Opinion

Jack Shafer

The flimflam of this week’s Obamacare numbers

Jack Shafer
Sep 27, 2013 21:13 UTC

At midweek, the Department of Health and Human Services released its report on the health plan choices and insurance premiums available under the Affordable Care Act, which opens for enrollment on Oct. 1 in 36 states.

The HHS press release accompanying the report glistened with the positivity of a group hug, starting with its headline, “Significant choice and lower than expected premiums available in the new Health Insurance Marketplace.” The press release’s feel-good theme of “lower than expected premiums” ricocheted up and down many news columns the next day.

“Cost may be under forecasts”; “Obamacare To Cost Less, Feds Say”; “Rates from insurance exchanges lower than projected for most, HHS says”; and “Report: Georgia Obamacare premiums lower than expected”; read the print headlines in the Dallas Morning News, the Herald News of Passaic County, N.J., the Kansas City Business Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The upbeat message prevailed in many of the stories about the HHS report, with the Austin American-Statesman reporting that “premiums could be approximately 16 percent lower than originally expected.” (The language in the press release had it only slightly different: “Premiums nationwide will also be around 16 percent lower than originally expected.”) CBS News echoed the report, too, stating, “premiums nationwide are expected to be around 16 percent lower than originally predicted,” as did the Detroit News and other outlets.

If “lower than expected” sounds like a shady retailer’s sales pitch to your ears, you’re on my wavelength. “Expected by whom?” is the first question that comes to the clever shopper’s mind. The HHS press release and some of the news accounts answer this question: The healthcare prices being showcased by HHS were from a government estimate, as was the previous — and higher — set of numbers, which were projected from Congressional Budget Office calculations (pdf). In other words, the only thing that has changed is the government’s best educated guess of what health coverage will cost, state-by-state, in the 36 states where the federal insurance exchanges operate.

“Jack Shafer’s latest column is his absolute BEST! Ever!”

Jack Shafer
Sep 24, 2013 21:55 UTC

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made Page One news yesterday, Sept. 23, in the New York Times with his announcement that he had shaken down $350,000 from 19 companies he had accused of violating “laws against false advertising” and which “engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Schneiderman didn’t call the $350,000 collected a “shakedown” in his press release. Rather, he called it an “agreement” with 19 New York firms in exchange for their promise to stop flooding such websites as Yelp, Google Local, and Citysearch with fake online consumer reviews. The fake reviews, written for pay by freelancers both here and abroad, were purchased for as little as $1 a pop, and sang the praises of a charter bus company, a teeth-whitening emporium, a strip club, and a hair-removal service, among other companies. Both “reputation management” companies procuring the fake reviews and companies that purchased the fake reviews entered into the agreement with the attorney general.

That the reader reviews appearing in Yelp and Citysearch pages might be as loaded as a pair of dice at a floating craps game will not astonish anybody who has ever read those pages. On more than one occasion, I have struggled to find a single trustworthy review beneath a restaurant or services listing. The positive reviews always read too positive, as if composed by somebody with a neurotransmitter imbalance, and too many of the negative reviews seem animated by some vile but unnamed transgression committed by the proprietor. Had the attorney general’s investigators desired to perform a useful public service, they would have found the honest reviews on consumer referral sites and marked those pages with a yellow highlighter.

Of media typhoons and media tycoons

Jack Shafer
Sep 20, 2013 21:24 UTC

In the 1993 debut issue of Wired magazine, founding editor Louis Rossetto predicted that the media and other industries would be whipped like a “Bengali typhoon” by digital change. As it turns out, Rossetto underestimated the impending mayhem. The ruins of the newspaper industry, music business, and the book trade smolder beneath us, with newspaper companies selling for pennies on the dollar they commanded when Rossetto wrote. Madison Avenue and the retail industry stagger about like cattle just shot to the head with a stun bolt. If re-writing his manifesto today, Rossetto might want to compare the coming gale not to a typhoon but to the solar super-storm of 1859, which made telegraph machines spit fire, turned night into aurora-lit day, and encouraged some to think the end times had arrived.

The digital revolution has yet to turn our skies crimson, but Moore’s law and its codicils have not finished with the news media business. If you seek to identify the future victims of the digital typhoon, do what Rossetto did, and point your finger at the current incumbents. The organizations at the top — heavily invested in older technology, wedded to waning ideas, beholden to existing revenue streams, haunted by yesterday’s successes, and possessed by fantasies of invulnerability — are always the best targets.

My incumbents list includes but is not limited to the Huffington Post, Politico, Atlantic Wire (and its sister-site, Quartz), Business Insider, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Gawker Media. All of these organizations raced from almost nothing to something big in a relative hurry. HuffPo was just six years old when it sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Bleacher Report, born in 2007, sold to Turner Broadcasting System for almost $200 million in 2012. As a point of comparison, the Washington Post, first published in 1877, just went to Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

Why journalists are like cops and firefighters

Jack Shafer
Sep 13, 2013 21:45 UTC

When some of our friends in academia read the top news about Syria on a website or in a newspaper, they do so through a lens ground by UCLA political scientist John Zaller. In a 2003 paper (pdf), Zaller analyzed two modes of news production that journalists often employ. While working in patrol mode, the press surveys the landscape for trouble and writes up what it finds, like a cop walking a beat and writing the occasional ticket or making the routine arrest. In alarm mode, aroused reporters respond to calls for help by lighting up the gumball, tossing it on the roof, and peeling out for the crime scene, the building afire, or the battleground.

I simplify Zaller here, just as he modified the patrol/alarm idea of two other political scientists on his way to his insight. But the simplification stands: The journalistic transmission knows two basic gears: slow or fast; monitoring from afar or fully entrenched; casual or obsessed. The press has long treated Syria as just another stop on its Middle East patrol, even though it has regarded massacres as legitimate tools of governance for decades, as this BBC timeline indicates. The migration of the two-year-old Syrian civil war from the back pages to the front, where it now amasses acres of newspaper coverage, can be attributed in equal part to the chemical attacks of late August in the western suburbs of Damascus and the puncturing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. There’s nothing like chemical weapons dumped on innocents followed by a U.S. president’s threat to drop bombs to change the location of the loudest alarm.

I’m not disparaging anything that’s alarmed-based, just acknowledging that it best describes contemporary news coverage, a sentiment shared by many of the scholars cited in a new book by University of California, Davis, political scientist Amber E. Boydstun, Making the News: Politics, The Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun argues that in practice, the press follows neither the alarm model nor the patrol model, but oscillates between the two. “[N]ews outlets tend to only patrol those neighborhoods covered by beats or triggered by alarms,” she writes. Woodward and Bernstein responded to a minor alarm story, went into patrol mode, and as other news organizations followed, the patrol coverage escalated to alarm mode again and again.

Kurtz moves from CNN to Fox with the same old song

Jack Shafer
Sep 10, 2013 20:57 UTC

After “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the Sept. 8 debut, he recruited members of the “Reliable Sources” stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week’s news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, “MediaBuzz.”

There’s always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the “Reliable Sources” format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of “MediaBuzz” is by no means universal — it engaged the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the Sept. 8 “Reliable Sources” – but I am certain it is correct.

If ever a franchise needed refreshing, “Reliable Sources” is it. With the exception of the show’s modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of “Reliable Sources” has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox’s people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC’s knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.

The NSA never takes “no” for an answer

Jack Shafer
Sep 6, 2013 21:47 UTC

At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York TimesProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.

In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.

Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.

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