Monthly Archives: March 2008

Be Not Afraid of the Future!

Many journalists I know have been chatting this week about Eric Alterman‘s New Yorker piece on "the death and life of the American newspaper." Alterman focuses on Huffington Post as the epitome of the "new," newspaper-killing media, portraying the site as the bad cop to Talking Points Memo’s good cop. TPM, of course, is a site that does real reporting and digging, while HuffPo’s news gathering apparatus is secondary to its function as a gathering place for liberal punditry. The risk of all this online news, Alterman writes, is that eventually, with advertising dollars moving to the web, no one will be able to afford expensive, real-time reporting projects such as the New York Times‘ Baghdad bureau, which costs $3 million annually. Alterman, somewhat credulously, quotes Arianna Huffington‘s more positive forecast of the future of news:

"As advertising dollars continue to move online—as they slowly but certainly are—HuffPost will be adding more and more reporting and the Times and Post model will continue with the kinds of reporting they do, but they’ll do more of it originally online.” She predicts “more vigorous reporting in the future that will include distributed journalism—wisdom-of-the-crowd reporting of the kind that was responsible for the exposing of the Attorneys General firing scandal.” As for what may be lost in this transition, she is untroubled: “A lot of reporting now is just piling on the conventional wisdom—with important stories dying on the front page of the New York Times."

Like Alterman, I believe the Times deserves more credit than that, but I’d caution against devolving into full on hand-wringing over the future of news. For one thing, online-only, analysis-driven news sources have been around for way longer than Alterman admits, since the advent of Salon and Slate in 1995 and 1996. Slate especially has a model that relies upon a parasitic relationship with the traditional press (see "Today’s Papers"). Secondly, non-profit journalism is a business model that can yield excellent, independent reporting, from the St. Petersburg Times, to new projects such as Pro-Publica and the Washington Independent, to our very own American Prospect. And third, for-profit online journalism is actually becoming more and more reported. The Politico, for example, no matter what you think of their coverage, employs dozens of reporters who are traveling around the United States breaking news on the presidential election.

In other words, there are lots of hopeful models out there for online news gathering. Let’s not be afraid of the future.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

New Pieces

I have been very busy at TAPPED, so please, come visit me there! In other news, I have two new columns out. The first, at the Prospect, introduces American readers to a debate over Afrocentric public schools taking place in Toronto:

Across our northern border, a battle is raging over race and education. The Toronto District School Board has approved a plan to create an Afrocentric high school for black students, set to open in 2009. Many black community activists overcame initial reservations about racial separation to support the idea; in Canada as in the United States, there is an intractably high drop-out rate among black students, although up north, the majority of blacks are descendents of Caribbean immigrants, not slaves. In Toronto, 40 percent of black Caribbean youth never graduate high school. Parents and advocates rightly argue that radical action is needed.

But the Toronto school board’s split 11-9 decision in late January to move forward with the plan reflects what has become an increasingly divisive political fight.

And over at RH Reality Check, I outline how the anti-choice right is planning on attacking Barack Obama for his opposition to the "Born Alive Infant Protection Act." A lot has been said about Obama’s "present" votes on choice, but much less attention has been paid to his history of taking a strong stance for reproductive health, a history that social conservatives can’t wait to exploit.

The anti-choice anti-Obama strategy is based on Obama’s clear "no" votes on the "Illinois Born Alive Infant Protection Act," or BAIPA. Leading anti-choice blogger Jill Stanek, who testified in the Illinois state Senate on behalf of the bill, has played a key role in disseminating this anti-Obama argument in the right-wing blogosphere. Taking the bait, former presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, in a fundraising email to supporters of his political action committee last month, excoriated Obama for opposing BAIPA. And in a Feb. 26 editorial, the National Catholic Register fumed, "Obama wouldn’t even protect children born alive by mistake during abortion attempts."

But BAIPA isn’t really about protecting infants; it is anti-abortion rights legislation crafted by the hard right. … [T]he idea that otherwise viable babies are regularly "born alive" during abortions is an invention of the anti-choice movement.

The Political Wives’ Club

As Spitzergate hit the airwaves last week, Dina Matos McGreevy, ex-wife of the "gay American" former New Jersey governor, Jim McGreevy, made the rounds of the cable news networks, empathizing with Silda Wall Spitzer. In a New York Times op-ed, she mused, "Who knows why powerful men conduct themselves this way?"

Well. Matos McGreevy may have knew more than she’s been letting on. The Newark Star-Ledger reports:

A former aide to James E. McGreevey said today that he had three-way sexual trysts with the former governor and his wife before he took office, challenging Dina Matos McGreevey’s assertion that she was naive about her husband’s sexual exploits.

The aide, Theodore Pedersen, said he and the couple even had a nickname for the weekly romps, from 1999 to 2001, that typically began with dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s and ended with a threesome at McGreevey’s condo in Woodbridge.

There’s a few ways to look at this revelation — if it’s true.  First, political wives are a much, much savvier lot than the way they present themselves to be, and savvier than the media generally give them credit them for. Who knows, for example, what Wall Spitzer knew or suspected about her husband’s sexual habits? Of course, regular threesomes with Pedersen may not have led Matos McGreevy to the conclusion that her husband was carrying on a long-term romantic affair with a different man, Golan Cipel. People are into all kinds of stuff, after all, and sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum. But this bombshell (again, if it’s true) does put a dent in her argument that she was caught completely unawares by his coming out.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

So What Do You Get for $5,500?

That was the flippant question asked yesterday by many news organizations as they covered the fallout from Spitzergate. And hey, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been curious. Last night, the New York Times posted as near to an answer as we’re likely to get: A profile, complete with pictures, of Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the 22-year old sometimes-prostitute who visited with the Governor at the Mayflower hotel last month. After reading the piece and following the Times‘ link to Dupré’s MySpace page, I just felt sad. Far from the fantasy of a college-educated sex-fiend who chooses prostitution out of many career options, Dupré left North Carolina at the age of 17 to move to New York City, where she aspired to become an R&B singer. On her MySpace page, Dupré writes about surviving abuse, using drugs, and being homeless. In short, she hews far more closely to the typical profile of a woman who chooses prostitution than you’d assume from the price the Emperor’s Club commanded on her behalf.

I don’t have a larger point here about the benefits or risks of legalizing prostitution; I’d encourage you to read Scott on that score. Rather, I’m struck by the pedestrian — yet heartbreaking — quality of Dupré’s personal history. And lest you think Dupré got rich off her travails, note that she told the Times she’s so strapped for cash she’s considering moving back home with her mom.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

Behind the Numbers: Teen Sex Infections

Dismay greeted news this week that a quarter of 14 to 19-year old women are infected with at least one of four common sexually transmitted diseases: human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis. A look behind the numbers is even more staggering. Because only half of the 838 young women in the CDC study were sexually active, that means 40 percent of teenagers who have had sex at all are infected with an STD. Half of all African American teen women were affected by one of the diseases, compared to 20 percent of white teens.

Some feminist writers, including Samhita at Feministing, have asked why the CDC chose to conduct such a high profile teen STD study that focused only on women. After all, in the vast majority of cases, it’s guys who are giving girls these infections, yet young women, once again, are alone at the center of a storm of media hang-wringing about their sexuality. But push deeper into the survey results and there may be a hint as to the CDC’s motivations. As expected, the majority of the infected young women who participated in the survey suffered from one disease, HPV, which affected 18 percent of the teenagers. The second most common disease, chlamydia, affected only 4 percent.

It’s important to publicize these numbers because there is now a vaccination, Gardasil, that protects girls and women from the cervical cancer-causing HPV. Yes, comprehensive sex-education is a huge part of the prevention equation; without information on contraceptives, young men and women can’t make the best decisions about how to protect their health. But if these new numbers shock heretofore reluctant parents into dealing with the reality of teen sexuality and vaccinating their daughters, that would be a great thing for women’s health.

Still, next time around, I hope the CDC focuses on teen guys. Those little buggers and their parents need a wake-up call, too.

Update: A friend of mine working in health policy cautions that it’s possible that Merck, the manufacturer of Gardasil, encouraged the CDC survey, just as they’ve encouraged laws around the country that would have schools get involved with promoting the vaccine or even make vaccination mandatory. So far, there’s no proof of this, although it’s something worth considering. I’ll find out more if I can.

cross-posted at TAPPED

Will Obama Be More Aggressive on Education Issues?

TNR’s Josh Patashnik has an interesting rundown of Barack Obama‘s commitment to education reform. Patashnik focuses mostly on Obama’s willingness to buck the teachers’ unions on merit pay. He also suggests that Clinton hasn’t released as comprehensive of an education platform, but in actuality, we know quite a bit about how the Democrats differ on these issues. Here‘s an overview. In short, Obama is open to both private school choice and linking teacher pay to standardized test scores. Clinton outright rejects private and parochial school vouchers, and her merit pay plan calls for extra money to be distributed when an entire school improves its performance. It is Clinton who has the more aggressive plan on expanding access to preschool education, while Obama wants to provide four-year college scholarships to students who promise to become public school teachers.

All that said, I disagree with Patashnik’s suggestion that, once in office, Obama would prioritize education more than Clinton would. That could be true, but there’s not a lot of evidence for it from where we stand. Neither Obama nor Clinton has injected education into the race in a deeper way than occasionally criticizing No Child Left Behind and promising to overhaul it. Supporting new ideas in white papers doesn’t necessarily equal a commitment to pushing them through Congress.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

I Admit It!

It feels like a coming-out-of-the-closet moment to admit I have more than a passing knowledge of some of the games described in this Slate article about Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, I seemed like a healthy, well-adjusted young lady before this. But seriously, I’m not lying when I tell you that my friends and I who participated in role-playing weren’t total dorks. For one thing, we weren’t celibate. (Mom and Dad, please disregard that last sentence!)  We were the theater kids — faux suburban hip hop culture just wasn’t doing it for us. Most of us are pretty normal these days.

In any case, during my adolescence, it never really occurred to me to think about the ethics of D&D, mostly because I was a dabbler and not a hardcore fanatic. In Slate, Eric Sofge — who, as an editor at Popular Mechanics, I assume is a far more typical former role-player than I — argues that the massive killing of entire races encouraged by Gygax’s gaming system is akin to genocide. Think of the hated, dark-skinned orcs from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series; those greedy (Semitic?) dwarves; or the high-cheek boned, delicate, Northern elves. This is partly what I was drawing from when I wrote an essay back in the day on how the Harry Potter books conform to some of the more conservative identity politics of the fantasy genre. Looking back, that piece seems over-argued (after all, I enjoyed the Potter books!), but there’s definitely a there there.

By the way, if anybody wants to use this moment to also publicly confess they once role-played, I’ll be your friend forever.

McCain’s Far Right Catholic Support

The media coverage of televangelist John Hagee‘s endorsement of John McCain in late February may have left some with the impression that McCain hadn’t, until that point, received wide support from the religious right. In fact, right wing Catholic leaders had been flocking to the McCain campaign since the fall. That’s why Hagee’s derision of Catholicism is so problematic for McCain: Hagee alienates a key Republican social conservative constituency — anti-abortion rights Catholics — that McCain had already won over.

Over at RH Reality Check today, I look more closely at exactly who on the religious right supports McCain, and whether the Hagee controversy will hurt McCain’s electoral success with Catholic voters. Here’s an excerpt:

In South Carolina, the campaign trotted out Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn to call McCain "an unwavering voice in Congress for the rights of the unborn." A doctor himself, Coburn supports the death penalty for physicians who perform abortions. In January, McCain attracted endorsements from Cathy and Austin Ruse, a prominent couple in the Catholic anti-choice movement. Cathy is a former pro-life spokesperson for the United States’ Congress of Catholic Bishops, and Austin is president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which lobbies the United Nations in opposition to family planning and abortion services worldwide. "We believe that abortion is the greatest civil rights issue of our day," the Ruses said in their statement of support for McCain. (No word on how the Ruses feel about income inequality or housing and workplace discrimination.) Also this winter, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a leader in the effort to ban so-called "partial-birth abortions," signed onto the McCain campaign.

With those endorsements, McCain had plenty of anti-choice credibility even before his ill-fated pas de deux with John Hagee. But in his rush to the Bush right, McCain will leave no stone unturned — even if lurking underneath is the possibility of angering over 60 million American Catholics. Of course, McCain has never been a shoe-in for the Catholic vote; ironically, polls show that like most Americans, Catholics believe abortion should be generally legal. Just more evidence to support the fact that John McCain’s views on reproductive health lie well outside of the mainstream.

Check out the whole thing.

Downfall

The implosion of Eliot Spitzer looks fated to become one of the more dramatic downfalls in American political history. It was Spitzer’s reputation as a tough-as-nails, populist prosecutor of Wall Street misdeeds that attached to him what, with 20-20 hindsight, were totally outrageous expectations: First Jewish President. Savior of Democratic Populism. Tamer of Corporate America.

Almost as soon as he entered office, Spitzer’s flaws were brought to light. New Yorkers have rolled their eyes through an unbecoming scandal in which he used aides to dig dirt on Joseph Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader and, arguably, Albany’s most powerful figure. Then, politically chastened, Spitzer proved weak-kneed on his own proposal to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. This was the same proposal that so tripped up Hillary Clinton during fall debates.

The timing of this prostitution brouhaha isn’t very helpful, as New York Democrats are hoping to take over the State Senate, which would finally allow some more progressive legislation to break through.

One last thought: When politicians are caught cheating, I wish they’d leave their wives in the green room while they address the press. You’re in the dog house, and it should look that way. Those "stand by your man" visuals are tired and demeaning.

cross-posted at TAPPED

How Big of a Factor is Teacher Pay?

Basically, the biggest, according to Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder of a New York City charter school that will open its doors in 2009 with a minimum teacher salary of $125,000. Nationwide, the average salary for a middle school teacher is less than $50,000. Vanderhoek’s project is profiled in today’s Times. His school will have larger classes (as many as 30 students) and fewer support and administrative staff in order to afford the higher salaries. It will offer only two non-core subjects, music and Latin, and the principal will initially earn less than teachers — $90,000. The school’s students are expected to be primarily from low-income Latino families.

Vanderhoek, a Teach For America alum, says he formed his ideas about the primacy of teacher pay in part through his experience tutoring for a company called Manhattan GMAT in 2000, which lured the most qualified tutors by paying them $100 an hour. Here is the website for that company. As you can see, it caters to quite a rarefied group of customers: adults looking to obtain admission into top MBA programs, and who are willing to pay a premium for all the extra help they can get. The comparison to teaching impoverished children is a tenuous one at best. Poor kids bring a host of challenges with them into the classroom, challenges that may require more extras, not fewer. For example, the new school will have only two social workers and fewer extracurriculars in order to pay for the higher teacher salaries. But research suggests poor kids need more counseling, more after-school help, more of everything just to have a fair chance of academic success.

That said, there’s no doubt that experts across the spectrum agree that making teacher pay competitive with that of other professions is a crucial reform with the potential to broadly upgrade the public education system. So there’s no doubt Vanderhoek’s school will be watched closely for results. If it’s successful, though, it will be difficult to isolate teacher salary as a factor. After all, this will be an innovative, small charter school with a highly engaged and vetted staff. They’ll be earning more than the staff at other charters, but that won’t fully account for the school’s outcomes.

cross-posted at TAPPED