Celeste Headlee

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What Your Average American Can Learn From Journalists

There’s a lot of disagreement on political issues these days and that’s to be expected. We’re politically polarized for a number of reasons. That means all kinds of issues that shouldn’t be political are now fractured down ideological lines. 

While that’s worrisome, it doesn’t surprise me or concern me the way that the polarization of science does. Climate change denial is a good example. There is a settled scientific opinion on climate change that’s backed up by research from many countries and a number of institutions. On a matter like this, I would never consult a pundit or politician for their opinion on the science. I would possibly get their political and personal reactions, but not open a debate over facts.

And here’s why: my job requires me to consult experts in various fields. Now, there are caveats to that simple task. First, I have to verify the credentials of that expert and make sure they don’t have skin in the game. Let’s stay with climate change for a moment. If a scientist works for a polluting industry, for example, or has invested in similar companies, I won’t use him or her. If he or she is politically connected in a verifiable way, I won’t use that person either. So, if it’s a politician with a degree in biology, I can’t consult them on issues of science because there’s no reasonable expectation of objectivity.

But here’s where journalists generally do it differently than many others: we believe our experts over ourselves. I am a very smart person with a couple advanced degrees, yet I would never in a million years assume that I know more about physics than Stephen Hawking because I’ve read some books and newspaper articles. That means that if I consult Hawking or any other objective scientific expert and they refute my previously-held opinion, I re-evaluate my thinking.

As a journalist, I would never pair a scientist with a pundit and ask them to “debate climate change.” If you want an in-depth discussion on the state of climate change in the world, bring in two scientists who’ve studied it and let them hash it out. THEN bring in your pundit to say, “I don’t believe in science.” I would also never consult a theologian about the Vatican and then bring in an atheist scientist to say it’s all hokum because there is no God. (I’m not implying that all scientists are atheists, but they are far more likely to be than the general public

What I often see on social media is a refusal to believe facts because people don’t agree with them on a gut level. It’s humbling to find out you’re wrong when you’ve been posting passionate rants on an issue for months, so instead of admitting error, people often say, “I don’t believe that” or “The source is biased.” I advise everyone to take the journalistic approach: find someone who knows more on the topic than you do, listen to him or her and then learn from them.

There are experts in this world. No matter how smart you are, you can’t be an expert in every field and at some point you’ll have to rely on someone else’s greater experience and knowledge. I don’t argue with my car mechanic, I just make sure I find a good one who’s honest and then I trust him or her. The same is true for doctors and lawyers and plumbers and accountants and scientists. 

Any good journalist will tell you: it’s all about finding good sources. But once you’ve found them, be prepared to hear things you don’t agree with. That’s part of what makes them “good.”

The top photo is what I have in my cart at Amazon.com: two fountain pens and some good cheesecloth for cooking. Saved for later is a nice set of Cuisinart pans.

The bottom photo is what Amazon recommended for me, based on those items: the BeerBelly flask, a flask disguised as a tampon, a flask disguised as sunscreen, and a flask that can be hidden in your crotch.

Am I missing something or does Amazon think that fountain pen users are generally secretive drunks?

A Beginner’s Guide to -isms

I watched Tucker Carlson on Fox News yesterday  explaining that the veto of Arizona bill 1062 amounts to supporting fascism:
CARLSON: Well it’s pretty simple. I mean, if you want to have a gay wedding, fine, go ahead. If I don’t want to bake you a cake for your gay wedding, that’s okay too. Or should be. That’s called tolerance. But when you try and force me to bake a cake for your gay wedding and threaten me with prison if I don’t, that’s called fascism.
As a reminder, 1062 allows businesses in Arizona to refuse service to gay couples. In fact, it’s already legal for businesses to discriminate against gay people in Arizona, since sexual orientation is not a protected category under state law.
I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of 1062, but I do take issues with Carlson’s understanding of “fascism.” I’m not sure what definition he’s using, but it’s not the same one that political scientists have used for decades.
So, in the interest of public service and to help out Tucker Carlson, I’m re-posting the link to a segment I did two years ago. 

Fascist, Marxist, Socialist: The Misuse of Political Terms

You can take a listen to the whole segment there, and I’m including a transcript below as well. Never misuse “fascist” again.
You’re welcome.
In a season of high politics and low poll numbers, there’s a lot of heated talk… even more so in an age when the parties are so divided, even within themselves.  Accusations and allegations fly, people sometimes play fast and loose with the language, and there’s something I’ve noticed about the name-calling going on.  Maybe you can spot it…. take a listen…
[Sound of people using words like fascist, socialist, etc.]
If you guessed “incorrect use of political and economic terms, give yourself 5 points.”  It drives me crazy!  Both sides, all sides… so ready to use words like socialist or fascist, but never accurately.  It got me wondering, do most Americans know what these things are?
Give me a couple minutes of your time, and I can clear this all up for you.  Call it the beginner’s guide to isms
So let’s start with the guy that, in some sense, started it all.  Our good friend Karl Marx.  Its easy to identify a Marxist, that’s someone who believes in the philosophical or political ideas outlined by Karl Marx, basically the notion that class struggle is at the heart of social change in the civilized world.   Less easy to tell you what Marxism is, since Karl changed his mind all the time, and he didn’t write about any one kind of political or economic system. So if you’re planning to call someone a Marxist any time soon, be sure you’re clear on whether he or she is a Western Marxist, a Structural Marxist, a Neo-Marxist, or maybe even part of the Frankfurt School.  Or better yet…. maybe you should choose a different insult.
Now, when you study Marxism, you’re going to end up reading about perhaps the most popular insult in politics today - Socialists.  Marx thought that socialism was one of the stages of society, what happens after the working class staged a revolution against the capitalists.  But that’s not how it’s turned out in real life.  Socialism is an economic system in which popularly elected councils decide how the economy should be run.  And the workers own the means of production, but individuals own the products.  To make it simpler, the state owns the auto plant, but an individual can own their own car. 
The fact is, most first world nations use some socialist ideas.  Our military is collective, so are our highways, and as Ron Paul points out, so are many other things…
Communist is another popular term bandied about in the halls of Congress and at campaign stops.  Marx believed communism is what comes after socialism, and these two isms are similar, with some pretty important differences.  Communism is more than economics.  In communism, there are no classes, there is no religion. And instead of a popularly elected council, you have a single authoritarian party making all the decisions.  And no personal property either.  To go back to that earlier example, the people own the plant AND the cars in communism, and the ruling party decides how best to use them for the good of society.
We in America use a political system called democracy (that’s another ism, but I think most people get it already), with an economy that’s partly socialist and partly capitalist.  Somehow, in the hands of an angry idealogue, both of those things can become derisive.  So let’s quickly refresh our memories on what capitalism is.   It does not mean robber barons running roughshod over the poor or the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.  No, capitalism simply refers to an economic system in which some people own and control the means of production and the profits derived from it and a political system that encourages that. 
And now we get to the big, bad ism.  The granddaddy of political insults.  That’s right… fascism. 
Fascism is a system of government that’s dictatorial, with centralized, state control of private businesses.  It’s repressive, nationalist, and usually violent.  The first fascist government was Mussolini’s Italy, but the ultimate fascist, el numero uno, was Hitler, and calling someone a Nazi, or painting a little black mustache on their picture is the most convenient and most inappropriate insult used by both conservatives and liberals.  No matter how much you hate something, your dislike doesn’t make it fascist.
So there, you have it.  The beginner’s guide to modern isms.  Now that you know, you’ll never call someone a communist again without good cause, right?  Because that would be absurdism.  Although I’m sure it’s inevitable… even if that’s fatalistic. 

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I love my fountain pen.  I love that it forces me to write more slowly, and consider every word. I love that it stops working if I don’t use it. The ink will dry and clog the nib, so it requires me to write. It makes no judgments about what I write, whether it be news report, poem, or grocery list, it just says, “I need to be used. So stop typing for a moment and write with me. Write anything. Just fill a page with my black ink.”

I love my fountain pen. I love that it forces me to write more slowly, and consider every word. I love that it stops working if I don’t use it. The ink will dry and clog the nib, so it requires me to write. It makes no judgments about what I write, whether it be news report, poem, or grocery list, it just says, “I need to be used. So stop typing for a moment and write with me. Write anything. Just fill a page with my black ink.”

Why Do We Need Middle Ground?

Over the past couple months, I’ve gotten a slew of emails, phone calls, Facebook messages and tweets from people in the middle of the country telling me why their region needs more coverage. Some of them are very detailed, many of them are eloquent, all of them are passionate. Now, during the final ten days of our fundraising campaign, I’m going to start posting some of those notes as blogs so you start to get an idea of why this show is so needed, so vital and so long overdue.

Here’s the first one, from Katy June-Friesen in Kansas:

As a journalist and a native Kansan, I’m continually disappointed by how news organizations don’t cover certain regions or don’t make an effort to understand them. I read, hear and see too many stories that reinforce rather than unpack stereotypes. The tendency of east- and west-coast media is to simplify the “types” of people, politics and issues that exist in the middle states because simple is easier to understand. But that’s lazy journalism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, read or watched a story about somewhere in the Midwest and wanted to yell “It’s more complicated than that!”

Yeah, I might have a chip on my shoulder. I happen to come from a state whose name reporters and pundits often use to provide an example of “that kind of place” with “those kind of people” — ever heard the line “In a place like, say, Kansas…”? People use it to connote a variety of regional characteristics: conservative, small-town, rural, insular, simple (at one point I started keeping a list). I come from a fairly blue area of what is thought of as a “red state,” and there’s a lot more purple than people know, especially on the local politics level.

In DC, I often find myself taking on the role of Midwest explainer. People on the coasts who have never lived anywhere else — and that includes many people in the news media — have set ideas about what inland people and communities are like. I don’t blame them, because they need better information. Living away from the Midwest yet still claiming it has made me more interested in regionalism and how we construct ideas about each other.

Katy June-Friesen

Arguing With Guests Doesn’t Make You a Bada** Journalist

I want to address the coverage of the shutdown using a few videos. Let’s begin with this skit from the folks at Jimmy Kimmel Live. I acknowledge that this video was exploited for its comedic value and the polling is hardly scientific here. Still, polls consistently show that most Americans approve of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act, even if they respond negatively to the name “Obamacare.”

What does this have to do with the budget that keeps the government running? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! The President has said, and he is correct in doing so, that the shutdown of the government doesn’t affect the rollout of the ACA one iota. Exchanges opened on Tuesday and, in typical government fashion, were unable to handle the number of visitors at the website. Anyone who’s ever been to a DMV was probably not surprised that the government’s health care portal was crowded, irritating and slow. 

Back to the issue at hand, though: the only reason that we are talking about the ACA in connection with the budget is because House Republicans decided to tie the delay or defunding of the law to the continued operation of the government. That’s not a partisan talking point; that’s simply the truth. Dan Froomkin writes that “the political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, reading the news would not help you understand.” He goes on to say that “the shutdown is not generalized dysfunction or gridlock or stalemate. It is aberrational behavior by a political party that is willing to take extreme and potentially damaging action to get its way. And by not calling it what it is, the political press is enabling it. We need a more fearless media.”

Responding to strong criticism like this and from public anger over both the shutdown and the behavior of our elected representatives, some journalists have decided to get tougher.  For the most part, it has not gone well.  Here’s Carol Costello with Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) on CNN. I applaud Costello’s attempt to hold Rokita accountable, but she wasn’t prepared to do so. Rokita says several incorrect things and skews the facts fairly openly. Costello should have corrected them instead of arguing. He says they’ve sent many proposals to the Senate, Costello should have said that all of those proposals include provisions for defunding or delaying the ACA. Ask him if he supports a clean CR. When an anchor argues with a guest, it supports the idea that there are always two sides to everything, that absolutely nothing in politics can be established as fact. Don’t argue. Just counter untruths with truths and get a response.

Here’s another train wreck. Thomas Roberts is talking to RNC Chair Reince Priebus about the shutdown. And again, Roberts chooses to argue with Priebus. It becomes a contest in who can be heard above the other and by the end, it’s almost unwatchable.  Here, I’m less concerned about facts and that’s because Reince Priebus is the Chair of the RNC. His job, quite literally, is to represent the party line. You expect talking points from him, and that’s what Roberts got. It’s a bit asinine to then argue that he’s only giving you talking points.

Finally, here’s a link to the TV interview that really shows you how to do this right:


Oh, sorry. I couldn’t find one.


The News Media is Screwed Up & I Want to Help Fix It

I noticed something when I was reporting from Arizona and then Michigan. It was really hard to get local stories on the national networks. Was it because the stories coming from the East and West Coasts was just more important? More significant? More compelling?

I got the answer to that question when I moved to New York and then DC, and the answer is no. It’s just that most of the networks have their headquarters in NYC, DC or LA, their staff lives there and they find their local news WAY more interesting than anything coming out of Indiana, Colorado, Kansas or Oklahoma.

So I decided to fix the imbalance myself. I’m launching a brand new, weekly public radio show that will cover ONLY news, politics and culture from the states in between California and the eastern seaboard. We will ignore the coasts, because the other shows cover them quite well.  

The show is called “Middle Ground” and I hope to use content from local reporters all over the middle of the country. Reporters who, perhaps, don’t often get their stories onto national shows. I want to cover bands from Nebraska and Texas, authors from Illinois and Ohio, politics from West Virginia. All that stuff that’s just as important as what any DC talking head as to say, but that never gets heard.

This is my mission. It’s a labor of love and my public service.  Take a listen to the two pilot shows and tell me what you think:


Never Forget What?

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. - A. Lincoln


I’m having a strong, almost visceral reaction to the coverage of 9-11 today on cable news and Twitter and Facebook. The American History Museum is live tweeting the events of that tragic morning without comment, which I find incredibly poignant. At the same time, politicians are posting empty comments about praying for “grace”, maybe paying lip service to the first responders. But the most common posting I’ve seen today is some version of a photo of the Twin Towers and the words “Never Forget.”

That phrase is a powerful one for us as Americans, but also as human beings. The sad fact is that our memories are woefully short, lasting perhaps a generation or two and no more.  There have been many occasions on which we swore we would “never forget.” In 1813, British forces demolished the American army near the River Raisin in Michigan, denying their attempt to recapture Detroit. From that defeat came the great battle cry of the War of 1812: “Remember the Raisin!” But we forgot.

We vowed to remember the sacrifice of William Travis and Davy Crockett in March of 1836.  That’s when a tiny band of less than 200 men swore they would defend their fort against the forces of Mexico with their lives. Every last defender of Texas liberty died at the hands of General Santa Ana’s forces, but their devotion and bravery contributed to Mexico’s eventual defeat and the liberation of Texas, mostly because of that rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo!” But we forgot. 

We also swore to remember February 15, 1898. That’s when the battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor following an enormous explosion that tore a hole in the side. At the time, we thought it was an act of war on the part of Spain and the cry went around: “Remember the Maine!” But we forgot.

And now, to commemorate the 2,977 lives lost on September 11th, 2001, we again say, “Never forget.” But what is it that we vow to remember? Those innocent lives or our illusion of safety and invulnerability? If it’s the loss of life that you mourn, then how do you think we can best honor those who died? I think we can agree that the Iraq war and Afghanistan invasion did the dead no good service. But do the empty platitudes accomplish more?

I don’t want to diminish the grief that anyone feels on this day, nor do I want to engage in a competition over whose loss is most painful. I didn’t live in New York on 9-11 and I didn’t lose a single family member or friend on that day. And yet, I remember having to pull my car over as I rushed to the newsroom because my body was racked with sobs and anguish, so much so that I couldn’t drive. If my reaction was that strong, I’m sure others experienced much the same thing, whether they lived in New York or not.  

And yet, I’m troubled on the anniversary of this day every time it comes around. I’m frustrated that we behave a certain way on this day, say certain things and then go back to business as usual on September 12th. It’s like the fair-weather Christian who talks about charity and humility on Sunday and then steals from the poor on Monday. 

So again I ask the question: what will we never forget? I hope some of you will share your answers to that question, and let me share mine. I will never forget that for the first time in my life, I felt the presence of more than 300 million other Americans as a physical thing, a sense that we all froze together, gasped together, moaned together and embraced one another as one nation and one people. I will never forget how the rest of the world reached out to us with compassion instead of blame, how people in other nations, thousands of miles away, struggled to say and do the right thing that might ease America’s pain.  I will never forget that for a very short period of time, we set aside our differences. We held each other’s gaze at the grocery store and the bank, commiserated together, held doors open for each other, asked how others were doing and really cared about the answer.

But that can’t be what politicians mean when they say, “Never forget,” because they’re the reason that moment of unity was lost so quickly. It didn’t take long for operators in DC to start using the tragedy for political ends, to turn that sense of common purpose and pain into divisiveness, and to offend the rest of the world with our anger and arrogance, squandering the good will we had earned. I’m not talking about any particular party, because both are guilty. 

And we’re guilty, too, for allowing those operators to play on our baser instincts and manipulate us into hating our neighbors. We allowed ourselves to believe that some poltical ideals are more patriotic than others, that tax cuts dishonor 9-11 or increasing regulation just lets the “terrorists win.”

9-11 is not about politics. It’s not even about religion. It’s about the power of tragedy to bring us together in shared grief. It’s about remembering what really matters in this life and that all the rest is just noise. 9-11 is about forgetting class, race, religion and political party and acknowledging that we are fragile, that we are easily hurt, and that we are all our brother’s keepers.