Sunday, October 25, 2009

President Obama vs. Fox News

Back in September, President Obama took the unprecedented step of appearing on 5 Sunday talk shows to try and sell his health plan.

Mr. Obama is going to appear on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on ABC. And Meet the Press on NBC. And Face the Nation on CBS. In between, he is going to sit down for interviews on CNN and Univision. (Fox News didn’t make the cut).

I personally found the choice not to include Fox News to be puzzling. Of course the viewers of Fox are strongly Republican but getting bipartisan support for his plan also requires him to try and convince his critics in addition to just his supporters.
More recently, the Obama administration spelled out its opposition to Fox News based on the belief that Fox is a political arm of the Republican Party and Is Not Really News.

It's really not news. It's pushing a point of view. And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we're not going to treat them that way. We're going to appear on their shows. We're going to participate but understanding that they represent a point of view."

Many in the liberal media have weighed in on whether this critcism of Fox is valid. For example in Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg writes on Why Fox News Is Un-American.

There is no need to get bogged down in this phony debate, which itself constitutes an abuse of the fair-mindedness of the rest of the media. One glance at Fox's Web site or five minutes' random viewing of the channel at any hour of the day demonstrates its all-pervasive slant. The lefty documentary Outfoxed spent a lot of time mustering evidence that Fox managers order reporters to take the Republican side. But after 13 years under Roger Ailes, Fox employees skew news right as instinctively as fish swim.

Rather than in any way maturing, Fox has in recent months become more boisterous and demagogic. Fox sponsored as much as it covered the anti-Obama "tea parties" this summer. Its "fact checking" about the president's health-care proposal is provided by Karl Rove. And weepy Glenn Beck has begun to exhibit a Strangelovean concern about government invading our bloodstream by vaccinating people for swine flu. With this misinformation campaign, Fox stands to become the first network to actively try to kill its viewers.

This sponsoring of organized protests against the Obama administration is the cornerstone of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s argument on Why Fox News Isn't News.

So in essence, we have two questions. Are the criticisms of Fox true? and What should the Obama administration do about Fox?

The argument that Fox discredits itself as a serious news organization by itself organizing protest groups is a creditable one. And the Obama administration thus far is fighting back by boycotting and asking others to ignore Fox News.

But some of this strategy is backfiring. Recently, the White House made Executive Compensation Czar Kenneth Feinberg available for interviewing by all of the networks except Fox. The other networks then came to the defense of Fox by saying that they would not agree to interview Feinberg if Fox was excluded. The Obama administration gave in and allowed Fox in. So in effect, Fox News was made into a sympathetic figure by these tactics.

Whether some like it or not, the large audience that Fox has compared to the other cable news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC is simply too large to ignore or hope it goes away
And criticizing Fox for being conservatively biased overlooks liberally biased media outlets such as MSNBC making it appear that the Obama administration only dislikes bias when coming from the other side. Instead of complaining about bias which is a no-win strategy, it would be much more effective to stick to calling out Fox on any factual inaccuracies they spread which may well work to keep them more honest.

So instead of trying to ignore Fox, I would like to advocate a contrarian strategy. Perhaps it would do President Obama more good if he actually made an occasional appearance on a Fox interview show. Sure they are the “enemy” but Obama advocates that we need to talk to our foreign enemies — so why not Fox? Instead of conservative pundits with no liberal voices to provide any counterbalance, Obama himself can appear (along with other top officials) and defend his policies in the faces of the naysayers themselves and truly allow the audience to decide issues based on a more balanced presentation once in a while. Granted, the more hard-line Republican conservatives would likely never be convinced. But surely there are others watching Fox who might. It may well be worth a try if Obama wants any hope of getting bipartisan support of his policies.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is Playing Football Hazardous to Your Brain?

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent appearance on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption had some sobering comments on how an accumulation of seemingly minor head collisions over an NFL football career can inflict damage to players that resembles that from Alzheimer’s disease. To listen to the interview, check out this podcast starting at the 9:15 mark where Gladwell stated that some percentage of football players would wind up in dementia wards by the time they reached their 50s.

Gladwell was there to promote his article in The New Yorker that asks the question
How different are dogfighting and football? The introductory video to the article, This Is Your Brain on Football is quite compelling and thought provoking.

He starts by saying that both football and dogfighting both inflict enduring injury on its participants. Then he details how autopsies of many retired NFL football players have brain injuries that result in dementia but are not caused by disease like Alzheimer’s but are from a condition called C.T.E.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. C.T.E. has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia. And C.T.E. appears later in life as well, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death. But C.T.E. isn’t the result of an endogenous disease. It’s the result of injury.

Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu diagnosed the first known case of C.T.E. in an ex-N.F.L. player back in September of 2002, when he autopsied the former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. He also found C.T.E. in the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, and in the former Steelers linemen Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, the latter of whom was killed when he drove the wrong way down a freeway and crashed his car, at ninety miles per hour, into a tank truck. Omalu has only once failed to find C.T.E. in a professional football player, and that was a twenty-four-year-old running back who had played in the N.F.L. for only two years.

When we think of head injuries in football, we think of the major hits that cause concussions. The effects of these major hits are pretty closely monitored to try and make sure that permanent injury doesn’t occur.

But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

This raises a major question as to whether brain damage may indeed be an inherent danger of the sport, especially for these linemen who endure head collisions on just about every play. As Gladwell points out, hitting is an integral part of the sport and it is unclear how helmets can be improved much to provide any further protection. Maybe the larger question is whether we can do anything without dramatically changing the game and perhaps taking much of the appeal from it. Football has long overtaken baseball as America’s national pastime and for many of us, we couldn’t imagine our autumn weekends without it whether it is high school, college or the NFL. But having said all of that, if you are a parent who has seen the evidence of permanent brain damage in these retired football players, would you really want your sons to become football players?

Post-Script: October 21, 2009
Brain damage commonly associated with boxers and recently found in deceased NFL players has been identified in a former college athlete who never played professionally, representing new evidence about the possible safety risks of college and perhaps high school football.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let's Not Give Up on Capitalism

After watching what I thought was Michael Moore’s best effort in Sicko which exposed needless suffering and death in America due to health insurance industry practices, I was curious to see if how he could do with a broader subject in his latest documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. The story he tells is most certainly compelling.

A sequence near the beginning of the movie was especially difficult for me to watch. It showed a family about to have their house repossessed. But to make it especially poignant, it was filmed inside the house by the family awaiting their fate while the doors were slowly but surely smashed in. As they explained, they weren’t going to resist being evicted once the people broke inside — but they weren’t going to help them by opening the door. It was a last symbolic gesture in a helpless situation.

With home foreclosures having skyrocketed in recent years and many of us losing our jobs, it is all too easy for some of us to imagine ourselves perhaps someday suffering the same fate. How did things go so terribly wrong?

A related scene shows a speculator who gleefully makes a killing on buying foreclosed properties with scarcely a thought about those who had been put out on the street in the process. Is it all about making money at any human cost? Is this what capitalism is all about?

As Moore relates from his middle class childhood, capitalism did quite well for everybody back then. Companies made lots of money, but workers often thanks to unions were also able to earn comfortable livings to support their families. The rich did well as they always do, but there was a strong middle class that used their earnings to consume goods and keep the economy chugging along. But since then, the rich have done fabulously well and much of the middle class has taken a beating. Is this an inherent flaw of capitalism as Moore seems to infer?

I think not. I still believe capitalism is the best economic system. For those who favor socialism, they should be reminded of the differences between the vibrant economy of West Germany compared to the sickly economy of East Germany when the wall between them was finally torn down.

I feel the fault is not in capitalism per se, but in the political climate in America over the last several decades that has given tacit approval for corporations to seek profits even when the human cost was high. For example, in Moore’s seminal work
Roger & Me, General Motors despite making healthy profits, still decided to close down their operations in Flint, MI turning much of it into a ghost town. Today’s most prominent example is the health insurance companies making huge profits while many needlessly suffer or die because they can’t get insured.

But in neither example did anybody do anything illegal. You can argue that they didn’t have a conscience but how does a government legislate that companies have compassion for their fellow man?

So while Sicko not only told a compelling story, it also gave a straightforward solution in the form of universal healthcare coverage just like the rest of the industrialized world already has. Capitalism tells an equally compelling story but offers no real solutions other than what Moore calls a return to democracy. While he encourages people to run for office, money is so indispensable to wage effective campaigns that candidates who are not already wealthy have to raise campaign cash from special interest groups which then robs them of their independence.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film was the showing of a recently discovered 1944 film showing Franklin D. Roosevelt arguing for a
Second Bill of Rights which would guarantee among other things:

A job with a living wage
Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
A home
Medical care

But how do we for example guarantee everybody a job along with a home? Moore doesn’t say in his film. Just providing everybody with medical care is proving to be a formidable obstacle.

I still think capitalism is the best economic system but it only works well when we recognize some of its shortcomings. Free enterprise is about equal opportunity but we know that the more affluent will always have more opportunities at least in part because they have the better public school systems and better access to the best colleges. And it has been said that you need to spend money to make money. While we may all dream of being millionaires someday, who do you think has a better chance of making a million — someone who already has a million or someone with nothing? It’s no contest.

The policies under George W. Bush and before him Ronald Reagan who gave tax cuts to the rich have done little more than widen the gap between the rich and everybody else. Instead, government has to do what it can to level the playing field for those in the middle and lower classes along with providing a safety net for those who get into financial trouble for reasons beyond their control. And in this bleak economy where there are few jobs to be had, the government has to jump start the economy and create them. While this may sound a bit socialist, the fact is that without enough jobs to employ those who want and need work, capitalism — or just about any system — doesn’t work.

When done right, capitalism does work. We just need to make sure we do it right so it works for everybody!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Letting Those 44,000 People Die

Perhaps the most controversial event of the last week was the feisty speech made on the Congressional floor by Rep. Alan Grayson D-FL arguing that the Republican health care plan can be outlined as follows:

2. And if you do get sick…


That’s right; the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.
If the idea was to get attention, it worked. Grayson subsequently has made a number of appearances on different news shows, most notably this one on CNN.

Saying that Republicans want sick people to die quickly is more than a bit over-the-top. But had Grayson given his speech without the hyperbole, would anyone have paid attention? For better or worse, the media wants provocative sound bites to put on the air. In his discussion on CNN, Grayson explained that he was thinking about the over 44,000 who die annually in the US
according to a recent study from lack of health insurance and wanted a way to convey the urgency of the situation.

More than 44,000 Americans die every year – 122 every day – due to lack of health insurance.

That’s the startling finding of a new study –
Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults – that appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The 44,000 dead a year estimate is about two-and-a-half times higher than an estimate from the Institute of Medicine in 2002.

The next day in his
"apology" speech he focused more on these estimated 44, 789 Americans.

…that is more than 10 times the number of Americans who died in Iraq. It’s more than 10 times the number of Americans who died in 9/11. But that was just once. This is every single year.
And in an obvious message to the pro-lifers he had this to say…

Let’s remember that we should care about people even after they are born.

Unwisely, he ended the "apology" speech by referring to the dying as a “holocaust” for which he later
apologized to the Jewish Community despite the fact that he himself is Jewish and had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

To top it off, in
a fundraising speech, he had this to say about the Republicans:

Just what do these people think health care means? It's not some abstract "issue", we're talking about life and death! And the Republicans, who ran the government in full or in part from 2001-2009, chose to let those 44,000 people die, every single year when they were in power. And George W. Bush, whom the Republicans somehow pretend was not President for the last eight years, just let them die. He even vetoed health care for poor children.
These are strong words. While it may be unfair to say that anybody made a conscious decision to let people die, actions do have consequences. If the study is correct (and the opposition has not questioned its validity, only Grayson’s choice of words), roughly 122 people will die every day in America until we finally pass a reform bill.

I can’t help but think of the
Miracle on the Hudson back in January where the pilot became a hero for saving the lives of 155 people. Had those people died, there would have been outrage over the air traffic safety system and memorials would have undoubtedly been erected to the dead. But the difference is that when 155 people die in one place on one day, it is a tragedy. When roughly 124 people scattered across the country die needlessly each day, they become little more than a statistic.

While I cannot agree with all of the words that Grayson chose, he did express the outrage that we need to have for these dying people. So when we see endless delay by Republicans and some conservative Democrats — many of whom are financially enriched by the same health insurance industry that opposes any real reform — we need to think about those people who are needlessly dying each and every day in America and ask — Where is the outrage?