Gage Skidmore on Photography, Creative Commons, and Rand Paul

Image: Gage Skidmore
Image: Gage Skidmore

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Gage Skidmore, a semi-professional photographer from Arizona. —Ari Armstrong

Armstrong: According to your Facebook bio, you started out as a photographer in 2009, when you documented Rand Paul’s Senate run. Your work has also appeared in numerous publications, including Forbes, Wired, and Reason. Do you work as a full-time photographer now, or is that a part-time occupation? Do you mean to make photography your long-term career? What is the scope of your photographic work presently?

Skidmore: I started doing political photography with Paul when I was sixteen years old. I had been involved in the liberty movement since the end of 2007 when his father ran for the 2008 presidency, but I didn’t get involved with his campaign as a photographer until 2011 when he ran for President again.

I’ve never seen photography as a job; I have always seen it as a hobby, something that I do on the side for personal enjoyment or just to make a little money. Recently I’ve done some freelance work for various candidates for office in Arizona, where I live now, and for other organizations like the Western Center for Journalism, as well as Reason magazine, which ran a cover image of mine of Gary Johnson for its 2012 election issue.

I really am not sure where my photography will take me, but I’m always looking to continue my photography adventure as long as I find it to be something that is worthwhile to share with people, and is still fun for me as well.

Armstrong: Every time I need an image of a libertarian or conservative politician or intellectual, I find that the best image is almost always one of yours. Then I discovered that you’ve also photographed celebrities such as Tom Cruise at ComicCon. What prompted you to start releasing so many of your photographs through Flickr under the Creative Commons license?

Skidmore: The scope of my work involves for the most part two things that I enjoy the most—politics and pop culture conventions.

I originally bought my first professional camera for the purpose of going to the San Diego ComicCon in 2009, because I wanted to take somewhat professional photos for the purpose of releasing them under the Creative Commons license, and also because I wanted to see my photos used to illustrate celebrities on Wikipedia on pages where photos didn’t exist.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing my work used in a positive way, and especially enjoy when I’m actually credited for taking the photo. And as far as Flickr goes, I think that is just the most mainstream photography website at the moment, besides Facebook (which isn’t known for its photo quality). But I would really hope for Flickr to make some changes to its business model that would allow its content creators to gain the ability to make money by selling prints, or something of that nature, in the same way that YouTube rewards its content creators for providing content there.

Armstrong: I’ve released a few CC images (my best is of Christopher Hitchens), but nowhere near as many as you’ve released. I find the CC community interesting; I feel grateful, as a blogger, that I have access to so many great images, and I feel a sense of responsibility to contribute my own CC images when I can. What are your thoughts on the Creative Commons?

Skidmore: I can understand people’s reasoning about wanting to tightly control their content, especially if that is how they make their living, primarily by selling photos. I’ve never gotten that serious about it, to the point where I need to sell a photo to eat the next day. I’m not pursuing photography as a college student, either, so I basically see the Creative Commons as a way to release my photos for public consumption, and have them used in the most wide ranging way possible. I have gotten some criticism for this, but I think with the expansion of literally everyone having a cell phone camera, and the fact that someone can easily go to the store and buy a semi-professional camera, the world of photography is constantly changing. These changes will likely have a detrimental effect on the professional photography business as a whole. Depending on one’s perspective, this may be a good thing, or it may be a bad thing, but I tend not to consume myself with that type of stuff.

Armstrong: Which shot or shots of yours do you find particularly interesting, or which have a fun backstory?

Skidmore: I had a hard time thinking about a good photo back story, but I thought about when I first started doing political photography and documenting some of the early campaign events with Rand Paul. One of the first events I went to was a Tea Party event in Hawesville, Kentucky. I can vividly remember arriving at the event, and standing out in the cold November or December climate in front of this towering court house. Back then, the Tea Party was really at its peak, but standing among the crowd was Dr. Paul himself, then just a small town ophthalmologist. There was no other media, no other person taking any photos, at least semi-professionally, and hardly anyone even bothered to introduce themselves to Rand except every now and then between speakers at the event. This was actually also the first time I got to shake Rand’s hand, and his campaign handler at the time introduced us to each other.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing a true grassroots movement of liberty-minded individuals who have come to embrace this one time small town doctor as one of the serious contenders for President of the United States. I am so glad to have been able to participate in some way when he first came on the scene, and am especially grateful for the kindness he has shown to me over the years, especially in the beginning when I was just some teenage fan following him around and taking photos.

Armstrong: If someone wanted to hire you to photograph an event, would you be open to that? If so, what’s the best way to reach you, and what sort of processes and costs should a client expect?

Skidmore: If someone would like to hire me for an event, I absolutely would be open to doing so, and the best way to reach me is through email, which I’ve made publicly available on pretty much all my personal websites. I like to make things as easy as possible for potential clients, so they name a price, and I’ll usually accept it, as long as it’s within reason.

Newspaper Ad Revenue Dropped from $66 to $24 Billion

Image: Knowtex
Image: Knowtex

In 2013 dollars, American newspaper ad revenue grew from around $20 billion in 1950 to $65.8 billion in 2000—then dropped to $23.6 billion as of last year (including digital and “other” ad revenue). This is from Mark J. Perry of AEI, hat tip to Conrad Hackett. Perry writes, “The dramatic decline in newspaper ad revenues since 2000 has to be one of the most significant and profound Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction in the last decade, maybe in a generation.” Of course, this doesn’t account for all the ad revenue generated by America’s independent bloggers and publishers, who have to some extent displaced the work once done by newspapers. Still, it is a breathtaking change.

Wait… You Mean I Shouldn’t Always Trust What I Read Online?

Image: Mingle Media TV</a
Image: Mingle Media TV

Here are a couple recent reminders of why you really shouldn’t trust everything you read On The Line.

1. Michael Hale, who runs a dumb-joke Twitter feed called dogboner, saw Neil deGrasse Tyson on a New York subway, took a photo of him, and Tweeted a dumb-joke Tweet calling Tyson “Some guy using his laptop on the train like a Dumbass nerd.” If only I were that funny I too could have nearly forty-thousand Twitter followers. But a lot of people didn’t get this humor and assumed Hale was playing it straight. Hale responded, “Bahaha I somehow fooled a bunch of people into thinking I’m an idiot just by acting really stupid.” Unless he didn’t really fool them, and they were all just carrying on the joke, in which case I’m the one now fooled. (Unless I’m just pretending to be fooled.) In any event, someone wasn’t grokking what was going on.

2. Michelle Fields, a media personality, thought one of her former Pepperdine professors called her a “full retard” on Twitter. But it’s unclear who posted the Tweet in question; see the Twitchy notes.

Anyway, if you’re not immediately skeptical of nearly everything you read on the Internet until you confirm the story, you’re not doing it right. Or you’re just playing games and reading joke sites, like a dumbass nerd.

Leftist Media Critic Jason Salzman Declines My Offer to Pay for His Gun Safety Class

Leftist media critic Jason Salzman is “scared of guns” and ignorant about  them. Given he has taken to writing about gun safety—and given he routinely writes about gun policy—I offered him an opportunity to learn what he’s talking about by attending a gun-safety class at my expense. Unfortunately, he has declined.

Yesterday I Tweeted to Salzman, “I offer to pay for your gun safety class we both agree to.” He replied, “You’re very kind, but I don’t own a gun and I dont want to spend the time on a class right now. Already too busy” (capitalization corrected).

I reiterated my offer to Salzman by telephone and mentioned that his lack of a gun wouldn’t be a problem, as he can use a loaner.

In short, although Salzman has the time to work toward the violation of the rights of gun owners, he does not have the time to learn about how guns operate or about gun safety.

My offer remains open, and Salzman knows how to reach me should he change his mind and accept it.

* * *

This morning I appeared on Peter Boyles’s radio program to discuss my Complete Colorado article, “Will Senator Morse Clarify His Remarks on Gun Owners Having ‘Sickness’ in Their ‘Souls’?” (You can find the audio file on the KNUS web page or on Podbean, July 30, third hour.) I discuss Salzman in that article, and Boyles discussed him extensively on his show; thus, I wanted to add a few additional notes about Salzman here.

Boyles spend much of the hour discussing a “fraudulent” contest in which Salzman played a role. I didn’t know anything about this (or I had forgotten whatever I’d heard about it), so I was not prepared to discuss the topic. After the show I did a bit of digging.

Westword‘s Michael Roberts confirms that Michael Huttner and ProgressNow “promised to give away a trip to Hawaii to the person with the best idea to improve America,” and Salzman was involved with this project. That prize was never awarded. Roberts writes that Salzman “was a contractor to ProgressNow’s national organization and had no role in the Hawaii contest beyond helping to publicize it.”

I asked Salzman if he wished to comment about the Hawaii prize or about his work now. He replied:

On the record, the Westword article is accurate about my role. Mike Huttner was my client, and I’m not authorized to talk about the project beyond what I’ve said.

I regularly post my work on ColoradoPols and Huffington Post. I used to post on, which seems to have folded. Sometimes I post on other progressive outlets, and I try to get op-eds published in real-life newspapers.

As for the debate about Morse’s comments, I’ll have more to say about that at a later time.

The photo shows Jason Salzman, and I hereby release the photo under a “Creative Commons” license, with attribution and a link to this web page. —Ari Armstrong

Correcting the Denver Post’s Errors About Guns

On the whole, the Denver Post—along with the Colorado media in general—has done a valiant job covering the difficult and horrifying story of the Aurora murders. Honestly, I’d have a very hard time reporting a story like that on location due to the emotional trauma of it all.

Yet, while most of the Denver Post‘s reporting on the Aurora murders has been good, its writers have made a couple factual errors related to guns and offered some imprecise commentary. Here my aim is to correct those problems.

Please note that this article is quite limited in scope; for my general discussion of gun policy, see my article published by The Objective Standard.

The “High-Capacity” Magazine “Ban”

A July 23 Denver Post editorial states:

We also know the high-capacity magazine [the murderer] is accused of using would have been covered under the federal assault weapons ban. Had the ban remained in place, that magazine would not legally be available. . . . A handful of states have laws placing limits on the number of rounds that magazines can hold. Under the assault weapons ban, such magazines were limited to 10 rounds.

The Denver Post‘s statement is factually misleading. The ban pertained to the manufacture and sale of new “high-capacity” magazines (excepting police), and to the possession of illegally manufactured magazines. Pre-ban magazines remained available, though granted, they were less available and more expensive.

The ATF explains:

The LCAFD [Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device] ban was enacted along with the SAW [semiautomatic assault weapon] ban on September 13, 1994. The ban made it unlawful to transfer or possess LCAFDs. The law generally defined a LCAFD as a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device manufactured after September 13, 1994, that has the capacity of, or can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition. (emphasis added)

To state the point differently, two identical magazines, one manufactured on September 12, 1994, and the other on September 14, 1994, were treated totally differently under the law; it was perfectly legal to sell, buy, or possess the former, but not the latter.

Apparently federal politicians did not savor the idea of attempting to confiscate factory-standard magazines from millions of Americans. The Post, on the other hand, thinks “federal lawmakers ought to outlaw . . . high-capacity magazines,” apparently completely. How the Post envisions the enforcement of such a law—door-to-door sweeps of the homes of the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who possess such magazines?—the paper does not mention.

The Post editorial also neglects to mention that the murderer first opened fire with a pump-action shotgun. If a future criminal uses only pump-action shotguns, will the Post then call for their abolition as well?

The Type of Semiautomatic Rifle

The Post‘s David Olinger, along with the paper’s editorialists and many other reporters, refers to the semiautomatic rifle in question as an “AR-15.”

Actually, the rifle is a Smith & Wesson M&P15, as the Post‘s Danielle Kess points out. The AR-15 is manufactured by Colt. This is a minor confusion; they are different brands of comparable guns.

Update: James Dao writes for the New York Times that the Smith & Wesson “belongs to a class of weapons broadly known as AR-15s, after the original civilian version of the rifle.” Wikipedia, on the other hand, claims, “The name ‘AR-15’ is a Colt registered trademark, which refers only to the semi-automatic rifle.” So this seems to be a case of applying a particular brand to a general category of item. As I noted, it’s a minor issue.

The Theater’s Gun Policies

Olinger writes:

On its website, Gun Owners of America, a group opposed to stricter gun laws, blamed Holmes’ ability to shoot so many people on the absence of guns in the audience.

“The gunman used a movie gunfight to cover his actions and further surprise the innocent patrons. Worse, the theater in Aurora reportedly has a ‘no guns’ policy,” the group stated. “Despite gun control’s obvious failure, the calls for more restrictions have already begun.”

According to various reports, theaters in the same chain as the one in Aurora prohibit people from carrying concealed handguns on their premises. But I have as yet seen no definitive evidence regarding the Aurora theater’s policies.

Perhaps somebody at the Post (or someone else) can track down the answer definitively.

The “Gun Lobby”

Twice the Post editorial refers to “the gun lobby” as that which “Congress [needs] to beat back” in order to pass more gun restrictions. Obviously, that’s not an error, but it is a cheap shot intended to demean rather than illuminate. A more accurate term is “gun-rights advocates” or “civil arms advocates.”

By referring to a “lobby,” the Post hopes to draw readers’ attention away from the fact that that “lobby” is quite simply the millions of Americans who support the right of gun ownership. It is also the millions of Americans who would have to live under the gun laws that editorial writers and disarmament advocates wish to arbitrarily concoct.

Those who wish to restrict the gun ownership of peaceable Americans often refer to “the gun lobby” in order to bring to mind some money-driven conspiracy (about which those on the left tend to obsess). No doubt gun manufacturers and sellers enjoy their profits, as they should. But “the gun lobby” in the sense of those who defend the right to own guns is, overwhelmingly, the mass of Americans who own guns or support that right.

But I will happily don the term “gun lobbyist” if the Denver Post editorial board will concede to being part of “the gun-restriction lobby”—or to state it more negatively, “the victim disarmament lobby.”

With such an overwhelming amount of detail to sort out quickly, it is understandable that a reporter might miss a detail or two. The editorial is just sloppy; my TOS article addresses the matter of “high capacity” magazines in more detail.

I want to end on a positive note and offer my sincere gratitude to the law enforcement officers who responded to the call, the medical teams who treated the wounded, and the reporters who keep the community informed about this horrible crime and its victims.

Denver Post Publishes Two Misleading Headlines

The headline is part of the story. A misleading or factually incorrect headline is just as bad as an error in the text (if not worse, as it’s more visible). Today, the Denver Post published one ridiculously misleading headline and another arguably misleading one.

The following headline, “Colorado hospitals warn legislators that push for pricing transparency would ruin finances,” flatly contradicts the reporting by Michael Booth.

Booth explicitly writes that the fundamental concern is not “transparency,” but rather price controls. He writes, “Hospital officials from across the state said that they agree with more transparency in their charges and charity policies but that Aguilar’s bill amounts to price fixing that will ruin many facilities.”

Booth confirmed in an email that he did not recommend the title.

I contacted John Ealy, an editor with the Post, to get a better sense of how headlines are produced. “Reporters don’t have anything to do with it,” he confirmed. He said that, after a reporter files a story, that story moves to a copy editor, who writes a “web headline,” ideally “search-engine optimized.” Then the same editor or possibly a different one writes a headline for print. (It’s unclear to me how often a print headline varies from a web headline.)

In addition, Ealy said, “We have a copy chief. After the copy editor writes the headline and edits the story… it moves to another status, and a copy desk chiefs comes in and vets that headline, looks at it for accuracy.” Then “another copy editor” looks at page proofs.

So it does seem to me that considerable oversight goes into a headline. I wonder, though, whether it might make sense for the Post to bring the writers back into the process at some point, say, by allowing reporters to authorize or flag headlines. After all, the reporter is most familiar with the facts and nuances of the story. My guess is, that had he been asked, Booth would have recommended something more accurate.

The second misleading headline is the following: “Anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce handcuffed, sent to jail.” My complaint is about the description, “anti-tax.” To my knowledge, Bruce has never voiced support for the abolition of taxation. As an activist, he has worked for lower taxes, not no taxes.

In this case, though, the headline corresponds to the reporter’s text. The reporter, Jordan Steffen, describes Bruce as a “tax opponent.”

It is true that Bruce has tried to eliminate certain types of minor taxes, and it is true that generally his goal is to cut taxes. Yet still I think the headline and the copy offer readers a distorted view of Bruce’s activism. Ideologically, there is a huge difference between advocating lower taxes and advocating no taxes. I know true “anti-tax activists”—people who advocate the complete abolition of taxation (and I myself am interested in radical, long-term alternatives to financing government)—and their views ought not be confused with the views and activism of Bruce.

Certainly the Post should make every effort to avoid publishing blatantly misleading headlines, as in the case of Booth’s article, but I think the Postshould make the extra effort to avoid publishing headlines that are even arguably misleading. The fact is that Bruce is a “tax-cut activists,” not an “anti-tax activist.” I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the Post make the extra effort to achieve accuracy and clarity in its reporting.

Perhaps some consider my complaints trivial; after all, don’t the two headlines “sort of” get to the gist of what’s going on? Indeed. But I think we should strive to clarify our thinking as much as possible, not rely on approximate “truths” and vague understanding. In fact, there’s a difference between transparency and price controls. In fact, there’s a difference between somebody who advocates lower taxes and somebody who advocates no taxes. No doubt I too have slipped on comparable matters, but I think it’s worth stepping back sometimes and recommitting ourselves to pristine accuracy. (For example, for the headline of this piece, I added the word “Two” to clarify my meaning.)

One question I neglected to ask Ealy is whether the Post ever runs corrections for faulty headlines. Perhaps he will let me know.

Joey Bunch Misstates Gun Statistics in Denver Post

[Update 6:31 pm: The Denver Post has issued a revised correction for the online article in question.]

[Update December 29: Joey Bunch related that he takes responsibility for the mistake and apologizes for his initial reaction. For my part, I am satisfied with the way the Post has handled the issue.]

In their article for today’s Denver PostJoey Bunch and Kieran Nicholson claim, “More than 500 children in the United States die in gun accidents each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2007 report, which estimated 1.7 million children live in homes where guns are kept.” However, there seems to be no factual basis for that claim.

As Bunch is listed as first author and his contact information appears below the article, I contacted him to see where he got his figures. Unfortunately, in a series of emails (see below) he flatly refused to provide me with a citation. Apparently that is because no such citation exists.

CDC provides a search page for reviewing mortality statistics. The results for unintentional firearm deaths for 2007, ages zero through seventeen, is 112. Notice that the anti-gun Brady Campaign reports comparable figures. (Of the estimated 2,436,652 deaths in the U.S. in 2009, a total of 588 for all age groups resulted from “accidental discharge of firearms.” Final figures for 2007 show a total of 613 deaths. Please see pages 19 and 39 of the linked CDC report, and notice that I provided an actual citation for my claim.) To get figures as high as Bunch claims, one has to look at decades-old data. (Note that, in this article, I am concerned only with Bunch’s factual claims. I will address the “big picture” issues elsewhere.)

So how did Bunch get from 112 to “more than 500?” I don’t really know, given he refused to tell me. I do have a guess, however. A top Google hit for “kids die guns” is a 2008 article from MomLogic. That article includes the same numbers as Bunch uses — “more than 500” and “1.7 million households.” My guess is that Bunch cribbed these figures (from this web site or a comparable one) without bothering to verify them or even review their meaning.

Here’s what MomLogic has to say: “More than 500 children die annually from accidental gunshots. … Last year, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 1.7 million children live in homes with loaded and unlocked guns.”

What is similar between this article and Bunch’s article is that both include the same year for the CDC claim (2007), both include the phrase “more than 500 children,” and both include the phrase, “1.7 million children live in homes.” One important detail to notice is that the MomLogic article does not cite the CDC for the “more than 500” claim. Also notice the important qualifier in the MomLogic article about the 1.7 million households: these are “homes with loaded and unlocked guns.” Bunch offers no such qualifier, rendering his statement wildly inaccurate. (Neither MomLogic nor Bunch actually cite a specific CDC publication.)

I did find some support for the claim about 1.7 million households, but this comes not from CDC but from the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Perhaps there was some association between CDC and the Academy.) (Update: As USA Today relates, the authors of the study did have a direct relationship to the CDC.) That 2005 article states, “Findings indicate that ~1.69 million (95% confidence interval: 1.57-1.82 million) children and youth in the United States <18 years old are living with loaded and unlocked household firearms.” USA Today offered a popular summary of the study. However, the study is based on survey data, so its conclusions are suspect. (Please notice again my actual citations.)

At this point, then, the Denver Post either needs to come up with an actual citation supporting Bunch’s claim, or else issue a correction.

And, in general, I encourage reporters to a) actually have real citations backing up their claims (see also my write-up of a 2008 incident), and b) make those citations available to those who ask for them. Anything less constitutes journalistic negligence.

Following is today’s email exchange between Bunch and me:

Ari: Dear Mr. Bunch, You write: “More than 500 children in the United States die in gun accidents each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2007 report.” Please send [me] your citation for that claim. Thanks, -Ari

Joey: CDC. I cited my source.

Ari: I see that you wrote down CDC in your article. The problem is that when I look at the CDC web page, I find very different numbers than the ones you claim. So what I’m asking you for is the actual citation for a specific document that backs up your statement. Please provide that, and stop being coy. Thanks, -Ari

Joey: It took me all of about 3 minutes to find that report. With all due respect, Ari, you’re a columnist for a competing newspaper, do your own work.

Ari: Joey, If you found it, then please *send me the cite*. The fact that I write for the Grand Junction Free Press (hardly a competitor to the Post) is entirely irrelevant. I did my own work, as I mentioned, and I found different figures. So now, again, I ask you to back up your claim with a specific citation. Thanks, -Ari

Joey: I told you the name of the report and the year it came out. Would you like me to print it out and drive it to your house? I’ll pick up coffee and doughnuts on the way. Good luck with your story, Ari.

Ari: No, I would would like you send me the link to the relevant document, or, if the document is not available online, the title and authors of the printed document. That will be trivially easy for you to accomplish, so please, again, send me the citation. Thanks, -Ari

Joey: I do freelance work sometimes. I’ll send you a bill for research, and when it’s paid I’ll spend my time doing your work. Failing that, you could call the CDC and ask them to send it for you. There could be a per-page fee for that, however. Have a nice day.

Ari: Dear Mr. Bunch, According to your own claims, you’ve *already done the work*, and it took you “all of about three minutes.” If you’ve already done the work, and found the citation that informs your article, then it will take you about ten seconds to send me the relevant link (or title with authors). As a writer for the Denver Post, you have a responsibility, both to your readers and to the owners and managers of the paper, to back up your factual claims with specific citations. Please do so at this time, and please stop acting so evasive and frankly unprofessional. Thanks, -Ari

Joey: One more time and the last time I’m saying it: do your own work. You work for a newspaper. You are a journalist. Do your own work. Conversation over.

Update: Apparently the conversation is not yet over. After I sent an email to several representatives of the Denver Post linking to this write-up, Bunch again responded, claiming (among other things), “I told you the name of the report.” I wrote back noting that he has not, in fact, provided me with the title of the report or anything like a verifiable citation. I will update this article when and if Bunch provides me with an actual citation to the alleged report in question.

Update: Kevin Dale, news director for the Denver Post, states via email, “We are correcting the statistics. Page 2 in tomorrow’s paper. We’ll be correcting the online story shortly. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. We take our accuracy very seriously indeed.”

Update 5:03 pm: I sent a follow-up email to Dale:

Dear Mr. Dale,

Thank you for promptly following through on the matter of the claimed gun statistics published in today’s Denver Post.

Unfortunately, the Denver Post’s online “correction” also is in error [as of the time of this update].

The “correction” states that in 2007, 138 children died due to “fatal shooting accidents.” But that figure is for ages 0 through 19. Last time I checked, the legal age of adulthood is 18. Therefore, the correct figure is for ages 0 through 17, which is 112 (as I mentioned in my write-up). (While the figures vary only slightly in this case, I still think the Post ought to get its basic facts straight.)

I invite you to see for yourself here:

Moreover, the online article continues to falsely state, “The CDC also estimated 1.7 million children live in homes where guns are kept.” The Post’s claim here is wildly inaccurate. The figure actually pertains to children “living with loaded and unlocked household firearms.” The number of children living in homes “where guns are kept” is many times that amount.

Again, I invite you to see for yourself here:

(Anyway, that article relies on survey data, which are notoriously unreliable in these matters.)

Thank you for your attention to this matter.
-Ari Armstrong

Update 6:31 pm: The Denver Post has issued a revised correction for the online article in question.

This “Ethics Advocate” Calls AP’s Outrageous Bias

Apparently the Denver post thinks it’s perfectly fine to publish ridiculous nonsense as long as it was written by the Associated Press.

A couple of days ago, the Post published the AP’s fact-devoid article about a new wind farm. Today the Post follows up by reproducing an absurdly biased article from the AP about proposed ballot changes.

The issue, according to the AP, is this: “Secretary of State Scott Gessler is proposing changes to election rules that would bar clerks from counting ballots with write-in candidates if voters fail to mark the box next to that choice.”

That part is accurate. I just called Rich Coolidge from the SOS’s office to verify, and he added only that the matter is “going through the rule making process.” It’s “a consideration that the secretary’s going to have to make,” he said, and “no decisions have been made at this time.”

My problem arises with another sentence from the AP’s story: “According to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (, ethics advocate Jenny Flanagan says a voter’s intent should rule…” (I did not read the Sentinel article as it’s behind a pay wall.)

The problem is describing Jenny Flanagan, in an allegedly straight news article, as merely an “ethics advocate.” Is she a moral philosopher? No. Instead, she heads the Colorado chapter of Common Cause. To describe her as a seemingly neutral “ethics advocate” in a news story is ludicrous. An equally biased but opposite description would be “shrill partisan hack,” but somehow only the former occurred to the AP.

I do not doubt that Flanagan believes she advocates ethics. But so does every source cited by the AP. Can you imagine the AP describing a Tea Party activists as an “ethics advocate?” Or Jon Caldara? Or me? Gessler too thinks he is advocating ethical rules.

Let’s review a couple of background items about “ethics advocate Jenny Flanagan.” In a debate with me earlier this year, she said the First Amendment is “not part of the conversation right now” regarding campaign laws.

Flanagan also attended a rally a couple months ago in Aspen, joining the hard-left ProgressNow to protest the Koch brothers. You can see Flanagan in this photo holding her Common Cause Sign, joining others who want to raise taxes and toss Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court. (Also check out Kelly Maher’s excellent video about the protest.)

But, hey, apparently “ethics advocate” is good enough for AP work.

Perhaps, rather than just toss up AP articles onto its web page, the Postshould first check to see whether the articles are in fact worth a damn.

For what it’s worth, I actually tentatively agree with Flanagan on this particular issue. If a voter does not check the box for another candidate, and actually writes in some other name, the intent seems to be pretty clearly that the voter wanted to cast a ballot for the write-in. However, I can definitely see the problem of ambiguity. It seems to me that a better solution would be a reformulated ballot that makes that particular mistake impossible.

In general, I advocate computer-assisted paper ballots. The computer assist would make them easier to cast, and the paper would remove the problem of computer glitches and hacking. (I advocate counting up the votes from the paper, rather than from the digital vote.) Surely a well-developed ballot could simply avoid the problem in question.

But just because Flanagan seems to make a good point on this particular issue doesn’t mean the AP should refer to her as some sort of seemingly neutral “ethics advocate.” To do so violates journalistic ethics.

Why Not Signed Editorials, Denver Post?

I sent the following letter to the Denver Post:

The Denver Post‘s editorials fluctuate noticeably in style, tone, and ideological bent, because they’re written by different members of your editorial board.

I like the fact that the Daily Camera and the Colorado Springs Gazetteoffer signed editorials. Ideally, the Denver Post would note the author (or authors) of each editorial and the board members in agreement. That would provide transparency, help readers track the views of particular writers, and encourage writers to offer their best work.

Smearing Ayn Rand (Again)

A couple months ago I wrote about how Ayn Rand—nearly three decades after her death—has become the target of almost daily smear jobs from both the left and the right, and even some “friendly” commentaries greatly distort her ideas.

That phenomenon is remarkable: I cannot name any other 20th Century public intellectual subject to comparable mistreatment. The smears raise an interesting question: what is it about Rand’s ideas that make her opponents afraid of people reading them?

Most of the smears against Rand are so silly and petty that they do not merit responses; anyway, one could spend one’s life rebutting them, hardly a productive venture. But the latest smear job, by Al Lewis, inexplicably appears on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, among the largest and most respected papers in the world. So perhaps a few words of reply are in order.

Lewis begins with a handful of true claims. Rand opposed libertarianism, and she was right to do so. Rand also criticized Ronald Reagan, who presided over deficit spending, a Social Security tax increase, and higher trade barriers. Perhaps more significantly, he helped set the framework for the growth of the religious right. If Reagan looks rosy to many modern eyes, we need merely recap the names of the full-termers who preceded and followed him: Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.

Lewis is also quite correct that Rand “was an atheist, an abortion supporter and a champion of the anti-Christian ideal that selfishness is a virtue.” And she “villifies communism [and] socialism,” as does any sensible person. But that marks the end of Lewis’s truthful summary.

It is not true that Rand villified unionism per se, as Lewis claims; she opposed “compulsory unionism,” just as she opposed compulsory corporatism and compulsion in general.

Lewis then writes, “Some of her ideas are central to the American Dream. But Ms. Rand did much of her writing while hopped up on amphetamines and nicotine. And like most people who abuse this combination, she went too far. She crafted philosophical arguments and wrote bizarre works of fiction to prove their premises.”

Let me begin with the smear about the quality of Rand’s fiction. Very often, a commentator’s hysteria against Rand the novelist roughly matches his ignorance of her works. What Lewis (without argument) regards as “bizarre,” I regard as unique and genius. As far as I know, no other novel ever published has exploded in sales a half century after its original publication. While often the popular strays from the good, there is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers. While many of Rand’s critics wish to scare away potential readers of her novels by senselessly mocking the works, any honest individual will ignore all that and decide for himself.

Lewis’s claim that Rand’s ideas are wrong merely because she smoked and took amphetamines constitutes sheer anti-intellectualism. Even if Lewis’s claim were true — and it is not — still the ideas would have to be addressed on their own terms, apart from the personality of Ayn Rand.

It is true that Rand smoked and took amphetamines. But let us remember we’re talking about the 20th Century! Rand lived through the era when cigarette companies ran advertisements proclaiming the health benefits of their products. And Jacob Sullum reviews in Saying Yes (page 208): “For decades methamphetamine… was widely used in oral form, along with amphetamine… and dextroamphetamine… These drugs were given to soldiers during World War II, taken by students cramming for exams and truck drivers trying to stay awake on long hauls, and prescribed by doctors for weight loss, narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. Until 1954, amphetamines were available in the United States without a prescription.”

Did Rand develop her ideas while she using drugs? No. Jennifer Burns (herself hardly consistently fair to Rand) notes in Goddess of the Marketthat, during the editing stage of The Fountainhead, Rand started using “Benzedrine… a widely prescribed amphetamine” (page 85).

By this time, Rand had already written We the Living, her scathing critique of Soviet Communism and statism more generally. She had already written Anthem, her dystopian novel about an independent man who fights the oppressive regime around him. And she had already written (but not finalized) The Fountainhead, the first of her two lengthy and highly ambitious novels. While Rand refined and developed some of her ideas between Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, all the kernels of her ideas were in the earlier works.

I join most moderns in thinking that regularly taking amphetamines is pretty bad for you, and moreover it can adversely affect your personality. But this notion that Rand’s ideas may be discarded merely because (after formulating most of those ideas) she took amphetamines is ridiculous and intellectually dishonest nonsense.

Let us continue. Lewis writes, “Ms. Rand mentored former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” who “poured gasoline on the free market until it exploded.” In fact, Rand advocated the gold standard. So did Greenspan in his younger years, which is a big reason why Rand liked him. The fact that Greenspan became a backstabbing sellout who undermined all the principles Rand believed in and advocated is hardly Rand’s fault.

Next Lewis claims that, while Rand attacked welfare recipients as “looters,” “[w]e now know corporations are the real ‘parasites’ in an economic crisis.” Lewis claims that Rand “did not imagine executives would loot their shareholders, cause an economic crisis and then beg for government help.” His comment reflects such basic ignorance of the story of Atlas Shrugged that I must wonder whether he’s ever even read this novel which he regards as “bizarre.”

Indeed, most of the major villains of Atlas Shrugged come from favor-seeking businesses! Wesley Mouch begins life as a corporate lobbyist. He joins the major villains James Taggart, a railroad executive, and Orren Boyle, a steel executive. The Starnes siblings run a motor company into the ground, inspiring the strike at the heart of the story.

So Lewis’s claim that Rand’s “brand of laissez-faire capitalism led to corporations growing bigger” until absorbing subsidies and “telling big government what to do” is nothing but a lie. What led to modern corporatism was not laissez-faire capitalism but its opposite: the protofascist policies of the big-government “progressives.” (For example, see Amity Shlaes’s book for a description of how FDR’s key advisors idolized Soviet-style “planning.”)

In fact, Rand argued for the complete separation of economy and state, leaving government the sole function of protecting individual rights. She opposed all subsidies and bailouts, all anticompetitive laws from wage controls to trade barriers, and all forms of economic compulsion. She championed economic liberty, property rights, and strictly voluntary relationships.

For Lewis to blame Rand for the errors and economic distortions of her ideological opposites is the height of dishonesty.

The silver lining is that all the grotesque smear jobs against Rand raise her profile and stir the interest of honest readers.


Ellis Weiner commented July 18, 2011 at 4:01 PM
Lewis’ article sounds eminently open to criticism, but it sounds as though you equate any criticism of Rand with a “smear.” Similarly, criticism of Rand’s fiction is (“very often”) equated with “hysteria,” while you seek to prove Rand’s “genius” by appealing to her works’ popularity.

“There is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers,” you say. It’s true. There was also something about Jonathan Livingston Seagull that deeply touched millions of readers, as there is with regard to The Secret, The Bridges of Madison County, Action Comics, Interview With the Vampire, and so on. Like Atlas Shrugged, they, too, were and are unique.

It’s disingenuous at best to pretend to acknowledge that “often the popular strays from the good,” and then to attempt to legitimize “the popular” by talking about “deeply touching.”

What advocates of Atlas never acknowledge is how stacked a deck Rand dealt from: her heroes are all demi-gods and her villains are out of melodrama. The collectivization of the nations of Europe, which she uses to make her heroes seem even more fearless and embattled, add to a third-rate science fiction world (with its “lens” that conceals Gault’s Gulch, and the preposterous Rearden Metal, and the laughable motor invented by Galt, and the straight-from-the-fifties “Project X”) that she has the gall, or the simple obliviousness, to include in a novel ostensibly about “reality.”

Champions of Atlas write as though they had never actually read a decent novel. As Flannery O’Connor wrote to someone, Rand “makes Mickey Spillane seem like Dostoevsky.”

Admire “rationality” all you want. But defenses of Atlas Shrugged are at best exercises in wishful thinking and at words demonstrations of lousy taste in literature.

Or, to put it another way, read this: [link to ridiculous work “Atlas Slugged” omitted]

Ari commented July 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM
Ellis, I do not equate all criticisms of Rand with smears. Indeed, I have criticized Rand myself. I do not attempt to prove Rand’s genius by appealing to her popularity. Instead, I link to Diana Hsieh’s wonderful analysis of the novel. It is not true that all of Rand’s heroes are “demi-gods;” that’s just silly. Moreover, her heroes span the range of ability and interests. Rand never intended her novel to be “ostensibly about reality;” instead, she created a purely fictional world in which universal principles nevertheless operate. Obviously Galt’s motor is science fiction; as to whether Rearden Metal is “proposterous,” check out this link:
You seem to think you can prove Rand’s literature is bad by piling on the ad hominem attacks; obviously, that’s wrong. As for your own amateurish work that you use my web page to promote, you parody a straw man. -Ari

Neil Parille commented July 19, 2011 at 6:24 AM
It’s unfair that so many people blame Rand for Greenspan and the GEC.

That being said, why did Rand remain close to Greenspan until her death in 82? Harry Binswanger said that by the early 70s he realized Greenspan had departed from Objectivism. It’s interesting since Rand split with people.

According to Rand’s biographers, she admired Greenspan because he was older and more independent than many others in her circle.