Friday, August 01, 2003

Aggie journalism

As an A&M journalism graduate, I'm saddened by the news that my alma mater is planning to shutter the journalism program as a way to avoid budget cuts elsewhere. I'm still hopeful, however, that the decision could be rescinded before they actually close the doors in a few years.

Since the announcement, there have been a lot of denigrating comments going around the Web about the quality of the A&M journalism program, as if that is the reason it is being shut down. I graduated in 1989 and don't have a clue about how the program is doing since I left. But like most things, the real issue is $$$.
For anyone familiar with academic institutions, the news that the department has had a lot of turnover amongst its faculty and staff recently makes it clear why it has become a target for closure. What that probably means is there are not that many tenured professors currently in the department compared to the other programs and it is therefore easier for the administration to shut it down.

But back to the denigrating comments. This one in particular from the normally level-headed folks at TAPPED (the blog for The American Prospect magazine) has got my dander up.

"When it comes to undergraduate journalism programs -- and most other pre-professional undergraduate programs -- Tapped says: Scrap away. We can't think of a bigger waste of four years of college than to study journalism there. Journalism isn't an academic subject; it's a trade, one that almost anyone with the basic skill set -- clear writing and aggressive reporting -- can pick up in six months at a small metro daily. Really good journalism isn't easy, of course, but you don't get to be a good journalist by studying "journalism" in college. Better to study economics, or history, or English literature, or philosophy, or one of the other liberal arts."

So journalism is just a trade, a blue-collar endeavor, anyone can do it, no skills needed, six-months of on-the-job training and you're on par with a four-year college grad, etc., etc., yadda-yadda-yadda.

I've heard all of this before. And fine. I've known lots of excellent journalists who got English degrees or history degrees in college. I don't have a problem with that. But I also know from experience that journalism can be a tough profession, especially when you are just starting out, and most papers - especially the smaller dailies - have notoriously high turnaround rates. If I were an editor looking to hire a new young reporter, I would be more inclined to hire a journalism graduate rather than some other liberal arts degree simply because I would feel that this person is more devoted to the profession and would be more likely to stick around over the long-term.

As for the value of a journalism degree, it is essentially a Liberal Arts degree. You learn basic reporting and interviewing skills, you study media law and libel suits. You get some basic experience before going out into the workforce. Of course, you don't need a journalism degree to be a reporter - but a waste of time? Sorry, but I disagree.

Using the same logic employed by Tapped, I suppose we should shut down all of the business schools in the nation since you obviously don't need a business degree in order to become a successful businessman. But there is the chance that you could be a better businessman than you would have been otherwise by obtaining the degree, and the same is true of journalism.

More bogus science

From Thursday's Wall Street Journal:

"A big flap at a little scientific journal is raising questions about a study that has been embraced by conservative politicians for its rejection of widely held globalwarming theories."

It seems that three editors of the journal Climate Research have resigned in protest over the way the review process was handled for a controversial study by a pair of astronomers published in the journal's January issue. The study claims that the 20th Century has not been unusually warm compared with earlier periods and contradicts evidence that man-made "greenhouse" gases are causing temperatures to rise. Using studies of tree rings, the paper concludes that there have been warmer periods during the past 1,000 years, particularly the "Medieval Warm Period" when the Norse settled Greenland.

The study has been harshly criticized by climatologists. The recently resigned editor in chief of Climate Reseach said the study is flawed and should not have been published. The tree ring paper contradicts another widely cited study by Dr. Michael E. Mann of the University of Virginia whose research on global temperatures shows a distinctive hockey stick pattern in recent years where temperatures had been level for centuries with a sudden upturn in recent decades. Dr. Mann and 13 other scientists have published a critique of the tree ring study saying that its research methods were flawed and that it is inconsistent with the preponderance of scientific evidence.

Despite this criticism heaped on the tree ring study, it has been embraced by the Bush administration and was recently added to an EPA report on environmental quality in place of a reference to Dr. Mann's study.

This should come as no surprise. As I have noted before, the Bush administration is filled with ideologues who are not interested in scientific accuracy unless it conforms with their predetermined beliefs. The tree ring study said what they wanted to hear and they have embraced it with a fervor while happily dismissing the more widely accepted studies that do not conform to their ideology.

The one thing I have not yet mentioned about the tree ring study is that it was partly funded by...... can you guess? .......... the American Petroleum Institute.

The questions left unanswered in the story include how the tree ring paper made it into publication in the first place. Who was pushing for its inclusion when so many editors were opposed. The WSJ story, unfortunately, is poorly edited. At the end of the article it references a Mr. Kinne who blocked a move by the dissenting editors to publish an editorial critical of the journal's publication of the tree ring study. But there is no first reference to Mr. Kinne - that part apparently having been inadvertently edited out of the story - and thus I do not know who he is.

I don't know exactly what to think about global warming, but it disturbs me a great deal to know that our president and his administration are trying to manipulate science to support their notions of the truth rather than letting science hash out these matters unimpeded.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Buck Stops (belatedly) Here

Looks like President Bush is finally owning up to his role in the Niger uranium charade.

President Bush on Wednesday accepted personal responsibility for a discredited portion of last winter's State of the Union address that suggested Saddam Hussein was shopping for nuclear material in Africa.
"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, absolutely," the president said during an hour-long White House news conference where he sought to quell a controversy that has dogged his administration for weeks.
It was the first time he had specifically taken responsibility for the words. In the past, he sidestepped the question, taking responsibility only for his decisions.

I assume the next thing Bush will do is announce that he continues to have strong confidence in himself.

The biggest redistricting myth

Let's get one thing straight about the redistricting fight underway in the state legislature. The current congressional districts that elected 17 Ds and 15 Rs in 2002 are not based on the ones that were drawn in 1991 by Rep. Martin Frost.
Republicans have been complaining recently that it is only fair that they be allowed to redraw the districts to correct for partisan gerrymandering that was done by the Democrats in 1991. Articles such as this one at National Review Online have served to perpetuate this myth:

"The current GOP plan pales in comparison to the plan it is meant to undo. According to (Michael) Barone that plan, drawn up by Rep. Martin Frost (D., Ft. Worth) in 1991, was "The most partisan redistricting in the '90 cycle in the nation." Barone's 1991 Almanac of American Politics called the Frost plan "the shrewdest gerrymander" of its time."

The current congressional districts were drawn from scratch by a group of federal judges using, in their words, "neutral districting factors." All the details of the redistricting process can be found
here and then look at the
opinion to see the judges' detailed description of the process they went through to draw up the current districts. Here is what they said about the 1991 plan that the Republicans are pretending to still be struggling against:

"The 1991 plan as modified in 1996 is conceded by all parties to be unconstitutional made so by changes in population disclosed by the dicennial census, if not for other reasons."

The judges did not rely on partisan politics to draw up the map but rather drew a plan based on neutral factors such as "compactness, contiguity and respecting county and municipal boundaries." The only districts they left intact were the majority-minority districts protected under the Voting Rights Act.

"Starting with a blank map of Texas, we first drew in the existing Voting Rights Act protected majority-minority districts. We were persuaded that the next step had to be to locate Districts 31 and 32, the two new Congressional seats allocated to Texas... We then drew in the remaining districts throughout the state emphasizing compactness, while observing the contiguity requirement...
"Doing so did much to end most of the below the surface ripples of the 1991 plan... For example, the patently irrational shapes of Districts 5 and 6 under the 1991 plan, widely cited as the most extreme but successful gerrymandering in the country, are no more."

The judges even made a point of checking their plan against statewide voting patterns and determined that it would "likely produce a congressional delegation roughly proportional to the party voting breakdown across the state."

So the current congressional districts were drawn up under a neutral system meant to correct the past gerrymandering while continuing the meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. This is why Gov. Rick Perry did not call for a special session prior to the 2002 general elections - because he knew that the gerrymandering from the previous redistricting had already been addressed.

However, the Republicans were surprised when they did not win as many congressional seats in 2002 as they thought they should have. Thus the mid-decade re-redistricting effort currently under way. But it is not the Democratic plan of 1991 that they are trying to replace, it is the neutral court-drawn plan of Nov. 2001 that they do not like. What they really want is their own gerrymandered districts, or as it should now be known - Perrymandered districts.

One other point that continues to be bantered about by conservatives and Republicans as a rationale for the re-redistricting is the fact that 56 to 54 percent of the votes cast in congressional races in 2002 went to Republicans and yet they only won 15 of the 32 seats. But this phenomenon was not due to Democratic gerrymandering in the 1990s that "disenfranchised" Republican voters - rather it was due to the fact that the Democrats failed to run viable competitive candidates in many of the congressional races, thus the Republican incumbents tended to win by lopsided margins while the Democratic incumbents tended to face well-financed challenges from Republican opponents and won their races by much smaller margins. Also, voter turnout in many of the majority-minority districts was way down - almost by half in some cases - compared to turnout in other areas that voted heavily for Republican incumbents.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Deja Vu All Over Again

Gov. Rick Perry has followed through with his threat of calling lawmakers back into session for a third time prompting yet another quorum break by the beleagured Democratic lawmakers.
This time it appears lawmakers are fleeing to New Mexico.
As per ususal, Burnt Orange Report and Off the Kuff are providing all the details. This one looks like it could be even more nasty than the first one.

For this third session, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is discarding the tradition of requiring a 2/3 vote to call an issue up for a vote the same way Perry has discarded the tradition of redistricting once a decade following every Census. Perhaps he and Perry can just go one step further and do away with the rule requiring a vote in the first place. Perry could just announce that he will sign into law the redistricting bill passed earlier by the House and pretend that the Senate approval is not needed. What could the Democrats do about it anyway? Complain to the Supreme Court? The Republicans are in absolute power here and, as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Thanks For the Memories

Bob Hope died yesterday just two months after reaching his 100th birthday.
I had become a huge Bob Hope and Bing Crosby fan of late. My wife bought me the last three "On the Road" movies for my birthday this year to finish off my collection. I'm nearly finished reading Gary Giddins biography of Bing Crosby "A Pocketful of Dreams" and was reading the chapter this week describing when Bing and Bob first got together in the late 1930s. I've also started reading Bob Hope's memoir from a few years back titled "Don't Shoot! It's Just Me"
I'm glad that he made it to his 100th birthday. He couldn't have timed it any better. But then again, timing is what makes a comedian great in the first place.

Here are a couple more good tributes I've found online: Nation -- That Old Feeling: Hope-ful Memories

Los Angeles Times: Comedian Bob Hope Dies at 100

Sunday, July 27, 2003

California recall

I for one am very glad that Texas does not have a ridiculous Recall Law like the one in California. While I think that Rick Perry is a sorry excuse for a governor (unfortunately, Tony Sanchez wasn't much better) , I would never support his recall from office short of his commiting a criminal act. He won the past election fair and square and deserves the opportunity to finish out his full term.

I don't know all the particulars of what is happening over in California with Gov. Gray Davis, but I do know that he won his election fairly and even though things may be bad now, he should have the opportunity to turn things around.

Over at Hullabaloo there is a good post outlining some of the fallacies of the recall effort:

This unprecedented recall election is not actually about Davis vs. Issa/Schwartzenegger/Simon or somebody better. It's about whether it is acceptable that some rich guy finances a petition drive (with paid signature gatherers) in order to overturn an undisputed legal election so that he might get himself (or somebody else) elected with far fewer votes instead.

Davis cannot be on this ballot. But, in order for him to retain his legally obtained office, more than 50% of the voters in this election must vote against the recall. The replacement, however, can win with a plurality. So, in effect, 49% of the voters could vote for Davis by voting against the recall, yet Darrell Issa could actually become the governor with only 33% of the vote.

You don't have to already be registered to vote in order to vote for the recall --- you can register up to 15 days before the election. This means that even though I voted in the last election like a good citizen, somebody who didn't even bother to register, much less vote, can come in and overturn the results less than a year later.

Digby goes on to summarize the obvious Catch-22 in this whole screwed up process - that is, never-ending recall elections:

If this recall succeeds, it will be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. It is always possible to gather 12% of those who voted in the last election to sign such a petition because there was always a losing candidate in the previous election whose supporters could be persuaded to sign up for a mulligan.
If it succeeds, therefore, I've decided that I will sign up on the very first day to work for the Committee to Recall Darryl Issa/Arnold Schwartzenegger/Bill Simon or whoever because it will be obvious that this is a situation that requires both parties to suffer from the loophole for it to be closed (as with the independent counsel law which stood until both parties paid the price for its unconstitutional, undemocratic lack of accountability.) We will have no choice but to literally illustrate for the people of California why this concept is costly and absurd and why it is necessary to have regularly scheduled elections and honor the results of the returns short of criminal behavior.

The only way to make this thing go away now is for the voters to defeat this recall effort.