Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bloggers: A More Dramatic, But Equally Effective, Fourth Estate

When I worked in newspapers, I sincerely believed, at least in part, I was doing noble work. I was keeping people honest and exposing injustices where they occurred.

I knew, even then, that really, I was just making the stuff that went between the top of the ads and the top of the page. But I did believe in the Fourth Estate. I did believe that without newspapers, the government could, and would, do anything to anyone.

I've grown up since then.

Now, I recognize that the press is largely stupid and lazy, when it isn't making things up. Sure, scandals still get exposed, and sure, justice is occasionally meted out by the mainstream press. But mostly, they're just filling up airtime and news holes with whatever fits.

You have to give the traditional media a reason to act, if you want them to do anything; either poke them with a stick repeatedly, like an aged circus bear, or make them believe they can win a Pulitzer. For an example of the first case, see Sarah Palin (not that she doesn't deserve it). For the second, see The New York Times.

The same is true of government. A lot of people go into politics believing that they can make a difference and that prosperity, justice and harmony are just one law away. In truth, legislators are mostly solving problems that don't exist, and pissing away our money in ways that are just as irresponsible as if we had spent it. (My objections to government are that I'd rather piss away my own money, and I don't like people telling me what to do, even if it's good for me.)

I believe the shift from old media to new is, at worst, a wash. More likely, it's a reclamation of  the kind of publishing the Founding Fathers did, and intended to protect with the First Amendment, back in the day.

Sure, bloggers are generally wedded to ideology, given to spreading patently false information and memes, seldom practice academic / intellectual rigor or any sort, usually unfair, almost always employ logical fallacies and often woefully misinformed / unqualified to offer an opinion.

It doesn't really matter, because a little rabble is good for the process. In fact, I think it's better than the "objectivity" of "journalism," which is often interpreted as, "everyone should get a chance to speak" and "there are two sides to every story."

Trust me, I've written a lot of "journalism." Often, the other side of a story doesn't deserve a voice.

Take all the blog posts about a controversial change to South Dakota's justifiable homicide law:
Even the old media gets in on the act via its blogs:
Sounds completely awful, doesn't it? That's your first clue that it isn't true.

Right now, it's only a bill.
Yes, there is a bill before the South Dakota legislature to amend that state's justifiable homicide law.

Yes, that bill has been amended to read, in part, "Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is."

Yes, that bill further extends the right of defense to spouses, children, parents and domestic servants / masters.

And yes, that bill has been reported out of committee as ought to pass.

Let's start at the beginning.

When HB 1171 was presented, its language made far clearer the intent of sponsor Rep. Phil Jensen: A woman should be able to use deadly force to protect her fetus. 

The original bill specifically exempted others from protecting the fetus; the woman from using deadly force if she could "retreat, surrender the possession of a thing, or comply with a demand"; and "human embryos existing outside of a woman's body."

Regardless of where you come down in the abortion debate, a woman fighting off an attacker to save the life of her baby is a strong visual.

It's one of those things you can't be against, regardless of the circumstances. Because if you do oppose it, you can expect an attack ad, during the next campaign, of a crying woman saying how your vote cost her the child she's always wanted at the hands of a violent criminal.

So in that context, it doesn't really matter what the facts are. Namely, that South Dakota law already calls defending oneself against a felony a justifiable homicide. It also describes the felony of fetal homicide in detail.

In other words, by applying the law as it stands now -- I can use deadly force to defend myself, spouse, child, master or servant against a felony; and fetal homicide is a felony -- South Dakota already gives anyone the right to defend an unborn child. Jensen's law isn't necessary. It's looking to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

That is, of course, the problem with 99 out of 100 bills introduced in any legislative session, in any state. It's especially true since most legislators will introduce any bill a constituent asks them to sponsor, even when it's completely inane, dangerous or ill-advised.

In such cases, the legislator indicates the bill is "by request," which is code to other legislators for, "Some jackass constituent wants a dumb law. I know it's dumb, and I don't actually want it to pass, but I also don't want to tell said jackass he is dumb. It's way easier to blame you guys for this dumb law failing than to stand up for principles and call this jackass a jackass. Please table this in committee so it dies an ignominious death."

Rep. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, S.D.
Almost always, that's exactly what happens. Unless the jackass with a dumb idea happens to be a Tea Party legislator, such as Jensen.

(Check out HB 1170, which he also primarily sponsored. Kids need to learn how to live on a budget, cook a meal and get along with others. They don't need to know what the 24th Amendment says. [As proof, I bet you had to look that one up. I sure did.] It would be nice if they could recite the Gettysburg address, but that won't keep them out of prison or off the welfare roles.)

When a legislator presents a bill he cares about strongly, the dumb idea behind it always gets a full audience in committee.

This particular bill was before the judiciary committee. At least 5 of the 13 members of that committee are lawyers.

I bet, therefore, that when this bill went through its work sessions and hearings, there was a great deal of focus on the technical aspect of the bill. As in, "it doesn't need to be this wordy / reinvent the wheel."

I'm certain it was initially considered in a vacuum of public debate; seeming straightforward and presented as protecting unborn children from violent criminals, it was never examined in the context of abortion, as hard as that is to believe now.

The original bill was effectively trying to extend the justifiable homicide law with a very specific set of circumstances and exemptions, when simply adding the category of "defending an unborn child" to the existing law would accomplish the same end.

Again, there's actually no need for a new law at all. The law as it stands today does what Jensen wants.

Who knows why he felt the need to introduce it. Ideologues are, by definition, hard to figure. What he's done is created an unnecessary proposal to amend the law so badly that the counter-wackos in the abortion debate can use to rally their forces.

One could read the HB 1171 language as it stands at this writing and say it gives power to certain people to murder abortion doctors. Without any context, regard to case law or consideration of superceding federal legislation, that's what it says, all right.

But I have a feeling that if abortion doctors were being gunned down in The Mt. Rushmore State, and even if that happened with the tacit approval of South Dakota's government -- which is quite clearly not the intent here -- it wouldn't be long before the federal government put an end to that nonsense.

For as much of a half-witted plutocracy this nation is on a day-to-day basis, one only need rile up the right kind of voters to get things done. That's why, facing a $1.1 trillion budget deficit, nobody is seriously talking about at least means testing Social Security and Medicare.

Because it is plainly a bad solution looking for a problem to fix, HB 1171 should never have been reported out of committee. But sometimes, terrible ideas make it to a floor vote. Sometimes, they even pass. That's the nature of the beast.

And that's the purpose of the Fourth Estate. It's supposed to identify bad bills, deride their sponsors and ensure that the political cost of supporting a bad idea outweighs the cost of rejecting it.

To that extent, the bloggers have served well. No doubt, they sincerely look upon this bill as protecting the type of people who murdered George Tiller and Barnett Slepian.

While it wouldn't, even under a fairly liberal interpretation of the proposed bill, we should be thankful that these blog posts have brought to the fore a bad proposal that needs to be rejected; because had it not been for them, the chances are strong the old media would never have paid it any mind.