Archive for July 2008

McCain leaves everything on the table in Sparks.

July 31, 2008

In an odd exchange following John McCain’s town hall meeting in Sparks this week, the candidate deflected a question from the Reasonable Reporter by suggesting that she might be a conservative. There would be no justification for telling the story, and it would remain untold, except that Anjeanette Damon alluded to the moment both in her Reno Gazette Journal report, and in her blog.  Damon’s account was picked up by another blogger who shortened it. The effect of his edit was to leave the impression that McCain’s words were directed at her.

OK, it’s not exactly accurate to say McCain deflected the question. He didn’t allow the question. He cut it off cold after a few words, and talked over the ensuing attempt to follow up.

McCain was moving away from an uncomfortable subject – that core conservatives still find him unsettling as the Republican nominee for the White House. He’d brought this particular episode on himself, by articulating two days earlier sentiments identical to Barack Obama’s on what it would take to save social security. >

It’s now been well chewed over in the media that McCain made conservatives nervous about the possibility of a payroll tax hike by telling George Stephanopoulos “everything should be on the table” with regard to social security, and by invoking the 1983 Tip O’Neill-Ronald Reagan bipartisan solution for same.

In Sparks, it was RGJ reporter Damon who opened the social security door when the candidate told local reporters that a recession is a bad time to raise taxes, and he won’t do it.

“Even payroll taxes for social security?”  Damon asked.

When Damon tried to pin him down, McCain asserted several times that he would not raise taxes, and also repeated several times that for the purpose of negotiating a social security solution, “everything should be on the table. “

The Reasonable Reporter said to McCain that he sounded as though he was addressing two separate things. Meaning, as if it needs to be spelled out, that leaving everything on the table during a social security discussion raises the possibility of a tax increase, and it is, in effect, all one subject.  The subject is taxes.  Damon got it, McCain didn’t.

McCain repeated. No new taxes, and everything on the table.

The Reasonable Reporter then suggested – or began to suggest – that McCain’s persistence in promoting an “everything on the table” approach while simultaneously promising “no new taxes” is an example of what makes conservatives skeptical of him.

The presumptive nominee might have been more tolerant in a one-on-one interview, having been alerted that the reporter represents a medium with a largely conservative audience.  He might have treated the topic as respectfully during the interview as he did during the town hall, when a Douglas County man took the microphone and said that he’s unenthusiastic about McCain, and needs reassurance that the candidate will carry out the conservative values of Douglas County voters.

In a one-on-one conversation, McCain might have started with the same answer he gave to Douglas County. (Burning up 5 minutes and 34 seconds of the ten minutes that would surely have been our time limit.)  Or the Reasonable Reporter might have respectfully interrupted after a minute or so, to ponder with the senator a matter that may be keeping Nevada’s down-ballot Republicans awake at night.

Can Republicans running for state and local office count on McCain to deliver conservative voters to the polls?  In their fight to retain a one-seat majority in the state senate, and a teetering hedge against a two-thirds Democratic assembly, what can McCain do to help Nevada candidates?  In an environment where the sitting Republican governor’s coattails have been clipped, can state and local Republican candidates look to McCain’s coattails?  Or are his coattails also too short to ride?

In the Reed High School gym, McCain had declared himself to be the underdog. He told the audience he needs them to bring it home for him.

In the press room, he was unwilling to indulge this discussion. McCain rolled over the Reasonable Reporter like a freight train. He’s never voted for a tax increase he said; he’s always supported tax cuts. He’s never had any conservative express fear to him that he will raise taxes; he is unaware of any conservative who doubts him on taxes.

Unless you, McCain said to the Reasonable Reporter, might be “one of that conservative group. “

Leaving the Reasonable Reporter to wonder aloud as she and her colleagues packed up to leave, why, from McCain’s perspective, that was such an effective put-down.

Presidential candidates should be protecting the personal information of reporters.

July 28, 2008

The Reasonable Reporter is good and steamed.  She has lost track of the times since Nevada became a swing state in 2004 that she’s been asked to send personal identifying information via unsecured means to the Secret Service for a background check. To protect elected officials, the federal government asks reporters to compromise their own security.

Hey presidential candidates… want to seem savvy?  Develop a data security policy for dealing with personal background check information, and insist that the feds use it. Start protecting the personal information of reporters.

Then send out press releases patting yourselves on the back for it.

It is way past time for the government to get hip about cybercrime, and stop exposing citizens to identity theft.  Not just the feds.  All the way up and down the ladder from municipal utility districts to the White House, the attitude about the personal data of citizens is outrageously cavalier.  In many cases, personal identifiers are collected unnecessarily for the task at hand.

When big batches of identifiers are lost, stolen or misplaced, the announcement is always the same.  “We have no evidence that any ID theft has occurred.”  Of course!  You will never have such evidence until it’s too late.

In congress they’ve produced useless cybercrime bills for more than a decade, while failing to do basic things that would offer some measure of real citizen protection.  Name the category. Identity theft, hacking, spam, porn.  The laws are big, ugly, smelly, expensive dogs with just enough teeth to bite the mail man.

The federal anti-hacking law, for example, is currently being misused to prosecute a woman who’s accused of inducing a teen-aged girl to commit suicide by posting gossip about her on MySpace.  This law was intended to prevent unauthorized persons from taking control of computer systems that don’t belong to them, not to grandstand in a grief-stricken community when a murder charge is unavailable to prosecutors.

The Child Online Protection Act was struck down last week by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, having been challenged on first amendment grounds the morning after it passed in 1998.  (The original name of the case was ACLU v. Reno.  That’s Janet Reno.)

COPA never went in to effect because even a first-year law student with a D average could see that it was unconstitutional on is face.  It didn’t require dozens of lawyers and a decade of legal review to recognize its obvious legal and practical flaws.

Can-Spam Act?  Let’s see. The Reasonable Reporter recently went on a wild goose chase from one alphabet soup agency to another, trying to get comments about an ID theft scheme targeted at one specific regulated industry.  She finally got a bit feisty when she was passed off yet again to someone else, and nobody would talk on the record, and she was finally told that – well – we don’t talk about it because we really can’t do anything about it.

Yes you can, you twits!  Start enforcing the part of the Social Security Act that says our social security identification numbers are to be used only to manage our government retirement accounts.

Presidential candidates: One of you will win, and the other will go back to the senate. Please, make it so.

By the way, it’s been said that Nevada is at the top of every bad list. Not so.  On October 1, NRS 597.97 will prohibit businesses from sending personal identifiers such as social security numbers and dates of birth by email without encryption. Thank you, Nevada legislature.

UPDATE:  The Reasonable Reporter was offered a fax number by the United States Secret Service. Thank you, Secret Service.

Nevada voters do not have the luxury of being dumb.

July 18, 2008

Are the voters in Nevada a bunch of dummies?

The question was posed before the Supreme Court this week by Las Vegas attorney Dominic Gentile. He argued that the term limits question was not complex, and the voters understood quite well the initiative’s potential effect, regardless of technicalities now raised by the legislature, which wants term limits tossed.

Are voters in Nevada a bunch of dummies? The question lingers, extending beyond term limits or any other single issue, inviting contemplation of complex issues and uninformed citizens. Of government mechanisms so intricate they can’t be understood without hours of study. Of what voters want, versus what they get, and what they end up creating.

The term limits case serves nicely as an example of how simple concepts become complicated. The must-pass-twice requirement for constitutional amendments, intended to ensure deliberation, leaves a two-year hole for legal maneuvers that add layers of complication. The current challenge to term limits has its roots in a confusing bout of court activity that occurred between its first ballot victory and its second, two years later.

For a future source confusion, look at PISTOL, the oddly-named eminent domain initiative from 2006 that seemed conceptually straightforward. Nevada voters overwhelmingly approved it once, understanding well their own outrage at the notion that one citizen could benefit by enlisting the government to take property from another citizen.

Then the 2007 legislature set out to improve PISTOL before its 2008 appearance on the ballot. The PISTOL improvements exist now in statute. But wait, that’s not all. The legislature also passed a resolution – call it PISTOL Version 2 — to amend the constitution again. Version 2 will need a second legislative approval in 2009. Meanwhile PISTOL Version 1 could pass again in 2008.

Leaving aside whether PISTOL Version 1 needed improving – many believe it did – the whole mess has become stunningly complex.

Are Nevada’s voters a bunch of dummies? Or does the preceding make your head spin? Who could expect the average voter, busy with life’s daily details – jobs, kids, homework, volunteer work, etc – to untangle the mess that lurks beneath the straightforward question?

How about taxes? A recent example of tax complexity appeared on the 2006 ballot. AB 554 from the 2005 legislative session required voter approval to perform some taxation housekeeping. Did even half of the voters understand what this bewildering item was, much less why they were voting on it?

Look beyond the ballot, at Dillon’s rule. Not at whether home rule is desirable, but at whether its absence makes things confusing. Busy voters have to follow the progress of local issues from city hall to Carson City and back. Are the voters dummies if the reason for the trip isn’t immediately apparent?

And now, in Washoe County, here comes the mother of all complex issues. A recent proposal by investment firm Goldman Sachs to lease Truckee Meadows Water Authority assets is about to be vetted in public. Politicians find the possibility intriguing. The TMWA board, comprised of five politicians and two political appointees, voted 6-1 to explore it. The public seems to hate the idea, with generalized fear of privatization as the most-cited reason for knee-jerk aversion

There is layer-upon-layer of complexity to be peeled back in the proposed TMWA transaction. Analysis related to pricing, to employee compensation, to local control, to the structure of the entity. And there’s the ever-present, but never-discussed effect of monopoly.

TMWA was statutorily exempted from PUC oversight when the non-profit utility was created. Theoretically, if the voters don’t like the direction, they can take vengeance on the elected officials who sit on the board. We’ll see whether that’s well understood by the voters or the office holders. But as usual, whatever the outcome, Nevada voters don’t have the luxury of being dumb.

Rush Limbaugh, big money, and Marconi’s old medium

July 4, 2008

Traditional media, recently declared dead, or at least critically ill in the face of new media’s rising commercial viability, has a pulse after all. Rush Limbaugh’s new contract is a 400 million dollar expression of confidence in traditional media, and such expressions of confidence have been rare in recent years.

But news of Rush Limbaugh’s record-breaking contract has been discussed less in terms of its business significance, which is enormous in the context of a shrinking pie for old media outlets, and more in terms of whether he, or anyone else, should earn so much money. Even a local conservative talk show host in the Limbaugh mode – which reveres capitalism and personal achievement — asked, “how much is enough?”

The Reasonable Reporter must disclose that she is part of the Limbaugh trickle-down economy, having been paid in Limbaugh dollars for at least half of what is becoming a lengthy radio career. It’s often said, and it’s not hyperbole, that Rush Limbaugh saved AM radio. For those in the newstalk arena, it’s not in dispute, and the dollars, if not the politics have flowed to all the personnel of the stations that carry the show, whether or not they appreciate the association. (Many do not appreciate it, and some are even embarrassed by it.)

This is not to say we’d all be flipping burgers if not for Rush. But lots of people have the jobs we have because of who and what he is, and because of what he fashioned from a product that was gasping for air in 1988, in the face of competition from… hmmm… a new medium that had at last realized its commercial viability. FM radio had matured, and after some years as a novelty, had become a mainstream medium, draining the ad dollars away from the AMs. Superior-sounding FM was the new preferred venue for music, effectively placing a pillow over the faces of the top-40 AM powerhouses that had driven the industry for more than two decades. AM radio had to be reinvented as a talk-intensive product.

It’s worth noting that AM radio had already reinvented itself once, becoming almost entirely music-focused – the iPod of its day for a youth market seeking cultural identity — after television stole radio’s place in the family’s living room, replacing it as the preferred venue for drama and comedy.

It may also be important to note that Rush himself often refers to the AM talk product, or at least his portion of it, as if it were not part of the traditional media. And while he’s probably correct from a content perspective, the delivery device is strictly old media.

That brings us to content, which is still king. Rush is discussed primarily in terms of his political persona. His success is partially attributed to his early years as a disc jockey, which gave him added dimension as an entertainer rather than just an analyst of current events. Both are important components of the man who is now a 400-million dollar phenomenon. But neither fully explains his success.

Rush Limbaugh’s success is built on instinct, and the Reasonable Reporter asserts that the conservative content initially mattered mostly because the time was right for it. As heartfelt as his politics might be, everything about the Rush Limbaugh empire points to his instinct for the right move at the right moment, and for pressing the advantage when he’s gotten it.

The instinct plays itself out in his daily execution of the material, irrespective of the politics. He could be discussing cake recipes, and he would still have to locate the bull’s eye, topically speaking.

The instinct is larger, though, than what he says and how he says it. The instinct is manifest in his syndication model, and in the many ways he’s extended the product, including the early embrace of newsletters and podcasting. The instinct is manifest not just in the what, but the when and how, and how much.

But listen to the public discussion, from callers to the lofty desk of C-Span’s “Washington Journal” to the local talk radio station.

Adoration: He’s wonderful and he deserves the money. Excoriation: He’s a horrible hate monger who’s divided the country and it’s appalling that he’s rewarded in this way. We love him. We hate him. But by and large, we fail to explain what he really is.

Traditional media is shrinking at an alarming rate as the new media mature. The layoffs and contract buyouts are in progress. The newspaper is tiny. It has no heft as it hits the porch. Network television relies almost entirely on low-budget mindlessness. The iPod is the new radio. Minus the people who produce radio.

And yet, as the audience fragments, and the advertising money scatters in new directions, AM radio fares generally better than its battered counterparts, and a 400 million-dollar gesture of confidence has been made. It’s confidence in Marconi’s old medium, but only indirectly.