The limits of written law

It doesn’t matter how perfectly you attempt to tie it down, government will always find a means of expanding its power:

Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, says the new federal health care law is unconstitutional. DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson says it’s not.

If the legal question gets to the U.S. Supreme Court, it may be decided with the help of a long-gone small-time Ohio farmer who once was fined $117 for growing too much wheat.

A key question about the health care bill involves just how far the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce reaches. For nearly 70 years, one influential precedent on that issue has been the peculiar case of farmer Roscoe Filburn, whose crop was deemed to influence commerce “among the several states” — the kind of commerce the Constitution permits Congress to regulate — even though none of the excess wheat left his farm.

The dangers of journalistic knowledge

To me, the amusing thing about this eye-opening experience is that it is apparently the first time this journalist has ever experienced the phenomenon. To those who actually possess more than a modicum of knowledge about anything, it is distinctly clear on nearly every page of every newspaper every single day:

Unlike most of the journalists covering the event, I was not an expert on that particular industry. It wasn’t my normal “beat.” The reason I was there was because I’d been interviewing the company’s CEO over the previous several months for a book project. But that also meant that while I wasn’t an expert about the industry in general, I was in the odd position of knowing more about the company’s “secret” product than any other journalist in the room.

It was an eye-opening experience. A lot of major news outlets and publications were represented at the press conference following the announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to be clarified.

But the reporters’ questions weren’t geared toward getting a better understanding of those points. They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from the questions that were being asked, I realized–because I had so much more information on the subject–that the reporters were missing a couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren’t being asked because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back up what they already thought was the story.

Almost every single time a major media outlet has done a story on me, someone related to me, or something related to me, there has been at least one factual error. Sometimes it is a big one, usually it is something pretty trivial, but it’s always there. Naturally, this renders me somewhat skeptical about the factual reliability of all the other stories I read in the media. Think about the last time a travel magazine or the New York Times wrote an article about a place you know well. Did they nail it or did they write about a few well-known places that are known to every tourist and no local actually goes?