April 2007 Archives

Facts Prevail in Iraq, Science

Iraq: Media Spin

The Bill Moyers Journal premiered on PBS on Wednesday April 25, 2006, with the show "Buying the War", also available online in its entirety. Moyer's makes his thesis clear in one of the first shots. As Bush enters the briefing room for a press conference the White House press corps is standing. The press corps then sits down and as they're filmed from one side it looks like their taking one long, collective, sweeping bow. "Buying the War" then shows parts of scripted press conference, where everyone knows who will be called on, what they'll ask, and what Bush's answer will be, but they all play along with the charade.

Documentaries and books have already thoroughly analyzed the Bush Administration's sale of the Iraq war to U.S. citizens. "Buying the War" focused on the media's sometimes eager complicity in this goal. For many reasons, reporters from outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, as well as major TV networks, supported the Bush Administration's march to war.

A Frontline show earlier this the year also focused on the role of the media in a four part series. That show portrayed a media diminished from its post-Watergate heyday to its present *beleaguered* state. The Moyer's show, in my opinion, provided a slightly more optimistic view (with a less ominous soundtrack). Moyer's focus was the ennoble, under appreciated role of reporting accurate news during the tense pre-Iraq atmosphere. At the time, there was intense pressure to dutifully report the Bush administrations' claims, and beneath the sheen of patriotism in the ranks of media, sycophancy and spin ruled the day. "Buying the War" featured a few reporters in the lead-up to the Iraq war who tenaciously (and correctly) reported evidence that contradicted the Bush administration's themes for invading attack.

Needless to say, the reporters who didn't find Bush's evidence compelling weren't the loud majority. Among others, Moyers interviewed Charles Hanley, and Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel from Knight Ridder (now McClatchy). Before the invasion the two Knight Ridder reporters churned out dozens of skeptical reports, based on research and information from sources within and beyond the upper echelons of the administration.

As Landay relayed in "Buying the War", the defectors who were providing "evidence" against Saddam weren't making sense. They gave questionable and conflicting accounts. Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a Kurd, divulged Saddam's weapons caches to the CIA. Why would a sworn enemy of Hussein, a Kurd, Landay asked, "be allowed into to Sadam's top military facilities"? He continued;

"and....the idea that Saddam Hussein would put a biological weapons facility under his residence. I mean, would you put a biological weapons lab under your living room? I don't think so."

The reporters who got the facts relied on concerned Administration officials, unclassified documents, and scientists. Bob Simon of CBS News, talked to scientists who provided details about the aluminum tubes.

BILL MOYERS: "When you said a moment ago when we started talking to people who knew about aluminum tubes. What people-who were you talking to?"
BOB SIMON: "We were talking to people - to scientists - to scientists and to researchers and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start."
BILL MOYERS: "Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 minutes?"
BOB SIMON: "No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called."
BILL MOYERS: And you just picked up the phone?
BOB SIMON: Just picked up the phone.
BILL MOYERS: Talked to them?
BOB SIMON: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras.

As it turned out, Saddam Hussein didn't possess nuclear weapons or biological weapons, had not acquired uranium ore from Africa, and was not sponsoring Al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iraq and the Facts, Tardy but Hardy

Those who supported the administration's push for war, and who also appeared on Moyer's show (many didn't), admitted they were mistaken. Some were contrite and almost all were apologists. They said they were under the gun from their corporations, and that large media had its insatiable political "needs". The reporters and anchors said they feared for their careers. Their patriotism was heightened after 9-11 they said. Some squirmed visibly under Moyer's pointed questions and elder gaze -- or was it a glare? Others seemed to light up under the challenge...books to sell maybe.

Many of those reporters fervently sold Bush's appeals to halt Al-Qaida in Iraq are now at plum reporting positions where they continue to hold forth as experts in their fields, despite the inaccuracy of their predictions of democracy, easy victory and flower leis.

The McClatchy's reporters note in via Q&A sometime after the show that their employers supported them. Other reporters who publicly expressed doubt were relegated to the back pages, or taken off the air (Phil Donahue). What are reporters supposed to do it their employer edits their stories, forbids them to report ideas ideologically out of sync with business or the administration, or fires them? How would they explain that to their mortgage lender and children? The illiberal face of liberalism lurks about, and no doubt reporters face tough decisions.

Bill Moyers noted in a speech to the "National Conference on Media Reform", some time after he left NOW....

"One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn’t play by the conventional rules of beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news...

Faced with relentless spin, it's easy to see how counterspin might be the only answer. But in this example the facts prevailed because of the scientists, reporters, and administrative officials. The facts were resilient.

Bill Moyers new show is regularly scheduled Fridays on PBS.

Common Sense Food in Schools

...and "Potable" Water Too!

FF The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM) in the U.S., published its recommendations for school food yesterday. The report, "Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way toward Healthier Youth", addresses the increasing obesity in children that causes metabolic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease and sets kids up for future health problems.

The IOM report, commissioned by Congress, looks at the trend towards increasing obesity in kids, and links it to the growing availability of so called "competitive foods", available in school snack bars, vending machines and cafeterias. The Institute reviewed the results of past federal government sponsored dietary programs and now recommends changing the method of assessing the nutritional value of food.

Rather than rating foods according to the nutritional value of each food relative to the overall diet, the IOM recommends evaluating individual food items according to each items nutritional value. The current dietary recommendations assume that while a person may not get each nutrient at every meal, over time, they'll balance their diet. However, the IOM notes, that was a standard devised 30 years ago. These days the nutritional challenge isn't whether people are getting enough calories. Obesity coexists with malnutrition for many people who get all their calories from soda and junk food. Individuals make consistently bad nutritional choices over time.

To address this and to set up healthy habits in children, the new standards suggest allowing only foods that have substantive nutritional value in schools. The IOM recommends that federally-reimbursable foods NOT be replaced by "competitive foods" supplied by industry. Snacks should be limited to "nutritious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non/low-fat dairy products".

The authors divided food into Tier I and Tier II categories, according to fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, sugar and sodium contents. A Tier I food, for instance, should contain no more than 35% of its calories from fat and sugar (unless it's yogurt), and should have 200mg or less of sodium. Beverages should have limited artificial sweeteners, caffeine, fortification, and caloric content, since drinks with these ingredients supplant more nutritious choices. Tier I choices would be available at all times, at all grade levels, Tier II choices would be more limited. Other food products would not be allowed.

The report recommends that "potable water" be available free to students throughout the day.

Some food and beverage companies reacted to the news as you would expect, claiming that lack of exercise, not junk food, dragged kids down. The industries' would prefer the continuation of their "voluntary standards", with no oversight as to how those are implemented. The Center for Science in The Public Interest (CSPI) hailed the revision of the 30 year old "disco-era" nutritional standards.


Related articles at Acronym Required:
On another IOM report: "Why So Fat? It's Systemwide",
"Childhood Obesity, The American Way"
"Survey Says: Pop's Out Drugs are In"
"News of Lightweight Study: 'Obese Should Walk Slowly'"
"Coke: Teaching the World to Sing"


PHOTO: Courtesy of Roland Alton-Scheidl. Creative Commons License: http://creativecommons.at/water/kinder.stoppeln

Kaiser IT: Whistleblowing in Internet Time

The Wall Street Journal published a front page story today about Justen Deal, who last year confronted Kaiser Permanente management about a 4 billion dollar IT project he thought had gone awry, and a projected 7 billion dollar budget deficit at Kaiser. In "How an E-mail Jolted a Big HMO", (temporary link) the Wall Street Journal noted, "flicking away whistle-blowers isn't as easy as it once was".

Acronym Required wrote an account of the story, "Healthcare IT: The Perfect Storm", last November. Why this story bubbled up on the front page of WSJ now, (albeit in their middle, soft news, people focused column ), when there's not exactly a dearth of seemingly critical world news, we don't know. Local papers have pretty much spurned the story. The IT aspects have been mentioned sporadically in healthcare blogs, the IT media, and the LA Times. This is an interesting business case not only in terms of dealing with internal IT implementation strategy and PR, but also for corporate human resource teams, who in this case, perhaps anachronistically, underestimated his kamikaze-like persistence.

Supreme Court Rejects EPA & Coal Plants' Nonsense

EPA v. Massachusetts

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Twelve states, along with public health and environmental groups, had sued the EPA for failing to protect citizens against emissions. The case wended its way to the highest court after the EPA denied the appeal of the states asking it to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA had argued that it wasn't authorized to pass mandatory regulations under the act, and that no causal link between greenhouse gases and emissions was proven. The agency also said that such regulation would be a "piecemeal", therefore would conflict with "the President's comprehensive approach".

Interestingly, the EPA relied in part on the court's opinions in a tobacco case, Brown v. Williamson. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could not regulate cigarette smoke. The EPA noted in its arguments that in the tobacco case the court had considered "tobacco['s] unique political history" and the tobacco industry's "significant portion of the America economy". Climate change also has "political history", said the EPA. The agency reasoned that if it were to act on carbon dioxide and other emissions, that would alter Congress' intent for the Clean Air Act to regulate "local" pollution, and would force the EPA to apply the act to a very "global" problem. This, the EPA said, would have even greater economic and political repercussions than had the FDA been forced to regulate tobacco.

The court's majority opinion heartily rejected these arguments. The opinion recounted some of the science and political history of climate change and emissions, and compared this to tobacco's history, clearly outlining the strong differences between congressional intent and action in the two cases.

The EPA also reasoned that even if it did have agency in this case, the only way to control greenhouse gases would be to regulate fuel efficiency, which was the Department of Transportation's (DOT) purview. The court rejected this rational, noting that the EPA "has been charged with protecting the publics 'health' and 'welfare'", whereas "DOT sets mileage standards". The EPA couldn't "shirk its environmental responsibilities", said the court, by claiming some confusing inter-agency overlap.

The agency stated that it was following the Clean Air Act's allowance for it's best "judgment", and that given existing scientific uncertainty on climate change, it would be best in the EPA not take action. It also said that greenhouse gases weren't "air pollutants". The court said that such a stand was "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law". Added the court, the "laundry list" of excuses of why the EPA couldn't respond, unbacked by any scientific reasoning, was inadequate excuse for inaction. The court ordered the EPA to find whether greenhouse gases endangered public health.

In the April 2, 2007 White House Press Briefing following the decision, acting Press Secretary Dana Perino asserted that the Bush administration has "long said that greenhouse gases are contributing to a warming planet and that human generated carbon dioxide is a large contributor..." But then she refuted the court, stating that the Bush administration policies have been successfully (and comprehensively) enacted via Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, even though in fact combined fuel efficiency of the US car and light truck fleet has decreased since 1986. The Press Secretary also argued incorrectly, that increasing fuel efficiency would cause safety issues, which is oft-tried, but tired and false reasoning.

The minority court opinion argued that though global warming was real and problematic, the "redress of grievances of the sort at issue" was best left to the executive and legislative branches. (though, given that the Clean Air Act is Congresses current solution, one that the executive branch has blatantly flouted, this seems questionable). The minority disputed the state of Massachusetts' (plaintiff) standing, and also argued that the plaintiffs didn't convincingly show an injury due to "global warming". Furthermore the minority opinion said, it wasn't clear that the injury (loss of coastal land) was redressable with the Clean Air Act.

Bush responded to the decision by saying that any action must not hurt the economy. The U.S. couldn't do something when China was doing nothing, he noted puerilely.

EDF v. Duke Energy

The Supreme Court also ruled 9-0 in favor of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in EDF v. Duke Energy. The court ruled that the company needs to follow the rules of the Clean Air Act when refurbishing old coal plants.

Clean air proponents welcome the rulings.

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