Thursday, April 28, 2005

Yet More Hymanomics

Continuing with his list of suggestions for getting the nation’s financial house in order, Mark Hyman says Congress should look at the long term effects of its policies and use the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office as sources for financial fact checking.

Of course, both the CBO and the GAO are already used by legislators to provide studies of economic issues, and it’s not quite clear what, if anything, is novel about Hyman’s suggestions here.

But putting that aside, I’m just wondering: why doesn’t Hyman mention the White House in this context? Throughout his series, Hyman focuses almost solely on the legislative branch of government, ignoring the role of the executive in setting priorities.

I agree that government programs and spending shouldn’t be done without looking at the long term consequences to be paid for short term political gain. I also agree that CBO and GAO reports should be seriously considered when making financial plans. I just wish the White House felt the same way.

Despite Hyman’s fixation on Congress, it’s the Bush White House that’s most egregiously sinned against the tenets of sound fiscal policy (not that Congress has been much better . . . remind me again, though: which party is in control of both houses of Congress?). The most obvious example are the “wealth-fare” government giveaways to the richest Americans in the form of tax breaks. As bad as such misplaced charity is, the administration and its allies in Congress would love to make these tax cuts permanent. What better example could one find of politicians making short-sighted decisions for personal gain at the expense of future generations?
According to the CBO, making the Bush wealthfare tax cuts permanent
would explode the national debt. Already, the cuts have caused the tax burden to be put disproportionately on the middle-class, the demographic group whose financial wellbeing is essential to the long term health of the economy. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, such a shift not only places an undue burden on today’s middle class, but will cause future generations to have to pay for the today’s giveaway’s to the rich.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. As the
Washington Post has noted, throw in Bush’s privatization scheme (a.k.a. “Let’s Roll Back the New Deal and Go with the Old”) for Social Security, and the future looks even bleaker for those down the road who will be left paying the cost for Dubyanomics.

But, say the administration’s backers, the Social Security reforms the president is fighting for are necessary to save the system.

Actually, no. In fact, the president’s privatization scheme will actually
harm Social Security in the short run and will not provide a solution to the problem anytime in the foreseeable future. Add this to the already sizable national debt that the administration is ignoring, and you have the makings of major systemic problems in the nation’s economy for future generations.

The source of this diagnosis? Comptroller-General David Walker of the GAO.

Yes, Mark, you’re right: when independent agencies tell us politicians are mortgaging our future for their own gain, we should hold them accountable. Why not start at the top?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


My apologies for being a few days behind on counterpointing. I've been out of town and dealing with end of term business, but will be caught up shortly!



Faux Finances Parts II and III

Mark Hyman’s idea of letting congressional budget committees write budgets that have the force of law is problematic. Of course, it was problematic back when Congress actually voted on this idea five years ago (and rejected it overwhelmingly by a count of 250 to 166).

Knowing how strongly he feels about plagiarism, I hate to even suggest that Hyman is recycling ideas without giving credit to those who came up with them, but his ideas of making the budget into law and requiring a 2/3 majority to change it are old ideas. At least as far back as 1997, Republican
Christopher Cox of California has advocated just such a system. During the 106th Congress, a bill largely based on his ideas was debated and voted on, going down to a bipartisan defeat.

More important than Hyman borrowing Cox’s ideas are the reasons why these ideas are suspect. No one loves the way the budgeting process works now, but that doesn’t mean that any changes in it are by definition good. Supporters of a Cox-type budgeting scheme suggest that by making the budget a law that outlines broad spending priorities, it will make it easier to reach consensus between the president and Congress early in the budgeting process. They also suggest that it will make the risk of government shutdowns a thing of the past because if an agreement isn’t reached, spending limits from the previous year will kick in.

That’s hunky-dory as long as the president and the Congress are more or less on the same page to begin with. But that’s often not the case. Currently, the threat of government shutdown forces the major players to come up with at least stop-gap compromises to keep things going. Under the Cox plan, there would be no such motivation, and if an impasse was reached, last years spending limits go into effect.

The most obvious problem with this is that the needs of the nation change from year to year. Spending the same amount on the same things year after year (should a compromise budget not be reached) is fiscally idiotic. What would have happened (for example) had Congress and the president not reached an agreement on a budget in 2002 and spending on domestic security ended up being locked in at 2001 (i.e., pre-9/11) levels?

Proponents will say, “Oh, well that’s what the
2/3 majority vote would be for—it would allow for emergency changes in spending.” But while Hyman champions the idea of a 2/3 majority required to change budgeting levels as a goad to greater bipartisanship, it effectively allows a minority the chance to hold the budget hostage. If 1/3 (+1) of the members of either the House or Senate decided they didn’t want any additions made to the budget, that would be it.

And that’s ultimately why those who support this version of the budget-as-law come primarily from the ranks of the right-wing. The underlying motivation is that it would be fine and dandy with most of these folks to have a budget impasse every year, one that would automatically revert spending to the level of the year before. This would result in de facto cuts in all government programs. Education, health care, Social Security . . . all of it gets cut without anyone actually having to go on record as voting against these things. It’s a way for arch-conservatives to achieve their ends without having to actually fight an intellectually honest battle (which they would certainly lose).

In the meantime, I’m off to the campus coffee shop to get my latte.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

For more on the problems with this type of budgeting approach, see
this article by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Faux Finances

In his first of a promised (threatened?) several part series on his cures for the financial woes of the country, Mark Hyman suggests entitlements such as Social Security shouldn’t be “off budget” and that pork should be slashed.

A couple of brief notes here: first,
Social Security’s “off budget” status is a bit hazy to begin with. Whether it is or isn’t depends in large measure on whom you ask and in what context. To the extent that it is off-budget, it is to protect the program’s funding. Bring Social Security back on budget and suddenly it becomes easier to cut it.

Unless, of course, you go the opposite way. Some Republicans want to put the possible $2 trillion costs of moving to a privatization scheme “off budget” because that’s the only way they can hide the debt-swelling costs of the program.

Both for the Hyman’s of the world who want Social Security more vulnerable to congressional whim and those who want to camouflage the privatization of the system by putting these costs “off budget,” the goal is the same: to gut the system as it is currently practiced. Social Security is one of the most productive and useful governmental programs ever created, keeping countless millions of elderly out of poverty. For right-wing conservatives, however, it’s simply an entitlement, and that means it should be starved of cash until it withers and dies. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric of “saving” Social Security.

And as long as we’re talking about putting things “on budget” so they can be accounted for accurately, we wonder what Hyman has to say about the
$100 billion “emergency” funding in the last year of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the president exempts from his budgets. Shouldn’t such expenses be counted as well? Hyman doesn’t say.

Speaking of Iraq, Hyman bemoans the pork barrel spending that he says has added up to $25 billion in the last year. True, this figure is tiny in comparison with the overall budget. Also true is the fact that governmental
spending has risen under Bush and a Republican Congress, not gone down. But let’s grant that pork should be cut. What about money that just goes missing, however? According to recent audits, around $9 billion dollars, more than a third of the total pork barrel spending Hyman gnashes his teeth about, has simply vanished in Iraq with nothing to show for it.

Perhaps we might start getting our financial house in order by being a bit more honest and careful about how we spend our money in other countries.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Tax Day Duplicity

Here we go again. In a “tax day” rehash of one of his favorite topics, Hyman again suggests that a labor tax or a consumption tax would somehow solve the problems of taxpayers. In a textbook example of the “false dichotomy” fallacy, Hyman suggests that either we have a complex tax code that keeps people up until midnight on April 15th doing their taxes, or we have a simple tax such as a labor or consumer tax (a.k.a. a flat tax or national sales tax).

The problem with this argument logically speaking is suggesting that only regressive tax policies can be simple. The problem with this argument economically speaking is that regressive tax policies are bad government.

There’s no reason why a progressive tax policy can‘t be simple enough to allow filers to simply fill out a postcard-sized return. There’s nothing magic about regressive taxation that makes it inherently less complex. In fact, a great many of the 45,000 pages of tax code decried by Hyman are there precisely to help corporations and wealthy individuals find ways of avoiding paying taxes. Hyman’s implication that the only answer to complex tax forms is a regressive tax scheme is hogwash.

And make no mistake, both the labor tax and consumer tax are regressive. A labor tax is often labeled a “flat” tax by supporters because of the egalitarian overtones of the word, but in fact, a single tax rate places a
disproportionate burden on those at the lower end of the income scale. Here’s all you really need to know about he labor tax: Steve Forbes, one of its biggest proponents, is a multi-millionaire and would not pay a cent of income tax under his own labor tax proposal.

A consumer tax is often labeled a national “sales tax” because it suggests that such a tax would be incidental—I, for one, usually don’t think much of the few pennies in state sales tax added to the cost of my latte when I go to the campus coffee shop (wink wink, nudge nudge). But any consumer tax that would take the place of the income tax would have to be a hefty 35-50% tax on all purchases (including the purchase of houses and cars). And no more deductions for mortgages either. The end result is that those who spend the highest percentage of their income (i.e., those that don’t make a lot of money and don’t have disposable income to tuck away in savings or investments) get saddled with far more than their share of the tax burden.

As we learned in Ron Suskind’s book
The Price of Loyalty, the obsession with cutting taxes for the wealthy is not simply a fiscal policy for neo-cons. It’s a dogmatic belief—something that is good in and of itself, independent of its consequences. But the history of such tax policy isn’t terribly good. Hyman invokes the well-worn talking points that JFK was actually a supply-sider, that Reagan’s tax cuts created a huge economic boom, as did George Bush II’s welfare for the wealthy tax plan. However, Kennedy’s tax cuts were aimed primarily at working class people in an effort to boost the purchasing power of the average American, while the supply-side cuts actually diminish this power by saddling the working and middle class with a greater amount of the tax burden.

What about Reagan? He cut taxes dramatically, but then
dramatically raised them (via rolling back the extent of his initial tax cuts) soon after, amounting to one of the largest tax hikes in history (Hyman ignores this). Reagan did this because it became obvious quite quickly that the optimistic projections on which he based his tax cuts weren’t coming true, and rolling back these cuts was a necessity. Of course, he didn’t roll them back nearly enough to prevent an astronomical growth in the national debt, but hey, it could have been worse.

As far as George Bush II’s “economic boom” that Hyman refers to, another such “boom” and we’ll be having to break into the national archives to dust off soup kitchen recipes that have been collecting dust since the 1930s.

The worst aspect of this type of tax rhetoric is its duplicity. Regressive taxes are sold to working and middle class Americans couched in the rhetoric of egalitarianism and practicality, invoking anti-tax and anti-government sentiment, while the actual policies would increase the tax burden on exactly these people. Beyond simply being poor fiscal policy, such tax schemes and the arguments in their favor are egregious examples of duplicity in public discourse.

To paraphrase Hyman, it probably makes you want to take that pencil and stick it in some television commentator’s eye, doesn’t it?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

P.S. Some previous Counterpoints have gone into more detail on the issues of the
labor tax and tax fairness.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Not-So-Bold Statement: "The Point" Makes No Sense

Mark Hyman often states his opinions as if they’re facts. But another favorite technique of his is to state facts as if they’re opinions.

A recent example comes in Hyman’s commentary about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame and the Washington Post’s treatment of the story.
One of Hyman’s ongoing battles is his assault on established news sources (a.k.a. the “liberal media”). If he can convince viewers that all news, even from the most revered sources, is equally slanted, it gives him (and fellow right-wing conservatives) the freedom to operate in a fact-free environment, where everything that doesn’t fit into their worldview can be explained away as bias.

Among Hyman’s favorite targets is the Post. In his commentary, Hyman claims the Post did an abrupt about face when it filed a brief with a federal court supporting journalists from the New York Times and Time magazine who face prosecution for not revealing the name of the Bush administration official who leaked Plame’s name to the press. The Post, as well as other media outlets, point out that until it’s been established that a crime has been committed, prosecuting journalists for not revealing information about the crime is out of order.

Hyman says he agrees with this, but charges the Post with hypocrisy because the paper supposedly had asserted a crime had been committed, at least until journalists began being threatened with legal action:

In 2003 and 2004, the paper published numerous articles and
editorials that favored an investigation and argued strongly that a crime had
probably been committed. The Post warned of "serious damage" from the
disclosure, which it called "a crime." And in an article about the leak there
was no mistaking the meaning of the Post's bold statement "The intentional
disclosure of a covert operative's identity is a violation of federal

Not true. A Lexis-Nexus search of all stories on the outing of Valerie Plame that appeared in the Post shows that the paper consistently emphasized the fact that no crime had been established, but that it would be a crime if a name of a covert operative had been revealed.

For example, although Hyman says that the Post claimed “serious damage” could result from the leak, the complete quotation in context reveals the hypothetical nature of the Post’s statement:

[A] specific criminal law prevents disclosure of [undercover
agents’] identities. If, as reported, Ms. Plame was such an operative,
then the disclosure of her name and the name of her CIA front company may have
caused serious damage. [Emphasis added]

In fact, articles and editorials in the Post consistently made a point of saying that no crime had been established. In an October 5, 2003 column, Ted Gup wrote:
"But many crucial facts are still unknown: how and why information was disclosed, by whom, to whom, even whether a crime was committed."

Gup went on to suggest that those chomping at the bit for a criminal investigation of the Plame affair might be in the wrong:

Those who now so passionately demand that the administration come
clean, who call for a robust investigation, who cloak themselves in the flag,
may unwittingly be making the same mistake as the presumed leakers -- that is,
seizing a short-term political advantage at grave long-term expense.

Because this article doesn’t fit Hyman’s caricature of the Post, he pretends it doesn’t exist.

A January 2, 2004 article noted that even if an administration official knowingly leaked Plame’s name to the media for political purposes, a crime might not have been committed:

The Justice Department investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity
could conclude that administration officials disclosed the woman's name and
occupation to the media but still committed no crime because they did not know
she was an undercover operative, legal experts said this week.

A November 15, 2004 article stated that, “The leak of Ms. Plame's status may have been a crime -- though that is not yet clear.” [Emphasis added]

In fact, a perusal of the dozens of Plame-related articles in the Post revealed only one case in which a statement was made that asserted a crime had been committed, and that appeared in the context of a direct quotation from Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson.

Perhaps the most bizarre attempt to paint the Post as a rabid scandal-mongering rag is Hyman’s claim that “[I]n an article about the leak there was no mistaking the meaning of the Post's bold statement ‘The intentional disclosure of a covert operative's identity is a violation of federal law.’”

There was “no mistaking” the meaning of this “bold statement”?

Even out of context, this sentence is simply a statement of fact; it *is* a violation of federal law to disclose an operative’s name (a fact that is important to include in order to explain the motivation to call for an investigation into the leak). As I tell my students, there’s a big difference between making a claim or assertion and simply stating a fact. Maybe Hyman needs to go back to college. (To see this statement in its original context, go

The fact that Hyman has to stretch to such ludicrous lengths in his attempts to portray the Post as hypocritical suggests what an examination of the actual Post articles and editorials confirms: there’s no hypocrisy in the Post’s take on the Plame affair, which amounts to simply noting that a crime is alleged to have occurred, but that until one is proved, locking up reporters for not talking about it makes no sense.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lost in Hyman-World

To take Mark Hyman’s analogy to the next step, a broken compass doesn’t help you find your way, but unlike Hyman himself, at least it doesn’t deliberately mislead you.

Hyman suggests that the recent resignation of Russell Redenbaugh from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was the result solely of liberal mismanagement. In fact, Hyman claims Redenbaugh laid the blame for financial problems facing the commission “squarely at the feet of Mary Frances Berry and her staff director Les Jin [two liberal members of the commission].”

But as Hyman himself notes, Berry and Jin were thrown out of office by President Bush months ago. In fact, the commission has been in the control of conservatives since the beginning of the year. So why did Redenbaugh resign if those supposedly fiscally disciplined conservatives took over the show?

Because they’re not (at least in Redenbaugh’s opinion). According to the
Washington Post, Redenbaugh doesn’t think much has changed:

Redenbaugh said in an interview yesterday, the commissioners seemed no more willing to implement financial reforms after the board changed from liberal to conservative hands at the beginning of the year.

This directly contradicts Hyman’s characterization of Redenbaugh’s reasons for leaving.

In addition, Hyman claims the commission was “wrapped in controversy in the 1990s.” That’s literally only the half of it. The commission began its decent into partisanship under Ronald Reagan, who appointed Clarence Pendleton as its chair. Pendleton’s outspoken partisanship (he was against Affirmative Action and equal rights for women) anticipated (and perhaps influenced) Berry’s controversial style in the 1990s.

Reagan in fact attempted to fire Berry and other liberal members of the commission when they criticized the administration’s positions on civil rights and opposed Pendleton. Berry sued and was reinstated.

There’s no sign that conservative partisanship under Bush is any less shameless than under Reagan. As the Post article notes, the current commission is taking up the issues of Affirmative Action in awarding contracts and the effects of Social Security reform on minorities. By itself, that’s fine. The problem is that the conservative-controlled commission is using studies by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute as the basis for its investigation. This all but assures that the “impartial” findings of the commission will mirror the Bush administration’s agenda.

And it wouldn’t be a Hyman commentary without camouflaging a conservative source as “non-partisan.” Hyman pointedly notes that Redenbaugh is a “political independent,” a fact he uses to suggest criticism of Berry and the commission as a whole is unaffected by partisanship.

But while Redenbaugh may not be officially affiliated with either party, that does not make him a “political independent.” As the Post story notes, Redenbaugh was considered a conservative voice on the panel. This isn’t surprising given Redenbaugh’s political leanings. While not calling himself a Republican, he certainly acted like one. One only needs to take a look at the sizable contributions Redenbaugh and his wife, Patricia, have made to GOP
committees, candidates, and PACs in recent years to know where he stands.

This does not in itself negate Redenbaugh’s charges about the commission. There’s widespread agreement that the commission has been dysfunctional for years (going back well before the 1990s). However, Hyman’s intentionally incomplete characterization of Redenbaugh as part of his attempt to frame the problems of the commission as a product solely of liberal actions is misleading in the extreme.

What’s the lesson here? When entering Hyman-World, make sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman and the Misstatement of the Media

[Editorial note: this commentary can also be found at]

On the April 5 edition of "The Point," Sinclair Broadcast Group commentator Mark Hyman attacked the quality of mainstream media outlets, singling out newspapers for particular criticism. Hyman suggested that local news -- Sinclair's own business -- is a more reliable, popular, and trusted news source than the "liberal media." But a comparison of Hyman's claims with the source he cites to back them up -- the recently released annual report from the Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), State of the News Media 2005 -- reveals that Hyman and his employer are the last people who should be passing judgment on the state of contemporary journalism.

Given that Hyman speaks as an employee of a company devoted to buying up local television stations and remaking their news programming, it's not surprising that Hyman would focus on the positive numbers for local television news as compared to other media. From "The Point":

HYMAN: Local TV news is the most used news sector, with 59 percent of Americans
watching it. It is also the "most believable" category with 23 percent of
Americans ranking it so. Next came network TV news at 22 percent. Newspapers are the least believable of all media sources, with a rating of just 17 percent.
Cable and Internet news ranked above newspapers.

These numbers are misleading in two important ways. First, Hyman's claim that local TV news is the most used news sector obscures the fact that regular viewership for local news has declined steadily over the last decade. The 59 percent figure Hyman refers to is the number of people who refer to themselves as "regular" viewers of local news. But that number is down from 77 percent in 1993. In fact, eroding viewership is one of several negative trends afflicting local news since the mid-1990s.

As for the claim that local news is the most trusted voice in the media, it's simply false. Hyman lumps all cable news into a single category, but, the
poll cited by PEJ, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, asked questions that were more detailed than Hyman lets on. Respondents were asked to compare local news to each of the three broadcast news networks, several newspapers, and several cable news outlets. While local news bested NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News by one percentage point each, CBS' 60 Minutes and CNN both finished ahead of local news, and even Fox News finished in a dead heat with local news.

Beyond the simple desire to suggest Sinclair's own product, local news, is superior to other news media, there's another possible motivation behind Hyman's commentary. Though ostensibly a journalistic enterprise, Sinclair's News Central operation, which provides "news" content to the 62 local broadcast stations that Sinclair owns or manages, benefits from a growing skepticism about "truth" and "facts" being presented in the media. If everything is assumed to be slanted or biased, then Sinclair's practices become the norm rather than the exception. Hence, we have someone posing as a journalistic voice - Hyman -- suggesting that journalism as traditionally conceived is going the way of the dinosaur. The more jaded the public becomes about old-fashioned concepts like objectivity, fairness, and balance being crucial to the journalistic enterprise, the better it is for Sinclair.

Not surprisingly, Hyman remains silent on the many less flattering findings the PEJ reports about local news in general and Sinclair Broadcast Group in particular. According to the study, audiences for local news have been
shrinking in recent years. This, in combination with a stagnant economy and ownership consolidation, has brought hard times to local news operations. Sinclair and Hyman himself are singled out in the report as factors in the growing discontent with relaxation of ownership regulations:

The issue of media ownership might have been ignored during the
presidential campaign except for a late controversy involving Sinclair Broadcast
Group. ... One of the largest groups in the country by number of stations owned,
and reaching more than a quarter of U.S. homes, the Sinclair group had also been
one of the most aggressive companies when it came to exploiting the post-1996
media ownership regulations. Indeed, Sinclair, headquartered outside Baltimore,
even used the courts to try to dismantle the remaining rules. In April 2002 it
won a ruling from a federal appeals court ordering the FCC to either rationalize
its ban on duopolies in certain markets or eliminate its regulations. In the
face of the controversy surrounding the FCC's proposed ownership rules, Powell
would argue that he had no choice but to deregulate in the face of the Sinclair
ruling and similar court decisions."

Many suspected partisanship in Sinclair's plans to run [the
anti-John Kerry
] 'Stolen Honor.' The company had previously blocked the showing on its
ABC affiliates of a 'Nightline' tribute to soldiers killed in Iraq, and
political donations by company executives significantly favored Republicans over
Democrats. The company also required its stations to air commentaries by Mark
Hyman, a Sinclair executive who was a blunt, talk-radio-style critic of the
Democratic party and an advocate of conservative positions and the GOP. Finally,
Sinclair was also highly likely to benefit from the ownership rules revision
approved by the FCC's three Bush-appointed commissioners.

Such revisions would further empower Sinclair to follow its business model, which is geared toward de-localizing local news and using the public airwaves for purposes of turning a profit and espousing the political beliefs of its owner. Therefore, we shouldn't be shocked that Hyman would be silent on the central conclusion of the PEJ report: that the encroachment of profit pressures onto news operations is harming the integrity of news organizations nationwide.

Among the study's other findings that would rub Sinclair executives the wrong way:

  • Many observers now believe that local news must become less centralized (or is that News Central-ized?) and become a more truly local product geared toward its specific audience if it is to survive.
  • Since the late 1990s, the amount of "third-party" material used in local newscasts has increased, while the number of on-air reporters delivering stories has decreased.
    In the last two years alone, the "believability" of local news (as measured by viewers' attitudes) has
    fallen measurably.
  • When asked two basic questions about the presidential candidates in 2004, viewers who got their news primarily from local TV were the least knowledgeable (only 14 percent were able to answer both questions correctly). Newspaper readers came out on top, followed by viewers of cable news and network news.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the viewing public feel local news decisions are often influenced by a desire to get higher ratings. More than half (54 percent) believe local news stations are often influenced by a desire to make a profit when making journalistic decisions.
    Since 1998, local news has tended to feature more and more stories that are
    easy and cheap to produce, at the expense of local news stories. When local news is covered, it's often done in a perfunctory manner.
  • The PEJ report cites a survey by NewsLab, a nonprofit research institute serving local TV and radio stations, which found that homogenized content of local news has played a significant role in driving viewers away.

It's not just that these findings about local news suggest that the medium is in worse shape than Hyman lets on; it's that nearly all of them are indicative of the effect that Sinclair itself, and media consolidation in general, has had on local news.

One last fact from the PEJ study helps put things in perspective: Notice that many of the negative trends in local news mentioned in the study have emerged or become particularly acute in the last eight to 10 years. In 1995, Sinclair Broadcast Group owned 14 stations; it currently owns or manages 62 stations nationwide, adding more stations both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage increase in its holdings than any other ownership group. Sinclair is now the
largest single owner of local television affiliates in the country.

Make of this fact what you will.

And that's The Counterpoint

Friday, April 08, 2005

How Much Would You Pay Now? But Wait, There's More!

Sometimes, “The Point” is most disturbing when it’s at its most banal. A case in point is Hyman’s recent turn as infomercial pitch man for an upcoming book.

Hyman recently spent
an entire commentary praising the upcoming book Under and Alone, a memoir written by a former undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

The book might be fabulous, and certainly anyone who has devoted his professional life to law enforcement deserves thanks. But why do we have to be subjected to a two-minute commercial for this book instead of having actual local news? How is this advertisement serving the “public good”?

This sort appropriation of the public airwaves emphasizes the most objectionable thing about “The Point”: the theft of the local airwaves from viewers. Hyman’s opinions, as mistaken, biased, and ill-considered and expressed as they are, aren’t as problematic as the fact that Sinclair forces his views on its audience by appropriating a public resource, the airwaves, that should be a resource for the community.

Think about what might be done with that extra two minutes (not a small percentage of a half-hour newscast, given commercials) that isn’t being done because (in this particular case) Hyman wants to sell you a book.

Would you like to see more coverage of an upcoming referendum vote in your community? Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

Perhaps you’d like to see coverage of local National Guard unit being deployed to Iraq. Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

How about more attention to local high school sports that don’t usually get the attention they deserve during local sportscast? Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

Maybe you’d like to see an interview with an economics professor from your local college to provide some local insight into the debate on Social Security. Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

Given the recent controversy over the Schiavo case, you might want to have a report on where local residents can go to have living wills drawn up or where they might go to talk to professionals about end-of-life care decisions. Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

Local news often seems to be about accidents and crime. You might want to see a regular feature on someone making a positive difference in your community as a way of providing some “good news.” Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

And just maybe you’d like to see an actual journalist from your very own community providing a reasoned and cogent editorial position on issues of local interest, and have other local figures have a chance to respond on occasion as well. Tough—Mark Hyman wants to sell you a book.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the unmitigated rightwing bias of Hyman’s editorials and the lazy, deceitful ways in which he makes his arguments. These are certainly aspects of “The Point” that richly deserve condemnation. But ultimately, it’s the arrogant and unapologetic commandeering of the airwaves that’s the most egregious betrayal of viewers perpetrated by Sinclair.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Gridiron Garbage

I’ll have a longer response to Mark Hyman’s comments on the state of the media later on Friday (which will also be cross-posted on
SinclairAction’s website), but I wanted to briefly touch on Hyman’s specific remarks about the Gridiron dinner.

Hyman claims that one reason newspapers “no longer have American trust” is exemplified by the fact that the Washington Post described the proceedings of the “off the record” Gridiron dinner and described a song that wasn’t actually performed.

Hyman says, “Two days later, the Post dismissed its fabricating of news by way of a correction notice, admitting no such skit ever took place.”

Although Hyman insinuates that the Washington Post violated the sanctity of the Gridiron Dinner by reporting on it, the fact is that the proceedings are only technically “off the record.” In fact, this year’s dinner was even covered by the
Associated Press. To suggest the Washington Post’s summary of the events was unusual or out of order is deceptive.

As for the reporting of the unperformed song, the Post’s reporter apparently was describing the event based on a script that included the performance, but the song was cut just before the dinner. Writing at least partial versions of articles describing scripted events beforehand, particularly when the event occurs late in the evening and the story is set to run the following morning, is a widespread practice in newspaper reporting.

Then there’s Hyman’s use of the word “dismissed.” This word suggests that the Post made light of the error or didn’t take responsibility for it. They did. That’s what correction notices do. In its correction, the Post said:

"the article incorrectly reported that a satirical version of ‘Sweet Home
Alabama’ was performed at the dinner and described reaction to it. Such a skit was written, but it was dropped before the final performance."

In what way is this statement dismissive? What should the Post have said instead? Hyman does not say.

Oh, and satirical song’s subject (who goes unnamed by Hyman)? Journalist-for-hire and Sinclair favorite, Armstrong Williams.

There’s plenty of things that specific newspapers and print journalism in general can be faulted for, and several underlying reasons for the drop in the audience for newspapers. But the attempt to smear the Washington Post for political purposes on the basis of a mistaken inclusion of a detail in a story from its style section is simply dumb.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


It’s nice when Mark Hyman as much as admits that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on when making his argument. Of course, he never says so in so many words, but when he relies on name calling and obvious hypocrisy to make his points, it’s a tacit admission that he’s out of ammo.

A case in point is
his recent commentary on Senator Barbara Boxer’s idea that a supermajority of 60 votes to confirm presidential judicial appointments.

First, Hyman relies on the favorite argumentative tool of the truly desperate: name calling. Although it’s not material to the topic at hand, Hyman makes a point of saying that Boxer floated this idea at “a rally of the I-hate-America-group MoveOn.Org.” Why is a hate group? Hyman never says. Apparently it’s simply because they dare to support political policies with which he disagrees. With characteristic hubris, Hyman suggests that anyone who disagrees with his ideas must hate America; notice that the unstated premise here is that Hyman’s ideas ARE America. To oppose one is to oppose the other.

Then we have a straightforward misstatement of facts. Chastising Boxer for needing a “remedial” course on the Constitution, Hyman makes a claim that suggests it is he, not Boxer, who needs to go to legislative summer school. According to Hyman, in the Constitution, “Article II provides that the president requires a simple majority approval of the Senate to make appointments.”

Not true. Article II, among other things, says that 2/3 “supermajority” is needed to ratify treaties. It then says that the Senate must approve executive appointments. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Clause 2: [The president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

You can look for the part that says a simple majority is needed for approval all you want. You won’t find it. Hyman is flat wrong. It is true that the traditional practice has been to approve such appointments with a simple majority, but that’s because the Senate itself has decided this. The Constitution lays out a number of times when a two-thirds majority is required by the Constitution. When the Constitution doesn’t spell out a certain restriction, it is left to the Senate to make its own rules. If the Senate wants to, it can require a 60 vote majority for approval of executive appointments. Whether it should or not is another matter entirely, but contrary to Hyman’s specific claim, it would not require a Constitutional amendment. I’m sure he “regrets the error.”

Hyman also doesn’t mention that Boxer isn’t the only one in the Senate proposing changes in the rules regarding judicial appointments. Hyman lambasts Boxer for her seemingly radical idea, but the fact is that with the filibuster, it already effectively requires 60 Senators to ensure appointment of a nominee. Boxer’s proposal simply would spell out what’s already the unstated status quo. Meanwhile, Senator Bill Frist is attempting to actually
change the rules of the Senate substantively. Precisely because of the threat of filibuster, Frist has floated the idea of changing longstanding Senate rules so that a simple majority rather than the traditional supermajority of 60 would be needed to end debate (i.e, to stop a filibuster). He suggests this only in the particular case of judicial nominees. Gosh, I wonder why?

Republicans have also championed the wonders of the supermajority in the past in a number of contexts, most notably in the effort to insulate the wealthy from changes in the tax code that would require them to contribute to the wellbeing of the nation in an equitable way.

There’s no shortage of hypocrisy involved in this issue. Democrats in the Senate are using the rules to influence the choice of judicial nominees to the extent possible for a minority. The Republicans used the rules to keep Clinton nominees from receiving an up or down vote as well (although they often used much more secretive Senate rules to table nominations; at least the filibuster tactic is out there in the open). Whenever the one party is in power, they accuse the other of being “obstructionist.”

Republicans defend their actions in the past primarily by appealing to the bogeyman of “activist judges.” But “activist” is an epithet that’s entirely in the eye of the beholder. Republicans want conservative judges on the bench who will be likely to rule in ways to change public policy in ways they approve of (the most obvious example being Roe v.Wade). This is no less “judicial activism” than judges that rule that same-sex unions are Constitutional. “Activism” is simply a label that’s applied to judicial decisions that interpret the law in ways those using the term disagree with.

I’ve stated my view on this topic before. Although a progressive, I believe the judiciary, with its lifetime appointments, is far too important to be used crassly as a political tool (something both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of). I would feel far more comfortable, for example, with a Supreme Court that accurately reflected a range of judicial approaches to interpreting the law. While a court of nine progressive-minded judges would be preferable (to me) to nine Scalias, the optimal state of affairs would be have judges on the court who are not ideologues, or if they are, are equally distributed across the political spectrum.

Given that the overwhelming number of Bush appointments have been passed, it seems that the best solution to the problem is for the administration to simply nominate judges that at least a handful of Democrats could support. By taking a more mature and ethical approach to judicial nominations, the posturing of Boxer and Frist become a non-issue. But given that despite his record low approval ratings, Bush still seems to labor under the impression that he has a “mandate” that’s given him “political capital,” the odds of this administration taking a more responsible approach to its most high-profile nominations are slim indeed.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Monday, April 04, 2005

With Two You Get Eggroll, Chairman Mark

Is Mark Hyman an ill-informed windbag, or does he just play one on TV?

Hyman’s recent commentary comparing the American Civil Liberties Union with Communist China is so rife with mistakes that it’s difficult to judge whether Hyman knows the truth and is simply being dishonest, or whether he’s actually as ignorant as he appears to be.

Hyman’s problem this time with the ACLU is their claim that they have voiced criticism of the United States’ record on human rights:

The ACLU states it wants to "…hold the United States government accountable under universally recognized human rights principles…"

Those Geneva-Convention-loving bastards! How dare they have the chutzpah to want their country to act in accord with basic human dignity?!

In a rather flaccid attempt at guilt by association, Hyman notes the ACLU recently partnered with the Open Society Institute:

The Society's mission statement claims, in part, that "…in the
United States, the dominant values have become those of market fundamentalism, which rejects a role for government and poses a threat to political quality, public services, racial justice and the social safety net."

And? It’s not clear whether Hyman is questioning the claim that market fundamentalism is the driving force in American society or the idea that this might not be a good thing. Apparently in his mind, however, this statement is so obviously beyond the pale that it not only invalidates anything the Open Society Institute might say, but the ACLU as well on the basis of their willingness to fraternize with such a group.

Hyman could offer a counterargument challenging either or both premises of the Open Society’s claim (admittedly this would be difficult, and would still leave the question open of why this invalidates the ACLU’s stance on human rights in the United States, but let’s not get greedy). But instead he digs into the right-wing reactionary collection of greatest hits and offers a tired bit of red-baiting, comparing the ACLU to Communist China :

Not unlike the Communist Chinese, the ACLU abhors individual
religious freedom and it supports only those civil liberties that fit its narrow political agenda.

This still fails to suggest what is so scandalous about suggesting the United States should comport itself along accepted norms of basic decency, but it’s also just wrong.
The ACLU’s position on religion is not only quite clear, but should be one that any true conservative would embrace. The ACLU believes that individuals should be allowed to practice religion without the interference of any large institution, particularly the government. Last time I checked, the cornerstone of conservative thought was that individuals should be unfettered from government regulations. That’s the ACLU position on religion in a nutshell.

“But wait,” the Hymans of the world will say, “that’s just a nice way of saying that there should be no public display of religious belief at all. The ACLU wants to keep people from expressing their religious beliefs!”

Nothing could be further from the truth, and the facts bear this out beyond any doubt. Like or loathe the ACLU, you can’t accuse them of not supporting religious expression when it’s done by individuals. The problem comes when expressions are made on behalf of the government. Yes, the ACLU has challenged placing the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, but consider the following:

In 1986, the ACLU defended the right of a Jewish man to wear a yarmulke while on duty with the Air Force. The ACLU believed that the man shouldn’t be told not to express his religious beliefs as long as it didn’t interfere with his duties. By the way, the conservative Rutherford Institute supported the Air Force position.

But surely that was just because the guy involved was Jewish? The ACLU hates Christianity, right?

Nope. Within the last year, the ACLU defended the right of Christians to perform baptisms in a public park in Virginia. The ACLU defended two jurors who were removed from a jury because of their religious activities (one of them had done missionary work; the other was a Muslim woman who wore religious clothing). When the city government of Lincoln, Nebraska was using zoning laws to try to shut down a Presbyterian church, the ACLU came to the defense of the church. The ACLU also defended a Catholic man who was punished by a court for not completing a drug rehabilitation program that included overt efforts to convert him to the Pentecostal faith. For additional information on the many ways the ACLU has defended individual religious liberty, see the Media Matters story on this issue.

Hyman ends his commentary with the following:

Come to think of it, it's next to impossible to separate the
rhetoric of the ACLU, the Open Society Institute and the Communist

Let’s see: when individuals voice their personal opinions against the government in China, they get run over by tanks. Meanwhile, the ACLU comes to the defense of individuals whose rights to personal religious belief and expression are infringed on by the government.

On the other hand, Hyman attacks groups that champion individual liberty, human rights, the ability to criticize government, and the right of people to not have their religious beliefs infringed on by the state.

Mark, is that egg fu yong on your face?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

"The Point": All the Rubbish That Fits in Two Minutes

In Mark Hyman’s world, the New York Times is a biased, partisan propaganda rag, and the International Republican Institute is a source of “non-partisan” information.


Hyman cites the IRI (
which is exactly as non-partisan as the name implies) while complaining about a Times piece that discussed the frustration of many Iraqis feel concerning the delay in forming a functioning government. Hyman claims this runs “exactly counter to the facts” and through in the assertion that “within days” of the Iraqi elections, democratic reforms swept through Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (a statement which is both a non-sequitur and just plain wrong).

As for the IRI and its agenda, take a look at the fine piece by
Media Matters for America that details the membership of this conservative think tank, and decide whether or not this group is the best source of unbiased facts about the situation in Iraq.

Also note, however, that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts the IRI findings that Iraqis are “hopeful” about the future, this in no way contradicts the Times piece. One can be hopeful about the long term future of one’s country and still be fed up with the current state of affairs. Ask me if I’m “hopeful” about the future of America, I’ll probably say yes. Ask me if I’m pleased with the current state of our government, and . . . well . . . you get the idea.

As far as pessimism goes, the charge that somehow the New York Times is making it up is untenable. As many of us noted in the aftermath of the elections in Iraq, forming a government is much harder than simply holding a vote The image of purple-fingered Iraqis leaving the polls was hopeful and heartwarming (despite the fact that many Iraqis, including the vast majority of Sunni Muslims, boycotted the election). But everyone can afford to be hopeful when you can still hope that the results will match your desires (compare your own feelings on November 3 and November 4 of last year to get a visceral feel for what the Iraqis are going through).

The fact that the Iraqi government hasn’t even managed to agree on a speaker says all you need about the attitude most Iraqis must have toward their government. How could one not be frustrated? And they’re not alone.
U.S. officials are themselves now acknowledging that the road to a truly democratic government in Iraq will be far bumpier than first expected.

But Hyman’s rhetoric is predicated on things being good or bad, black or white, and simple to the point of being utterly detached from reality. Anyone who offers facts that suggest any complication of Hyman’s worldview (or at least the worldview he paints in his commentaries) is not simply mistaken, but evil. Hence, Hyman’s commentary ends with the despicable and idiotic statement that the New York Times “would like you to think Iraq was better off when Saddam Hussein was in charge.”

I need hardly mention that this claim was not supported by a single bit of evidence. Remember, Hyman is talking about the same New York Times that felt
compelled to admit that it accepted the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq without the requisite journalistic skepticism and questioning. But Hyman has placed the Times in his constellation of “devil” terms that are to be invoked along with the “liberal media” and academic “failures” whenever these sources of information provide facts that Hyman would like his audience to ignore.

As we’ve seen before, Hyman tends to project his own conflicts, deficiencies, and shady motivations onto others, and we once again see that here. In fact, if we do just a minor bit of editing to Hyman’s words, we end up with a wonderfully succinct self-diagnosis by Mr. Hyman: the facts “do not support the message [Mark Hyman] is trying to spread. In its trademark arrogant way, [“The Point”] is working overtime to portray an attitude in Iraq that just does not exist.”

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Cost of the War in Iraq
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