Thursday, March 24

Wooster Collective : Stickers / Posters / Graf / Culture Jamming

Wooster Collective : Stickers / Posters / Graf / Culture Jamming

This is funny and marvelous--a 'british pensioner' hangs his work in NY museums. Like, all of them.

More Schiavo nonsense, or Theocrats going nowhere

As Christopher Shays, one of five House Republicans who voted against the bill to allow the Terri Schiavo case to be snatched from Florida state jurisdiction and moved to federal court, put it: "This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy. There are going to be repercussions from this vote." A CBS News poll yesterday found that 82 percent of the public was opposed to Congress and the president intervening in this case. 82 percent. That number makes Reagan's victory over Dukakis look humble.

As one disgusted Times reader suggested in an e-mail: "Americans ought to send Bill Frist their requests: 'Dear Dr. Frist: Please watch the enclosed video and tell us if that mole on my mother's cheek is cancer. Does she need surgery?'"

A lawyer for the state told the judge that the three branches of the government are equal.

"That is indeed true," Judge Greer replied, "but the executive is certainly not superior.

We must wait for the court's ruling on whether the relics of a Hollywood relic breach the separation of church and state. Either way, it's clear that one principle, so firmly upheld by DeMille, has remained inviolate no matter what the courts have to say: American moguls, snake-oil salesmen and politicians looking to score riches or power will stop at little if they feel it is in their interests to exploit God to achieve those ends. While sometimes God racketeers are guilty of the relatively minor sin of bad taste - witness the crucifixion-nail jewelry licensed by Mel Gibson - sometimes we get the demagoguery of Father Coughlin or the big-time cons of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.

The religio-hucksterism surrounding the Schiavo case makes DeMille's Hollywood crusades look like amateur night. This circus is the latest and most egregious in a series of cultural shocks that have followed Election Day 2004, when a fateful exit poll question on "moral values" ignited a take-no-prisoners political grab by moral zealots. During the commercial interruptions on "The Ten Commandments" last weekend, viewers could surf over to the cable news networks and find a Bible-thumping show as only Washington could conceive it. Congress was floating such scenarios as staging a meeting in Ms. Schiavo's hospital room or, alternatively, subpoenaing her, her husband and her doctors to a hearing in Washington. All in the name of faith.

The same Mr. Bush who couldn't be bothered to interrupt his vacation during the darkening summer of 2001, not even when he received a briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," flew from his Crawford ranch to Washington to sign Congress's Schiavo bill into law. All this is happening while polls consistently show that at most a fifth of the country subscribes to the religious views of those in the Republican base whom even George Will, speaking last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," acknowledged may be considered "extremists."

Tuesday, March 22

Activist Legislators, or, The Separation of Powers Run Amok

By Dahlia Lithwick - Senior editor at Slate for Law and Jurisprudential Reporting

Whether Terri Schiavo will live or die in the coming days has come down to this: Can federal district judge James Whittemore set aside virtually every bedrock constitutional principle on which this nation was founded, just so members of the United States Congress may constitutionalize the nowhere-to-be-found legal principle that a "culture of life" is a good thing?

This morning's decision by Congress and President Bush—to authorize new federal legislation that will obliterate years of state court litigation, and justify re-inserting a feeding tube into Terri Schiavo, based on new and illusory federal constitutional claims—is not about law. It is congressional activism, plain and simple; legislative overreaching and hubris taken to absurd extremes.

Let's be clear: The piece of legislation passed late last night, the so-called "Palm Sunday Compromise," has nothing whatever to do with the rule of law. The rule of law in this country holds that this is a federalist system—in which private domestic matters are litigated in state, not federal courts. The rule of law has long provided that such domestic decisions are generally made by competent spouses, as opposed to parents, elected officials, popular referendum, or the demands of Randall Terry. The rule of law also requires a fundamental separation of powers—in which legislatures do not override final, binding court decisions solely because the outcome is not the one they like. The rule of law requires comity between state and federal courts—wherein each respects and upholds the jurisdiction and authority of the other. The rule of law requires that we look skeptically at legislation aimed at mucking around with just one life to the exclusion of any and all similarly situated individuals.

And what is the overwhelming constitutional value that supersedes each of these centuries-old legal notions? Evidently, Congress has a secret, super-textual constitutional role as the nation's caped crusaders—its members authorized to leap into phone booths around the world and fly back to Washington in a single bound whenever the "culture of life" is in peril. Republicans acknowledged this weekend that their views on "the sanctity of life" trump even their convictions about federalism. Or, as Tom DeLay put it, when asked how he reconciles this bill with conservative calls to keep the federal government out of state matters, "We, as Congress, have every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected, and that's what we're doing."

This congressional authority to simply override years of state court fact-finding brings with it other superpowers, including the power of gratuitous name-calling: Members of Congress unable to pronounce Schiavo's name just last week are denouncing her husband as an adulterer and common law bigamist who withheld proper medical care from her. I wonder what they'd say about my parenting—or yours—if they decided to make a federal case out of every domestic-custody dispute currently resolved in state court proceedings.

Members of Congress have apparently also had super-analytical powers conferred upon them, as well. Senate Majority Leader, and heart surgeon, Bill Frist felt confident last week—after reviewing an hour of videotape—in offering a medical diagnosis of Schiavo's condition, blithely second-guessing the court-appointed neurologists who evaluated her for days and weeks. His colleagues are similarly self-appointed neurological experts. Years of painstaking litigation, assessment, and evaluation by state courts are dismissed by Tom DeLay as the activist doings of a "little judge sitting in a state district court in Florida." Only the most extraordinary levels of congressional hubris could allow a group of elected citizens to substitute their personal medical, legal, and ethical judgments for those of the doctors, judges, and guardians who have been intimately involved with this heartbreakingly sad case for years.

And shouldn't we worry—just a bit—when in the name of a "culture of life" Congress enacts legislation that singles out just one Florida family for special legal standing? Frist calls this "a unique bill" that "should not serve as a precedent for future legislation." Yet Schiavo is just one of up to 35,000 people in this country in a persistent vegetative state as the result of trauma, drug overdose, or other medical complications. Remember what happened to Élián Gonzáles when the federal government decided to embroil itself—just this once—in a custody dispute? Why does Terri Schiavo alone warrant the legislative intercession of these self-appointed crusaders? (Not because this is a "great political issue" that would appeal to the base and defeat a Florida Democrat, according to a one-page memo distributed to Republican senators last week.) The last time Florida had to contend with a good-for-one-ride-only legal intervention of this sort was in Bush v. Gore.

Take a peek into any chat room (or this Fray in 15 minutes) and you will find hundreds of individuals who personally know that Terri Schiavo is—despite voluminous testimony by her doctors and her guardians ad litem and the findings of multiple judges—capable of laughter and responsiveness and a full recovery. How do they know these things? The same way their elected representatives do: They watched a video clip. And because anyone who disagrees with the video is a murderer and torturer, the state court judge in this case requires constant police protection: The standard-bearers of the "culture of life" keep threatening to kill him.

The reason we have courts, the reason we traditionally assign these brutal fact-finding responsibilities to those courts, is that intimate legal custody and life-or-death decisions should not be determined based on popular referenda. They need to be rooted, as much as possible, in rock-solid legal rules.

This is not a slippery-slope case, where it's a short hop from "executing" those in persistent vegetative conditions to killing anyone with a disability. This is a case in which an established right-to-refuse-treatment claim, litigated for years up and down through the appeals courts, is being thwarted by parents with no custodial claim to their child. By stepping in merely to sow doubt as to whom Terri Schiavo's proper custodian might be, rather than creating some new constitutional right to a "culture of life," Congress has simply called the existing legal regime into doubt without establishing a new one. This new law offers no clarity about what the new federal claims might be. It just forum-shops for a more tractable judge.

You can put aside the doctrine of federalism for Terri Schiavo, and the principles of separation of powers, and comity, and of deference to finality and the rule of law. But you'd want to be certain, on the day you do so, that what you're sacrificing them for some concrete legal value that matters a whole lot more. Subordinating a centuries-old culture of law to an amorphous, legally meaningless "culture of life," is not a decision to be taken over a weekend.

Dahlia Lithwick is a Slate senior editor.

Conservatives class over Shavio Case, NYTIMES

"This is a clash between the social conservatives and the process conservatives, and I would count myself a process conservative," said David Davenport of the Hoover Institute, a conservative research organization. "When a case like this has been heard by 19 judges in six courts and it's been appealed to the Supreme Court three times, the process has worked - even if it hasn't given the result that the social conservatives want. For Congress to step in really is a violation of federalism."

"My party is demonstrating that they are for states' rights unless they don't like what states are doing," said Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of five House Republicans who voted against the bill. "This couldn't be a more classic case of a state responsibility."

"This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy," Mr. Shays said. "There are going to be repercussions from this vote. There are a number of people who feel that the government is getting involved in their personal lives in a way that scares them."

The Republican Party has long associated itself with limiting the power of the federal government over the states, though this is not the only time that party leaders have veered from that position. Most famously, in 2000, it persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn a Florida court ruling ordering a recount of the vote in the presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush.

But now the Schiavo case is illustrating splinters in the conservative movement that Mr. Bush managed to bridge in his last campaign, and the challenges Mr. Bush and Republicans face in trying to govern over the next two years, even though they control Congress as well as the White House.

Schiavo Recovery Impossible, Experts Say
Mon Mar 21, 2005 01:05 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Terri Schiavo, at the center of an emotional and political storm over whether she should be allowed to die, will almost certainly never recover from her unconscious condition, neurologists agree.

She is in a permanent vegetative state, and no one has ever come back from such a condition, according to the American Academy of Neurology.

"Approximately 10,000 to 25,000 adults and 6,000 to 10,000 children in the United States are diagnosed as being in the persistent vegetative state," the Multi-Society Task Force on Persistent Vegetative State says in its 1995 guidelines on the condition, the latest available.

"Survival beyond 10 years is unusual. The chance for survival of greater than 15 years is approximately 1 in 15,000 to 1 in 75,000," it adds.

While most neurologists agree that recovery is almost impossible, the decision on whether and how long to keep such a patient alive is usually left to the individual doctor and the patient's guardian.

Schiavo has been in the condition, which is far more severe than a coma, since she had a heart attack in 1990 that deprived her brain of oxygen. Under the medical definition, that became a permanent state after a month.

Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, has fought to allow her to die and courts have supported him.

The tube was removed on Friday after Florida courts rejected numerous last-ditch legal attempts by the parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, to keep their daughter alive. But early in the hours of Monday morning President Bush signed a bill allowing federal courts to again intervene in the matter.

The Schindlers believe their daughter responds to them and her condition could improve with treatment. Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a surgeon and Senate majority leader, has viewed videotapes and agrees.

But Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said reflexes can fool non-specialists.

"To the families and loved ones, and to inexperienced health care professionals, PVS patients often look fairly 'normal,"' Cranford said in a statement.

"Their eyes are open and moving about during the periods of wakefulness that alternate with periods of sleep; there may be spontaneous movements of the arms and legs, and at times these patients appear to smile, grimace, laugh, utter guttural sounds, groan and moan, and manifest other facial expressions and sounds that appear to reflect cognitive functions and emotions, especially in the eyes of the family."

Such patients can even squeeze a hand in response to a caress, Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago says in guidance posted on its Internet Web site.

"Sadly, these actions often appear meaningful to hopeful families but are all automatic reflexes -- not movements with a purpose," it reads.

"There are no confirmed reports of anyone fully recovering from a permanent vegetative state lasting more than three months."

This is because in such patients, the cerebral cortex has been destroyed, said Dr. Lawrence Schneiderman, a physician and bioethicist at the University of California, San Diego.

"Four to six minutes of anoxia, lack of oxygen, destroys that completely," Schneiderman wrote in comments posted on the Internet at

"The rest of your brain, particularly the brain stem, can survive for fifteen or twenty minutes without oxygen," added Schneiderman, who signed a friend of the court brief in July of last year supporting Michael Schiavo.

"What happens is that that part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, which is us, our personality, who we are, how we think -- our capacity to experience, see, hear, think, emote -- that may be permanently destroyed."

Experts say Terri Schiavo would experience no discomfort if allowed to die, as the part of her brain that experiences pain is unlikely to be functioning.

from the Washington Post---

Republicans acknowledged that the intervention was a departure from their usual support for states' rights. But they said their views about the sanctity life trumped their views about federalism.

An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."


The Bush administration and the current Congressional leadership like to wax eloquent about states' rights. But they dropped those principles in their rush to stampede over the Florida courts and Legislature. The new law doesn't miss a chance to trample on the state's autonomy and dignity. There are a variety of technical legal doctrines the federal courts use to show deference to state courts, like "abstention" and "exhaustion of remedies." The new law decrees that in Ms. Schiavo's case, these well-established doctrines simply will not apply.

Republicans have traditionally championed respect for the delicate balance the founders created. But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.


Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative law professor at Pepperdine University, said the legislation had left him anguished.

"I would be naturally inclined to Terri Schiavo's part in this enterprise," Professor Kmiec said. "This is, however, a benignly intended but tragically mistaken law. It contravenes almost every principle known to constitutional jurisprudence."

A Congressional call for a do-over by legislators unhappy with the result in a single case could, however, raise issues under the Constitution's equal protection clause.

"It is a basic principle of our legal system," said Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, "that no legislature may intervene in the most personal and intimate choices that individuals and families make except pursuant to neutral and general laws, laws that draw lines capable of justification in principled terms."

The lawsuit Ms. Schiavo's parents filed early yesterday made five arguments, and legal scholars said they found them largely unpersuasive.


or as Scott Rosenberg of Salon puts it in an editorial---

So to hell with the courts, to hell with the evidence, and to hell with the careful determination of Terri Schiavo's wishes that the courts have made. Bush and his supporters aren't happy with the outcome, so they're going to federalize the case! The president himself -- who has, through international crises thick and thin, been unable to rouse himself from those long, long vacations at his Texas ranch, even when hundreds of thousands were killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami -- will fly back to Washington to sign the bill! Sanctity of life? The hypocrisy would be ludicrous if the case weren't so heart-rending. We will turn our backs on the myriad deaths in Sudan, we will pay any price in casualties to root out phantom weapons of mass destruction, we will execute the mentally retarded without lifting a pardoning executive finger -- but heaven forbid the courts from concluding that one poor woman whose brain shut down many years ago would have preferred her relatives let her die in peace. No, that cannot stand; we must bend or break our system of government to stop it.

Or William Saletan, Slate's Chief Political Correspondant:

...once people like you, me, and Tom DeLay start second-guessing the judges, doctors, and families who know a case firsthand, it never ends. The "culture of life" becomes a regime of ham-fisted political reinvestigation that does for ethics what medieval barbers did for health.

If Congress makes such decisions, here's the kind of judgment you'll get. At a press conference Saturday, one Republican congressman said his colleagues were intervening in the case "so that this young woman can continue to make her parents as happy as she has"—as though that were the purpose of her existence. DeLay accused Democrats of starving Schiavo to death. He called it "medical terrorism." One day DeLay said she'd die slowly of starvation; the next, he said Congress had to move fast because she'd die quickly of dehydration. Frist, who has asserted special credibility "as a physician," claimed that "neurologists who have examined her insist today that she is not in a persistent vegetative state"—neglecting to mention that neurologists who testified in court concluded the opposite. On the Senate floor, Frist claimed to have "been in a situation such as this many, many times," when in fact he had never made such an evaluation. On the basis of the family videos, he challenged the assessment made by doctors who had examined Schiavo in person.

...And here's the culture you'll get. Schiavo's parents have filed a motion to divorce her from her husband. Protesters at the hospice have suggested that the husband should be starved and the judge should be beaten.

Monday, March 21

What Deep Division? On Right to Die, America Decided

In attempt to appear "fair and balanced" to the radical right, media ignore or cover up popular opinion polls that clearly demonstrate it is in the radical minority.

Recent polling data, in outlets from Fox News to the Washington Post, shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans back the position of Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, that he, and not his wife's parents, should have the final say about removing the feeding tube of his wife, who has been severely brain-damaged and incapacitated for the past 15 years. The polling data seriously undercuts the notion that Americans are deeply divided on the Schiavo case. Yet ever since March 18, when Republicans began their unprecedented push to intervene legislatively in a state court case that had already been heard by 19 judges, the press has all but disregarded the polls.

The Schiavo episode highlights not only how far to the right the GOP-controlled Congress has lunged -- a 2003 Fox News poll found just 2 percent of Americans think the government should decide this type of right-to-die issue -- but also how paralyzed the mainstream press has become in pointing out the obvious: that the GOP leadership often operates well outside the mainstream of America. The press's timidity is important because publicizing the poll results might extend the debate from one that focuses exclusively on a complicated moral and ethical dilemma to one that also examines just how far a radical and powerful group of religious conservatives are willing to go to push their political beliefs on the public.

Imagine how differently the televised debate would have unfolded over the past few days if journalists had simply done their job and asked Terri Schiavo's pro-life proponents why an overwhelming percentage of Americans disagree with them about this case. Indeed, polls taken over the past two years show that Americans are adamant that the spouse, and not the parents, should decide on a loved one's right to die. And in the past week, an overwhelming majority -- 87 percent -- of Americans polled by ABC News and the Washington Post said that if they were in the same state as Terri Schiavo, they too would want their feeding tube removed.


"Baffling" is also the only word to describe the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article this past Sunday that reported Americans are "split about 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of letting Schiavo die" (emphasis added). The paper then referred to a Fox News poll from "last year" that was "typical," in which 61 percent of registered voters said they would remove the tube and let her die; [and] 22 percent would leave it in place." If that poll was typical, why did the paper contradict itself by reporting that Americans are actually split 60-40 on the issue?

Television coverage was even more barren. NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday featured its weekly roundtable of journalists, who discussed the Schiavo issue. Yet neither host Tim Russert nor guests Ron Brownstein (Los Angeles Times), David Broder (Washington Post), John Harwood (Wall Street Journal) or Gwen Ifill (PBS) ever mentioned any polls on the Schiavo case. That show was the model, across the dial, for television coverage over the weekend: Avoid the polls and -- indirectly -- any suggestion that Congress was acting in an radical manner.

Sunday, March 13

Unfair Harvard - The real story behind one graduate's gripes. By Stephen Metcalf

The wound-up, overachieving children of the wound-up, overachieving professional elites find themselves ensnared in a paradox: the more intense the competition for social rewards, the more advantages their parents feel compelled to confer on them, and at earlier and earlier ages. Even as these children compete harder to achieve more, they may suspect they are less and less deserving. This is a recipe for neurosis, in which a style of condescension appropriate to the old Protestant upper crust mingles nonsensically with the gaping insecurity of the striving middle classes. And this is precisely the voice in which Privilege has been written.

Douthat is confused; but only because everyone is confused. As the smartest people writing about higher education—I'm thinking now of the critics Louis Menand and Andrew Delbanco—agree, the period between roughly 1945 and 1975 constituted a Golden Age for the American university system. In the decades after the GI Bill, college enrollment exploded, from a quarter-million to 10 million students, and standardized tests became a near-universal requirement for college admissions. (College admissions in turn became increasingly "need blind.") Starting in the 1970s, growth slowed and the student population diversified. As Menand has pointed out, on the typical college campus a non-Hispanic white male is now a minority. Each period—the period of growth, and the period of diversification—contributed to the vocabulary of "fairness": The Golden Age opened up universities to white males of intellectual talent, regardless of background. The period of diversification aggressively extended that openness to women and minorities.

Not coincidentally, the period covering the Golden Age of universities is also referred to as the Golden Age of capitalism. In the decades immediately following the war, the white-collar universe expanded—the professional sector of the American economy grew by a factor of 12 over those 30 years—while the blue-collar universe contracted. Universities acted as the principle training and staffing mechanism for that new white-collar universe. They went from being hoarders of opportunity to distributors of opportunity, a pit stop for a new army of Ragged Dicks.

The ideology behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call an ideology of relative social mobility, in which everyone, regardless of social origin, is given an equal opportunity to advance up the ladder of success. But the reality behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call absolute social mobility: Everyone did better, and because there were so many new white-collar jobs to go around, no one did worse. When the Golden Age came to an end, ideology failed to catch up to reality. We still pay lip service to equal opportunity, even though, absent an ever-expanding white-collar universe, some children of the middle class will need to fail in order to make room at the top of the occupational ladder for the talented children of the working class. And well-to-do middle-class parents do not like it when their children fail.

To prevent failure, middle-class parents pass along to their children every possible advantage, in the form of "social capital," or those habits of speech and self-discipline that allow a child to thrive in the classroom. Middle-class parents who can afford the property taxes move to the best school districts, or send their children to private schools. Economists have a vocabulary for this: They write about "Cobb-Douglas utility functions," whereby parents forgo current consumption in order to secure for their children high levels of future income. Legal theorists have a vocabulary for this: They talk about inter vivos bequests, whereby parents pass along a good education as a kind of inheritance. (Even literary critics have a vocabulary for this: They talk about Bourdieu-ian "reproduction.") So there's a technical language for inherited middle-class advantages; but as of now no ideological, no emotional, and no public-policy language for the phenomenon. Held to the impossible standard of the Golden Age, universities are now easily portrayed—even public universities, and even the old land-grant colleges—as finishing schools for a stable professional elite. The less they are viewed as purveyors of a public good, the easier they are to underfund. The more underfunded they become, the more expensive they are, the fewer scholarships they provide; the fewer scholarships they provide, the more exclusive they become … and on and on and on.

Saturday, March 12

Is It News or Public Relations? Under Bush, Lines Are Blurry


It is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.

"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.," a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration's determination to open markets for American farmers.

To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The "reporter" covering airport safety was actually a public-relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department's office of communications.

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 different federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.

This winter, Washington has been roiled by revelations that a handful of columnists wrote in support of administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments from the government. But the administration's efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations, given industry ethics standards that discourage the broadcast of prepackaged news segments from any outside group without revealing the source.

Federal agencies are forthright with broadcasters about the origin of the news segments they distribute. The reports themselves, though, are designed to fit seamlessly into the typical local news broadcast. In most cases, the "reporters" are careful not to state in the segment that they work for the government. Their reports generally avoid overt ideological appeals. Instead, the government's news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration.

Some reports were produced to support the administration's most cherished policy objectives, like regime change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters, such as the administration's efforts to offer free after-school tutoring, its campaign to curb childhood obesity, its initiatives to preserve forests and wetlands, its plans to fight computer viruses, even its attempts to fight holiday drunken driving. They often feature "interviews" with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy.

Some of the segments were seen in millions of homes and were broadcast in some of nation's largest TV markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.

An examination of government-produced news reports offers a look inside a world where the traditional lines between public relations and journalism have become tangled, where local anchors introduce prepackaged segments with "suggested" lead-ins written by public relations experts. It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of satellite transmissions, Web portals, syndicated news programs and network feeds, only to emerge cleansed on the other side as "independent" journalism.

It is also a world where all participants benefit.

Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which play a crucial role in distributing the government's coverage of itself, collect fees from the government agency that produces segments as well as the affiliate that shows them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting.

The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration, is continuing despite President Bush's recent call for a clearer demarcation between journalism and government publicity efforts. "There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press," Mr. Bush told reporters in January, explaining why his administration would no longer pay pundits to support his policies.

In interviews, though, press officers for several federal agencies said the president's prohibition did not apply to government-made TV news segments, also known as video news releases. They described the segments as factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers. They noted that the Clinton administration also distributed video news releases, and they insisted that there was no similarity to the case of Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who promoted the administration's chief education initiative, the No Child Left Behind legislation, without disclosing $240,000 in payments from the Department of Education.

What is more, these officials argued, it is the responsibility of television news directors to inform viewers that a segment about the government was in fact written by the government.

"Talk to the television stations that ran it without attribution," said Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. "This is not our problem. We can't be held responsible for their actions."

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert propaganda" even if their origin is made clear to the television stations. The point, the office said, is whether viewers know the origin. Last month, in its most recent finding, the G.A.O. said federal agencies may not produce prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials."

It is not certain, though, whether the office's pronouncements will have much practical effect. Although a few federal agencies have stopped making television news segments, others continue. And on Friday, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the G.A.O. findings. The memorandum said the G.A.O. failed to distinguish between covert propaganda and "purely informational" news segments made by the government. Such informational segments are legal, the memorandum said, whether or not an agency's role in producing them is disclosed to viewers.

Even if agencies do disclose their role, those efforts can easily be undone in a broadcaster's editing room. Some news organizations, for example, simply identify the government's "reporter" as one of their own and then edit out any phrase suggesting the segment was not of their making.

So in a recent segment produced by the Agriculture Department, the agency's narrator ended the report by saying "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Yet AgDay, a syndicated farm news program that is shown on some 160 stations, simply introduced the segment as being by "AgDay's Pat O'Leary." The final sentence was then trimmed to "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting."

Brian Conrady, executive producer of AgDay, defended the changes. "We can clip 'Department of Agriculture' at our choosing," he said. "The material we get from the U.S.D.A., if we choose to air it and how we choose to air it is our choice."

Spreading the Word

Government Efforts

And One Woman's Role

Karen Ryan cringes at the phrase "covert propaganda." These are words for dictators and spies, and yet they have attached themselves to her like a pair of handcuffs.

Not long ago, Ms. Ryan was a much sought-after "reporter" for news segments produced by the federal government. A journalist at ABC and PBS who became a public relations consultant, Ms. Ryan worked on about a dozen reports for seven federal agencies in 2003 and early 2004. Her segments for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy were a subject of the accountability office's recent inquiries.

The G.A.O. concluded that the two agencies "designed and executed" their segments "to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations." A significant part of that execution, the office found, was Ms. Ryan's expert narration, including her typical sign-off - "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting" - delivered in a tone and cadence familiar to television reporters everywhere.

Last March, when The New York Times first described her role in a segment about new prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients, reaction was harsh. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an editorial under the headline "Karen Ryan, You're a Phony," and she was the object of late night jokes by Jon Stewart and received hate mail.

"I'm like the Marlboro man," she said in a recent interview.

In fact, Ms. Ryan was a bit player who made less than $5,000 for her work on government reports. She was also playing an accepted role in a lucrative art form, the video news release.

"I just don't feel I did anything wrong," she said. "I just did what everyone else in the industry was doing."

It is a sizeable industry. One of its largest players, Medialink Worldwide Inc., has about 200 employees, with offices in New York and London. It produces and distributes about 1,000 video news releases a year, most commissioned by major corporations. The Public Relations Society of America even gives an award, the Bronze Anvil, for the year's best video news release.

In essence, video news releases seek to exploit a growing vulnerability of television news: Even as news staffs at the major networks are shrinking, many local stations are expanding their hours of news coverage without adding reporters.

"No TV news organization has the resources in labor, time or funds to cover every worthy story," one video news release company, TVA Productions, said in a sales pitch to potential clients, adding that "90 percent of TV newsrooms now rely on video news releases."

Federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at least the first Clinton administration. An increasing number of state agencies are producing television news reports, too; the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department alone has produced some 500 video news releases since 1993.

Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics.

A definitive accounting is nearly impossible. There is no comprehensive archive of local television news reports, as there is in print journalism, so there is no easy way to determine what has been broadcast, and when and where.

Still, several large agencies, including the Defense Department, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledge expanded efforts to produce news segments. Many members of Mr. Bush's first-term cabinet appeared in such segments.

A recent study by Congressional Democrats offers another rough indicator: the Bush administration spent $254 million in its first term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the last Clinton administration spent.

Karen Ryan was part of this public-relations push - a "paid shill for the Bush administration," as she self-mockingly puts it. It is, she acknowledges, an uncomfortable title.

Ms. Ryan, 48, describes herself as not especially political, and certainly no Bush die-hard. She had hoped for a long career in journalism. But over time, she said, she grew dismayed by what she saw as the decline of television news - too many cut corners, too many ratings stunts.

In the end, she said, the jump to video news releases from journalism was not as far as one might expect. "It's almost the same thing," she said.

There are differences, though. When she went to interview Tommy G. Thompson, then the health and human services secretary, about the new Medicare drug benefit, it was not the usual reporter-source exchange. First, she said, he already knew the questions, and she was there mostly to help him give better, snappier answers. And second, she said, everyone involved is aware of a segment's potential political benefits.

Her Medicare report, for example, was distributed in January 2004, not long before Mr. Bush hit the campaign trail and cited the drug benefit as one of his major accomplishments.

The script suggested that local anchors lead into the report with this line: "In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare." In the segment, Mr. Bush is shown signing the legislation as Ms. Ryan describes the new benefits and reports that "all people with Medicare will be able to get coverage that will lower their prescription drug spending."

The segment, though, made no mention of the many critics who decry the measure as an expensive gift to the pharmaceutical industry. The G.A.O. found that the segment was "not strictly factual," that it contained "notable omissions" and that it amounted to "a favorable report" about a controversial program.

And yet this news segment, like several others narrated by Ms. Ryan, reached an audience of millions. According to the accountability office, at least 40 stations ran some part of the Medicare report. Video news releases distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, including one narrated by Ms. Ryan, were shown on 300 stations and reached 22 million households. According to Video Monitoring Services of America, a company that tracks news programs in major cities, Ms. Ryan's segments on behalf of the government were broadcast a total of at least 64 times in the 40 largest television markets.

Even these measures, though, do not fully capture the reach of her work. Consider the case of News 10 Now, a cable station in Syracuse owned by Time Warner. In February 2004, days after the government distributed its Medicare segment, News 10 Now broadcast a virtually identical report, including the suggested anchor lead-in. The News 10 Now segment, however, was not narrated by Karen Ryan. Instead, the station edited out the original narration and had one of its own reporters repeat the script almost word for word.

The station's news director, Sean McNamara, wrote in an e-mail message, "Our policy on provided video is to clearly identify the source of that video." In the case of the Medicare report, he said, the station believed it was produced and distributed by a major network and did not know that it had originally come from the government.

Ms. Ryan said she was surprised by the number of stations willing to run her government segments without any editing or acknowledgement of origin. As proud as she says she is of her work, she did not hesitate, even for a second, when asked if she would have broadcast one of her government reports if she were a local news director.

"Absolutely not."

Little Oversight

TV's Code of Ethics,

With Uncertain Weight

"Clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders."

Those words are from the code of ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the main professional society for TV news directors in the United States. Some stations go further, all but forbidding the use of any outside material, especially entire reports. And spurred by embarrassing publicity last year about Karen Ryan, the news directors association is close to proposing a stricter rule, said its executive director, Barbara Cochran.

Whether a stricter ethics code will have much effect is unclear; it is not hard to find broadcasters who are not adhering to the existing code, and the association has no enforcement powers.

The Federal Communications Commission does, but it has never disciplined a station for showing government-made news segments without disclosing their origin, a spokesman said.

Could it? Several lawyers experienced with F.C.C. rules say yes. They point to a 2000 decision by the agency, which stated, "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded."

In interviews, more than a dozen station news directors endorsed this view without hesitation. Several expressed disdain for the prepackaged segments they received daily from government agencies, corporations and special interest groups who wanted to use their airtime and credibility to sell or influence.

But when told that their stations showed government-made reports without attribution, most reacted with indignation. Their stations, they insisted, would never allow their news programs to be co-opted by segments fed from any outside party, let alone the government.

"They're inherently one-sided, and they don't offer the possibility for follow up questions - or any questions at all," said Kathy Lehmann Francis, until recently the news director at WDRB, the Fox affiliate in Louisville, Ky.

Yet records from Video Monitoring Services of America indicate that WDRB has broadcast at least seven Karen Ryan segments, including one for the government, without disclosing their origin to viewers.

Mike Stutz, news director at KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego, was equally opposed to putting government news segments on the air.

"It amounts to propaganda, doesn't it?" he said.

Again, though, records from Video Monitoring Services of America show that from 2001 to 2004 KGTV ran at least one government-made segments featuring Karen Ryan, 5 others featuring her work on behalf of corporations, and 19 other segments produced by corporations and other outside organizations. It does not appear that KGTV viewers were told the origin of these 25 segments.

"I thought we were pretty solid," Mr. Stutz said, adding that they intend to take more precautions.

Confronted with such evidence, most news directors were at a loss to explain how the segments made it on the air. Some said they were unable to find archive tapes that would help answer the question. Others promised to look into it, then stopped returning telephone messages. A few removed the segments from their Web sites, promised greater vigilance in the future or pleaded ignorance.

Afghanistan to Memphis

An Agency's Report

Ends Up on the Air

On Sept. 11, 2002, WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with an uplifting report on how assistance from the United States was helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan.

Tish Clark, a reporter for WHBQ, described how Afghan women, once barred from schools and jobs, were at last emerging from their burkas, taking up jobs as seamstresses and bakers, sending daughters off to new schools, receiving decent medical care for the first time and even participating in a fledgling democracy. Her segment included an interview with an Afghan teacher who recounted how the Taliban only allowed boys to attend school. An Afghan doctor described how the Taliban refused to let male physicians treat women.

In short, Ms. Clark's report seemed to corroborate, however modestly, a central argument of the Bush foreign policy, that forceful American intervention abroad was spreading freedom, improving lives and winning friends.

What the people of Memphis were not told, though, was that the interviews used by WHBQ were actually conducted by State Department contractors. The contractors also selected the quotes used from those interviews and filmed the footage that went with the narration. They also wrote the narration, much of which Ms. Clark repeated with only minor changes.

As it happens, the viewers of WHBQ were not the only ones in the dark.

Ms. Clark, now Tish Clark Dunning, said in an interview that she, too, had no idea the report originated at the State Department. "If that's true, I'm very shocked that anyone would false report on anything like that," she said.

How a television reporter in Memphis came to unwittingly narrate a segment by the State Department reveals much about the extent to which government-produced news accounts have seeped into the broader new media landscape.

The explanation begins inside the White House, where the president's communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11, 2001, to encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism. The idea, they explained to reporters at the time, was to counter charges of American imperialism by generating accounts that emphasized American efforts to liberate and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

An important instrument of this strategy was the Office of Broadcasting Services, a State Department unit of 30 or so editors and technicians whose typical duties include distributing footage from news conferences. But in early 2002, with close editorial direction from the White House, the unit began producing narrated feature reports, many of them promoting American achievements in Afghanistan and Iraq and reinforcing the administration's rationales for the invasions. These reports were then widely distributed in the United States and around the world for use by local TV stations. In all, the State Department has produced 59 such segments.

United States law contains provisions intended to prevent the domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign audiences, but not at home. Yet State Department officials said that law does not apply to the Office of Broadcasting Services. In any event, said Richard A. Boucher, a State Department spokesman, "Our goal is to put out facts and the truth. We're not a propaganda agency."

Even so, as a senior department official, Patricia Harrison, told Congress last year, the Bush administration has come to regard such "good news" segments as "powerful strategic tools" for influencing public opinion. And a review of the department's segments reveals a body of work in sync with the political objectives set forth by the White House communications team after 9/11.

In June 2003, for example, the unit produced a segment that depicted American efforts to distribute food and water to the people of southern Iraq. "After living for decades in fear, they are now receiving assistance - and building trust - with their coalition liberators," the unidentified narrator concluded.

Several segments focused on the liberation of Afghan women, which a White House memo from January 2003 singled out as a "prime example" of how "White House-led efforts could facilitate strategic, proactive communications in the war on terror."

Tracking precisely how a "good news" report on Afghanistan could have migrated to Memphis from the State Department is far from easy. The State Department typically distributes its segments via satellite to international news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press Television News, which in turn distribute them to the major United States networks, which then transmit them to local affiliates.

"Once these products leave our hands, we have no control," Robert A. Tappan, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said in an interview. The department, he said, never intended its segments to be shown unedited and without attribution by local news programs. "We do our utmost to identify them as State Department-produced products."

Representatives for the networks insist that government-produced reports are clearly labeled when they are distributed to affiliates. Yet with segments bouncing from satellite to satellite, passing from one news organization to another, it is easy to see the potential for confusion. Indeed, in response to questions from The Times, Associated Press Television News acknowledged distributing at least one segment about Afghanistan to the major United States networks without identifying it as the product of the State Department. A spokesman said it "slipped through our net because of a sourcing error."

Kenneth W. Jobe, vice president of news at WHBQ in Memphis, said he could not explain how his station came to broadcast the State Department's segment on Afghan women. "It's the same piece, there's no mistaking it," he said in an interview, insisting that it would not happen again.

Mr. Jobe, who was not with WHBQ in 2002, said the station's script for the segment has no notes explaining its origin. But Tish Clark Dunning said it was her impression at the time that the Afghan segment was her station's version of one done first by network correspondents at either Fox News or CNN. It is not unusual, she said, for a local station to take network reports and then give them a hometown look.

"I didn't actually go to Afghanistan," she said. "I took that story and reworked it. I had to do some research on my own. I remember looking on the Internet and finding out how it all started as far as women covering their faces and everything."

At the State Department, Mr. Tappan said the broadcasting office is moving away from producing narrated feature segments. Instead, the department is increasingly supplying only the ingredients for reports - sound bites and raw footage. Since the shift, he said, even more State Department material is making its way into news broadcasts.

Meeting a Need

Rising Budget Pressures,

Ready-to-Run Segments

WCIA is a small station with a big job in central Illinois.

Each weekday, WCIA's news department produces a three-hour morning program, a noon broadcast and three evening programs. There are plans to add a 9 p.m. broadcast. The staff, though, has been cut to 37 from 39. "We are doing more with the same," said Jim P. Gee, the news director.

Farming is crucial in Mr. Gee's market, yet with so many demands, he said, "it is hard for us to justify having a reporter just focusing on agriculture."

To fill the gap, WCIA turned to the Agriculture Department, which has assembled one of the most effective public relations operations inside the federal government. The department has a Broadcast Media and Technology Center with an annual budget of $3.2 million that each year produces some 90 "mission messages" for local stations - mostly feature segments about the good works of the Agriculture Department.

"I don't want to use the word filler, per se, but they meet a need we have," Mr. Gee said.

The Agriculture Department's two full-time reporters, Bob Ellison and Pat O'Leary, travel the country filing reports, which are vetted by the department's office of communications before they are distributed via satellite and mail. Alisa Harrison, who oversees the communications office, said Mr. Ellison and Mr. O'Leary provide unbiased, balanced and accurate coverage.

"They cover the secretary just like any other reporter," she said.

Invariably, though, their segments offer critic-free accounts of the department's policies and programs. In one report, Mr. Ellison told of the agency's efforts to help Florida clean up after several hurricanes. "They've done a fantastic job," a grateful local official said in the segment.

More recently, Mr. Ellison reported that Mike Johanns, the new agriculture secretary, and the White House were determined to reopen Japan to American beef products. Of his new boss, Mr. Ellison reported: "He called Bush the best envoy in the world."

WCIA, based in Champaign, has run some 40 segments by Mr. Ellison over the past three months alone. Or put another way, WCIA has run 40 reports that did not cost it anything to produce.

Mr. Gee, the news director, readily acknowledges that these accounts are not exactly independent, tough-minded journalism. But, he added, "We don't think they're propaganda. They meet our journalistic standards. They're informative. They're balanced."

More than a year ago WCIA asked the Agriculture Department to record a special sign-off that implies the segments are the work of WCIA reporters. So, for example, instead of closing his report with "I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for the U.S.D.A.," Mr. Ellison says, "With the U.S.D.A., I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for 'The Morning Show.' "

Mr. Gee said the customized sign-off helped raise "awareness of the name of our station." Could it give viewers the idea that Mr. Ellison is reporting on location with the U.S.D.A. for WCIA? "We think viewers can make up their own minds," Mr. Gee said.

Ms. Harrison, the Agriculture Department press secretary, said the WCIA sign-off was an exception. The general policy, she said, is to make clear in each segment that the reporter works for the department. In any event, she added, she did not think there was much potential for viewer confusion. "It's pretty clear to me," she said.

The 'Good News' People

A Menu of Reports

From Military Hot Spots

The Defense Department is working hard to produce and distribute its own news segments for television audiences in the United States.

The Pentagon Channel, available only inside the Defense Department last year, is now being offered to every cable and satellite operator in the United States. Army public affairs specialists, equipped with portable satellite transmitters, are roaming war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, beaming news reports, raw footage and interviews to TV stations in the United States. All a local news director has to do is log on to a military-funded Web site,, browse a menu of segments and request a free satellite feed.

Then there is the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service, a unit of 40 reporters and producers set up to send local stations news segments highlighting the accomplishments of military members.

"We're the 'good news' people," said Larry W. Gilliam, the unit's deputy director.

Each year, the unit films thousands of soldiers sending holiday greetings to their hometowns. Increasingly, the unit also produces news reports that reach large audiences. The 50 stories it filed last year were broadcast 236 times in all, reaching 41 million households in the United States.

The news service makes it easy for local stations to run its segments unedited. Reporters, for example, are never identified by their military titles. "We know if we put a rank on there they're not going to put it on their air," Mr. Gilliam said.

Each account is also specially tailored for local broadcast. A segment sent to a station in Topeka, Kan., would include an interview with a service member from there. If the same report is sent to Oklahoma City, the soldier is switched out for one from Oklahoma City. "We try to make the individual soldier a star in their hometown," Mr. Gilliam said, adding that segments were distributed only to towns and cities selected by the service members interviewed.

Few stations acknowledge the military's role in the segments. "Just tune in and you'll see a minute-and-a-half news piece and it looks just like they went out and did the story," Mr. Gilliam said. The unit, though, makes no attempt to advance any particular political or policy agenda, he said.

"We don't editorialize at all," he said.

Yet sometimes the "good news" approach carries political meaning, intended or not. Such was the case after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal surfaced last spring. Although White House officials depicted the abuse of Iraqi detainees as the work of a few rogue soldiers, the case raised serious questions about the training of military police officers.

A short while later, Mr. Gilliam's unit distributed a news segment, sent to 34 stations, that examined the training of prison guards at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where the military police officers implicated at Abu Ghraib had been trained.

"One of the most important lessons they learn is to treat prisoners strictly but fairly," the reporter said in the segment, which depicted a regimen emphasizing respect for detainees. A trainer told the reporter that military police officers were taught to "treat others as they would want to be treated." The account made no mention of Abu Ghraib or how the scandal had prompted changes in training at Fort Leonard Wood.

According to Mr. Gilliam, the report was unrelated to any effort by the Defense Department to rebut suggestions of a broad command failure.

"Are you saying that the Pentagon called down and said we need some good publicity?" he asked. "No, not at all."

Anne E. Kornblut contributed reporting for this article.

Tuesday, March 8

William Gibson

William Gibson: "A quote from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (R), the doctor who sterilized a patient without her knowledge when she was 18, and who has said that doctors who perform abortions should get the death penalty. Meanwhile, in talking about those worthless class action lawsuits:

'I immediately thought about silicone breast implants and the legal wrangling and the class-action suits off that. And I thought I would just share with you what science says today about silicone breast implants. If you have them, you're healthier than if you don't. That is what the ultimate science shows. In fact, there's no science that shows that silicone breast implants are detrimental and, in fact, they make you healthier.'

[Thanks to william gibson for this lovely and reassuring quote.]

Wednesday, March 2

The Socialist Economics of College Tuition - Why elite universities charge $38,000 per year, and why they don't expect you to pay it. By Peter Scheer

An old article, but still relevant to today's consternation over "escalating" tuition:

The Socialist Economics of College Tuition
Why elite universities charge $38,000 per year, and why they don't expect you to pay it.
By Peter Scheer

By any measure, the price tag is staggering: $38,000 per year (including room and board) at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Williams, et al., and nearly as much at colleges down the academic food chain. And since tuition always rises faster than inflation, "saving" for four years of college looks like an impossibility for any parent who's not a hedge-fund manager.
Click here!

hey, wait a minute The conventional wisdom debunked.

The Socialist Economics of College Tuition
Why elite universities charge $38,000 per year, and why they don't expect you to pay it.
By Peter Scheer
Posted Thursday, May 30, 2002, at 10:21 AM PT

This is the season of college commencements, a time of immense relief for parents who are finishing tuition payments, and of dismay for younger parents who wonder how they'll ever afford to send their kids to good schools.

By any measure, the price tag is staggering: $38,000 per year (including room and board) at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Williams, et al., and nearly as much at colleges down the academic food chain. And since tuition always rises faster than inflation, "saving" for four years of college looks like an impossibility for any parent who's not a hedge-fund manager.

So, how do other parents manage to pay for tuition? The (perhaps reassuring) answer is: Most don't.

Thirty years ago, most students at private colleges paid full tuition. Today, only one-quarter do. The rest receive financial aid in the form of scholarships and loans. These discounts are substantial: 50 percent, on average, at the elite private colleges—the 25 most selective and best-endowed private colleges and universities, including the Ivies—even higher at many less-selective private colleges. In other words, most students at good private colleges pay only half the list price or less.

So, why do colleges persist in charging sky-high tuition that causes sticker shock for applicants yet is irrelevant for most of them?

For second-tier schools (the schools ranked below the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings) the answer is that a high tuition, even if few students pay it, is a signal of value—positioning the school in the market of high-quality colleges. For the elite private colleges, the answer is more complicated. Schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton don't use a high tuition to signal value; their names alone do that. Nor do they maintain high tuitions to maximize revenues. Just as increases in taxes don't always yield increased revenues, increases in tuition do not necessarily translate into revenue windfalls. Harvard's 2001 tuition hike, for example, resulted in only marginally higher revenues, according to Sheryl Hoffman, Harvard's associate dean for finance.

The elite private colleges use gargantuan tuition to do what is usually thought to be the province of governments: redistribute wealth by "taxing" the families of rich students in order to subsidize the less rich and the not rich. Like for-profit corporations, elite colleges engage in "price discrimination," applying different prices to different students in order to extract the most money that each student is willing and able to pay, explains Henry Hansmann, professor at Yale Law School and expert on charitable organizations. But unlike for-profit corporations, colleges engage in this quintessentially capitalist behavior in the service of an egalitarian ideal.

While second-tier colleges offer merit scholarships to top students in order to lure them away from the best schools, most of the elite private colleges claim to offer need-based discounts exclusively. Indeed, for the elite private colleges, it is a point of honor that they do not give merit discounts. This policy serves their redistributionist instincts. Wealthier students, no matter how smart they are, subsidize needier classmates by paying full price.

One surprising result of this social policy is that the real cost of private colleges hasn't increased in the last two decades—contrary to the conventional wisdom that tuition inflation has priced the most selective schools beyond the reach of middle-class families. In a study of admission and financial-aid decisions at Williams College from 1988 to 2001, economists Gordon Winston and Catherine Hill found that the real cost of tuition stayed essentially constant across all income groups.

Middle-income families paid a discounted tuition of $10,794 in 1988 (in year 2000 constant dollars); the same families in 2001 paid $11,024, an increase of just 2 percent in 13 years. Low-income families actually experienced a reduction in tuition, from a 1988 net of $7,667 to $5,907 in 2000. Only families paying the sticker price saw a big increase in tuition in real terms. But even their tuition cost represented about the same share of family income in 2001 as in 1988, according to Winston and Hill.