October 31, 2008

Argentina & the Mainstream Media

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted on the blog, iVoryTowerz.)

by Rick Rockwell

The issue of how mainstream media frame reality and change the political landscape through their choices doesn’t end at the U.S. border. No. Recent experience reinforces the belief that this is an issue from here to Tierra del Fuego. And the problem flows east and west, globally too.

But let’s get back to Tierra del Fuego.

If you go there, you won’t find many imprints from the media, of any type. But if you do — likely they’ve flowed from Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires.

One of the topics the mainstream media in Buenos Aires are trying to avoid is the one they like the least: media reform. The government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has set a goal to rewrite the country’s telecommunication laws by the end of her term in 2011. To that end, the government convened an international conference in Buenos Aires to gather ideas for the reform. (The author was among the invited and addressed the conference.) Hundreds of Argentina’s elite attended: members of Argentina’s Congress; bureaucrats; lawyers; influential academics and writers. Speakers from seven countries (including Spain and the U.S.) spoke to the group and the conference was conducted in three languages. Yet beyond public television, only one national network carried any news about the conference. And not one newspaper mentioned it.

If you depended upon the mainstream media, the conference and its message of reform didn’t exist or meant very little.

But if deciding for citizens that media reform is not necessary through ignoring debate and discussion of the topic, the media barons of Argentina show exactly why such reform is necessary.

Much like in the U.S., the electronic media are in the hands of a powerful oligarchy of businesses. The players are different. But they tend to act in familiar ways. Beyond the corporate media’s concentrated economic and political power, another concern is whether these corporations have Argentina’s best interests at heart or whether their international origins and need for increasing profits trump all.

For instance, Argentina's market is dominated by Grupo Clarin, one of the most powerful multimedia concerns in the region, which owns a television network, the Spanish-language world's most popular newspaper website, and the most circulated newspaper in Latin America. Although owned by Argentines, Grupo Clarin has significant minority ownership from abroad: Goldman Sachs in New York holds a key stake in the multimedia company. And many in Buenos Aires believe Grupo Clarin acts in the best interests of its investors in New York first.

Then there's the television network owned by Telefonica of Spain, which is also involved in cell phones in Latin America and Europe. One of Argentina's television networks is also controlled by a holding company that when you strip away the various shell enterprises is run by a Mexican businessman who lives in Miami. And Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men, who owns Mexico's phone giant Telmex is also on the scene, controlling large swaths of the wired and wireless phone networks, and the internet service providers that are a natural outgrowth of such businesses.

What these giants of the media world are trying to avoid is a 21-point plan drawn up by civic groups and the Fernandez government. The plan would limit the control of huge media giants and promote diverse ownership and pluralism in the electronic media.

Will the reform work? Does it have a chance?

If the big media have any say, such reform doesn't exist. So why worry? Be happy. We now return you to your choice of corporate media entertainment channel.

(Graphic by saguayo of Mexico City, D.F., via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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October 30, 2008

Late-Night TV Satires and the 2008 Election

by Anna Waterfield

Since the official beginning of the presidential campaign several months ago, John McCain and Barack Obama seem to be forefront on everyone's thoughts, including that beloved collection of late-night TV satirists. With the crucial day less than a week away, any show dealing with political satire is guaranteed to center the majority of its jokes on the upcoming election. Why? Because there are people like newfound celebrity vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who make it almost too easy!

Anyone who considers him or herself an avid fan of political satire, however, has surely noticed the dearth of reference to Sen. Obama (D-IL) or Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, from the beginning of September through the end of last week, the Republicans were the target of 475 jokes just by Jay Leno and David Letterman. Obama and Biden, on the other hand, fell victim only 69 times. Throughout the month of September, John Stewart and Steven Colbert collectively joked about the Republicans 211 times, as opposed to a meager 29 jokes about Obama and Biden. That means the Republicans have been ridiculed about 7 times more frequently than the Democrats.

This could be for various reasons. The first possibility is that the Democratic ticket is a relatively dull one. In contrast to Palin's glitzy glamour-queen folksiness, Biden is just another aging Caucasian man in politics. When it comes to choosing who to spoof, Gov. Palin (R-AK) is clearly the more fascinating subject.

Another possibility, is that there simply is not a lot to make fun of about the Democrats . For the most part, Obama has consistently come off as calm, cool, and collected. The weak link in this argument, however, is Biden and some of his less-than-impressive remarks that have been passed up by the media vultures. If Palin had made Biden's recent comment, "Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television" after the stock market crash in 1929 (Herbert Hoover was in office and television did not yet exist) we would never hear the end of it; however, since it was Biden who made the slip-up, we've hardly heard it at all.

The logical explanation for why political satire has strayed away from the Democrats this election, is the race issue. A good majority of comedic writers are left-leaning Caucasians that in their own self-interest might be refraining from making even a reference to Obama's race for fear of a public backlash. A joke with only a mild racist connotation has the potential to be blown out of proportion or put in the wrong context.

Has this tendency to bash McCain and Palin helped the Democrats? It's a good possibility. Late-night "fake news" shows are more entertaining than regular news, so at least some fragment of the American public is likely to choose John Stewart over Anderson Cooper, and thus only see the political campaign through the eyes of those who consider the McCain camp an easy target. For instance, anyone who has watched Saturday Night Live recently knows that Tina Fey's impression of Palin makes her out to be more of a joke than an actual candidate for the vice presidency of the United States. One major upside, if the Republicans do win the election is that we'll have a very entertained nation for the next four years. Otherwise, comedians are going to have to learn how to toe the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate when dealing with issues of race as they adapt to an Obama presidency.

(Political graphic by Frederick; you can see more of Frederick's graphics at the blogs Guys from Area 51 and MCCS1977. This graphic is made available through a Creative Commons license. To see one of the latest satires from NBC's Saturday Night Live, please check below.)

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October 29, 2008

A Film Called W.

by Dan Sweeney

The first thing I noticed upon walking into the theater to watch W. was the small size of the audience. The movie first came out on October 17th and only a week later there were only eight people in the theater to watch it! This illustrates a definite lack of interest toward George W. Bush and his administration. The timing to show this film could not have been better, due to all the election hype and more people than ever becoming involved in the political process. However, this film shows that people today are not willing to pay money to watch a political drama and are still not fully involved within the democratic process. On the other hand, people might not have seen it, because they dislike George W. Bush so much that they do not even want to watch a satire on him. This points out that the film medium does not have nearly the political persuasive power as the other types of media out there.

The star of the film is Josh Brolin, as President George W. Bush. He does a great job imitating the president's speech and mannerisms. He quickly draws the viewer into believing that he is actually George W. Bush, even though he physically resembles Sen. John Kerry quite a bit. The other actors did just as well imitating the respective personas of the Bush administration. These personas are the only real comedy in the film, because they act in the way that they are stereotyped to be. (An old man in a suit, two rows behind me, was the only one who laughed multiple times throughout the film and mainly when these personas such as Karl Rove appeared.) Although the director portrayed these people in a comedic light, their perspectives on the war in Iraq should have been seen by the public before the war, especially Colin Powell's.

The trailer misleads people as to the genre of the movie. The movie is not a comedy, but more of a drama and biography. On a deeper level, one could argue that the trailer misleads the viewers as much as President Bush has misled this country. The film shows President Bush's life from his college days up to 2003 in the middle of the Iraq War. It follows his life truthfully taking only a few creative twists. Surprisingly, the film shows many aspects of his life that the public might not know about him and should know about him, with a major aspect being the relationship between George W. Bush and his father. However much that the audience might hate the story, the cinematography is incredible and explains why this film managed to achieve such rave reviews. The director, Oliver Stone, utilized incredible cinematographic effects that ended up being much better than the actual plot. Overall, the movie added a different perspective on the life of George W. Bush and his administration that should not be ignored. Although it might not be worth the ten dollars to see it in theaters, it is definitely worth renting. After watching this, you, like me might just end up feeling sorry for the guy.

(Promotional photo for the film from Lionsgate Studios. The film is rated PG-13. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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October 28, 2008

California's Proposition 8 TV Ads

by Alissa Scheller

On May 15, 2008, California became the second state (after Massachusetts) to legalize same-sex marriage. So called “activist” judges, ruled that statutes limiting marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Since June 17, same-sex marriages have been recognized by the state of California. Proposition 8 is a ballot initiative that would introduce an amendment to the California Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Both the Yes on 8 and No on 8 campaigns have used media outlets, such as television ads, to promote their viewpoints. One television ad sponsored by Let California Ring features a woman going to through various obstacles to reach her wedding, and concludes with the statement: “What if you couldn’t marry the person you love?” Other No on 8 television ads parody the Mac vs. PC ads, and focus on how leaving the state constitution as it is would have no effect on traditional families.

Interestingly enough, few of the No on 8 ads actually depict gay people — the very people the campaign is fighting for. The ads mainly feature heterosexual couples with gay children, friends, or family members urging voters to ensure that all people are treated equally. One ad has two women (who are very clearly not a lesbian couple) talking about the issue. Another has Superintendent of Schools, Jack O’Connell, telling voters that Prop. 8 has “nothing to do with schools or kids” (after a Yes on 8 ad asserted — falsely — that if the proposition failed, schools would be required to teach children about same-sex marriage). The entire ad does not mention the words “gay,” “lesbian” or “same-sex.”

One Yes on 8 ad features a child telling her mother that she learned about same-sex marriage in school (the impossible circumstance to which the No on 8 ad with Superintendent O’Connell was referring). Another shows San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, proclaiming to a celebratory crowd (after same-sex marriage was legalized in May) that “It’s going to happen whether you like it or not,” and later — again, falsely — claiming that if Prop. 8 fails, its supporters will be sued for their personal beliefs. Again, there are no depictions of actual gay people.

I think that this exclusion of gay couples from the television ads is because it could easily backfire — use words like “discrimination” or “exclusion” and people are more willing to be on your side. Use words like “gay marriage” and, well, a lot of people will disagree with you. However, by not showing gay people in their ads about gay people, it seems to me as if the campaigns don’t want gay people to become the focus of an issue about gay people.

To be quite honest, as a Californian, I fervently hope that Prop. 8 fails, but I think both campaigns have made mistakes in their television ads. I understand the reasoning behind the exclusions of gays from television ads on both sides — to make the ads more appealing to heterosexual voters — but I find it interesting that in the ads, Californians rarely get to hear from the main benefactors of same-sex marriage.

(The photo of demonstrators in favor of gay rights and gay marriage was taken in San Francisco; the photo is by crichton91 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. For more on the gay rights debate, please see: "The Story, the Truth and Fred Phelps." Also, please see the iVoryTowerz blog's "Isn't Love All You Need?")

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October 27, 2008

The Media Cover for Obama

by Camila Perez Gabilondo

With the presidential election only eight days away, Senator Barack Obama decided to leave the campaign trail for two days to visit his ill grandmother in his home state of Hawaii. This is a historical occurrence since no presidential candidate before him had abandoned the campaign this close to an election. Obama was absent at his scheduled rallies in Wisconsin and Iowa this past week, leaving his running mate Senator Joseph Biden and his surrogates on the trail. This could have been a chance for candidate Senator John McCain to make the most of the final stretch of the campaign in his favor, but Obama had an important player on his side: the media.

Thanks to media coverage of his personal hardship, Obama's absence was not felt at all. Over the last several days, countless articles on his grandmother's condition and the tragedy it entails for the presidential candidate were published in diverse media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Not to mention that his ads continued to run. We could say that he was just as present, or even more so, in the media than if he had actually gone to his rallies as planned.

Besides, the emotional note that many journalists included in their coverage of the story certainly helped strengthen Obama's image as a sensitive family man, as well as inspire sympathy in the public. Obama was quoted numerous times saying that these were probably his grandmother's last days, and in an interview with Good Morning America, he stated: "Without going through the details too much, she's gravely ill. We weren't sure and I'm still not sure whether she makes it to Election Day." Most articles also included quotes of Obama mentioning his grandmother's importance in his life during the campaign, or even the fact that he affectionately calls her "toot", the short form of the Hawaiian word for grandparent, "tutu."

The media have managed to make most of us sympathetic with Barack Obama's situation, and his current personal struggle has, even if mildly, tugged at our heart strings. If this has not helped Obama's campaign, it has certainly not harmed it.

(Political graphic © copyright Comandante Agi and used with permission; you can see more of the comandante's political graphics at his blogs, PIME and Guys from Area 51.)

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October 21, 2008

The Story, The Truth, and Fred Phelps

by Emily Norton

In the United States, it’s well understood that the media have a vast amount of power. With enough thorough coverage, any group can gather momentum for their cause. Obviously, the effects of this are not always positive (read: terrorism). Fred Phelps is a perfect example of the ramifications resulting from media manipulation.

Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), Phelps is the leader of a gang of intermarried Christian extremists whose aim is to teach America that it is a doomed nation and to spread hatred for multiple groups (namely homosexuals). As one of their key goals is to gain publicity for their message of extreme prejudice and damnation, the group has assumed drastic measures to gain attention. The WBC has enjoyed extensive broadcasting of their highly disruptive picketing of soldier and celebrity funerals, as well as television interviews, and notice for their outrageous websites, entitled GodHatesFags.com and GodHatesAmerica.com (to name a few). Worse yet is that the 71 members are passing on their profoundly twisted message to their young children. With the attention they are getting and the way their parent-to-child system is structured, it seems unlikely that the foundation of the Westboro Baptist Church will be shaken anytime soon.

Undeniably, a primary focus of the media is to spread the truth. But what happens if that truth has an overriding negative effect? Although the Fred Phelps story is highly interesting and profitable, its widespread coverage only perpetuates the life of a hate group and extends an already tainted misconception of the Christian religion.

Consider, part of the stock market collapse was due to the panic produced by the media; it was not until the public discovered that the market was declining that they cashed in all at once and caused the greatest damage. Therefore, is truth always good? Is a “good story” always worth its consequences? Although I can posit no perfect solution or answer to these questions, I would hope that in the future either the media more aggressively fight manipulation, or the terrifying and detestable truths they share would only incite social activism rather than panic or hate.

(The image is from godhatesfags.com which allows the free reproduction of its media materials.)

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October 20, 2008

Internet: Anonymity is the Veil of Malice

by Althea Avice de Guzman

One could argue that the internet is the most prolific medium and being thus, allows it to aggregate an immeasurable amount of information, while at the same time enabling access to everyone. Also, there are those who consider it the most decentralized system that exists, which means that freedom is virtually unrestricted. Such freedom is both a blessing and a curse because while yes it does foster growth, innovation and efficiency, there is always the opportunity to abuse freedom.

Web 2.0 arose from a growing sense of personalization within the internet. People now had a medium to project themselves — their personalities, interests and opinions to anyone and everyone who was willing to hear them. A prime example of this kind of social networking is Facebook, where one is given a template to personalize and share. In video sharing, YouTube allows for material ranging from "how-to-sew" tutorials to music videos to political statements. Also in existence are blogs, the soil of thought that allow for any opinion to take root and thrive. Blogs promote free speech with the option of anonymity, and yet with all of these trends that intend to foster creativity and collaboration, one must realize that as Peter Parker's uncle would say, "with great power must also come great responsibility."

Sites like Facebook and Myspace can victimize users as much as they connect them, with the intention of the user as the only determinant. YouTube videos can stream degrading material and blogs encourage anonymous free speech, where accountability is non-existent. Hence, the evolution of Gossip 2.0 should have been anticipated as a shoot off for this kind of freedom. Derived from Web 2.0, this kind of free speech is mostly patronizing and abusive to the point where even Google refuses to place support ads on the site. Why exactly is this the case?

Because anonymity is the veil of malice. While free speech is integral to democracy, an additional quality of anonymity permits harsh critique without fear of personal backlash. Is there a cost for such a freedom? Only to those victimized.

Hiding behind a computer screen, a person is no longer subject to the moral standards of society. He is thus bound only to his own ideals and with the results from this site, one may assume individual morality is fallible without the regulation of fear.

Epitomizing the effects of such a shield from accountability are the posts on juicycampus.com. Truly an overnight phenomenon at American University, the school was registered only two weeks ago and already has been the most active campus this month among 500 others. Threads on this site range from "biggest whore" to "hottest guys", using superlatives to describe people, or even starting threads with names and having them discussed.

The situation implies much about human nature: an inescapable sense of insecurity that can be overturned only by the degradation of others, an innate maliciousness suppressed only by societal demands, and ultimately the capacity of evil that can be reached without fear as a restraint.

So, while yes the internet has contributed to its share of miracles; it also has the capability to be used malevolently, like through cyber-terrorism (but that's another story). Think about it, what would you say if you knew there were no consequences? Fear is the true master of human nature. And anonymity on the internet with no accountability exacerbates the worst.

(Cartoon by London's Hugh MacLeod, the author of gapingvoid.com, used through a Creative Commons license.)

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October 16, 2008

Outside the Box

by Liz Marjollet

From a very young age, television affects a majority of Americans. Around the toddler age, there are all sorts of educational shows, from Sesame Street, to Dora the Explorer and Fireman Sam. There are now even channels dedicated just to children's programming, such as PBS's Sprout, which has programs running from six in the morning until twelve o'clock in the afternoon. After this age, when kids start to chose their own programs, cable TV offers never-ending options. There are channels dedicated to solely playing music videos and programs pertaining to music, such as MTV and VH1, while there are also a seemingly infinite number of channels pertaining to every sport imaginable, if you have the right cable. With all the options, it seems that today's youth are dangerously close to becoming permanent fixtures in front of their TVs.

And yet, there are still some Americans out there who do not have that magic box or cable. My two sisters, brother, and I all grew up without cable or satellite TV. Growing up, it seemed like we were at a disadvantage. But looking back, I'm not necessarily sure that's true. Sure there were plenty of times, especially in middle and high school, when it felt like everyone was talking about some music video or other, but even without cable we still had the possibility to watch all the network shows, like Lost, Grey's Anatomy, American Idol, or Survivor. Yet, I never felt the need to be home on a certain day at a certain time to watch a specific show. As a result, I watched very little television.

However, having encountered the completely new atmosphere that is dorm life, I am starting to slowly fall into a pattern of watching more television. I have started to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because that is what everyone around me likes to watch. And I enjoy them. But I still do not need to get my daily fix of TV.

Despite my feeling like a very small fish in a pond full of cable and satellite users, the U.S. Census Bureau says that as of 2006, there were still 37 million homes in the U.S. without satellite or cable. Although, as we approach 2009, with the new regulation requiring all households to switch over to digital signals, that number has probably shrunk drastically.

With the never-ending options available, some may argue that today's youth will be less interested in reading or interacting with their peers. Having observed from the outside most of my life, I agree with this argument, unless parents take control and regulate what their kids watch on TV and when. For most, the television offers a break or distraction for parents to have a moment for themselves, and I don't think this is a bad thing, I just think that it shouldn't be the focus of a parent's day. Kids shouldn't grow up on TV. TV should be a supplement that they are allowed to watch within reason.

The problem with today's society seems to be that many children don't want to read as much, but would rather watch television. I think part of this is the result of all of the options that television has to offer. As Sen. Barack Obama said during the last presidential debate, "parents need to turn off the television and start instilling that thirst for knowledge that kids need."

(Photo by Clara Natoli of Rome, Italy via morgueFile.)

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October 15, 2008

The American Media: The Best Friend of the People

by Ali Golomb

The American media, now more then ever, are the people's best friend. With the United States engaged in an unpopular war, experiencing a downward shift in the economy, and increased government spending, a many are turning to the media with their questions concerning where exactly their tax dollars are going.

On October 7, 2008, a week after Congress' bailout plan was passed, The New York Times ran an article entitled, "A.I.G. Takes its Session in Hot Seat." It reported, that shortly after A.I.G. received a government loan of 85 billion dollars, it took its top agents on a $442,000 resort trip. The notion of A.I.G. using taxpayer dollars to take its top agents to a resort, when the company was in serious financial turmoil, was extremely unsettling for many Americans.

With many Americans out of jobs, defaulting on mortgage payments, and struggling to make ends meet, having their taxpayer dollars spent on a losing war overseas isn't a priority. On October 13, 2008, The Washington Post ran an article entitled, "Balancing Defense and the Budget." The article reported on various companies that were receiving millions of dollars in government contracts. In addition, it showed "the past eight years, the Pentagon's defense budget has jumped 86 percent, from $361 billion to $672 billion."

The media's reporting of exactly where American taxpayer dollars are going is provoking a great deal of anger. The American people's collective anger is leading to reforms in business practices. On October 14, 2008, The Washington Post reported Congress making reform progress already in the article, "U.S. Forces Nine Major Banks To Accept Partial Nationalization." The article said that companies that accept government loans, "could not offer their executives new retirement packages, though the old packages would remain intact." This means, tax payer dollars would not go into the pockets of top executive agents, but would be spread throughout, for the betterment of the entire company. This would result in a more favorable situation for the majority of middle class workers.

As the American people read and watch media for updates on the status of the United States, it provokes many emotions. The American people's reaction to what they see and hear from the media is driving Congress to create and pass policies more favorable to the people. The media are serving the people's interest by reporting to them what is happening in current affairs. The media are not actually changing policies in the United States. Rather, the media are encouraging the American people to act. They are reporting the facts, and the American people are then deciding what they want to do with the information. Thus far, the majority of the American people are disapproving of the direction of the United States, and Congress is listening.

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

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October 9, 2008

Bloomberg & the Strength of the Media

by Brian Chang

It's been ages since the days when the news media worked as conveyors of balanced information, not the corporate profit maximizers they are today. As the news media began to emerge a powerful machine, they started wielding ever-growing influence throughout society, especially in the field of politics. Now, the news media generally work to best preserve their interests in government by relaying convincing, subjective information to the public and directly playing a hand in politics.

The regulation of information revealed to the public has worked wonders for the agendas of news media executives. News networks are powerful in the sense that they possess a wealth of information. With this wealth however, they limit some information while stressing other information. By doing so, these news networks possess the power to manipulate and misinform the public. The effects of this ability to sway the public have been observed from the large public support for an invasion of Iraq prior to the war. Many citizens seriously believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terror attacks, while others were sure Saddam was a close ally of Osama Bin Laden.

The media's involvement in politics isn't new. According to Mediachannel.org, "media companies are among the highest donors to political campaigns" and "make up some of the most powerful lobbying interests in the capitol, leveraging their power as opinion-shapers." With strong influence and ties to the government, media corporations are directly able to shape policy views and push for laws and policies that favor the industry. Given the media industry's influence in politics, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent undertakings behind his search for a third term further questions whether the news media have become too strong.

Mayors in New York City by law are only allowed to serve two terms. Mayor Bloomberg, citing his skills in economic and business, desires a third term to take on the economic crisis in New York City. He has tried to persuade city council officials to allow for a temporary third term without the consent of the voting public. As unsettling as this sounds, this wasn't the most shocking news. According to The New York Times, to gain legitimacy and support for his third term, Bloomberg privately met with Rupert Murdoch (owner of The New York Post), Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, and Mortimer B. Zuckerman (owner of The New York Daily News). These three media moguls, alongside other business leaders, have recently shown their support for the mayor in his candidacy.

The image is startling. Wait, a politician, a mayor, going before news media executives to ask for support? Isn't it the media corporations that traditionally go before government to ask for favors and support? How powerful have the news media become that politicians must (ironically) keep media executives satisfied and content?

The news media have always been seen as the middleman between politics and the public. This no longer seems the case. With the media so embedded in the world of politics, how do we keep media and politics in their respective roles? This leads to the question, have the news media gone too far beyond their role?

(The photo of Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City is from 2007; the photo is by laurence.thurion of Paris, France via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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October 8, 2008

The Benefits of Computer Games

by Charlie Wilcox

Sid Meier. Will Wright. John McCormack. These are household names in the gaming community. But their accomplishments and inspirations remain relatively unknown to the rest of the world. This is because video games have gained a bad rap with controversial releases like Grand Theft Auto and Doom. But video gaming is actually very good for you.

Most studies on how video games are good for you focus on shooter and driving games. This is because these types of games are the ones that sell the most. They are also the game genres that get the widest coverage outside the gaming community. First-person shooter and driving games are beneficial because they help improve reflexes and force gamers to react quickly in intense situations.

A BBC study found that "by forcing players to simultaneously juggle a number of varied tasks, action video game playing pushes the limits of three rather different aspects of visual attention."

However, these are not the only types of games that benefit players. Strategy games also offer many benefits, but may not be as obvious to the average consumer. Games such as the Civilization series, improve a player’s critical thinking skills because the mechanics of the game make players multitask and manage complex situations at the same time. Specifically, the Civilization series has a gamer manage their economy, diplomacy, as well as their military at once. From my own experience of playing strategy games for over ten years, I can say that this can get very difficult, especially when playing online with other people. I have even lost a game due to my inability to manage all that was going on.

Strategy games also make gamers analyze complex situations to find the best way to counter their opponent. This is helped by the frequent use of a ‘rock-paper-scissors’ style for combat advantages. In this system, one type of unit may have an advantage over another, but it will also have a weakness against a third type of unit. A good example of this comes from Runescape, a tactical role-playing game. The combat in Runescape is set up so the three classes, melee fighters, rangers, and mages, have an edge over one of the other classes and are weak against another class. For instance, mages have an advantage over melee fighters but are weak against rangers. This forms a combat triangle and forces the player to analyze the forces of his opponent in order to build up the best counter against it. The rock-paper-scissors system is common in many other games, such as the Total War series, and Fire Emblem.

The final and most important way that less combat-focused games are good for you is that they can give you glimpses of the real world. While obviously not perfect representations of what goes on in the world, they provide simplified models that are easy to understand and can inspire children to explore that area as a future career or study option. Tycoon games like Railroad Tycoon and Capitalism get kids interested in business and help them learn about basic economics such as supply and demand. Games like SimCity teach about urban planning and developing a city. My own experience with grand strategy games such as those developed by Paradox Interactive is what got me interested in international relations and is what led me to go into international studies in school. The variety of games developed by Paradox Interactive such as their Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron immerse the player in the time period covered by the game. These have also been the games that I have found the most enjoyable with my great interest in history. These games most accurately portray the historical systems at work in their games, such as the Reformation to the nationalism of the nineteenth century.

Clearly, the genre of strategy games offer the greatest benefits to those that play them and should be praised as tools to improve critical thinking and management skills.

(Photo by Tojosan of St. Peters, MO via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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October 7, 2008

Swing States & Presidential Elections

by Logan Ruppel

In relatively close elections, as the past few have certainly been, it is the swing states — the battlegrounds that end up determining who becomes the next president of the United States. We all know which regions traditionally vote Democratic: the Northeast, the West Coast, and some of the Midwest, while the South and non-coastal West tend to vote Republican. Of course, there will always be exceptions to these generalizations with new swing states popping up every election, along with some perennials such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Due to the ever-shifting political landscape, states running tight races just an election ago can turn definitively to one party or the other in just a few years or even months. For example, New Hampshire was solidly won by President George W. Bush in 2000, while in 2004, Sen. John Kerry narrowly squeezed out a victory there. New Hampshire's erratic voting over the past few decades is largely because its voters tend to be socially liberal like the rest of the Northeast, but also fiscally conservative and libertarian.

The political alignments of states can change drastically even in the few critical months before an election, as is the case of Pennsylvania in the 2008 election. Early in the race, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had a slight advantage in Pennsylvania. However, just a few months later, in October, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has gradually gained enough strength to sit on a comfortable nine-point lead in the polls. It's possible that due to Obama's loss in the Pennsylvania primary to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), it simply took some time for him to build support in the state.

Ohio has been an influential swing state for over half a century, voting for the winning candidate in every election since 1948, except for 1960. Ohio's battleground status is mainly due to its 20 electoral votes and relatively moderate electorate. This means that there is a significant number of independent voters and those with party affiliations don't always vote that way.

Florida has been another important swing state in recent elections, most notably in the 2000 election. I don't even want to get into the outrageousness of the Florida voting system and the Supreme Court's highly partisan decision to forgo a recount. The end result of these shenanigans was a margin of victory in Florida for Bush of only 537 votes more than Gore that decided the election. It is important to realize that a recount would have involved more than 100,000 votes, a figure that could easily have changed the outcome of the election.

The current battleground states in the 2008 election are Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, all a bit tilted for Obama, along with Missouri and Indiana which slightly favor McCain. All of these states' polls are within the 3% margin of error, meaning that they could actually be tied or barely favor the other candidate. Make sure to keep a close eye on the races in these eight states, because they will make the vital difference in deciding whether America trusts McCain or Obama with steering our country in a better direction than it has been going for the past eight years.

(The graphic shows a map of the United States, adjusted for population size with a county-by-county breakout of the vote during the 2004 presidential election. The map's colors are in what have become the traditional colors depicting Republican votes in red and Democratic votes in blue. The map is © copyright M. T. Gastner, C. R. Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman of the University of Michigan, who make this map and others available through a Creative Commons license.)

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October 3, 2008

Biden & Palin Star in the Only Vice Presidential Debate

by Zack Huhn

Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) entered the stage and met for the first time at the vice presidential debate in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 2. Palin was immediately confident and seemingly enthusiastic to be there. I felt that Biden was initially rather reserved, and he allowed Palin to control the first third of the debate; although he eventually kicked it in gear and overwhelmed Palin with facts and figures on everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the economic crisis that our nation is facing today. He ruthlessly called the governor out on Sen. John McCain’s voting record and policies — when Palin tried to do the same to the Obama campaign, Biden was ready with his facts and figures.

One might argue that Biden seemed too scripted or Palin seemed too much like a soccer mom, but the fact is that this debate was lacking any passion from either vice-presidential candidate. I wondered to myself if there was an unwritten rule or a simple strategy that said Biden wasn’t allowed to be his typical, condescending self since Palin was a woman? How many times did Palin reassure Biden that she respected him? Yeah, maybe they handled each other with class, but I argue that without emotional fire in a debate, the candidates are able to stick with their predetermined scripts and play the games of old politics instead of being raw and honest with the viewing audience.

I don’t think anyone will argue that Biden was the clear victor in this debate, but Palin certainly was able to hold her own and managed to surprise much of America in doing so. She did an excellent job of "talking up" John McCain, so to say, and was never left speechless — always referring back to one of her strong points, energy or Alaska.

(The photo of Sen. Joe Biden shows him at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2005. The photo is © copyright the World Economic Forum and is by photographer Remy Steinegger. However, the World Economic Forum offers this photo for use through Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see a segment of the debate, please check below. To see more videos of the debate and further analysis, please check: "Vice Presidential Debate Highlights" on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

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