasible in practical and political terms, and then we need to start the pruning to see if the good charters stay good once they start growing.  And it needs to happen soon.  If it doesn't, public support for the charter experiment simply won't stay strong enough to beat off its entrenched opposition.

A very cool map from social networking gurus How We Know Us that plots the connections of congressional staffers turned health care lobbyists (click through this link to see a larger version.)

 

 

On the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock, a new book—Peter Fornatale’s Back to the Garden—has a great description of the horror with which New York Times’ editors regarded the whole affair:

[T]he real fun began on Monday, August 18, when the Times printed an editorial with the headline "Nightmare in the Catskills," which read in part: "The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation that paralyzed Sullivan County for a whole weekend. What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"

Next up in our series on clever ways to reuse or use up household items: pantyhose. I'll admit it's been a hot minute since I donned this frustratingly delicate garment, but then again Mother Jones HQ isn't exactly a formal business attire kind of place. For those of you in offices where jeans and a sweatshirt won't cut it, I give you, courtesy of AltUse.com, five things to do with old pantyhose:

1. Doggie toy: Braid several pairs of hose together to create a thick, woven, nylon rope that is strong, yet very soft on a dogs gums and teeth. They love to play tug of war and fetch with it. Also it's lightweight and can't damage anything.

2. Grow melons: Use pantyhose in the garden to fashion protective sleeves to keep the melons suspended above the ground and away from damp soil where they may rot.

3. Wax skis: After hot waxing and scraping ski bases, rub the bases with pantyhose to create friction for a smooth and glossy finish.

4. Lost things finder: Lost something under the couch? Place pantyhose over the end of your vacuum. The item will be not be sucked past the end of the nozzle covered by the pantyhose.

5. Keep onions fresh: eHow recommends:

Take a washed pair of used or new pantyhose and place the onions into the feet. Tie a knot in the pantyhose above each whole onion. Repeat this process until both legs are full or you have inserted all the onions. Hang the pantyhose in a cool, dry, and dark place, such as a pantry, closet, or cellar.