Opinion

The Great Debate

from Jack Shafer:

The landslide of news

Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It's filthy, it's bone-crushing, and it's suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.

The press coverage of Saturday's landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed 24 dead and confirmed missing, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint -- and continues. Today's New York Times makes the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.

Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher -- plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. -- because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. "It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill," said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. "You've got sewer pipes. You've got dirty diapers."

Not to diminish the cataclysm and the human loss, but for all its fearful power and creepiness, the landslide isn't much of a killer -- at least not in America. According to a Wikipedia chart of major landslides worldwide since 1900, only 11 have struck the United States, including the one in Oso. When you factor out landslides propagated by exploding volcanos (Mount St. Helens), earthquake-tsunamis (Seward, Alaska, and Lituya Bay, Alaska) and hurricanes (Nelson County, Va.), the death count falls very low. Before Oso, fewer than two dozen people had died in all other major U.S. landslides, which you could count on two fingers (Gros Ventre, Wyo., and La Conchita, Calif.).

The rarity and low death counts of landslides make them no less fearsome. Like snow rollers, ice circles, supermoons, ball lightning, sun dogs, mammatus clouds, sun pillars, and other exceptional and mysterious phenomena, the landslide commands our attention and that of journalists. The loss of life -- especially corpses that can't easily be recovered or located -- has given the Oso story legs that will likely carry it for weeks. There probably exists somewhere in a mathematician's imagination a news formula that could predict how and why a story keeps rolling in the news, a topic I recently studied in my column about the alleged "over-coverage" of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a story which is still on Page One.

from Paul Smalera:

Downgrading democracy

By Paul Smalera
All views expressed are his own.

The Washington debt ceiling debate over these past months was the throwing open of the doors to the democratic slaughterhouse -- let’s please not ever complain again about not being able to watch the sausage get made. Though our media window onto the killing floor surely contributed to the S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, that’s not an entirely bad thing, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The preemptive downgrade of U.S. debt breaks a disturbing ratings agency pattern: Too-late downgrades from S&P and the other ratings agencies in the cases of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Greece and Ireland among many others. In the econoblogosphere, reliably hind-sighted ratings-agency downgrades, whether of sovereign debt or a teetering company’s bonds, have come to be something of a dark joke. It’s overdue that S&P got itself back into predictive rather than reactive mode. Yet the company’s sovereign debt committee surely chose the wrong target in U.S. Treasuries and broke the late-downgrade pattern for all the wrong reasons.

The ratings agency’s decision reads like nothing other than a fit of pique towards the government institutions and American people that had come to blame it as a prime enabler of the global financial crisis. The agencies, as my colleague Christopher Whalen just wrote, “prostituted themselves and their special position of trust with respect to mortgage-backed securities and exotic derivatives.” To get a little more anatomical, executives at the ratings agencies churned out AAA ratings on CDOs and other risky debt -- debt that their analysis should have shown to be junk-bond quality at best -- because they risked losing business if they were too critical. (Call it the, “every John is the best lover ever” theory of credit rating.)

US intelligence spending – value for money?

America’s spy agencies are spending more money on obtaining intelligence than the rest of the world put together. Considerably more. To what extent they are providing value for money is an open question.

“Sometimes we are getting our money’s worth,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank. “Sometimes I think it would be better to truck the money we spend to a large parking lot and set fire to it.”

The biggest post-Cold War miss of the sprawling intelligence community was its failure to connect the dots of separate warnings about the impending attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It also laid bare a persistent flaw in a system swamped by a tsunami of data collected through high-tech electronic means: not enough linguists to analyse information.

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