Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The CNN/YouTube Debate

American politics changed on Monday. We can't see the whole shape of it yet, but the CNN/YouTube debate broke up the pattern of boring, predictable debate questions and brought the concerns of ordinary people to the forefront.

Too often it seems like our political system is made of granite blocks — giant, ponderous forces that are invulnerable to change. The YouTube questions took a big chunk out of that system and the politicians are scrambling to deal with it.

The questions were a spin doctor's nightmare — rude, shrewd and merciless. The YouTube contributors stripped away the protective layers of PR and asked point-blank questions about issues that the politicians would rather avoid.

Candidates were left stammering and off-balance, struggling to cope with questions that no rational process could prepare them for. It was deeply satisfying in a way, to see politicians answer questions from people who normally couldn't have made it through security.

The oddball questions elevated some candidates and made others look hollow. A questioner asked Chris Dodd how he was going to be different and he bragged about being the same for 30 years.

Someone asked Hillary Clinton if she was a liberal and she arguably hit it out of the park, proudly calling herself a progressive and (correctly) explaining how the word had changed over the years.

The best question came from “Saheedb.” He asked which Republican the candidates would pick as a running mate. A great question that gets to the heart of how politics really works.

I'm fascinated by this experiment because Internet culture is fundamentally the opposite of political culture. Political communication is all about reserve, control and good manners. Internet communication is about candor — about ruthless, unfiltered honesty. Those two cultures clashed on Monday, and I think the process is better for it.

The citizens asked smart, tough questions, with a few rude ones thrown in for flavor. I didn't need to know if Hillary was woman enough or if Obama was black enough, but it was fun watching them answer.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 24, 2007 at 09:09

Posted in Politics, Video

Dan Rather does it again

Dan Rather is getting in trouble for comments he made (indirectly) about his CBS news replacement, Katie Couric.

From our AP story today:

While referring to Couric as a “nice person,” Rather said “the mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience.”

CBS CEO Les Moonves decried the remarks as “sexist” and said he was surprised at the amount of flack Couric was drawing from critics, even as she struggles for ratings.

I have some sympathy for Dan because he's put his finger on something that news outlets struggle with every day. We even fight it here at Lubbock Online, struggling to draw a line between what people say they want versus what they actually want.

Our current poll question shows an overwhelming majority of Lubbock Online readers do not feel sorry for Paris Hilton. I'm sure a solid majority would say they're tired of hearing about her. I suspect an equally solid majority would say they never want to hear about her again.

Ask any typical group of news consumers what they want to read about and they'll list all the life-affirming highbrow stuff you'd expect. They want to read about local crime news and important decisions from the City Council. They'll ask the paper to steer away from sensationalism and celebrity gossip.

But then, when it comes time to measure what people actually read, Paris Hilton will be #1 on our top ten list again.

Dan Rather is facing a similar problem. All over the country, news outlets have to balance consumer demand with their professional reputations. Fox News beat CNN by openly declaring their patriotism, offering more opinion shows, and accusing their competitors of ideological bias.

Tabloid publications and celebrity magazines crowd out hard news, and ideological blogs chip away at the foundations of objective journalism.

It's a real problem for news organizations — in broadcast, print and online — learning to give people what they want, without compromising the integrity that brought them to us in the first place.

There are no easy answers here, and CBS won't be the last news organization to get it wrong.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 12, 2007 at 15:09

Posted in Politics

Obamamania and the headline game

I'm not ready to characterize this Obama hype as “premature” but yesterday I saw his face on a $10 bill.

P.S. I felt guilty about doing a blog post with only one joke in it, so here's some more for you.

I spent a happy evening yesterday catching up with an infamous online publication called The Onion. If you're not familiar with The Onion you're in for a treat. Basically The Onion is a fake newspaper specializing in satirical news and observational humor.

I have become totally obsessed with the style of Onion headlines. Here are some I thought up in the shower this morning:

  • Putin resumes Cold War after watching James Bond marathon
  • Shamefaced hipster caught watching local news
  • U.S. Post Office announces Obama stamp
  • Clinton reserves space on 2008 Supreme Court docket
  • Cheating husband sends love poem to Russian spammer
  • Wonkette editor fired for non-ironic Drudge link
  • Half-dead ivy plots revenge against neglectful owner
  • Mayor forms commission to recall rain prayers
  • Norse gods announce membership drive
  • Snape estate sues Rowling for defamation, emotional distress
  • Lubbock Online employee regrets Hot Pocket purchase
  • MySpace becomes sentient, deletes self in shame
  • Xbox profile interpreted as cry for help
  • Neglected Warcraft character gains 40 pounds

And here's one that only works as a picture caption:

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 6, 2007 at 06:17

Posted in Humor, Politics

Duff: Is there such a thing as too much freedom? We may find out on the Internet

What would you do if you could do anything? What would you say if you knew you wouldn’t be held accountable for your words?

It’s an old question. Older than the Internet, older than the telephone – it’s actually one of the fundamental questions of human ethics. Do people act morally because of something in their character, or do they act morally because they fear the consequences?

Plato explored the question with a rhetorical device called the Ring of Gyges, a magic ring that could make the wearer invisible. Plato’s idea has inspired hundreds of books and movies and now, with the Internet, we’ve had a chance to test it for real.

The anonymity of the Internet enables all kinds of destructive behavior: cheating spouses on message boards, sexual predators on MySpace, con artists and snake oil salesmen on eBay.

It’s gotten so bad, some people say it’s not worth it. Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Should the government step in and protect us from ourselves?
Michael Duff

The Internet presents a unique challenge to our society because freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Freedom requires responsibility, and every time something new is invented we end up with a whole new set of things to be responsible for.

Imagine how scary the automobile was for a society of people who spent their lives traveling at one horse power. Consider how much responsibility it takes to drive safely on public roads. Stare too long at traffic statistics and you might start longing for the horse and buggy days.

Imagine how scary the first musket was to people who were used to swords. Six centuries later and people are still trying to take guns away from us.

Is the Internet really that different?

I think we’re still at the horse-and-buggy phase of Internet culture.

The current Internet is our Wild West of communication.

I think that eventually the government will step in and tame the place.

We’ll gain a little safety, lose a little freedom, and all we’ll have left is stories contrived from vague memories passed on to us from our fathers and mothers.

Old-timers will tell of a place where a person could say anything, and every man was responsible for himself.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 1, 2007 at 15:18

Posted in Columns, Politics

Blogosphere erupts over terrorist dry run

I try to keep this blog light most of the time, but the Internet is not all pop culture and political banter. The political blogs have serious things on their mind this week, namely the story of Northwest Flight 327 — an incident described as “a terrorist dry run” by federal air marshalls.

Audrey Hudson had details in Sunday's Washington Times.

Annie Jacobsen broke the story on July 16, 2004, in a terrifying column for Women's Wall Street.

At the time, many people rushed to criticize Jacobsen, accusing her of hysterics and/or racism.

At the time I was inclined to believe her story, and to accept her conclusions about what the Syrian musicians were doing, but I always get nervous when the blogosphere ends up telling me what I want to hear.

Read blogs for a while and you will develop a kind of informational allergy, a knee-jerk reaction against certainty and glib conclusions. This skepticism can be as irrational as gullibility in its own way, but the blogosphere is a sea of pure opinion, built on a framework of dubious facts.

Shaky, incomplete news reports are spun into elaborate fantasies and churned into rabid convictions. Then, a few months later, new facts contradict the old ones and the theory you've been defending for six months turns out to be false.

I read a lot of right-wing blogs and have to force myself to visit the other side. But I do visit the other side, because too many of my “gut reactions” have turned out to be wrong. That's the real lesson of Internet discourse — the real lesson I hope to share in this blog.

So, today I'm looking at a story that seems to vindicate right-wing paranoia about terrorism. The conclusions look clear, simple and obvious. Now it's time to go looking for a second opinion. The most “respectable” left wing blog I know of is Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo.

Josh and his cohorts are generally reasonable and mild in their presentation — clearly Democratic partisans without being shrill or stupid about it.

I didn't see any obvious discussion of it there, so I poked around for a while and found this from Andrew Lazarus at Daily Kos.

I love this example because the folks at Daily Kos are as casually dismissive of Jacobsen's story as the Powerline guys were accepting of it.

That's the essence of Internet discourse right there, and the key to making political judgments in the digital age. Two diametrically-opposed camps, both with convincing arguments and a fairly equal number of believers on both sides.

You can pick your ideology and lean toward one side or the other, or you can try to take the middle ground and give yourself hours of tedious homework.

You can accept the glib conclusions of bloggers you trust, or you can do things the hard way, and read the real report.

UPDATE: The crux of the issue seems to be the phrase “dry run.” I can't find air marshals using that phrase in the report itself, and no specific person is named in the Washington Times quote. I found video of Annie Jacobsen talking about “the guys on the ground” — air marshals that she has talked to personally calling this a “dry run.”

I guess your attitude toward that quote will depend a lot on your attitude toward Annie Jacobsen. TSA spokesperson Ellen Howe dismisses the phrase “dry run” and does her best to downplay the incident.

I still don't understand the behavior of the Syrian musicians. Were they being deliberately provocative so they could test the boundaries of their civil rights? Were they playing a joke to shake up the Americans? Even if you accept that these people were not terrorists, you have to ask yourself why they would be willing to look like terrorists, in a situation where they knew it would be provocative.

Maybe these guys really are just band members working for “the Syrian Wayne Newton”, and this was somebody's idea of a joke.

Perhaps we should talk less about terrorist dry runs and talk a bit more about Syrians traveling on expired visas?

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 30, 2007 at 10:35

Posted in Politics

Duff: Cool stuff on You Tube makes political warfare fun for us all

As the 2004 race was fought in the blogosphere, the 2008 race will be fought on You Tube.

The interesting thing here is not what’s being said in the campaign, but how the battle is taking place. The battle for 2008 is being fought with a series of provocative video clips – a volley of streamlined sound bites, laser-targeted and out of context, often distributed by the candidates themselves.

John McCain is feuding with the Club for Growth, Obama fans are tearing down Hillary with brilliant homebrew videos, and the worst dirt anyone has on Obama is a picture of him with a cigarette in his mouth.

The best video so far seems to be an amateur production: a spoof of the famous 1984 Macintosh ad depicting Hillary Clinton as the tired old order, smashed by her young, vigorous rival. Obama’s campaign has vigorously denied creating the ad, and I’m inclined to believe them. The major candidates are so risk-averse these days, I doubt anything this cool could make it past their lawyers.

Camille Paglia compares the candidates to racetrack thoroughbreds “rearing and shying as their handlers try to shove them into the gates.”
Michael Duff

With so much energy devoted to infighting, the actual Republican vs. Democrat sparring is starting to suffer. Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo has been reduced to comparing divorce rates among Republican and Democratic candidates. The verdict? “The entire field of Dems deemed credible boasts fewer divorces than Rudy Giuliani alone!”

The fun part is watching the usual suspects play against type. It’s still early enough that partisans are willing to praise their opponents and criticize their own frontrunners. In a year or so the major parties will form ranks behind their candidates, but we still have a few months of in-party warfare left. I say enjoy it while it lasts. We’ll get down to business soon enough.

On the Net:







Written by Michael B. Duff

May 11, 2007 at 15:23

Posted in Columns, Politics, TV

Pros and Cons of the 2007 presidential candidates

My editor's been trying to squeeze a blog out of me all week and all I've got is this joke from McSweeney's.



Pro: Size; power; ability to emit short-range optic blasts.

Con: Potential attack ad: “Sometimes Optimus Prime is a robot, other times a truck. Which is it, Mr. Prime? America deserves a leader that doesn't transform whenever it's convenient.”

Don't like that one?

How about:

#14. AL GORE

Pro: Knows how to get to the White House, where to park, location of restrooms.

Con: Wants to accomplish something meaningful.

And in the interests of equal time:



Pro: I tell you what, he would bring the nations of the world together through ROCK! He'd be all deedly-deedly-deedly-DEE-DEE-DEE! on his guitar and the bosses of the other countries would be all, “Whoa! Let's stop fighting and start rocking!”

Con: Drunken wretched mess.

The essence of blogging here. Not feeling funny? Link to someone who is. Hats off to John Moe for helping me endure my afternoon.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 2, 2007 at 16:39

Posted in Politics