A two-month anniversary update

Tomorrow, Oct. 6, will be my two-month anniversary at my job. It’s been very rewarding (and busy, as you can tell from my lack of updates). We’ve added three new sections: defense, financial services and tax. Every day I’m editing stories about budget issues, the health-care reform law, infrastructure, cybersecurity, oil and natural gas production, lobbying and all kinds of other topics. I’m learning a LOT.

I’m also enjoying living in D.C., venturing into new neighborhoods and trying new restaurants and meeting some new people (or rediscovering old ones).

I will not be quite as active on here as I was before I started working, but things are going well and I’m pleased so far with my new capital life.

Check messages, update status, register to vote

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how voting should catch up to today’s technology — why can’t we vote on our iPhones or Droids? That hasn’t happened yet, but an announcement earlier this week gave me hope that maybe some people are finally getting it.

Washington just became the first state to let people register to vote using Facebook. The article shows that Washington, already leading the way in online registration, is aiming to reach young voters with this initiative. The app would “fill in” a lot of information pulled from the Facebook profile, minimizing the legwork the registrant would have to do.

I think that’s pretty brilliant.

My interest in social media has three basic prongs: travel, journalism and political engagement. Anything that can encourage people, especially those in the fickle 18-34 demographic, to register to vote should be applauded. I hope that the app is a success and other states follow Washington’s example.

It isn’t so much that this is groundbreaking, even though it is. I wonder why no one has implemented this before now. Roughly 70% of Internet users in the U.S. use Facebook (and that’s data from a year ago; the number could have increased). It’s a vast, relatively untapped source of constituents.

Obviously this registration doesn’t guarantee that people follow through by actually voting, but it’s a start. I’m sure there are ways — alerts, messages or ads — to remind people to vote, even giving them some notice a few days beforehand.

Technological archaism, especially where young adults are concerned, is a legitimate complaint about America’s voting system. If America wants its young people to be engaged voters, it should show a willingness to engage them as well. Facebook touches all aspects of our personal and professional lives (for good or ill), so why not our civic lives? Good for Washington for taking the first step.

I’m moving up and moving to Washington, D.C.

It’s been a rough few weeks. I’ve had some personal setbacks and found out that my work permit program in the UK had been closed. But I am thrilled to announce that, as of August 6, I will be a copy editor for POLITICO Pro in Washington, D.C.

If you follow politics at all, you’re probably familiar with POLITICO. The political news site, which also produces a print edition during the week when Congress is in session, launched in early 2007 and quickly became a major media presence in the Beltway. In February 2011, POLITICO launched its Pro platform, a paid subscription service catering to policy professionals — lobbyists, congressional workers, agency officials and whatnot. What began as a three-vertical system (health care, technology and energy) branched into four (transportation launched in April) and will soon be six (defense and finance were just announced).

The “side project” has grown extremely fast and is doing very well; Pro is adding a large number of new journalists, including yours truly. It’s growing and adding staff and subscribers when many outfits are shrinking.

I’ll be joining a relatively young production staff of production editors, copy editors and Web producers. We’re encouraged to try our own side projects. Having met just about everyone in the office last week, I have to say that I am extremely excited to start work.

And of course it will be amazing to move to the capital during an election year. I know so many people there already (including a few who were kind enough to put me up and have meals with me during the interview process), and the city is just a truly awesome place to be.

I’m going back for a few days in July to find a place to live, and probably moving out for good in early August, before I start work. It seems crazy that it’s happening, but I’m glad that my patience and hard work has paid off. I’m ready to go!

Do facts have a bias?

It’s primary season. As a student of politics, I love it. It’s exciting and interesting and oh so messy. But there is one thing about it that frustrates me endlessly: the media’s lack of punch.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and keep their biases out of their work as much as possible. Lately, though, this has been taken to such an extreme that the media — the fourth estate and supposedly responsible for holding the powerful accountable — have turned toothless, for fear that someone will accuse them of bias or carrying out hit jobs. One of the biggest lessons that still resonates with me from J School came from my adviser. The gist is, “There’s a difference between being fair and being equal.”

There might be a segment on a news program called, “The Earth: Round or Flat?” In a fair model, a person who believes the earth is flat would never be given a platform or would be soundly shut down, because it’s a fact that the earth is not flat. In an equal model, one person who believes that the earth is round would debate a person who believes that the earth is flat. They’d yell at each other for 45 seconds, the anchor would sit impotently by and then sign off without settling the matter, leaving it open-ended and allowing the audience to believe that maybe there really is something to this flat-earth business.

In a recent debate, Mitt Romney made an error and mentioned something about John Adams authoring the Constitution. The moderator didn’t address this, nor did anyone else after the fact that I saw. The Constitution was largely authored by James Madison. I give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he made a harmless error, but that the moderator or another candidate didn’t correct it right then — either out of apathy, ignorance or fear of reprisal — is troubling.

That’s an example about a historical event in American history. What if the issue pertains to job growth, defense spending, abortion or health-care reform? A serious flaw in the debates is that the moderators always seem to ask questions with a hypothetical tilt. “What would you do about this?” I’d much rather see a fact-based question that forces the candidates to defend a position they’ve already taken. “You’ve said that X has been decreasing, but this data from Non-Partisan Research Body shows that X has actually been increasing. Do you care to explain your position, or provide a source for your data?”

Even better, have a squad of fact-checkers working during the debate and challenge assertions that candidates make during the debate. These days, fact-checking occurs after the debate is over, if it happens at all. Assuming that people even tune into the debates, I doubt that many of them stick around to see CNN or Fox or MSNBC or ABC go over and fact-check something that was said two or three hours ago or even two or three days ago. If there’s a question of veracity, bring it up then and have the candidates defend it then. 

Much of the disinformation peddled during elections — not just primaries, but general elections too — is aided and abetted by journalists’ unwillingness to take the gloves off and do their jobs. Will they make enemies this way? Sure. But it seems like too many political journalists these days are more interested in schmoozing and gossip and buddying up with candidates than they are in actually examining and evaluating their campaign platforms. As my dad said when I embarked on my (high school, haha) journalism career: “If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re not doing your job.”

The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here

A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”

That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?

The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.

Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.

No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.

I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.

Job hunting

With my degree somewhat winding down (even though I still have about three months to go), I’m starting to look at and apply for grown-up jobs.

It’s somewhat scary, given that I’m on a bit of a race against the clock. Eventually I think I do want to study for a PhD, but I feel like I need to get some professional work experience first.

I’d like to work in some sort of writing or research capacity, but at this point I’m not picky. I have a wide variety of jobs bookmarked — mostly in the U.K., a few in the U.S. to keep my mother happy. Some are journalism-related, others are more about public relations, a few are research posts. I’d love to stick with government or politics in some capacity, but that might be a tall order for the immediate future. The important thing now is getting my foot in the door and paying for rent and my work permit expenses.

One great thing about having a journalism degree is that I will always have the ability to write and edit skillfully. I have critical thinking skills and a researcher’s mind. I have mad skills with InDesign and CCI (and I’m not even Danish). I know a lot about a wide variety of topics — history, art, politics, sports, popular culture, economics. And I’m a workhorse with a sweet business card.

Wish me luck. And also, if you’re hiring, please let me know.

Sizing up Republican candidates

In case you haven’t heard, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana announced that he won’t run for president in 2012.

During my time at The Indianapolis Star, I edited and wrote display copy for many, many stories about Daniels’ administration. Even though I disagree with Daniels politically (especially with his decision to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), I came away thinking he was a fundamentally decent man. In particular, I remember his timely and compassionate response to victims of the terrible flooding during the summer of 2008. I think the Republican field is diminished for not having him in it.

I’m following the Republican nomination contest fairly closely, if only to see who will eventually triumph. I think the upcoming primaries will offer keen insight into the mindset of the party. Will the monied establishment get its candidate in the form of Mitt Romney  or even Tim Pawlenty? Or will the grassroots social conservatives get their man (or woman) with Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann?

Several major names have already dropped out. Donald Trump’s publicity stunt ran out of gas, Mike Huckabee ostensibly thought he’d get more out of staying with Fox News and Daniels, from the looks of it, just didn’t want the headache.

So who’s left?

Romney is probably the closest thing to a front-runner. He has the money, the experience and the name recognition. What will tank him is his healthcare initiative in Massachusetts, which he oversaw while he was governor and which looks suspiciously like the dreaded “Obamacare.” He could lure independents to his side in the general election, especially if the economy keeps flagging. His biggest hurdle will be getting out of the primaries.

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is inoffensive at face value. And that’s his problem: There is virtually nothing interesting, outstanding or noteworthy about him. He’s practically a cipher. I’m getting sleepy just writing about him.

Then there’s ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Spotty personal life (and Tiffany’s habit) aside, Gingrich seems to be a legend in his own mind. Still living in, apparently, 1995, it doesn’t occur to him that he’s overcooked to the tune of about 15 years. His gaffe regarding Paul Ryan’s budget infuriated many in his party and showed that he’s out of touch with the overall agenda.

Ron Paul, a Texas representative, is a libertarian favorite and kind of a little-engine-that-could. But while he gets grassroots support, he alienates the establishment. Not to mention that for every reasonable platform he has, there are two or three more that are just crazy.

Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, has a pretty enthusiastic social conservative base. If the Tea Party contingent really shows up in the primaries, I dare say she could have a fighting chance. Until she gets to the general, that is, where her ideology on social policy and reputation for bizarre comments will send independents and probably even some moderate Republicans running for the hills.

Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was booted out of the Senate in 2006 and is basically a slightly more composed male version of Bachmann. Pass.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is running a sort of stunt campaign. It’s an amusing sideshow, but that’s it.

Finally we have Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and until recently President Obama’s ambassador to China. He’s kind of taken on the darkhorse mantle. He’s experienced, smart and not crazy. However, he just doesn’t seem to be getting much steam, and he’d have to explain why he went to work for Obama. He may, in the end, not be bombastic enough to stand out, and will probably have to compete with Romney for similar donors and voting demographics.

(I’m aware that I did not mention arah-Say alin-Pay, mostly because I don’t think she’s running.)

If I were a Republican voter, I’d be a little dismayed by this field. Candidates who’d bore the base would have a chance with independents, and those with red-meat support will alienate moderates. The thinking now is that some sort of savior will swoop in at the last minute and dazzle everyone (think Bill Clinton in 1991-92), but I have no idea who it would be. The economy looks like it’s on the mend, unemployment is ever-so-slowly dropping and Obama’s security credentials are rock-solid after the death of Osama bin Laden. Any successful Republican candidate would have to weather the, pardon the expression, freak show of the primaries and emerge unscathed enough to challenge Obama’s popularity and immense fundraising network. It’s a daunting task, and I can’t help but think that the sanest ones are those who have already bowed out.

What say you? In a year, who will be left?

Searching for Compassion in the Storm

If you haven’t already heard (or seen, or read), tornadoes in the southern U.S. killed at least 200 people last night and caused untold damage. The tornado season has gotten off to a devastating start in the midwest and in the south.

Being from Kansas, I’ve had tornado safety drilled into my mind practically from birth. A microburst hit my college town in March 2006, and I’ve spent untold numbers of spring and summer evenings hiding out in the basement watching or listening to the weather forecasts, occasionally peeking out the window to look at thunderstorms, hail and the eerie green stillness that only comes when something awful is about to happen. So, learning what’s happened in the south, I can commiserate with what the poor people down there are going through.

I’ve also read various stories about the storms on Gawker and The Huffington Post. While the stories themselves were sympathetic or at least innocuous, I was shocked and disgusted at the tone of many reader comments. Cracking jokes about God’s judgment and the Wizard of Oz, calling the storms retribution for “birtherism,” telling southerners they had no right to expect disaster aid — this is compassion? I by no means consider myself a conservative or a Tea Party member, but these tasteless comments from so-called enlightened liberals made me extraordinarily angry. Tornadoes do not care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I promise.

As a Kansan, I’m used to people automatically assuming that I’m uneducated, live on a farm, hate gays and disbelieve evolution. Southerners are often the victims of stereotyping that’s at least that annoying if not worse. But to bring it out when people are dead and dying through no fault of their own, frankly, makes me sick.

What makes it more galling is that most of these people no doubt consider themselves to be open-minded, educated and tolerant. The same people who’d be offended if these comments were slung at gays, minorities or liberals in general have no qualms tossing them at people from an “inferior” region. (For the record, I abhor blanket statements about any demographic.) Many of them self-identify as being from parts of the U.S. like the northeast, which doesn’t typically have as many tornadoes as the midwest and south; do they know what it’s like to cower in your basement and have the very real fear that at any second, without warning, your home may be blown away?

And yes, many people in the south (and elsewhere) express a dislike for government handouts. Does this mean that in their hour of need, we should tell them, “No disaster relief for you”? No. Why? Because we’re supposed to be better than that. If we show a lack of compassion to those who lack it themselves, how are we better? How does that set an example and help people to change their minds? It doesn’t. In pointing out some southerners’ hypocrisy regarding federal assistance, some people have equally made hypocrites of themselves.

The Red Cross is accepting donations on behalf of people in the south affected by the storms. Please make a contribution.

The elephant in the room: class politics

I’ve been following the union protests in Wisconsin for a few days now with a fairly high level of interest. Public-sector workers protesting, Democratic senators strategically leaving town to deny the state senate a quorum, Gov. Scott Walker standing firm and defending his bill. Brilliant political theater to follow. If you, too, are interested in what’s going on, I recommend Mother Jones’ coverage. If you’re more interested in live bits and pieces, Mother Jones’ man on the ground, Andy Kroll, has been keeping an impressive Twitter feed with updates, photos and news as it happens.

What makes these protests so fascinating to me is that they illustrate how classism in the U.S. has apparently reached the brink — whatever happens in Wisconsin could very well shape labor relations in other states for years to come. It also shows, to me, that issues of class and economic empowerment are still a critical cornerstone of American political life.

I typically divide most American political arguments into three main subsets: social, identity and economic. Examples of the first would be abortion, gay marriage and the role of religion in public life. Examples of the second would be feminism, race relations and to some extent citizenship and immigration. What’s happening now in Wisconsin is an example of the economic subset coming into focus. But here’s the rub — so much focus is on the first two subsets that the third has largely been — until now — ignored. This is interesting because nearly everything argued about in the first two subsets still comes down to socioeconomic factors in the end.

Abortion rights — Should taxes fund abortion? Would outlawing abortion keep a specific demographic from obtaining one elsewhere? How does abortion affect social services?

Religion — Should religious groups be tax exempt? Should groups that make political donations or endorsements lose tax-exempt status? Should faith-based initiatives receive tax dollars?

Feminism  — So much of this has to do with female workers’ rights and pay, and the security of economic empowerment.

I would go so far as to argue that using wedge issues from the first two subsets actually obscures the very real problems in the third. In a country like the U.S. that prides itself on the “up from the bootstraps” idea of self-improvement and equal opportunity, might it be a dirty little secret that the deck is actually stacked, and that we do have problems with classism? We have been told to trust the market, but as we’ve seen, the market can be corrupted. What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just about pensions and dues. It’s about the rights of labor to control its own destiny and speak through its members. Organized labor is so fundamental to economic justice that it’s actually listed as a fundamental human right in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We have also been told that one person equals one vote in our democratic republic, and yet time and again, on both sides of the political spectrum, we see that every politician, every committee, every issue, has a price. When an electoral system such as ours effectively prohibits anyone from running for office successfully without toeing a soft-money line, this is what happens. We have a cycle of political paybacks in America from which we may never escape without drastic campaign reform, something I doubt anyone has the spine to seriously suggest and which would never pass even if someone did. How interesting that public-sector workers in Wisconsin are accused of feeding at the public trough when so many public-sector politicians are clearly feeding at the private one.

Many of my generation and perhaps even the one previously have little concept as to what unions have achieved. Reasonable working hours, weekends, child labor laws (and giving children the time and incentive to become educated), safety standards, recourse to unjustified termination, pensions, retirement — all of these things that we take for granted came about because, at one time, organized labor fought for them. They are a buffer between workers and the tendency of corporations to run unchecked if allowed to do so. They are why we have a middle class in this country. This does not mean that America must choose between corporatism and communism, only that a middle ground must be found that allows both capitalism and the workers that drive it to thrive.

However people feel about deficits and taxation and whatnot, I hope they can appreciate what’s happening in the Badger state and realize that if public-sector labor can be gutted, no one is safe. Even non-union workers have unions to thank for much of what they take for granted; some in this country would see those benefits stripped in the name of profits. Wisconsin is a frontier battleground, and it must stop there.