Media: Content Streaming Services

Photo: “Working at Home” by Martin Heigan. Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

12/25/2020

Here’s something that happens when profit is the highest motive. The big content streaming companies aren’t what they used to be. Netflix in particular deserves opprobrium, which goes to the larger policy issue beyond what’s reported in this story from the NY Times about all the major streaming platforms taking a pass on an important documentary covering the Saudi government’s horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

For instance, the Times reports that in January 2019, Netflix pulled an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s series, “Patriot Act,” when he criticized the Saudi Crown Prince after Mr. Khashoggi’s death. Netflix’s CEO defended the action, saying: “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain.” Then, in November, Netflix signed a deal with Saudi Arabian studio Telfaz11 to produce movies Netflix said “will aim for broad appeal across both Arab and global audiences.” No coincidence here, eh?

In addition to allowing tax deductions for martini lunches, one of the Christmas presents US Congress just gave big streaming companies was a new law making it a felony to illegally stream video content. In traditional Congressional Ministry of Truth-speak, it’s titled the “Protecting Lawful Streaming Act.” Burying it in the 5,000-plus page coronavirus relief bill was particularly rich.

I couldn’t help but connect Congress’s lovely gift to content creators and platforms with Netflix’s refusal to put information critical of the Saudi government on its platform. If we’re going to engage federal law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts to protect these corporate interests, maybe those same companies ought to do some public service by providing important documentaries on their platforms.

The FCC used to apply the “fairness doctrine” to radio and television broadcasts. Might it be worth exploring a similar approach to content streaming services? Ironically, I think the companies might find it would boost their long-term success. People love controversy, right?

Diplomacy: Fracas at the UN Human Rights Council

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters. 30/Dec/2005. UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

11/29/2020

Why would Bahrain and Syria block the appointment of Fiji’s UN ambassador, Nazhat Shameem Khan, to lead the United Nations’ Human Rights Council? Ms. Khan is a well-regarded diplomat and jurist and was reported to be on track for a consensus selection.

The presidency of the UN Human Rights Council rotates annually, and for this coming year it goes to a candidate from the Southeast Asia/Pacific region. The NY Times notes the annual leadership change is typically not very contentious. Until now.

Apparently it’s time for payback and damage control. Bahrain is tight with Saudi Arabia, and Syria is backed by Russia. Fiji actively supported investigations by the Human Rights Council into allegations of violations in places such as Venezuela, Belarus, Syria and Yemen. Neither the Saudis nor the Russians were thrilled with these investigations.

Leadership of the UN Human Rights Council is important. There should be investigations of member countries’ conduct. Citizens of Earth need to know what our governments are doing and, if there are violations of human rights, they should be exposed and publicized.

Human rights can be a sensitive and embarrassing topic. Governments that abuse the human rights of their citizens aren’t generally pleased to be called to account in the court of international public opinion.

What are the Saudis and Russians afraid of?

Events: Iran – Assassination – Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

modern concrete tower against cloudy sky
Photo by muhammad nuri on Pexels.com

11/28/2020

Happy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Between the pandemic, US politics, and conflicts around the world, getting some respite can be a tough proposition. Among other events, more violence in the Middle East. Are we shocked?

According to news reports, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was killed by terrorists. Apparently his car was ambushed by an armed group outside Tehran.

NPR reported: “No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but some senior Iranian officials said they believe Israel played a role.”

It’s a safe bet any number of people in addition to senior Iranian officials have similar suspicions. The NY Times noted “[i]ntelligence officials say there is little doubt that Israel was behind the killing — it had all the hallmarks of a precisely-timed operation by Mossad, the country’s spy agency.” Imagine that.

Fakhrizadeh was a big target and reports were his security had grown increasingly sloppy over the years. Absent confirmation Israel was behind this, are there other possibilities? The Saudis? The Americans? An Iranian faction? A group of bandits in a robbery gone bad? Colonel Mustard (in the library with a candlestick)?

There are a number of possibilities. For now, I would venture initial reactions are correct. However, my sense is both the USA and Saudis were in the loop. Last week we learned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a “secret” flight to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also joined the party.

Both the Israelis and Saudis are concerned the Biden administration will take a different tack with Iran and come back to the bargaining table to revive the multilateral nuclear deal Trump broke. I presume Pompeo and others within the outgoing Trump administration want to hamstring Biden and prevent a deal from occurring. The NY Times article I linked to above seems to suggest this was indeed the objective of the assassination.

Given what we know so far, and the motives of the various players involved, it’s a good bet this originated with the Israelis, the Saudis went along for the ride, and Pompeo was given a heads-up and likely provided US final approval. Presuming this is correct, it’s not a particularly smart move. Unless, I suppose, the goal is to create more regional instability to keep relationships in turmoil and put more money in the pockets of global arms manufacturers. Both the US and Israel make an inordinate number of weapons. And Saudi oil money buys a lot.

In some respects, I guess we’re somewhat lucky top Iranian leadership has at times exhibited a tendency to play it cool and cautious — more of a long-term strategic game. While there are calls for vengeance, I think it’s unlikely Iran will immediately escalate in response. They will make a move at some point. You don’t assassinate leading citizens of other countries without consequences. And so the violence continues.

I’m reminded of this classic video:

This Land Is Mine from Nina Paley on Vimeo.

Climate: Models Underestimate Effect

Earth from Space – San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive (Catalog # 08_01773)

11/10/2019

Things are getting interesting … as in the purported ancient Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times.”

A recent essay in the NY Times, titled “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong“, noted that because of the perceived need for consensus when proposing new theorems or predictions, scientists “tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold”.

This cautious approach resulted in scientific consensus significantly understating the challenges faced from climate change. What originally appeared as fringe worst-case scenarios in the modeling are now looming on our event horizon. An unexpected factor was the rapidity of change. Feedback mechanisms such as ice sheet melting on land, decomposition of organic matter on thawing land, changing cloud cover, fires, and thermohaline circulation are accelerating effects. The rapid nature of this change is creating systemic instability, intensifying the challenges of adaptation and dislocation. Interesting times indeed.

The kicker is economists relied on scientific consensus in developing models of the cost of climate change. Oops. Not only will things get more interesting, they will be a lot more expensive.

Deregulation Follies: Pork Plants Taking Over Inspections

04/06/2019

Over 100 years ago Sinclair Lewis wrote “The Jungle“. While the book’s main focus was an account of the grinding poverty faced by immigrants, it painted a compelling picture of conditions in America’s meatpacking industry. It wasn’t pretty.

Lewis’s book struck a nerve that prompted US President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint a commission to study the meatpacking industry. Roosevelt dispatched labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds to make surprise inspections of meatpacking plants. Their report laid the groundwork for the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The Act included specific Congressional findings, which are worth quoting:

Meat and meat food products are an important source of the Nation’s total supply of food. They are consumed throughout the Nation and the major portion thereof moves in interstate or foreign commerce. It is essential in the public interest that the health and welfare of consumers be protected by assuring that meat and meat food products distributed to them are wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged. Unwholesome, adulterated, or misbranded meat or meat food products impair the effective regulation of meat and meat food products in interstate or foreign commerce, are injurious to the public welfare, destroy markets for wholesome, not adulterated, and properly labeled and packaged meat and meat food products, and result in sundry losses to livestock producers and processors of meat and meat food products, as well as injury to consumers.

21 U.S.C. §602

Fast forward to the present, and we’re on verge of a major change in the inspection protocols for meat production plants. The LA Times reports the administration is changing the rules to shift power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry. These changes are expected to take effect as early as May 2019, and would result in cutting the number of federal inspectors at hog plants by about 40% and replacing them with employees of the companies. This is a classic case of putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house. What could go wrong?

The new rules would result in “sharing” responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork with company employees. Employee training would be at the discretion of the company. Compounding these issues, the rules would also remove limits on the speed of animal slaughter and processing lines. Again, what could go wrong?

While the large-scale animal agriculture industry may be celebrating this round of deregulation, the popping of champagne corks may be short-lived. Independent monitoring and inspection of our food supply and processing creates a degree of confidence on the part of consumers that will erode over time. That loss of confidence will increase skepticism about the quality and safety of meat products, leading to an erosion of market share and increased pressure from alternatives such as foods made with plant-based proteins.

Animal agriculture is already facing pressure due to its impact on our climate and watersheds. While deregulation may put more money in the hands of shareholders in the short term, the industry is undermining its own long-term sustainability. That’s terribly short-sighted, and the next time an author such as Sinclair Lewis writes about conditions in the industry in the wake of deregulation, it might not go so well for them.


Environment: EPA – Clean Water Rule

Missouri River, North Dakota

08/18/2018

Nothing’s gotten big business and conservative groups all riled up like the EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka Waters of the US, or WOTUS). The rule was adopted during the Obama administration under provisions of the Clean Water Act. It clarified and expanded the definition of wetlands and small waterways, and curbed development around waters connecting to groundwater supplies and those adjacent to headwaters of larger navigable streams already under federal jurisdiction.

Advocates for clean water and ecosystems saw the WOTUS rule as a positive move towards protecting watersheds from pollution. For example, agricultural runoff, particularly from the animal agriculture industry, appears to be the underlying cause of massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and expanding the reach of the Clean Water Act would have required big agribusiness interests to clean up their act. Heaven forbid the existence of any rule that cuts into profits or requires business to pay for the pollution they create. Needless to say, business interests – primarily agribusiness – spun the WOTUS rule as a federal power grab to regulate private property. Predictably, that argument resonated with many folks who just simply don’t like regulations or government in general.

As one can imagine, litigation ensued, and then we wound up with the Trump administration and an EPA that was more interested in protecting polluters than the environment. Fast forward to March 2017, when Trump’s EPA published a notice that it intended to “review and rescind or revise” the Clean Water Rule. It was a foregone conclusion that any “review” would only have one outcome, and sure enough, in early 2018 Trump’s EPA suspended the rule. The suspension was through 2020, allegedly to give the EPA more time to review and study the rule that had already been fully vetted during the prior adminstration.

Suspension of the rule engendered yet more litigation. If you want a deep dive into all this wonky goodness, the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment and Natural Resources Law has a web page with details on all the lawsuits that have been filed. The upshot is that as a result of two separate court decisions, the rule is suspended in 24 states.

However, enter the US District Court for South Carolina. On August 16, 2018, in a lawsuit filed by the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and other environmental groups, it ruled that the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act when they issued the new rule suspending the Clean Water Rule. The opinion blocked the Trump administration’s rule suspending the Clean Water Rule. This decision effectively reinstates the Clean Water Rule in 26 states.

This is an interesting situation where the Clean Water Rule is now in effect in half the country, yet blocked in the other half. Time to queue up the appeals, and there’s a high likelihood we’ll see this issue taken up by the US Supreme Court. Stay tuned.

Energy: China – Solar – Investment

alternative energy building clouds energy
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

10/10/2015

The World Economic Forum blog has an interesting post that graphs the level of investment in renewable energy, comparing countries around the world. China tops the list by a long shot.

I find it interesting that direct experience with choked, polluted cities was a factor in deciding how to allocate resources and investment. So at what point will it get bad enough globally, where we finally decide that a massive shift to a new energy economy focused on renewable sources is not only good, but necessary?

Money: Investors versus Pension Funds

04/01/2013

Big news in the world of municipal finance today. A federal bankruptcy court gave the thumbs-up to the City of Stockton, California, to file bankruptcy. Not many local governments have availed themselves of that option, so this is an interesting case to watch.

The big fight is between the city’s bond holders and employee pension funds. The bondholders (primarily institutional investors) want as much of their money back as they can get and are arguing the pain should be shared with the city’s retiree’s pension funds.

I’m not surprised investors are doing whatever they can to minimize their impending haircut. But bonds are simply another investment category. Investment implies risk. Anyone who buys bonds knows there is an implicit default risk and they may not be repaid.

Pension obligations are different. They represent the work and effort of employees over the years and should have an absolute priority over bondholders. I hope the bankruptcy court agrees with that proposition.

Issue: Transparency – Government Information

04/10/2012

Last night I gave a presentation on Missouri’s open records and meetings law to a group of elected officials. I opened with a quote from President James Madison, who on August 4, 1822, stated:

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

He was right. Transparency and citizen access to information about our government is critical to a functioning democracy.