Monday, December 03, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Stupid Online "Journalism"

So, I clicked over to Althouse today, and there I discovered a link to a horrible piece of online ... what? Journalism? Commentary? I'm not sure.

In a post entitled "Did you watch that Democratic debate, you know, the rich-folks-only debate?", Althouse linked to an Eric Scheie piece at Pajamas Media about a debate that the Democratic candidates for President had last Saturday (December 1, 2007) in Iowa. Here's how Scheie frames it up:

I was honored that Pajamas Media asked me to write about the Democratic Presidential Forum being broadcast on HDNet, and without any hesitation, I said I’d do it, although I did allow that it might take me an hour or so after the debate was over to write my post. After all, I’d have to watch it first, right?
He then goes on to describe his problems in trying to access HDNet on his television. Long story short: HDNet is a premium hi-def channel, and Scheie doesn't get that channel. It turns out that to watch a premium hi-def channel, one has to -gasp- get an HDTV and pay for the premium channel! Before going off on an extended exercise in making stuff up, Scheie writes the following:

So, the Democratic Party — the party of the working class — is broadcasting tonight’s debate from an elitist network run by billionaire Mark Cuban that requires expensive equipment and high monthly charges to access.

What’s up with that? Is this a signal that despite the egalitarian rhetoric, that they’re actually the party of the rich and famous? Imagine the outcry if the GOP broadcast its debate from fancy network that ordinary people couldn’t access. There’d be cries that the Republicans were in a “gated community.”

Well I’d say this is a RATHER gated community! And I’m feeling locked out by their lack of inclusiveness. [All font and link choices courtesy of Mr. Scheie.]

Ah, now I see. Scheie apparently is either trying to be snarky or he's trying to make the point that the Democrats aren't really all that egalitarian. If he's only attempting snark, then the piece really has no point, and I don't understand why Pajamas Media would want to post something that pointless.

But Ann and several of her commenters seem to think Scheie does have a point. As Ann herself put it in the comments, "Oh, get out. How is this comparable to the show being on Fox? It's about access, not cootie-phobia." After that, I got involved, and a mini-flame-war ensued.

Many points were at issue, and you can decide for yourself how well I held my own on the minutia. But if the ultimate point is simply about access, and whether or not this debate provided access to the masses, then we have something substantive to discuss.

First, who decided to put this debate on HDNet? Well, it doesn't appear to have been the Democrats. Instead, that decision seems to have been made by the sponsor of the debate, the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum. Here's how the Forum bills itself:
The Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum is an element of Urban Dreams’ non-partisan Project V.O.T.E. (Voting Opportunities Through Education). Urban Dreams is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization. It is the nation’s only presidential forum in which all candidates have the opportunity to answer essential concerns of African-Americans and Latinos. The non-partisan event began with U.S. Presidential candidate debates in 1984 and has figured prominently in the Iowa caucuses. It is recognized as the oldest, continuous minority forum for presidential candidates in America and one of the longest-running presidential debates in the nation. For further information, visit
In other words, this isn't a debate sponsored by either the Democratic Party or the Democratic candidates themselves, but by a third party. So, the claim that the Democrats were being elitist by choosing HDNet is patently wrong. And refusing to debate for "the nation’s only presidential forum in which all candidates have the opportunity to answer essential concerns of African-Americans and Latinos" doesn't seem like a very smart move.

Now something I can't glean is this: Why did the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum choose to broadcast through HDNet, instead of through some other, presumably more widely accessible, avenue? That I haven't discovered, but I imagine it's because HDNet asked, and probably ponied up some expenses for the debate. (Writing to the Forum and/or HDNet would probably clear this up quickly, but I prefer to remain anonymous. If any non-anonymous readers would like to email them, I'd be happy to post your email and their answers here.)

Still, why limit access in this way to a channel that isn't as available as FoxNews, CNN, or C-Span? Well, here's the kicker: the Forum did NOT limit access in Iowa. According to the Forum's website:
The commercial-free broadcast will be simulcast on Mediacom’s ‘Connections’ channel in Iowa and surrounding states.
IPTV [Iowa Public Television] will be rebroadcasting the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum, Monday, December 3, starting at 9:00 pm.
So, for Iowans the debate was widely accessible. Therefore by broadcasting on HDNet, the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum did NOT limit access for Iowan voters, which was the target audience of the debate.

In short, Democrats didn't decide to broadcast through HDNet, the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum did. Further, HDNet took action to ensure that the debate would reach its intended audience in Iowa. If Scheie's point (and by extension Pajamas Media, Althouse, & various Althouse commenters) really is that the Democrats are being elitist by their choice of broadcast network, then he's wrong multiple ways.

PS: Discovering the above information required some hard research. Namely, I did a search on Yahoo! for “hdnet democratic debate” and the BBPF was the third site that came up. I haven't worked that hard for knowledge since studying category theory in grad school.

Update: God Lord, it's worse than I realized. I had missed Scheie's link to a Business Wire report about the debates. The BW piece lays out all of the access facts I did above and a little bit more:
Mediacom will make the broadcast available via Channel 22 - the Mediacom Connections Channel -- available to ALL basic cable subscribers throughout Iowa, and also available to Mediacom customers in northern Illinois, Minnesota, and southwest Wisconsin.
So Scheie's whole piece was not only pointless, but he knew it was pointless and wrong. So much for the New Media Model of Journalism. It would be enough to make one yearn for the editors of Old Media if we didn't know they were also a bunch of tools.


bill said...

It's hard to make any headway against people who basically get everything wrong and then twist their points so they never have to admit their to speak. Just another example of how certain types of people will ignore everything to insult a political opponent.

Considering HDTV has only been around since 1998, it's market penetration has been pretty good. Prices are dropping and more content is available. Available content is probably what keeps people out more than the price (specualtion, unresearched, variety of). When the small satellite providers started up in the early-mid 90s, it cost over a $1000 to get your house set up and DISH offered a branded credit card for that purpose. Now everything's free with a monthly charge.

Wal-Mart, that bastion of old money elitism, sells tons of of HDTV, so I think they're fairly easy to come by. The wiki page on HDTV claims "It is estimated that the year 2006 will be the first to have more HDTVs than conventional TVs sold." There's no support given for that, so I wouldn't claim it as fact. Still, with analog TV being shut off in February 2009, we're rapidly approaching the point where only digital TVs will be available.

And even though you demonstrated there was nothing elitist about the broadcast platform used, what the hell is wrong with a little elitism once in awhile. Or, more charitably, focusing the occasional debate for a narrow audience. Politicians give targeted speeches all the time; considering these deabtes seem to be at least every other week, unless they're all broadcast on AM radio, the audience will always be limited.

So Scheie's whole piece was not only pointless, but he knew it was pointless and wrong

That should be the issue.

no one said...

The Althouse crowd may not be very sharp but they're always right. I know 'cause they tell me so all the time.