Tennessean Editorial: To Hell with the Constitution and Democracy

underbusOpening with the premise that President Obama “made a mistake” seeking Congressional approval for military action, A remarkable (and not in a good way) editorial on Syria in this morning’s Tennessean urges Congress to give him that approval anyway. The argument along the way essentially throws democracy and the U.S. Constitution under the bus. Let’s deconstruct.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Americans do not want to get involved in a civil war in Syria. Our strategic interest is hard to discern; there seems to be little prospect for an outcome that makes Syria a better place; and we absolutely do not want to see American troops engaged on the ground.

So of course Obama should launch the missiles! Why should the fact that public support for authorization fails by an astonishing 61-26% tally in a new poll matter?

His decision to plead for permission from Congress to do his job has emboldened Assad, who, in an interview with Charlie Rose, threatened that the U.S. would face “every action” from several parties in the region if it launched strikes.

Please. This is not a “plea for permission” from Congress; it is a request for authorization from the branch of government that has responsibility under the Constitution. The editorial seems to be suggesting that a president should ignore the Constitution because an unhinged madman has (shockingly!) issued nebulous threats in a televised interview.

The president’s waffling has exacerbated the risk to the U.S. and its allies and made the world less safe.

So now deferring to constitutional principles is “waffling.” In the Tennessean‘s way of thinking, real leaders ignore the law.

Having thrown Congress an easy pitch, it is understandable that the president’s political opponents should wish to take advantage of his lack of judgment and hand him an embarrassing defeat — especially when their constituents, regardless of political party, want nothing to do with a military response. But Congress should resist the urge and should give the president authority to act.

So Members of Congress should ignore the overwhelming sentiment of their constituents? Yes, elected officials shouldn’t govern exclusively on the basis of public opinion. But on the matter of making war, surely overwhelming public disapproval should carry the day.

Given the tenor and increasing power of our congressional delegation, this is an excellent chance to demonstrate Tennessee’s leadership and willingness to rise above partisan politics when American authority is under attack.

Not sure what “increasing power” they have in mind, and “rise above partisan politics” doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Yes, Sen. Bob Corker has become an influential voice of reason on some key issues, but the rest of the Tennessee delegation has little to show in the way of important committee leadership posts or significant legislative accomplishments. A few of them get a fair amount of talk show action, but as often as not that’s because they have embarrassed us on the national stage.

Whether the president chooses to launch the strikes he had previously planned, or chooses to use the threat of those authorized strikes to force Assad to abide by international sanctions against chemical weapons — a path that Russia has offered — America should not be in a position where we have hobbled our options.

The notion that honoring the Constitution’s separation of powers represents “hobbling our options” is nothing short of a defense of oligarchy. Ignoring the rule of law when it is inconvenient is the hallmark of tyranny. It’s disappointing to see editorialists at the fish wrapper, who alarmed many of us with their lurch to the right endorsing Mitt Romney last year, now dip their toes in the waters of fascism.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


A Newspaper’s Winning Strategy: Deplete Staff, Dilute Product, Jack Up Price

TennLetter2In a move that truly merits a place of honor in the corporate hallucination hall of fame, the “customer service” wing of The Tennessean dropped me (and presumably all 16 other remaining print subscribers) a line this week informing me that the paper’s utter fabulousness warrants an arresting 26% hike in the subscription price. This big an increase all at once would be irksome on its own given a low-inflation economy and the ever-declining quality of Gannett’s product, but coming as it does on the heels of multiple rounds of newsroom layoffs it’s downright appalling.

Of course, the missive from Customer Service VP Barbara Smith doesn’t bother to mention the old rate or the scope of the increase. The hope, obviously is that we won’t notice its magnitude, nor recall that subscription prices rose big time as recently as mid-2012 when the paper unveiled digital apps and an online paywall. In all, the cost of my seven-day home-delivery subscription in the last 15 months has jumped a whopping 68 percent, from $17.25 in May 2012 to the new rate of $29.00 starting next month.

But it must be worth it, VP Barbara argues, because the daily fish wrapper tells “more local stories that make a difference, protect taxpayers, and touch an emotional chord.” (A 68 percent price hike sure touches an emotional chord.) They “engage readers with timely news information and deliver valuable insights that can’t be found anywhere else.” (Who writes this stuff?) And somehow Ms. Smith finds it in herself to trumpet with a straight typeface the “award-winning tennessean.com site” — a web presence that is widely understood to be badly designed, clumsy in execution, and difficult to navigate. (And don’t get me started on the paper’s abysmal excuse for a smartphone app.) Cities half the size of Nashville have daily papers with better online presence.

Look, we readers get it that the newspaper business is economically dire, and that over the long run, daily dead-tree home delivery is becoming an expensive luxury. Many news organizations are confronting their uncertain future by struggling heroically to maintain the mission and the quality while bracing against the gathering storm. At The Tennessean the approach is a little different: deplete the staff, kill morale, dilute the quality of the product, jack up the prices, and hope nobody notices.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Reality (TV) is Merely an Illusion

fletchrowLast night on the season premiere of AMC’s “The Pitch,” the Nashville advertising and communications firm Fletcher Rowley, best known for its work in political consulting, competed against some mooks from Atlanta for an account with College Hunks Hauling Junk. CHHJ, which recently expanded into the moving business (College Hunks Moving, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), has been experiencing what its president calls a brand “identity crisis,” and so went looking for ad agency help rethinking its overall approach to branding. Enter reality TV’s “The Pitch.”

The hour-long AMC show follows the two competing agencies firms through their internal creative processes, culminating in oral presentations — the pitches — made to the client firm’s leadership. Fletcher Rowley proposed that CHHJ lose the “college hunk” concept and completely rebrand as Heroic Movers and Haulers. The Atlanta agency, a capitalization-challenged firm called breensmith (adding to the edginess: a shaved head guy in charge and a woman with pink hair on the team), suggested keep the CHHJ brand for the hauling side of the business, and brand the moving side as Hunks and a Dolly. After the two pitches, the agency types stand around in the hallway (with far less trash talk than this demanding viewer would have liked to see) while the client firm’s executives make their decision. They summon the agencies back in and announce the result: breensmith gets the gig. A crushing defeat for the home team.

But wait: within a few minutes after the show’s credits roll FR’s Bill Fletcher tweets the all-important denouement:

fletchtweet

Fletch and Rowley expanded on this in a TwitLonger post:

Now that you have seen the show you know that it looked like we “lost” during the actual filming. Truth is, a few days later filming completed the College Hunks Hauling Junk and College Hunks Moving guys reached out to us and, ultimately, they hired us instead of the firm they selected on the show. It’s a cautionary tale about some of the limitations of non-scripted television because if it doesn’t happen when the cameras are rolling then it didn’t happen. We had hoped that AMC and the producers might put a note to that effect at the end of the show but we understood when it was made clear to us that the show was edited and locked and they couldn’t make any changes. We were fine with that decision as long as we could tell the rest of the story after the show aired and that’s what we’re doing now.

You’ll encounter no evidence of this real reality outcome on the breensmith twitter feed or anywhere that I could find on the AMC show’s website. Reality, as Einstein said, is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Elect the Tennessee AG?

TennAGSealThe Tennessean editorialized Sunday in favor of popular election of the state attorney general. Tennessee is one of just seven states that don’t elect the AG, and the only state where the AG is chosen by the judiciary (by the Tennessee Supreme Court). In five of the other six states the governor appoints the AG, and in one state the legislature appoints.

Yesterday’s editorial represents a bit of a shift for the daily fishwrapper:

In the past, the editors of this newspaper have praised Tennessee’s status as the only state whose chief lawyer is chosen by the judiciary branch. But the world changes, and with it our expectations. In this era of ever-more-divisive government and heightened risk of corruption through big, anonymous campaign contributions, some priorities have shifted — although not those that matter most: fairness and the belief that the will of people should prevail. In other words, it’s time for voters to get fully involved in how the state of Tennessee is run, and that means popular election of its attorney general, as is the case in 43 states.

Putting aside the editorial’s clumsy attempt to justify a change in position with vapid assertions about “ever more divisive government” and “heightened risk of corruption,” they do reach the right conclusion: the AG should be elected. Many of my liberal fellow travelers will stridently disagree. They defend the current system as one that breeds the appointment of intelligent moderates who privilege legal analysis over ideology, keeping the AG’s office out of the hands of rabid conservatives who might win a statewide election. True that, but do the ends justify the means?

I think not. An elected AG is compelled to advocate with vigor for the people who put him or her in office, which offers the prospect of a more assertive watchdog over popular interests in realms of consumer protection and corporate malfeasance. Some will say, “but the nutter who might win popular election in deep red Tennessee won’t do those things.” Maybe, maybe not, but deciding whether an office should be elected or appointed on the basis of the expected electoral result is both bad public policy and bad democracy. And by the way, the current arrangement does represent an intractable conflict of interest — the Tennessee Supreme Court appointing the state’s chief law enforcement officer, who manages an office that routinely does business in that and other courts on behalf of the state.

There is another argument not mentioned in the Tennessean editorial: we also should elect the AG because we need more statewide elective offices. It is not a good thing that U.S. Senators aside, the election for governor is the only statewide race we have. The lieutenant governor should be elected as well. The parties need more opportunities to develop political bench strength in the heat and light of statewide races.

The current AG, Bob Cooper, is by all accounts a thoughtful human who, given an elected AG, could well be replaced with someone less measured and more ideological. I probably won’t be happy at all with the newly elected AG, and the constructive role that AG legal opinions have played in recent years tempering some of the worst impulses of the legislature will likely diminish. But those are reasons to try to win an election, not reasons to have no election at all.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


A Very Broad Reading of the First Amendment

endnearThe Tennnessean runs a curious editorial this morning arguing that a noise ordinance citation slapped by the city of Franklin on street preacher John McGlone amounts to an infringement of First Amendment rights. McGlone was ticketed last April for doing his preaching with a mic and amplifier in violation of Franklin’s noise ordinance (contained in a municipal code section charmingly titled “Offenses Against the Peace and Quiet”).

The editorial is curious because it seems so patently misguided on the law. I’m as much of a free speech fan as the next person, but it is well-settled First Amendment law that government can regulate the time, place, and manner of expressive activity on public property. Laws or regulations that do restrict speech have to advance an important governmental interest, and must do so in a narrowly drawn way that allows alternative means of communication. It is well understood that limiting sound amplification qualifies (see, for instance, the 1989 Supreme Court case Ward v. Rock Against Racism), as long as the rules aren’t written in such a way as to penalize a particular viewpoint or stifle more expression than necessary.

In the Franklin case, McGlone was doing his thing during Franklin’s Main Street Festival near the Public Square. The noise ordinance says that “when a special event permit has been obtained from the City of Franklin, no other amplification of sound will be permitted within the area of the special event except that which has been applied for and authorized by the city pursuant to the permit application.” So when a festival vendor complained about McGlone’s amplified activity, the preacher was issued a ticket for an ordinance violation.

It is perfectly reasonable, practically and constitutionally, for municipalities to regulate with a permit process the use of amplified sound in public spaces. Cities can run afoul of constitutionality if they make the obstacles for obtaining a permit onerous, or are too restrictive in framing the circumstances in which amplified speech is permit-eligible. Franklin’s ordinance doesn’t arouse concern on either of these dimensions, even if there are other elements of the law that seem bizarrely specific (for instance, the actions “declared to be loud, disturbing and unnecessary” include “the blowing of any locomotive steam whistle or steam whistle attached to any stationary boiler except to give notice of the time to begin or stop work or as a warning of fire or danger”).

Bottom line: A rule saying that the authorized amplified sound within a permitted special event is the only amplification allowed within the area of that event offends neither common sense nor the First Amendment. As long as the Main Street Festival permit didn’t cover (and therefore restrict expressive activity within) an unjustifiably large area of the city center, it’s hard to see how McGlone has a case, nor how The Tennessean fathoms a free speech infringement. And even if the permit did reach too broadly in defining the festival’s footprint, there is still the city’s legitimate ability to regulate sound amplification on public sidewalks.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Break Promises, Win Friends

“Hey, it was just a quote-pledge-unquote, so chill.”

Fresh off their chirpy endorsement of Mitt Romney back in October, the newly conservative editorialists at The Tennessean today are prepared to canonize Sen. Bob Corker for essentially going back on a promise. Noting Corker’s apparent repudiation Monday of his sworn fealty to Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, the paper “applauds Sen. Corker for seeing the light.” Corker told Charlie Rose on CBS that “The only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January.”

Just so that nobody is confused about whether the Americans for Tax Reform pledge really does look like a promise, here is the full text of the thing that Corker signed:

I, ___, pledge to the taxpayers of the state of ___, and to the American people that I will: one, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

The Tennessean writes that “Norquist’s pledge has been a major stumbling block to Congress serving its constituents, preventing any real discussion about reasonable compromises that would get the nation’s economy back on track.” Puh-leeze. Norquist’s pledge has not been the stumbling block; the craven and dogmatic act of signing the damn thing by political cowards like Corker is the stumbling block. In its Romney endorsement, the paper was critical of Barack Obama’s “inability to possess the leadership to break the partisan gridlock in Congress.” Gee, do you think brainless pledges like Corker’s might have had anything to do with that?

Let’s see if we have this straight, Senator: As a candidate for office you make an inane (yet solemn) promise to never ever ever do something, and then you abandon it on a dime six years later when you suddenly wake up to the painfully obvious idiocy of making such a promise in the first place. Are we supposed to call this statesmanship?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Awesomest Op-Ed Ever

How is it that the cultural and political vibe here in a red state like Tennessee diverges so dramatically from so much of the rest of the country? Fortunately we have Nashville’s daily paper The Tennessean to help us sort through it: we live in a place where the editors of the daily paper think their editorial page is just the spot for the paranoid delusions of a right-winger like Andy Miller.

In Miller’s world, channeled in a Tennessean op-ed this morning, Barack Obama is a man with a “socialist mission” who has “turned his back on our allies and encouraged the growth of radical Islam all over the world.” One could just dismiss this as boilerplate far right prattle, but it’s the kind you expect to find on Michelle Malkin’s comment board; even in flyover America there are very few editors who would so debase themselves professionally as to put this kind of thing on the editorial page of a metropolitan daily. That fact that it ran may say more about The Tennessean than it does about Mr. Miller.

The thing truly runs off the rails when Miller launches his diatribe about the evils of cities and the scum who fill them:

In looking at the electoral map, it is clear that the states themselves are not the key element. The blue areas are counties with big cities filled with elitist intellectuals and government-dependent millions tightly packed into ever-declining neighborhoods ….These cities are the repositories of big government, poverty, massive dependency and cobbled-together constituencies who often have little in common except that they are part of the Democratic Party. They vote lock-step with the people who promise continued goodies and continued protection from the “evil rich.”

Miller’s urban animus is rooted in fully formed ignorance: he describes the counties within which cities are situated as places that “will always be blue in the new America and will always have their hand out to the red sections looking for more and more.” The opposite, as just about everyone except Miller and the editors of The Tennessean knows, is the case. As you can see in this chart and the map within this article (original data here), red states are more likely to get bigger cuts in federal spending, while blue states, containing most of the cities that Miller so abhors, are much more likely to be doing the giving, not the taking.

So Mr. Miller, a suggestion: The next time you find yourself face to face with an elitist intellectual while you’re cowering in fear in a declining urban neighborhood, perhaps you’ll take a moment to say thanks for helping to finance your deep red paradise of imbecility.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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