November 2010


Liberals and the legend of Feingold

''Thanks Russ'' window in Madison

This empty Madison storefront was also a Kerry campaign office in 2004. Coincidence?

I spent four days in Madison over Thanksgiving break and learned two important things. First, my happiness at being back in my favorite city is only strong enough to survive one day of single-digit wind chills. And second, the development of the Legend of Russ Feingold is already well underway. All along State St., the “Feingold ’10” stickers have been permanently and prominently affixed behind store counters, while local talk radio has turned its ire to the “they” that populates the rest of the state (to be fair, this is also true in discussions of Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s plan to cancel a Milwaukee-Madison Amtrak route). No one I talked to was very receptive to the idea that Feingold shot himself in the foot by filibustering the financial reform bill, even though the result of his action was to weaken the bill so that Scott Brown would become the 60th vote.

This was all at the top of my mind when I read Dahlia Lithwick’s piece on the search for the new Feingold. The way Feingold supporters come across in the piece you’d think he was dead, because the last time liberals went looking for the “next” somebody it was Paul Wellstone. Ironically, the person most self-consciously working to uphold Wellstone’s legend — Al Franken — is suggested as a potential next Feingold as well, but dismissed by “civil libertarians” for his votes in favor of warrantless wiretapping. But then, he also voted for the financial reform bill, so maybe it’s a wash. But I suspect for liberals of a certain stripe, the lesson of Feingold’s defeat will be retrenchment. This is admittedly a bit of nutpicking, but these FireDogLake comments suggest that even Feingold saying “no” to a 2012 primary challenge isn’t enough to turn some minds from it.

Of course, since he’s not dead and not running for president in 2012, it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. It’s probably not a 2016 run — his window was 2008, when liberals might’ve gone big for him, if the Daily Kos straw poll is any evidence. Trying to get back to the Senate in 2012 if Herb Kohl retires? Challenging Walker in 2014? I’ve always felt that Feingold has an executive style about him, but I just don’t know if electoral politics is the place for him anymore. Facing a tough environment and a likely Republican wave, he pulled punches (when he punched at all); the campaign environment’s not going to be much more pleasant in the next couple cycles.

Filed: We R in Control || 9:59, November 30 || No Comments »


MAPOR 2010 round-up

This year’s MAPOR conference was a little smaller than it’s been in years past, but it may have been the best and most intellectually cohesive of the half-dozen I’ve attended. Whereas recent years tended to have fairly broadly interpreted panel themes in order to get all the papers in, the panels I attended this year were often tightly focused on problems dealing with agenda-setting, knowledge acquisition, misinformation and the effects of news content on attitude formation. This was particularly excellent for me, because I’ve been working on a comprehensive model of information flow and partisan agenda-building in the mass media. The two days were kind of like an extended seminar or research group meeting, and it was reminiscent of the really insightful times I had in grad school.

The papers that really stuck out for me include:

Since MAPOR runs four concurrent sessions, there were a lot of great-looking papers I didn’t get a chance to check out but hopefully will get a chance to look at eventually.

Filed: Science Is Real || 16:52, November 23 || No Comments »


The charge of the like brigade

In my particular position as a journalism professor who studies and consumes a lot of political media, I’ve been hearing from many corners that social networking is vital to political campaigning and the future of the news industry. No one ever seems to be able to tell me why, and I remain extremely skeptical. I consider this new Trilogy Interactive report a bit of vindication:

[Trilogy] found only a slight correlation between social media popularity and success in the Senate. That correlation “effectively disappeared” in House and gubernatorial races. … Trilogy says the Facebook margin of victory only explained about 13% of voting results. For gubernatorial races, that correlation is even lower, with the strength of a candidate’s Facebook presence only explaining about 0.8% of the vote margin. And for House races, there was actually a slight negative correlation, meaning a stronger Facebook popularity was associated with a smaller margin of victory.

And the visuals — first Senate, then House:

Senate/Facebook chart

House/Facebook chart

On a semi-related note, I’m presenting a paper called “Sarah Palin Likes This: Discussion of the ‘Death Panel’ Note in Social Media” at the annual MAPOR conference this weekend.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:29, November 17 || No Comments »


Survey of iPad owners

Business Insider conducted a survey of iPad owners with some interesting findings:

No info seems to be available about how the survey was conducted, so take it with a grain of salt.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 10:41, November 16 || No Comments »


Blogger, read thyself

Every once in a while you’ll read a bit of commentary about an opinion columnist or editorialist making some claim that flatly contradicts facts in reporting by that columnist’s own news organization (see, e.g., the disconnect between editorial and reporting in the Washington Post). There are all sorts of potential reasons for this happening, and it provides a lot of fodder for eager media critics in the blogosphere.

But I was really surprised to see this coming from a blogger, and particularly one who is generally quite insightful. Steve Benen, the blogger behind the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal, has an op-ed in the New York Daily News today suggesting that Barack Obama could be successful in the upcoming legislative session by co-opting Republican ideas that he largely agrees with and supports. The two examples he gives are presenting John McCain’s 2008 cap and trade system and George W. Bush’s immigration reform plan as his own bipartisan proposals. How could Republicans suddenly oppose things they’d so recently supported? Put aside the fact that Republicans, en masse, were never fans of either of those proposals. Republicans just did this! The health care bill that almost every congressional Republican voted against was nearly identical to the Clinton-era Republican counter-proposal and the system signed into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. In 2009, that market-driven, Republican-approved plan became a socialist plan to pull the plug on grandma.

The point of this, though, is not to make a counter-argument to Benen’s op-ed. It’s to point out that he spelled out why this can’t work just yesterday in a post called “When (and Why) Bipartisanship Is Impossible.” In it, he notes exactly the health care process that played out last year, and quotes Ezra Klein noting that Democratic moves toward (then through and past) the center are always met with Republican moves to the right. So it was very surprising to read this from Benen, and it’s hard not to wonder if the venue — a daily metro newspaper, as opposed to a blog hosted by a monthly opinion journal — influenced his argument and the conclusion he reached.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 11:47, November 14 || No Comments »


Creativ spelling and adoption of Web 2.0 features: A case study

Just an FYI for whomever might be reading this (Feedburner reports two RSS subscribers!). I’ve added the Disqus commenting system to the site, which allows you to sign in via Facebook, Twitter and some other sites to confirm your identity, or to create a new Disqus account to use. This should keep spam out, but it also presents some nice commenting features like discussion threading, comment liking, commenter profile links, etc. It’s recently been added to several blogs I read and I’m liking it a lot.

Filed: Metamedia || 17:10, November 12 || No Comments »


Journalists, sources and cognitive dissonance

Two news stories today that feature totally contradictory ideas coming from the same source, with no attempt by the journalist to explain. One, a George Stephanopoulos piece on Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) entitled, “Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get ‘Serious’ About Deficit.” In the piece, Conrad is quoted as saying: “I proposed some weeks ago that we extend all the tax cuts for a period of time until we are able to fundamentally reform the tax system. Because that is what is required in part here along with spending reductions. Both are going to have to be done if we are going to get out of this deep hole.” It’s not at all clear how tax cuts and spending cuts lead to deficit reduction, and unfortunately Stephanopoulos neither presses Conrad to explain this self-contradictory statement, nor does he explain to his audience the role revenues and expenditures actually play in creating deficits.

In the other, a story from Bloomberg, we find this lede: “Investors around the world say President Barack Obama is bad for the bottom line, even though U.S. corporations are on track for the biggest earnings growth in 22 years and the stock market is headed for its best back-to- back annual gains since 2004.” Later, this: “Worldwide, 63 percent of all respondents say his policies are detrimental to the U.S. investment climate. That number increases to 68 percent among U.S. investors, even though the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen more than 43 percent since Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 and corporate profits have rebounded almost to the pre-recession peak reached in 2006.” Author Mike Dorning goes into territory that Stephanopoulos avoids by directly contrasting the attitudes of poll respondents to actual investment outcomes during Obama’s time in office. Interestingly, he does little to point out contradictions in respondents’ open-ended answers about their views of Obama, perhaps because the respondents largely traffic in talking points about the “uncertainty” and “lack of clarity” in future fiscal and regulatory policy. Divergent results between US and foreign investors suggest that US investors may be responding with their personal financial interests in mind — 60% of them think all the Bush tax cuts should be extended, as opposed to just 30% of foreign investors.

This prompts a couple of questions for me. The first one is broad, and is one that my grad school colleague Ray Pingree dealt with in his dissertation: What is the effect of the press refusing to adjudicate fact-based disputes? In each of these cases, contradictions arise over fairly basic and well-accepted facts: lowering revenues (e.g., by cutting taxes) increases deficits, business profits and economic growth are up under Obama. How is the audience supposed to interpret stories that don’t allow those pieces of information to have a privileged position?

This question is much more relevant to traditional “on the one hand, on the other” coverage, which quotes each side and doesn’t adjudicate. What makes these two stories interesting is that it’s the same sources dealing with two conflicting pieces of information. Conrad says we need tax cuts and deficit reduction. Investors say Obama is bad for the economy even though their profits are through the roof. There are issues here for the audience, to be sure. Do they even process this type of story the way they might process a more typical “argument” story? Do they understand, without prompting from the reporter, that there’s any dissonance in what the source is saying? Dorning seems to think they might, and balances many of Bloomberg’s poll findings with actual economic data. Stephanopoulos doesn’t take that step, potentially leaving readers so much in the dark that they don’t even know the light exists. Let there be light, George! Let there be light!

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 13:32, November 11 || No Comments »


Audiences as framing guides

Dylan Matthews (guesting for Ezra Klein) has a nice piece on the way perceived audience make-up affects news framing:

[C]limate hawks aren’t in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?

In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.

He further notes that, though elite political journals all have narrowly perceived audiences, the long-form journalism they produce can be influential all around Washington — even if you think all your readers are center-left think-tankers, what you produce will be seen and used by pro-coal figures. The classic example of this is perhaps Betsy McCaughey’s “No Exit,” published and later retracted by The New Republic, and coincidentally cited as the most destructive impact on public discourse of the 1990s by James Fallows, who wrote the above-mentioned clean coal piece. “No Exit” presented an extreme, right-wing (and fictitious, as it turned out) view on the Clinton health care proposal to TNR’s middle-of-the-road audience, informing them that the proposal would forbid Americans from purchasing health care services outside of the new government-run system. While its first-level affect might have been to lead moderates away from supporting the plan, it also became a springboard for conservatives — George Will later claimed the proscription on outside care would be enforced by jail time.

All of which is to say, who you think you’re writing for matters, and who you’re actually writing for matters. Being able to reconcile the two could be key in producing journalism that can positively affect public policy.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 10:30, November 11 || No Comments »


It’s not TV, it’s TCP/IP

A new study by Sandvine indicates that Netflix alone accounts for about 20% of prime-time bandwidth usage in the United States:

That’s just Netflix; all streaming media combined account for 43% of non-mobile Internet traffic. Considering the pushes being made by Hulu and (especially) ESPN, that stands to grow significantly, and it presents a tremendous wrinkle to two big issues on the landscape of corporate media: the decline of the mass television audience and the debate over net neutrality. On the former, the TV networks have suffered eroding viewership since the mass adoption of multi-channel subscription television services (i.e., cable) began in the early 80s. They’ve hedged their bets by investing heavily in niche cable channels (even if the niches are often not so niche, like SyFy and its wrestling shows) and now by launching streaming and download services, most notably Hulu. Apparently people are responding. The business model is still a little unclear, and will almost certainly involve the networks using Hulu to make a power play against Netflix, but Netflix has a huge member base to stand on, as well as relationships with movie studios that have much different incentive structures than its relationships with TV studios. Perhaps its something Netflix can leverage into becoming a less chaotic version of YouTube — subscription-based access to original, independent content that’s organized and reliable could be extremely attractive.

While its got one eye on the TV networks, Netflix also needs to watch out for Big Bandwidth. As long as net neutrality remains unassured — and there’s certainly no legislative guarantee coming any time soon — Netflix is in danger of being extorted for packet delivery. It’s not as big as YouTube (i.e., Google) or as well connected as Hulu (i.e., most of the big media corporations); it’s potentially right in the crosshairs for a neutrality challenge by any of the big cable providers who are also some of America’s biggest ISPs. Coincidentally, these are also some of the companies being affected most of the drop in TV viewership. I wonder what might happen if one of these companies — say, Comcast — were to try to buy one of the big TV networks — say, NBC Universal? That’s an organization that would have a lot of incentive to go after a company like Netflix, and at least two powerful positions from which to do so.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 20:28, November 8 || No Comments »


You already know how to use it

I got an iPad last spring. This is the first time I’ve bought a first-gen Apple device and I went in as a skeptic. I mainly wanted it because my wife and I spent a lot of time traveling last summer and she wanted to be able to read without lugging a laptop or a bunch of books around. Somewhat to my surprise — even though my iPod and my iPhone are among my most useful possessions — it quickly took over all my reading and much of my casual web-surfing. I’m even writing this post on it!

But still, there was something about it that bothered me. I felt like it was a very important step as a communications device, but I couldn’t articulate why. Was I just turning into a nonsensical Apple fanboy, in love with this thing for no apparent reason? I thought I might be, until I saw the new iPad ad campaign, which spells out exactly what is so groundbreaking about it, and why people who see it as a threat to traditional computing paradigms are correct: You already know how to use it. Like its iPhone predecessor, it is incredibly intuitive and designed to interact with the tools we know best — our fingers. Unlike the iPhone, its size allows it to feel like a computer. The pages you see on it look pretty much like what we expect from pages on computer screens. On top of that, its highly regimented and closed nature means everything is where you expect it to be. You turn it on and open Videos or Safari or Pages, and there’s everything you need. From an HCI perspective this makes all kinds of sense — as much as a traditional computer is more a content-creation device than a content-consumption device, the iPad is the reverse. Sure, you’ve got Notes and Pages and various drawing apps, but this thing is designed for reading the web and watching video.

What makes this such an interesting development (and an absolute head-basher for proponents of open platforms) is the characteristics of the people who still struggle with traditional computing models. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that many returning college students lack basic computer skills. This isn’t just a problem if you’re coming back to school to learn how to do marketing online or computer-assisted organization management — many basic pieces of the higher education infrastructure are now computerized. Students in my classes turn in all their assignments via our “learning management system,” Blackboard. Much of the material that I distribute to them goes out through the same system, including the bulk of their grades. Unlike the iPad, it’s not a system that’s designed terribly well for usability, and even the students (and professors!) with decent backgrounds in using computers have problems with it at times. Is this something that the iPad can fix? Not on its own, certainly, but I imagine LMS designers are thinking a lot about mobile and tablet computing these days, and a cloud-backed system that was built with the iPad’s interface and capabilities in mind could go a long way toward easing the transition into the basic information environment of modern higher education. Returning students would still need to get accustomed to the traditional computing model in order to learn, for instance, digital content production skills, but this first step might make learning those skills a smoother process.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 15:53, November 5 || No Comments »