“Enemy of the State”?!

That’s what Sean Hannity called … Sean Penn? And no, he didn’t seem to be kidding. Better yet, proclaiming an “Enemy of the State” each week is going to be a regular feature on the show.

When someone I disagree with says something really, truly, astoundingly, shockingly, double-plus stupid, I’m always just a little bit hesitant to jump up and down on his head, for fear he might be making a joke. So when TPM’s Eric Kleefeld reported that Sean Hannity had started declaring a weekly “Enemy of the State,” I had my doubts. Was it possible that Hannity was just doing a send-up of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” and Duncan Black’s “Wanker of the Day”?

Nope. Watch for yourself. It’s not humor. It’s not deadpan humor. Hannity is just teed off at Sean Penn, who insulted all the honest toilers in America’s sexual-services industry by calling Hannity a “whore.”

Hannity isn’t trying to be funny; he’s just boringly annoyed, and prepared to use a Stalinist/Nazi/Orwellian label to express his annoyance. (Just imagine the outcry from the right if Olbermann called his targets “Enemies of the People,” and contrast it with the deafening silence from that side of the aisle about Hannity’s lapse in judgment.)

Doesn’t Fox News have any any adult supervision at all?

Update Garance Franke-Ruta points out that Hannity isn’t alone in calling political opponents enemies of the country: Fox’s Gretchen Carlson did it to Ted Kennedy. Maybe it was in the morning memo from Roger Ailes. And the Heritage Foundation has invited Dinesh D’Souza to explain that the “cultural left” is the “enemy at home” because Islamic extremists hate secularism, and the left as the carrier of secularism is thus responsible for the 9/11 attacks. This continues the lunatic Right’s thread of argument that goes, approximately, “They hate us for our freedom, so let’s have less freedom and then they’ll love us.”

And once again we hear a deafening silence from those who posed as defenders of “civility” when some of the people at Paul Wellstone’s memorial service booed politicians who had profoundly slandered Wellstone just before his death.

What is the Blogosphere? Mr. Kos–meet Mr. Greeley

In the wake of Yearly Kos, Blogistan is getting a lot of very sophomoric attention from the MSM. The overall winner, is TNR’s Lee Siegel, who has commented that the blogosphere is “hard fascism with a Microsoft face” (whatever that means). Siegel’s work has received the derision it deserves, and so too has David Brooks.

Ironically, though, there is a very good analogy to the current blogosphere, which as far as I can tell has been ignored by most of the pundits, both on- and off-line. I am speaking of pre-World War I American newspapers.

Throughout the first 150 years or so of American history, newspapers had little pretense of being high-culture, objective sources. There were Federalist papers and Jeffersonian papers, Jacksonian and Whig papers, Democratic and Republican papers, etc. They were harshly partisan and often insulting: Abraham Lincoln was a baboon, Andrew Jackson an adulterer, John Adams a monarchist, etc. etc. They also featured much of the best writing around.

This was true even of the New York Times. Henry Raymond, the Times’ publisher during the Civil War, simultaneously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and no one thought that this was something odd. Across town, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, actively lobbied delegates at the 1860 Republican convention. As Richard Carwardine demonstrates in his superb new Lincoln biography, the administration relied heavily on the advice from newspaper editors to gauge public opinion.

In the fiercely partisan 1790’s, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson even hired Philippe Freneau as a State Department translator in order to tide Freneau over so that he could publish a rabidly anti-Hamiltonian newspaper. Hamilton responded in just as partisan a fashion in the pages of The National Gazette, a Federalist sheet. Newspapers were critical in building the Jeffersonian political infrastructure.

There were also lots of newspapers: many cities had 7 or 8 a day, and they came out with at least two editions a day. After the Union triumph at Atlanta, readers stormed the offices of the National Intelligencer to get the most recent reports.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the blogosphere is similar: fiercely partisan and ideological, burgeoning in number, producing quick news cycles. Obviously, there are significant differences, but the pattern holds.

What does all of this mean? First, it suggests that the analogy to fascism or irresponsibility or antidemocratic character is just ridiculous.

Second, it points to how the MSM can establish a new market niche for itself: by doing its job. There’s nothing really new in this call, but the reason why “quality papers” and an “objective media” arose might have been because the market for information was saturated with opinion and at times bile. Newspapers were also the way that political parties could transmit their messages: they can do the same now through the web. No one needs NPR or the NYT to tell us what the President said: we can just access it through blogs or websites. How about doing some actual reporting, for a change?

Third–and this is very sketchy, because my knowledge is thin–changes in the economy and technology made the newspaper wars obsolete. Economies of scale and bigger costs of newsprint and paper put the small sheets out of business; electronic media made several editions less valuable. There’s no obvious equivalent on the web, unless Congres scuttles net neutrality and makes production of websites costly. But I’m wondering whether there won’t be some economic or technological change that profoundly alters the structure over the next few years.

No–I don’t know what that will be. If I did, I would be investing in it.

Stamps

The Postal Service has come up with the interesting idea of selling a defined service instead of a piece of pseudo-money. The “forever stamp” will be good for a first class letter indefinitely, so when rates go up, you won’t have to find and affix an extra two- or three-cent stamp. [Please note that I am not making the obvious joke about the name of this stamp actually referring to the time it will take to get your letter delivered. If you like that joke, you can make it yourself.]

I’ve now heard an NPR, and read two print media, stories on this and none of them explains what a great deal this is for the Postal Service, instead parroting their official line on customer value (of course, both can be true) and recounting worries from this and that opiner about whether the Postal Service might lose money on the deal.

Lose money? That would take some doing. What’s not being mentioned is that a stamp is an interest- free loan from you to the Postal Service, rather like a traveler’s check. They should sell all they can, rolls and rolls of them, and hope everyone stashes a lifetime supply in the drawer, as long as they have a place to put the revenue that earns more than rates will go up. If they do, they’ll have enough to deliver your letter when you finally mail it, and money left over. As it happens, first-class postage has increased 29c since 1974, only about 3.125 percent per year, so interest rates would have to be historically low for this stamp not to be a bad financial bet for you and a good one for the Postal Service. Not to mention the stamps that will be eaten by the dog or just lost, which are all gravy.

Actually, I think this is a good idea on the whole, as long as one just buys a reasonable supply, purely to avoid the inconvenience of having to top them up when rates increase. But I wish our reporters would tell the story properly.

Iran: so far away

Latest substance on Iran: no nukes for a long time. Latest politics: Just say “No.” And repeat. And repeat.

The Gray Lady, a few years late, has decided not to buy Administration spin. Here’s how far Iran really is from building nukes. I’m glad somebody has managed to remember that one should not simultaneously call a society a fanatical totalitarian dictatorship (more true by the day, in fact) and profess to believe all its propaganda.

I had a complicated, twisty-twirly attitude towards the politics of wiretapping, and still do. But this is different. The case for attacking Iran is awful; the case for doing so soon is worse than awful; the prospect that Bush will murder a bunch of Iranians before the midterm elections and in order to win the midterm elections is criminal. More to the point, large majorities of the public seem willing to believe these propositions: they don’t want to invade Iran, and they don’t trust Bush on the issue. (Even the FoxNews push-poll cross-dressing as newsgathering is equivocal.)

The right message regarding an attack on Iran is “No, No, No, No. No.” Followed by “No.”

And if anyone wants more spin for cable news, “Wag the Dog.”

UPDATE: Tom Hilton of If I Ran the Zoo takes up this idea (if idea it be) except with analysis. In particular, he (like Josh Marshall) reminds Democrats not to get hung up on the substance of the Administration line on Iran—to believe the sincerity of which is, after all we’ve learned, to give that crowd way too much credit. Here good politics is good policy: only repeated, unified political opposition, as we pulled off on Social Security, has any chance of preventing this catastrophe.

TPM Muckraker: The Blogosphere Gets a Boss—And About Time

TPM muckraker is a nonprofit, email-tip-based wonder, likely to become among the best the blogosphere has to offer. It’s also an old-fashioned organization with a boss—a sign that even in cyberspace, anarchy only takes one so far.

I’m keeping my head down this week writing a conference paper (this here counts as a study break) and therefore missed the long-anticipated rollout of TPM Muckraker, the blue-chip, fact-based clearinghouse for news on GOP scandals, spun off from Joshua Micah Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo.” It’s a terrific resource, and I recommend it. (Disclosure: I have not a conflict of interest but a conflict of affections: having given the site a small donation, I’m obligated by Franklin’s Law to like it.)

This new site is noteworthy for its structure as well as its contents. It’s a hybrid. (Details from Marshall, and links to past reflections by him, here.) First, it’s part nonprofit, as the above indicates. Predicted ad revenues weren’t enough to support it, so it’s “altruistically” funded, i.e. propaganda—not a criticism, and it shows every sign of being very high quality propaganda. Second, it’s largely based on reader tips, and in this way highly suited to the web format and in particular to readers with email. (The regular Talking Points Memo’s full court press against Republicans and Democrats who waffled on Social Security privatization would have been possible, though unlikely, in a daily print format, or even as a phone tree—but hardly possible before email.)

But most of all, this is a standard journalistic enterprise. Blogs are basically free-lance operations, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bloggers trade on the reputation of their commentary as Christopher Hitchens and Seymour Hirsch trade on the reputation of their bylines. But how does a solo blogger transfer a reputation for reliability (or the blog equivalent, willingness to run instant corrections), news nose, good judgment, and other journalistic virtues from him- or herself to a larger operation? Only one way: the blogger hires reporters and acts as their editor—and publisher, to be technical about it.

Marshall started blogging, it seems, because he preferred autonomy on a shoestring and endless hours to working at a magazine with a boss. That’s a fine preference, but it has its limits: now his operation is a magazine and he’s the boss—probably an informal and cool one, but still a boss. Microeconomists have a theory that explains why there are companies in the world and not just free-lancers; the ability to signal quality cheaply is a big part of it. Marshall has just shown that blogs are not immune from that theory.

Welcome to the iron cage, Josh. Like it or not, you’re the jailer. Use your keys wisely.

Can the Republicans Defend America?

In the New York Times today, Wellesley professor Kelly Greenhill notes something that should be repeated ad nauseam by every Democrat, in every election, at every opportunity. She writes:

DESPITE claims to the contrary by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Army is facing a manpower crisis. The evidence can be found in two separate reports released last month — one commissioned by the Pentagon, the other by Congressional Democrats — and in this simple fact: last year the Army accepted its least qualified pool in a decade.

The Army inducted both more recruits without high school diplomas and more youths scoring in the lowest category of the Army’s aptitude test, so-called Category IV recruits.

So why is it that the MSM is saying that Democrats have a problem with credibility on national security?

Why news should cost. A lot.

The demand to get reporting for free is nothing new. And it’s still stupid.

I’m a mild blogoskeptic. Blogs are a harmless hobby, and I obviously like them too. But I’m not sure that they represent a revolution in political argument or that they affect politics all that much. I suspect that most time spent reading blogs would be better spent reading history or watching a good film. So I guess I’m the resident skeptic here: a role rarely popular but often entertaining and occasionally useful. You judge.

For now, consider two blogosphere shibboleths: that news should be free, and that technology has changed fundamentally our attitude towards intellectual property.

Take Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, more than 80 years old. (Better, buy it. It’s much more important than the rest of this post.)

Chapter 21 reminds us of two important truths. First: news should cost. It should cost a lot, and we should pay for it. Second, those of us who consume it have always been too damn cheap to realize this.

Saith the Lippmann:

This insistent and ancient belief that truth is not earned, but inspired, revealed, supplied gratis, comes out very plainly in our economic prejudices as readers of newspapers. We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. We have accustomed ourselves now to paying two and even three cents on weekdays, and on Sundays, for an illustrated encyclopedia and vaudeville entertainment attached, we have screwed ourselves up to paying a nickel or even a dime. Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper. He expects the fountains of truth to bubble, but he enters into no contract, legal or moral, involving any risk, cost or trouble to himself. He will pay a nominal price when it suits him, will stop paying whenever it suits him, will turn to another paper when that suits him.

Bloggers often acknowledge that reporting (whatever that is) takes skill. But they commonly slight how much skill, and what kinds, and how much sheer labor goes with the skill. Good beat reporters spend years figuring out whom to call for the crucial fact, how to talk to them, when not to believe them. In gathering news they have a kind of patience that intellectuals lack, and undervalue. (Forget the romance of Deep Throat: Woodstein broke Watergate by having a list of nearly a hundred sources, and calling them every day.) They know that a lot of reporting requires face-to-face legwork, which is why foreign correspondents are valuable and why Jayson Blair’s fabrication of datelines was a big deal. Most important: reporters serve long apprenticeships in the craft of engaging us, drawing in readers looking for excuses to skim or skip. This is phenomenally easier said than done, for reasons of character and professional ethos, not just skill. (Bloggers have a limited readership for a reason. I’m not the first one to start a post with stuff about myself, not a gripping story or, God forbid, a fact.) Truth is indeed earned, as Lippmann wrote, and as the lady in Fame says, reporters pay for it–in sweat.

Not all useful information is reported. Some is subsidized by taxpayers to facilitate public business, and takes the form most relevant, and most interesting, to those doing such business. Some comes from public-spirited groups hoping to bring truth before the public. This is called propaganda. Some comes from elected officials making persuasive arguments for their deeply held beliefs. This is also called propaganda. There’s nothing wrong in principle with either government reports or propaganda, but since little of it interests us, we come to find out about it in one of two ways: either we seek it out, and learn what we already want to learn, or somebody tells us that it’s actually worth a look. The people who do the latter most reliably are–again–working journalists, which means paid journalists, which means paid by someone: readers, or worse. We can of course rely on people people doing reporting for free, independent of professional training and journalistic organizations. On average, the result of such reporting-as-hobby relates to professional journalism as a soapbox racer relates to a Lexus, and for exactly the same reasons.

Or, most obviously, news can, and is, be brought to us by hucksters who realize that those who buy news buy other things too. Consumerism and citizenship may not be the same, but nobody who’s worked at a periodical can forget that consumers and citizens are the same. When I interned at Harper’s, our ad base proved that we were read by people prone to buy books about how the polity was going down the tubes, and men seeking submissive Asian brides by mail. (Notice I don’t say this was two different groups.)

Many of my colleagues would see this as a policy problem. Off the cuff, there are several ways of subsidizing the public good known as engaging, well-reported information. Libraries remain terrific. The Swedish policy (or former policy; haven’t kept track) of giving block grants to local newspapers should be considered. It’s not absurd to consider giving each citizen a hundred bucks to spend on newspaper subscriptions, paper or cyber (or no more absurd than third-class postage). The idea that you can pay for web content not just by subscribing but by watching a video ad seems to be spreading, and that’s good.

But Lippmann always knew when–and better, why–to mix policy analysis with good old fashioned moralism. The main barrier to a policy solution is that it would require self-indictment: as individuals, we’re too cheap, and have always been too cheap, to value news at what it costs. The news section of the New York Times’ National Edition alone contains, conservatively, 70 thousand or so words: a shortish book (and not a bad one). The astonishing thing is not that we think it should be free online, but that we expect it to cost only a buck in print–and less by subscription. Our denial about where news comes from is an old and serious intellectual vice, magnified only slightly by a new technology.

Short version: this will always be free. So will this. And this. This costs, in money or compulsory ad watching. This is, amazingly, free for now–in spite of the work, intelligence, and perseverance that went into reporting it–but will cost in a few days.

You takes your choice. But only if you pays your money. Pony up.

UPDATE: Mike O’Hare suggests that I’m ignoring the difference between price and cost, and in particular issues of marginal cost. As he puts it:

The news costs a lot to gather and provide, and it’s worth it. However, this is also true of the cathedral of Chartres and Central Park and clean air, but the correct price for those to consumers is zero for quite fundamental and non-ideological reasons: a safe rule of thumb in these matters is that everything should be made available at marginal cost, and the marginal cost of reading a newspaper on the web, given that there’s no less of it for you if I do, is a goose egg.

Betting on my economic illiteracy is normally a good way to get rich, but not this time. This is in fact one of the few policy issues that I know reasonably well. I wrote a thorough paper on it in college, complete with a chart showing that almost all the cost of producing a newspaper comes from the first copy, marginal costs rapidly falling. (Now Lippmann may not have been clear on this, having taken no micro. Glad to see this is one matter on which I know more than he. It may be the only one.)

But the question is: who pays for the first copy? In the case of Central Park, the public has underwritten the whole shebang, both by buying land and by funding (inadequate) upkeep. Cathedrals and great temples were funded by kings, lords, bishops, and such in order to impress people, show their power, inflict their esthetic views on others, and/or curry favor with their chosen deities. (Slate was founded by Guillaume Gates, Baron de Microsoft, on such a basis, and even so specializes in commentary, not beat reporting.) But the New York Times can’t rely on a lord’s vanity to keep reporters on payroll.

My intended point was moral, not economic–put differently, not about policy but about its preconditions. We won’t start to ASK the policy question until we realize that these are valuable commodities–as the blogosphere tends to deny. If consumers were really thinking, “wait,the marginal cost should be infinitesimal even though the first-copy costs are large,” they would think through the policy and maybe pay for some solution. But if, as is more likely, they think “it’s free, and darned right since it’s just slinging facts around,” that’s not a victory for either economics or public spirit.