Monday, February 28, 2005

State Privatization Programs Unpopular, Unsuccessful

President Bush has said that Americans want to join the "ownership society," and his Social Security privatization plan counts on two-thirds of those eligible diverting funds into private investment accounts.

But public employees in seven states -- offered the chance for similar private accounts over the past decade -- almost universally rejected the opportunity.

Of more than 1.5 million public employees offered the choice of accounts at various points in the last decade, about 125,000, or 8%, have signed up, according to a Feb. 22 story in the Los Angeles Times, with the vast majority of those during the stock market boom of the late 1990s.

Furthermore, the employees were found to lack investment knowledge -- putting them at risk to underperform their colleagues avoiding the private accounts. That apparent lack of comfort was often cited as a reason for the private accounts unpopularity.

***

How unpopular are the privatization efforts at the state level?

Consider:

-- In Florida, early surveys suggested more than half of the state's 600,000-plus public employees suggested would go for accounts. But since the accounts' introduction in 2002, 43,000 employees, or about 7%, have enrolled.

-- In Michigan, in spite of the state offering to contribute generously to the accounts, about 3,000 workers out of 57,000 signed on since the format was created in 1997, according to state officials.

-- In Ohio, teachers and state and local workers were given a choice starting in 2001 of private accounts or a hybrid that combined a pared-down pension with an account. Less than 5% picked accounts.

-- When Montana made a similar offer to 30,000 state workers in 2002, it spent $1.5 million to set up the new system, conducted more than 600 seminars and gave people a year to decide. The result, according to Michael J. O'Connor, executive director of the state's Public Employee Retirement Administration: 900 chose accounts.

***

In many cases, state and local pensioners felt uncomforatable making their own investment decisions -- the very power that Bush touts when he trumpets the privatization program.

"We get individuals into our training sessions and ask them about basic investment terms — What is a stock? What is a bond? — and they rate themselves as practically unknowledgeable," Washington state retirement director John F. Charles told the Times. The result, Charles and others said, has been a series of investment choices that officials fear will leave many workers without adequate funds after they retire.

In West Virginia, teachers who shifted from pensions to accounts plowed 40% of their money into investments so conservative that they effectively ensured that they would get a pension-like payment in old age — but at a lower benefit level than in the system they had left behind.

In Montana, those who chose accounts allowed the majority of their money to flow into a default investment set by the state, a balanced fund of half stocks and half bonds. While that may seem like a sensible decision, O'Connor told the Times that it showed account holders were not actively managing their money.

In Nebraska, state and county workers failed to outperform those with fixed-benefit pensions. The Nebraska Legislature quickly ended the program.

"If people have private accounts in Social Security and they're left to make the decisions themselves, the results likely will not be positive," Anna Sullivan, executive director of the Nebraska Public Employees Retirement Systems, told the Times.

Joseph Jankowski, executive director of the West Virginia Consolidated Public Retirement Board, echoed Sullivan's remarks: "The vast majority of people don't have the inclination or comfort level to be responsible for their own retirements." The Times reports that West Virginia board officials are currently debating whether to drop the state's private account plan.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Coulter Defends Guckert By Lying About Hart, Clinton and Kerry

Ann Coulter wrote such a ridiculous column about James Guckert (aka Jeff Gannon), you'd almost think the queen of the right-wing loonies was on the Bush administration's payroll.

Coulter wrote from the gut -- facts be damned. She put into words things the uneducated masses can accept as truth, even when the facts say otherwise. And with the well-oiled right-wing media machine backing her -- Fox News, Regnery Publishing, WABC, etc. -- apparently no one cares when Coulter lies through her teeth. She's got the paychecks to prove it.

In her Feb. 24 column, Coulter attacked congressional Democrats for "demanding" that an independent prosecutor investigate how Guckert, using a pseudonym, received White House access.

The merits of the Democrats argument? Coulter couldn't find any, even though Guckert has suggested he saw a secret document leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame -- a leaking being investigated by a federally appointed prosecutor. Coulter didn't see any merits to the Democrats' call for an investigation, even though it's against White House rules to use a pseudonym -- and such things are supposed to be vetted by the FBI and the Secret Service before granting access to the President. Bush Press Secretary Scott McLellan recently admitted to Editor & Publisher that he didn't realize Guckert was using a pseudonym for nearly two years, reversing a statement he had made earlier this month to The New York Times.

Coulter had other ideas.

"How did Gary Hartpence, Billy Blythe and John Kohn run for president under invented names?" she asked.

As pointed out by mediamatters.org, the question is typical Coulter lunacy.

-- Former Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) changed his name from Hartpence after his parents changed the family last name, in the late 1950s.

-- Former President Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe IV after his deceased father, but in high school assumed the last name of his stepfather, Roger Clinton.

-- Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was born John Forbes Kerry and has never held the surname "Kohn." His grandfather changed his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry in 1901.

I don't know whether Coulter knows any of the above. But does it matter? The wild accusations are so easy for Coulter to rattle off -- facts be damned -- and it's so pleasing for the uneducated masses who crave reasons to hate Democrats.

Plus, by screaming such incoherency from the hills, Coulter is able to drag down what should be legitimate questions about how Guckert gained access to the White House, and possibly gained access to confidential documents about a CIA agent.

Coulter wants people to be distracted from the truth when it doesn't flatter her conservative agenda. That's her job. Ignore the facts, and cash those large paychecks.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

CAMPBELL BROWN: Were you in that press conference as a plant by the White House?

J.D. GUCKERT (aka Jeff Gannon): Absolutely not. I mean, look at it, Campbell. If the White House was going to use a plant, wouldn't they pick a better one than me?"

-- NBC's Today Show, Feb. 24, as reported by washingtonpost.com

Borger Steals GOP Talking Point In Latest Column

U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger did a journalistic no-no.

In her latest column, the right-leaning pundit and one-time CNBC host copied a GOP talking point and claimed it as her own.

Writing about the Democrats, the empty-headed writer came up with this:

BORGER: If the party is looking for a new spokesman, there is a better choice — David Spade (with apologies to his Capital One ad): Social Security reform? No. Clear some judges? No way, Jose. Find some agreement on national security? Nyet.

***

Was Borger being witty? Nyet. But more important, was Borger being original? No.

As pointed out Feb. 23 by dailyhowler.com -- I won't follow Borger's example and plagiarize -- Borger stole her idea from a video played at the House GOP conference on Feb. 16.

CNN aired a clip from the video that day on Inside Politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans are firing back at their Democratic critics, meantime, in a new video spoof. It plays off a popular commercial featuring actor David Spade to portray the Democrats as saying "no" to everything.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (videotape): Will the Democrats help strengthen Social Security?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How about pay as you no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about health care?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You think I care? That would be an HM—no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about working to improve the security of our borders?

***

So the question is, will Borger be punished for her pilfering?

In all likelihood, the answer is "no."

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

"(Guckert) apparently gained access to the White House using little more than a fake name, a Social Security number, and date of birth. In an age of heightened security, it's hard to believe this lapse could occur without someone inside the White House vouching for Guckert."

-- Houston Chronicle editorial, Feb. 13

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

$82 Billion "Emergency Spending" Bill Just Bush's Back-Door Way to Expand Defense Spending

President Bush's $82 billion "emergency spending" bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is being criticized as a back-door way to increase defense spending without congressional oversight.

"It removes from our oversight responsibilities the scrutiny that these programs deserve," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told military service chiefs at a hearing Feb. 17.

The big question is: Why is this "emergency spending"? A look at what the supplemental budget includes suggests a mix of things that could have been covered in the recently announced FY 2006 budget, as well as a handful of items unrelated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to $36.3 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the $82 billion budget includes:

-- $12 billion to repair and replace military equipment
-- $5.7 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces
-- $5.6 billion in international aid, including embassy construction and operations in Iraq, counter-drug activities in Afghanistan, support for the Palestinians, and humanitarian aid for the Darfur region of Sudan
-- $5.3 billion for Army and Marine "modular" reorganization.
-- $3.3 billion to armor convoy trucks and to buy other armored vehicles, night-vision equipment and helicopter defense systems.
-- $2 billion for coalition partners Poland and Pakistan.
-- $1.3 billion to train and equip Afghan forces
-- $950 million for aid to Asian tsunami victims, including $226M to reimburse the Defense Department and $23 million to expand the U.S. tsunami warning system.
-- $400 million for enhanced benefits for survivors of service members killed since military operations began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank, which has research contracts with the Pentagon, told The Washington Post that such "modularity" costs -- while necessary -- hardly constitute an emergency and should have been included in the president's base budget unveiled earlier this month. Much of the costs of replacing equipment will probably turn out to be regular weapons-procurement costs not related to Iraq emergencies, Thompson suggested.

"Why this funding is in an emergency supplemental [request] is hard to explain. It looks as though they want a bigger defense budget without admitting it," he told the Post.

***

This back-door spending plan serves several purposes:

-- The spending bill will be passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. But, as McCain said, the "emergency" status prevents detailed (and potentially messy) scrutiny. For example, as the Post reports, we may never know how much of that $5.7 billion for Iraqi security troops -- a tenfold increase -- will go to training, how much will be for equipment, and how much might be used simply to pay beleaguered Iraqi police and national guard units.

-- Democrats will be hard-pressed to criticize the "emergency spending" status. What Democrat will want to be on the record criticizing the inclusion of tsunami relief or international aid? Even if legitimately such aid should have been included in the budget released earlier this month -- it's not as though the tsunami or Darfur or the rest occurred in the last few days -- any seasoned politician should know that this administration will gladly blast via the Rush Limbaughs and Joe Scarboroughs of the world the simplistic message that Democratic Congressman X is "against tsunami relief -- let's throw the bum out!"

-- The administration knows that the average American in Boise, Topeka or Altoona doesn't pay close enough attention to care about the nuances between what should go into a regular annual budget and what should go into an emergency supplemental budget. It's counting only on the average American hearing President Bush or one of his subordinates tout the "big issues" -- fight terrorism over there, aid tsunami victims (hey, that's "compassionate conservatism") and help the Iraqis and Afghani defend their freedom.

***

Hey, I never said the people running the adminsitration were stupid. Dishonest? Sure. Hypocritical? Absolutely. But don't discount this Karl Rove-led machine's ability to get what it wants, under the premise of "the ends justify the means."

Monday, February 21, 2005

In Wake of Rathergate, CBS Favors Sound Bites of Republicans

An analysis of CBS Evening News broadcasts from Nov. 3, 2004 to Feb. 17, 2005 found that the program featured Republicans more often than Democrats during political segments.

The analysis, by liberal fact-checking site Media Matters for America, found that the show -- hosted by the conservatives' poster boy for "liberal media bias," Dan Rather -- featured 123 clips of Republican officials or commentators, and just 65 of Democratic officials or commentators. Subtracting the 40 clips of President Bush, and Rather still introduced clips of Republicans and conservatives 56% of the time (83 of 148).

The political segments also included 48 clips featuring individuals not identified as affiliated with organizations promoting particular political viewpoints. Of these, five offered commentary consistent with Democrats or liberals, five offered commentary consistent with Republicans or conservatives, and 38 offered commentary that would be considered politically neutral.

The entire list of those featured in clips can be seen at http://mediamatters.org/items/200502180005.

***

Media Matters suggests that the data calls into question whether CBS Evening News is actually liberal.

I'll toss that question aside, because I think the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions. I'd love to see a comparison from the same time period of 2003-2004, or even a comparison of several years' data.

I think the more important consideration is that the data comes in the post-Rathergate era.

Hypothetically, let's concede to conservatives that in earlier years, Rather featured Democrats more than Republicans -- and again, I have no data supporting or denying this position.

Even though a report co-authored by former Reagan attorney general Dick Thornburgh found "no evidence" that Rather's 60 Minutes report about President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard duty demonstrated a political bias (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/conservatives-say-otherwise-but-panel.html), one could wonder aloud whether Rather tried to overcompensate in the wake of the September fiasco.

JABBS and other liberal media criticism websites have regularly wondered aloud about overcompensation by those chastised by conservatives as suffering from "liberal media bias."

For example, Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball is a former aide to legendary (and liberal) House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Yet on JABBS and elsewhere, liberal media critics have pounced on Matthews for featuring panels lopsided with conservative pundits, and allowing conservative spin to go unchallenged, far more often than favoring liberal pundits or allowing liberal spin to go unchallenged.

Why does Matthews favor conservatives? Critics speculate that either Matthews' political view has changed over the last two decades, or because, given his resume, he is overcompensating.

The same criticisms are lobbed at Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press and a former aide to legendary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). Why does Russert allow conservative spin to often be accepted as fact, but play "gotcha" with liberal guests like Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY)? The working theory, again, is that either Russert's politics have changed, or, given his resume, he feels the need to overcompensate to appear "objective."

No doubt, there is nothing that Dan Rather can do in his last weeks before retirement that will placate conservatives. But the data collected by Media Matters certainly suggests that Rather is following the same path as Matthews and Russert.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Administration Admits Medicare Drug Bill Will Cost Triple What Bush Pledged in 2003

The new price tag for Medicare prescription drug benefits is more than triple the amount President Bush suggested when he won passage of the law in 2003.

Beginning with his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush pledged to keep the total cost of the drug benefit to $400 billion over 10 years. But shortly after Bush signed the program into law in December 2003, the White House revised its projection to $534 billion, a number that Medicare chief Mark McClellan cited as recently as September of last year.

But when the FY 2006 budget was released, McClellan admitted that the cumulative cost of the program between its start year of 2006 and 2015 would be $913 million, and including transition costs incurred in 2004 and 2005, the true total would be about $1.2 trillion.

That led to bipartisan calls for the administration to reopen the debate on Medicare drug costs, and look for way to knock the overall price down. However, McClellan, in a news conference Tuesday, said now was not the time to reopen that debate.

***

The true cost of the medicare bill has long been in doubt.

Last March, Richard Foster, Medicare's chief actuary for nearly a decade, said Bush administration officials threatened to fire him if he had disclosed his belief in 2003 that the drug package would cost $500 billion to $600 billion.

Foster said that he told the White House five months before the bill was passed that he estimated the cost to be $551 million. But because various conservatives vowed to block any bill over $400 billion, Foster said he was told not to testify before Congress -- in effect to bury the estimates.

***

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) -- two of the Bush administrations' least favorite people in Congress -- wrote Bush on Feb. 15 suggesting that Medicare could save $190 billion over the next decade if the seniors program adopted the price-negotiating model used by the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to The Washington Post, they reached that figure by taking the gross cost of the Medicare drug program ($905 million) and applying a conservative estimate of the VA discount (about 45 percent).

But McLellan, noting that the Medicare prescription drug benefit is slated to go into effect in 10 months, rejected the idea.

Told that McClellan dismissed the calculation, Kennedy told the Post: "It is serious business, and it's time the administration got serious about helping senior citizens get affordable drugs instead of helping drug companies achieve windfall profits."

Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill allowing the importation of Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines from other countries recently picked up the support of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), leading co-sponsor Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) to predict victory if they can get a Senate vote.

"The drug benefit in the Medicare bill has now ballooned to hundreds of billions of dollars more than previously disclosed," Dorgan told the Post. "With that kind of pressure, everybody understands you've got to put downward pressure on prices."

But newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told the Senate Finance Committee that he opposed a bipartisan proposal for a national commission to study the Medicaid funding problem. Leavitt said competition among pharmaceutical firms and drug plans would bring greater savings.

***

Of course, in the early going, drug companies have failed to provide savings to seniors.

The drug companies, who got sweetheart deals from the administration to guarantee seniors would be covered, are allowed, in theory, to raise prices as often as once a week.

An AARP study found the annual rate of manufacturers price increases for the 197 brand name prescription drugs most commonly used by older Americans more than tripled the rate of inflation over the 12-month period ending on Sept. 30, 2004.

The study found that manufacturers' prices increased 7.4%, on average, from September 2003 to September 2004. The rate of general inflation during that same 12-month time period was 2.3%.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Privatization Advocates Wrongly Suggest Clinton Once Supported Private Accounts

A common GOP spin point in the Social Security privatization debate is that former President Bill Clinton once supported the idea, and is being a hypocrite now by coming out against the plan President Bush is likely to adopt.

The point, repeated by various pundits and even television talking heads like Tim Russert, is patently false. But it keeps being made, especially to the broad audiences provided by television and takl radio.

You know the conservative mantra -- if you say a falsehood enough times, eventually it will be accepted as truth by the uneducated masses. Marketing trumps factual accuracy.

***

In the midst of his second term, Clinton proposed having the Social Security Trust Fund invest a small portion of its assets in private securities. No private accounts were ever part of that plan. Clinton separately made a proposal for "USA Accounts," a variation of the 401k concept. But that was outside of the realm of Social Security.

In other words, nothing Clinton proposed then resembles what Bush is proposing now.

***

Some in the GOP have linked the private accounts idea to Clinton to build support. Others have linked it to former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

From the Feb. 15 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann*:

OLBERMANN: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, at minimum, midwife to the Social Security system, would have endorsed President Bush's plan to partially privatize it. Our third story on the Countdown -- that is the claim, anyway, of at least three conservative commentators and several Republican congressmen. But it turns out those guys pretty much just made it up. In a moment, FDR's grandson, himself a former associate commissioner for Social Security, joins us to discuss the fraud.

First, the background. It began on television with Brit Hume of FOX News, taking quotes from the three principles of security for our old people that FDR expressed to Congress on January 17, 1935. Not all the quotes, mind you, just some of them, and out of context. I'm reading from the transcript on the FOX website of Mr. Hume's newscast of February 3rd. "It turns out," Hume said, "that FDR himself planned to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program when he proposed it. In a written statement to Congress in 1935, Roosevelt said that any Social Security plan should include, 'Voluntary contributory annuities, by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age,' adding that government funding, 'ought to ultimately be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.'"

As promised, I'm joined now by James Roosevelt Jr., now senior vice president of Tufts Health Plan, formerly associate commissioner for Social Security, and, of course, grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ... The argument is that Mr. Hume more or less twisted this entirely around. Can you explain it in layman's terms?

ROOSEVELT: I think I can. And it's really quite an amazing distortion. What they did was that they took a very simple statement that my grandfather made, which said that Social Security, when it was enacted almost 70 years ago, ought to first of all have a part that took care of people who didn't have time to build up a Social Security account. And the government should fund that out of general revenues.

Secondly, Social Security should have a self-sustaining portion that was funded by contributions from both employers and employees. That's what we know and have known for 70 successful years as Social Security.

And thirdly, those who wanted and who needed to, as many -- almost everybody -- did, to have a higher income and retirement, should have accounts where they could pay in voluntarily, in addition to the guaranteed Social Security benefit.

And then my grandfather said that eventually, the self-sustaining portion of the guaranteed insurance would phase out the government-paid portion. That's because we would have a fully functioning Social Security system as we do today.

What Brit Hume and others have done is take portions of that paragraph and rearrange it so that it says something entirely different from what he intended. ... And he rearranged those sentences in an outrageous distortion, one that really calls for a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation.


* Thanks to mediamatters.org

Will Americans Gamble on Bush's Social Security Privatization Plan? When Given The Facts, Polls Suggest The Answer is "No."

Do you feel lucky?

Let's take a close look at the proposal President Bush’s Social Security Commission put forward in 2001, which the president has said is a "good place to start the debate." (Note: this is Bush-speak for "we're doing it this way.")

According to Social Security Administration actuaries, Social Security benefits currently equal 42 percent of the earnings of an average wage-earner who retires at 65. This percentage is slated to decline to 36 percent over the next two decades, as Social Security’s “normal retirement age” rises to 67. It would remain at 36 percent thereafter.

Under the proposal the president's commission advanced, Social Security benefits would, by 2075, equal only 20 percent of an average wage-earner’s pre-retirement earnings, and the percentage would drop further in subsequent years.

Now, to be fair, under the commission's plan, Social Security benefits would be supplemented by money from the retiree's private account.

How large would that supplement be? That would depend on how well the retiree invested. If the markets are booming, like in the 1990s, a retiree would likely be very happy. But if the markets are stagnant -- such as over the past two or so years -- a retiree might be very broke.

That potential inequity really hasn't been addressed. Would there be a baseline -- a government supplement to the private account supplement -- available for those who retired during a lean period for the equity markets?

***

You don't hear a lot about the benefits that would be lost under the commission's plan. As factcheck.org pointed out, during Bush's State of the Union address, "Bush ... made his proposed private Social Security accounts sound like a sure thing, which they are not. He said they 'will' grow fast enough to provide a better return than the present system. History suggests that will be so, but nobody can predict what stock and bond markets will do in the future."

The administration says a conservative mix of stocks, corporate bonds and government bonds would return 4.6 percent, even after inflation and administrative costs. And the administration also figures that private accounts would need to generate only a 3 percent rate of return to beat what Social Security provides.

But the problem with average returns is that it takes into consideration highs and lows -- years when the markets produce double-digit returns, and years when the markets produce negative returns. And that takes us back to the potential inequity that could occur, depending on when a person was to retire.

***

During the State of the Union address, and in his nine (and counting) stump speeches thereafter, Bush has used the word "bankruptcy" to scare up support for his privatization plan.

BUSH: By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt.

There are two official projects, one by the Social Security Administration and one by the Congressional Budget Office. As noted on JABBS and elsewhere last month (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/bush-administration-plays-politics.html#), the Bush administration has asked the usually non-partisan SSA to tout the need for privatization. Perhaps because of that, the SSA projection is more pessimistic than the CBO projection.

The president has used the SSA figures, which calculate that the system's trust fund will be depleted in 2042. After that, the system would have legal authority to pay only 73% of currently promised benefits, with the figure declining to 68% of benefits by 2075. (The CBO projects depletion in 2052, and a reduction to 78% of benefits thereafter.)

It should be noted that when the president uses the SSA figures, he is assuming a moribund economy over the next 37 years. But when he touts privatization, he assumes a stronger economy for that same time period. But I digress ...

As factcheck.org wrote on Feb. 3: "The President did not specify what he would do to fix the problem. He again urged creation of private Social Security accounts. But those would be of no help whatsoever in shoring up the system's finances, as acknowledged earlier in the day by a senior Bush administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity."

According to that official: "the personal accounts would have a net neutral effect on the fiscal situation of the Social Security and on the federal government."

But "net neutral effect" is really over the long-term. In the short-term, the administration projects it will borrow $754 billion through 2015 to finance the initial phase-in of the accounts, and much more thereafter. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- which opposes Bush's proposal -- projected that $4.5 trillion would be required to finance the first 20 years of the accounts after they start to be phased in in 2009.

One cost not mentioned by Bush is that the federal government would administer the personal accounts for a fee, which administration officials have said would be about 30 cents per year for every $100 invested.

***

Bush has not yet proposed anything specific. But his strong advocacy of private accounts -- the crux of his commission's suggestions -- make it clear what path he has chosen for the country.

Other plans have been advanced, by the Democrats and by various economists, but the media has been squarely focused on what the president has been saying. I question what would happen if the average American understood all the details of what will likely be Bush's proposal.

A Feb. 10 report in The Washington Post, referencing two polls that sought to answer that question, found that a solid majority rejected the idea of decreased retirement benefits. About half of those who said they supported privatization "wrongly believed that the costs of creating personal accounts would be negligible."

"While 56 percent said they support a plan for individual investment accounts, more than half of those said they would be less likely to do so after hearing the estimate. More than four in 10 supporters wavered when they heard that personal accounts would not, by themselves, reduce the financial problems facing Social Security," the Post reported.

Seems Bush has his work cut out -- the reason for his multi-city tour to talk up the privatization plan. The problem he faces is clear: the more facts people have about the privatization plan, the less people like it.

I guess some people just don't like to gamble.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bush's Budget Cuts Grants To Police, Firefighters

President Bush's $2.5 trillion budget cuts money for police officers and fire fighters -- in opposition to earlier statements by the president.

According to figures obtained by the Associated Press, Bush would slice a $600 million grant program for local police agencies to $60 million next year. One likely casualty would be Edward Byrne grants that allow police departments to hire replacements for officers working on drug task forces. Additional money would be cut from a program that provides grants to police departments to buy new technology and improve interoperable communications

Grants to local firefighters, under the Assistance to Firefighters Program, for which Congress provided $715 million this year, would fall to $500 million. The program, commonly called the FIRE Act, provides equipment, training, and staffing to local fire departments.

"This [2005] budget is profoundly disappointing to first responders ... It's a continuation of the president's lack of commitment to first responders in general and firefighters in particular," said Kevin O'Connor, director of governmental and public affairs for the International Association of Firefighters.

According to an investigation by The Boston Globe, more than 40 percent of the nation's full-time fire departments fail to meet the response time standard of six minutes from alert to arrival, often because of insufficient staffing. From 1986 to 2002, more than 4,000 people died in fires when firefighters had a response time greater than six minutes.

***

It's another case of actions speaking louder than words, a frequent criticism of this president. Bush has spent a good chunk of his post-9/11 presidency touting touting his administration's efforts in homeland security. But when it comes time to back those words with money, Bush quietly changes his tune.

This is the same president who said, in remarks at the NYPD Command and Control Center in February, 2002: "Police and firefighters of New York, you have this nation's respect, and you'll have this nation's support." He touted his administration's future spending plans so that first responders would be able to "help us continue to fight this war on terror" and make "neighborhoods ... more safe in the long run."

***

But this isn't the first time the Bush administration has failed to follow through with first responders.

Just a year ago, the debate was very similar.

The Department of Homeland Security FY 2005 budget drew bipartisan criticism for various programs it cut completely — such as funding for SafeComm, a grant program to help ensure that first responder communications are interoperable — as well as those it scaled back dramatically, such as the 30 percent cut in key grant programs to first responders.

At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended the funding proposals, saying the administration took a hard look at the realities of the times and made tough choices “by the balancing of the fiscal and security environment.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Mr. Bush, Meet Mssrs. Merriam and Webster.

"One of the things that I find in Washington is that sometimes you've got to go back to Webster's to look what the definition is. The definition of bankruptcy is 'utter failure or impoverishment.' The definition of insolvency is 'unable to pay debts as they come, as they fall due.' I would respectfully suggest, for 2042, the [Social Security] program would be insolvent under that definition, but not bankrupt."

-- GAO Comptroller General David Walker, in Feb. 9 testimony to the House Budget Committee.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

CHRIS MATTHEWS: "Do you think our network is getting too conservative?"

TUCKER CARLSON: "No, I think the network is great. I have watched this network for a long time. I mean, it was always the network I had on, yes."

-- Feb. 11 edition of MSNBC's Hardball

Monday, February 14, 2005

Jordan Resigns -- Let the Conservative Bashing Begin

NEW YORK -- CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan resigned late Friday after controversial remarks that initially claimed U.S. troops targeted journalists in Iraq.

In a memo to CNN employees, Jordan said he made his decision "to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq."

***

So now the conservatives have another shiny new toy to play with in their beloved game of "Liberal Media Bias."

I'm not going to defend Jordan, just as I made no effort to defend Dan Rather.

Jordan screwed up in a big way when he made his alleged comments on Jan. 27, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He reportedly said that 12 journalists had been targeted and killed by U.S. troops in Iraq, then backpedaled after he was challenged.

"I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise," Jordan wrote Friday.

Not only was Jordan wrong to make such an accusation without backing, but he also hurt his company's credibility, and the profession of journalism overall.

As a result of his unfortunate comments, Jordan becomes the latest poster-child for "liberal media bias," as conservatives will push the assumption that Jordan's personal beliefs were represetnative of CNN's overall coverage. Don't forget that CNN, in conservative lingo, will always be the "Clinton News Network."

It's the same old story. Dan Rather acted sloppily when he failed to fact-check a 60 Minutes story about President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service -- remember that a panel co-chaired by former Republican attorney Dick Thornburgh found that there was no evidence suggesting Rather showed bias (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/conservatives-say-otherwise-but-panel.html#). But to conservatives, Rather will always be the king of "liberal media bias," and the 60 Minutes fiasco did little to change that.

In truth, I could list for you at the drop of a hat dozens of items that show conservative media bias -- in The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere.

But look at the comments section on JABBS, and you see a mindset among conservatives. They don't believe in conservative media bias. They believe in Dan Rather and now, Eason Jordan. 'Nuff said.

My job has just gotten that much tougher.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Are They Not Paying Attention? Are They Scared? A Look At Why The Mainstream Media Delayed Covering Eason Jordan

Why did the mainstream media not cover the "news" that CNN News Chief Eason Jordan had allegedly accused American troops in Iraq of deliberately killing journalists?

It's a tough question, and one that the collective powers that be should be asking. For if Internet bloggers hadn't buzzed about this story and demanded answers from CNN, the story may have died before it ever made it onto television or the major newspapers.

On Jan. 26, during an economic conference in Switzerland, Eason allegedly made his comments. Jordan says his comments were misinterpreted, but various audience members, including Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) were among those corroborating the charge.

Rony Abovitz, co-founder of the Hollywood, Fla., medical technology company Z-Kat Inc., told The Miami Herald that he responded first to Eason's alleged comments. "I stood up and asked, 'Is this documented? And if so, why hasn't it been on the cover of Time magazine? Because if it's true, it's much bigger than [U.S. military abuses at] the Abu Ghraib prison.' He kind of froze, and then he started backpedaling. But the crowd included a lot of people from the Middle East, who were cheering him on, so then he wiggled back and forth.''

Frank elaborated to the Herald: "He answered, 'I'm not saying this is American military policy.' And my recollection is that he next said that American military personnel had deliberately shot at journalists and not been punished.''

After the panel, Frank told the Herald that he pressed for more details. "I called [Jordan] and said, 'If you think there are cases where American military personnel killed reporters and weren't disciplined, I want to know, and [Congress] will take action,'" Frank said. ''He said he'd get back to me.'' But Jordan called only after the controversy surfaced, Frank said, and then to say he had been misunderstood.

***

The comments have triggered fierce attacks on CNN from mainstream media critics.

''When thinking people, especially journalism professionals, say something like that -- that U.S. troops might be war criminals -- and can't substantiate it, you've got to follow it up,'' Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, told the Herald. "Blogs always seem to ask much tougher questions of a powerful media figure than Time magazine or The New York Times or Newsweek do.''

More than 400 blogs had written up the story before any mainstream press decided to run it. Subsequently, newspapers such as the Herald, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post ran stories, as well as CNN's rival cable networks.

The sequence of events marked the second time in a few months that the "pack journalism" of blogs pushed the mainstream media. Blogs were the first to suggest CBS' 60 Minutes used forged documents in a story last year on President Bush's National Guard service. Ultimately, CBS retracted its story, and an internal investigation led to the dismissal of five CBS staffers.

***

Why didn't the mainstream media move faster coving Eason Jordan?

Perhaps because it doesn't pay enough attention to bloggers. Although there are many well-written, well-researched blogs (hopefully you count JABBS among them) there are countless other blogs offering little more than unsubstantiated rumors and uneducated opinions -- hardly source material for a major newspaper or television news program. The power of the Internet means that unsubstantiated rumors can spread like wildfire.

But what of the bloggers -- many of them professional journalists themselves -- who take the time to research a story, perhaps conduct interviews themselves, all because they believe the mainstream media is failing to do its job? Sorry, the mainstream media has said, we're not paying much attention to you, either.

Times reporter Jim Rutenberg actually wrote about this last October:

"Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent [of web critics] is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way."

***

Although I'm sure conservatives will paint it that way, the Eason Jordan story is probably not a case of "liberal media bias." If the story never made it into the mainstream press, that argument might hold water. But the press, too slowly and perhaps reluctantly, did ultimately give the story its due.

But why did it take so long? Only after a mass of blogs buzzed with the same basic plotline -- a CNN executive allegedly said something very foolish, and no one seems to be paying attention -- did the mainstream media pay attention.

Perhaps the problem is that the mainstream media is scared? In the old days -- pre-Internet, pre-24 hour cable news, pre-wall-to-wall talk radio -- the news was far more controllable. The average American only had a limited number of access points to the news of the day.

Now, even if the mainstream media want to avoid a given story, Americans can find that story from other sources -- blogs, talk radio, foreign newspapers that can be found on-line.

Don't believe the media is scared? You probably haven't been reading media criticism sites for very long.

Consider Elisabeth Bumiller of the Times, who wrote last year in one of her pro-Bush "White House Letters" how scared she was.

Recalling a pre-war press conference on Iraq, Bumiller wrote: I think we were very deferential because…it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.

But this fear is not limited to Bumiller. In today's Post, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne opined about covering President Bush: "Journalists who have the temerity to question whether the claims ring true (or whether the numbers add up) can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts."

Yes, it's apparently tough to be a journalist, whether you're failing to cover Eason Jordan or President Bush. It's a scary world when news is occurring, and your first instinct is to look the other way.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Armstrong Williams Dumped, As Syndicates Address "Payola" Scandal

Armstrong Williams, one of three conservative "journalists" outed as being paid by the Bush administration to tout administration programs, has been dumped by the syndicate that carried his column.

Tribune Media Services dumped Williams, barely a month after USA Today reported that Williams received $241,000 in 2004 from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind education act.

And, according to a Jan. 28 post on Editor & Publisher's website, John Twohey, Tribune Media vice president of editorial and operations, sent a letter to other columnists Tribune syndicates, warning them to avoid a similar fate.

"Recent news events have cast a national spotlight on the subject of media credibility. I’m referring, in particular, to disclosures that two syndicated columnists -- one associated with TMS -- accepted money from the federal government to promote White House initiatives. These developments underscore for those of us involved in the creation and distribution of editorial content to newspapers the importance of adhering to the highest ethical standards," Twohey wrote. "Credibility is one of TMS’ most valuable assets, and we expect writers whose work we syndicate to avoid conflicts of interest or any activities that would damage their credibility and that of TMS. Those who enter into relationships or engage in activities that compromise their journalistic independence and integrity will jeopardize their relationships with TMS."

***

Williams was one of three conservative "journalists" to be caught in the so-called "Payola" scandal. What came of the others?

Megan Gallagher received $21,500 in 2002 from the Department of Health and Human Services for marriage-themed writing projects. Gallagher, however, has been retained by Universal Press Syndicate, which E&P reported is creating guidelines for its creators (including op-ed columnists) covering matters such as potential conflicts of interest.

A third columnist, Michael McManus, received $10,200 from the Health and Human Services plus $49,000 from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which had in turn received a federal grant to encourage unwed parents to marry. McManus, who self-syndicates, has been dropped by three newspapers (out of about 50) that carried his column.

***

"The principle in jeopardy is independence," Bob Steele, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told The Guardian of London on Feb. 7. "Journalists are responsible for seeking and reporting the truth and we should not be compromising that duty by working for the government."

JABBS couldn't have said it better.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

And The Hits Just Keep On Coming ...

JABBS needed about 90 days to net its first 2,500 hits, then 55 days more to move from 2,500 hits to 5,000. But it's taken just 33 days for JABBS to move from 5,000 hits to 7,500.

JABBS is netting about 100 hits per day, with a high of 189 on Feb. 2.

Thanks.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Gannon, Hardly a Journalist (and Hardly a Conservative) "Quits" the White House Beat

Jeff Gannon, we hardly knew you.

Gannon, a conservative "journalist" for the farcical TalonNews.com, called it quits Tuesday.

As reported here and elsewhere last week (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/02/meet-jeff-gannon-another-conservative.html), Gannon wasn't really a reporter. He was a plant, paid by Bobby Eberle, a Texas-based Republican Party delegate and political activist who also runs GOPUSA.com, which touts itself as "bringing the conservative message to America."

Gannon managed to secure a daily press pass, and soon became a favorite of Bush press secretary Scott McLellan, who would call on Gannon multiple times, favoring Gannon's Bush-friendly "questions" over real queries from the mainstream press. Instead of "reports," Gannon admitted he copied Bush administration and Republican National Committee documents, without attribution, claiming such documents were "free of spin."

***

But one thing about the world we live in today -- it's hard to keep a secret.

It was difficult for Gannon to continue lobbing softballs before someone noticed -- most notably mediamatters.org's David Brock. Soon the White House was backpeddling, trying to suggest it hadn't played favorites with Gannon.

Then today, news came that various liberal bloggers, including Daily Kos, had completed investigations of Gannon, finding skeletons in his closet. As word spread into the mainstream press -- including a column today on WashingtonPost.com -- the conventional wisdom was that Gannon's sudden departure from the White House beat was to avoid further press scrutiny.

Turns out that Jeff Gannon is a pseudonym for James "J.D." Guckert, and that Gannon is the owner of three web domains: hotmilitarystud.com, militaryescorts.com and militaryescortsm4m.com. Only hotmilitarystud.com is an active site.

Hardly what you'd expect from someone "bringing the conservative message to America."

The blog MediaCitizen (http://mediacitizen.blogspot.com) requested an interview with Gannon with regard to Talon News and GOPUSA, and the various web domains. An hour later, Gannon announced his resignation, posting on his website: "Because of the attention being paid to me I find it is no longer possible to effectively be a reporter for Talon News."

I can hardly wait to hear how Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity -- two conservatives who have praised Gannon in the past -- will spin this one.

Bush Promised 2,000 More Border Patrol Agents ... But His Budget Delivers Just 210

It's another case of actions speaking louder than words.

During the presidential campaign, President Bush touted his administration's response to suggestions made by the 9/11 Commission. One suggestion was to vastly increase the number of U.S. border patrol agents.

Bush worked with House and Senate Republicans in negotiating the final version of the legislation. In a December 6 letter to the House-Senate conferees negotiating the bill, Bush said: "I also believe the conference took an important step in strengthening our immigration laws by, among other items, increasing the number of border patrol agents." Eleven days later, Bush signed into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 -- with the stated goal of adding 10,000 border patrol agents over the next five years, nearly doubling the current amount.

But in Bush's fiscal year 2006 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security (http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=4337) -- released earlier this week -- Bush only plans to hire 210 such agents.

***

Tom Ridge, Bush's outgoing secretary of Homeland Security, warned that Bush wouldn't find the money to fully fund the legislation.

"The notion that you're going to have 10,000 is sort of a fool's gold," Ridge told USA Today on Jan. 24. "It's nice to say you're going to have 10,000 more Border Patrol agents in five years, but what other part of Homeland Security do you want to take the money from?"

It's a complaint that Democrats have been making ever since Bush came into office. Bush makes a campaign promise regarding some high-profile need, but fails to follow through when it comes to providing the funding to match. Think "No Child Left Behind," or securing our nation's chemical and nuclear plants. Bush's words were far louder than his subsequent actions.

***

Why the need for more border patrol agents?

"We could use the help," T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told USA Today in December. "We're getting our butts kicked out there."

Last year, 1.1 million people were arrested trying to cross the border from Mexico. Bonner told the newspaper. Agents now catch only about one-third of those who make it across each day. The Department of Homeland Security has expressed concern that because of tighter aviation security, members of al-Qaeda could try to cross into the USA by land.

"Agents in the field say they're badly needed, especially given the alarming number who are coming under fire from drug and alien smugglers," reported CNN on Feb. 3. "In the 261-mile stretch of border known as the Tucson sector, there were 81 assaults against Border Patrol agents in the past four months, including nine shootings. That's twice as many as the same period last year."

***

Amazingly, Republicans took the lead in denouncing the Bush budget.

House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-CA) said on Feb. 7: "Securing our borders against illegal crossings must be another budget priority. While the President's budget proposes important support for many border security initiatives, some remain badly underfunded. Congress authorized adding 2,000 Border Patrol agents in 2006, but the $37 million in the budget would fund only 210 of these positions. This is wholly inadequate."

If recent history is any indicator, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) will probably seek to quickly replace Cox with someone more willing to support the president (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/republican-party-machine-ousts.html#).

***

In a related move, Bush's budget also would eliminate the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, known as SCAAP, which defrays costs to border counties that jail illegal immigrants. Bush wanted to kill the program in earlier budgets, but Congress fought to restore it.

"If they take away the money, who's going to pay for it?" Texas Democratic Rep. Solomon Ortiz told The Dallas Morning News. "The counties along the border, they don't have a strong tax base to support the federal government. It should be the other way around – the federal government should be supporting the counties."

Monday, February 07, 2005

TV Talking Heads Buy GOP Spin That Bush Address Was First To Be Booed

The Republicans were in uproar. How dare those Democrats say "No," when President Bush used scare tactics and artificial statistics during his State of the Union address to tout Social Security privatization?

According to mediamatters.org, several television hosts bought the GOP spin that such dissent was "unprecedented." Too bad none of them bothered to do a simple Lexis/Nexis search to confirm that spin point before they repeated it on the air.

***

Let's dissect these on-air personalities into two groups:

THE KNOW-NOTHINGS (they speak without having the facts, and then never bother to check to see if they were right or wrong):

Ted Koppel, ABC: "They did something that, apparently, no one at this table has ever heard before."

John Roberts, CBS: "I've never heard the minority party shout at the president during the State of the Union address."

John Gibson, Fox News: "That isn't very common for state of the union speeches, is it?"

In fact, Republicans heckled former President Clinton's 1993 address when he cited Congressional Budget Office statistics about the deficit -- a point raised by CNN host (and Democratic advisor) Paul Begala, but not found on any other network.

According to easily accessible media reports at the time:

"At one point, Republicans even booed. About 20 of them left as Clinton went on and on for an hour and 20 minutes." [Associated Press, 1/24/95]

"Only once did they unmistakably and collectively show their disapproval -- when Clinton spoke disparagingly of a GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Many Republicans hissed and some booed." [Los Angeles Times, 2/5/97]

"Clinton's proposal to expand Medicare to allow Americans as young as 55 to buy into the system drew shouts of "no" and some boos from Republicans during his speech." [Chicago Tribune, 1/28/98]

***

THE KNOW-BETTERS (they were there, but why let the facts get in the way?)

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC (former Florida Republican Congressman, in attendance for the 1995, 1997 and 1998 Clinton addresses): "Republicans were on the floor saying, 'you know, we never once did that to Clinton.'"

Bob Barr, CNN (former Georgia Republican Congressman, in attendance for the 1995, 1997 and 1998 Clinton addresses): "It will be a very difficult battle as we saw by the unprecedented and, I think, highly improper virtual booing of the president."

***

Let's give Koppel, Roberts and Gibson the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their researchers had the night off? Maybe each is on an hourly Lexis/Nexis plan, and their respective networks vetoed paying the extra charges.

But Scarborough and Barr certainly would have remembered the various times the Republicans booed Clinton. It's not far-fetched to think that Scarborough and Barr assisted with the cat-calls.

So if you run MSNBC or CNN, what do you do? Do you suspend your analyst -- or even put him on a paid vacation -- so that he learns that lying is not tolerated? Do you apologize to your viewers -- the television equivalent of a newspaper correction?

Or do you look the other way, because you know your network is getting pummelled in the ratings by Fox News, and you'd rather appease your conservative viewership than do the right thing?

It's a tough choice, but readers of this blog can probably answer for themselves what MSNBC and CNN did.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bush Calls Homeland Security Top Priority, But Officials Say Department is Dysfunctional

Think you're safe?

Current and former officials of the Department of Homeland Security, while acknowledging some goals have been met, say that the department has not succeeded overall because of "personality conflicts" and "bureaucratic bottlenecks" among its 22 agencies.

The 22-month-old department, which employs 180,000 people, lacks clout and remains second-tier within President Bush's cabinet, officials say.

Much of the blame apparently goes to former department secretary Tom Ridge, criticized for trying to please politicans rather than lead the department. The result? A department that remains "dysfunctional," understaffed at the highest levels and underfunded. Critics hope Ridge's successor, Michael Chertoff, will take a greater leadership role as the department moves forward.

***

According to a Feb. 2 story in The Washington Post:

-- The department has made little progress protecting infrastructure because officials bickered over whether they were prohibited by law from spending money on such efforts. Only recently was the legal language been reworded.

--Two arms of the department gridlocked over efforts to secure hazardous chemicals on trains -- one of Congress's most feared terrorist-attack scenarios.

-- The department couldn't decide which of its agencies would take the lead tracking people and cargo at U.S. ports of entry. Efforts to develop tamper-proof shipping containers were stalled because of internal debates.

--The department's investigative arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has operated under severe financial crisis for more than a year -- to the point that use of agency vehicles and photocopying were at times banned. The problem stems from funding disputes with other department agencies.

Richard A. Falkenrath, who until last May was Bush's deputy homeland security adviser, told the Post that many officials at the department were so inexperienced in grasping the levers of power in Washington, and so bashful about trying, that they failed to make progress on some fronts.

"This department is immensely powerful in society, given its central role in foreign trade, immigration and transportation," he told the Post. "But it is far less powerful in interagency meetings and the White House situation room."

"DHS is still a compilation of 22 agencies that aren't integrated into a cohesive whole," said its recently departed inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, who released many critical reports and was not reappointed after a falling-out with Ridge.

Asked for examples of ineffectiveness, Ervin cited a report from his office last month that Homeland Security immigration inspectors had continued to let dozens of people using stolen foreign passports enter the United States -- even after other governments had notified the agency of the passport numbers. Using stolen passports is a well-known tactic of al Qaeda operatives. Even when immigration officials realized someone had entered the United States on a stolen passport, they did not routinely notify sister agencies that track illegal immigrants, the report said. When officials made missteps such as this, Ridge rarely intervened, Ervin said.

"Nobody's kicking anybody to do things" at Homeland Security, Seth Stodder, former policy and planning director at the department's Customs and Border Protection agency, told the Post. "There's a reluctance to make decisions that will be unpopular with the loser, so things just drift."

Stodder and other government officials said the department's main problem is that, under pressure from the White House to keep staffing lean, it lacks a policy staff to study its largest strategic challenges. The Pentagon, by contrast, has 2,000 people doing that, he said. "It's very thinly staffed at the top of DHS, and there's no policy vision . . . thinking through the main threats," Stodder said.

According to officials interviewed by the Post, the department has also has been hobbled by turf fights. Another Homeland Security agency -- the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), with 45,000 airport screeners -- said that a sentence in a budget law established it as overseer of security on trains, including ones moving dangerous chemicals. Hassles between TSA and infrastructure officials slowed progress, including efforts to secure chemicals that travel on tracks near the U.S. Capitol, for a year, officials told the Post.

"I'm sorry to say, since 9/11 we have essentially done nothing" to secure chemical plants and trains carrying chemicals, Falkenrath told Congress last month. "This [issue] stands out as an enormous vulnerability we had the authority to address."

The TSA's claims that it supervises all transportation security also led to fights with department agencies that handle immigration and customs. The struggles delayed progress for a year on developing anti-tampering technology for shipping containers and deciding which databases to use to track foreigners and cargo entering the country, officials told the Post.



Saturday, February 05, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up ...

In a side plot, God calls President George W. Bush on the telephone and then has to hang up to take another line. "Uh, that's Cheney, I gotta take it," God says to Bush before saying to the vice president, "Yes, sir?"

-- Highlight from "American Dad," premiering on Fox after the Super Bowl

Friday, February 04, 2005

GOP Bars Democrats From Bush Speech in North Dakota

Perhaps we should refer to the Bush administration as supporters of "Sweet 'N Low" politics.

The president has removed dissenting voices from his cabinet, like Colin Powell and Paul O'Neill, creating an artificial bubble of loyalists and yes men (and women). He boasts about not reading newspapers, instead referring to a briefing of cherry-picked items that support administration policy. The administration pays to send out "video news releases" created by a public relations firm and designed to replace real television news stories, and it has paid conservative "journalists" to tout its programs, creating an artificial cheering section in newspapers where independent thought might otherwise have been heard. It uses various methods, such as loyalty oaths, to artificially create audiences of supporters for Bush speeches.

The latest example of the latter gambit came Feb. 3 in Fargo, N.D., where the president was touting artificial numbers supporting his Social Security privatization plan.

According to the Fargo Forum*, two sources involved in ticket distribution confirmed that 42 area residents had been placed on a list of those barred from hearing the president speak at North Dakota State University's Bison Sports Arena.

The list was supplied to workers at two Fargo sites, along with tickets and other forms citizens were asked to fill out upon receiving them (a.k.a. "loyalty oaths"). People who handed out tickets had copies of the list at their tables to determine if anyone should be denied access, both sources told the Forum.

The 42 people included Fargo City Commissioner Linda Coates (a Democrat), and a host of letter writers to the Forum, on topics ranging from gay rights to criticism of Bush or the war in Iraq.


***

If you only surround yourself with people that agree with you, how can you learn?

It's understandable that the president wants to rally the nation behind his policies, such as Social Security privatization. But if he and his administration have to squash dissenting voices -- never hear them, let alone consider them -- to succeed, doesn't that call into question whether the policies are sound?

A policy as controversial as Social Security privatization must withstand the rigors of debate, not thrust upon a nation without consensus. Not only is it more sound policy, but it is far less polarizing, at a time when the nation is clearly divided.

* With thanks to talkingpointsmemo.com

Thursday, February 03, 2005

MSNBC (not Fox) Fails to Provide Balanced Analysis of State of the Union

Guess which of the three major cable news networks -- CNN, MSNBC or Fox News -- failed to provide a balance of liberals and conservatives in its State of the Union coverage?

You might have guessed Fox, but in fact, the guilty party was MSNBC.

MSNBC featured 10 guests that would be considered Republicans or conservatives, and just two that would be called Democrats or liberals.

By comparison, Fox News featured eight guests from the right and six from the left, and CNN had six of each.

Here's a breakdown of who appeared on MSNBC:

Republican guests: White House Communications Director Nicole Devenish, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), radio host Laura Ingraham, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, actor and Bush supporter Ron Silver, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) , former Bush speechwriter David Frum, MSNBC analyst Pat Buchanan.

Democrat guests: Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, MSNBC analyst Ron Reagan.

***

MSNBC's strategy of late is crystal clear. It wants to out-conservative Fox News -- a Hail Mary plan to try to boost its laggard ratings. Whether its the decision to bring aboard Tucker Carlson to the prime-time lineup (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/02/carlson-signs-with-msnbc-tilting-their.html) or greatly favoring conservative guests on Hardball (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/matthews-again-skews-hardball-panel-to.html) and Scarborough Country, MSNBC could not be more transparent in its efforts to win over conservative viewers.

There's nothing wrong with seeking out conservative viewpoints. But it makes no sense -- journalistically or ethically -- to have such a ridiculous imbalance between right and left. By going against a basic tenet of journalism -- providing balance -- MSNBC is doing a disservice to its viewers.

***

And did MSNBC's gambit work? Nope.

Fox News averaged nearly 5.08 million viewers from 9 p.m.-11 p.m. Feb. 2, versus 1.02 million for CNN and 716,000 for MSNBC, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

The performance represented a 14% viewership rise for Fox News over the 4.45 million who tuned in Bush’s 2004 State of the Union speech. CNN lost 48% of its watchers from the prior year (1.97 million), while MSNBC was off 1% (from 721,000) from the 2004 address.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Meet Jeff Gannon, Another Conservative "Journalist" Making a Mockery of the Profession

Recall for a moment the film Working Girl, in which Joan Cusack says to Melanie Griffith that sometimes she liked to sing in her underwear, but "it doesn't make me Madonna."

Similarly, just because you ask President Bush or his press secretary, Scott McLellan, a question, "it doesn't make you a journalist."

Meet Jeff Gannon, the latest example of the Bush administration mocking journalists.

Gannon calls himself a White House correspondent for TalonNews.com, which claims to deliver "accurate, unbiased news coverage." But Gannon has posted on other sites that he is a conservative partisan. And TalonNews.com is operated by Bobby Eberle, a Texas-based Republican Party delegate and political activist who aslo runs GOPUSA.com, which touts itself as "bringing the conservative message to America."

How does Gannon get into White House press conferences? That question is being asked by media watchdog groups like mediamatters.org, because Gannon not only attends such conferences, but is often called upon -- to lob softballs -- when questioning becomes tough. Why? Because Gannon asks the most Bush-friendly questions in town.

Some examples, compiled by mediamatters.org:

-- "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the US economy. Minority Leader] Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work -- you said you're going to reach out to these people -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" (1/26/05)

But the Reid "quote" was actually from a Rush Limbaugh "satire," reports The Boston Globe.

-- Thank you. The imam [Yassin M. Aref] that was arrested in [Albany] New York last week was discovered because his name appeared in a Rolodex in a terrorist training camp in Iraq before the war. The book was found after, by U.S. troops, but he was in Iraq before the war. Is this another piece of evidence showing the direct terror ties between Iraq and al Qaeda? (8/9/04)

According to the transcript, the above question of McLellan came after tough questions about deaths in Afghanistan and the presidents feelings on Ahmed Chalabi, after he was accused of giving classified U.S. intelligence to Iran. Gannon was able to ask the above question and two follow-ups.

-- Since there have been so many questions about what the President was doing over 30 years ago, what is it that he did after his honorable discharge from the National Guard? Did he make speeches alongside [actress and anti-Vietnam War activist] Jane Fonda, denouncing America's racist war in Vietnam? Did he testify before Congress that American troops committed war crimes in Vietnam? And did he throw somebody else's medals at the White House to protest a war America was still fighting? What was he doing after he was honorably discharged? (2/10/04)

The question came after several tough questions about gaps in Texas Air National Guard record.

***

In a letter to McLellan, mediamatters.org found David Brock writes:

Mr. Gannon wrote in a post on FreeRepublic.com that you are apparently aware of what he will ask you at briefings; in response to a comment about your reaction to a question he asked, Mr. Gannon wrote: "It's hard to say with Scott but he usually knows what he's going to get from me."

Given all of this, it seems that Mr. Gannon serves not as a reporter during press briefings but as a useful lifeline for you to rely on when you get in trouble.

***

The TalonNews controversy is the latest effort by the Bush adminstration to try to maneuver around the mainstream media, which it obviously distrusts.

It comes on the heels of news that the White House paid at least three conservative "journalists" to tout Bush administration proposals, and that two top conservative pundits -- William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer -- were asked to consult on the president's inaugural address, a point they each failed to disclose while praising the address on Fox News.

And dating back more than a year, the administration sent video "news releases" on several occasions to local television stations, predominantly in red states, that were created by a public relations firm to tout various administration efforts. Neither the administration, nor the public relations firm, disclosed the fact that they were propaganda, pitching the items as if they came from freelance journalists.

Never before has an administration gone to such great lengths to make a mockery of the mainstream media -- and so easily got caught in those efforts.

***

McClellan told the Globe that Gannon has not been issued -- nor requested -- a regular "hard pass" to the White House, and instead has come in for the past two years on daily passes. Daily passes, he said, have been issued to reporters and political commentators from lesser-known newsletters and from across the political spectrum.

McLellan, when asked by the Globe, couldn't think of any other Internet blog operators who had received a daily pass. And of course, none of the "reporters and political commentators" McLellan mentioned have been called upon nearly as often as Gannon.

Then, in another slap in the face to the media, McClellan told the Globe that it is not the White House's role to decide who is and who is not a real journalist.

Carlson Signs With MSNBC, Tilting Their Line-Up Further Right

Tucker Carlson made it official, signing a contract yesterday with MSNBC.

Carlson, formerly of the defunct CNN show Crossfire(http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/three-cheers-for-jon-stewart-cnn.html), will replace apolitical Deborah Norville.

MSNBC, dead last among the big three cable news networks, is hoping to strengthen its lineup by appeasing the conservative wing of its audience. If you're keeping score at home, the prime-time lineup now features:

-- Joe Scarborough (former Florida Republican Congressman, and friend of all things conservative, especially the religious right).
-- Tucker Carlson (former conservative half of CNN's Crossfire)
-- Chris Matthews (former top aide to Tip O'Neill, but more noteworthy of late for unbalanced panels featuring a mix of mainstream journalists and conservatives, such as Stephen Hayes, Pat Buchanan or Scarborough. Matthews has been rumored to be seeking a move to Fox News).
-- Keith Olbermann (left-leaning review of the day's events.)

Even if you think Olbermann is a liberal extremist (he's not) and want to call Matthews a centrist, the MSNBC gameplan is pretty clear. For the record, Phil Donahue's long-ago canceled MSNBC show drew higher ratings than its successor, Scarborough Country. Donahue also drew higher ratings most nights than Matthews' Hardball. But Donahue was officially dumped for "low ratings."

Will MSNBC's ratings rise with Carlson? The answer is likely yes, although that has more to do with the woefully dull Norville than anything the bow-tied conservative has to say.

Should Matthews finally leave for Fox, I volunteer that MSNBC should replace him with a left-leaning host. I wonder what kind of ratings Al Franken would be able to muster. Hmmm.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

And The Winner For B.S. Question of the Week Is ...

"You know, isn‘t it amazing, Dr. Dobson — and you‘ve been following this for some time — that so many people get on the TV, these so-called unbiased reporters, and they have a world view that‘s shared by their friends on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or in West L.A. and Hollywood and they have no idea what goes on in between the two coasts?"

-- Joe Scarborough, Scarborough Country, Jan. 31

Listed on BlogShares