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I have a letter in The New York Times.

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Last week NPR news analyst Juan Williams was fired for remarks he made on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” regarding Muslims.

Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

Whether you agree or disagree with NPR’s decision, the firing has brought forth discussion about whether such a sentiment is bigoted or not. Associating one thing with another is a classic evolutionary defensive mechanism, Shankar Vedantam writes in Slate.

These automatic associations make evolutionary sense. If one of our ancestors was wandering in a desert and came by a snake curled up next to the only tree on the landscape, her mind would connect not just that tree with that snake, but all trees with snakes. Illusory correlations are all about seeking out group patterns based on rare individual incidents: all trees and snakes and all flights with stomach upsets, rather than that one tree and that one snake, or that one flight and that one stomach upset. Scientists say correlation isn’t causation, but, from an evolutionary point of view, if the snake-tree link is wrong, all that would happen is our ancestor would avoid all trees in the future. If the link was real and she failed to see it, she could get herself killed. Our ancestors constantly drew conclusions about their environment based on limited evidence. Waiting for causative evidence could have proved costly, whereas extrapolating causation from correlation was less costly.

Most people don’t make similar associations between, say, Timothy McVeigh or the Westboro Baptist Church and Christianity because whites and Christians are the majority in America. Muslims are just the latest group to face such correlation; Vedantam notes African-Americans have long faced problems by being associated with crime.

Whenever people who strongly believe in illusory correlations are challenged about their beliefs, they invariably find ways to make their behavior seem conscious and rational. Those who would explicitly link all Muslims with terrorism might point to evidence showing that some Muslims say they want to wage a war against the West, that a large preponderance of terrorist attacks today are carried out by Muslims, and so on. This is similar to our longstanding national narrative about blacks and crime.

Todd Essig, writing in Psychology Today, argues that the unique combination of human psychology and social networking serves to spread hate quickly and efficiently. Hate speech, at least against Muslims, is part of the cultural norm, he says; “No one escapes the pull of cognitive dissonance.”

Consequently—and here is the tragic consequence—once you start speaking hate you will soon start feeling hate regardless of motive. The next thing you know you’ll be getting nervous when you see a Muslim or a person of color—maybe one of Juan Williams’ relatives—at the airport because, of course, you hatefully believe there is a good chance they are a terrorist or a mugger.

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Taiwanese news organizations have become scarily good at depicting American news events rendered in stunning CGI for easy comprehension. The most recent video depicts Christine O’Donnell’s Delaware Republican senatorial primary victory by showing Sarah Palin shooting a semi-automatic on top of a moving train, Christine O’Donnell stopping a masturbating boy (depicted literally choking a chicken) and Karl Rove throwing poop and bursting into flames.

Here are some more recent reports.

The Wall Street Journal-New York Times newspaper war:

Will Sarah Palin run for president in 2012?

Michelle Obama’s Spain vacation:

JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater quitting:

Blagojovich’s hung jury:

Arizona’s controversial immigration law:

Is Islamophobia sweeping the U.S.?

The internet turns on Justin Bieber:

Here’s one showing Al Gore roughing up a masseuse:

MTV’s “Jersey Shore”:

Lindsay Lohan getting out of jail:

Steve Jobs in a ninja:

Barack Obama tells Americans to “go out and get a frikkin’ job already”:

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Earlier this summer, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection without furthering any state interest. By most accounts, his ruling was legally well-founded and thought out. “[N]obody can fairly accuse Judge Walker of putting together an insubstantial or unsubstantiated opinion today. Indeed, the whole point of this legal exercise—the lengthy trial, the spectacularly detailed finding of facts (80 of them! with subheadings!)—was to pit expert against expert, science against science, and fact against prejudice,” legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick wrote at Slate after the ruling was issued.

As expected, pro-Prop.8 conservative groups, including the American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage, immediately claimed Walker is biased on the issue because, as the San Francisco Chronicle and other outlets reported, Walker himself is an out gay man.

“His situation is no different than a judge who owns a porn studio being asked to rule on an anti-pornography statute,” the AFA said in a statement. “He’d have to recuse himself on conflict of interest grounds, and Judge Walker should have done that.”

Legal experts made short shrift of the recusal demands. There are any number of instances in which judges should recuse themselves from cases: when they have direct or familial financial ties to one of the parties; when one of the parties contributed heavily to the judge’s election campaign; when the judge had previous involvement with the case at a lower level (such as Sonia Sotomayor recusing herself from a case she ruled on as a federal circuit judge, or Elena Kagan recusing herself from cases she helped craft while Solicitor General).

Although technically the law provides for recusal when there is sufficient reason to question a judge’s impartiality, attributes such as sexual orientation (or race or gender or religion or marital status, etc.) are not appropriate reasons, excepting perhaps for extreme situations, which this ruling, with solid legal reasoning, so clearly is not.

As Monroe H. Freedman, a legal ethicist at Hofstra Law School, told The New York Times, “You could say, ‘If a gay judge is disqualified, how about a straight judge?’ There isn’t anybody about whom somebody might say, ‘You’re not truly impartial in this case.’”

“Readers who are still not convinced should consider this: Would a white male judge have been expected to recuse himself in Regents of University of California v. Bakke? Of course not,” wrote Nate Jones in Time.

A similar battle is playing out in the media. Was it appropriate for newspapers to report that Walker is gay? The L.A. Times’ ombudsman, Deirdre Edgar, tackled the question in a recent column.

[T]he decision to include Walker’s sexual orientation was based on fairness. Walker’s political background (he was nominated by President Reagan and appointed by President George H.W. Bush) was included for the same reason, Lauter said. “Both — ideology and sexuality — are factors that a reasonable person could see as having an impact on a judge’s view of a controversial issue such as same-sex marriage.”

If the judge hearing the case were heterosexual, would that have been noted? Lauter acknowledged that it probably would not.

Arturo González, president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, disagreed.

Indeed, if this “totality of life experience” were so relevant to The Times, why did it not report on the sexual orientation of the heterosexual trial court judge who originally struck down the same-sex marriage ban in 2005, finding that it violated the California Constitution prior to its amending by Proposition 8? Why did The Times not report on the sexual orientation of each California Supreme Court justice who handled the same-sex marriage cases on appeal? Was it not newsworthy to The Times under its “totality of life experience” standard that the four justices in the Supreme Court’s majority recognizing same-sex marriages in 2008 are heterosexual? Is sexual orientation only newsworthy when a gay judge presides over a case involving lesbian or gay citizens?

Of course, now that The Times has articulated this new standard of relevance, it should at least walk the talk and apply it fairly to all judges. Even if it wanted to eliminate this double standard by applying Lauter’s “certain aspects of their humanity” benchmark just to all judges hearing the appeals, however, it would be a formidable undertaking. Such reporting would require accurate disclosure of each judge’s sexual orientation, marital status, religious background and beliefs, biological relationship to his or her children, and perhaps other factors. Even if such information could be obtained, it should be evident that such characteristics, by themselves, are irrelevant to an individual’s ability to be fair and impartial and are not the legitimate subjects of news coverage. The same filter should have been applied here.

González is correct that the Times has set a new standard of relevance. That new standard, however, is rather unsavory; it requires inappropriately personal coverage of the judiciary’s private lives.

For example, following the Times’ reasoning, any reporting on an abortion case would have to investigate whether the judge had ever had an abortion herself or, if she has children, whether she ever considered abortion.

In covering an affirmative action challenge, the Times would have to mention a judge’s race and whether he or she ever benefited from affirmative action initiatives.

Immigration rulings would also need to examine how far back the judge’s ancestors immigrated to America in order to properly evaluate any possible influences (unless, of course, the judge is Native American, which they would also have to note).

Does any of that seem copacetic? It is certainly tempting to find Walker’s sexual orientation relevant to the issue, but not only is such information irrelevant to legal reasoning, it is highly invasive and almost impossible to prove. It presents a dangerous new trend in legal reporting, one that should be halted immediately.

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It can be difficult to know when you, as a journalist, have finally made it. Maybe it’s when your first A1 article appears; maybe it’s when you make a Pulitzer shortlist; maybe it’s when you are called into the ombudsman’s office and don’t get yelled at.

But today, I really know that I made it, baby. How? After seeing the new Newsweek cover in the mail this afternoon I knew I just had to share it with the world (read below to see why). My tip led to a post on Gawker — with recognition. It’s so juicy I just have to post the whole thing.

In an attempt to construct a witty cover, Newsweek seems to claim that Obama isn’t president. Jonathan Alter‘s article explores and debunks the network of conspiracy theories surrounding the president. But the cover lines’ kind of affirm one myth. D’oh.

Newsweek‘s cover reads,

The Making of a Terrorist-Coddling, Warmongering, Wall Street-Loving, Socialistic, Godless Muslim President *

In small print below:

* who isn’t actually any of these things

As various bloggers note, this would suggest that Obama is no more president of America than he is a Muslim. Hey, maybe Newsweek finally found its lucrative 21st century niche: Conspiracy theorists! They’re a great audience—between their high tolerance for paradox and preoccupation with insignificant details, you only need to throw your conspiracy theorizing readers one tiny footnoted bone per issue, anyway. [PajamasMedia via chevronnline]

That’s me, chevronnline! Wait, what? I’m chevronnine, not chevronnline. Damn it. Still, I’ll not let this little cloud ruin my bright sunshine.

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New Left Media has another entertaining video from Glenn Beck’s Saturday Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. Think of the attendees what you will, but there is one striking part of the video regarding Beck.

Last year, Beck referred to Barack Obama—our country’s first African-American President–as a “racist… who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” When offered the chance to respond to Beck’s statements, his fans either agreed with him or simply refused to believe that he had ever made them.

It definitely happened, even if Beck recently walked back (kind of) from his comments. Anyway, check out New Left Media’s rally interviews below.

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President Barack Obama and the White House are gearing up to discuss the end of combat operations in Iraq tomorrow night during a primetime Oval Office address, Obama’s second. Monday Obama presented 11 Purple Hearts at Walter Reed Naval Hospital, and Vice President Joe Biden has flown to Iraq. Obama even intends to call his predecessor, George W. Bush, to discuss the end of combat operations for the war that began under Bush.

Just because the cameras have yet to roll doesn’t mean the internet is alight with commentators arguing about what Obama should or should not say. A sampling:

Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway in The Huffington Post:

With Americans formally retiring from their combat role in Iraq, we should be revisiting constitutional fundamentals. From the days of John Marshall, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed Congress’ authority to define the scope of limited wars. Unless Obama begins to demonstrate his fidelity to this principle, he will be setting a terrible precedent for future presidents.

Abby Phillip at POLITICO:

The still-unsettled Iraqi state also complicates matters for Obama; while avoiding Bush’s famous “mission accomplished” declaration, the president must nevertheless signal a satisfactory conclusion to the second-longest war in American history. The White House has said Obama, speaking on prime-time TV for just the second time, will hit the same themes as in his weekly address last Saturday, thanking the troops and reiterating that “as a candidate for this office, I pledged I would end this war; as president, that’s what I’m doing.”

William Kristol in The Weekly Standard:

When you speak tomorrow, you might also do what you neglected to do Saturday: You might praise General Ray Odierno, who, with General David Petraeus, turned the war in Iraq around in an amazing feat of generalship, and then did a terrific job of managing, under your direction, a delicate drawdown and transfer of responsibility to our Iraqi partners. … And I hope you would also explain that, whatever one’s views of the decision to go to war, we now have a moral obligation and strategic opportunity to help a free and democratic Iraq succeed. This means emphasizing that we expect to work closely with Iraq in the future, and that we are open to stationing troops there. It means not repeating the vulgar and counter-productive emphasis in your Saturday address—”But the bottom line is this: the war is ending. Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course. And by the end of next year, all our troops will be home.”

Julie Kirtz at Fox News:

White House officials say in President Obama’s Oval Office address he will talk about the way forward in a country once ruled by a dictator and highlight milestones that many doubted would ever be reached. … Seven years after President Bush said no outcome but victory would be accepted in Iraq, President Obama will say America and its allies have succeeded. Will the country rally around him as it did in 2003?

Michael Muskal in the Los Angeles Times:

The president will try to avoid the mistake made by former President Bush, who triumphantly claimed the military mission was accomplished in 2003, only to spend the rest of his time in office fighting a deadly war against Iraqi insurgents.

A.B. Stoddard in The Hill:

President Obama’s idea to call President George W. Bush on Tuesday before he speaks from the Oval Office about the end of combat operations in Iraq is a good one. And Obama has rightly concluded that the words “mission accomplished” won’t be appropriate for tomorrow night’s address. In what will be his second Oval Office address, Obama will thank our men and women in uniform — and their families — for their service and sacrifice in that more than seven-year-old war and acknowledge the challenges that remain.

Deborah White at About.com:

Americans long ago gave up believing President Bush regarding the Iraq War, and frankly, trusting President Obama to carry out promises made in his many uplifting speeches is getting to be a stretch, too, even for progressive Democrats. Americans are no longer naive about U.S. misadventures in Iraq. We’ll believe genuine withdrawal when we actually see it… not when a President proclaims “Mission Accomplished” or makes pretty pronouncements from the Oval Office.

Jill Lawrence in Politics Daily:

Here are the top two words I want to hear President Obama say in his Oval Office speech about Iraq: Never again. … I want to hear about first principles from him – principles that determine when we go to war. I want to hear about fact-based decision-making – why we go to war. I want to hear about smart planning and contingency planning and choosing competent people to lead us into, and out of, potential quagmires. In short, I want to know I can once again trust my government.

Aaron Gee in American Thinker (thereby making the grammatical errors even funnier):

Almost every American wants our troops to come home victorious, and President Obama will capitalize on that sentiment tomorrow night.  It’s worth reminding folks that Obama was one of those Americans who wanted to bring troops home regardless of victory.  No amount of kind words and clever phrases will change that fact.  When one examines the mess our economy is in, or the stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the surge worked, you realize that President Obama hasn’t been right very often.  While President Obama may not have been right very often, but he was clever at convincing people that he was something he wasn’t (a moderate healer).  Look for that type of cleverness in this speech.

Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy:

To my ears at least, he did not do well in the preliminary quiz, this week’s radio address, which focused on Iraq. He repeated the gimmicks, fudged on the mission going forward, had nothing to say about the challenges that lay before us, pretended no national security interests were at stake in Iraq, and came dangerously close to reducing current and former military personnel to a government benefits enterprise. Only a stray phrase noting in passing that the troops fought “for the defense of our freedom and security” hinted at the important matters left unaddressed. Perhaps he will address them in the big speech.

Sarah Palin on Twitter:

Tues:Obama Iraq speech;poor leadership if this fierce opponent of the surge can’t give credit where credit’s due.Credit due GW,McCain,troops

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