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July 18, 2006

It's The Pronoun, Folks

In the Bush-Blair exchange caught unexpectedly on microphone yesterday, Bush said to Blair, "See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

Predictably, the corporate media -- recognizing instinctively that the word 'shit' can attract an American audience that has been infantalized by the media itself -- were characteristically either playing up the word 'shit' or, if the media organizations come from self-perceived higher class neighborhoods, substituting (expletive) or describing the word ("Mr Bush used a profanity") instead of naming the word.

It's farcical. At least so far we've been spared the description that Bush had a 'language malfunction' -- perhaps because in a defensive posture, the major media's general counsel have advised that calling attention to the word 'shit' might lead the Senate of the United States to name a committee demanding that the FCC use their brand spanking new indecency regulations to fine news organizations that named the word or played the audio.

Meanwhile, the key word in Bush's candid moment is not 'shit". It's the word 'they'.

Much has been made about the lack of accountability in this administration. One typical leading indicator of folks who hold themselves accountable are those who also take responsibility in the first place.

Someone assuming responsibility does not comment from the sidelines, like a spectator, about what 'they' should do.


How about "we", or "I"?

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:04 PM | Permalink

July 15, 2006

Exploding Mortgages, IV

According to this NY Times' article, the share of interest-only mortgages jumped from ten percent of new mortgages in 2003 to over 25% in 2005. In addition, a different variant of exploding mortgage -- called payment option adjustable -- represented nearly 16% of new mortgages in 2005. In total, 42% of new mortgages in 2005 had explosive potential -- that is, could blow up if the borrowers found themselves in any of the following situations: (1) rising interest rates that triggered significant increases in monthly carrying costs beyond the income capacity of the borrower (and this goes for the mortgage as well as credit card debt); (2) falling home prices that trigger similar problems or make refinancing out of the question; (3) increases in other costs such as gasoline, health insurance or home heating which force the borrower to make tough choices; (4) loss of job which, if the borrower is actually a couple who premised affordability on two incomes could mean unaffordability if either spouse loses a job; or, (5) illness that either puts the borrower out of work for too long or means a spike in uninsured or underinsured medical costs (which might arise if either the borrower or any other family member gets sick).

These are just some of the risks facing 42% of the borrowers who got exploding mortgages in 2005.

Executives in the mortgage industry who are quoted in the article, however, are not concerned. "It offers an opportunity," said Brad Brunts of CitiMortage, a Citigroup unit. According to Freddie Mac -- the giant mortgage packager that has been under a cloud for years for unethical practices -- the exploding mortgages offer a bonanza opportunity for Mr. Brunts and his professional colleagues to refinance existing mortgages -- to, in effect, wring yet more profits out of financial arrangements already unaffordable to borrowers.

Exploding mortgages were predatory by luring people into unaffordable situations. Now millions of families may lose their homes -- or be forced to drop critical expenditures such as medical or dental help or heating during winter. Millions of families. But it's not likely that many of them sit in the top 20% of society. Instead, the top 20% hold the paper - they are, directly or indirectly, the ones providing the capital and, because the top 20% hold more than 80% of the assets, we know that the capital markets in the US have huge capacity to ride out the difficulties through refinancing and streching out payments before declaring bad debt not to mention capacity to profitably write-off a lot of debt.

The current way markets work, then, favors the holders of capital at the expense of millions who cannot afford the exploding mortgates threatening their futures. One might, in theory, consider turning to courts for redress. But, such efforts to rectify predatory practices have fallen very short. Ameriquest, for example, suffered a mere few hundred bucks per bad mortgage in a settlement aimed at its unethical practices. Road kill.

So, if you're like Mr. Brunts, you look at the more than $1 trillion of likely business that will get re-financed over the next two years and see bonuses and commisions, not misery. In his lack of concern, Mr. Brunts is joined by the head of the National Association of Realtors - you know, the folks bringing you the recent wave of commercials about how comforting it is to have a broker you can trust.

As the Times article notes, "Mr. Brunts says only a minority of mortgage holders will face real problems."

Statistically, of course, 'minority' can mean any percentage less than 50. Linguistically - and culturally -- however, when a person says, "only a minorty....', the rest of us are supposed to hear: 'very minor problem that won't affect you."

In other words, 'tsk tsk... let's just move on'.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:59 PM | Permalink

July 13, 2006

The Unitary Executive For Dummies

Speaking on behalf of the Bush Administration to Senators in Congress yesterday -- and, by extension, to all Americans -- a Justice Department official summed up the various theories and ideologies used by those who support George W. Bush's assault on the Constitution and democracy:

"The president is always right."

Folks, this guy means what he said. This was not some slip of the tongue in a heated moment contextualized by some particular policy. This was a prepared remark intended to summarize the Administration's policy for ruling the United States.

For those of you who have not been following the evolving position, it goes something like this:

In time of war, the Constitution empowers the Commander-in-Chief to make all decisions.

We are in a time of war -- actually an endless war against terrorism as opposed to a war against a state.

Until the Commander-in-Chief declares this war to be finished, he is, as he himself put it "the decider".

As previously contended by Richard Nixon before he became the first person ever to resign the presidency, if the president does it, then it is the law.

In our unique new kind of endless war -- one that has no national or state borders -- the Commander-in-Chief decides anything he sees as part of that war. Former distinctions such as 'foreign' and 'domestic' are, like the Geneva Accords, 'quaint'.

Congress and the Courts might make suggestions to the Commander-in-Chief.

However, because the Commander-in-Chief is the decider -- the unitary executive -- he is not bound by such suggestions and can use signing statements or take any other action, including simply ignoring the suggestions, as he sees fit.

The president is always right.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:07 PM | Permalink

July 09, 2006

Proof Reading

Proof reading is among the most essential parts of the jobs of writers and editors. And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there is levels of daffiness. What? On proof reading this last sentence, I must re-write it: "And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there are levels of difficulty."

These corrections were easy. Sometimes, though, quality control is more difficult. To exercise judgment and to insure meaningful quality in communication, writers and editors must look at the range of obvious possible interpretations of words by readers/viewers/listeners and choose whether they - as writers and editors -- intend readers/viewers/listners to use those interpretations. If not, then it's back to editing to narrow the range to what's intended to ensure that what's written lies within the common sense of meaning. Then, again, if the words convey what's intended, the job is done. Publish it.

Yesterday's papers, for example, had this report from Baghdad:

Three American troops were killed Saturday in fighting in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said. They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq in four days and only the eighth so far this month.

The use of the word 'only' was noticed -- but not initially by the writers or editors. Rather, by folks in the blogosphere across the political spectrum.

Interestlngly, when one now clicks on the link provided in the blog postings, the connection takes you to a re-written paragraph:

They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq since Tuesday, raising the number of U.S. personnel killed this month to eight. The average of one death a day is down sharply from a rate of more than two a day in recent months.

"Only' is a word whose range of meanings was simply too broad. 'Down sharply' has a narrower range.

It's hard work writing and editing in the daily -- even moment-to-moment -- cycle of news. Not every mistake of quality gets caught. One advantage of a blogosphere of readers and posters, however, is newspapers get the benefit of thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of readers who -- at zero direct monetary cost to those papers -- help with quality control.

Once the disrespect to human life contained in the plain meaning of the word 'only' was pointed out to writers and editors who may have chosen the word to convey some sense of progress in the Iraq war, they changed the wording to retain the sense of progress -- 'down sharply' -- while avoiding the hurt to those whose lives are at risk or have already been lost. They narrowed the range of meaning.

There is, of course, a political aspect to using words. It is unavoidable. In newspapers, that unavoidable aspect -- particularly in a culture so highly polarized -- also indicates it gets more and more difficult to avoid editorialization in what are supposed to be reported articles (and not op-ed pieces).

Consider, then, this choice of words in the headline of an article about the federal deficit in today's NY Times:

Surprising Jump in Tax Revenues Is Curbing Deficit

The article reports an expected increase of $250 billion in tax revenues compared to 2005 that will cause 2006's deficit to -- again: here's the word used -- "shrink" to $300 billion from 2005's deficit of $318 billion.

What range of meanings ought the writers and editors at the NY Times expect readers to impute to the words "curbing" and "shrink"?

My guess is that reasonable readers impute the following meaning: the annual deficit is significantly smaller as a consequence of the rise in tax revenues.

This, of course, takes us back to statistical meanings of words and how those affect political speech in the context of journalism. The blogosphere's rapid feedback mechanisms helped writers and editors around the country shift from writing 'only' 8 Americans have died in the first 8 days of July to writing that, in the first 8 days of July, the rate of American deaths for just one day more than one week is down from an average to 2 per day over 'recent months'. Put differently: sign of hope.

Maybe the blogosphere could also help the NY Times' writers and editors re-think whether 'curbing' and 'shrink' are the quality choice of words for a projected deficit drop of $18 billion on a base of $318 billion -- that is, a decrease of 5.67%.

"Curbing" might cover this. A smoker who curbs his or her habit of, say, two packs a day by 6% - or two fewer cigarettes per day (38 instead of 40) -- might -- be using words in some range of acceptable common meaning. Or, he or she might be in denial. But, once the smoker added, "My rate of smoking has shrunk", the question of delusion is settled: the smoker is not using langauge in any remotely acceptable common sense of the words themselves. Friends and family -- or co-workers -- might be sympathetic and supportive. But none would actually think the smoker had established any change in the underlying addiction.

Smokers, of course, are folks struggling against an addiction. Their demons are personal. They are not making, distributing and selling a product whose very essence -- whose quality -- is directly a function of the common sense of words.

But, smokers -- like executives and employees in any organization -- are creatures of habit. In news organizations, writers and editors are creatures of habit in how they weigh and balance the use of words and for what purposes. The best journalistic values -- behaviors and beliefs -- have always sought to keep reported articles as fact-based and free of opinion as possible. Among the many, complex challenges facing news organizations today is the much greater difficulty of avoiding editorialization in reported articles because of the traumatized politicization of our partisan culture. Finding a range of common sense meanings in articles with political content is flat out very hard to do.

Which means that quality control is even more critical than ever before. And, that the controls are as much directed at the habits, beliefs and behaviors of the writers and editors as they are the words. If predictable habit points in the direction of loose, politicized language -- e.g. using 'shrink' for a change of minor dimension -- the article-by-article corrections are both of heightened criticality and also not enough.

Changing the beliefs and behaviors of already employed people in any organization is among the world's toughest challenges. And while relying on the marketplace -- in this case the blogosphere -- to help is useful and important (think : customer feedback), it is rarely enough. Left too long -- or if the customer feedback mechanism is the only one used -- eventually the orgaizations in question -- along with the jobs of those who work there -- shrink.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:23 PM | Permalink

July 07, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Citizen

Dan Gillmor is a highly respected commentator on the subject of citizen journalism and, among other things, how citizen journalism will/might affect the ongoing shifts in the world of news organizations. This week, he responded to the proposed shift in language from citizen journalism to networked journalism by acknowledging the usefulness of the distinction and also sticking to his phrase. As he writes:

Not a bad distinction. But the most vital part of this is the fact that it leads us to a better informed citizenry. That is the ultimate goal, at least in my thinking.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “citizen” in four ways:

1. A person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation.
2. A resident of a city or town, especially one entitled to vote and enjoy other privileges there.
3. A civilian.
4. A native, inhabitant, or denizen of a particular place: “We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
I’m a proud American (even when I’m not proud of my nation’s official actions or its political leaders). I am a citizen, for sure, in the first definition.

But in this context I use the word more to reflect the other definitions, not just as one who is a formal citizen of a nation-state. In a globalizing world, the distinction is less important than it used to be — not unimportant, by any means, but no longer necessarily the defining status of a human being. Before this radical evolution is over, in a few decades, formal citizenship may seem almost quaint.

The citizens I refer to are members of communities, large and small, geographic and interest-based. We inform each other, using networks and other tools.

Citizenship carries responsibility in any community. Indeed, the idea of being responsible to one’s self and one’s neighbors (virtual or otherwise) is an essential part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Look closely at the dictionary definitions. With the exception of 'civilian', citizen is strictly defined with regard to place: nation, state, town and so forth. This is not surprising. Our parents and grandparents and all ancestors who came before them lived in places. They connected to other people and they shared values and shared fates with other people because they lived together with those people in places. Our shared idea of citizen is, therefore, replete with place-based content. So is our shared idea of community.

But our actual experience of what it means to owe loyalty to a group, or enjoy protections and privileges of participation in a group have dramatically shifted from the context of place to the context of organization -- whether that organization is formal or informal, for-profit, non-profit or governmental, or large or small. The same goes for our actual experience of the non-place specific meaning of community. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, 'community' happens when we share purposes that we pursue with others -- not because of the addresses where we happen to reside.

All of which means that Gillmor and the rest of us need much greater clarity about the variety of issues Gillmor raises:

Do we wish to save the meaning of citizenship from becoming quaint?
If so, how do we strip it of place-requirements while simultaneously shifting the responsibilities of citizenship to contexts of organization and shared purpose?
Is 'interest-based' participation sufficient to support the meaning of citizenship? Are the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship contingent only on shared interest? Or, must there be shared purpose and the obligation to pursue those purposes together?

And. then, there is also this question:

Is the overarching objective of citizen journalism or networked journalism -- or, for that matter, any potentially powerful new idea related to the safety, sanity and sustainability of the planet -- to foster a better informed place-denominated citizenry? Or, however important that might be, would the more potent objective be to foster much better informed folks who can take responsibility to be the best possible employees/executives, customers/voters, investors, networkers, family members and friends -- that is, responsibilities in the core roles that define life in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families?

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:30 PM | Permalink

Multiple Choice

Which of the following Republican oriented officials is being described by the Republican Party leader who recently said:

“We’re talking about a man who’s no longer worthy of our support because of his stubbornness to not listen to sound advice and who makes the worst choice every time."

1. George W. Bush
2. Dick Cheney
3. Arnold Schwarzenegger
4. Donald Rumsfeld
5. Ernie Fletcher
6. Condoleeza Rice
7. Bill Frist
8. Dennis Hastert
9. Joe Lieberman
10. Jeb Bush
11. Sam Alito
12. Ken Blackwell

On this particular occasion, the answer is here.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:12 AM | Permalink

July 04, 2006

Threshold Of Decency

Dear Mr. Durrett,

In your column about Ann Coulter, you write:

The line we walk is to try and ensure our opinion pages embrace a wide array of viewpoints and style. As I recently wrote one of our longtime readers, we pay attention to the political balance of our syndicated columnists. When you see conservative Cal Thomas on a page, you usually can count on the more liberal Leonard Pitts Jr. in close proximity.

I believe this stated standard is incomplete. Regardless of where any writer might sit on a spectrum, there should be an additional requirement for publication in a newspaper claiming readership from any community of adults, children and families: a threshold of decency.

Decency, of course, like any standard -- even the standard of 'spectrum of political opinion' -- demands judgment. And, in the news business, one would expect those judgments to be broad ones. Still, it is difficult to understand how Ann Coulter sits above any threshold of decency. Any single one at all.

Instead of decency, however, you cite 'taste' as the standard to accompany 'array'. And, it seems the 'tastes' you heed are those of your readers: If any reader (enough readers) enjoy Coulter's barbs and one liners, then the standard of taste is satisfied.

This, in turn, suggests that you seek to appeal to a market segment of readers who might buy your paper in order to enjoy Coulter. It means that your concern for value -- for building circulation and profits -- governs any concern you might have for other values such as decency.

You and your colleagues at The Shreveport Times make a choice about your values -- about what you really stand for -- every time you publish. Today, your 'brand' -- "what you really stand for" -- includes giving voice to a kind of hatred that, as you write, is motivated largely by self-promotion on the grounds of political spectrum and taste.

This, in turn, means that should any of your, say, 6 or 8 year-old children ask any of you, "Daddy/Mommy, why do you publicize Ann Coulter's views in Shreveport?", you can explain to them, "Well, we do it because it is important for people in Shreveport with these sorts of tastes to read well-known celebrities who express extreme views so that we can publish other well known celebrities with opposite extreme views."

And this, in turn means, that when your 6 year-olds become, say, 14 or 17 year-olds and, say, take on an editorial role in their high school paper and give voice to a popular kid who espouses hatred and violence, you'll be okay with it.

Or, maybe you won't be okay with it. Maybe you and your colleagues will wonder, "What's happening to our community?"

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:33 PM | Permalink