Friday, September 23, 2005

Blame Truman

While Rifkind blames Katrina and Rita on SUV's and oil consumption, a meteorologist in Idaho has some slightly more credible ideas on which of America's sins are to blame for these hurricanes: the use of the atomic bomb.

An Idaho weatherman says Japan's Yakuza mafia used a Russian-made electromagnetic generator to cause Hurricane Katrina to strike America.

Meteorologist Scott Stevens, a nine-year veteran of KPVI-TV in Pocatello, said he believes the artificially created hurricane was a bid to avenge Japan for the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack -- and that this technology will soon be wielded again to hit another U.S. city. Stevens said he had been struggling to forecast weather patterns starting in 1998 when he discovered the theory on the Internet. It's now detailed on Stevens' Web site.

Check out Weather Wars. The Guardian/BBC can keep this theory on the back burner, just in case American-induced global warming doesn't pan out.

Apocalypse when?

With hurricane Katrina behind us and hurricane Rita approaching, The Guardian today reaches out to a self-flagellating American, Jeremy Rifkind, in order to press its vision of apocalyptic global warming as the cause of all weather-related events, a global warming for which, natch, Americans are primarily to blame.

Rifkind’s litany of American sins is predictably tedious: too many SUV’s, too much oil consumption, not enough taxes, not enough Kyoto, yadda, yadda, yadda. We’ve heard it all before, endlessly, and it is too boring to sustain my attention long enough to even critique it. However, Rifkind also promotes the equally predictable “global warming as cause of Katrina/Rita” meme, and this is worth taking a look at.

Rifkind cites a new report in Science Magazine in which, according to Rifkind:
Scientists report that the number of major - category four and five - hurricanes has nearly doubled in the past 35 years. Tropical storms, say the scientists, draw their energy from warm ocean water. As the global rise in temperature heats the world's oceans, the intensity of hurricanes increases.
This is odd, especially in light of the National Hurricane Center’s chart on US hurricane strikes per decade, which shows that the number of category 4 or 5 hurricanes to strike the US peaked in the 1950’s, with 3. Since then, no decade has had more than 2 such hurricanes. And, in terms of what the Hurricane Center defines as major hurricanes, ie category 3 and higher, there has been a clear trend downward from a peak of 10 in the 1940s. The most recent full decade, the 1990’s, had only half that amount.

Now, it certainly does appear that the current decade, with the addition of Katrina and possibly Rita, is on pace to outnumber the previous decade. But if global warming is the cause of that, what is the explanation for the high number in the 1940’s, and the steady decline for the rest of the 20th century?

As for the rises in water temperature accounting for this year’s hurricane activity, Tim Worstall has some facts and figures.

As suspected

I watched Gavin Esler’s (not, as I wrote the other day, Ensler) Newsnight program last night on poverty and race in Savannah, and the synopsis of it, which I critiqued Wednesday, was a fair reflection of the show. With the notable exception that, unlike the synopsis, Esler did not say anything about this being “George Bush’s America”, the criticisms (and small amount of praise) which I presented were just and well deserved.

Esler gets credit for daring to raise the issue of the relationship between personal behavior and poverty, and for interviewing a black man who argued forcefully for less government assistance and more personal responsibility. But his unthinking and uncritical trumpeting of deceptive statistics, along with his lack of curiosity over how those in ostensibly unmanageable circumstances have in fact managed, ultimately reduce his report to the typical BBC effort to reinforce preconceived notions about America rather than to discover an underlying reality.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Newsnight Thursday

Today Gavin Ensler of the BBC's flagship Newsnight program previews for us his upcoming report on poverty and race in America. We will, of course, have to watch the program in order to give an entirely fair assessment, but his preview does give us some idea of what to expect.

There are some hints that Ensler will depart from the conventional story line that we have come to expect. For example, he rightly points out that:

The simple fact is that most Americans in poverty are not black - whites make up most of the population, and most of the poor.

And, whatever the pictures from New Orleans seem to suggest, most black Americans do not live in poverty. There is a healthy black middle class, and of course many outstandingly successful African American citizens, from Colin Powell and Condi Rice to black business-people all over the US.

He also reveals that:

On Newsnight, we will also hear from a black community worker who says the fast-track to poverty is dropping out of high school, taking drugs, and getting pregnant as a teenager.

Avoid all that, and at least you have a chance of the American Dream.

An unusually non-"progressive" take on poverty indeed.

Unfortunately such welcome facts and ideas seem likely to be overshadowed by Ensler's apparent inability to rid himself of the usual BBC ticks and methods of framing the story. For example, he can't simply say that Newsnight has decided to look into the "twin issues of poverty and race" in America. No. Instead it is investigating those issues in "George Bush's America," as if the issues of poverty and race are somehow the product of Bush's term in office rather than perennial issues dating back decades.

He gives us the standard faux astonishment that poverty exists in the "richest country on earth". He repeats the usual, tired statistics, such as the"40 million uninsured" line (although he ups it to 50 million) without a hint of explanation, as if, by itself, such a statistic is meaningful. He even credulously repeats the same old canards about US child mortality rates relative to Cuba and China.

He also provides us with unexamined anecdotes that simply beg for a deeper analysis that is unfortunately absent. For example, he mentions how day laborers in the town he visited "swarm around" a van offering work for $3 an hour, which translates to a mere $6,000 a year. "In America," Ensler reminds us, "it is difficult to see how you can live on that." Well maybe, and yet there they are, living people, not zombies, working as day laborers. Perhaps there is something more to their stories than simply working for the impossible-to-live-on $6,000 a year?

As I said, it is not entirely fair to judge Ensler's report simply on this synopsis. Perhaps he will ultimately avoid the superficial treatment and Bush-baiting that his preview implies. However, keeping in mind that this is the BBC, our hopes should be kept to a realistic minimum.

Ensler's report airs Thursday night on Newsnight. I will endeavor to watch it and let you know what I think.

NYT looks to shrink reader base

Some of you may have already noticed, but The New York Times has followed the business model of The Independent by making only some of its articles available for free on-line, specifically restricting opinion columns from on-line access. Readers need to either subscribe to the print edition or shell out $50 a year to gain access to its “influential” Op-Ed writers.

This has to be a positive development. Just as is the case with the Indy’s Robert Fisk, anything that makes the writings of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd less accessible to the average reader has got to be a good thing.

But say what you will about the NYT – and I’ve said a lot – at the very least it survives financially by selling its product to willing and (oddly) satisfied customers, which is more than can be said for the primary news provider here in Britain.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Advertising on the BBC

Whenever I ask people I know why they like the BBC (and many of them do, despite my efforts to change their minds), the answer, more often than not, has nothing at all to do with a perceived superiority in quality of the BBC over its more justly-funded rivals. I rarely hear about the unique objectivity or insightful analysis that the BBC brings to news programs, or the great humor of its comedy shows, or of the deep meaning of its dramas. Instead, the characteristic that people most usually mention to me is the much less lofty fact that the BBC does not have advertisements. One can sit down to watch a show without the irritation of regular interruption of someone trying to sell you something.

Which makes this article from yesterday’s Sunday Times particularly interesting. The BBC is not, apparently, as free of advertising as its admirers would like to believe. In what appears to be a bit of a sting operation, The Times has discovered that the makers of BBC programs have been regularly selling “product placement” services to companies seeking to get more exposure for their products.

COMPANIES are paying fees of up to £40,000 to advertise their products covertly on BBC programmes, often in breach of the corporation’s rules.

At least 50 cases have been identified where top brands have bought favourable exposure on BBC television by paying specialist agents.

According to The Times, the BBC itself is not gaining a direct cash benefit from these deals, and the article seems to suggest that it is individual makers of programs who are ultimately benefiting by receiving free products or other perks, although whether or not BBC executives had been aware of the practice is left unclear. The practice is apparently so widespread at the BBC that, according to The Times, an entire industry of product placement agencies has been “spawned” (although, I’m guessing that the industry would exist anyway for the other, non-government funded broadcasters, so the "spawned" characterization may not be quite correct.)

This will presumably prove to be quite a scandal at the Beeb (it is “investigating”), but probably not for the right reasons. Individuals will most likely be blamed and perhaps sacked for breaking BBC guidelines. But such petty “corruption”, for want of a better word, is not the real issue. The real issue is that it exposes the BBC and its policy on advertising, and hence its whole “license fee” funding scheme, as the anachronism that it is. As The Times puts it:
The licence fee payer is the loser from the multi-million-pound trade. By maintaining the fiction that “brand placement” agencies are no more than tradesmen supplying props, the BBC can fend off pressure to sell conventional advertising. But for relatively paltry benefits in kind it hands over promotional slots worth thousands of pounds.
We pay the license fee, according to the BBC, so that its services are “free of adverts and independent of advertisers.” But, it turns out, not only is it not independent of advertisers, it sells its “independence” on the cheap. In this day and age, with the vast array and variety of specialist television stations available from truly independent - ie private - sources (History channel, National Geographic, Adventure, MTV, Weather channel, Cartoon Newtwork, Disney channel, Bravo, Sky Sports to name but a very few) the notion that an advanced and developed nation such as Britain needs a “national” broadcasting network to provide “quality” programming is absurd…and not just because the actual quality is suspect. The licence fee is long past its sell-by date. It is time to throw it away.

BBC on revelations: silence

A new political kiss-and-tell book, written by Lance Price, a former aide to Tony Blair's government, is coming out soon, excerpts of which were discussed in yesterday’s Sunday Times. Price, who left the government in 2001, is actually the former deputy to Blair’s former spin-doctor, Alistair Campbell. One of the more interesting (to me) among the many embarrassing and salacious revelations is this:
[Price] claims that the media was bullied, browbeaten and bribed with favours to report Labour favourably and that the BBC reveals its questions in advance to Blair at press conferences in return for their reporters being chosen to ask their questions first.
Yes, that would be the same BBC which proudly proclaims its independence from “political interests”. How, you might wonder, would the Blair government go about making such an arrangement? The Times doesn’t say, but the fact that Price himself was a former BBC reporter turned government aide certainly couldn’t have hurt. Given Price’s departure from the government in 2001, presumably he doesn't know whether this arrangement continued following Blair’s support for the Iraq war, but I’m guessing that the BBC probably discovered its “independence” again once it found its own agenda contrary to Blair’s.

You also might wonder whether the BBC itself, given the revered place it holds in reporting all the news worthy of being heard, reported on Price’s new book. It did indeed, although, strangely, the revelations about the BBC itself are notably absent from its report. Just an inadvertant oversight, I'm sure.

Hitchens on Talksport

Charlie Wolf from Talksport radio had a good interview with Christopher Hitchens tonight (actually still on going), about his debate with George Galloway as well as his observations on Iraq in general. One interesting tidbit which came out of it, and which presumably is in the US news now, or will be soon enough, is that Jane Fonda, with whom Galloway had been scheduled to tour around the US, has apparently cancelled her appearances with him for "health" reasons. It is an indication of just how far out Galloway is that even the likes of Jane Fonda don't want to be seen with him. (Of course, the question of what she was thinking when she scheduled the appearances in the first place begs to be asked.)

In any event, Hitchens, being Hitchens, naturally overshadowed the person who preceded him on the radio, that person being yours truly, making his first radio appearance. (BTW, can you call a radio interview an "appearance"?)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Tony Blair agrees with TAE

According to Rupert Murdoch, even Tony Blair agrees that the BBC's coverage of Katrina was over-the-top.

TONY Blair has re-opened the government’s long-standing row about BBC bias by describing the corporation’s coverage of the aftermath of the havoc caused to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina as being “full of hatred of America”.

The UK Prime Minister’s comments on the BBC’s coverage have been revealed by Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation. Murdoch also claims that Blair thought the BBC was “gloating” at the slow response of the federal and local authorities in helping and evacuating the hundreds of thousands of victims made homeless and the dead who were left lying uncollected where they had fallen for days.

Granted, Murdoch has an interest in making the Beeb look bad, but according to the article, Blair's office has not denied it.

(Thanks to Richard J. for the heads up.)