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A bit of punctuation

Punctuation marks.005 Today is national punctuation day and a good opportunity to explain my recent lack of postings (for those who have noticed).

Punctuation-wise, I suppose we should call the last couple of weeks an "ellipse."

In that same vein, this posting constitutes a "colon" of sorts (with no intentional excretory references).

So, why have I been absent?  

Two reasons: first, my family has a new puppy that has yet to sleep through a solid night; second, I have begun the serious writing-while-researching phase of my next book.

The lack of uninterrupted sleep, combined with the need for long stretches of focused work, have made daily blogging impractical.

So -- and here is the colon-appropriate section -- I plan to limit my future blogging for the time being to one or two days a week, probably Sundays and Wednesdays, but I may mix it up.  

We'll see if I can stick to that schedule.

There is no punctuational equivalent for that previous sentence in English, but the Spanish combination of exclamation point and question mark comes close. 


News consumption

News consumptionThe Pew Research Center published the results of its biennial survey of news consumption on Sept. 12. 

There's good news and there's bad news. 

The good news is that Americans are consuming more news -- 70 minutes a day compared to 57 minutes in 2000. The current results are higher largely because they include 13 minutes from online news sources. 

The bad news is that people's political ideology continues to play a major role in their choice of news sources. For instance, 40 percent of Republicans say they regularly watch Fox News, compared to only 15 percent of Democrats. On the other hand, 36 percent of Democrats say they regularly watch CNN or MSNBC, compared to 18 percent of Republicans. 

Similarly, those who describe themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement make up a disproportionately large share of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News' audiences. By contrast, supporters of gay rights make up a large share of regular New York Times readers, viewers of the "Colbert Report" and NPR listeners. 

Not surprisingly, conservative Republicans seem to enjoy keeping up with the news more than liberal Democrats (57 to 45 percent).

But the most interesting finding to me is the emergence of what Pew calls a "participatory" news culture.  People are not simply replacing the old media with their digital versions.  They are adding digital media to their daily consumption and exploiting its capabilities to do different things -- e.g., filtering the news according to their interests, sharing news items with like-minded people, or even contributing their own voice to the media mix. 

Digital publishers are rushing to capitalize on these capabilities. The emergence of still new platforms -- e.g., smartphones, which were not included in the survey -- as well as wider availability of higher broadband speeds will undoubtedly accelerate this evolution. 

I'd put this into the decidedly "mixed news" category, except that some in the mainstream media are also re-discovering an audience for their traditional strengths of in-depth reporting and analysis.  Contrary to most newspapers, for example, regular readers of the New York Times are young -- about a third are under 30 -- suggesting that not everyone in the digital generation wants to live in an echo chamber.

Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic2010PosterPro2Hispanic Heritage Month starts tomorrow, Sept. 15.

So it's probably appropriate to repeat something I've written before -- the defining characteristic of American culture in the 21st century is that it is becoming increasingly diverse. 

Now comes word, via the AP, that the number of Hispanics watching TV in the U.S. is growing much faster than the television audience as a whole. Nielsen data shows that the number of Hispanic TV households increased by 3.1% from a year earlier, while the number of non-Hispanic households had barely increased at all. 

In fact, Univision has had better ratings than the mainstream networks in several large cities for some time. But recently it beat its English language rivals in the coveted 18 to 49 year old segment nationwide.  

On top of that, when the Census Bureau finishes tabulating its 2010 census, most demographers expect it to show that the U.S.’s Hispanic population has increased by some 40 percent, more than any other group. 

Those 50 million Hispanic consumers will be the country’s second-largest market after non-Hispanic whites. And since marketing is all about culture, that will make multi-cultural marketing mainstream. 


Stamp this out

Eid2Here's another in the seemingly endless series of posts about President Obama's Muslim (and in some versions of the email, Communist) tendencies.  

“President Obama has directed the United States Postal Service to remember and honor the Eid Muslim holiday season with a new commemorative 44 cent first class holiday postage stamp.” 

I'm not sure that would be all that bad if it were true. But alas, it's not. It was President Bush’s administration that first issued the Eid stamp in 2001 (when it cost only 34 cents).

That admittedly was ten days before the Sept. 11 attacks, but the post office has reissued it every year since (though in higher denominations). 

In first issuing the stamp, the Postal Service said it would "help us highlight the business, educational and social contributions of the estimated six to seven million Muslims in this country whose cultural heritage has become an integral part of the fabric of this great nation."  

I personally see no reason to take those words back. 

For more, see

What did we learn this week?

Trump Snooki.003Apparently living in the Information Age means we're vulnerable to any media whore with a sufficiently well-tuned lust for publicity.

That became really obvious when Donald Trump inserted himself into the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy, which as we all know concerns not a mosque but a community center and is not at Ground Zero but two blocks north. 

But the Donald is already a well-known figure, like Snooki and the Salahis. Obviously they can command our attention.

A more useful object lesson is a deservingly obscure pastor with a congregation of about 50 in a small Florida town. He virtually commandeered America's image around the world by announcing plans to burn a pile of Korans on his front lawn this very morning.  (He postponed those plans, but I suspect we have not heard the last from him.) 

As "On The Media's" Brooke Gladstone admitted, "We love crazies — they pull in audiences like a tractor beam. Even the mildly aberrant — say, a runaway bride — can dominate news cycles for days." 

In this case, it not only filled countless hours of cable news programming, it ignited protests across the Middle East.  And that had some reporters searching parts of their souls they hadn't seen since last year's Balloon Boy circus. 

ABC News anchor Chris Cuomo tweeted Thursday: "I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning ... and that was reckless." 

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post: "Thanks to the miracle of the Internet and far-less-wondrous effect of cable television news, a minor crackpot has managed to have a global impact." 

It's probably never a bad idea for the media to do a little soul-searching. For example, this particular media circus caused a friend and former AP reporter to wonder if the 24/7 news cycle had given new dimensions to the old nostrum under which many of us labored  -- "the news is what editors say it is."

Indeed it has. If anything, it gives professional editors a heavier responsibility -- to weigh the pragmatic, as well as the semantic, significance of their decisions. 

What they choose to report has as much meaning as the reporting itself. 

Un-brakeable threads

Email-fwrd Some threads cannot be broken. Or stopped.

Which explains the misspelling in the title of this post.

A friend and I have both been on the receiving end of email threads carrying what seem to us to be totally outlandish propositions.  

One email purported to quote President Obama saying that soldiers wounded in Iraq should pay for their own medical treatment. The other drew a straight line from Obama's efforts to stimulate the economy, to socialism, and ultimately to a Cuban-style Communist take-over. 

How, we asked ourselves, could rational people believe these things? 

It reminded me that Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion that "For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see." 

The world is too complicated for us to react to every new experience as if we had never seen anything like it before, he said. Instead, we take the pragmatic approach of categorizing anything new with something already familiar. And we attach all the same feelings and associations to it too. 

So the bank and auto bail-outs look like government take-overs, which is one way of defining socialism, which is a gentler version of communism.  And voila. 

Or someone takes a satirical essay and emails it to his friends as if it were a real news report. They forward it on, and it eventually lands in the inbox of someone willing to believe anything negative about Obama. 

He slaps a new subject line on it -- "most outrageous statement ever made by a public official" -- and sends it to me (plus 90 others) asking that I "Please pass this on to every one including every vets (sic) and their families whom you know. How in the world did a person with this mind set become our leader?" 

Of course, I referred him to, which debunked the email about a year ago. My friend gave her email correspondent a brief history lesson on the rise of Communism in Cuba, with a side discussion on economics.  But we both know it's futile. 

As Churchill once said, "the desire to believe is much more persuasive than rational argument." 

And so the thread unspools.

Factious America

Tea-party-signs"Never before, perhaps, has a culture been so fragmented into groups, each full of its own virtue, each annoyed and irritated at the others." 

Historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote those words in 1960. 

What would he make of us today?

Tea Partiers want their country back. A quarter million Texans have signed a petition to secede from the United States.  The Republican candidate for vice president is married to a man who was registered member of the Alaska Independence Party. 

Digital media have not only fragmented our sources of entertainment and information, they've made it possible to avoid any opinions we don't agree with.

None of this would have surprised the Founding Fathers. Madison used this human propensity for divisiveness in arguing for a strong central government, which he considered "a safeguard against domestic faction."

By "faction," Madison meant "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." 

 Madison thought the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of his day might be able to "kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States." 

That might have been true when it took about a week for a newspaper to make it from Boston to Philadelphia. But geographical distance matters less in a world of instant communication, and a little-known Florida pastor can endanger U.S. troops half a world away by burning a pile of Korans on his front lawn. 

Of course, Madison didn't put all his faith in geography. He also expected our elected representatives to possess "enlightened views and virtuous sentiments" that would "render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice." 

He would be sorely disappointed to learn that most of those representatives are pandering to the very factions from which Madison expected them to protect us.

Divided America

America_dividedCulture wars. Political polarization. Nativist fear of immigrants, especially Hispanics and Muslims.

These appear to be what divides us. 

But sociologists point out that most Americans are pretty close to the center in politics and social issues, with a relatively small number at the vocal fringes. 

And a smaller percentage of the U.S. population was born elsewhere, than in many other counties or even in previous periods of our own history. 

According to Claude Fischer what really divides us gets relatively attention. Social class, he says, is the major fault line running through American. 

"Many people are aware of the widening gap among Americans by income," Fischer says. "But the split between the college-educated and others is perhaps the most profound division of all." 

Obviously, the better educated get better jobs, earn more, and accumulate more wealth than the less educated. But Fischer cautions that the division runs even deeper: 

"Increasingly, college graduates live in different urban areas and neighborhoods than the less educated do. Increasingly, college-educated (and post-graduate) Americans marry one another." 

In fact, the better educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce. Along with financial resources, they give their children certain cultural advantages like exposure to the arts and foreign travel. 

"In these various ways," Fischer says, "the material and social divisions by levels of education are growing wider."

Maybe it's the sword

K_of_c_color_corp_modelblackWhen in full regalia, the Knights of Columbus carry swords. 

Maybe that's why as late as 1928, they found it necessary to sue six organizations spreading the false rumor that they were preparing to take over the United States by force. 

According to those groups, and a popular book of the time, the Knight's "fourth order oath" required members to "make and wage relentless war, secretly and openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Masons."

The Knights were supposedly directed to "extirpate them from the face of the whole earth," sparing "neither age, sex nor condition." In fact, they had to promise to "hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle, and bury alive these infamous heretics, rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women, and crush their infants' heads against the walls in order to annihilate their execrable race." 

As you probably know, the Knights of Columbus are a charitable organization of the Catholic church. 

A friend reminded me that the current hysteria about Muslims is not unlike the anti-Catholicism that roiled America through much of our history, all the way into the 1960s when JFK was elected president. 

Does anyone else see irony in the fact that some people think we now have a Muslim president?

What did we learn this week?

Beckrally2 We learned that, however many people you gather on the national mall, it can easily look like as few as 78,000 or as many as 1 million, depending on where you stand.

Politically, that is.

At least, that's the case when the organizer and main attraction is radio and TV-host Glenn Beck.

The low estimate comes from CBS News, which used aerial photos in its calculation.

The high estimate was courtesy of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who told supporters shortly after the rally that "we're not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million here today — because we were witnesses."

Beck's own estimate was more modest -- from 500,000 to 600,000.

Most news reports stayed on the fence, saying the crowd numbered in the "tens if not hundreds of thousands." And they accurately compared the rally itself to a church picnic.

Indeed, it did appear to be equal parts religiosity, patriotism and self-help, reminding me more of a Joel Osteen revival than anything else. The attendees were polite, orderly and even cleaned up after themselves.

Others saw something more overtly political. "Beck is offering a new form of fusion politics, melding the anti-government, anti-spending, anti-tax fervor of the tea party with the faith-based agenda of the religious right," according to Ruth Marcus.

I think that's right and, whatever the actual crowd size, it's pretty clear that a lot of people are buying it. It was identity politics -- second cousin to wedge -- without any overt partisanship. I'M WITH BECK.002

But the best thing I got out of the rally was the opportunity to buy an "I'm with Beck" tee-shirt in honor of my four month-old grandson who shares the name (by happenstance, not intention).


Microtrends.002finally got around to reading Microtrends last weekend. 

Next on the pile by bedside is The Big Sort, which I've already written about here

Since I wrote about confirmation bias yesterday, I hesitate to say that Mark Penn agrees with the thesis of Otherwise. (If I get to speak with him, I'll definitely ask and report back.) 

But it did strike me in reading his book that he seems to be nibbling around the edges of the issue, at least from a marketing and political perspective. 

For example at the very beginning of the book he writes, "Our culture today is increasingly the product of what I have identified as social atoms -- small trends that reflect changing habits and choices. ... In critical area after critical area, we are seeing the potential for greater fragmentation, and the impact of microtrends in accelerating that fragmentation." 

Of course, Penn would not agree that this is an entirely recent phenomenon. In the conclusion, he writes, "There probably never was as much national unity as mythologizers like to remember. This is a nation that has always spoken hundreds of languages. This is a nation that fought a civil war over the enslavement of one-third of its people. Indeed, the most famous and celebrated of the The Federalist Papers, the intellectual cornerstone of America's very founding, is James Madison's treatise on "factions," describing the inevitability (and productivity) of America's competitive special interest groups." 

But if fragmentation isn't entirely new, Penn does believe its character has changed. "What is different now is not that the factions of society are so much more numerous," he writes, "but rather that they are dividing along lines of personal choice rather than circumstance, like race, or fortune, like landowning. We are at least as intensely divided as any healthy democracy has ever been, but along new fault lines, related to choice." 

Penn isn't entirely sanguine about the implications of this new kind of fragmentation. "It will be harder for democracies to manage all the criss-crossing intensities about private values and public resources," he writes. And political action will necessarily be based on fragile coalitions as personal choice pulls people in different directions. Micro-targeting will become the dominant means of advertising and marketing communications, raising new concerns about privacy and the limits of commercial, if not government, intrusion. 

On the other hand, Penn believes that this disaggregation of society will increase support for tolerance. "If individual choices become more and more important to people," he writes,"then minority rights become equally important to the expression of those differences." 

Alas, the placards at Tea Party conclaves around the country suggest that that prediction may be several decades premature.

Dunce cap nation

Dunce_capCould a fifth of Americans be comfortable in their dunce caps?

That's the issue Tunku Varadarajan explored in yesterday's posting  over at "The Daily Beast." 

I dealt with Tunku when he edited the op ed page at the Wall Street Journal.  He's a political conservative, but extremely thoughtful and eminently fair. 

His posting explores the phenomenon of baseless beliefs -- whether "Obama is a Muslim" or "McCain is senile." 

Tunku admits that there is a certain level of ignorance at work here, but he calls it "a very provocative, toxic ignorance," impervious to facts "in the pursuit of political warfare." 

He posits four causes for what he terms "belligerent unenlightenment." 

In reality, three of the four causes he lists are different sides of the same psychological coin -- i.e., confirmation bias, our tendency to interpret (or deny) facts in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. There's a mountain of research supporting that theory. And it's surely at work here. 

That may also be true of the fourth cause Tunku lists -- sheer, unvarnished ignorance. 

Sadly, there's a mountain of evidence for that too.

Uprooting myths

Uprooting.001 Uprooting.001Nothing is harder to dislodge than a myth that has taken root. 

It would make Sisyphus appreciate his rock. 

A good friend reminded me of that by sending me to website of the NPR program "On the Media," which dedicated last weekend's edition to that very subject. 

Host Brooke Gladstone interviewed political scientist Brendan Nyhan on the persistence of certain stories even after they have been proven to be false.  

It was a little disheartening to hear someone who has studied the nature of these misperceptions confess that it's virtually impossible to correct misinformation that people want to believe. 

"People were so successful at bringing to mind reasons that the correction was wrong that they actually ended up being more convinced in the misperception than the people who didn't receive the correction," he said. "So the correction, in other words, was making things worse." 

For example, Nyhan said you get nowhere simply saying "Obama is not a Muslim" because people tend to forget the "not" and the original statement in all its glorious wrongness is merely reinforced. 

Instead, Nyhan's team tested the approach of saying, "I'm not a Muslim" against an alternative, "I'm a Christian." In fact, that would have been my advice, but Nyhan admitted that it only worked some of the time. 

"When non-white students were interviewing respondents to the study, the message seemed to work, and, in particular, with Republicans, the group that was most likely to hold the misperception," he said. "But when it was only white students administering the experiment was precisely the opposite, the correction appeared to actually make things worse." 

It seems that, when the non-white students were present, people were giving responses that didn't line up with their unconscious associations of Obama, i.e., he's black. As Nyhan politely put it, using non-white interviewers "may have created an environment that people weren't comfortable saying what they really thought." 

Clearly frustrated herself, Gladstone asked Nyhan if there is any way to correct misperceptions. His advice was to take the battle to the source of these myths. 

"I think the most effective approach is to go after elites, to shame the people who are promoting these things, who are putting them out there," he said. "At some point, people have to be cast out of polite society. You have to simply say, that is irresponsible and we're not going to give you our air time, our print to make that sort of a claim. Politicians and talk radio hosts, they're going to push these things when it’s in their interest to do so. It’s a simple cost-benefit calculation. What I want to do is increase the cost." 

People like Ann Coulter and Michael Moore are hard to shame, but it's worth trying. 

Sisyphus move over.