When it Comes to “Fake News” the Media Might Want to Look in the Mirror

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The media is going absolutely bonkers over the emergence of what is being called “fake news” popping up all over social media. Following the election, the media seems to be exhibiting a type of postpartum depression caused by the sudden lack of attention-grabbing “news” to report. Seeking to fill this void, the media has raised the fearful specter of “fake news” polluting their well of “real news.” Such news reports by the media are, in and of itself, faked news. For the media to “cry wolf” about fake news is like a politician self-righteously decrying hypocrisy in politics. And don’t fall prey to the pathetic media excuse that the habitat of “fake news” is only Facebook and fringe web sites. (Some suggest that “fake news” started when the Old Testament reported that God created the earth in seven days.)

The reality is that virtually all news is “fake news” in some form or another. It has always been that way and most likely always will be. The reason for this is simple: To survive (not to mention make a profit) newspapers and magazines have to give you a reason to buy their product and television has to attract viewers. The media moguls learned long ago that dramatic, salacious, sensational, spicy and even over-the-top exaggerated stories are what sells papers and puts people in front of the television.  

Fake news can be like a rolling stone that picks up momentum as it goes along …

There are legions of almost daily examples of this type of approach to “journalism,” but one example can serve as a surrogate for the many. During 2014 there was ongoing coverage of what was described (by the media anyway) as an epidemic of sexual abuse on college campuses. In early November that year Rolling Stone magazine came forth with high-powered publicity campaign touting a soon to be released documented expose of rampant sexual abuse on college campuses. Representatives of Rolling Stone appeared on cable and network television shows hyping the soon to be released article.

The article, salaciously titled, “A Rape on Campus” was published in the November 19 issue of the magazine. The article purported to describe a young coed “gang raped” at a fraternity party on the campus of the University of Virginia. The publicity and outrage generated by the story was enormous, but it soon became clear that this story was nothing but “fake news.” It turned out the so-called “victim” had fabricated the entire story. As other media outlets showed, it would have taken very little effort on the part of Rolling Stone editors to debunk the story before it was published. But infected with a fever to gain needed publicity for the magazine and increase sales, journalistic ethics were compromised.

It depends on what you want the news to be …

Not to be discounted in the reporting of “fake news” is the reality that most, if not all, media outlets have their own particular slant to the “news” they report. This often thinly disguised bias is targeted to appeal to a specific segment of potential readers or viewers. Rather than an honest effort to educate and inform, media outlets will (to be kind) slant their news coverage in such a way so as to appeal to the pre-conceived notions of their target audience. Elements of the news that fit the desired viewpoint are reported in depth, while points that may lead to a different conclusion are short-shifted or ignored.

The New York Times declares on its masthead, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but all the news that’s fit to print most often appeals only to the eastern, liberal establishment. By its very name, The Wall Street Journal signals its target audience and its articles reflect it. Fox News (an oxymoron if I’ve even heard one) claims to be “fair and balanced,” but the focus of its coverage is anything but that and is intended to attract an audience that believes big government is nothing more than an evil conspiracy threatening their freedom. On the other hand, MSNBC seems to target its programming at those who believe they need big government to protect their freedom.

The point is that all this media prejudice when reporting the news from a particular point of view pollutes that news and in essence makes it fake.

Separating fake from the real news …

No doubt about it, it is difficult to scrutinize a news story to determine what is real and what is slanted opinion, but it can be done. The reason many of us are susceptible to fake news is because it appeals to the notion of what we want the news to be. Since we agree with it, it is easy to accept it. The problem is that this takes away our ability to question and challenge what we hear or read. There are (at least) two sides to every story and unless we are willing to make the effort to understand all viewpoints of an issue, we are at risk of falling prey to fake news.

When we react in a knee-jerk fashion to a media story – either for or against – without questioning or challenging its intent and voracity, we leave ourselves vulnerable to being manipulated

The reality is that if we don’t know enough to recognize that the news we are reading or watching is slanted toward a particular viewpoint, we don’t know enough. If we find ourselves in agreement with all the news we read or view, we are not getting enough news. Only by being willing to expand the horizons of the sources of the information we receive can we gain a perspective that will allow us to determine the difference between real and fake news.

Trump Should Focus on Replacing Obamacare

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A cornerstone of Trump’s campaign for president was the promise he would repeal and replace Obamacare. And rightly so, because Obamacare is an unmitigated failure. The promise of Obamacare was to provide “patient protection and affordable healthcare” for some 40 million uninsured Americans. The plan has failed on both points.

The saga of Obamacare is a great example of wanting to do the right thing, but going about it the wrong way. Obamacare as we know it came about because President Obama capitulated to the merchants of the devil – the health insurance industry – in order to strike a deal on healthcare reform. The great myth surrounding Obamacare is that it is some type of government provided healthcare coverage like Medicare, but it isn’t. Under Obamacare the government has nothing to do with the type of coverage offered, the quality of the services provided or the cost consumers pay for healthcare; that is all left up to the whims of private health insurance companies.

Obamacare is nothing more than a (clunky, complicated) website that is intended to match-up those who need healthcare coverage with private, for-profit insurance companies looking to sell their policies. The only requirement for insurance companies to market their policies on the “exchange” is that pre-existing conditions are covered and children can be included under the policy until age 25. Beyond that, insurance companies are free to determine the structure of the policies, the provider networks the insured must use, deductibles and the co-pays – the amount the insured must pay out of pocket; and those can run as high as 40 percent of medical charges. Most important, the insurance companies are free to charge any premium they desire and increase those premiums at will. In short, Obamacare has become nothing more than a profitable boondoggle for insurance companies. As usual, the ones left holding the short end of the stick are individuals who most need and can least afford healthcare coverage.

In addition, employers who are mandated to provide employees with healthcare coverage are free to use all sorts of machinations to avoid this responsibility. (For example, hiring employees as part-timers and making sure they work less than 40 hours a week.) This forces the employees to use the Obamacare website and be pillaged by the insurance companies.

Be careful what you wish for …

With a Republican soon to be in the White House, the Republicans in Congress who believe healthcare is a privilege based on the ability to pay, rather than a right of citizenship, are stupid-drunk giddy over the prospect of killing Obamacare, but they need to be careful what they wish for. There may be one problem that could turn their dream into a nightmare. While that Republican soon to be in the White House has savaged Obamacare, he has consistently supported the rights of every American to have healthcare coverage. Over the years Trump has repeatedly praised the concept of universal healthcare.

On 60 Minutes Trump said, “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say because a lot of times they say ‘No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private.’” He continued, “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not.”

On the Larry King Show Trump bluntly proclaimed, “If you can’t take care of your sick in the country, forget it, it’s all over … I believe in universal healthcare.”

In his book The America We Deserve Trump wrote, “We must have universal healthcare … I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one. We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by healthcare expenses …”

So the Republicans in Congress may be in for a bit of a surprise blowback from their Republican president when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of repealing Obamacare, without offering a reasonable alternative for millions of Americans who lack access to healthcare or don’t have the ability to pay the exorbitant premiums charged by private insurance companies.

What is the alternative that Trump could propose?

If Trump is sincere in his belief that all Americans should have affordable access to basic healthcare services, he could achieve that goal by simply expanding the scope of two healthcare plans already in existence – Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare provides effective and efficient medical care for millions of Americans age 65 and over. Medicaid – a combination of state programs funded by the federal government – provides medical care to millions of low income individuals.

The point is that these two programs have processes and procedures in place and in point of fact are paying for the healthcare provided by hospitals, care givers and doctors for millions of Americans. Patients are free to select any of the 95 percent of hospitals and doctors who accept Medicare payments to provide their care. This is not the government deciding or providing the healthcare, but simply being the “single payer” of the benefits provided by private hospitals and doctors.

So the question is: Why not repeal Obamacare and replace it with the two national healthcare programs already in existence and functioning effectively? There is no need to create an entirely new bureaucracy. The simplest and most direct way to offer basic healthcare to all Americans at affordable costs is to expand and enroll everyone – at all ages – into Medicare or Medicaid.

Of course, this can’t be done with a flip of a switch, but an organized national phase-in of Medicare over time could make it happen. For example, in the first year those 60 to 65 would be eligible for Medicare, then the next phase would include those 50 to 55, and so on until everyone is covered. This would allow for Obamacare to be repealed and phased out at the same pace Medicare is expanded.

This approach could be a win-win for everyone. Trump and the Republicans could fulfill their campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare; Trump could remain consistent in his call for universal healthcare and, most important, all Americans could finally join the millions of citizens of every other industrialized nation in the world for whom basic healthcare is a right of citizenship, not just a privilege for the wealthy.

Trump and the Politics of Minimum Wages

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The issue of raising the federal minimum wage will likely be a hot topic next year. Last increased in 2009, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. (That works out to around $15,000 per year, before taxes.) Arguing that any increase in the minimum wage does more harm than good, the Republicans in Congress are lining up to block any attempted increase. The Democrats, believing that an increase in the minimum wage is not only necessary to keep low-paid workers above the poverty line, but that an increase stimulates the economy, are aiming for a $15 per hour minimum.  

With Republicans in full control of Congress, the idea of any increase in the minimum wage seems bleak, but there is one fly in the ointment. The person who will occupy the White House, Republican Donald Trump, has previously indicated a willingness to increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Regardless, there will be the same heated arguments, for and against, a higher minimum wage that have been thrown around for almost 80 years.

In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among other things, the law mandated a federal minimum wage of $.25 per hour, along with a work-week not to exceed 44 hours. The legislation culminated decades of fierce political battle (not unlike the contemporary battle over universal healthcare) pitting business interests, firmly aligned against what they felt was interference with the “free market,” against social interest groups seeking to end the near “slave-like” conditions under which people were forced to work.

Fighting to dragoon the legislation, business interests screeched that the idea of a government mandated “minimum wage” was another step on the road to Socialism that would wipe-out profits, cause higher unemployment and the ruination of Capitalism. President Roosevelt would have none of that when, in “fireside chat” the night before signing the controversial legislation he said, “Don’t let any calamity-howling executive with an income of a $1,000 dollars a day, tell you that wages of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

Looking back now it’s easy to wonder why there was such a fuss was over a paltry $.25 per hour for work. (It is indicative of how little employers were paying the workers for their labor.) During the almost 80 years since the passage of minimum wage legislation, one might believe that employers have come to accept that it is natural and right to pay workers wages that don’t condemn them to a continuing cycle of poverty. But if you think that, you would be wrong.

Anytime a proposal is put forward to raise the minimum wage, the business community comes together with the same draconian arguments that were used in the 1930’s. Arguments such as: Any increase will put thousands of small companies out of business. Profits will be decimated. Prices will have to be raised and this will drive away business. Thousands of low-paid workers, those intended to be helped by the increase, will lose their jobs.

In the years since it was first enacted, the minimum wage has been increased 22 times, under 12 different presidents. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics there are 78.2 million workers (58 percent of total workforce) paid on an hourly basis, of that number, 2.6 million workers are paid at the current federal minimum of $7.25. This means that an increase in the minimum wage would impact only 3 percent of all hourly paid workers.

So what is all the fuss about?

The most common argument in support of the minimum wage is that it protects the workers at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. These workers, many of whom represent marginalized groups (women, minorities, youth workers, the disabled, and so on), simply don’t have the bargaining power to fight for a minimum living wage without government intervention.

Those who oppose increasing the minimum wage contend that a higher mandated minimum wage actually hurts the lower-paid workers it is intended to benefit. They argue that the increased cost to smaller and marginally successful businesses will force owners to layoff existing employees and prevent them from hiring others; ultimately causing an increase in unemployment.

Another argument against an increased minimum wage is that it will cause inflation. The logic is that if an employer is forced to increase minimum wages from $7.25 per hour to say $10 per hour, the cost will be passed on to customers in the form of higher prices for the same goods and services. The “experts” may be right, but it seems illogical that a marginal pay increase for 2.6 million of the lowest paid workers, out of a total of almost 125 million full-time employees, would be little more than a blip on the inflation scale.  

Those favoring a higher wage argue that increasing the minimum wage will attract a higher quality worker, reduce turnover and actually save the employer the expense of constantly having to find, hire and train new workers. The proponents of a higher minimum wage promote the idea that those receiving increased wages will spend them on goods and services that will in turn stimulate the economy and increase profits.

There have been scores of economic studies that can be taken to “prove” the case for either side of the minimum wage controversy, which means that both sides remain mired in theory, rather than reality.  

I have my own study …

In 1963, when I first started working, the minimum wage was $1.25 per hour. Since that time the minimum wage has been increased 15 times to the current $7.25 per hour. Each time an increase was proposed there were the same old doom-and-gloom arguments that any increase would upend the “balance” of the free market, stifle economic growth, fuel inflation, drive thousands of companies out of business and increase unemployment. And you know what happened? Just the opposite: Employment, profits and the economy have always grown following an increase.   

Yes, there will be a heated debate over minimum wages next year. The Democrats will propose and the Republicans will oppose. What will be different about the debate is that there will be – for the first time – a Republican president who has actual, real-life experience as a successful businessman. Trump has already suggested that for ethical and business reasons he sees a value in increasing the minimum wage. (Not as much as Democrats will propose, but nevertheless an increase.) It will be interesting to see how the Republicans in Congress react to one of their own on the other side of the minimum wage debate.