Monthly Archives: June 2012

The US Supreme Court building.

In which I tackle an angle of the healthcare ruling you probably haven’t heard yet.

The Supreme Court, as I am sure most non cave-dwelling sentient beings know by now, today ruled the individual mandate of the Obama’s healthcare bill, the Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, though under an interpretation of the mandate as a tax, not under the Commerce Clause. The second half of the ruling, the portion that strikes down parts of the Medicaid expansion, is the part that relates to the drinking age.

The Medicaid Decision

While the 5-4 majority voted to rule the ACA constitutional, they ruled aspects of federal government’s expansion of Medicaid unconstitutional. This expansion of Medicaid originally was to extend the low-income healthcare program to cover more people, with the federal government paying substantial amounts. The catch was that states which refused to join in the expansion were to lose all of their federal Medicaid funding.

The court says, in the part of the ruling the justices—even those on the majority—were very divided on, that while the federal government was allowed to expand Medicaid in this fashion, states that decided not to join up could do so without losing all of their federal Medicaid funds. In his majority opinion, Roberts explains, “The threatened loss of over 10 percent of a State’s overall budget, in contrast, is economic dragooning that leaves the States with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion.” (page 52).

How this relates to the drinking age

Now how does this relate to the drinking age? Well, United States’ drinking age of 21, which is one of the highest drinking ages in the world among countries that legislate such things (and is much higher than those in the rest of the developed world), is actually not a result of direct federal action. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, signed in 1984 under the Reagan administration, did not actually set the drinking age across the United States at 21—that would have crossed the federal government’s authority. Instead, the law made the receipt of federal highway funds—specifically 10 percent of such funds—contingent upon a state making the drinking age 21 or higher.  While states can, any day, lower the drinking age if they wanted to, this law basically guarantees that doing so would amount to a tax increase or a budget cut, as states would suddenly have to fill that hole in their budgets.

Where the court came down last time

If all of this sounds constitutionally dubious, you are not alone. In 1987, the case of South Dakota v. Dole came before the Supreme Court. The state of South Dakota challenged the law (Dole refers to the then Secretary of Transportation) on the grounds that the law infringed on the right of South Dakota itself to decide the drinking age, under the scope of the 21st Amendment, which rolled back Prohibition. There the states were given purview over the regulation of alcohol, as opposed to the federal government.

As you probably have guessed, the Supreme Court upheld the drinking age law in a 7-2 decision. In the majority ruling, which was penned by then-chief justice William Rehnquist, the court actually sidestepped the question that South Dakota focused on in their legal argument, which was the fact that the 21st Amendment gave sole control of alcohol regulation to the states. Instead, Rehnquist’s majority opinion focused on the fact that this issue fell under the tax clause of the constitution. From the decision:

“The Constitution empowers Congress to ‘lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.’ Art. I, 8, cl. 1. Incident to this power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and has repeatedly employed the power ‘to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives.’”

The court in their 1987 decision did set out three major limitations on Congress attaching conditions to federal grants. In brief, these conditions are that the limitation must be conducive to the “general welfare”—a question on which the courts normally would defer to Congress—that the limitation must be clear one that states are made aware of and know the consequences of, and “that conditions on federal grants might be illegitimate if they are unrelated “to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs.” The court admitted here that precedent was unclear on what that last one meant.

South Dakota maintained that even if all this was true, Congress could not use the above explained spending power to essentially make an end-run around the 21st Amendment. The court did not buy this—here is another block of text from the ruling:

“These cases [a series of earlier precedents on federal spending power] establish that the ‘independent constitutional bar’ limitation on the spending power is not, as petitioner suggests, a prohibition on the indirect achievement of objectives which Congress is not empowered to achieve directly. Instead, we think that the language in our earlier opinions stands for the unexceptionable proposition that the power may not be used to induce the States to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional. Thus, for example, a grant of federal funds conditioned on invidiously discriminatory state action or the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment would be an illegitimate exercise of the Congress’ [483 U.S. 203, 211]   broad spending power.”

Here is the kicker in the decision—even though the court concludes by admitting that the elimination of federal funds can at a certain point be coercive, they did not accept that the loss of 5% of highway funds (the law was later amended to be 10%) did not reach that threshold.

How today’s ruling may be a game changer

Today’s decision on Medicaid reinforces the idea that there are limits to federal spending power coercion. In the “syllabus” of the Roberts majority decision, it is written with regards to the Medicaid expansion:

“When Congress threatens to terminate other grants as a means of pressuring the States to accept a Spending Clause program, the legislation runs counter to this Nation’s system of federalism. Cf. South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U. S. 203, 211. Pp. 45–51.”

Notice the citation of the Dakota case. In the meat of the decision, the court says that the federal government does have the power to use the “power of the purse” to do things it would not be able to do by statute, but also that this power of incentives only extends to the point that pressure becomes “compulsion.” Here is perhaps the most important part of today’s ruling with regards to the drinking age law:

“Spending Clause programs do not pose this danger when a State has a legitimate choice whether to accept the federal conditions in exchange for federal funds.  In such a situation, state officials can fairly be held politically accountable for choosing to accept or refuse the federal offer.  But when the State has no choice, the Federal Government can achieve its objectives without  accountability.”

In 1987, the court ruled that the states do have a legitimate choice, but the thinking of the court today sort of reframes the question. In their decision, the court said that the Medicaid compulsion was unconstitutional because Medicaid accounts for such a large amount of state spending, and at least 50% of state budgets for their Medicaid programs comes from the federal government.

The court ruled that this amount was just too much for the federal government to use the power of the purse. At this point, the court calls coercion. This sets up an interesting brightline argument for anyone who wants to challenge the drinking age act—does 10% of federal highway funds account for a large enough amount of a state’s budget to be coercive? The federal government spends 21% of its money on Medicare and Medicaid. The Medicaid portion is mostly money handed to individual states. Meanwhile, transportation only is 3% of the federal budget (again, this is mostly money handed to states). At the state level, transportation is only 5% of state spending, much lower than the 13% that states spend on Medicaid alone. What this makes clear is that to overturn the drinking age, even with this new ruling, the court would have to be persuaded that 10% of federal highway funds reaches a level of coercion that is unconstitutional. The fact that all 50 states have complied with the law could be noted as an example of the law’s coercive force.

So will we see a challenge? Will the justices see this differently?

As to the question of will we see a challenge, the answer is uncertain. It is likely that this ruling will likely lead to challenges of other healthcare and education federal mandates, but it is not clear whether Dakota will be one of the targets of this possible gold rush. The fact that the court has not given a hard threshold of coercion in today’s ruling does indicate a challenge would at least pass the threshold of lower courts.

This is the court that upheld the Dakota case in 1987. Today’s court looks very different, and the vote would almost certainly look different today.

As for the justices, the Dakota decision was 7-2. As with most of these things, all but one of the justices who voted on that ruling are either dead or retired. That sole survivor would be conservative firebrand Antonin Scalia. He joined the majority opinion of Rehnquist, and we can presume from the lack of a concurring opinion by him that he largely agreed with the reasoning discussed above. Whether the new Antonin Scalia would agree with the Scalia of 1987 is yet to be seen. The Scalia of today, in his dissent striking down the law, agreed with the majority’s reasoning on the Medicaid provision. In the majority, justices Kagan and Breyer joined Roberts in saying the Medicaid expansion. So theoretically, we could be looking at 7 justices who are at least amenable to the argument that federal restrictions on money to states can reach a level of coercion (ironically the exact opposite of the number of justices who upheld in Dakota). Whether 10% of highway funds meets that test is something we could see soon in the court.

See for yourself: Court decisions

Full text of the healthcare decision[] and with annotations from NPR’s reporters[]

Full text of South Dakota V. Dole[]


Will this bill help solve the healthcare cost crisis in the US? Maybe. Or maybe not. And of course, tomorrow the Supreme Court could make everything I just said not matter.

[In light of the impending decision that will decide whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutional or not, I have decided to shamelessly recycle my old writing. Here is a somewhat edited repost of a piece I wrote at my high school newspaper two years ago. The piece still more or less reflects my current opinions on the bill.] 

Why The New Healthcare Bill Falls Short.

Turn on any newscast these days and you can find all manner of hyperbolic language about the new healthcare bill. “The end of American freedom as we know it!” some opponents claim. Others make the—rather rich—claim that healthcare reform is equivalent to passing the Civil Rights Act. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle

First to the good; the healthcare bill does address one of the main problems with the current system; a lack of insurance options for those who neither have employer provided insurance nor are poor enough or old enough to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, respectively. Those without insurance are provided with state based exchanges through which one can buy coverage . In addition, the bill ends some highly unpopular practices of insurers, such as the denial of coverage to those with “preexisting conditions”. While those with such conditions will benefit from coverage, the added burden of covering more unhealthy people will disburse their costs throughout the system, increasing premiums for most.

With that, one must now address the many imperfections and disadvantages of the bill. Firstly, while the main source of controversy had been the individual mandate, the real idiocy of the bill is the “employer mandate”, the provision which requires companies to pay at least 72.5% of the costs of employer insurance. Other provisions of the bill, such as the individual mandate, state-based insurance exchanges, and subsides for poor families obviate the need for an employer mandate.

More importantly, an employer mandate would make hiring less palatable by making the act of hiring a worker more expensive. Even worse, the entire provision perpetuates the model of employer provided insurance, which highly distorts the market by removing the actual consumer from deciding what plan they have, or who they get a particular medical procedure from, thus insulating doctors from competition even more than insurance companies themselves. As one analyst writes, “The already weak incentives to constrain costs in a third-party system shrivel further when individuals do not even pay directly for their own insurance.”

Interestingly, even when judged by the standards the bill’s more ardent supporters set out, it is highly flawed; political pressures forced undocumented workers off of the ability to use the health insurance exchanges—even if no government money is used to finance their insurance. Meanwhile, federal dollars from the exchanges are not allowed to finance abortions. Whether or not one opposes abortion, this particular addendum sets a dubious precedent- that any policy which has enough people opposed should not get federal dollars-should left wingers band together to bar the Iraq War from getting federal dollars? Perhaps evangelical Christians should rally to have high schools that teach contraceptive use barred from federal education grants? The possibilities are endless.

Despite the imperfections of the new healthcare bill, it is a tentative step in the right direction, if only because the status quo is so awful. Unfortunately, many of the problems of the bill are not considered to be problems under the Democratic ideological paradigm. That, combined with the lack of substantive contributions from Republicans and  conservatives to this debate (and the excommunication of those who did, as a certain David Frum may attest), does not bode well for the future of American healthcare. The major problem with the US’s system, which this bill does not really solve (and arguably perpetuates) is that we have neither a true free market system, nor a single payer system. Instead, America gets a mushy mix of corporatism.

NPR’s (now former) Washington, DC headquarters. Are we measuring the bias of its reporting from the wrong side?

In which I discuss the criticism of NPR from a part of the political spectrum you may not expect.

If you ask the typical American right winger why public broadcasting should be robbed of the pittance it receives from the federal government, they will typically give you a two pronged critique. One, that public broadcasting is not the role of the government and should be left to the marketplace. The second would probably be a content based critique.

The Right’s narrative on NPR

While the right wing has come to treat as an article of faith that all of the media—except for the oasis of balanced fairness that is Fox News—has a “liberal bias,” NPR has become one of the central targets for criticism. Recent controversies over comments an NPR development official (fundraiser) made in one of James O’ Keefe’s hidden camera stings and the firing of Juan Williams, the ideologically ambiguous black commentator at the station, intensified right wing ire at the organization.

The Conventional Wisdom

Indeed, the idea that NPR has, if not an actual left-wing bent in its journalism, than the overpowering ethos and sensibility of left leaning upper middle class white elitists, is basically conventional wisdom, even among less ideological media observers—noted New York Times media reporter David Carr said of the network, “In terms of assignments and sensibility, NPR has always been more blue than red, but it’s not as if it has an overt political agenda…”

The Left’s Criticisms

Leaving aside the fact that even this conventional wisdom is less true than one would believe, what all of this talk obscures is the rather strident and growing criticism of NPR from the left. Some of this criticism is to the effect that NPR has simply become more of an establishment outlet, as it progressed from its genesis as a loose association of campus and community stations to the sort of nonprofit that gets philanthropic gifts from foundations of the wealthy and powerful. Others criticize NPR’s reporting as giving too much airtime and credence to “pro-corporate” right wing economics and not including true progressives in the debate. The third, and in a sense, most ironic argument, is that similar to the coverage of the New York Times (another target of right wing ire that is actually deeply disliked by the movement left), the sensibility of NPR is really skewed towards the interests of the supposed “1%”—one percent radio was how one critic described it.

Too Establishment?

First to the criticism that NPR is too establishment. A piece by the left wing media pressure group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) a decade ago discussed NPR’s then groundbreaking success in public broadcasting, and while the writers did consider the broadcaster much better than commercial radio, which was “slid[ing] deeper into an abyss of mediocrity and corrosive gunk,” they also expressed concern about many aspects of the organization. They noted, for example, that several the executives in charge of NPR at the time of the piece (2002) were previously involved with overseeing the US’s international broadcast operations, which are explicitly considered to be tools of foreign policy influence.

Two other aspects the FAIR piece criticized were the lack of “diversity of perspectives” on the network in both the realms of domestic and foreign reporting (this aspect was elaborated on in a different study by the group), and the reliance of the present day public broadcasting model on corporate underwriting packages.

Too Establishment: Stenography in the realm of national security?

The subject of national security reporting is perhaps where the movement left has focused their sharpest critiques of NPR. Critics allege that the network’s reporting, much like that of other mainstream media outlets, hews too close to Pentagon-approved takes on war and presents a narrow, military-strategy focused range of debate (I wrote about this previously). Another piece by FAIR went as fair to deride NPR as National Pentagon Radio for airing a cordial interview with one of those ubiquitous retired generals on war strategy.

NPR Counter-terrorism reporter Dina Temple-Raston has been the subject of criticism from the left over a recent report on Iran.

Earlier this year, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald (now with The Guardian) wrote a scathing commentary on a story by NPR’s national security correspondent on the supposed growing threat from Iran. Greenwald contended in his critique that the piece exemplified all that was wrong with establishment Washington reporting—reliance on government sources, uncritical relaying of State Department views, and a lack of real questioning of American government motives in the realm of external policy.

Incidentally, the same NPR reporter, Dina Temple-Raston, attacked Greenwald back in 2010 over his criticism of the US government’s assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an exchange that was picked up by bloggers from both the liberal American Prospect and the libertarian Reason Magazine, she told Greenwald that his criticism was invalid because she learned classified information from government sources of Awlaki’s guilt in orchestrating terrorism. The rather unusual exchange, which occurred at an NYU symposium on the First Amendment and the Constitution, is in the video below beginning at 53:00.

NPR’s ombudsman (to their credit, NPR is one of the few major news organizations that still has one) has fielded some of these complaints about the broadcaster’s national security coverage. Back in January, Robert Naiman, the head of another left leaning watchdog group, flagged a report on Iran’s alleged nuclear program because the reporter, Tom Gjelten, used phraseology implicating Iran as having a fully fledged nuclear program, something which is far from a known fact. The ombudsman responded by acknowledging the validity of concerns about NPR’s national security coverage, but contending that the very premise of the report treated the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as a hypothetical future event, rather than a present day certainty as Naiman’s criticism implied. After listening to the report, it is clear the NPR ombudsman’s narrow point of rebuttal is valid, but a quick look at the comments shows that most commenters saw the almost-semantical defense as missing the point.

Before I move on, I should note that NPR, to its credit, did prepare their own analysis of the network’s Mideast reporting for the early portion of this year, which addressed their Iran coverage. However the report did fail to address Temple-Raston’s March report on Iran that triggered Greenwald’s criticism.

NPR: Too sympathetic to the right wing in domestic coverage?

Domestic reporting  is where the other portion of left wing criticism of NPR is directed, and while some of this has come from the expected quarters on the left—FAIR’s commentary on NPR’s reliance on typical beltway sources implicitly argued this, some of this criticism has also come from media journalists from non-ideological outlets—last year, the Columbia Journalism Review’s healthcare and campaign journalism critic Trudy Lieberman criticized an NPR report on the future of Social Security.

Lieberman focused on the fact that the report by congressional correspondent Dave Welna was premised on the Republican argument that Social Security is insolvent and in imminent need of radical restructuring. The report, in Lieberman’s view, treated this trope not as a political argument of questionable validity, but as a confirmed fact, and heavily relied on sourcing from Republican politicians on the program. The same CJR writer flagged two other NPR pieces on Social Security for similarly doubtful premises (one and two).

Logo of the American Public Media program “Marketplace”, which contrary to popular belief, is not an NPR program.

Other economic reporting on public radio has come for scorn from the left. The popular business program Marketplace, which, while heard on most stations during broadcasts of NPR’s All Things Considered, is actually produced by the wholly separate organization American Public Media, sparked some controversy last summer when one of its reporters lashed out at a viewer annoyed with the program’s coverage of the debt ceiling. The original segment concerned the markets’ reaction to the debt ceiling deal. The reporter, Heidi Moore, told the host of Marketplace:

“One of the things that people on Wall Street are really concerned about is entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Those are obviously huge flashpoints for people, but investors want to see the costs for those come down before they really have confidence in us.”

The viewer, a New Hampshire 63 year old, was rather offended by this framing, and wrote back:

Elizabeth Fisher: I was really angry because she [the reporter] made it sound like investors are just waiting to see whether we’ll actually make the cuts to entitlements. And I’m 63, and I’m sitting here hoping there’s going to be enough left of the entitlements so that I can survive the rest of my life.”

The reporter, Heidi Moore, responded to this letter in a post on her Tumblr blog, arguing that austerity was necessary to restore the US’s credit ratings, and that criticizing the media for reporting what Wall Street is thinking was not productive. The Columbia Journalism Review’s business press critic, Ryan Chittum, criticized the reporter’s point about Wall Street reporting, but also argued that her very premise on austerity was untrue and based upon short term numbers.  A quick look at the Tumblr responses again shows that CJR writer was not the only one to find her sentiment disagreeable. Here is a particularly biting response.

The debate on the left about NPR continues

While agreeing with many of its critics on the left, public broadcasting fixture and noted progressive Bill Moyers argues it is still a viable alternative to commercial media.

Every time one of those “defund public broadcasting” debates is instigated by Congressional Republicans, there is a smaller debate inside the left about whether public broadcasting is worth saving at all. FAIR says not in its current form, while some have given up on the organization altogether—one former listener has been writing a blog, NPR Check, critiquing what he perceives as a right wing slant at NPR for several years now—but others see it differently. Public broadcasting luminary and strident progressive Bill Moyers co-authored a piece for Salon last year which advocated for a defense of NPR. Though Moyers agreed with the premise that other alternative media programs, like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! do a better job of Speaking Truth To Power than NPR and PBS, he writes:

“better a diamond with a flaw — a big flaw — than a pebble without. For all that it [public broadcasting] provides — but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting — we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear.”


My own thoughts on this left wing critique of NPR are somewhat muddled. I will say here that I personally am an avid listener of NPR and have done some outreach work for my own public radio station (where I have heard some listeners voice similar concerns about a rightward drift at the national organization). In terms of national security reporting, it is clear that the pieces mentioned earlier were very problematic for their uncritical transcription of Pentagon and intelligence community claims, and indeed are symptomatic of larger problems with the US media’s treatment of American foreign policy.

On economic and political reporting, while the organization has produced some dubious reports (as even the best of the media do), the bulk of NPR’s economic coverage has a depth and evenhandedness that truly separates it from the fare of other media outlets. The movement left is correct in arguing that NPR isn’t Democracy Now!, but I would argue that this is neither an indictment or a compliment because NPR is not intended to be “alternative” media in the same way the Amy Goodman program is. DN approaches the world from an avowedly progressive perspective, which is not the role of a public broadcaster.

MSNBC correspondent reporting from Egypt this morning.

In which I deliver exactly what is in the title.

This morning I woke up and as usual turned on the TV, awaiting my typical ritual of cruising through the Sunday chat shows, soaking up the conventional wisdom and political dogfighting.  Then, as I was watching, I remembered that an election was to come to a conclusion. The Egyptian election commission, after several days of tension, was finally to announce their results.

The coverage of these results is interesting to look at because it shows how long an attention span various media outlets have to the beginning of the next phase of the “Arab Spring”, the story that captured the world for the first half of last year.

I was first watching MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, the network’s recent attempt to emulate a Morning Joe style chat show with a left wing bent. Anyhows, the program, just before 9 in the morning ET, went to the NBC News correspondent in Tahrir Square, Ayman Mohyeldin. The correspondent, a transplant from Al Jazeera’s English operation, delivered a competent and insightful report. The one part that stuck out at me was when the guests on the program’s panel also questioned the correspondent. One of the guests, an Occupy Wall Street activist, asked whether the more established groups in Egypt were able to take advantage of new political environment at the expense of smaller grassroots groups, similar to the disadvantage OWS faced. Considering the strange analogy the question drew, the correspondent answered it well.

I switched at 9 to CNN to see what they were doing. State of the Union with Candy Crowley had just started, and the program, thankfully led with the Egyptian election news, though it did not devote the whole hour to it. Egypt correspondent Ben Wedeman and Christiane Amanpour reported from Tahrir Square, while a former Egypt ambassador and CNN’s “Foreign Affairs” reporter (likely someone working out of the State Department) gave analysis out of the studio. The on-scene correspondents provided good analysis, while the in-studio talking heads reminded me of a complaint I heard about CNN’s coverage of the original protests in Egypt—“like watching the revolution from inside the White House,” as one commenter on Reddit put it.

A representative screencap of CNN International’s coverage, The shot of the square on the left was attributed to Reuters. Notice the feed from Egypt state TV for the announcement itself on the right.

CNN’s hour, of course, shifted back to typical Sunday show fare of politics and partisanship. After taking a break from the television to attend to other things, I shifted to Al Jazeera English, which I manage to get on my TV system thanks to a local channel in New York that simulcasts it on a digital subchannel. Anyways I came back partway through the press conference where election commission head Farouq Sultan was announcing the result. AJE stuck with the conference audio longer than CNN and the BBC, even once it was clear he was going to go through some bureaucratic house clearing before actually giving the result. Back on CNN, the 10 AM hour, normally filled by Fareed Zakaria’s program, was rightly preempted by a simulcast of CNN International’s coverage of the election returns. In addition to Wedeman and Amanpour, they now had Dan Rivers reporting from the headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate with closer ties to the Mubarak regime and, in the minds of voters, the current military junta.

Al Jazeera, unsurprisingly, had the best coverage of the proceedings. Their translator of the results conference was excellent, and clear. I make this note because CNN’s translator was awful and not really intelligible. In fariness, it is hard to know whether or not this is because CNN’s translator is bad, or Al Jazeera simply has access to much better translators by virtue of its fully fledged Arabic operation (the Arabic channel probably has people translating speeches from English, after all). While I am at it, AJE clearly had more resources in the region—they had their own camera angles on the square and more camera shots in general. BBC World News also had more cameras in the square. Meanwhile, CNN, even though they had several correspondents on the ground, also was relying on video from Reuters and Egypt’s state television feed for the wide shots of the square.

Al Jazeera correspondent from Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the result’s announcement.

Some other notes here on American channels: what (negatively) surprised me was that, especially since the actual announcement of the results came in the middle of the Sunday show slots on the east coast, none of the network news divisions broke into their programs to deliver the result—ABC was talking the upcoming Supreme Court rulings, Fox (main network, not cable) had their panel, NBC had Marco Rubio, and CBS had Rick Perry, which made me flip the channel the other way as fast as possible. Even if the programs were revised for west coast airings, this is a major oversight, considering the likely far-reaching effects of Egypt’s leadership on American middle eastern policy.

Meanwhile in the cableverse, MSNBC had intermittent coverage of the results, and  Fox News—which I turned to briefly to get a sample, did have a correspondent at Tahir Square who floated as a plausible possibility that Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood winner, would turn Egypt into an Iran style theocracy. I shudder to think who they had giving analysis in studio.

So that is that. I will be back later this week with a piece on criticism of NPR from a surprising part of the political spectrum, and whatever stuff I think of.

Title card for CNN’s “Newsroom International.” Is it worth watching?

In which I review CNN’s seemingly positive change to their midday lineup.

As followers of this blog may remember, several weeks ago I did a post about  what CNN could do to improve its long suffering ratings. One of my central recommendations was that CNN should more or less stop competing with Fox News and MSNBC and instead compete  with BBC World News and Al Jazeera English, mainly by replacing the bulk of its off peak “rolling news” programs with simulcasts of CNN International.

This Monday, I learned (via the media navel-gazing blog TVNewser) that CNN has soft launched an edition of the CNN Newsroom program entitled Newsroom International, at 12 PM ET. The whole concept of the program is that the hour would be wholly devoted to news from outside the United States, with CNN International hosts like Hala Gorani and Richard Quest making regular appearances. This is actually not the first time CNN has tried to add an international flavor to their programming at the high noon; in 2005, CNN began simulcasting the CNN International program Your World Today at the same time.

The Columbia Journalism Review reacted well to the move, reviewing the addition to the schedule under the blunt, Onion-esque headline of “CNN Stuns US with Actual News.” They observe:

“CJR Daily tuned in at 11:45 a.m. EST. Right away we caught a promo for “Your World Today” — a promo that, as it turns out, actually contained more hard news than the five minutes of “CNN Live Today” that followed. (That was pretty easy to do, given that the “CNN Live Today” segment focused on how to keep your pet from shitting all over the hotel room once you leave the premises…)…. It speaks to the state of cable news that we sat in shock and awe for the better part of an hour, as anchors Zain Verjee and Jim Clancy did nothing more than deliver the news like it’s supposed to be done.”

Above is a clip of one of the editions to judge for yourself. The writers concluded that the program was a “solid hour of journalism with teeth, [that] had avoided the Talking Head Ping Pong matches that plague cable news.”

In the spirit of that magazine’s team of reviewers, I set out to observe the Wednesday, June 20th edition of CNN’s globally aware Newsroom and see if it was any sort of improvement.

The program began with a top of the hour news update, which, indeed, featured actual news—the continuing uncertainty in Egypt, a just resolved hostage situation in France, and Wikileaks frontman/diplomatic provocateur Julian Assange seeking asylum with the Ecuadorian government. My spirits were raised.

And then, the first full report was on the US House’s continued deliberations on whether or not to censure Eric Holder for not giving them certain documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation. Technically this is cheating the premise of the program, but it was the distracting shiny ball story of the day and it was moderately important. I’ll give them the pass.

Jimmy Carter calling in to CNN’s “Newsroom International”

The Egypt situation was next, but to my mild annoyance, instead of going to a live or taped report from CNN’s excellent Egypt correspondent Ben Wedeman, or someone else reporting from the region at the time, the story was taken as a phone interview with former president Jimmy Carter (his nonprofit monitored some of the elections this past weekend). Some interesting questions were asked, but this sort of interview with someone who is a major player in a news story is best accompanied and prefaced by a report from a correspondent on the ground to contextualize the situation. A brief latter portion on the interview was spent discussing what the US should do in Syria.

Next, the day’s date as the UN’s “World Refugee Day” was noted, and a taped report from the previous year was shown detailing a group of Iraqis displaced into a refugee camp from their homes. The report seemed to have been cut short, and a discussion with the correspondent, CNN International anchor Michael Holmes followed. The discussion was alright but I wanted to see the full report.

Another live report on the House hearings took us around the half hour mark. Nothing new had actually happened by this point, so I’m not excusing this disruption. Put it in a news update. The program then shifted to Assange’s bid for asylum with the Ecuadorian  government, and a live report from a London based correspondent followed. The segment continued as CNN International anchor Hala Gorani gave context on the Assange saga. Nothing truly insightful here, but someone who hadn’t been keeping up with the situation would actually have learned something from the segment.

The next segment featured a business correspondent discussing the latest moves out of the Fed, followed by two short mentions; one of a report by TEPCO admitting a lack of preparation for the Fukishima nuclear disaster, and the second regarding  Aung San Suu Kyi receiving an Oxford award in person that she was awarded back during her time of house arrest. Both of these were pieces that could have warranted more coverage, but the hour is not limitless.

A story followed on Mexican-American children being forced to return to Mexico because of the deportation of their parents. This by itself is a worthy and vital story, but what irritated me was that, again, an anchor from CNN En Espanol was brought in to discuss this. This isn’t terrible, but if anything, this is the sort of directly-affects-actual-human-beings story that calls for a package report. What should be a deep look into how the immigration system is tearing apart families and children from their home is whittled to two people in a studio talking.

By far the best report of the hour was a package piece (finally) on the low expectations for the Rio+20 UN summit. Discussing how many notable world leaders such as Obama and UK PM David Cameron skipped the conference, correspondent Shasta Darlington explained how this meant that another lukewarm, watered down agreement was to be discussed and further watered down at the conference. This is the one of two times in that hour I learned something new, and something that I likely would not have come across later during the day while browsing the internet.

The second “learned something new” moment came right at the end of the program, when a taped report aired on Mexico City’s innovative trash for food exchange markets. Cool idea, and again something I likely would not have found out elsewhere without specifically looking for it.

So how would I rate the program? It is nowhere near as informative as CNN’s simulcast of Your World Today was (that program has since been replaced on CNN International as well), and certainly does not compare to what I have grown accustomed to on BBC World News, Al Jazeera, or watching a similar hour on CNN International. However, in fairness, it certainly was a significant improvement over CNN’s normal midday programming. No exhortations to comment on stories via twitter, no “user generated content”, no gimmicks to keep the viewer watching, simply the news stories.

The problem is that this is the result CNN/US produces when it is making a special effort. This should be an average hour of the Newsroom, not the one hour devoted to international stories. My other concern is that this program will be used as an excuse to suck dry other international pieces from other hours in the day (“oh a story about a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan? Let’s just put it in that random international hour”) for more talking head shoutfests and miscellany. The general lack of taped reports in favor of cheaper “live” pieces again reminded me of a Review piece I alluded to in another post about the decline of the video report.

Still, a good start, and if CNN’s management gets more inspired ideas like this, perhaps people will start watching the channel again. One can only hope.

The cover for the “Anthology” edition of the game, including the original and two standalone expansion packs.

In which I review an acclaimed WWII themed strategy title.

Company of Heroes, as those who follow the movements of video game publication more closely than I almost certainly know, was released back in 2006 to wide critical acclaim. Indeed, the game currently enjoys a 93/100 rating on the review aggregation site Metacritic.

While such glowing praise did play a role in my deciding to purchase the anthology, things are not always as they seem when it comes to well reviewed games. I remember getting the complete edition of Empire Earth II several years ago, largely on the basis of its favorable reception (79/100 on Metacritic) and found the game incredibly underwhelming. In short there were too many things the player was asked to do, and the package was not tied up together well enough. This does not even account for the fact that computer players seemed to do everything ten steps faster, even on lower difficulty levels. That game ended up being a more complex, less well executed Rise of Nations.

But I digress. The first hing you notice is that the initial mission of the Normandy campaign, the one from the original game, is on the beaches of D-Day. What I find unusual about this is that the D-Day invasion is typically portrayed as a climax to the European theater, the crescendo rather than the start of the story.

And so your adventure as virtual military tactician begins with getting this unit several feet onto the beach.

That first mission does provide a good enough introduction to the game but is also fairly passive. Sure, you have to dodge howitzer fire and MG bunkers, but the path of attack is pretty well defined, plus the mission is broken down into very obvious objectives (get X number of riflemen on the beach! Get some engineers to cut the barbed wire!). If you look closely enough at the above picture, you’ll notice the first of those mini-objectives.

The overall game mechanics are as fluid and realistic as promised. Unlike many older RTS games, gone—for the most part—are the unrealistic abstractions that older graphics/physics systems demanded. Playing Rise of Nations in the modern era made these problems clear; troops will stand and fire as if nothing’s happening in the face of machine gun fire, while howitzer shots would explode on top of infantry and the fireball would be accompanied by a simple drop in the health bar.

Artillery shells wreaking havoc on a group of infantry.

Those small touches are not neglected here. Machine gun fire affects infantry movement, making them crawl more slowly along the terrain or retreat to the safety of a sandbag. Artillery and bomb fire also are rendered in a manner closer to the real world. First of all, they have a reasonable degree of inaccuracy that depends on distance from the target, and second of all, direct hits from these bombs actually eliminate units, who in turn are tossed about the landscape in motions realistic and disconcerting alike. One quickly notices how the game earned its “M for Mature” rating. The other change is in resource acquisition. Instead of hurriedly building farms and dispatching civilians to chop down forests and operate oil rigs, resources accrue from resource points, different sectors of the map that infantry can secure.

The other part of that are the cut scenes, which are a typical mix of choreographed game play and separately drawn sequences. While far from a cinematic experience inanof themselves, the cut scenes do immerse the player in the missions, creating the feel of an interactive episode of Band of Brothers at times. For the record, the first campaign does cover some of the same ground as the TV-adapted book.

The skirmish modes I actually have not played frequently, mostly because the campaign missions are engaging but also because an RTS that is solely combat based, like Company of Heroes, for some reason loses a bit of its “kick” of excitement without a clearly defined set of objectives to defeat the enemy. This is as opposed to the older Rise of Nations, which spans a wide breadth of history and gives the player other things to do aside from capturing territory points. This will likely change as I actually finish the campaigns.

That one quibble aside, Company of Heroes is as good as previously told. It is a fast, fluid, and free flowing RTS that you probably already have if you follow the genre closely.

Final Focus

Graphics: 8/10- even 6 years later (in fairness, 3 years since the last expansion) Company of Heroes manages to strike a great balance between high performance and high detail graphics. One can spot slight flaws in the drawings of troops and armor, but one won’t dwell on them. Explosions are well detailed and shaded, and buildings are destroyed almost brick by brick, not with artificial animations.

Gameplay 7.5/10- the resource points concept is a smart way to alter the paradigm of RTS games, and it is actually executed well. Too often games are filled with smart ideas that are fouled up at some point. This is not one of them.

Replay Value: 8.5/10- the anthology is jam-packed with the content of the original game and its two standalone expansion, from campaigns to factions. I expect to spend at least another few months on fresh content in the game, and this is before accounting mods.

Overall: 8/10- Good game, even if it treads on the well worn tracks of the World War II theme. What it lacks in the originality of subject matter is quickly made up with the originality of gameplay execution. 

Citizens in ‘Sim City 3000’ about to stir up trouble. Perhaps a manner for citizens to render judgement on mayoral  leadership other than rioting would be useful?

In which I discuss the absence of politics from many city-building games.

Politics is a topic that often does not get a star turn in videogames. To some extent this is understandable; politics divides people, and games are meant to, in many ways, bring people together and entertain them. Which of course, explains the popularity of first person shooters and war-based real time strategy games.

That flourish of sarcasm aside, it is remarkable that the one genre of games that explicitly puts the player in the role of a government executive—the city builder—so rarely features politics. In the Sim City games, there is the concept of the Mayor Rating, but the accountability the mayor faces to the citizens are carried through blunt, non electoral means. At earlier stages, people simply ‘vote with their feet’ and leave the city, while riots begin to appear at lower mayor ratings, and running too high on debt will lead to summary removal from the city.

And of course, don’t forget the “city opinion polls” featured in ‘Sim City 4.’ Again, these polls were for the most part simply suggestions.

What is missing from all of these accountability mechanisms is the concept of regular elections, which seems unusual when you consider the fact that SimNation is ostensibly a western liberal democracy. Sim City 3000 did feature the concept of petitioners—various interest groups that would come to the mayor’s office demanding various changes—a casino here, a commuter shuttle there, and I very much missed them in Sim City 4. Still, even that iteration did not include regular political and electoral action.

But why is this? There are two obvious reasons. The first is that any game that tries to simulate a real world process, from city building to transportation planning and any business enterprise that can have the word tycoon appended to it, requires a level of simplification to make it an engaging game in the first place. This is why things like community board meetings have been omitted from most of the Sim City games. The other probable reason is that urban politics, especially in the United States (where the Sim City games were developed) is an unholy cauldron of class and race, both of which are controversial by themselves, and even more toxic to attempt to portray in the context of a video game. A third reason, might be the inherent weirdness of a mayor that also can play god having to face elections, as captured in this College Humor video from last year.

Ever since I started playing the Sim City games—back in the early 2000s with the “Network Edition” of Sim City 2000, I have wondered about this lack of politics in the series, but usually thought that it would be unworkable to include a decent political simulation in the game anyway. Then I picked up a copy of the excellent Tropico 3 a few years ago. The game, for the uninitiated, sets you as the leader of a fictional Caribbean island nation and marries the building and economic management of a conventional city-building game with the political power of a typical real-time strategy game. While the game does allow one to lead in the manner of a classic ICC-warranted autocrat, stifling press freedom and having “eliminated” citizens who dare to dissent, the game also heavily nudges the player towards less blunt methods of political influence.

The savvy ‘Tropico’ leader would do well to check this panel regularly. On the right are approval ratings from the major island factions.

And this is where things get interesting. In the world of Tropico 3, there are multiple political factions—ranging from your classic Marxists to business oriented leaders and religious devotees that are affected by—and react to—each and every major decision you take, from the building of a cathedral to the prevailing island wage. Every so often citizens will demand elections, and while a leader can rebuff this request, such action usually will be accompanied by a drop in citizen happiness and an increase in rebel activity.

The place from where El Presidente’s oratory originates.

The game gives the player the option of conducting an election with a speech. The game gives three aspects in crafting the speech; an issue, such as foreign relations or corn shortages, to address, a specific faction to praise (which raises one’s approval rating among the faction), and a promise to make (such as higher wages or lower crime). All of these inputs are turned into a natural sounding speech by the game, played over the radio for the entire nation to hear. After a short interlude the actual election occurs, when your advisers give you a heads up estimate on the pending vote totals. The player is then given the option of sweetening the election results, or accepting the legitimate vote total. Fudging the results does not always work, and carries negative political consequences such as substantially increased rebel activity and international opprobrium (and the loss of aid dollars). Add all of this to the numerous random political events in the game and one has a very detailed yet playable political simulation.

So what can the non-themed city builder, such as the next iteration of the Sim City series, take from this? Obviously the options to kill, imprison, and bribe political opponents probably wouldn’t be realistic for a game ostensibly set in a “Western Liberal Democracy” (unless that democracy is a Mediterranean European country or a particularly corrupt US state), but the implementation of factions, random political events, and elections themselves, is all good.

While more nationally oriented, this is a good jumping off point for factions in a city-building game. Snipped from an online power-point presentation.

First to factions. In the American urban political landscape, there are typically several main interest groups, including real estate developers, public sector unions (perhaps divided between police/fire and all other public sector employees), environmentalists, the working class and poor, among others. The sizes of these factions would directly relate to the population makeup of the city (poorer residents more likely to be populist pro-union types, richer professionals more likely to be pro-business, etc.), and they would regularly complain to city hall, similar to the petitioners in Sim City 3000. Mayor ratings would have a global aspect, followed by a detailed rating of each faction based on specific policies carried out.

The game could give the player a map like this with polling data to improve campaigning.

Elections would occur every so often (perhaps every 10 game years to allow players long enough to actually change city policies, or be called at the discretion of the mayor, similar to a PM in a parliamentary system) and feature speeches with similar structure to the Tropico 3 implementation, and perhaps would even include debates with the opponent (the opponent would be drawn from the ranks of city businesses, unions, or the vast bureaucracy). Polling data would be provided, and perhaps the game could include campaign actions and allow the player to make subtle improvements to “swing” neighborhoods in the week before an election—increasing hospital funding, putting more beat police on the street—to nudge poll totals. More devious mayors could have the city police tail and harass the political opponent at the risk of voter backlash, legal trouble, and negative press.

A badly trained/funded police department, for example, could botch a stop like this, creating a substantial political problem for the mayor.

Another aspect that would add an interesting twist to the game are randomly generated political events based on actions you take as mayor. While these have existed in limited forms in previous Sim City games—going all ‘austerity package’ on your hospital system usually led to scrubs going on the street—they did not have much of a political component, and were predictable. What I suggest instead are more unpredictable events. For example, a particularly business-friendly administration may risk being hit with a developer bribing scandal, or a badly funded police department has a higher probability of committing a racial profiling/excessive force type incident. All of these random scandals would leave a mayor with several potential reactions, all with both predictable and unpredictable effects that would depend on the political makeup of the city. Add to all of this an independent media landscape that is also capable of swaying the electorate and one has a recipe for stimulating game play.

All of this would require substantial developer time, and almost certainly won’t make it into the upcoming Sim City. That said, the addition of a full-fledged, moddable political simulation would make for a more realistic, multifaceted game with even longer replay value.

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