Archive for November, 2009

… or maybe I should title this post “War on Christmas 2009, part 3.” I could also title it, “Fox News Brazenly Lies.”

There will be no holiday displays in the Washington state capitol this year. No Christmas tree, no menorah, nothing … at least, according to Fox News, which at the moment is alone in reporting this:

Washington State Bans Holiday Displays Inside Capitol

The new rules — set to take effect Dec. 1 — came after repeated protests from The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Washington-based atheist group, over holiday décor inside Capitol campus buildings in Olympia.

The nativity crèche and the menorah are no longer welcome inside the Washington state Capitol after Gov. Chris Gregoire banned non-government displays, including religious ones, from inside the building.

Wow! Sounds pretty draconian, doesn’t it? The Washington state government has bent itself wholly to the will of one of those vile “atheist groups.” Right?

Well, no. Fox goes on to explain this isn’t quite what they just said it was (emphasis mine):

The rules, which were officially signed into order by Washington’s Department of General Administration on Oct. 30, still allow the annual state-sponsored holiday tree inside the Capitol rotunda.

In case you didn’t catch the importance of this, I will repeat it: Contrary to the content of the headline and lede of this story, there will still be a Christmas tree in the capitol rotunda in Olympia.

That’s right, folks … this means Fox News lied, and was brazen enough about their lie, to include the evidence of their lie in the body of their story! But to add to the brazenness of this lie, the story picks up again at the presumption that there will be no holiday displays in the capitol, as though the sentence I just quoted had not been there:

“The state government caved to a select few Scrooges or atheists, where 95 percent of U.S. citizens celebrate Christmas,” said Ron Wesselius, a resident of Olympia, Wash., who has previously displayed his nativity scene inside the Capitol and who challenged the state in court over the new rules.

Let me help you a little, Mr Wesselius: the “95% of citizens” in Washington state, actually have their state Christmas tree! Why are you denying this?

When I said I assumed I’d have several “war on Christmas” blog entries in 2009, I hadn’t expected to have three of them already before the end of November! This promises to be a contentious holiday season, folks. They’re even weaving lies in order to propagate their “war.” How very nice — and Christian — of them to do so. This also places the staff of Fox News in my “lying liars for Jesus” club.

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The Almighty has decided to grace this planet with his glorious likeness … on, of all things, a clothes iron belonging to a Methuen, Massachusetts woman. The Boston Globe has the story:

Until this week, Mary Jo Coady had never given her iron a second thought. Then she saw a likeness of Jesus staring back from its not-quite stainless steel bottom.

Startled, Coady called in her daughters, both of them college students, and they saw what she saw. Then she took a picture and posted it on her private Facebook page, giving friends and relatives the same test. Everyone saw Jesus, she said.

“So I said, ‘OK, I’m not crazy,’ ’’ recalled Coady, a 44-year-old who works as a secretary in a medical office. After a challenging couple of years in which she let her Catholic faith wane, Coady found that the image had given her a spiritual boost. So she chose to share it with some others.

For the record I don’t think Ms Coady is “crazy.” I think she is interpreting the appearance of a blob of something on the bottom of her clothes iron as being the face of Jesus. That isn’t insanity or “craziness”; rather, it’s pareidolia, a known psychological phenomenon to which everyone is subject, at one time or another, and which has nothing to do with mental illness, intellect, or anything else of that kind.

For the record, here is a picture of the image in question on her iron:

AP Photo/The Eagle-Tribune, Grant Morris

AP Photo/The Eagle-Tribune, Grant Morris

Having acquired this image — however one believes it arrived there — Ms Coady certainly wasted no time exploiting her Warholian “15 minutes” of fame:

Coady first saw the image Nov. 22. She told The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence about it and was featured in yesterday’s paper; the Associated Press picked up on it, and by that afternoon a picture of Coady’s iron had appeared on more than 200 news websites. It generated dozens of anonymous comments, and the jeering tone of many of them caught her by surprise.

For all that, however, Ms Coady is kind enough to claim not to be making demands on others:

Coady is not trying to persuade others to see Jesus where she does.

But this seems a little disingenuous to me: If trumpeting this “discovery” to the local newspaper — and being interviewed by every media outlet in Massachusetts — isn’t “trying to persuade others,” I don’t know what is!

At least she’s in good company, because not far away from here in Rhode Island, earlier this year, the Virgin Mary made an appearance in the knots on a piece of wood, and about a year ago the Virgin Mary put in an appearance in a fogged-up window in a hospital in Springfield, MA.

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I blogged a couple times already on a report by an investigative commission in Ireland on the abuse of children in the care of the Roman Catholic Church (such as orphanages and schools) which had been released in May. That report focused mainly on the operations of facilities, which had been mostly in the care of religious orders such as the Christian Brothers. A subsequent report, released a few days ago, delves deeper into the Church hierarchy’s cover-up, and the complicity not only of the religious orders but of the Dublin archdiocese, as well as government officials, police, etc. The New York Times reports on these additional revelations:

Report Says Irish Bishops and Police Hid Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church and the police in Ireland systematically colluded in covering up decades of child sex abuse by priests in Dublin, according to a scathing report released Thursday.

The cover-ups spanned the tenures of four Dublin archbishops and continued through to the mid-1990s and beyond, even after the church was beginning to admit to its failings and had professed that it was confronting abuse by its priests.

But rather than helping the victims, the church was concerned only with “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets,” said the 700-page report, prepared by a group appointed by the Irish government and called the Commission of Investigation Into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.

The abuse — and the cover-up — were extensive, pervasive, and multi-generational. The Church’s reaction? I’ll relay what the Times reported (emphasis mine):

In a statement, the current archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, acknowledged the “revolting story” of abuses that the report detailed, saying, “No words of apology will ever be sufficient.” He added, “The report highlights devastating failings of the past.”

Note his Excellency’s specific mention of “the past.” It’s all “water under the bridge” for the Archbishop, it seems. How nice — and Christian of him to slough off any responsibility. What a way to uphold a higher standard of morality.

It wasn’t just the Roman Catholic hierarchy that allowed this to happen, though … many others colluded with the Church and were complicit in the abuse:

The report said the Irish police allowed the church to act with impunity and often referred abuse complaints back to the archdiocese for internal investigations.

The police said Thursday that they regretted their failure to act. “Because of acts or omissions, individuals who sought assistance did not always receive the level of response or protection which any citizen in trouble is entitled to expect,” Ireland’s police commissioner, Fachtna Murphy, said, adding he was “deeply sorry.”

It’s interesting how so many people are willing to apologize … but they’re only doing so after the fact, and essentially they plan never actually to truly do anything to express their remorse, or prevent such things ever from happening again. The government promised prosecutions, as the Times explains:

The Irish government vowed to make amends to the victims. The justice minister, Dermot Ahern, promised that “the persons who committed these dreadful crimes — no matter when they happened — will continue to be pursued.”

The problem, however, is that, as a result of a 2004 lawsuit by the aforementioned Christian Brothers, Irish courts caved in to the Church and have prevented the Commission from releasing the names of the abusers. Because of that, prosecutions will be next to impossible.

P.S. I assume that the fact that the New York Times reported on this, will only further convince Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, that the Times is “anti-Catholic.” He seems to believe the R.C. Church should be insulated from having its misdeeds reported publicly … and that the misdeeds of other churches and religions somehow grant the Catholic Church permission to misbehave. I guess these ideas, too, are part of the Catholic Church’s high moral standards … although most of us know better.

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The (hoaxed) story of poor Rom Houben is one I’ve blogged about twice already. I’ve also blogged on various other journalistic failures in the past. While I’m not a journalist myself, and am no “media critic,” as a skeptic, I find the conduct of the mass media over the last few years rather galling. The trend is not a new one, it began as long ago as a couple of decades, and may even date all the way back to the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (for reasons I’ll try to address later). Essentially several things have happened to journalism and the mass media. The following are now very common … but also very bad … tropes of journalism:

  1. Press-release journalism: This is seen most often in reports on medical “discoveries,” but it happens in most sciences, technologies, and even sometimes in political reporting. In this trope, some person or group issues a press release; the contents of the release are then propagated verbatim, or close to it, by various outlets. In some cases, an expert is found to comment on the story, but overall it’s just the press release itself and it’s reported unskeptically. There is little or no “news” in stories like this. Mostly they’re just efforts to sell a book, get some attention, or angle for more research funding.

  2. Conclusion-based reporting: This is the trope in which the event or thing being reported is not actually the story … the story, instead, is some conclusion that the reporter has reached, about it. An example of this trope in the last few months has been stories along the lines of, “Is Obama’s presidency finished?” This is a conclusion that was drawn from things like having to retool his war effort and his failure, to date, to get healthcare reform passed. Well, I’ve got news for people … Obama’s term is not over. It won’t be for over 3 more years. Reporting on him as though he’s “finished” is not only factually incorrect, it’s absolutely unhelpful. I don’t need to know that some reporter or pundit thinks Obama is “finished.” I do, however, need to know — as an American — the status of his policy initiatives, whatever those may be. Those important facts are clouded by the conclusions being made about them. It doesn’t help and only obfuscates the truth.

  3. Emotion-centered reporting: These are reports in which a token person affected by it is selected as an exemplar, and made to seem typical of it; and this, in turn, is used to make the basic story seem more or less important than it truly is. A recent example are reports about the protocol for mammograms being altered. Many stories interviewed women who had breast cancer, or their survivors, to see how they “feel” about the proposed changes. Unfortunately, while people’s feelings are real, they are not facts, and have nothing to do with this as a medical story. Sure, it sounds compelling to hear someone say she’s upset because her breast cancer might not have been detected under the new protocol, but that person’s feelings have nothing to do with the proposed change. As with #2, all this does is obfuscate the facts.

  4. The token skeptic: This is a common trope found in “documentaries” about strange phenomena (e.g. UFOs), but is increasingly found in relation to some of the above (especially #1). In this trope, there’s a story about something novel or controversial or both. It includes remarks by some skeptic. Those remarks are invariably closer to the end of the story than its beginning, and the skeptic’s view is presented as a “minority” view, so that the original intended conclusion of the story, as the reporter wrote it, is actually reinforced rather than refuted by the skeptic’s presence. In political reporting, this trope appears in “talking head” shows, where “alternating views” are offered … but are presented in such a way that the “skeptical” or contradictory view is actually undermined.

  5. “Trend” reporting: This is one of those wherein the error of the trope almost speaks for itself. It shows up a lot in technology reporting, but can be anywhere. A good example of this are all the stories that have run in the last year or so which — basically — say nothing more than “People are using Twitter!” Sorry, but this kind of thing is just not news. Twitter going down for a day is news, to those who use it, and only for that day … but the trend of using Twitter itself, is not. The same goes for all the political-world reporting, over the past few weeks, which basically say, “Sarah Palin has a book coming out!” Again, this is not really useful news. Sure, report on it once the book is released … but continuing, over a period of a few weeks, to interview people over what they think of Palin and/or her book, is not news. It just isn’t.

  6. Rumor reporting: Gossip journalism has been around for a long time, and in some cases it can generate genuine news. But these days it’s reached pandemic proportions and has become a world unto itself, to the point where reporting on the rumors themselves is considered news. “Who leaked X?” with attendant speculation as to why X was leaked, get propagated endlessly … without anyone even bothering to find out how true X is and without admitting that not all the facts are in.

  7. Celebrity news: Need I really point out that the doings of celebrities really is not news at all? That celebrities have their own PR apparati that continually manipulate the media into reporting what they want reported, meaning the “celebrity press” is really just a collection of mindless robots spewing celebrity-generated pablum that isn’t really news and that no one needs to know about?

  8. Economic reporting: The plain truth about any kind of reporting on the economy, is that no one — not even the best economist in the world — truly understands the economy. So what reporters do is come up with “angles” to report on, about the economy; little snippets and glimpses of pieces of it, which are digestible and understandable to the reporters and readers. The problem is that these little bits do not necessarily represent the economy as a whole. This leads to the stories we’ve been treated to for most of this year, which alternate between, “The recession is over!” and “The recession continues!” None of this helps anyone. No useful information is conveyed. We all remain just as stymied as we were before, by the seesawing stories that tell us wildly-different things. It really needs to stop … now.

  9. Press-conference journalism: This is related to #1, press-release journalism, but can be many times worse. In this, someone holds a press conference, says something, and the claims are reported as such. Very little else is looked into, and no other information is offered. This shows up often in reporting on criminal justice. For example, a police department briefs reporters on some crime. The (often minuscule) amount of information provided, is what gets reported. No questions are asked of anyone, except the police spokesman. Very few facts about the crime/event are looked into. Time was, when a crime happened, reporters would be all over it, interviewing witnesses, friends, relatives of the accused and/or victim(s), and so on. This no longer happens. Whatever the police release publicly is what we learn. There is no additional investigation by reporters. (On the flip side, defense attorneys sometimes have press conferences, and likewise their claims get reported, but the nature of those claims is also never investigated by journalists.)

These and other tropes are as uninformative as you can get. Facts get buried among all the obfuscation and failures to question or investigate. As media outlets pare down, this will only get worse, not better, so it doesn’t look as though this will improve any time soon.

As for the impetus for all of these changes … the Watergate scandal showed journalists that the “meta-news” — i.e the “backstory” and presumption about news events — could in many ways carry more weight than the news itself. In the case of Watergate specifically, the facts of the case were rather dry and sometimes a bit subtle. The story itself came in a slow dribble, with some pieces of the puzzle appearing as disconnected enigmas that only later, and in not-very-obvious ways, connected to the rest of it. In terms of the facts of the scandal as they were strictly reported, Watergate did not seem all that remarkable … not back in the middle of 1972 when those facts had started to be collected.

The real impact of Watergate only came in the question of, “What would make the President and his White House staff do all of these things?” This is not a question that was directly answered by the players involved … either they were dishonest about it or chose not to explain since they were told not to or were under investigation/indictment themselves. Moreover, a lot of drama played out as the Watergate scandal was revealed. What were the players going to say in the Congressional hearings? Would they keep obfuscating or would they spill the beans? What would the next major revelation be? Who might actually finger the President? There were some dramatic developments, e.g. the revelation by Alexander Butterfield of a recording system in the Oval Office, and that was followed by the drama of the White House reaction to demands for the tapes.

In these and other ways, the “meta-story” of Watergate, became the story of Watergate. And that “meta-story” was so powerful that it toppled a sitting U.S. president.

Also perhaps coincidentally, 1972 happened to be the year the Summer Olympics were held in Munich. These Olympic games were remembered for two features: First and most obviously, the Munich Massacre (in which Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists); and second, Russian gymnast Olga Korbut became an international media sensation, remembered for a dramatic failure (and later crying jag) during an overall competition, but for making a comeback later and winning other medals. The drama about the Olympics, and about its athletes, eclipsed the sporting events themselves.

Ever since then, journalists have tried to exploit the “dramatic” meta-news in everything else they write. Reporters routinely play up the drama, the emotion, the “backstory,” of pretty much everything. Facts? Hmmph. Too dry to bother with.

While Watergate taught us many things, including that powerful people could be powerfully corrupt, and that our leaders cannot and should not be trusted, this lesson — that the drama that buzzed around the events being reported (what I call “meta-news”) was more important than the “real” news — is not one that journalists ought to have taken away from it. But they did. And we’re all the more ignorant of our own world, because of it.

The other aspects of journalism’s failures … mainly in “press-conference journalism” … comes from the fact that there are just not enough reporters on staff at most outlets to do all the investigative work they used to. With the economy as it is and corporate media ownership being what is, we can expect “lazy journalism” to continue for the forseeable future.

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Voices continue to weigh in on the hypercredulous reporting of the case of Rom Houben (which I blogged about already). Among them:

Yet the mass media have, with only a few exceptions (such as Psychology Today) refused to offer any meaningful skepticism about this story. They continue to be nearly as credulous as they were at the beginning.

Note to journalists: It’s long past time to come clean on this. Admit you were swindled, explain how it happened, show what you plan to do to prevent being swindled again, and fercryinoutloud, stop propagating this hoax! The only place to keep reporting this story, is on Failblog … because that’s what this is, a catastrophic journalistic failure.

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A quick update on my blog entry from September about the death of US Census worker Bill Sparkman, as reported by the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader:

A part-time U.S. Census worker found dead near a secluded Clay County cemetery killed himself but tried to make the death look like a murder, authorities have concluded.

Bill Sparkman, 51, of London, apparently was trying to preserve payments under life insurance policies he had taken out, one as recently as May, which paid benefits if he died as a result of murder or accident, but not suicide or natural causes, police said.

This story mentions the furor that erupted at the time Sparkman had been found:

Police believe he staged the details to try to make it appear he was murdered because he was a federal employee.

He succeeded in some quarters.

In addition to causing a firestorm of media coverage, the bizarre details led to widespread speculation on the Internet, including that someone angry at the federal government attacked Sparkman as he gathered census information door to door.

All those who claimed Sparkman had been bumped off by Michele Bachmann-inspired Right-wing Obama-hating socialist-hunting ACORN-fearing “militia types,” turn out to have been wrong.

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By now you must have heard the story of Rom Houben, the poor man injured some 23 years ago, who — it turns out — was misdiagnosed all those years as being in a vegetative state, but who in fact was wide awake but simply unable to communicate. The Associated Press, CBS News, the (UK) Telegraph, NPR, CNN, and even Al Jazeera — among thousands of mass media outlets — have all reported this amazing story. How could it have happened, people have have been asking? How could the doctors have been so stupid or inattentive? How did they miss this? The talking heads have pontificated endlessly on how and why no one ever bothered to review poor Mr Houben’s condition or reassess his status.

There’s only one problem with all of this. The story, it turns out, may be fraudulent.

That’s right … this story which has transfixed the world for the last couple of days … may be a hoax.

To parrot the question being asked of Mr Houben’s doctors … “How could this happen? How could thousands of media outlets have been swindled?” Well, Wired magazine explains this astonishing story:

The statements of a Belgian man believed to be in a coma for 23 years, but recently discovered to be conscious, are poignant, but experts say they may not be his words at all.

Rom Houben’s account of his ordeal, repeated in scores of news stories since appearing Saturday in Der Spiegel, appears to be delivered with assistance from an aide who helps guide his finger to letters on a flat computer keyboard. Called “facilitated communication,” that technique has been widely discredited, and is not considered scientifically valid. …

Facilitated communication came to prominence in the late 1970s after an Australian teacher reportedly used it to communicate with 12 children rendered speechless by cerebral palsy and other disorders. …

Researchers said that facilitators were unconsciously or consciously guiding patients’ hands. Multiple professional organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that facilitated communication is not credible.

It was James “the Amazing” Randi who first raised the specter of fraud in this story, and who is quoted in the Wired piece:

“I believe that he is sentient. They’ve shown that with MRI scans,” said James Randi, a prominent skeptic who during the 1990s investigated the use of facilitated communication for autistic children. But in the video, “You see this woman who’s not only holding his hand, but what she’s doing is directing his fingers and looking directly at the keyboard. She’s pressing down on the keyboard, pressing messages for him. He has nothing to do with it.”

According to Randi, facilitated communication could only be considered credible if the facilitator didn’t look at the keyboard or screen while supporting Houben’s hand, and helped him type messages in response to questions she had not heard, thus ensuring that Houben’s responses are entirely his own.

Randi is absolutely correct when he said, “This cruel farce has to stop!” Now that the cat is out of the bag, as it were, it’s time for all those thousands of media outlets who picked up and parroted this story, to retract it, admit the account they reported was fraudulent (not that they were being fraudulent, but rather that the people who fed them the story had presented them a lie), and explain how they allowed themselves to be swindled.

This is a case of disingenuous “facilitated communication,” nothing more. And it’s time for the mass media to stop propagating it … immediately.

This story has even become political fodder for the Religious Right, especially those who still remember the Terri Schiavo case and who sanctimoniously refuse to let go of it. It’s even being used to whine and complain and fume about “Obamacare,” even though neither Barack Obama nor “socialized medicine” had the slightest thing to do with this hoax.

Curiously, I suspect the mass media do not, in fact, have the integrity or fortitude it would take to admit this was a hoax, take back these reports, and explain how they were deceived. Then again, they might surprise me. At least one talking head at MSNBC is expressing doubts. Let’s hope more media figures do the same.

Hat tip: The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

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