SlateMea Culpas

SlateMea Culpas

SlateMea Culpas

Letters from our readers.
May 24 1999 10:17 PM

SlateMea Culpas

The Shearered Truth

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Readers who might enjoy parsing all the careless errors in A.O. Scott's silly piece about Cody Shearer and Chris Matthews should stop right here, and use your very thoughtful link to my current Salon column. It's a longish list, I'm afraid, but most of Scott's mistakes should be obvious to anyone who can read. Just to correct the record in Slate, here they are:

Scott writes: "On Jan. 8 last year, shortly after she had testified in the Paula Jones trial, Willey reportedly had a frightening encounter with a jogger near her house in Richmond, Va." Fact: As I mentioned, the alleged incident on Jan. 8 was three days before Willey testified in the Jones case. Otherwise, what was the point of "intimidating" her?

Scott writes: "Matthews seemed to have a pretty good idea who [the mysterious jogger] was--an idea that he got from the Drudge Report." Fact: As I noted, the Drudge Report picked up the jogger's supposed identity from the Matthews broadcast in an item posted the following day. That's why the column was primarily about Matthews.

Scott writes: "The next night, chatting with Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and NOW President Patricia Ireland, Matthews was less coy. The Shearer in question, he declared, was Brooke's twin brother, Cody." Fact: As I wrote, quoting the transcript of May 11, Matthews identified Cody Shearer by name the night Willey appeared. There are many words to describe the way Matthews behaved. "Coy" is not among them.

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Scott writes: "Shearer could not have been Willey's stalker, Conason declared, because he was on a transcontinental flight last Jan. 8--a flight on which Shearer happened to bump into his brother-in-law's old boss former Secretary of State Warren Christopher." Fact: Actually, what I "declared" was that Shearer has documents proving he was in San Francisco Jan. 8--and that he sat next to Christopher on a flight back to Washington Jan. 11. This mistake is a little worse than what Matthews did. He had to make a phone call to get the facts. All Scott had to do was read them.

Scott writes: "According to a recent Drudge posting, a man with a gun was arrested outside Shearer's house a few days after Matthews' Willey segment aired." Fact: (This is exhausting) Many news sources, including the AP, reported the appearance of a gun-waving man at Shearer's home, not just Drudge. Those same sources also made it clear that the gun nut wasn't arrested outside Shearer's house, but in fact arranged voluntary surrender to the police a few days later.

As for my failure to "explain" why nutty people are nuts--and why they weave Shearer family conspiracies around an event that may or may not really have occurred--that is beyond my competence. Sort of like journalism (or even reading) is for A. O. Scott.

Best regards,
Joe Conason

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A.O. Scott replies:I thank Joe Conason for pointing out my errors, and I apologize to the readers of Slate for my carelessness. The article as now published reflects the corrections.

Ticketmaster

I found Paul Krugman's "Thinking Outside the Box Office" somewhat puzzling. First, why would allowing the interplay of free-market forces imply that stadiums, movie houses, and other mass entertainment centers would become dominated by wealthy people? More specifically, why would letting the price of tickets rise to the market clearing-level necessarily "lock out" the average fan? This is an assumption about demand. What Krugman appears to be saying is that demand for a given commodity will become more inelastic as one's income or wealth increases. This is odd because it collapses the distinction between willingness to pay and ability to pay. Just because someone can afford to pay $120 for an advanced showing of The Phantom Menace or $10,000 for a Knicks game doesn't mean he will. Why, then, conclude domination by elites?

Second, even if we allow for Krugman's assumptions and his conclusions, it would still imply that those who pay more must also be rabid fans. Is it true that wealthy people are bigger sports fans than the nonwealthy? If not, stadium seating will always be accessible to the average fan.

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Third, even if we accept the conclusions, they don't apply to all mass entertainment venues. A particular sporting event can be unique. Seeing Michael Jordan do a slam-dunk right in front of your eyes because you have courtside seats can be a singular experience. A movie, on the other hand, is the same everywhere. Why, then, would George Lucas be concerned about alienating tens of millions of fans by allowing some advanced showings at premium prices? The movie can air for as long as it keeps packing the theaters. How is accessibility reduced?

Fourth, money is a very flexible tool. It is possible to shift our disposable income to any number of items. Why couldn't an average fan spend $120 or so to see an advanced showing of The Phantom Menace and simply forgo doing something else he obviously valued less? Charging below market prices to make tickets "affordable" does not appear to make any sense.

Gary Becker's argument is the only one that appears to make any sense. If the value of mass entertainment is in the social experience, then guaranteeing that the venue be packed by charging below market prices is a rational policy. Many bars and clubs live and die by this principle, often giving the impression of being "packed" by letting a long line of people in at a slower rate than they otherwise could. The strongest example of this is probably Wrigley Field. It's been argued that the stadium contributes enormously to the baseball experience, which is why the place is packed even if the Cubs have a bad season.

--Mark Pokorni

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Chicago

Defense Defense

"How exactly is it that in the land of the childproof cap it's legal and even customary to keep a loaded unlocked gun in a house with children?" asks the May 14 "Today's Papers," citing an experiment suggesting that many children (especially ones aged 4 to 7) will play with guns even when told not to. Let me suggest a possible answer.

1. It turns out that there are very few fatal firearms accidents involving children. This may be surprising, given that 35 percent to 50 percent of all U.S. households own guns, but it's so. According to the National Safety Council's Accident Facts, there were about 30 fatal gun deaths in 1995 among kids age 4 to 7. There were 30 such deaths among kids 0 to 4, and 170 among kids 5 to 14. This tells us about the age of the victim, not of the shooter, but it's the best rough proxy I've seen in my professional readings (I teach a seminar on firearms regulation at UCLA Law School).

To put that risk in some perspective, about 500 kids age 0 to 4 drown each year in residential swimming pools, which are legal and even customary to keep around one's house; that's twice as many as the fatal gun accidents for all kids age 0 to 14, even though pools are much less common than guns. (I know some people fence their swimming pools, but some don't--just like some keep their guns locked and others don't.) More generally, the total number of fatal accidents involving kids 0 to 14 that year was 6,500, so fatal firearms accidents accounted for about 3 percent of the total. There were about 1,400 fatal firearms accidents involving people of all ages, out of a total of 93,300 fatal accidents from all causes.

2. But doesn't it make sense to require parents to keep guns locked or unloaded even if it'll save just one child's life? Unfortunately, the analysis can't be that simple, because such a restriction will not only save lives, but also cost lives.

Guns are used quite commonly in self-defense; estimates range from 110,000 (National Crime Victimization Study) to 1.5 million to 2.5 million yearly defensive gun uses (studies by largely pro-gun criminologist Gary Kleck and by largely anti-gun criminologist Philip Cook). Nobody knows what the exact count is, and how many of these uses involve saved lives, or saved lives of kids. Nor does anyone know how many of these uses would have been frustrated by having to fumble with unlocking the gun, often in the dark, when one has just been waked up by an intruder breaking into the house. It is at least possible, though, that this number of lost lifesaving self-defense uses would be greater than the number of fatal accidents caused by having the guns loaded and unlocked. Not certain, but possible. Certainly the answer isn't certain in the other direction.

3. So, one answer to the question "Why would a reasonable gun owner believe that it should be legal and customary to keep a loaded unlocked gun in a house with children?" (not quite the question Today's Papers asked, but the only one I'm remotely qualified to try to answer) is: "Because loaded unlocked guns can save children's lives as well as take children's lives, and reasonable gun owners--especially ones who live in dangerous parts of town--may be acting very rationally in keeping their guns maximally ready for self-defense, despite the modest risks this may impose."

--Eugene Volokh

Acting Professor, UCLA Law School

Los Angeles

The Future Is Now

Jacob Weisberg writes in "I Have Read the Future": "And when they (e-books) truly arrive, I predict that the Rocket will be remembered as a landmark: the first demonstration that reading a 'book' didn't require paper, ink, or even an overhead light."

For the sake of historical accuracy I hope that the Rocket will not be so remembered. Some of us have been reading Slate and other fine reading material on the john (and wherever) for a few years now using our palmtop computers. I use my Psion Siena or 3C. I won't bore you with the details, but it's really quite easy to download books and other reading materials into a palmtop computer.

--Phillip Rose

Wellington, New Zealand

Flighty Argument

In Today's Papers, Scott Shuger asks, "Why shouldn't big people (not just 'fat' people) pay more for plane tickets? After all, moving them through the air takes more fuel. Why should this argument make sense for postage but be abandoned for people?"

Taken to the extreme, should small people pay less? Should small people be charged more for heat since they generate less of their own? Should smarter people pay more for school since they remember more? Should children and older people be charged more in taxes since they require more services? Should city people pay more in income taxes since they have more services? How do you suggest this is administered?

Ticket prices are based on the bell-shaped curve that describes the population. This gives the average height and weight. These "outliers" are already accounted for. Congratulations, however: You are well on your way to being a true libertarian.

--Patrick Donahue

Salinas, Calif.