American Daily: October 23, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

23 October 2014

  • Eulogising Ben Bradlee, the editor who oversaw the Washington Post's Watergate coverage.

The obituaries will properly give Bradlee credit for building, along with the owner, Katharine Graham, the institution of the Post. (Abe Rosenthal, Bradlee’s rival and contemporary, deserves credit for his stewardship of the Times, but he inherited an infinitely more established paper.) Together, Bradlee and Graham took a mediocre-to-good paper and turned it into something ambitious, wealthy, and brave. The Bradlee-Graham partnership was behind the publication (along with the Times) of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, which made plain the extent of Presidential deception and folly during the Vietnam War. And they were behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, which led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration. Those same obituaries will cover the familiar ground of Bradlee’s close friendship with John F. Kennedy—a relationship that was, at best, deeply problematic for a journalist in his position (he was then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek), but which lent Bradlee much of his dash and glamour. A certain post-Watergate overconfidence also seemed to help fuel a scandal, in 1981, when a young staff writer named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee was able to survive a scandal of that scale, as others would not have been, because he set a standard for immediate and investigative correction of Cooke’s confabulation—and because he had the long-standing affection of the owner and everyone in the newsroom. Even if you were quite sure he didn’t know your name, you were prepared to go to fantastic lengths to live up to his standards. And he was fun, the embodiment of how much fun journalism could be. Ben Bradlee was the least dull figure in the history of postwar journalism.

Believe it or not, Kansas is currently the tightest race in the nation, with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and independent Greg Orman each averaging about 45 percent of the vote. Roberts, who is seeking a fourth term, has rebounded in recent weeks as the beneficiary of a spree of GOP spending and visits from high-profile Republican luminaries. He's now playing up his opposition to gay marriage and abortion in the western half of the socially conservative state with a rare foray into the culture wars by a Republican this midterm cycle. To stem the tide, Orman is relying on super PACs to come to his rescue, but this race is now trending toward Roberts. "Orman might actually be running one of the worst campaigns now, worse than Roberts a month ago or even Bruce Braley in Iowa," remarks a GOP consultant involved in the race.
  • Do Democrats see new hope for victory in Kentucky?
The decision comes after the big-spending party committee said last week it had no plans to up its buy on the air in Kentucky until Election Day, a sign many interpreted as meaning that Washington Democrats had given up on the race. But with the new ad buy and ongoing DSCC investment in the Grimes voter turnout effort, Democrats are signaling they believe they can still pull off an upset in one of their few pickup chances.
  • Map of the day: 50 per cent of Americans live in the counties shaded blue.

Half of America lives here

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American Daily: October 21, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 October 2014

These contests might lack the drama of a presidential election — and there are plenty of signs of voter apathy in this cycle — but they make up for it with their diversity, collectively addressing some of the most important and analytically compelling questions in electoral politics.

Earlier in the cycle, Republicans had many pickup opportunities yet only appeared to be safely ahead in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. In the last few months, though, Republicans have maintained small leads in some of their target races — and small leads in five states in mid-October are more likely to produce five wins than similar leads in July or August. Meanwhile, Democrats have failed to generate any likely takeovers of their own, with the party's chances in Kentucky, Kansas, South Dakota and Georgia failing at least so far to turn any of those seats around.
  • No matter the results, US government will remain unrepresentative in one important way.

October is to political prognosticators what February is to florists and April is to accountants; namely, the time when a profession that’s peripheral to our daily concerns momentarily becomes the center of our attention. This season’s forecasting for the midterm elections is largely occupied with the partisan balance of the Senate. (The Times’ Upshot column has it seventy-one per cent likely that the Republicans will gain control. FiveThirtyEight puts the G.O.P.’s odds at sixty-one per cent.) The uncertainty hinges on about ten races that are too close to call, despite the finely calibrated statistical divination of experts. There is, however, one outcome that requires no sophisticated simulations to predict: the Senate will not look like the country. There are currently eighty male senators. Women, who make up fifty-one per cent of the population, hold just twenty per cent of Senate seats. The Senate, notoriously, is not proportional in its representation, but the highest number of seats that women can hope to hold next year will still be fewer than thirty. Currently, three states have two female senators, but thirty-three states are represented by two men.

If calling America isolationist in the 1920s and 1930s is wrong, calling America isolationist today is absurd. The United States currently stations troops in more than 150 countries. Its alliances commit it to defend large swaths of Europe and Asia against foreign attack. Recent presidents have dropped bombs on, or sent troops to, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. Last month, President Obama sent 3,000 American troops to battle an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And while Americans fiercely debate particular military interventions and foreign-aid programs, the general presumption that the United States should play a leading role in solving problems far from our shores is largely uncontested in the American political mainstream.

With the approach of the US Congressional elections, questions about the health of America’s political institutions and the future of its global leadership have become rampant, with some citing partisan gridlock as evidence of America’s decline. But is the situation really that bad?

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Is there still a GOP Senate in America's near future?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 October 2014

2014 Senate

The Senate race, through the eyes of and Sabato's Crystal Ball

A bit more than two years ago, a month prior to the 2012 election, I wrote a post titled "There's a GOP Senate in America's near future." This was my argument:

[W]ith six year terms, the Senate has a habit of periodically returning to the mean, and this year has Democrats defending big gains in 2006. By all rights, Republicans should be well-placed to install Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader next year.

And yet, due to a combination of Obama's coattails and poor nominees (e.g. Todd Akin), Nate Silver currently gives Democrats an 80 per cent chance at retaining control of the Senate this election. If Obama wins re-election, he might start his second term with an unfriendly House, but his party will probably control a majority of the Senate's votes.

That's unlikely to last, however. A second Obama term would likely see a Republican controlled Senate at some point. Remember, Democrats not only had a good cycle in 2006 — 2008 also worked out for them as well. That's the election that handed them, for a short while, a filibuster proof majority. And the six year terms they won then will be the one's they have to defend in 2014.

If, as predicted, Democrats (and Democratic-aligned independents) end up with 52 Senate seats after this election, Republicans will have a tantalizing array of possible pick-ups in 2014.

Democrats actually did even better than predicted: they emerged from the 2012 election with a caucus 55-members strong. This was rather extraordinary, considering that they were defending big gains they made in 2006. They were indeed helped by the coattails of a president winning re-election, but also by a number of Republican nominees that proved too conservative and controversial for public tastes.

But the dynamic hasn't changed in the 2014 midterms; the Democrats coming up for re-election this cycle won in 2008, a year so good for their party that it briefly claimed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. In 2014, nearly everything is working against these senators. HuffPo's poll aggregator gives Barack Obama a 42 per cent approval rating — belonging to the same party as an unpopular president doesn't help win elections. Further, the president's party rarely picks up seats in the midterms; since the Civil War, it's happened only in 1934, 1998, and 2002, in response, respectively, to the Great Depression, resentment over the Clinton impeachment, and the 9/11 terror attacks. And, finally, Republicans have been smarter about keeping their candidates on message — and perhaps at filtering out the genuine crazies this time: there are no apparent Todd Akins, Sharron Angles, Christine O'Donnell, or Richard Mourdocks in this race.

That's why it looks likely that Republicans will do what they should have done in 2012 and take control of the Senate. Nate Silver currently rates their chances at 62.2 percent.

Let's pull something else out from my 2012 post: my list of 2014 races to watch:

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  • Alaska: currently held by Democratic Freshman Mark Begich — Republicans will be eager to win back Ted Stevens's old seat
  • Virginia: currently held by Dem Frosh Mark Warner — Virginia went Obama in 2008 and may again in 2012, but it still has a lot of time for GOP politicians, and Republicans will fight hard to win this seat back.
  • North Carolina: currently held by first term Dem Kay Hagan — outside Charlotte and the Research Triangle, North Carolina remains pretty red.
  • Arkansas: Dem Mark Pryor won a second term without having to face a Republican opponent, but he might not be so lucky in 2014. The Natural State hasn't turned away from Democrats as decisively as the rest of the South, but if Republicans get their act together, this is territory ripe for the picking.
  • Louisiana: Three-termer Mary Landrieu has done well by moderating her views for her conservative electorate, and in 2008 won with 52 per cent of the vote. Louisiana does have a Democratic base — the state voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and has a not insubstantial African American contingent — but is increasingly hostile to Dems.
  • Colorado: Another purple state that sent a freshman Dem to DC in 2008, in this case former Congressman Mark Udall. Republicans fumbled a good chance to pick up a Centennial State Senate spot in 2010 by nominating Tea Partier Ken Buck. Expect another closely fought race next time round.

I also mentioned West Virginia and Montana as likely GOP pick-ups, which, combined with the above, would give Republicans a 53-seat majority. 

So what's changed since then? Well, some good news for Democrats: surprise three-way races in Kansas and South Dakota have made safe Republican seats highly unpredictable. The race in Georgia has both proved closer than I had anticipated, though Republicans are slightly ahead. (Then again, they are also doing well in Dem-held Iowa.) Democrats are putting up a tough fight in Arkansas, Louisiana, and, especially, North Carolina, all states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. And while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is so dismayed with Alison Lundergan Grimes's much-criticised campaign in Kentucky that it has pulled its funding support, Grimes still has an outside chance at unseating Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell.

So although Republicans are likely to finally claim a majority this time round, the story isn't that different from 2012: the party is having to fight harder than it should to win or defend seats that should naturally be theirs. If Democrats somehow hang on to their upper house lead, that will be why.

Republicans need to hope they don't though. In 2016, the reverse dynamic applies: the party will have to defend seats it won in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Seats in blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin will not be so easy for the GOP to hang on to if the economy is still growing and the larger and more diverse electorate seen in a standard presidential year is voting.


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American Daily: October 17, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 October 2014

Wednesday was an ugly day for the global economy. British and German stocks each fell around 3 percent. Greek stocks fell 6 percent. (That’s huge.) In the U.S., a trifecta of economic indicators—retail sales, the producer’s price index, and a manufacturing report—were all disappointing. That sparked an early morning selloff here with investors fleeing into safe-assets like U.S. Treasuries. The interest rate on the 10-year-bond hit a low of 1.86 percent, a drop of more than 16 percent. (Again, that’s really big.) Equity markets closed down around 1 percent and U.S. Treasuries rebounded, closing the day around 3 percent.

The fog of regret has meant no one is able to confidently defend or even cleanly describe what’s actually going on: Three in 10 American women have abortions by the time they hit menopause. They are not generally victims of rape or incest, or in any pitiable situation from which they need to be rescued. They are making a reasonable and even admirable decision that they can’t raise a child at the moment. Is that so hard to say? As Pollitt puts it, “This is not the right time for me” should be reason enough. And saying that aloud would help push back against the lingering notion that it’s unnatural for a woman to choose herself over others.
Gupta is as passionate an advocate for racial justice as you could find. At a time when the Obama administration faces a potential Republican majority in the Senate — and having lost a tough nomination battle over the nominee’s connection to a racially charged murder case involving a police officer — they chose a nominee who has spent the last decade attacking racism in the American criminal justice system. Gupta has called for the decriminalization of marijuana, criticized the militarization of local police, and gone after cops engaging in “highway robbery” through civil asset forfeiture laws.

Today we think of Lyndon Johnson as a man unwaveringly committed to prevailing in Vietnam. But at least at first, he shared Mr. Obama’s pessimism. He and his advisers knew they faced an immense challenge in attempting to suppress the insurgency in South Vietnam. “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere,” he said privately in early March 1965. “But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.”

The country’s fastest growing city (population 640,500), Seattle is the pioneer of micro-housing—tiny, one-room dwellings that are in turn hailed as an affordable, sustainable alternative to the high cost of city living, and disparaged as an inhuman experiment in downsizing. They are disruptors—real estate’s version of a high-tech innovator, literally altering the landscape of the city they occupy. But are they are a force for good or ill? Seattle is still figuring that out.

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American Daily: October 16, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2014

Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP's unwillingness to make even token concessions.
But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn't deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries. These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained. When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African-American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses. African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves.

The default assumption of the gaming industry has always been that its customer is a young, straight, middle-class white man, and so games have always tended to cater to the perceived interests of this narrow demographic. Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.

While Grimes may have denied McConnell the ammo to convince Kentuckians to vote against her, she hasn’t given the citizens of the commonwealth many good reasons to vote for her. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis has already criticized Grimes for not using Obamacare to her advantage, but it’s even bigger than any single issue. Grimes’s strategy has been to bank on McConnell’s lack of popularity—never a beloved pol among Kentuckians, his approval ratings tend to hover in the 40s—and hope that, by dint of the fact that she’s not McConnell, she’ll win. That strategy has admittedly worked well with Democratic donors in places like New York and California, who so loathe McConnell that they've eagerly filled Grimes's campaign coffers. One Democratic aide told me that Grimes's national fundraising network is second only to Elizabeth Warren's. But Grimes's crippling caution and debilitating message discipline have done very little to boost her own standing with voters in Kentucky, at least those who don't already despise McConnell. In fact, it's probably harmed it: Grimes holds just a three-point lead over McConnell among female voters, the group that she was banking on to win big and carry her to victory. “The campaign has cocooned her so much that you don’t get the fact that she’s a bright, capable, smart young woman,” says Jimmy Cauley, a Kentucky Democratic strategist who's been impressed by Grimes in his personal dealings with her. “They’ve built this wall around her that hasn't allowed the good parts of her to get through. At some point voters have to know what she’s about.”

Bedtime in America

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Post-partisan America and Obama

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2014


Here's Ezra Klein talking about the gap between what Obama promised for his presidency and what (and also, especially, how) he achieved:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition. The first two years of the Obama administration are the story of Obama being haunted by his promises of a postpartisan presidency, and choosing, again and again, to pass bills at the cost of worsening partisanship.

Like, accurate, but also completely missing the point.

Yeah, I know, Obama promised to be post-partisan and to bring America together. Just like George W. Bush said he'd be a "uniter, not a divider." Obama said it in his first national speech, his most famous address, perhaps his best oratory of his life:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?

Let's be clear. Obama had — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — just read off a laundry list of liberal priorities: health care, education, the protection of constitutional liberties. And now he was telling us in (a way that was accurate culturally but incorrect electorally) that Americans were, despite all evidence to the contrary, a united people. (Americans are desperate to hear that they're united. It's such a fragile part of their psyche that they put the word united right into the name of their country.)

And now he proves that by saying that liberals like innocuous things like baseball and god (duh, says every liberal listening — or, more like, that's right!) while conservatives like gay people and freedom from surveillance. (In 2004, this wasn't so: there's a fair argument that ballot measures opposing gay marriage drove conservative turnout to a great enough extent to ensure Bush's re-election; the GOP was zealously promoting the PATRIOT Act during the years prior to this speech.) And that bit about patriots who support and patriots who oppose the war in Iraq? This was only radical for the use of the word "oppose": liberals were terribly stung by Republican accusations that their opposition to the war amounted to an opposition to America. Why do you think they endorsed a Vietnam War vet as their presidential candidate?

Or listen to Obama running for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008:

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Because at a time when so many people are struggling to keep up with soaring costs in a sluggish economy, we know that the status quo in Washington just won't do. Not this time. Not this year. We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result — because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing.

Here's the thing about that status quo: it was Republican. When the Democrats listening to this speech heard about "the same Washington game with the same Washington players," they were thinking about seven years of Republican governance, of tax cuts and deficits and disrespect. 

The Obama campaign talked about bipartisanship, about changing the way Washington works, but its genius lay in the way it imparted two messages at once by doing so. To its liberal supporters, it promised a bipartisan America where conservatives would realise that they supported Democratic ideas all along ("we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states ... we've got some gay friends in the red states.") Not, note, a bipartisan America where Democrats and Republicans would draw together to compromise over tax reform or single-payer health care or a stimulus. Obama proposed to his liberal base that bipartisanship should mean an embrace of liberalism.

(This is radical, really, because liberals, always so ready to don the hairshirt, love to tell one another about how removed from the American mainstream they are. Foolish promises that America believes in the same ideas you do is usually for conservatives. Obama convinced liberals that they might actually be America.)

That wasn't what you heard if you were a disgruntled Republican or a disengaged independent. You heard a president saying things about bipartisanship that stirred your American fondness for national unity.

Same with the bit about changing the way Washington works. Liberals heard that the way Washington works would change in the most important way — Republicans would no longer be in charge of it. The rest heard bromides about bipartisanship. So Kevin Drum is, to some extent, right when he says:

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.


In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

But Obama knew who he was talking to. He was talking — dogwhistling, really — to liberals. So let's not pretend like he ever promised a golden age where through sheer force of personality alone he could bring Democrats and Republicans together under the spirit of compromise. He tried to enact his ideology on the grounds that it is what the nation wanted. It's what politicians do.

The fact that people are still convinced he really wanted moderation and compromise speaks to his rhetorical success, really.

Obama told liberals that they could be the American mainstream. He was smart enough to do it in a way that even made conservatives think he was saying he would govern through consensus.


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The hardest question

By Shalailah Medhora in Austin, Texas

13 October 2014

Shalailah Medhora is the recipient of the 2014 US Studies Centre – World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States.

“So what the best part of the Fellowship?”

It’s a question that stops me in my tracks. Which is surprising, because I’ve been asked it multiple times over the last two months.

On the surface of it, the question is simple enough: what part of this amazing nine week experience has stuck out in your mind the most? Which meetings were the most beneficial to your career? What will you remember best when it’s all over?

I could answer by listing my favourite cities. Chicago, with its beautiful architecture and rich nightlife. San Francisco, with its breath-taking bay and anything-goes attitude. Austin, with its varied music scene and optimistic liberalism. Minnesota, which reminds me of my hometown of Canberra.

Or I could make note of the amazing people we’ve been lucky enough to meet. Like Jim Pensiero, talent editor at the Wall Street Journal, who answered our assault of questions with grace and enthusiasm. Or Star-Tribune investigative reporter Paul McEnroe, who was open and candid as he talked about reporting during the first Gulf War. Or middle school principal Celeste Douglas, whose fortitude and belief in her students was humbling. Or Stephen Menya, whose belief in himself was unwavering, even in the face of ignorance and outright racism.

I could answer the question by trying to recount some of the exciting professional experiences we had. Sitting in on an editorial meeting at the New York Times. Walking through the bustling CNN newsroom. Being granted rare access to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while immunologists fought to contain the Ebola outbreak. Meeting the head of the Texas branch of the Republican Party.

All of these fantastic experiences aside, if I had to answer the question, the most honest thing I can say is that the best thing about this fellowship — and the most surprising — were my other fellows. They alone managed to reignite my love of journalism. They are ambitious and always act with integrity, even in dangerous and difficult circumstances. I was thoroughly unprepared for how much I would learn from them.

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They’ve taught me about how to investigate a story, how to establish new leads, how to tell a story in an engaging and different way.

They have been so much more than classmates, travel companions, and roommates. They have become friends and mentors. They have encouraged me to think of things differently, and that can only be a bonus in my career.

My fellow fellows and I are a breed. We’re inquisitive, cynical, open, and ambitious. We look at issues from a number of different angles, and try to get to the heart of a subject through layers of PR spin and hyperbole. We ask questions all the time. It’s nice to know that I’ve found a place where I fit in, socially and professionally.

I very much feel as though I’m still processing the last nine weeks. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed out on mentioning here. But I’ll end with this point. This nine week experience has been a once-in-a-lifetime one, and I’m very thankful to the World Press Institute and US Studies Centre for giving me the opportunity to undertake it.


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The wrong side of history?

By Shalailah Medhora in Atlanta, Georgia

9 October 2014

Shalailah Medhora is the recipient of the 2014 US Studies Centre – World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States.


The word is spelled out, bold and undaunted, from an exhibit at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  The exhibition is one of the first I see in the American Civil Rights section of the museum. It shows the photos of the segregationist men — and they were all middle-aged white men — who fought tooth and nail to keep the races apart.

As I stare at the less-than-flattering pictures of these men and read quotes in which they passionately argued for the “separate but equal” mantra, I can’t help but feel that they will always be remembered for being on the wrong side of history.

I know very little about these politicians, police chiefs and public servants. For all I know, they could have been loving parents, compassionate Christians, good neighbours. But their segregationist beliefs have, rightly or wrongly, forever stained their reputations. They’ll always be remembered as the angry old racists who fought progress.

Advocates say there’s s a civil rights movement going on right now. They say gay marriage is the new fight for equality. Indeed, it’s an impassioned debate that has eloquent speakers and arguments on both sides. And like the Civil Rights movement before it, marriage equality advocates have organised a grassroots movement that has harnessed public sentiment to force political change.

Polls in Australia have seen public support for gay marriage increase steadily over the past few years. A survey commissioned by the Liberal Party and undertaken by Australian Marriage Equality in June reveals that three out of four Australians want same-sex unions legalised. That’s up from 65 per cent in the previous year.

The majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. The margin is still small — 54 per cent support gay unions, and 39 per cent oppose them — but it has been increasing for nearly two decades.

A US Supreme Court ruling has buoyed LGBTI activists. On Monday the court denied a request to review rulings from lower courts in five states that have tried to ban gay marriage.

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“By denying these requests, the court effectively legalised same-sex marriage in these states,” the Pew Research Center, which has tracked the issue, wrote on its website.

“Soon after the high court’s decision was made known, a number of states, including Virginia and Wisconsin, announced that gay and lesbian couples would be able to marry almost immediately,” the Center wrote.

“It [same-sex marriage] will become inevitable,” Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer fighting on the issue told MSNBC.

“The reality is the reality. This country will soon know its friends, its neighbours, its colleagues as married people who just happen to be gay, and that’s the way it should be,” Kaplan said.

“I think the decision today virtually guarantees that [the gay marriage movement] won’t go backwards because we’re going to have the majority of Americans in the majority of states living in states that allow gay people to marry.”

Australia has been slower to act than the United States, despite having a more secular society with a higher percentage of supporters of gay marriage.

That’s partially due to the type of federalism we have in Australia, which lists marriage as a Commonwealth power. Successive federal governments from both sides of the political spectrum have argued against gay marriage, even if that means going against public sentiment.

High Court decisions have kept the status quo by backing the Commonwealth on its power to create laws relating to marriage.  Unlike the US system, these rulings have underscored the point that same-sex unions will only occur when the federal government decides to change legislation.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard was against gay marriage when in office, but last month acknowledged that her point of view is “old-fashioned.”

“I accept the course of human history now is that we are going to see same-sex marriage here and in most parts of the developed world,” Gillard told Channel 9.

Those comments make me think of the segregationists of the 1950s and 60s. Did they know they were fighting a losing battle? Did they care?

When it comes time to judge our current crop of lawmakers in Australia, will they be on the right side of history, or the wrong side?


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American Daily: October 3, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

3 October 2014

We’ve become accustomed to the sight of a black President governing through these dangers—ever-present, contextual, and undiminished—in the way that sirens become ambient sound in New York City. This is one of the less frequently noted accomplishments of his Presidency. In 2008, Obama projected calm amid political turbulence. As President, this demeanor has been part of the reason that such fears have receded to the extent that they have. Yet a population that lived through the September 11th attacks can scarcely ever confuse remote likelihoods with complete impossibilities. Dictatorships are measured by the basest actions of the tyrants who control them, but the metric of democracy is the actions of its citizenship. The bipartisan outrage that has emerged this week is not a sign of a political thaw; it’s an indicator that neither party cares to see America reduced by the unquantifiable sum that Dealey Plaza or Ford’s Theatre diminished it.
  • Was Secret Service director Julia Pierson a victim of the "glass cliff"?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether, ultimately, she deserved to lose her job or whether anyone in charge during such an incident would have to resign. But it’s probably not pure chance that Pierson, who held that position for just a year-and-a-half, was a woman. Time and again, women are put in charge only when there’s a mess, and if they can’t engineer a quick cleanup, they’re shoved out the door. The academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam even coined a term for this phenomenon: They call it getting pushed over the glass cliff.

At a time when Beijing is especially paranoid about "foreign meddling" in its affairs, associating Hong Kong's homegrown protest with the United States could make it more difficult for students to win concessions for their local grievances.

This raises some broader issues for "explainer journalism" — an enterprise that includes not only, but our own blog, The New York Times’s The Upshot, and other smaller sites, too. All of these sites have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public. This means that they (and again: that they includes the Monkey Cage, too) are asserting a a claim to expertise. Specifically, they are claiming that their writers understand an issue on a sufficiently deep level that they can explain it. Conventional journalists can quote outside experts and hedge their bets a little by riding on the coattails of these experts’ authority and blaming them if their theories are wrong. Explainer journalism rests instead on the authority of the person doing the explaining.

  • Why civility won't solve Congressional gridlock.

But we also need a reality check here. The bigger problems with gridlock and dysfunction are not because individuals do not trust each other; they are because of larger factors in the political process and the culture.

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The TPP: A stumbling block for Australian innovation

By Tiernan Christensen in Geneva, Switzerland

1 October 2014

Tiernan Christensen is a University of Sydney Arts/Law student who interned with the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia as part of the Centre's internship program. He is in Geneva for the World Trade Organization Public Forum, and is a National Scholarship recipient for Global Voices.  

The Australian $50 dollar note shows the portrait of David Unaipon, the indigenous Australian who between 1872 and 1967 took out a prolific nineteen provisional patents on inventions, including a shearing machine that formed the basis of modern mechanical shears.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s decision in 1995 to include Unaipon’s image was a clear nod to the early genesis of innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia. Since Unaipon’s time, this culture of invention and innovation has seen Australian scientists and creative individuals invent new-to-the-world goods and services, such as wi-fi, the black box flight recorder, and the Macquarie Bank model for financing public infrastructure projects.

Today, as Australia’s population ages and the mining boom reaches its final leg, key commentators have argued that it is innovation, more than any other factor, that will allow Australia to continue our two decades of uninterrupted growth and remain internationally competitive in a rapidly changing, technologically disrupted global marketplace.

In their 2014 report, Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages, the Business Council of Australia argued "it is is innovation that will allow businesses to access new markets, grow value, and tap into global value chains to bring new products to market."

This is clearly true, with innovation in capital use and labour accounting for 65 per cent of economic growth per capita between 1964 and 2005, according to the Productivity Commission.

To sustain and improve Australia’s innovation system, the government has been deepening trade linkages through bilateral and regional free trade agreements, which aim to attract foreign investment and technology flows into Australia, whilst forcing Australian companies to remain competitive in the face of export and import competition.

However, Australia’s engagement in trade is not entirely positive for innovation outcomes. In many cases, trade can lock in terms and standards that are unfavourable to the development of innovation.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is a fine example of an impediment to innovation. 

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The TPP is a regional free trade agreement between twelve states across the Asia–Pacific region, including Australia, the United States, and Japan. Conducted largely in secret since March 2010, negotiation rounds have aimed to coalesce the members competing interests to achieve a trade block that would cover almost 30 per cent of world trade and 40 per cent of the world’s GDP.

The leaked draft provisions of the agreement reveal that the negotiations are marching to the beat of the hardline US drum, with provisions representing bad news for Australian innovators.

The first concern is the expansion of intellectual property rights, which will restrict medical innovation.

Whilst the preamble clearly states the objective of promoting "technological innovation," the provisions will allow pharmaceutical companies to protect their data exclusivity by preventing competitors from using past clinic data to support new products.

This is a move that would harm Australian innovation, which is built upon the capacity of firms to share knowledge and collaborate to maximise the flow and exchange of resources and ideas. The creation of monopolies for clinical data will mean that potentially innovative generic manufacturers will have either to wait for the data monopoly period to end, or repeat their own clinical trials — a point which the Australian Medical Students’ Association terms unnecessary and inefficient.

The IP provision will allow an extension of patent protection beyond the WTO’s "Doha Minus" 20-year limitation period for companies who patent different aspects of their products. This technique of "evergreening" stifles the capacity of generic producers to innovate and introduce new formulations of original medicines.

The second concern is the extension of terms of protection for copyright and related rights under Article 4, which will limit Australia’s capacity to innovate in the digital economy.

Under this article, copyright protection extends the current Berne Convention rights from the life of the author plus 50 years, to life plus 70 years.

By delaying creative material entering the public domain, copyright extensions clearly serve as a detriment to smaller innovative companies, who often rely on re-using and re-inventing older material into new products and services.

The path from invention to commercialisation will, under Article 4, become increasingly difficult for such companies as key research and knowledge is withheld from innovative use. As Matthew Rimmer from ANU said, "What young, small businesses are going to risk innovating when they have to tread through the complex penalties of the TPP’’

The answer is very few.

This is made worse when you consider that Article 4 will regulate internet rules by preventing the electronic storage of copyrighted material — a notion that runs contrary to Australian law.

In the digital age, using temporary information, or caches, is essential for companies using digital tools and platforms to develop their products.

Given this, the innovative capacity of Australian internet and tech-based services is likely to be eroded by the TPP. We may now be unable to expect clear success stories to emerge such as the Australian company, the world’s largest freelancing and outsourcing website, which allows small businesses to post their project requirements online.

Article 4 would further prohibit the circumvention of technical measures which are used to protect copyrights. This would be without recourse to any exceptions, such as when an individual or firm uses digital content for a legitimate purpose.

Whilst such a rigid article may protect the interests of rights holders, increasing the ambit of copyright by limiting legitimate exceptions to the general rule, decreases healthy competition and provides a clear disincentive to innovate as technologies and services are withheld from their productive use.

Australia would likely become a less attractive market for technology investment and innovation with countries outside the TPP.

Judicial support for these concerns is clear. In their report, Copyright and Digital Economy, the ALRC heavily criticised the hardline approach of the TPP, arguing that copyright must leave breathing room for new materials and productive uses of other copyright material. Instead, it argued that a fair-use exception must balance out stringent TPP copyright provisions.

A final concern is the ability of the TPP to restrict crucial investment and technology inflows into Australia through the inclusion of Investor–State Dispute Settlement Provisions (ISDS).

ISDS grant foreign investors the right to access an international tribunal if they believe actions taken by the host government are in breach of commitments made under the TPP.

However, in Australia, a main reason for attracting investment is the existence of a transparent and non-corrupt judicial system. Compromising this will put Australia at a significant disadvantage in regards to investment from non-TPP nations who don’t support ISDS.

ISDS provisions will also make it harder for Australian governments to enforce decisions that support innovation and broader social outcomes. Indeed, the government’s introduction of plain packaging tobacco laws has already been challenged by Philip Morris Asia under an ISDS arbitral hearing.

Considered together, the ISDS provisions and the strict copyright and intellectual property articles of the draft TPP represent a significant stumbling block to innovation in Australia.

Our culture of innovation, celebrated on our $50 dollar note, is likely to remain stagnant, or even go backward, as the TPP restricts the knowledge flows, the collaboration opportunities, and ultimately the attractiveness of Australia as an investment destination.

As the TPP negotiations move critically towards conclusion, Australian negotiators must exert a stronger stance and listen to key stakeholders in our innovation system. Doing this may just ensure a healthier relationship between trade and our capacity to innovate.


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