Regulating the Communications Industry: From Bells to Bandwidth

The government has repeatedly had difficulty regulating telecommunications, and the current controversy over net neutrality is no exception. It is a battle pitting telecommunications titans AT&T, Comcast and Verizon against virtually everyone else who uses the Internet — which is virtually everyone else. The titans appear to have prevailed, and Internet users, including The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, are seriously worried. [Read more…]

Supreme Court Stays Court-Ordered Texas Redistricting. What Does It Mean?

Original gerrymander cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale, "Boston Gazette," March 26, 1812.

Original gerrymander cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale, “Boston Gazette,” March 26, 1812.

The case challenging redistricting in Texas, Veasey v. Abbott, has been around since 2011. Congressional districts set after the 2010 census were alleged to be discriminatory against minorities and hence illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs won, and new districts were drawn and approved by the federal district court.

But in three elections since then, plaintiffs argue that the new districts have proven still to be discriminatory. The federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ordered the districts redrawn in time for the 2018 election. The case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. [Read more…]

Religious Freedom Reimagined?

Every year the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) holds a panel discussion on the just-concluded term of the U.S. Supreme Court. Broadcast live from the National Constitution Center, this year’s panel — consisting of legal experts Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Frederick Lawrence and Dahlia Lithwick — reviewed the 2016-17 term, which ended in June. They covered topics ranging from free speech and transgender rights to an analysis of the court’s newest member, Justice Gorsuch. They also discussed an issue of particular interest to the Jewish community: the separation of church and state, raised by a Supreme Court case with potentially far-reaching implications. [Read more…]

Independence Day Is an Occasion to Celebrate American Jewish Heroes

Haym Salomon Stamp. Photo: USPS.

Haym Salomon Stamp. Photo: USPS.

How many Jewish heroes of the Revolutionary War (or earlier) can you identify? You probably know that Haym Salomon was a key figure in financing the Revolution. Did you know that Francis Salvador was the first Jew to die in the American Revolution, on August 1, 1776, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You might know that Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and other relief organizations. Did you know that her family was prominent among revolutionaries here? We also have colonial recipes. [Read more…]

News Media Need to Protect Us From Fake News

Screen shot of the Constitution Center’s panel with Susan Glasser (left), Glenn Kessler (center), Brian Stelter (right).

A vigorous free press is central to our Republic. If any part of the government fails in its duty or oversteps legal bounds, we expect the news media to alert all of us to the facts, and bring judges, legislators, police, private citizens and organizations into action to remedy the problem. Without the news media, minorities and the less fortunate in our society would be the first to suffer inequality and ultimately loss of freedom.

But how does this work in an age when facts and “alternate facts” appear together, seemingly indistinguishable, in the new media that people are tuned to? The National Constitution Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia took up the question under the heading, “Defining Truth in Modern Politics.”

With this very hot topic, the Constitution Center presented a very tepid discussion. Three journalists, including Susan Glasser, Politico columnist and weekly podcast host, Glenn Kessler, fact checker for the Washington Post, and Brian Stelter, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, responded to questions from Tom Donnelly, senior fellow at the Center, in a program on May Day.

The panelists agreed that the media are under attack, notably from President Trump with his charges that they publish “fake news.” Kessler contrasted the situation today and 30 years ago and said that at the time, the New York Times, Washington Post and other respected newspapers, Newsweek and Time magazine, and a few respected broadcasters (think Walter Cronkite), laid down the facts. Battles centered on the opinions that could be drawn from those facts, but not the underlying truths.

But that is no longer the model in our internet age. Today, millions of Americans draw their news from the Internet, talk radio and similar sources. Some sources still practice traditional investigative journalism to produce real facts. But others freely run with rumors, false claims and propaganda — untested assertions, if they are surprising and eye-catching, get retweeted and repeated until they appear to be established facts.

Kessler, the fact checker, noted that the scope of his activity does not include opinions, just facts. Within that delimited area, he can handle only those claims that can be readily checked from available sources. That leaves out a great deal.

Stelter traced the current battle over “fake news.” It began with allegations by newsmen that then presidential candidate Donald Trump was spewing false information. The example given was Trump’s campaign claim that he would cut prescription medicine costs and save Medicare $300 billion per year, when in fact the total bill that Medicare pays for prescription medicines is closer to $70 billion. Stelter considered that perhaps Trump tried to recover from the blunder by accusing the news media of publishing “fake news.”Adding to the problem, the panelists noted the tendency for people to read and listen to only those news outlets that agree with their political preferences. The media play to this element by segregating themselves on the political spectrum. The panelists had no suggestion as to how to move people out of their “bubbles,” except to recommend it.

The panel’s prognosis is not optimistic: they recognize that the traditional media face a breakdown in their business plan built around people paying for information. Stelter suggested that in 10 years there might be more daily newspapers, such as a Sunday edition sold at a substantially higher price than today.

The panelists urged us to recognize the difference in quality of different information sources. But Kessler pointed out the limited independent fact checking that can happen in our system, constrained by time and the difficult economic issues facing traditional newspapers. So, although acknowledging the problem, this panel had few specifics to offer to correct it. Neither did they express any thought that it will right itself.

We can do better.

Generating fake news, including disinformation so extreme as to be unbelievable, is a technique for getting attention and coverage in the respectable press. A transparent falsehood may attract disproportionate press attention, bringing coverage and publicity to the faker.  The professional media ought to be very cautious not to give such prominent attention to fakery as to make it a successful strategy for those seeking publicity.

The most immediate remedy against fake news should be found among journalists. Responsible journalists must speak out against fake news, not just to each other but in loud unmistakable voices to the world. Even this panel on truth in publishing showed no interest in specifying which journalists and media need reformation.

From a mistaken sense of obligation to be even-handed, the media treat those who propound fake news as if they are respectable sources. In this complicated age, the journalists and news media need to step up to the task. If they are going to report faulty or unvalidated material, a disclaimer is needed. The prominence given the material must be reconsidered in light of the tendency for listeners to choose to believe too much.

Longer term, putting civics back into elementary and high school curricula could be very useful. Education to prepare students for life on a planet of the electronic media should include training in finding the indicia of authenticity and the opposite. The evils of crowdspeak also need to be emphasized and taught from actual cases.

We might also need rating agencies. In a society that ranks innumerable services, including entertainment programs, books, movies, appliances, repair services, and so many others, applying our penchant for quality of the media is a logical next step.

The government should not rate the news media, because of considerations of freedom of speech and the press under the First Amendment. Any effort in that direction would be a serious threat to the independence of the news media.

But ratings do not need to be done by government. Taking a page from the financial markets, bonds are sold in the billions of dollars to buyers who do not initiate independent evaluations of the quality of each instrument. Bond rating agencies are private entities that evaluate the quality of the issuer and the confidence that the commitment in the bond will be fulfilled.

News media could be evaluated on their careful, thorough practices applied to a story before it is published. The media have accepted standards of care to apply before releasing an article. There are also accepted forms of language, when a decision is made to publish, that disclose uncertainties or limitations that may remain in an article.

The National Constitution Center presents an ongoing program of talks on topics related to the Bill of Rights, listed at constitutioncenter.org/debate.

Watch Brian Stelter admit to accidentally spreading “fake news:”

Combating Hunger With Jewish Values

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is an organization that has been fighting hunger for over three decades. Originally, Mazon operated by providing funds to local food relief agencies, but now, it is solely an advocacy organization. Mazon advocates on hunger issues at all levels of government and provides grants to support the advocacy capacity of food distribution organizations and other anti-hunger groups throughout the United States and Israel. The grants — 179 of them this past year — fund advocacy efforts that benefit people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Rabbi Erin Glazer. Photo credit to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Rabbi Erin Glazer
Photo credit to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

In between busily preparing for Passover and responding to fast-paced government developments, Rabbi Erin Glazer, senior engagement officer of MAZON in Washington, D.C., took the time to answer a number of questions about the organization during a phone interview. Glazer served as rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, and gained her legislative experience at the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. [Read more…]

Immigration Hagaddah Supplement From HIAS

Photos from the HIAS Haggadah

Photos from the HIAS Haggadah.

This year, above all others, we should turn our thoughts and deeds to the millions of refugees fleeing from war and violence, a reincarnation of our great-grandparents fleeing from pogroms, conscription into the army of the czar and abject poverty. HIAS, our agency for resettlement of refugees in the United States, has prepared a Hagaddah supplement with striking photos and drawings of what it means to be a refugee today.

The full 10-page booklet is available for free use. Here is just an excerpt: [Read more…]

Filibustering Is Not Obstructing

Empty Chair at Supreme Court. Photo: OneNewsPage.com

Empty Chair at Supreme Court. Photo: One News Page.

When the Democrats launched a filibuster against the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, some claimed that it was only nasty revenge for the refusal of the Republicans in 2016 to vote, or even hold hearings, on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. The comparison is not apt.

Judges Gorsuch and Garland are both highly gifted members of the U.S. Courts of Appeals, judicial offices second in rank only to the justices of the Supreme Court. There the similarity ends. [Read more…]

Muslim Laptops?

Muslim man has his bag checked at the airport.

Muslim man has his bag checked at the airport. Photo courtesy of France 24.

With its new ban, the Transportation Safety Administration has adapted to the Trump Administration too easily. “Intelligence showing that the Islamic State is developing a bomb hidden in portable electronics spurred the United States and Britain on Tuesday to bar passengers from airports in a total of 10 Muslim-majority countries from carrying laptop computers, iPads and other devices larger than a cellphone aboard direct inbound flights, two senior American counter terrorism officials said,” according to the New York Times.

We need to take a long breath and think about what is happening. Laptop computers and tablet readers might pose a danger to air travel. But singling out ten Muslim-majority Middle East nations is not our way, and is not logical.

[Read more…]

Local Lawyers Defend Stranded Muslim Travelers

Attorney Rulla Moor offering her services at Philadelphia International Airport. Screenshot from 6 ABC News video.

Attorney Rulla Moor offering her services at Philadelphia International Airport. Screenshot from 6 ABC News video.

On Friday afternoon, January 27, President Trump entered his order banning travelers holding passports from Syria and six other Muslim countries from entering the United States, and on Saturday, top Philadelphia immigration lawyers stepped into action to help stranded travelers, including people being held incommunicado.

The Legal Intelligencer reports that lawyers from the firms Langer, Grogan & Diver and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg teamed up with HIAS and the American Civil Liberties Union to form two groups. One group went to the airport to try to help those who were detained, unable to enter the country. A second group went to work on court papers, assisted by lawyers from the immigration law firms of Landau, Hess, Simon & Choi and Green and Spiegel.

By Sunday, this volunteer effort succeeded in ending the detentions. Fully resolving the issues, however, will require substantial litigation, in which these lawyers will play a significant role.