It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. This year we had an exceptionally strong set of nominees, perhaps because difficult times reveal the worst (as well as the best) in us.
We had four nominees to consider: Bruce Aylward, nominated by Greg, Charles Lieber, nominated by me, Nancy Gibbs, nominated by Matt, and Mark DiRocco, nominated by Jason. While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, our (dis)honoree this year is Mark DiRocco.
While Nancy Gibbs surely did a dis-service to journalism by awarding lousy reporting at the Arizona Republic, journalism is already so beaten down and discredited that it hardly needs our tap dancing on its grave. Will the last reader of the Arizona Republic please turn off the lights on their way out?
Aylward and Lieber were particularly strong contenders given their sycophancy for a murderous, oppressive regime. But that’s precisely why I decided not to choose them. While both Aylward and Lieber were excellent examples of PLDDs, their service to a BSDD made their actions too menacing for a our little award.
Especially in these troubling times I thought we needed a Higgy winner who was more familiar and less menacing. Mark DiRocco’s callous treatment of students as mere revenue units for the schools he represents by seeking to deny Pennsylvania’s children access to existing online services offered by charter schools is just the sort of edu-blob activity we are accustomed to seeing. It is like the comfort food of PLDD behavior that is exactly the kind of Higgy we need this year.
If you’ve been carbo-loading a bit too much to appreciate the comfort food metaphor, I’d suggest that DiRocco is the Goldilocks of Higgy nominees. He is neither so weak and irrelevant as a journalism professor, like Gibbs, nor so scary as servants of an authoritarian regime, like Aylward and Lieber. This year DiRocco is just right.
It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. We have a smaller but still (un)excellent set of nominees to consider. I failed to submit my own nominee as I was paralyzed by such a target-rich environment and then came down with a fever just when I needed to make a decision and write it. Oh well. Higgy nominees are evergreen, so I’ll keep those possibilities in mind for next year.
So we had three nominees to consider: Richard Henry Pratt, nominated by Matt, Kosoko Jackson, nominated by Greg, and William N. Sheats, nominated by Patrick Gibbons. While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, I think Kosoko Jackson is clearly most deserving. Pratt and Sheats were much more like BSDDers than the kind of PLDDers we are seeking for the Higgy.
Sheats mustered the coercive power of the state to amend Florida’s constitution to forbid integrated instruction in Florida public schools. Pratt embarked on a systematic government program to remove Native American children from their families to be educated in boarding schools that would raise them as “real Americans,” which was tantamount to obliterating an entire people, their language, their religion, and their customs. Whenever people start arguing that we need public schools to create a common sense of identity and shared understanding of democratic citizenship, remember that line of thinking ultimately leads to Pratt. Both Sheats and Pratt are horrifying, but too horrifying for the Higgy.
Jackson is the winning nominee because his dictatorial behavior was really about self-advancement, not truly oppressing large numbers of people. Jackson joined in social media witch hunts that falsely called out competing authors (falsely) for alleged infractions of the Young Adult Fiction politically correct code. That was working well to clear the path for his own career until the mobs came after Jackson.
Posturing on social media as woker-than-thou to advance one’s stupid career and at the expense of a commitment to truth, good sense, and professional courtesy… . Hmmm, does this sound like somethingfamiliar?
Today taxes are due, so it is time to announce the recipient of this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. We had many (un)worthy nominees, so it was difficult selecting the winner (loser). My nominee, Derek Jeter, is certainly annoying in trying to make us eat our baseball vegetables by denying fans the fun distraction of mascot races while the team loses a lot of baseball games goes through its rebuilding phase. But the criteria for awarding The Higgy states that: “‘The Higgy’ will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.” So, there should be some amount of coercion in whoever receives The Higgy and Jeter is not really forcing anyone to have no fun at baseball games. If anything, it is my own darn fault for being a Marlin fan. Jeter is just doing a poor job of running the team, but I am free to become a fan of another team or enjoy something else.
Jason’s nominee, Traci Wilke, was a principal who punished a student for secretly recording a teacher making threats against another student. There is clearly an element of coercion in the principal’s behavior, but if we started awarding Higgies to every school administrator who suppressed the revelation of unflattering information, we’d run out of space on the internet. It would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
This year’s Higgy really comes down to Greg’s nominee, Romanus Cessario, or Matt’s nominee, John Wiley Bryant. Greg’s nominee is certainly vile for defending the forced abduction of a Jewish child because he believes Catholic doctrine requires it. It almost feels like the sort of argument one might make as a freshman in college to see what ridiculous extremes you might reach if you followed a certain idea to its bitter end. But this is a serious grown-up writing in First Things, which was once a respectable outlet. As Greg notes, the really insidious part of the article is that it reveals how much social conservatives seem to be willing to abandon liberalism. The way I’d put it is that these days you don’t have to scratch much beneath the surface to discover how many Jew-hating authoritarians there really are out there.
But I think Cessario falls short because he has no ability to shape the world to his ends. Writing this kind of drivel has about as much influence on the world as the guy sitting on the park bench muttering to himself about how things will be different when he is in charge. Greg is right that abducting children is BSDD, but I think writing in defense of it falls short of being PLDD. The too-easy embrace of authoritarianism and Jew-hating by social conservatives is alarming, but Cessario is a very mediocre anti-Semite. He couldn’t even achieve excellence at that.
John Wiley Bryant is the most deserving of this year’s Higgy because he arrogantly and coercively sought to reshape the world in a way he imagined would be better, but ended up making it significantly worse. Like Matt and many other people of our generation, I gained significant cultural literacy (and had a ton of fun) watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. For trying to force us to watch “educational” television instead of freely choosing quality programming, John Wiley Bryant is awarded the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. He joins last year’s winner, Plato, the 2016 winner, Chris Christie, the 2015 winner, Jonathan Gruber, the 2014 winner, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.
Update — Thanks to Greg for being our official Higgy Historian and remembering earlier winners.
We had a particularly strong set of Higgy nominees, mostly because things are so awful that the list of those contributing to that awfulness has grown quite long. In a normal year Joe Biden might make for a fine recipient of the Higgy, given his wild claims, multiple incidents of plagiarism, and grossly inflated status as a respected politician. But Trump makes one pine for the days of ordinarily unimpressive politicians of which Biden may be the archetype. Kimberlé Crenshaw would also make a worthy recipient of this dishonor for her intellectually lazy and politically disastrous idea of intersectionality. But these days outrage at the defects of PC is so commonplace that there is little need to pile on. TIFs are a truly horrible idea that fuel the public corruption of handing tax breaks to favored industries or friends while righteously claiming to be creating jobs. But the Higgy cannot go to the entire city of Cerritos, California for pioneering this vehicle for Petty Little Dictators since the dishonor really needs to identify an individual.
This year’s Higgy has to go to the “ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga” — Plato — who has provided Petty Little Dictators across the generations the intellectual defense and respectability they crave to lord over others while claiming that reason and science justify their actions. Greg may well be right that Plato’s Republic should be read as a metaphor for the well-governed soul rather than a proposal for what seems to me to be a nightmarish dystopia. And he may be right that Plato articulated a more appealing political vision elsewhere, but the fact remains that The Republic — even if it is a common mis-interpretation — is the most horrific political dystopia ever-described. It puts 1984, Brave New World, and the rash of recent Young Adult dystopias to shame because at least you hear villainous music in your head as you read them. The Republic is so pernicious because it is completely awful while also being completely righteous.
It is this righteousness that makes Petty Little Dictators so insufferable. They have complete confidence that they are guided by reason and science. Anyone who fails to submit is anti-science or motivated by base interests, requiring re-education and denunciation. It is incredibly painful to acknowledge, but I believe that education reform — an effort to which I have devoted the bulk of my professional life — has been almost completely captured by Petty Little Dictators, including its researchers, advocates, journalists, and practitioners.
I sometimes wonder whether we might have been better off leaving things alone. I wish I had listened more closely to the great political scientist, Ed Banfield when he warned us of the dangers of “reform.” Instead, we Young Turks in grad school generally dismissed Banfield as the old and out-of-touch emeritus professor whose office had been moved to the basement of Littauer Hall as a sign of his declining relevance. In fact, Banfield had something more important to teach us than all of the “science” we were learning to fix the world — wisdom. Unfortunately, I and my ed reform peers were all young and generally lacking in wisdom. The mystery to me is not that young people in ed reform can be so lacking in wisdom, it is that there seem to be so few grown-ups who have acquired wisdom from hard experience and are able/willing to restrain the next wave from trying to foist their brave new world on all of us. It is as if even the older ed reformers suffer from some sort of Peter Pan syndrome where they never grow up. Rick Hess’ new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, is a refreshing exception to this Peter Pan syndrome but his is largely a lonely voice standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”
The damage wrought by Petty Little Dictators is not just in their faux-scientific bossiness, it is in the backlash they generate, which is the essence of Trumpism. If PLDDers want to impose their will in the name of science, Trumpites dismiss science altogether and focus exclusively on the triumph of their will. As they see it, science, facts, truth are all just a charade to disguise one’s interests, so their interests might as well prevail. Petty Little Dictators fuel this oddly post-modern rejection of objective evidence by the Trumpites because they behave exactly as the Trumpites think one should behave — imposing their will arbitrarily — even if the PLDDers are simply more self-deceptive than the Trumpites about what they are really doing.
There is an alternative to invoking Science as the club to beat others into submission and advance toward the perfection of human beings or rejecting science altogether — it is called Conservatism. Unlike the Trumpites, Conservatives believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and give deference to science and reason. But unlike PLDDers, Conservatives are keenly away of how flawed we all are and do not trust themselves (or anyone else) enough to be the True Guardians of science and run roughshod over everyone else. They believe people can never be perfected and that it is dangerous to try given our deeply flawed nature. The best we can do is to preserve the traditions and institutions that hold our flawed nature in check while using science and reason to improve things on the margins. In short, Conservatives emphasize humility while PLDDers suffer from over-confidence.
It’s true that Plato (via Socrates) displayed much humility in works such as the Meno, emphasizing how little we really know. Then again William Higinbotham also did much good by contributing to the development of video games. But Plato is worthy of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award because the damage done by The Republic — even if it is simply by permitting a common misinterpretation — outweighs the good. Plato joins last year’s winner, Chris Christie, and Jonathan Gruber the year before that.
Where has the Higgy been? As the traditional nomination date of April 1 and the traditional winner anouncement date of April 15 have come and gone, angry mobs have been gathered around the National Higgy Convention for weeks as the delegate has fruitlessly passed through round after round of voting, trying to find one candidate among this year’s overwhelming bumper crop of potential nominees who can secure a majority vote on the floor. I am now proud to announce, on behalf of the Convention, that the delegate has finally settled on a winner.
Like so many public figures in this remarkable year, Christie exemplifies the spirt of the Higgy and its (un)illustrious namesake:
“The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best. Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.
Encapsulating the (de)merits of this year’s winner is a challenging feat. Let me attempt to convey his (un)redeeming qualities through the three lessons all future PLDDs can learn from his example:
1) Despite your arrogant delusions, you will not, in fact, get to shape the world.
Christie thought that by signing up to campaign for America’s Mussolini, he would gain influence over the budding BSDD’s ambitions.
Yeah, that didn’t work out any better for Christie than it did for any of the other PLDDs who (as all PLDDs eventually do) latch onto a BSDD in hopes of gaining power.
2) People punish arrogance by seizing any opportunity you give them to laugh at you.
I’m just going to leave this here.
3) You will lose your soul.
Every day from this day until the day the illusion of your existence ends, every moment of every day, you will do nothing but seek out alternatives to distract you from staring into the void of a meaningless world. Eat Arby’s.
I know that the winner of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award is supposed to be announced on April 15, but I needed more time to decide among our three excellent (horrible) nominees and filed for an extension.
I thought my nominee, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, was a strong candidate because he illustrates how our liberty faces the greater threat of gradual erosion from Petty Little Dictators than from Big Scary Dictators. Ardis may only be the mayor of a small city, but he still has the power to find some legal pretext to send the police to raid the house of people who mocked him on Twitter. We can all recognize how a Putin or Khomeini might want to oppress us and so we all (or should be all) make efforts to counter those threats. But the mayor of a small city in cahoots with the local police and judge can exploit the fact that our extensive legal code makes each one of us a possible criminal to selectively use the force of the government to punish enemies.
Ardis, however, falls short of earning a Higgy because his actions were too transparently self-interested. The ideal Higgy candidate believes he is shaping the world for the better, but is foiled by hubris, self-delusion, and the extent to which the complexity of the world exceeds the ability of people to impose centralized plans on it. No one believes Ardis was trying to make the world better. He was just trying to settle a score. It’s oppressive but it isn’t Higgy-worthy.
Greg’s nominee, John Maynard Keynes, is also a strong candidate. Yes, Keynes’ ideas provide justification for reckless state intervention in the economy. But my previous objection to awarding Keynes with the Higgy still holds. I don’t think the state needs much justification to intervene. In fact, the historical norm is heavy state distortion of economic activity. This was true for centuries (probably millenia) before Keynes came along and is still true today when few even bother to reference Keynes for support. Keynes may have bad ideas but so does the guy who stands on the corner of the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market who shouts about how Jesus smoked pot and 9/11 was an inside job. You don’t get the Higgy just for having bad ideas.
Matt’s nominee, Jonathan Gruber, didn’t just have bad ideas, but he helped develop a plan to foist those bad ideas on the country through deception and manipulation. And he engaged in this central planning because he believed he was doing something good for us. Let me be clear — I don’t believe Jonathan Gruber is a bad guy. I know a number of economists who are his friends and they swear that he is a decent, capable economist who was just caught on camera expressing the type of hyperbolic commentary that is fairly common at academic conferences. That may be true, but there is a kernel of truth even in that hyperbole. And that truth is not very flattering to Gruber or ObamaCare. It reveals the type of hubris and delusion of control over events that is a near-perfect model of a Higgy winner. And Gruber does not have to be a a bad guy to do something that worsens the human condition enough to warrant a Higgy.
We have had another excellent (that is, horrible) group of nominees for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. It is more than a bit disconcerting that both this year and last we have had a plethoria of compelling nominees.
My own nominee, Paul Ehrlich, was a strong candidate. His modern Malthusian warnings about how humans were exhausting natural resources and needed to control pupilation to avoid an imminent catastrophe helped justify the oppressive and disastrous Chinese One-Child Policy. Ehrlich would have won The Higgy were it not for the fact that folks are already recognizing the dangers of declining birth rates, especially when coerced by the government. Even the Chinese are starting to back away from their policy. The demographic problems of more retireees dependent on fewer workers is becoming a big topic of discussion throughout Europe, Japan, and America. And even the developing world is producing dramatically lower birth rates. The highly influential Higgy does not appear necessary to discredit Ehrlich’s ideas.
Barney Frank is also a very worthy nomination. Frank not only personally contributed to the causes of the Great Recession by championing policies that pushed and subsidized lenders to provide houses to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay, but also has the chutzpah to assert “The private sector got us into this mess. The government has to get us out of it.” But Frank falls short of The Higgy because he was far from alone in the governmental recklessness that nearly destroyed private credit. Politicians on both sides of the aisle favored a house in every pot (they had to up the ante from chickens). Politicians will always be tempted to promise free money and we’re to blame if we take them up on their offer by electing them.
A reader in a comment suggested John Maynard Keynes, who is also a compelling candidate for The Higgy. But the reader did not make a full case, so it is hard for me to fully judge the merits of this nomination. In addition, I’m inclined to believe that governments did not need Keynes to believe that they should actively meddle in the economy. They were doing it plenty well before Keynes came along.
This year’s winner of The Higgy is Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for inventing the pernicious notion of a “free speech zone.” Even with a constitutional guarantee, free speech is always under seige because the government and other powerful folks would rather not be undermined by it. People often wrongly cite the decision in Schenck v. United Statesas proving that the government would only restrict speech if it posed a “clear and present danger.” What those people forget is that even while articulating the clear and present danger standard, the Supreme Court upheld Schenck’s conviction for passing out leaflets in front of a draft office during the Great War. If a guy on the street corner handing out leaflets can be interpreted as a clear and present danger, then clearly the government will be inclined to restrict speech whenever it can.
The essential check on government control over speech is the popular backlash that would occur if the government over-reaches. The accountability of the government to people in elections (and if bad enough, in the form of revolution) is essential to making the words in the Constitution protecting free speech real. In the face of popular protection of free speech, censoring authorities have to find sneakier ways to control speech. They have to find indirect and less obvious ways, like creating free speech zones.
“The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best. Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.
The more common and insidious threat to the human condition comes from PLDD folks as they sit around in their offices or bars or cafes dreaming about how everyone else’s lives should be organized and what should be done with everyone else’s money. Unlike those with BSDD, the PLDDers are facilitated in their disorder by the righteous (and self-deluding) conviction that everything they are doing is actually for the benefit of others.
This year’s recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award is Pascal Monnet. Monnet is what the alphabet-soup PLDDers look like if they actually succeed in gaining power. Once their dreams of lording over others have been realized, rather than fixing the world, as they had imagined back in their cubicle days, successful PLDDers like Monnet just want to make sure that others don’t displace their position by fixing it on their own. In the end we learn that it was all really about control, not repairing the world.
Greg also had an excellent nomination, David Sarnoff. But Sarnoff didn’t have delusions of shaping the world; he actually did shape the world, at least for a while. He might be closer to a BSDDer than a PLDDer. And my nomination of Louis Michael Seidman fell short because Seidman only provides the rationale for the PLDD of others. Matt’s nominee, Pascal Monnet, more closely captures the essence of the Higgy because of his petty dictatorial impulses to block a group of artists from doing his job better than he could by fixing the clock in the Pantheon.
Anyone who could block a group of super-hero-looking artists like the UX members pictured below certainly has to be cast in the role of the villain.
Well, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced this morning, so you know what time it is – time once again to post your nominations for the only prize anyone anywhere really covets, the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.
The Al Committee would like to extend its thanks to the Nobel Committee for upholding the cherished tradition of making a silly award – giving the prize to a titanic UN anti-hunger bureaucracy – so the authentic value of The Al will stand out by comparison. We look forward to many future years, and generations, of continued cooperation in the shared work of building up more and more PLDDers through the Nobel, so that the absurdity of the PLDDers can be exposed through The Al.
The Al Committee would also like to apologize for the glitch in our secret time machine that caused one of the nomination posts to go up before the nominations were open. We’ve got our totally nonexistent time machine under control now, and are going to fix the timeline quickly so that post appears at the correct time and becomes eligible.
Hopefully it will also stop raining.
Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee. If Jay likes it, he will post it with your name attached. A winner will be announced after Halloween.
Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards. Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997. And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu. Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists. From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.
Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone. By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian. But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.
The 2019 winner of The Al was Mildred Day, inventor of the Rice Krispie Treat. In the fine tradition of Al Copeland himself, Day made the human condition better by bringing us great food. Her treats are not only delicious, they’re easy to make, so they are often among the first cooking projects that parents do with their children. Parents connecting with their children over something yummy is just about the best thing there could be. Day was favored over political pranksters Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, and Bob Fletcher, who helped three Japanese-American families in California keep their farms after WWII-era internment.
The 2018 winner of The Al was Joy Morton. Like Al Copeland, Morton promoted the good by doing well. It was known that small amounts of iodine could prevent goiters, but no one was doing anything about this until Morton saw a way to gain a competitive advantage for his salt company: adding iodine to salt, and advertising its health benefits. The bumper crop of nominees in 2018 also included Great Course lecturer Elizabeth Vandiver, musical disintermediator Leo Moracchiloli, Magic: The Gathering inventor Richard Garfield, scofflaw tech recycler Eric Lundgren, lemonade-stand paladins Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson, and George Henry Thomas, a Virginian general in the Union army.
The 2017 winner of The Al was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (as was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike. It’s not quite spicy chicken, but it’s close! Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker Chambers, witness against communism, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, creators of Rick and Morty, and Russ Roberts, author and host of EconTalk.
The 2016 winner of The Al was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie League, founders of Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters, political humorist Remy Munasifi, and humorous political journalist Yair Rosenberg. Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews, to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners. It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.
The 2015 winner of The Al was internet humorist Ken M. Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough). His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet. Given how much time education reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona. Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, inventor of shipping containers, Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, and John Lasseter, founder of Pixar.
The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System. To save a life, DeComo drove all night to retrieve a lung machine from Canada, then thought quickly when border control officials at first denied him permission to bring it home because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA. DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,” Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.
The 2013 winner of The Al was musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al brings joy to people of all ages, while puncturing the pretensions of puffed-up celebrity entertainers. He beat an impressive set of nominees, including performer/skeptics Penn and Teller, crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and WWII industrialist Bill Knudsen.
In 2011, The Al went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon. Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates. Haas beat his fellow nominees: Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.
The 2009 winner of The Al – in the first year the award bore that name – was Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag. She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban, Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.
Also noteworthy from 2009: History’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham, was declared permanently ineligible to receive The Al. He remains the only individual thus disqualified. In (dis)honor of Higinbotham, The Higgy award has been bestowed on (un)worthy candidates annually since 2012.
A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”
So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.
Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:
@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.
That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.
Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:
There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.
Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.