Leonard Pitts and journalistic integrity

Hey, long time no type. So there has been a lot happening and I just haven’t had time to put all my shower-ranting into blog form. But for right now, I just had an email exchange that I wanted to share.
First, background. Governor Rick Perry was indicted a few weeks for abuse of power. Let me pause for just a moment and clear this up right quick: The governor was not indicted for issuing a veto, he was indicted for using his veto power to do corrupt things. There is a difference. Anyway lots of people didn’t get that difference and spouted off, jumping to erroneous conclusions based on that faulty premise. One of them is Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. He posted a huffy column about the criminalization of politics and used the Perry indictment as the most recent example.
Except it’s total poppycock. He did eventually publish what his staff calls a “clarification,” pointing out that in fact there wasn’t any Democratic official involved in the indictment process. The ones who would have normally been involved rightly recused themselves for perceived conflicts of interest. It’s a long story (that’s not even half of it).
I’ve been trying to get Mr. Pitts to step up his game but his staff is clueless. He posted a clarification, they say wondering what the problem might be. When I explained (again!) they said well, maybe if the story continues he’ll write about it again. And maybe he’s not the type of journalist I thought he was. Well, here’s my response to that.
I see. I certainly don’t blame y’all for my paper not running the “clarification” but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s probably true that there are quite a few people like me across the country who would have had to search out Mr. Pitts’ “clarification.” I did so because I knew he wrote more often than just the one time a week he’s published in the American Statesman and I wanted to make sure I knew all the facts before I accused him of anything. This is the same kind of thing I expect from columnists, reporters, any kind of journalist really. Actually, that’s the kind of behavior I prefer from people generally. When people jump to conclusions based on erroneous statements (as Mr. Pitts) did, they end up looking foolish at best. At worst, they perpetuate lies. Now, there are people all over the country–even the ones who did see the “clarification”–thinking that Governor Perry is a victim of some kind of witchhunt, because that’s the last thing Mr. Pitts said on this topic. “If the story continues”? Why isn’t Mr. Pitts interested in continuing the story himself, since he’s one of those responsible for disseminating the false story in the first place? See, the type of journalist I used to believe he was is one of those with some integrity. Perhaps he isn’t that type of journalist. Perhaps he’s the same type of “journalist” they have over at Fox News. You know the kind. Mr. Pitts knows the kind. The kind that dismiss or ignore or misreport facts that are uncomfortable for them. Or, as in this case, not bother to ask incisive questions and then jump to unfounded and erroneous conclusions. Mr. Pitts really dropped the ball on this. And so, every time from now on that he makes disparaging comments about “Faux News” which I saw him do recently, the only thing I think is “What a hypocrite.”

I’m willing to believe that it’s not because Mr. Pitts is some kind of tea party wingnut, but the effect is the same. So while I agree with the thesis of his original article (Courts no place to overturn defeat at the polls), the Perry case is no example of this. The “clarification” did nothing to counter this statement by Mr. Pitts: “One is not usually disposed to think of Texas’ swaggering governor as a victim, but darn if this indictment hasn’t turned the trick.” Rick Perry may be a lot of things, but a victim he is most certainly not. Now, I do think it’s reasonable for people to disagree on whether this case involves a “recognizable crime,” but is it really so unreasonable for Mr. Pitts to go on record that maybe the people of Texas have a right to hold their Governor accountable for actions that look suspiciously like he jumped on an opportunity to hobble public corruption investigation in the state of Texas, a state where he has appointed every appointable office at least once? Is it so unreasonable that Mr. Pitts at least apologize for sticking his nose into a question he knew less than nothing about (less than nothing in this case means the things he thought he knew were wrong)? Is it really so unreasonable to report the actual facts of the case beyond the one “clarification” that there weren’t any Democrats involved? I don’t think so. Mr. Perry’s corruption may not be so blatant or recognizable as that of Rod Blagojevich. I think it’s even more insidious, in the same way that AIDS is insidious in attacking the very system that is supposed to protect us.

Another statement by Mr. Pitts that was not addressed in the “clarification:” “His crime? He issued a veto.” No, that statement is completely false. It is what Mr. Perry is hoping people across the country will believe because it does make him look like a victim, but the fact of the matter is that he was indicted for trying to force out a duly elected official–to be replaced by the Governor himself–an official in charge of an on-going investigation of certain other Perry appointees over millions of dollars of misappropriated funds. Read the links. Mr. Perry has a reputation for trading favors with his appointees. Those of us who have been watching the governor for the past decade and a half have no problem believing that he was hoping to be able to put someone in that office who was beholden to the governor and not the people of Travis County so that he could protect his cronies. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to disrupt an investigation with an appointment (the Cameron Todd Willingham case). Now, I will admit, I’m not sure that what happened was technically illegal (it certainly ought to be), but I’m absolutely in favor of letting the Texas Justice system figure that question out. I would appreciate it if outsiders who know nothing of the situation stay quiet, and if they just can’t do that, could they at least apply a little bit of Journalistic professionalism and learn something about the topic first? And if they can’t do that in the first place, could they apply those journalistic ethics in the second place and correct the record? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But then, perhaps Mr. Pitts isn’t the type of journalist I thought he was. That, actually is the saddest part of this whole mess.

I have plenty more to say on this whole situation, but I’ll stop here for now.


The Conservative Argument in Favor of the Affordable Care Act

So the shutdown is over and we aren’t going to default on any debt. But the Republicans still vow to get rid of Obamacare. So let’s look at why health care reform is something Conservatives should be in favor of. Here’s a letter to my Tea Party-backed Representative:

Health Care is a jobs issue. Actually, I was pretty surprised that the President and the Democrats didn’t use this line when they passed the Affordable Care Act in the first place, because it is very true. I used to work for Dell, one of the bigger employers in our district. In the mid 2000’s (2005 give or take) Dell decided to bring call volume back from India and therefore opened new call centers. Did they open them in the US? No, they opened them in Panama and Canada. Why? At least in part it was because those countries had government health coverage and so employers weren’t burdened with providing insurance.

A small business I know of in Travis County was very proud to start providing insurance for their employees around the same time. Shortly thereafter, one of their employees and his family were in a terrible car accident. They lost at least one member of the family (as I recall) and the survivors had some serious medical bills. Now, I don’t know if these medical bills had anything to do with the employee leaving the next year, but I would hate to be the employer faced with the prospect of having my small business hit with suddenly increased premiums because of something like this. I hope the guy was not fired so that the company could continue to provide benefits, but I can’t rule it out.
Health Care is a huge burden on job creation in this country and I can say that from my own direct experience as well. Dell laid me off in 2009 and I investigated starting my own business during the year that I remained unemployed. I applied for private insurance during that time and was denied for “pre-existing conditions.” The insurance company so wanted to avoid covering me that they took my off-hand comments in my doctor’s notes as a diagnosis. I am not certified by any authority in the world to make diagnoses, but that apparently didn’t matter to the insurance company. They also invented a “smoking history” for me.

Last year, I had a heart attack. That’s a real pre-existing condition that is going to require me to have insurance in place because heart attacks are EXPENSIVE and so are the drugs to prevent them. I’m doing everything I can to prevent a future heart attack but there are no guarantees and the prevention isn’t cheap either. Under the old system, that means I’m tied to employer insurance until I get old enough to qualify for Medicare. How can I create jobs and grow the economy if I can’t get health coverage? Well, right now, the answer is Obamacare. What you thought the Republican alternatives would work? Why would an out-of-state insurance company want to cover me when an in-state company bent over backwards to avoid covering me, when there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with me yet? Tort Reform? We have tort reform in Texas already and it didn’t make Scott & White feel inclined to take my application seriously. The plain fact is that the GOP has no viable alternative to solve the problems that Obamacare solves. Technical problems with the website aside, there are quite a few reasonably priced plans available to me on the exchange that aren’t allowed to deny me based on my medical history. Now, if you want to do something different from Obamacare, go right ahead, but keep in mind, none of what you and your colleagues have come up with so far fix any of the problems that make the health care industry a drag on our economy. Real health care reform is totally in line with Republican Values. Even if we accept the cynical view that the only thing Republicans value is handouts for the rich, health care reform is in line with that value, too.

And if you’re worried about the insurance companies and their lobby, here’s my thought on that subject: Screw them! Ostensibly they are in the business of paying medical bills, but my experience with them is that they will take any excuse NOT to pay those bills. I could go on for days with stories of how the insurer providing our agency’s current coverage have used incompetence and red tape to avoid meeting their obligations under our policy. Honestly, I don’t see how a government bureaucracy could be any worse than the private bureaucracy I’m dealing with currently. As long as insurance is a for-profit enterprise, this will always be a problem.

So, your recent ill-advised efforts to defund Obamacare were ill-advised not just because it was a stupid strategy, but because it went against our county’s economic interests. I was always taught that the GOP was the party of fiscal responsibility and growing the economy. Getting rid of Obamacare with your current ideas on what to do instead is neither responsible nor does it grow the economy.

Bringing it all together

It occurred to me that I’ve been preaching to my Congressman, presenting problems without presenting any solutions. Or at least not presenting any solutions to HIS problem as he (probably) sees it. So I realized that some of my other preaching on the relationship of the GOP to their base might be germane to our current budget/debt ceiling woes. So here’s the result:

I understand you’re in a tough spot right now. Having taken the position you have on Obamacare and the budget, you’re looking for a way to save face because, if you are seen as caving in on this position, you become vulnerable to getting “primaried” by someone even more conservative than you next spring. But the President isn’t budging on this and I don’t see any reason why he would. And I really don’t want to see you and your colleagues forced to give up because we’re already defaulting on debts and watching our economy crumble. That’s bad for everyone.

So, “caving” sooner rather than later is good for the United States of America as a whole but is bad for [you personally]. And I think the answer is to get comfortable with this idea: The Republican Base is too small and relying solely on playing to “the base” to get through the primary and then having to energize “the base” to make it through the general election is not a winning strategy in the long-term. Playing to and energizing “the base” only serves to push moderates away making the base even smaller. I know this is true, because that’s me. I’ve always considered myself a moderate Republican, but I can’t, in good conscience, support this party anymore. For many reasons, but not least of which is they don’t seem to want me around anyway. “Fine,” I say to myself, “I’ll take my vote where it’s appreciated.” Giving in on this budget fight is going to piss off “the base,” no doubt, but there are literally millions of people who don’t vote at all in the primaries that would easily dwarf the mere 2 million who voted in both primaries in May 2012. In [your district], even if every person who voted for you in 2012 voted against you (all 43,317), there are still 606,285 [that didn’t vote in any primary, Democrat or Republican] in the voting age population to pull from. Now that’s a base! If you could get just one out of 6 of those to vote for you in the primary you’d blow a putative “attack from the right” out of the water. And are those people going to vote for the Democrat in the general? Please! Me personally, I think the GOP needs to repudiate the Tea Party, but for you, in the face of a very real possibility of having to cave in no matter what you might want to believe, I think this provides a way to still come out a winner. Think about it.

Actually, the 43,317 was my Congressman’s vote plus his only primary competitor. I don’t recall anymore if his competitor was tea-party-er than thou but in this district that’s the way to bet. I doubt that very many of those who opposed my Congressman did so because they thought him too conservative and so might respond favorably to a more moderate position.

But the real point is that I don’t think there’s any scenario in which he doesn’t have to give in on Obamacare and just go ahead and fund the government and raise the debt limit. And when he does cave in, it’s really going to hurt him in the next primary. And even if (somehow) it doesn’t, growing the base is going to be the way to remain competitive in the future (I mean 10-20 years out). And Daily Kos thinks this is one of the districts that is turning bluer these days. Moderating is probably good for my district in the nearer future (say, 5-12 years out).

My representative is an idiot

Well, okay, that’s a little harsh. But he’s definitely drunk the kool-aid on this whole continuing resolution.

 Right now, it’s clear the Senate is not even willing to come to the table for discussion. This should outrage the American people. We cannot let Obama and his democratic-controlled Senate steamroll over the voice of the public. We cannot let this administration continue to pick and choose what laws it wants to enforce. It is not even fully enforcing its own landmark legislation- Obamacare. If it’s not good enough for the administration to enforce now, it’s clearly not ready!

I will continue my fight to fund this government in a fiscally responsible manner. I will continue my fight to delay Obamacare and protect the American public.”

No real facts of course, just GOP talking points. So here’s my response:

I just read your email blast entitled “Where do we go from here.” You complain about the Democrats not negotiating with you. I gotta tell ya, I wouldn’t negotiate with you either if I were in there shoes. First of all, you’re trying to negotiate on a fight you’ve already lost, both in Congress and in the courts. Second, you’re negotiating from a position of weakness; you’re a minority of a minority insisting on being able to control the agenda and there’s really no reason for anyone to let you do that. The Democrats have finally figured out that they are in the majority (with veto power no less). I don’t know why they’ve let you get away with this strategy this long. Third, you’re negotiating in bad faith; no concession is ever enough. The next time a must-pass resolution comes along you ask for more concessions. Y’all are like the vikings in England back in the middle ages; sure they can pay the Danegeld to keep this band of marauders out of your villages, but that won’t stop the next and the next after that. In such a world, only an idiot would keep letting the aggressor get away with it without a fight. Eventually, even an idiot should be able to figure out that standing up to you is the only possible way to get you to quit. Finally, you’re offering a lousy deal. In the first round you seriously wanted to trade a measly month or two of continuing resolution in exchange for giving up on their signature legislative achievement, the work of a century and a dozen presidents? You’ve got to be kidding me. What were you thinking? I know what you were thinking; they’ll fold like a napkin just like they did the last several times. Well, Mr. Congressman, they aren’t folding. I think they are done folding. I think you should expect them to continue to beat you up in the press and I think you should expect to lose. And I think you should expect to kiss the White House good-bye for the next two cycles if not the next two generations. You’ll be lucky to hold the house, and if you do, it’ll only be because of all the gerrymandered seats.
The place to go from here is out to the floor to pass a clean CR and hope the country forgives you. And then, do the same with the debt ceiling. With all this talk of fiscal responsibility, voting against raising the debt ceiling would mark you as a hypocrite.

Debt Limit

I’ve probably said a number of these things here before, but I wanted to share with you my latest letter to my so-called Congressman:

 I notice the House still isn’t getting serious about a budget; I talked about that yesterday. And of course, the longer you all spend futzing with the continuing resolution, the less time you have to deal with the debt limit. Let me tell you my thoughts on the debt limit. Republicans are very fond of talking about how the government should run its finances like a family or a small business would. I’m actually quite fond of that idea myself.

Do you know what happens when a small business or a family defaults on their credit payments? They get their interest payments jacked up. When you are a talking about an entity with over $16 trillion in debt, any flirtation with default is, to say the least, foolhardy, at worst, stupid. Look, clearly the President grew a spine sometime in the past year and he’s not going to cave to pressure from you guys like he’s done in the past. It’s clear he’s not going to stand for your tea party shenanigans this time around. You and the GOP talk a lot about fiscal responsibility. Well, the responsible thing to do in this situation is to raise the debt limit. Because even 1% of $16 trillion is a LOT of money. Yes, we can’t afford to keep spending the way we do, but we also can’t afford to get our interest rates jacked up for no good reason, either.

It’s also worth noting that the debt is not the fault of the President, it’s the fault of Congress. You pass a budget and the President has to spend it. You pass taxes and other revenue and the President can’t collect any more than that (sometimes you get lucky and your AIG stock goes up higher than you thought, but you can’t count on that). Your spending far outstrips your revenue, so the only way to resolve that is to borrow money. So the President does what he has to do to meet all of his obligations under the law, but Congress throws one more monkey wrench into the works: you also pass a debt limit that doesn’t cover all the spending you required over and above the taxes you’ve approved. Dirty pool if you ask me.

Raise the debt limit without strings or explain in the primary why we’re now paying even more interest when we could continue to borrow at rock bottom rates.

Shut Down!

My congressman is one of those who is insisting that the President and the Democrats give up a victory they’ve fought and won in both the Congress and the Supreme Court. Here’s the letter I sent him:

Leaving aside for a moment the merits of the ACA debate, this show down over a shut down is ridiculous. Your first offer was that he give up on his signature program, a victory in both Congress and the Supreme Court in exchange for what? A whole 45 days of government continuing to run? What a bad trade. Imagine someone wanted you to compromise on the 2nd amendment, would you cave for a measly 45 days? Of course you wouldn’t! Especially considering that in another 45 days they’re going to come back demanding more concessions to get the next 45 days. And every month or so after that, they’re going to ask for another concession. No one in their right mind is going to accept a crummy deal like that. And the GOP looks idiotic for expecting that he might.
What the House Republicans don’t seem to realize is that for the President and the Democrats, the fight now isn’t even really about Obamacare anymore, it’s about protecting the government from being held hostage.
If you want to take some kind of bite out of Obamacare, you’re never going to get there through the continuing resolution or the debt limit. You might be able to get away with a one-year delay in the individual mandate in exchange for a whole year budget. Maybe. But whatever you do, you’re going to have to make some kind of concession to show you’re willing to negotiate in good faith. Shutting down the government is not a show of good faith and you hurt your ability to get anything with each minute that passes.

I have plenty to say about the merits of the healthcare debate; we can talk about that later. For now, I’d just like to see the GOP quit shooting itself in the foot on a fool’s errand.

Really, I can see where representatives who have been elected by gerrymandered districts with the most radical voters being really the only voice they need to listen to, would not want to look like they are weak against the President. They are protecting their own re-election bid and I understand why they would want to do that. But protecting themselves, in this case means losing the White House next time around. And the longer these Tea Party types remain in control, the longer it will take to put together a White-House-winning coalition. Eight years ago the Republicans were talking about a permanent majority. Now they face the prospect of a permanent minority. We need to stop being a stupid party.

A few thoughts on Cigarette butts

Because of some recent news stories, I’ve been thinking about cigarette butts today. I’ve never been a smoker, but I spent a lot of time, mostly during Basic Training and AIT with the US Army, picking up discarded cigarette butts.

Early this year, a homeless man accidentally started a fire because his cook fire got away from him and burned the wooded area he was in. “He should know better than to have an open fire in the middle of a drought,” they said and he was charged with felonies. More recently, a woman accidentally started a fire because of an improperly discarded cigarette. If anything, the drought is worse now, but should she “know better” than to toss fire around? No, it’s “just an accident,” they say and no charges are filed.

Today in the Statesman, there was a letter to the editor about the plastic bag ban. The letter writer, James Jones said, “If you keep the ban, don’t stop there. Let’s do those nasty plastic diapers next, then the awful cigarette butts, then Styrofoam takeout containers.” Actually, let’s put cigarettes at the top of that list, even above the plastic bags. Plastic bags are great for used cat litter. There are no good uses for used cigarette butts. So let’s take Mr. Jones’ 5cents per bag proposal and apply it to cigarettes (on top of the existing taxes) but instead of splitting the proceeds, put them all toward litter clean-up, or wildfire operations, or even Stop-Smoking programs. But please, let’s not continue to let these vandals get away with wantonly tossing fire around.