Saturday, December 19, 2015

New York Times gets it wrong -- with repercussions

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, whose job is to monitor and explain faults in the Times' journalistic integrity and accuracy in reporting.    Yesterday, she published an extensive expose and correction of their reporting mistake that should not have happened.

Last Sunday, a Times article reported that "the U.S. government had missed something that was right out there in the open: the jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. Its initial paragraphs read as follows:

"Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.  She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it."

Ms. Sullivan continued:

"It was certainly damning – and it was wrong. On Wednesday, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey [stated that] , Ms. Malik had not posted 'openly' on social media. She had written emails; she had written private messages, not visible to the public; and she had written on a dating site.

"In other words, the story’s clear implication that those who vetted Ms. Malik’s visa had missed the boat . . . was based on a false premise."
She goes on to explain that the error was the result of relying on "anonymous sources" that were wrong.  Unfortunately, "such falsehoods and their repercussions live on long after the stories have been corrected or disputed."    Further harm is done, as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote, because the story "set fire to the news system.   All sorts of follow-up reports surfaced.  And straight into the political arena it went. . . .  Ted Cruz was using it to bash Democrats."

These were the same two reporters who falsely claimed, again using "anonymous sources," that Hillary Clinton was about to undergo a criminal investigation by the Justice Department because of her email server problem.   That was not true. 

Ms. Sullivan then described the steps being taken by the Times to ensure that this respected "newspaper of record" was taking to avoid future mistakes like this.  The editor who had checked the article admitted that it "was a really big mistake" and that they should have pushed harder for confirmation before publishing it.

The Times will be putting a new system in place that reduces such overreliance on anonymous sources.   All of their editors agreed that the process needs to be slowed down.   The competitive pressure to be the first to publish a story can lead to cutting corners on confirmation and fact-checking.

For anyone interested in the reporting process and in journalistic integrity, as I am, I highly recommend the TV series that last for just two seasons, "Newsoom," starring Jeff Daniels as a television news anchor.    It's a fascinating look behind the scenes in the (fictionalized) world of broadcast journalism, where integrity is often pitted against being first with a breaking story.    Some of the episodes are about just this:   waiting to air the story until they have three reliable sources -- and often having to withstand the pressure from the station owner, whose concern about ratings does battles with the idealistic news team who would rather be right than first.

The New York Times has long been considered the best.   I applaud them for having a Public tEditor exposing their own mistakes instead of trying to cover them up.   At the same time, it seems that the Times has been slipping up more frequently lately.   I hope this one will be a lesson.

It was an important story, and this mistake and its repercussions probably contributed to an increase in fear and anti-Muslim feeling in this country.   There's enough already, and the Republican candidates are just making it worse.   We don't need our best liberal newspaper piling on.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Just deserts for pharmaceutical price gouger

In this photo, Martin Shkreli, chief executive officer of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, exits federal court in New York on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.   (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Martin Shkreli is probably one of the most despised men in recent news, other than terrorists or politicians named Trump and Cruz.    The BBC once referred to him as "the most hated man in America."

He is the former hedge fund manager who bought out a pharmaceutical company and promply increased the price of a life-saving drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $700.00 per tablet -- an increase of 5000%.   The drug is used to treat the parasitic infection, toxoplasmosis, which is especially dangerous for HIV/AIDs and cancer patients.  

He further established his pariah status by controversial and taunting remarks on social media -- and by first promising that he would lower the price by 10%, and then not doing so.   But also claiming on Twitter:  "I like to stir the pot, but I would never, ever price a drug beyond a sick person's reach."  He then defended his move as simply "trying to create a profitable drug company." 

The fact is that the drug has been available for 62 years, there are no patent protections in effect nor any research costs to recoup, and independent chemists have said it is a very cheap compound to make.   Perhaps it was his hedge fund debts Shkreli was trying to recoup. 

Ironically, it was not for drug price gouging that he has been indicted.   The charges against him have to do with his hedge fund management, which the U.S. attorney said he "essentially ran . . . like a Ponzi scheme, where he used each subsequent company to pay off defrauded investors in the prior company."   He was charged with securities fraud and wire fraud conspiracy, which can carry a jail sentence of up to 20 years.  Bail was set at $5 million.

Perhaps we should pass a law that forbids Ponzi schemers from buying pharmaceutical companies.    Bailing out hedge fund fraudsters by gouging sick people does not seem like the American way to do things.


The online Grammarist explains the phrase "just deserts" thus:  The expression meaning that which is deserved was originally just deserts. The phrase is the last refuge of an obsolete meaning of desert—namely, something that is deserved or merited. But because most modern English speakers are unfamiliar with that old sense of desert, the phrase is often understandably written just desserts.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Good news #16: Murder rate lowest in 50 years

Contrary to what most people think -- and what most news media focus on -- there is good news about the amount of aggression and violence in the United States.   As compiled by Ian Reifowitz on Daily Kos, here are some facts.

The U. S. gun murder rate is now lower than it has been in at least 50 years.   By some measures it is lower than any time in the past 100 years -- or maybe even ever.

The number of mass shootings, defined as one where four or more people died -- has remained steady for decades, despite the U.S. population having doubled.

A recent Gallup0 poll, however, found that 56% of Americans thought the gun crimes were up, 26% thought there were the same, and only 12% thought they have gone down.  The actual fact is that gun murder rate is half what it was 20 years ago.

Now whose fault is this level of misperception?

Ted Koppel on Trump and ISIS

Many of you remember Ted Koppel, the great broadcast journalist and interviewer/anchor for "Nightline" from 1980 until his retirement in 2005.   Now a senior news analyst for NPR, his recent book Lights Out:  A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath is bringing him back to prominence as he warns us how unprepared we are for a major cyberattack.

This week, Koppel was on "Meet the Press" and spoke with Chuck Todd about how Republican candidates, especially Donald Trump, are playing into the ISIS playbook.
"The irony is that they think they are being tough on ISIS . . . .  Donald Trump is in effect the recruiter in chief for ISIS. ISIS wants nothing more right now than to have the world divided into Judaeo Christian on one side and the Muslim world on the other. That is exactly what Trump is doing for them. I think it's time we started thinking about what ISIS wants and then not doing it."
Wise words from a seasoned world observer.  Attention must be paid.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Republican primary debate #5

Lots of tough talk about terrorists, ISIS, and how they would handle it.   Here are some impressions:

1.   Donald Trump was the big loser.   Even more than before, others stood up to him and, in his responding, he showed himself to be a buffoon and way out of his league.    Jeb Bush led the attack pretty effectively right off the bat.  Rand Paul later called Trump on trashing the Constitution with some of his proposals.   Trump even got booed by the crowd at one point.   His worst debate night, by far.   Yes, we know that his supporters stick with him, no matter what -- except perhaps when he looks weak.    Which he did tonight.    Down in the polls, finally . . . perhaps.

2.  Jeb Bush was the big surprise to me.    He seemed to have found his confidence -- and had his best debate performance, by far.    His best line (to Trump):  "Donald, you can't insult your way to the presidency."    Began to wear a bit with his continual trash-talk about Obama/Hillary Clinton.   But Christie did it even morso.   Ugh !

3.  In the anticipated dog-fight between Rubio and Cruz, I think Rubio clearly won.   Cruz did not do what he needed to do.   The surprise, to me, was that Cruz's vaunted debate skills didn't match Rubio's detailed responses.    Cruz's pandering to try to win billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson's support by praising Netanyahu was just so obvious as to be sickening.   (It was Adelson's own hotel in Las Vegas where the debate was held, and he has held off picking which candidate he intends to buy the presidency for until after tonight.)    And his absurd wandering from the question about national security to mention (yet again) his two little daughters by name and how it's President Obama's fault that the kids of LA had to miss a day from school because of a (prank) threat.    Ugh x2!

4.   I would Pick Rubio as the overall winner of the debate.    But that may be because merely the sound of Cruz's voice, or the image of his face, affect me like fingernails on blackboard.

5.  I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Rand Paul on foreign policy more than anyone else -- against regime change and trying to fix all the world's problems, some of which we caused by toppling dictators, which leads to chaos.   Pointing out that what some of the others were advocating would mean we would have to pull out of the Geneva Conventions of War.   However, his claque that cheered identically every time he said something began to sound like a recorded sound-track -- and therefore detracted.

6.  The main purpose of most of the candidates, most especially Chris Christie, seemed to be to scare the hell out of everyone about how unsafe we are -- and then promise that he would be the toughest guy of all to protect you.

7There were a lot of misstatements of fact, as usual.    Carly Fiorino did her usual head bobbing, staccato emphasis when she said how tough she would be, especially when she was misstating facts.   Emphasizing "finding solutions" instead of just "tough talk," she quoted Margaret Thatcher:  "If you want someone to talk about a problem, ask a man;  if you want someone to fix a problem, ask a woman."  It fell flat with the crowd.    Maybe some were too young to know who Margaret Thatcher was.

8.  Those I thought helped their standing:   Bush, Rubio, Paul.    Those who hurt their standing:   Trump (badly), Cruz probably stalled his recent momentum by not matching expectations.   The others probably didn't change anyone's mind about them.

That's enough. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Scalia's remarks offensive; his facts are wrong too.

Supreme Court Justice Ant­on­in Scalia raised questions in oral arguments on an affirmative action case at the Court last week that suggest a racist bias -- or at least ignorance of the facts.   He said that:  It does not benefit African-Americans to get them into "the University of Texas, where they do not do well, . . . as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school . . .  a slower-track school where they do well. . . ." (see ShrinkRap, 12/10 "Unfit").

Monday, December 14, 2015

An indictment of the media

Behind the big story of Donald Trump dominating the Republican primary is the attempted explanation by the main stream media.    The preferred story line goes something like this:   Yes, Donald Trump is a show business personality and a genius in getting media attention.  But he is also tapping into something that is real -- the anger and betrayal felt by so many Americans that nothing is working to their advantage, and they have lost all trust in government and social institutions, including the media.

That is all true, I believe.   What they leave out is that, while this core attitude is real for about one-third of the Republicans, it is amplified a thousand times over by the media itself.    First, the right wing talk radio and FoxNews TV drill lies and distortions into listeners all day long. convince them that they are not safe and that our elected leaders are incompetent.   Then, when they come out to rallies, the media focuses at great length on the fact that people believe these things -- and amplify it even further.    It's a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-feeding frenzy.

The bottom line is that, with few exceptions, the media has failed in its duty to clarify the facts and to educate the public.    They're too afraid of being accused of bias and of not providing "balance."     

Bernie Sanders' campaign just called attention to this headline:  “Report: ABC World News Tonight Has Devoted 81 Minutes To Trump, One Minute To Sanders.”    Yes, Trump knows how to grab the spotlight.   If his media attention begins to sag, or when Carson started gaining on him in Iowa -- that's exactly when he chose to make his absurd statement about banning all Muslims -- even American citizens who may be abroad -- from entering the country.   What do you suppose he will say to grab attention now that Ted Cruz is surging past him in Iowa?

Even MSNBC, which I regard as MY source of news on tv, does it.   Chris Hayes, my favorite news show to watch, is obsessed with reporting on Trump.    Sometimes more than half of his hour-long show will be about Trump.   Now, to be sure, he is not promoting what Trump says, by any means.   He's more likely to call him absurd and denounce what he says.   But . . . in terms of air time, Chris is "reporting the news" and Donald Trump is the news.  And then it becomes news that Donald Trump is the news.   And, if a day goes by when he doesn't get a lot of attention, he will say something outrageous that "has to be reported."   Look, I realize that even I am part of it by writing this about Donald Trump.

But where is the mandate to bring education and clarity?

I've given up on my original hope/suggestion that the way to get rid of Trump would be -- simply Silence.   Just a complete media black-out -- no coverage.   He couldn't stand it.   But of course then that in itself would be news they'd have to report.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Putting terrorism deaths in U.S. in perspective

According to an article in Bloomberg Business Week. "Since September 11, 2001, the death toll from extremist Islamic-inspired terrorism in the U. S. stands at 45, including the 14 people killed" in the San Bernadino massacre.    That comes out to just over 3 per year.

Of course, that's 3 per year too many.   But look at it in the perspective of more than 11,000 gun homicides, 21,000 gun suicides, and 30,000 deaths in auto accidents each year.

If we're not willing to restrict the purchase of every type of gun anybody wants to buy, and if we're not willing to do something more about highway accidents (like enforcing a lower speed limit) -- then why would we give up our defining values of freedom and tolerance to try to prevent the deaths of a minuscule fraction of those numbers of deaths (3 vs 30,000)?

Just to make that clear:   There are 10,000 deaths in traffic accidents for each death by terrorists claiming to be Islamic.


Good news #15: 200 nation climate agreement

Following many years of preliminary work and two weeks of intense negotiations at the climate summit in Paris, nearly 200 nations have reached an agreement that signals a beginning.   It is not perfect, and some activists are critical that it doesn't go far enough.   Of course it doesn't.    But it is the best agreement that could be achieved at this time.  The most important thing is that we have . . . at long last . . . begun to act together to save our planet and human civilization.

As Al Gore wrote:
"Today, the nations of the world concluded a bold and historic agreement, clearly demonstrating that the global community is speaking with one voice to solve the climate crisis.  Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity's moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.

"This universal and ambitious agreement sends a clear signal to governments, businesses, and investors everywhere: the transformation of our global economy from one fueled by dirty energy to one fueled by sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably underway."
As I understand it, Congress does not have to approve this agreement.   President Obama can act, using his power through the EPA regulatory process.   This also means that the next president can undo what he does.   So it is important, in the long run, for Congress to come on board.

It will be interesting to see what the Republican presidential candidates do now.   Will they continue to deny, in the face of action by such a huge number of nations, representing the majority of mankind? 

Credit for the Paris conference goes largely to host French President Hollande and to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.   I understand President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry played an important role in negotiations, especially in bringing China on board.    Another major accomplishment of his administration for the history books.

[Update 10:00am:   Republicans are already threatening to "shred" the climate agreement when their presidential nominee takes the Oval Office in 13 months.    So let's make this an election issue and see what the American people want.]