29 October 2006

Journalism and Other Strange Practices

Common Sense
John Maxwell

If you'd asked me two weeks ago how I thought the US midterm elections would go, I would have told you I expected the Democrats to win the House handsomely and the Senate by a small margin. The catalyst, I thought, was the sudden explosive decompression of Mr Jim Foley, the Congressman from Florida's Gold Coast whose sexual harassment of Congressional pages had just hit the fan.
But of course, I was reckoning without that Hippocrates of Sanctimony, President Bush's confidante, chief adviser and fondly nicknamed 'Turd Blossom' - the ineffable Karl Rove.

And of course, I am hobbled by the sad fact that, as Generalissimo Rumsfeld opined this week, "No one can predict the future with absolute certainty". He too is obviously reckoning without Mr Rove, who told a querulous journalist this week that he didn't expect any real change in the electoral geography of the United States anytime soon, as he, unlike the journalist, consulted 68 polls every day as against the mere dozen or so available to journalists and lesser mortals.

According to 16 of the most trusted US polls, samples taken in October put the generic Republican Party vote no higher than 41% with the generic Democratic vote no lower than 49%. In the polls, the percentage lead for the Democrats varies from nine points in the rightwing Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll to 23% in the USAToday/Gallup poll.

According to the RealClear Politics (RCP) blog, its sampling of nine of the major polls puts the average of the Republican vote at 37.3% - and the average democratic vote at 52.3% an advantage for the Democrats of 15.9%. The RCP sample discloses that President Bush's job approval rating ranges from a high of 40% in ABC and Fox polls to a low of 35% in the Newsweek poll. The average approval rating for Mr Bush in the nine majors polls is 38.4%.

One would imagine that with such substantial leads it would be impossible for the Democrats to lose, but, as the Republicans demonstrated in Ohio, two years ago, and in Florida four years before that, a determined Secretary of State can do wonders with bad numbers and rigged voting machines, with a little help from disfranchisement programmes and other ways of circumventing the democratic process.

Most scholars of the US system are clear that the GOP stole both the 2000 and the 2004 Presidential elections. As General Boykin famously said, it was God and not the people who put Mr Bush in the White House, rather like Maradona's claiming the hand of God that won the World Cup match for Argentina against England in 1986.

The science of opinion sampling has developed to the point that voters' intentions may be predicted with a considerable degree of accuracy. And in 2004, the predicted results were apparently confirmed by exit polls, when voters were asked immediately after voting, to say for whom they voted.

It is a curious fact that the longer after voting the voters are questioned, the bigger the likelihood that the result will swing more and more to the actual winner. When people know who has won, they tend to say that they voted for that person even if they hadn't.

According to the exit polls in Florida and Ohio in 2004, Kerry won both states. In exit polls immediately, after voting, most voters said they voted for Kerry but polls taken a few days later gave the electors' choice as George Bush. This result is so unlikely that statisticians consider it impossible.

Part of the problem, and it is a huge part, is the fact that a great many Americans will be voting electronically, that is, by computers. Unfortunately, every study conducted so far has proved that the machines used in the electoral process in the United States are to say the least, unreliable and easily compromised by evildoers.

The software used in the voting is proprietary, so that the states, the clients who are paying for the process, have no right to inspect the machines to see whether they work properly. In addition, in most states the voter does not get a receipt for his vote, so that it is impossible to check whether the votes were properly recorded by the software.

All of this makes the next elections a potentially explosive issue in the United States.
In Mexico some weeks ago, the candidate of the left was able to attract massive crowds to the capital to protest against what they thought was a stolen election. The anger seems to have subsided and Mexico City's streets are once again open to ordinary traffic. But what would happen in the United States, especially in populations so polarised by the president and the arrogant and corrupt behaviour of his party?

There are important and volatile minorities in several cities which may not take too kindly to the prospect of another two years of rule by Mr Hastert and his cronies and there are even bigger constituencies who are angry at the president for the war in Iraq and the inexorably mounting toll of death and human destruction.

When the swing against a party is as wide and deep as it is against the Republicans, ordinary people have a pretty good idea of who is likely to have won; people talk, exchange stories and are well aware of the possibility for crooked manipulation.

An electorate which is bedevilled by rising unemployment, watching their jobs disappear overseas, losing their capital invested in the houses and oversubscribed to the banks, may not behave like a volatile tropical mass, but they may be even more dangerous.

People realise that a large part of their liberty has been taken away by the president who speaks of distributing freedom and liberty abroad, that the money which could be paying for education and health care is being incinerated and atomised by the minute in Iraq and Afghanistan and that their taxes are being frittered away by corrupt politicians and contractors in an unnecessary war which is costing $2,000,000,000 a day.


The pathetic behaviour of the US press is, at least, somewhat counterbalanced by a few brave men and women, some of them even in places like the New York Times but mostly in blogs on the internet. In Jamaica we depend on a few radio and TV stations and even fewer newspapers.

The Star, which claims the largest circulation in Jamaica, has never been a paragon of journalistic virtue. This week however, it outdid itself in crass vulgarity and horrific mischief making.

I have personally never seen anything as bone-headedly stupid and irresponsible as Wednesday's Star, which carried a picture of Prime Minister Simpson, apparently at prayer, hands clasped, head bowed, facing a headline which occupied half a page and proclaimed in 120 point type- 1.5 inches high: "Dreamer woman envisions...Portia in a bloody room".

And on page three the headline was repeated in smaller type (inch-high 72 point Tempo) with an unforgivably stupid and mischievous story about some delusional 'evangelist' who alleges that she has been having bad dreams, starring the prime minister.

The dreamer was asked by the incredibly credulous reporter to interpret the dream and the prophet/dreamer/"anointed messenger of God" obliged with a farrago of superstitious garbage, all faithfully reproduced in the Star.

Like most 'prophets', this woman claims to have foreseen various dramatic disasters, except that there is apparently no record of these prophecies.

People in politics can generally expect to be traduced in all sorts of ways, but invoking witchcraft is probably a new departure for this country's newspapers.

That same day a caller to Wilmot Perkins' talk-show alleged that 'Portia' was responsible for the killing of his relatives 20 years ago, when she campaigned near where the caller lived. This idiocy was permitted by the host, no doubt for good and sufficient reason.

After which, it is almost picayune to refer to the high-minded nonsense being talked about attacks by the government on Freedom of the Press.

Press freedom belongs to the people and is supposedly their guarantee that they will be able to share and receive news, which is in their interest, which is accurate and useful and conducive to their survival and prosperity. Spying on the prime minister is not a part of freedom of the press. The press has no right to make mischief or to behave like a 'Peeping Tom'.

I cannot imagine how all the high-minded hypocrisy about this case can be justified. Long ago, reporters were barred from the Hansard box in Gordon House because they interfered with the work of those who recorded the proceedings. Photographers have to get specific permission to take pictures and their vantage points have always been agreed on generally, in consultation with the Clerk of the House.

Parliament is not a street-corner or a park, and there are rules which must be obeyed. When the media bosses some time ago made a demonstration in Gordon House claiming an attack on Press Freedom they were both silly and ill-advised. The Press more than most, damages its real interests by crying wolf at the slightest hint of a lap dog.


Mr Ken Jones, a man I first met when we both worked at Public Opinion as reporters, delivered himself in the Gleaner this week of some opinions on press freedom. I have time to take issue with only two of his allegations.

First, he regards the JLP government's persistent attempts to silence Public Opinion between 1963 and 1965 as petty stuff, and not really an attack on Freedom of the Press. I beg to differ, since I was in the middle of that issue; one of my contributors, a University lecturer named Bill Carr, was being threatened with deportation, while I was threatened with prison and worse by people like the prime minister, the attorney general and others, in Parliament and outside.

When a government goes as far as prohibiting advertising in a newspaper and forbidding civil servants to buy it for their personal use, that seems to me very much like an attack on press freedom. It certainly was an attack on me and on the jobs of the 40 or so others who worked at City Printery, whose excellent services were proscribed by the government. Government-related institutions such as the UWI and the Jamaica Agricultural Society were forbidden to have their printing done by the printery.

More than a dozen years later - in 1978 - when I was editor of the paper for the second time, somebody burned it to the ground. In the 1960s, equally mysterious forces had also burned down the left-wing Abeng.

Having dismissed the trifling incidents at Public Opinion, Ken Jones tells a story, which defies belief. According to him, during the 1970s, PNP types raided the offices of the JLP Voice and" cut out the tongue" of an employee there before "striking him dead".

I believe Mr Jones owes us all further and better particulars. And I believe that the Gleaner and the Star owe Jamaica and the prime minister some serious apologies.

In the public interest and its own self-protection, I belief the Press needs to discover what Press Freedom really means.


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