2/28/2008 9:42:30 AM
When we were kids, my brother and I spent much of our time concocting stories and scenarios for our G.I. Joe action figures, imagining how they might destroy enemy depots or dispatch opposing commanders. Then my dad got involved. He offered a different sort of narrative, which began with christening our G.I. Joes “Hank” and “Jim,” in complete disregard for their codenames.
Hank and Jim, you see, were normal guys, except they happened to be small figurines with aggressive military bearings. Accordingly, they spent the bulk of their time complaining about their size and waging petty arguments. What I most remember is my dad’s Hank and Jim voices, complaining in a bland, thoroughly non–G.I. Joe manner about which of them merited the privilege of walking in front of the other one (or something like that). Incidentally, Hank and Jim were the names of two of my dad’s philosophy department colleagues.
To re-cast my G.I. Joes as bickering, put-upon little men was funny—albeit frustrating to a budding military zealot like myself. Such absurdly mundane reimagining is also one of the guiding principles behind Mark Russell’s superb Superman Stories, a zine trilogy of which two volumes have been published.
Each volume, which is written by Russell with his own occasional cartoons, recounts the travails of Superman in a world that more closely resembles reality than a comic book. For example, Superman and Lois Lane argue over his emotional impenetrability. Or, in another vignette, a judge dresses Superman down for not obtaining an extradition order before apprehending a mad scientist operating out of the Amazon rain forests. In Russell’s re-imagining, Superman bears the burden of mundane reality, with its humiliating arguments, its romantic difficulties, and its disputes with Aquaman over the political legitimacy of ruling the seas as a monarch rather than an elected official. Ah, relatability!
Aside from the parody and the kidding, Russell does bring a certain seriousness and poignancy to the notion of Superman-in-real-life. Lois and Superman can’t have children, for instance, so they struggle with the possibility of adoption. Superman Stories also returns again and again to the question of how we can imagine Superman without pondering the damage he would wreak on humankind. At one point in Superman Stories 2, which is at times downright earnest, Superman attends an anti-Superman rally where protestors read a list of names: Each individual was accidentally killed in the course of Superman’s superheroic exploits.
For me, Russell’s Superman joins Hank and Jim as avatars of one’s cluelessness in the face of expected heroism, forthrightness, and reliability. In fact, I feel moved to re-christen him. I hereby dub Superman “Mike.” Look, up in the sky! It’s Mike! He’s wrangling with Hank and Jim!
To check out Superman Stories in print, contact Mark Russell.
2/28/2008 8:13:58 AM
As advertisers migrate to the internet, newspapers and magazines have thrown back the sheets for some strange print-ad bedfellows. Cue the erectile dysfunction jokes. (No, seriously.)
The sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently featured—exclusively—advertisements for erectile dysfunction cures, reports David Brauer at MinnPost. Brauer, who finds that the trend is not limited to Minnesota, puts it best:
The, er, deflating news? The two quarter-page ads were the only ones in the eight-page section—a truly abysmal percentage that will get journalists agitated in all the wrong ways.
Image by Yandle, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/27/2008 12:02:05 PM
It may come as a bit of a surprise to the denizens of cyberspace that there are still those living in a world defined by three dimensions. And these 3D-living dinosaurs still spend long summer evenings at real carnivals with Ferris wheels and carnies, eating cotton candy and peeing in biffies. These happy carnival-goers, relishing their moments of old-timey fun, are equally unaware of what passes for a carnival in the blogosphere. Unlike the carnivals of yore, where people became so sick from fried food and roller coasters that their bloated bodies and sugar-numbed minds were rendered useless, blog carnivals actually make life easier by pointing readers to interesting posts on a central topic. The blog carnival we’ve been attending lately is the Carnival of Journalism, a monthly round-up of experienced media writers who offer industry analysis and helpful advice for journalists.
Image by Svenstorm, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/25/2008 5:39:14 PM
On Friday, I peeked beneath the sheets of the New York Times’ love affair with Hillary Clinton. This weekend, the gray lady took it up a notch.
Let’s compare the Sunday headlines:
A1: “Somber Clinton Soldiers On as the Horizon Darkens” [illustrated by gigantic presidentially stoic image of Clinton soldiering on]
Inside, on the jump: “On Center Stage, a Candidate Letting His Confidence Show” [illustrated by said candidate smiling while leaving the stage at a press conference]
Reporter Michael Powell diagnoses the sinister truth behind Obama’s smile:
A touch of cockiness is discernable in his manner now; he is like a gambler convinced his every dice roll will come up double sixes.
Then, like a jilted reporter, Powell goes on to call Obama an “elusive starlet” and—no kidding—“a tease” when it comes to spending quality time with the press.
Meanwhile, reporter Patrick Healy warns readers/voters that the Clinton campaign has got the blues. Some staffers have even taken to turning off their Blackberrys after 9 p.m. and hitting the bottle (Why, oh why, weren’t they getting sauced before? $1,200 on donuts, but no booze? Talk about campaign strategy problems.)
Despite it all, Healy reassures, Hillary’s hanging in there:
Mrs. Clinton has, though, increasingly sought to keep her fate in perspective. In her debate in Texas on Thursday with Mr. Obama, she delivered what some viewers saw as a valedictory—but what she said was a simple expression from the heart—when she spoke warmly about the race and her rival.
“I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored,” she said. “And you know, whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”
Though the campaign has since changed its tune, the piece signs off with some loving lines from Clinton’s recently fired campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle:
“Hillary is incredibly tough—she grew up with two brothers and a strong father in the Midwest, so she knows a challenge... She has gone through so much, where someone like me would hide under the covers. But she gets up. She works. She tries.”
UPDATE: Though I’d say Healy’s story read like a rallying warning to Hillary supporters, her people disagree. And, according to the Huffington Post, they’re peeved that the paper won’t print a letter of objection from supporters—what editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal rightly calls a “press release.”
2/22/2008 11:25:18 AM
Beware the passion of the hometown newspaper. It can seep from an editorial-page endorsement into news coverage, transforming campaign reporting into spin-infested idolatry. Such is the case with the New York Times, whose news pages of late have been stamped with Hillary-approved storylines and sources.
The most egregious case in point was a front-page feature on February 9 that, in essence, whined that Barack Obama had trumped up his drug use:
Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.
Reporter Serge F. Kovaleski chooses door number three, smoking out old college and high school acquaintances who didn’t remember Obama as much of a party animal. Then he dissects Obama’s drug use (which Kovaleski acknowledges takes up 1½ pages of a 442-page book):
Mr. Obama wrote that he would get high to help numb the confusion he felt about himself. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” he penned in the memoir.
But, Kovaleski implies, there was really no such risk. Just listen to Obama’s old prep-school pal, Keith Kakugawa, who recollects: “As far as pot, booze, or coke being a prevalent part of his life, I doubt it.” (See, no chance of slipping down an ill-fated path. And what has Kakugawa been up to since those days? Well, Kovaleski reports, he “spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses beginning in 1996.”)
One can only imagine what the media line would have been had Obama not fessed up early in his ambitious career. Doesn’t he know he’s supposed to leave that stuff hidden, so enterprising reporters in dire need of scoops can uncover it?
The New York Times’ tack here is reminiscent of its efforts to jump on the memoir-debunking bandwagon in 2006. Inspired by the James Frey pile-on that followed revelations about the fictive liberties the author took in his one-time memoir, A Million Little Pieces, the paper’s arts section aired idiotic concerns about the importance of factual errors that were corrected in the new translation of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night:
In the previous translation, published in 1960, the narrator tells a fellow prisoner that he is "not quite 15." But the scene takes place in 1944. Mr. Wiesel, born on Sept. 30, 1928, would have already been 15, going on 16. In the new edition, when asked his age, he replies, "15."
The anti-Obama bias has seeped into other coverage as well. (Though there have been some valiant and nasty efforts among the paper’s columnists to counterbalance.) Take the lead story in the February 17 “Week in Review.” Veteran campaign-trail reporter Kate Zernike examines the perks and pitfalls of the “charismatic leader,” recruiting various historians to parse the Obama phenomenon. Eventually, she elicits this zinger:
“What is troubling about the [Obama] campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption . . . It’s posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”
And who did Zernike tap for this scholarly assessment? Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who, she parenthetically notes, is “a longtime friend of the Clintons.” Certainly there is a scholar somewhere in this nation’s Ivory Towers who—despite not having Bill and Hillary in their Rolodex—is nevertheless capable of throwing a few swings at Obama. There’s a substantive difference between the biased view of a supporter and the biased view of a friend. Transparency does not good sourcing make.
Now, the list of errant reporting can go on. (And would start with the breathlessly pro-Clinton blogging from reporter Katharine Q. Seelye during the CNN/Univision debate in Texas). But I’ll sign off with a roundup of news outlets’ poll positions that the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk blog assembled in the run-up to the Potomac Primaries (to illustrate a different point about the media’s wrong-headed insistence on fortune-telling):
McClatchy: McCain, Obama favored to win Virginia
Agence France-Presse: Ragged Clinton campaign braces for more vote woe
UPI: Poll: Obama, McCain favored in Va., Md.
LA Times: Obama favored in Potomac primaries
Miami Herald: McCain, Obama look strong for ‘Potomac Primary’
Pittsburgh Tribune: Obama favored to sweep next 3 primaries
Wall Street Journal: Today, Sen. Obama is favored to win the “Potomac Primary” in neighboring Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The Hill: Potomac primary losses could spark pressure on Huckabee to withdraw
ABC News’s The Note: Clinton’s gone cold at the wrong time, and she could wake up Wednesday staring at Obama from the other side of the standings.
New York Times: With primaries on Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Clinton advisers were pessimistic about her chances, though some held out hope for a surprise performance in Virginia.
That “some” holding out for victory? Clinton’s campaign denizens, donors, and the New York Times.
2/20/2008 5:27:16 PM
The formula for political scandal is ludicrously simple. Take Individual A, insert in Institution B, add Power C and, sooner or later, out pops a shiny, new, media-ready scandal (simply append the suffix “-gate”). Hillary and Bill Clinton are no strangers to this process; they might well be seen as two of its greatest products. Their latest scandal? They played editor at GQ magazine.
As Politico reported back in September, Bill Clinton threatened not to appear as GQ’s “Man of the Year” if the gentleman’s magazine published a story on internal strife in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The Times’ Frank Rich referred in passing to this turn of events last fall, but the kicker is that the Atlantic has now published the piece, with updated reporting and even un-timelier timing for the Clintons, who are currently trying to cope with Barack Obama’s winning streak. All in all, it’s a victory for investigative journalism—but let’s not make a “-gate” out of it.
(Thanks, Columbia Journalism Review.)
2/19/2008 11:55:05 AM
Rejoice! The erudite historians over at Common-place have taken their ruminations (always scholarly, never sleep-inducing) to the blogosphere. Brace yourself for blogging with historical context.
2/18/2008 1:14:30 PM
Around the world, journalists are often the targets of violence and politically-motivated arrests. In the 2008 annual report on worldwide press freedoms, the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders states that 86 journalists were killed last year and at least two were arrested each day. The report outlines the state of press freedom in countries throughout the world. The situation is dire in countries like Zimbabwe and China, yet the US, where the government holding Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj for his sixth year without charges, is far from a journalistic safe haven.
2/18/2008 10:44:58 AM
Over the course of several months, “citizen contributor” Patrick Corcoran steadfastly plugged his favorite Democratic congressional candidate, Mark Pera, on the Chicago Tribune’s user-generated, local reporting site, Triblocal.com. Corcoran wrote more than a dozen articles in support of Pera, and the Pera campaign happily linked to his stories on their site, reports Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader.
The doting stories didn’t raise an alarm online, but they did once they hit newsprint. Every week, a round up of the site’s best stories, Trib Local, is shipped with the Chicago Tribune. The January 10 print supplement’s leading headline—“Democrat Mark Pera picks up support”—caught the eye of the parents of a staffer for Pera’s rival campaign and Corcoran’s hand finally tipped: The “citizen contributor” was also the Pera campaign’s media spokesperson. Whoops.
Citizen journalism is a much-lauded fruit of internet democracy, as Adam Weinstein notes in Mother Jones, but the stories produced by these self-selected reporters are seldom vetted by editors or otherwise quality-controlled, spawning a briar patch of new media ethics questions. “The Triblocal.com kind of citizen journalism has at least one conspicuous defect,” writes Miner, “nothing gets written about unless somebody feels like doing the writing.”
, licensed under
2/18/2008 10:33:52 AM
In spite of (or perhaps because of) the obscuring hormonal haze of my adolescence, I still recall some of my high-school teachers as inaccessible martinets. Why did they have to be so stern, so old, and so very, very crusty? As it turns out, the inaccessibility of teachers and administrators presents a dilemma not just for students, but also for journalists who cover the inner workings of their local school systems.
In a recent Q & A with the Columbia Journalism Review, former education reporter Linda Perlstein discusses her new job as the public editor at the National Education Writers Association. In Perlstein’s view, the unwillingness of teachers and administrators to discuss frankly the weaknesses of their schools stands as one of the most damning obstacles for education reporters. In the bureaucratic culture of public schools, people aren’t willing to rock the boat, lest their bosses push them overboard. As Perlstein tells CJR,
Principals don’t really want to hear what the teachers have to say, superintendents don’t really want to hear what the principals have to say, the education department doesn’t seem to want to hear what the state board has to say—and what that means for reporters is: everyone’s really afraid to be honest.
As a result of such institutionalized silence, reporters aren’t left with much information: They have, on the one hand, the strengths that educators identify in their own schools; and, on the other hand, there’s the out-of-context data that suggests the unmet standards of such programs as No Child Left Behind. The casualty of this divide is that old journalistic standby, nuance. Happily, part of Perlstein’s new job is to help reporters ferret out that complexity. Here’s hoping.
For more on the trials of education coverage, read our recent post on the demise of higher-education reporting.
Image by ne*, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/12/2008 2:02:31 PM
If you’ve picked up a newspaper anytime since the 2004 election, you’ve likely read some breathless write-up of this story: apparently, there are evangelical Christians in this country who aren’t theocratic, homophobic nuts. In fact there are a few who aren’t even conservatives—and the Democrats have noticed.
It being election season again, you’d think the mainstream media would be interested in seeing how this evangelicals-and-Democrats relationship is going. You’d be wrong. After the Iowa caucuses, the nonprofit resource center Faith in Public Life observed that CNN and NBC exit polls asked Republican voters whether they were evangelicals, but they didn’t ask Democrats. When it happened again in New Hampshire, a group of evangelical leaders protested in a letter to the networks.
A couple dozen state primaries later (having seen little improvement in this lopsided polling) Faith in Public Life, along with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, commissioned a post-election poll in Missouri and Tennessee. The poll, released yesterday, includes a variety of questions about religious affiliation, issue priorities, and candidate preferences. One in three white evangelical voters in the two states voted in Democratic primaries. Among all white evangelicals, jobs and the economy far outranked abortion and same-sex marriage as priority issues. And Hillary Clinton had far more support from this group than Barack Obama did.
These provocative findings could add nuance to the old Dems-and-evangelicals narrative—especially if the networks bother to get this sort of information from the rest of the country. Instead, after three years of the same persistent trend piece, they seem to have lost interest altogether.
Image by Steven Fruitsmaak/Wikinews, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/12/2008 10:32:13 AM
Finally, a social networking site aimed at the cranky old-school reporters who were forever bitching about “those Internets,” until they realized they were on the verge of losing their jobs to a bunch of 20-somethings with Facebook accounts who are willing to work for a Jimmy John’s sandwich and a free Internet connection. Ryan Sholin, of blogosphere renown, took pity on them and created Wired Journalists.com to help them learn about The Google. And judging from the turnout on the message board, it’s working. Onward, crusty journalists!
Image by monoglot, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/8/2008 10:11:15 AM
The first zine in J. Gerlach’s Simple History Series, Christopher Columbus and His Expeditions to America, tells the story of the world’s most famous explorer through drawings of stick figures in various states of one-dimensional distress. The details are far from simple, though—they transcend mere stick-people problems at every turn—and the zine takes a de-mythologizing tack on Columbus and his ships.
The key to the zine’s charm is that Columbus reads alternately like a textbook and a children’s illustrated history. Gerlach accomplishes this feat by widely varying the zine’s ratios of words to pictures. On some pages, a small rectangle of text acts as a caption for an accompanying illustration; elsewhere, words dominate an entire page. What’s consistent throughout is that the zine does not suppress the gory details of Columbus’ romps to the New World. For instance, illustrator Cindy Crabb’s depictions of stick-figure corpses being dumped overboard are somewhat wrenching: They’re the bodies of would-be slaves.
Nevertheless, Columbus, with its bibliography full of Howard Zinn and James W. Loewen, presents a digestible version of a narrative that is not as familiar as it should be. It’s a useful, friendly zine. Even the title makes it sound like a congenial outdoor excursion by two friends: Columbus and his Expeditions! At last, together again!
If you’re interested in checking out Gerlach’s Simple History Series zines, contact Danielle Maestretti, the Utne librarian.
2/8/2008 8:24:09 AM
Two unlikely foes have been trading barbs of late: the feminist magazine Ms. and the American Jewish Congress. The AJCongress, whose mission is to “defend Jewish interests at home and abroad,” took the first public swing by harshly criticizing Ms. for its refusal to run an AJCongress ad (PDF) featuring photos of three women who occupy high-level positions in the Israeli government. In a statement on the AJCongress website, Richard Gordon, president of the AJCongress, accused the magazine’s publishers of being “hostile” to Israel; similar charges of anti-Israel bias soon popped up across the blogosphere. “For a publication that holds itself out to be in the forefront of the Women’s Movement,” Gordon said, “this is nothing short of disgusting and despicable.”
Ms. responded to the organization’s criticism with its own strongly worded statement, explaining that the ad was rejected for being “inconsistent” with the magazine’s ad policy, which accepts “only mission-driven advertisements from primarily non-profit, non-partisan organizations that promote women’s equality, social justice, sustainable environment, and non-violence.” She also points out that the Winter 2008 issue of Ms., which hit newsstands a few weeks ago, includes a profile (PDF) of Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, one of the women pictured in the AJCongress ad. And Clare Kinberg, the editor of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, defended Ms. in a letter to the Forward a few weeks ago, accusing the AJCongress of “playing on fears of antisemitism.”
On the other hand, it’s possible that Ms. is vetting its ads too cautiously. The magazine’s editors should expect that their readers can differentiate the viewpoint of the magazine from those presented in advertisements. Or Ms. should simply establish an “accept all” policy to avoid these types of traps, as Katha Pollitt suggests in a column for the Nation. Pollitt writes that by accepting all ads, as the Nation does, “You don’t have to explain why you rejected this ad last week when you accepted that one three years ago, you don’t get embroiled in ideological flash fires over words you didn’t write, and you don't get enmeshed in other people’s agendas.”
(Thanks, New York Sun.)
2/7/2008 4:21:16 PM
The Knight Citizen News Network recently released its Top Ten Rules for Limiting Legal Risk, a guide for bloggers and citizen journalists. The list offers specific advice for following the precepts set by traditional journalism, but it’s tweaked to fit the instant, blogocentric world of the new New Journalists. It's interactive, with a wealth of in-depth explanations, videos, and quizzes.
Image by dcdailyphotos, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/7/2008 10:50:03 AM
Getting older is more fun with ELDR, a new magazine that “brings an enlightened, entertaining and sometimes edgy approach to aging.” The second issue (Winter 2007-2008) serves up progressive, informative, fun articles, with content I found interesting even as someone decades younger than the intended audience. I especially enjoyed “Hooray for Gray!,” which reports on the growing number of women who let their hair stay gray, and “Best Fish to Eat,” a chart that rates fish based on health and environmental factors. There’s also a colorful pull-out poster with tips on how to avoid the flu and a longer feature on staying mentally sharp through brain exercises. I no longer have grandparents, but I will definitely recommend ELDR to my parents. (Once they’re old enough to not be offended, anyway.)
2/6/2008 10:27:17 AM
A recent dispatch from the Chronicle of Higher Education plants a headstone for that erstwhile newspaper institution, the higher-education beat. Well, maybe not a headstone, but certainly an earnest get-well card with a detailed, well-reported story printed on the inside. As Richard Whitmire laments, regional newspapers have been shrinking their coverage of higher education, sometimes assigning just one reporter to cover the gamut of local education issues, including elementary, secondary, and higher ed.
The rub is this: As Whitmire points out, regional higher-ed reporting has scooped some of the most important education news of the last few years. For instance, Iowa’s Des Moines Register and Florida’s St. Petersburg Times uncovered shady dealings between local colleges and student loan providers. Moreover, he argues, regional newspapers have a stake in covering the local economy, in which nearby universities and colleges are significant employers and workforce-generators. An informed readership ought to know the condition of local schools, including typical debt burdens and drop-out rates. Without reporters on that beat, however, there will likely continue to be a void in coverage.
Image by Alexander Steffler, licensed under Creative Commons.
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