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May 11th, 2018 (Permalink)

Book Review: Open to Debate

Title: Open to Debate

Sub-Title: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line

Author: Heather Hendershot

Publisher: Broadside Books

Date of Publication: 2016

Quote: There is simply no equivalent [to Firing Line] on TV today. Conservatives have Fox News, liberals have MSNBC…. Overall, politically oriented broadcasting has become a vast echo chamber…, with many tuning in largely to have their views confirmed and to hear the other side vilified. This is not a scenario that encourages dialogue between those holding different political convictions.1

Review: The author of this book is a professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of previous books, including ones on conservative and religious broadcasting. Thankfully, the book is well-written and largely free of the theory-laden jargon so common to academic books in this field.

If you're unfamiliar with Firing Line, here is how Hendershot describes it:

…Buckley's program was…often a space for liberalism to meet conservatism, for the left wing to meet the right wing. The result was no-holds-barred, honest intellectual combat, a space that both liberal and conservative viewers could turn to [to] have their ideas confirmed, but also challenged…. You could actually learn about other points of view, and thereby become a better liberal or a better conservative from watching the show.1

If you've never seen the show, the book includes several excerpts of some length that can give you an idea of what the argumentation could be like, though there's really no substitute for seeing some episodes2.

The Preface briefly discusses Buckley's career in the '50s and '60s leading up to the creation of Firing Line in 1966, including a debate with writer James Baldwin and Buckley's quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City. The introduction, then, discusses how the show was started, and each subsequent chapter examines the way the show handled specific issues, namely:

  1. Conservatism, especially its position in American politics after Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat in 1964.
  2. Anti-communism, including McCarthyism.
  3. The civil rights and black power movements.
  4. The women's liberation movement.3
  5. Richard Nixon's presidency and the Watergate scandal.
  6. Ronald Reagan's presidency and the apparent triumph of Buckley's style of conservatism.

I'm rather nostalgic for a kinder, gentler era of politics when it seemed possible for people of different political persuasions to actually talk to one another. Nowadays, politics seems so polarized that either people of different ideologies and parties do not communicate at all, or they do so by shrieking and fighting. However, Firing Line began its run in 1966, so that its first several years were during the period of the Vietnam war and Watergate. Political civility was probably at as low an ebb then as it is now, a fact which is reflected in some of the early shows.

One lesson of this history is an optimistic one: things may seem bad now, but they've been as bad or worse in the past and matters improved. The "golden age" of political discourse on television is partly an illusion and partly a product of the changed times. Thus, there's a basis for hope, even an expectation, that things will improve with time. Moreover, Firing Line was always a small oasis of polite political discussion with "exiguous"4 ratings, as Hendershot mentions5:

It is easy to pine for the days when news and public affairs were (theoretically) smarter, before the rise of cable news, but this is nostalgia plain and simple. Firing Line mostly stood alone in a TV news and public affairs environment that was not particularly cerebral.6

This is a work of history more than a scholarly study of debate, political rhetoric, or argumentation, though there is much in it of interest on those topics. I'm not an historian, but as far as I can tell the book is historically accurate, though Hendershot has problems with chronology7. For example, there is a howler in the following passage concerning "…the 1968 episode with Eldridge Cleaver:

Now, keep in mind that at this moment Nixon was particularly concerned about PBS liberalism and even had the Corporation for Public Broadcasting defer funding for public affairs programs. The president was hoping to eliminate white-produced PBS shows that sought to radicalize "the silent majority" of white middle-class Americans. … Nixon felt…that there was "no such thing as good publicity" where the TV presentation of liberals or radicals was concerned. So this episode was radical by virtue of even existing at a moment when the president was pulling out all the dirty tricks up his sleeve to limit the broadcasting of radical perspectives.8

There are three anachronisms in this passage:

  1. 1968 was an election year and Nixon was only elected president for the first time in November of that year9, and was not inaugurated until the following January10. So, Nixon was not even president at the time of the show.
  2. Firing Line did not move to PBS until 197111.
  3. Nixon didn't try to cut off funding for PBS public affairs shows until 1973, according to Hendershot herself12.

I think Hendershot was misled here by her enthusiasm for the notion that Firing Line was good for the left even though Buckley was the most famous representative of the American right during its run. She does make a solid case that it was one of the few television shows where liberals, and even radicals, could be heard for longer than a soundbite, though I think this was more true in the show's first decade than in its last.

In the Conclusion, "In Praise of Honest Intellectual Combat", Hendershot recommends―or at least considers the prospects for a reboot of the show with a new host. I don't know whether this book influenced it, but a new Firing Line with host Margaret Hoover is scheduled to begin airing next month13, though I expect that its ratings will also be exiguous.

Recommendation: I enjoyed this book immensely, but I wonder whether younger folks who don't remember Buckley or the show will find it as fascinating as I did. I'm old enough to have lived through the entire run of the show and remember watching some episodes over the years, though I was never a regular viewer and saw only a tiny fraction of the total number of shows. Perhaps a new audience will be inspired by the new show to take an interest in the history of the old one. Highly recommended for a select audience, like Firing Line itself.

Notes:

  1. P. 292. Page numbers in these notes refer to the book under review.
  2. A fraction of the total number of episodes are available for viewing on DVD, YouTube, and perhaps other venues.
  3. Most if not all of this chapter can be read here: Heather Hendershot, "William F. Buckley Was No Feminist, But He Was an (Unintentional) Ally", Politico, 10/2/2016.
  4. This was Buckley's word for it, meaning "scanty". See his The Lexicon: A Cornucopia of Wonderful Words for the Inquisitive Word Lover (1998).
  5. P. Lvii.
  6. P. 293.
  7. For instance, Hendershot seems to think that the My Lai massacre took place when Nixon was president (p. 210), whereas she elsewhere writes that it occurred in March of 1968 (p. 207), when LBJ was still in office.
  8. Pp. 129-130. Emphasis in the original.
  9. "Richard Nixon elected president", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  10. "Richard Nixon takes office", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  11. "Firing Line broadcast archive: Preface to the program catalogue", The Hoover Institution, accessed: 5/10/2018.
  12. P. 200.
  13. "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover Renews Iconic Public Affairs Talk Show, Delivering a Civil and Engaging Contest of Ideas", Thirteen, 4/26/2018.

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April 19th, 2018 (Permalink)

Three-Card Monty

ď'Three-card Monty' is the name; three-card monte is the game!" shouted the dealer to the passing crowd at the county fair. A young couple paused and looked his way.

"Come on now and try your luck," Monty continued, "win a prize with a single buck!"

The couple slowly approached his carnival booth. "Hear me if you want to get paid," Monty said to them, pointing to three playing cards lying face down in a row on the counter in front of him, "to the right of a Queen there lies a Spade."

Unlike most three-card monte dealers, Monty did not manipulate the cards. Instead, he gave verbal clues to their positions.

"To win or not to win, that's the rub!" he continued, "to the left of a King there is a Club."

The young man, John, took a dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to his companion.

"If you want to win, here's the thing: to the right of a Heart there is a King."

The young woman, Mary, placed the dollar bill on the counter.

"Listen to the final fact," Monty concluded, "to the left of a Heart you'll find a Jack. Are you ready to find the lady?" Monty asked them, "find a gent, you won't win a cent!"

Which card should John and Mary pick to win a prize? Be careful! When Monty says that a card is to the right or left of another, he doesn't necessarily mean the immediate right or left.

Solution


April 18th, 2018 (Permalink)

Book Review: The Truth Matters

Title: The Truth Matters

Sub-Title: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks

Author: Bruce Bartlett

Number of Pages: 136

Publisher: Ten Speed Press

Date of Publication: 2017

Quote: "My model is a famous book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Generations of writers have learned how to write from this simple book, much of which consists of grammatical rules we all learned at one time but forgot or didn't entirely understand. I expect that much of what I write in this book will be equally familiar in terms of news gathering and consumption, but I also expect every reader, from savvy citizens to professional journalists, to come away with some tips they were unaware of."1

Review: True to its model, this is a short, quickly-read book. The copy I have is a small, pocket-sized paperback that could easily be read within 90 minutes. It's a basic primer in media literacy, that is, how to tell the difference between real news and "fake" news, false stories, hoaxes, or propaganda masquerading as news. It's skewed towards political and economic news rather than, say, scientific journalism, presumably because Bartlett's own education and experience is in government and the economy2. Some topics treated are: the difference between primary and secondary sources3, the importance of adjusting for inflation4, the value of the median as opposed to the mean for averages involving money5, and the perils associated with public opinion polling6.

Despite its subtitle, the book seems of two minds about who its intended audience is, as a substantial part is aimed not at citizens but at journalists. For instance, in the chapter on the problem of "fake" news7, Bartlett writes:

News organizations have responded [to fake news] by setting up fact-checking operations. … While fact checking is all to the good, my problem with it is that it shouldn't be considered a separate journalistic function, but rather the core function of all journalism. If reporters and editors aren't routinely fact checking everything they publish, what the heck are they doing instead?8

I couldn't agree more, but unless and until reporters and editors stop doing whatever the heck they are doing instead of checking facts, we consumers of the news need the fact-checking sites. I mentioned earlier this year9 that there has been a decline in the invisible fact checking once done by magazines and publishers at about the same time as the rise of visible fact checking. At the risk of committing a cum hoc fallacy10, perhaps this isn't just a coincidence. In any case, we consumers need to learn how to fact check what we consume ourselves, which is why we need a book like this.

Another chapter11 is primarily a criticism of the unsigned editorials that many newspapers publish. I don't feel strongly about such editorials, since I don't read them anyway12, so I certainly wouldn't be distressed if newspapers were to abandon the practice. However, this seems more a pet peeve of Bartlett's than something of value to the average newspaper reader. If you're a citizen just looking for advice on how to avoid fake news, you might as well skip it.

However, there is much good information on how to do your own fact checking, especially online, and how not to. For instance, one issue I've discussed here in the last several years is Wikipedia. I agree with Bartlett, who writes: "Wikipedia is a great place to start research and a terrible place to end it"13. He had an interesting experience with it:

…[M]any years ago I started my own Wikipedia entry with a bit of information about my life and work. … But I confess that I have not looked at my entry for a long time. I once looked at it, found that some inaccuracy had crept in, and attempted to fix it. A Wikipedia editor asked me for documentation before allowing the change to take effect. I said the documentation is that I am me and I know that what was written was wrong. The editor told me that wasn't good enough. Lacking documentation that I could link to, I gave up my effort to fix my own Wikipedia entry and have not looked at it since. … To me, this is a cautionary tale about the risk of relying on Wikipedia.14

To me, too! It's also a familiar tale, as I've seen similar stories previously15.

Another topic that I've discussed here repeatedly is expertise, its alleged "death"16, and how to tell when someone has it. Bartlett doesn't have a lot to say on the latter subject, except that those who work for universities are more trustworthy than those at think tanks, because the latter tend to be more politicized17. On the subject of "public experts"―that is, those whose faces we see on television or bylines we read in general-interest periodicals―he writes:

…[O]ne cannot necessarily trust those anointed as "experts" on cable news or even in quality newspapers to really be experts on the subjects they are talking about. Even those who at least have degrees in the subjects they opine about may not be up to speed on the latest research, or their area of specialization may be well outside the area they are being quoted on.18

One way that the individual citizen can fight fake news is to resist the temptation to spread it. Bartlett confesses to having contributed to the problem himself:

Even when someone is well aware of the fake news problem, the ease and simplicity with which one can repost or forward something interesting that one comes across on the Internet or in an email can overwhelm common sense for a moment, and suddenly you find that you have added to the fake news problem. I myself am guilty of tweeting such items after reading only the headline of a story that looked interesting―perhaps too interesting.19

Here's how he suggests resisting the temptation:

Other than forcing myself to calm down, wait a moment before posting a comment, and reading a story all the way through before acting, I have found that my best defense is the old adage: If something is too good (or outrageous) to be true, it probably is. That is, try to resist gullibility and credulousness; be skeptical and agnostic until you can determine the truthfulness or validity of some news item, especially if it confirms something you want to believe.20

This is excellent advice and, if widely adopted, would go a long way to suppress fake news since, as Bartlett discusses21, the fakers are often motivated by the desire to make money or spread political propaganda. Take away the incentive to fake news, and much of it should disappear.

In a book about how to tell the difference between facts and fakery, it's important that it get the facts right. There aren't a lot of factual claims made in this book, but I'm pleased to say that I discovered only one minor error22.

In the final chapter, "How to Fight Fake News", Bartlett claims that "critical thinking is the best defense against fake news.23" This is not really a book on critical thinking, but luckily there are many fine books to follow this one up with24.

Recommendation: Recommended, especially, for beginners, such as high school students or freshmen in college. However, it's worth a look even to more advanced readers, since it's a quick read and likely contains unfamiliar research techniques and suggestions. I learned a few things and I'm certainly no tyro, if I do say so myself. Like Wikipedia, it's a useful place to start learning how to do your own fact checking, but don't stop there. Once you've finished, proceed to a more advanced book, such as David Helfand's Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age.

Notes:

  1. P. 3.
  2. For a short biography, see: "Bruce Bartlett", The New York Times, accessed: 4/18/2018.
  3. Chapter 2.
  4. Pp. 60-64.
  5. Pp. 66-67.
  6. Chapter 10.
  7. Chapter 12.
  8. P. 98.
  9. See: New Book: Deciding Whatís True, 1/30/2018.
  10. See: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.
  11. Chapter 14.
  12. I suppose that's a further argument for their abolition.
  13. P. 87.
  14. Pp. 89-90.
  15. See, for instance, Philip Roth, "An Open Letter to Wikipedia", The New Yorker, 9/6/2012.
  16. See: The Limits of Experts, 6/30/2017.
  17. Pp. 45, 48 & 51.
  18. P. 47.
  19. Pp. 120-121, italics in the original.
  20. P. 121, italics in the original.
  21. P. 97.
  22. In discussing government leaks to the press, Bartlett mentions the columnist team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, both now deceased, but gives Evans' first name as "Robert" (p. 18). See: "Rowland Evans", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3/16/2018.
  23. P. 119.
  24. A classic is Antony Flew's How to Think Straight.

Email Outage

I had a technical problem for the last day or two and haven't always been able to access email. It's possible that some messages either were never received or were accidentally deleted. So, if you tried to send me an email in the last few days and either had it returned undelivered, or perhaps just haven't received a reply, please try again. It should work now. Sorry for the bother!

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