Could Texas Get Any More Embarrassing?

That’s a rhetorical question.

In my classes, when I need an example to illustrate bad public policy (or utter disregard for settled constitutional principles), I can always count on Texas.  Patheos has reported on the most recent example of Lone Star idiocy (more recent even than the vote in Houston not to extend equal rights to LGBT folks because you just know that would encourage men to dress like women and use the girl’s potties…), to wit:

The Board just rejected a proposal that would allow experts to fact-check textbooks before they’re approved for use in the state’s public schools.

Let me repeat that because it’s so stunningly stupid.

The Board just rejected a proposal that would allow experts to fact-check textbooks before they’re approved for use in the state’s public schools.

This is hardly the first time the Texas Board of Education has been, shall we say, “controversial.” A 2010 NPR report described that year’s effort to purge Texas textbooks of material the board disliked. The Board made changes emphasizing the “importance of Christianity to the founders,” the danger to the country’s solvency posed by “long-term entitlements” like Social Security, and the causes of the civil war. (Those causes were identified as sectionalism, states’ rights and–oh yeah,what was that other thing?– slavery.)

In this case, Board member Tom Ratliff had proposed bringing in academic experts to review textbooks for factual errors only; the measure was voted down after a lengthy discussion about the dangers posed by “pointy-headed liberals in ivory towers.”

As the blogger says..

Because what the hell do “experts” who work in “academia” know about “facts” and “the goddamn subjects they devoted their entire lives to understanding”?

Just kill me now…..


Burkha Barbie

A friend has pointed me to a weekly feature in the Washington Post called “Intersect.” Each week’s entry begins with “What was fake on the Internet this week?” and proceeds to list leading hoaxes, stories intended to be satirical that were taken as true, and the like.

So that’s where we are–in a media environment where no one knows what’s true and what’s fabricated, an environment that has made my students distrust the accuracy of pretty much everything they read on line, an environment that feeds and reinforces crazy uncle Ray’s darkest suspicions and conspiracy theories, and lets us all troll for “evidence” that supports our preferred beliefs.

I’m not sure what to call the media overload we live in, but I’d hesitate to call most of it journalism.

I had two immediate reactions to the existence of this (very useful) site. First, it testifies to a phenomenon I’ve previously noted: we have a large number of elected officials and public figures who are walking self-satires. Be honest: if you saw a headline to the effect that Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert or Michelle Bachmann said Martians had landed and were having sex with antelopes, wouldn’t you believe it? Aren’t they all perfectly capable of saying something like that? Who could blame you for being credulous?

Second, this is exactly where real journalism needs to go. We need more sites devoted to verification (or debunking, as appropriate) of assertions made by our political class. That used to be what journalists did: when Partisan A proclaimed a fact, or made an accusation about Partisan B, real reporters investigated it and told us whether it was true. We need more sites like Politifact and Factcheck and Snopes….not because they are always right, but because–unlike so much of the rest of our current media sources–they are at least trying to get it right.

By the way, I know it’s disappointing, but Mattel really isn’t coming out with a Burkha Barbie…..


The Silver Effect

Remember facts? Those verifiable observations about that thing we call reality?

Pinch me, because I think they may be coming back. The signs are there, although subject to alternative interpretations (making predictions is not unlike reading entrails).

First, there was Nate Silver. Silver’s dogged focus on data drove a lot of discussion during the election. That focus wasn’t new–he’d also predicted the 2010 Republican blowout–but his insistence upon empirical investigation hadn’t previously gotten noticed by people outside the world of political junkies. When the spin-meisters pooh-poohed his “novel methodology” (aka beginning with facts), they succeeded in illuminating their methodology, the technical name for which is  “making stuff up.” In the wake of the election, there has been a subtle but discernible shift in the media toward actual fact-checking.

Exhibit two: Costco. No kidding. I got my most recent Costco member’s magazine, and was leafing through it, when I came to an article titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was a story about fact-checking on the Internet. The gist was that more and more fact-checking sites are popping up to join Politifact, Snopes and This phenomenon tells me a couple of things: there’s a market for fact-checking the “information” that’s so readily available but so often misleading; and recognition of the need for verification is widespread enough to merit notice from a mass retailer like Costco.

Exhibit three: in an inventive vein, I got an email the other day advertising something called LazyTruth [link]. It’s a plug-in for Chrome that automatically scans email for information that and Politifact have deemed false. If something doesn’t check out, it’ll provide a few words of correction and a link to where you can find out more. You can then easily pass that verified information on to the crazy uncle or friend who forwarded the email to you in the first place. Down the road, the developer plans to add more kinds of rumors to LazyTruth’s filter — urban myths, hoaxes, false security threats, etc. — but for now the tool is limited to political tall tales.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’ve been very concerned about the loss of journalism–real journalism that deals with verifiable facts about actual events that matter in a democratic system, that gives us the information we need to keep our government and other institutions accountable. These signs that we may be groping our way toward new ways of obtaining the facts we need  are incredibly encouraging. The return of respect for actual facts rather than desirable fabrications is more than welcome.

I think I’ll call it “the Silver Effect.”


Losing the News, Part 2

The response to yesterday’s announcement of more layoffs at the Star has been significant, and almost uniformly mournful. Comments on Facebook, responses to posts on this and other blogs, and on the Star’s own site have generally reflected the fact that communities all over the country are in the process of losing something valuable, and that these latest cuts are simply one more step toward the inevitable loss of news geared to the general public.

At risk of sounding like the old person I am, I remember growing up in an environment where local papers focused on (largely local) government, along with local crime and information about area schools, public improvements and the like. Pretty much everyone read the paper. The reporting wasn’t necessarily great or insightful, but it had usually been fact-checked and proof-read. Those of us who needed more depth in areas of interest supplemented that basic news source with more specialized publications, but even when we disputed the accuracy of this or that report in the newspaper, we all shared that “baseline.”  Newspapers provided a common starting point for further inquiry and conversation. The demise of a common source of information may well be one reason why Americans increasingly inhabit different realities.

Even more consequential, I think, has been the loss of investigation and context, as the remaining reporters are increasingly required to produce more stories more quickly. For the past several years, observers have bemoaned the transformation of reporting into stenography. Instead of simply reporting that official A said X and official B denied that X was true, reporters used to investigate the matter at issue, and tell readers who was telling the truth and who wasn’t.

Let me use a couple of local examples to show how important that last step is.

In our local Mayoral campaign, Mayor Ballard says that crime in Indianapolis is down. His challenger, Melina Kennedy, says it isn’t. How many of us are in a position to access crime statistics, ascertain the credibility of the source, and decide who is correct?

When the Ballard Administration negotiated a fifty-year agreement allowing ACS to manage the city’s parking meters, the agreement passed the City-County Council by a single vote. Ryan Vaughn, the Council President, voted for the deal; had he recused himself, it wouldn’t have passed. Vaughn is a lawyer with Barnes Thornburg, the firm that represents ACS. The Star dutifully reported the accusations by several people that this vote was improper–that Vaughn had a conflict of interest and should not have voted on the matter. And it dutifully reported Vaughn’s (convoluted) “explanation” of why there was no conflict. That was it. No analysis; no checking with the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission or ethics experts from the local law school. Just “he said, she said.”

For that matter, Indianapolis citizens would have benefited from actual reporting on the terms of the contract, the relationships between ACS and local political figures, and its performance elsewhere. We would have benefited from knowing how many other municipalities manage their own parking and how many don’t, and how the income realized differs under the two scenarios.

The press used to give us that sort of information. It allowed us to draw our own conclusions, to make informed decisions about public policy, and decide which politicians to support. It hasn’t performed that service for quite a while, and things clearly aren’t going to get better any time soon.


Losing Facts

I came to my computer keyboard this morning prepared to rant about the ever-growing dismissal of facts in favor of more useful spin–and increasingly, out-and-out lies. I was still annoyed by an email forwarded by a friend of mine, who sent it not because he agreed with it, but in order to demonstrate “what’s out there.” This particular message was full of anti-immigrant sentiment, and “facts” about how much undocumented immigrants supposedly cost the American taxpayers.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the economics of immigration, but I do know enough to recognize inaccurate propaganda, and the email was filled with it.

Before I began my post, however, I read this one at Daily Kos, and it made my point better than I could have. It’s a bit on the long side, but I hope you’ll read it to the end, because no matter what your politics, the extent to which we are ignoring reality and rewriting history in service of ideologies, left and right, is far and away the most dangerous threat we face.