WMUA: Famous Economist Thomas Piketty visits UMass

Persistence pays off. By being the most annoying reporter at the annual Phillip L Gamble memorial lecture at UMass, where French economist Thomas Piketty spoke on his book Capital in the Twenty First Century, I got to ask the first question at the press gaggle, post-talk. I had prepped about five questions, in the hopes of getting to ask more of them, but a small mob formed around the man (who looked quite tired, he had flown in the day of, and was leaving the next day at 7AM), and I didn’t manage it. But I have to say, first question for a world famous economist is not bad for student media, especially given the reception we usually get.

Mr. Piketty’s book is quite substantial, it is nearly 700 pages, including the Notes, index, and other appendices. I did not manage to read the whole thing before the lecture, but I supplemented what reading I had done with every single review and criticism and adulation of the book I could find.

It’s rare for an economics book to make the kind of splash Piketty’s made. Many people have, rightfully I believe, attributed the source of some of his success to the fact that the decade of research of his book were prescient for the current curiosity and frustration with the distribution of capital.

Bragging rights. Photo cred: Dan Moreno.
Bragging rights. Photo cred: Dan Moreno.

But Piketty’s book, unlike much of the conversation surrounding the “1%” at the moment, focusses less on income inequality, or the difference between what the top is earning versus what everyone else is earning in the same interval, and focusses instead on wealth inequality. The main thrust of his argument (r > g) is that the rate of wealth accumulation is greater than the rate of growth, and so capital will move towards the top of society over time, because their money is growing faster than anyone else can save theirs.

His book has gotten a lot of heat, particularly from more traditional schools of economic thought. The most vicious was one in the Financial Times, which one can only read with an FT.com subscription, which Piketty responded to on the Huffington Post.

What stuck out to me most, however, in his talk was his focus on the lack of real data on wealth. Because we do not tax it, the way we do income, we don’t have a solid understanding of how much money or value (not all wealth is money, some of it is resources, such as land, oil, etc) is actually there. There is no national or international collection of that data. He joked more than once during the lecture, that part of the reason for his suggestion of a global wealth tax is to help create that data.

We can’t hope to talk about that which we know nothing about. Things that haven’t been measured, can’t be truly debated or discussed. (This is a question I will be returning to in the future.)

I think if I could go back and ask one more question, I would like to know how he feels being compared to Karl Marx.

Short Stop: the Ethics of the Promotional Interview

Another year, another set of thorny ethical questions to contend with.

Specifically, at what point does journalism turn into semi-independent PR?

One of the staples of any news-source relationship, be it the politician, the special-interest group, or the business, is the interview. Interviews rarely happen unless someone is trying to sell something. That something could be a new product, a new policy direction, or an event. When trying to avoid the tacit support of a particular view or party or product or person that comes with hosting them on your website/podcast/radio show/newspaper/op-ed page, is it the number of questions one asks? The kinds of questions? Do you need to treat polarized situations differently from more apolitical ones?

This year we’ve seen an increase in the number of people approaching us to come on to our news show and talk about their events.
On the one hand, I’m gratified, because if people are approaching us to come on our show, it must mean that we’ve started making an impact in terms of visibility. We’ve become a place you actually seek out to get a message to the people out in the world.
On the other hand, I’m perturbed by the notion that we are simply a platform to promote yourself on. Intellectually, I understand that that is what many people, when representing an organization or a specific interest, view the media as. Emotionally, I end up feeling cornered by the idea that our good name can be sullied and our ethical bearing compromised by people who are looking to promote their own interests.

The ethics of the situation are particularly clear, on the untried and somewhat microscopic level of the University because my fellow students have not yet become PR masters. They are clever enough to approach us to get pre-event coverage. But they are not clever enough to phrase their desire for publicity as an opportunity for my organization to get a scoop, or break a story.

They ask me, “Can we come on to your show and give a short blurb about our event tomorrow.” To which I am forced to reply, “No, you cannot. But you may come onto my show and have my anchors ask you questions, at which point we will allow you to inform our listeners about your up-coming event.”

So I’ve taken to phrasing that last bit, where they get to talk about their own stuff in terms of, “You approached us…” carefully wording it to allow our listeners the knowledge that this is, in a sense, a contrived media moment. We didn’t get paid, we are not endorsing them, but we will allow them airtime.

So far, I haven’t said a flat-out no to anyone. I think the really thorny ethical question will appear if ever I am approached by a group whose position I believe to be lacking in some kind of merit and am forced to ask should I air these people at all?.

SGA Elections: how much is too much truth?

This piece currently occupies pride of place amongst all the work I’ve done at WMUA this year.

It’s not the most complex, nor is it necessarily the most interesting piece. But I worked hard, and people helped me when I needed them to, and we got a solid piece of reporting (informative and well-produced) out to our listeners on air, and then online, in a timely and relatively stress-free fashion.

Sure, it’s a political retrospective, but one that I believe is necessary.

The UMass Amherst Student Government Association elections, this year, have been singularly complicated, badly executed, and frustrating. Continue reading “SGA Elections: how much is too much truth?”

WMUA : a reflection on ethics

Tomorrow the Westboro Baptist Church will (theoretically) be coming to picket at UMass Amherst to protest the University, as a whole, because Derrick Gordon, a basketball player for a D-1 team, came out as gay this past week.

In response, students have organized a rally in support of the LGBT community (this wording is important) on campus, aimed partially at outnumbering and drowning out the voices of the WBC. The rally was organized partially to keep people from simply coming out to engage in a shouting match with the WBC, and to keep the understandably high emotions from getting the better of all parties.

The rally originally started as a “counter-protest” but was eventually re-branded to look more like a “pride rally” following conversations with administration and reflection by students. The goal is to create an environment where everyone, including our uninvited guests, will be safe.

But there are interesting things that go on in the background. Continue reading “WMUA : a reflection on ethics”

Leveson Report & and self-regulation

Last week or the week before, I did one of my stories for WMUA on the ultimatum issued by David Cameron to the newspapers of Britain with regards to self-regulation.

Some years ago, the News Corps owned News of the World publication was under investigation for hacking the phones of (according to Wikipedia) first, “celebrities, politicians and members of the British Royal Family” and then later, “murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the 7/7 London bombings.” This, as one might imagine, did not go well for News of the World (which shut down due to all its advertisers taking their business elsewhere). However, it also caused Cameron to commission a report, forming a special committee, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, to look into not only the News of the World scandal, but also the wider culture and practices of UK newspapers. Continue reading “Leveson Report & and self-regulation”