One Person's Opinion

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Thursday, September 03, 2009
This morning, there was a line of media trucks as far as the eye could see, shown on television reporting from Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA. What was happening there? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, tonight, something will be happening there. Michael Jackson is going to be interred there. Many people would say that this is not a very important event and is a product of our tabloid celebrity culture. Fine. But to me, those "live" television trucks say something else-- something that would be just as true if they were lined up to cover a more important event.

Let's start with the fact that they were there at 7 in the morning. Nothing was going on at the cemetery at 7 in the morning. Indeed, one of the reporters actually said on the news that the trucks were interfering with parents trying to get their kids to a nearby elementary school on the first day of classes.

So why, exactly, are they out there, at a place where nothing is going to happen for 12 hours, interfering with unfortunate parents who are trying to drop their kids at school? Because the local morning "news" airs at 7 in the morning.

And that's the first thing you need to know about live reporting. Very little of it actually carries an event that is going on live. Not none of it, mind you-- those same morning news shows have been doing completely legitimate live reporting on the fires burning in the Angeles National Forest. But little of it.

Usually, live reports are either from the scene of an event that will happen sometime in the future or an event that has ended but occurred at sometime in the past. The live reporter is standing on a sidewalk in front of a place where nothing is going on (except other reporters also doing their live reports). The same words could be delivered from the studio. Indeed, in some cases, the reporter might be more comfortable and prepared doing it in a studio (think inclement weather, or stories that are more reliant on old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, phone calls, and the like).

And the cynicism inherent in the live reporter delivering the report when nothing is going on is breathtaking. Unless the event is going on during the newscast, you are not getting any benefit from having the reporter on the scene. The live report suggests importance, but if the event were really important, the station would break into regular programming to go to the live reporter while the event is in progress. Ever notice how they rarely do this?

Of course, one could argue that one advantage to at least some live reporting is that it places the reporter closer to people who might have information about the story. Thus, when the local news put their reporters near the courthouse for a story regarding a court proceeding, they theoretically can schmooze with the lawyers and gather additional information. However, in many cases, as I noted, there's nobody on the "scene" except other reporters, and even when there is a theoretical opportunity for access, I am simply not sure how much of this really goes on. I don't get the feeling that these on-scene reporters are doing a lot of actually reporting, as opposed to reading copy with a pretty backdrop.

And that's where the live report originates from the actual scene of something important or newsworthy. In many cases, the live report originates from a completely artificial location. For instance, if there's a story on unsafe food at supermarkets, they go live to outside of a supermarket, even though there isn't any unsafe food on the shelves of that supermarket. We had a local news reporter get electrocuted and seriously hurt during a report from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, when the satellite truck's dish got caught in some powerlines and conducted high voltage electricity into the reporter's body. The thing was, the reporter was doing a report on allegations of mistreatment of bodies in a cemetery in Riverside County, 60 miles east of Hollywood. The station didn't want to spend the money to send the reporter out to the facility actually named, so they sent her to the closest cemetery to the studio, in Hollywood, instead.

It's also important to note that these live reports interfere with people's daily lives. Every time a reporter takes up space on a sidewalk, they are blocking access to pedestrians who need to get somewhere. Every time a reporter sets up for a live shot at night on the evening news, they are shining blinding light which can cause auto accidents. And when hordes of reporters "cover" the same story, they make a neighborhood unliveable, they make it hard for people to get to work and do their business, and they essentially take over an area and make it unpleasant for human habitation until they are through.

All this, for what? Studies show that local news viewers like live reports. I don't doubt that's true. But what I do doubt is whether that is true when the live nature of the reports don't add anything. I am sure, for instance, that viewers love freeway car chases or live fire coverage. I suspect that viewers like the Michael Jackson hoopla as well. But do they really care whether that Riverside cemetery is delivered live or from the studio?

News producers have a responsibility to the public. There's no particular reason why they should be running roughshod over neighborhoods when it isn't necessary to do serious news reporting. For many stories where they just want live pictures, maybe it would be better to use pools where there is one set of cameras and one truck rather than 17. But the insane chase of the "live shot" is bad for our quality of life, and it doesn't serve the democratic values that are the basis of America's tradition of a free press. If some government decided to crack down on this (as long as access is ensured for serious stories where on-scene reporting is necessary), I wouldn't mind a bit.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009
It's tempting to say that nobody should even bother to give the "birthers"-- those folks on the right wing who continue to question Barack Obama's eligibility to be President-- the time of day. But in all the discussions of birth certificates and birth announcements and Kenya and non-citizen parents and everything else, one crucial aspect of this issue is repeatedly ignored.

Let's hypothesize a situation where a presidential candidate who is not eligible for the office nonetheless runs for the office. What happens then?

Well, first, the parties would have the power to declare him or her ineligible. Each party has the right to determine whether candidates are eligible to run. This includes such things as ballot access requirements and requirements that the candidate be a member of the party. Presumably, the party would be able to determine eligibility for the office as well.

Second, the primary voters would have the power to decline to vote for the candidate on the ground that the candidate is ineligible. Surely, the candidate's opponents would raise the ineligibility issue.

Third, the delegates at the party nominating convention have the power to refuse to nominate the candidate on the ground that the candidate is ineligible.

Fourth, the general election voters can decline to vote for the candidate on the grounds of ineligibility. Again, the opposing candidate will surely raise the issue.

Fifth, the electors in the electoral college can refuse to vote for the candidate on the same grounds.

Sixth, the Congress, which has the constitutional power to count the electoral votes, can refuse to certify the election result on the grounds of ineligibility.

Now, if 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 all decide the candidate is eligible for the office, the "birthers" nonetheless feel the courts have the power-- and should exercise it-- to invalidate the election.

The law has a doctrine called the "political question" doctrine. It is hard to explain, but it basically means that certain decisions are committed by the Constitution to the "political branches" (the legislature and/or President) to decide, and courts can't intervene in them. One example is whether a use of military force violates the war powers clause because Congress didn't authorize it. You can't litigate this-- it is up to Congress to protect its constitutional prerogatives. Another example is the filibuster-- it's up to the Senate to determine if it believes it is unconstitutional. A third example is a President's decision to withdraw from a treaty-- again, it is up to Congress to protect its prerogatives if the President's action is improper.

The constitutional qualifications of the President are clearly a political question. Specifically, Congress and the electoral college have the specific constitutional authority to determine this issue. Beyond that, as noted above, there are a bunch of informal checks that have evolved to stop an ineligible candidate from being elected.

But if an ineligible candidate is elected, you can't have nine unelected judges stepping in and invalidating it. This is what the political question doctrine does-- it protects the judiciary against crises involving its legitimacy by allowing it to stay out of thorny political disputes. It doesn't always work and judges do sometimes find themselves in these disputes, but in this situation it is clearly applicable.

So the "birthers" are barking up the wrong tree. The American public, the electoral college, and the Congress all decided that President Obama is eligible. Their decision is final and nonreviewable.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009
There's been a lot of discussion on Afghanistan lately, with various commentators taking the position that (1) we should get out (George Will), (2) we should define our mission narrowly so that it can be achievable (Matt Yglesias), (3) we must "win" at all costs, even if we don't know what that means (Danielle Pletka), or any number of other arguments.

What I think of when I think of Afghanistan, however, is the old cliche about fighting the last war. I suspect that both the left and the right are doing it, and that's the reason we are stuck there without any good metrics or sense of what we are supposed to be accomplishing.

For the right, Afghanistan is a proxy for arguments about Iraq. Essentially, conservatives very much know that their foreign policy is going to be judged based on their mistakes in Iraq, and that their reputations have taken a pretty big hit. Thus, it is of great importance to them to shift the subject from the Iraq War to the advisability of the "surge", which many liberals opposed (more because they didn't trust the Bush Administration and thought it was a proxy for staying in Iraq forever, rather than because they thought the strategy itself was so terrible).

Accordingly, they want to "surge" in Afghanistan, to again demonstrate the strategic brilliance of George W. Bush and the conservative movement in taking the fight to the terrorists.

For the left, Afghanistan is also a proxy for arguments about Iraq, but in a different way. Obama dug himself in a hole by arguing that Iraq was a bad war and that we make a mistake pulling troops out of the Afghanistan effort to prepare for the Iraq War, when Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and had no connections to Iraq. All this was, of course, true. But that was 2002. Just because it was a good idea to continue fighting a war in Afghanistan in 2002 doesn't mean that it makes much sense to be in there in 2009, especially since Al Qaeda moved to Pakistan in the interim anyway. Liberals are using Afghanistan to show that they aren't a bunch of left-wing peaceniks, but they should be able to articulate why it made sense to be in Afghanistan in 2002 and doesn't now (just like they should have been able to articulate why it did not make sense to invade Iraq and did make sense to invade Afghanistan).

Meanwhile, exactly what benefit do we derive from continued occupation of Afghanistan? Sure, we are keeping the Taliban out of power, and I can see the humanitarian and feminist benefits of that (though it is worth noting that the Karzai government hasn't been so kind to women's rights either), but I have the old-fashioned view that the US military isn't some humanitarian outfit, especially when there are real threats out there. I just have the abiding conviction that we seem to be in there because both conservatives and liberals want to refight the last war-- meanwhile, the current one continues to result in needless loss of life and a continuing and needless drain of American resources.