Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Thursday, April 25, 2013 1:03 PM
The crisis in journalism today shouldn't obscure mainstream media's long history of masking the truth and acquiescing to power. From the Vietnam War to credit default swaps to climate change, in many ways American journalism brought crisis on itself.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it
on paper. There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish. The second paper in
town has shut down. Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week.
Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south.
Subscriptions are dwindling. Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue.
Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to
fail? Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?
In the previous century, there was a brief Golden
Age of American journalism, though what glittered like gold leaf sometimes
turned out to be tinsel. Then came regression to the mean. Since 2000, we have
seen the titans of the news presuming that Bush was the victor over Gore, hustling us into war with Iraq, obscuring climate change, and
turning blind eyes to derivatives, mortgage-based securities, collateralized
debt obligations, and the other flimsy creations with which a vast, showy,
ramshackle international financial house of cards was built. When you think
about the crisis of journalism, including the loss of advertising and the shriveled newsrooms -- there were fewer newsroom employees in 2010 than in 1978, when records
were first kept -- also think of anesthetized watchdogs snoring on Wall Street
while the Arctic ice cap melts.
Deserting readers mean broken business models. Per
household circulation of daily American newspapers has been declining steadily for 60 years, since long before the
Internet arrived. It’s gone from 1.24 papers per household in 1950 to 0.37 per
household in 2010. To get the sports scores, your horoscope, or the crossword
puzzle, the casual reader no longer needs even to glance at a whole paper, and
so is less likely to brush up against actual -- even superficial -- news. Never
mind that the small-r republican model on which the United States was founded
presupposed that some critical mass of citizens would spend a critical mass of
their time figuring out what’s what and forming judgments accordingly.
Don’t be fooled, though, by any inflated
talk about the early days of American journalism. In the beginning, there was
no Golden Age. To be sure, a remark Thomas Jefferson made in 1787 is often
quoted admiringly (especially in newspapers): "If it were left to decide
whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a
government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."
Protected by the First Amendment, however, the press of
the early republic was unbridled, scurrilous, vicious, and flagrantly partisan.
In 1807, then-President Jefferson, with much more experience under his belt,
wrote, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than
he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he
whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
Two Golden Decades
If there was a Golden Age for the American press, it came
in a two-decade period during the Cold War, when total per capita daily
newspaper circulation kept rising, even as television scooped up eyeballs and
eardrums. Admittedly, most of the time, even then, elites in Washington or elsewhere enjoyed the
journalistic glad hand. Still, from 1954 to 1974, some watchdogs did bark.
Civil rights coverage, for example, did help bring down white supremacy, while Vietnam and
Watergate reportage helped topple two sitting presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and
Of course, press watchdogs also licked the hands of the
perpetrators when Washington overthrew
democratic governments in Iran
in 1953, Guatemala in 1954,
and when it helped out in Chile
in 1973. As for Vietnam,
it wasn’t as simple a tale of journalistic triumph as we now imagine. For
years, in manifold ways, reporters deferred to official positions on the war’s
“progress,” so much so that today their reports read like sheaves of Pentagon
press releases. Typically, all but one source quoted in New York Times
coverage of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents, which precipitated a major U.S. escalation
of the war, were White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials (and
they were lying). In the war’s early years, at least one network, NBC, even
asked the Pentagon to institute censorship.
Nonetheless, the sense that the war was an unjustifiable
grind grew, especially after the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive of
January-February 1968, startling the U.S.
officials, and journalists alike. When, in 1969, Seymour Hersh reported for the tiny Dispatch News Service that a unit from
the Americal Divisionhad slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians
in a village named My Lai, his story went
Still, the long bombing campaign that President Nixon
ordered in Cambodia and Laos did not
feature on television, and barely made the newspapers. And even when, in a
remarkable feat of reporting, it finally did in a major way, there was no
journalistic sequel. The “secret” bombing of Cambodia -- secret from Americans,
that is -- was reported on page one of the New York Times on May 9,
1969, and 37 years later, the reporter, William Beecher, said this about his story: “We're not talking
of some small covert operation here, but a massive saturation bombing campaign,
with a false set of coordinates to mislead the Congress and the public… You
would have thought that such a story would have caused a firestorm. It did
After Watergate, whatever hard-won, truth-bound
independence the mainstream press had wrested from its own history failed to
hold. In the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq,
for example, most Washington
journalism once again collapsed into deference, and so, too, did the financial press
on its own front. Washington’s
war-making might and Wall Street’s financial maneuvers were both deemed too
mighty, too smart, too hypermodern to fail.
Although the New York Timesand theWashington Postlater acknowledged flaws in their Iraq
reporting, neither paper nor other major outlets have owned up to the negligence
that led up to the great global economic meltdown of 2007-2008. We are far from
grasping how fully business journalism played cheerleader and pedestal-builder
for the titans of finance as they erected a fantastical Tower of Derivatives,
which grew way too tall to fail without wrecking the global economy.
Start to finish, financial journalism was breathless
about the market thrills that led to the 2007-2008 crash: the financialization
of the global economy, the metastasis of derivatives, and especially the
deregulation underway since the late 1970s that culminated in the 1999
congressional repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (with President Bill
Clinton blithely signing off on it). That repeal paved the way for commercial
and investment banks, as well as insurance companies, to merge into
“too-big-to-fail” corporations, unleashed with low capital requirements and
soon enough piled high with the potential for collapse.
A Proquest database search of all American newspapers
during the calendar year 1999 reveals a grand total of two pieces
warning that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake. The first appeared in
the Bangor Daily News of Maine, the
second in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida. Count ‘em: two.
On February 24, 2002, as the scandal of the
derivative-soaked Enron Corporation unfolded, the New York Times’s Daniel Altman did distinguish himself with a page-one business
section report headlined “Contracts So Complex They Imperil The System.” He
wrote: “The veil of complexity, whose weave is tightening as sophisticated
derivatives evolve and proliferate, poses subtle risks to the financial system
-- risks that are impossible to quantify, sometimes even to identify.” He stood
almost alone in those years in such coverage. Most financial journalists
preferred then to cite the grand Yoda of American quotables, Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan Greenspan. And he was just the first and foremost among a range
of giddy authorities on whom those reporters repeatedly relied for reassurance
that derivatives were the great stabilizers of the economy.
On March 23, 2008, as the bubble was finally bursting, Times
reporters Nelson Schwartz and Julie Creswell noted that “during the late 1990s, Wall Street fought bitterly
against any attempt to regulate the emerging derivatives market.” They went on:
“A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall
of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of
legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill
effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic
instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like
stocks, bonds and futures contracts.”
“Little-noticed” indeed. According to Lexis-Nexis,not
a single substantive mention of this law appeared in the Times that year.
On October 1, 2000, Washington Post writer Jerry Knight did note ruefully,
“What's fascinating about the policy debate is the agreement on the guiding
principle: The government should not stand in the way of financial innovation.”
In a syndicated column on Christmas Eve,
way-out-of-the-mainstream columnist Molly Ivins was not so poker-faced. She called the new law “a little horror.” And in that she stood
alone. That was it outside of financial journals like the American Banker
and HedgeWorld Daily News, which, of course, were thrilled by the act.
That magic word “modernization” in its title evidently froze the collective
Or in those years consider how the New York Times
covered the exotic derivatives called “collateralized debt obligations,” among
the principal cards of which the era's entire international financial house was
built. These tricky arcana, marketed as little miracles of risk management, multiplied from an estimated $20 billion in 2004 to more than
$180 billion by 2007. The Times’sFloyd Norris
drily mentioned them in a 2001 front-page business section article about
American Express headlined “They Sold the Derivative, but They Didn't
Understand It.” He quoted the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank this way: "There are
all kinds of transactions going on out there where one party doesn't understand
it." From then on, no substantial Times front-page business section
article so much as mentioned collateralized debt obligations for almost four
In 2009, in an enlightening
article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman, a
former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, looked at the nine most
influential business press outlets from January 1, 2000, through June 30, 2007
-- that is, for the entire period of the housing bubble. A total of 730
articles contained what Starkman judged to be significant warnings that the
bubble could burst. That’s 730 out of more than one million articles these
The formula was simple and straightforward: the business
pressserved the market movers and shakers. It was a
reputation-making machine, a publicity apparatus for the industry. In other
words, the job of financial reporters in those years was to remain fast asleep
as the most flagrantly abusive part of the mortgage industry, subprime
mortgages, was integrated into routine banking.
Meanwhile, thanks to that same financial press, a culture
of celebrity enveloped the big names of finance: CEOs of major banks, Wall
Street investors, operators of hedge funds. They were repeatedly portrayed not
just as fabulously successful tycoons doing their best for the society, but as
fabulously giving philanthropists, their names engraved into the walls of
university buildings, museums, symphony halls, and opera houses. They weren’t
just bringers of liquidity to markets, but wise men, too. In an all-enveloping
media atmosphere in which the press indulged without a blink, they were held to
be not only creators of wealth but moral exemplars. Indeed, the two were
essentially interchangeable: they were moral exemplars because they were
creators of wealth.
The Desertification of the News
Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of
the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again.
On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally,
still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with
the seriousness it deserves. At least it is now an intermittent story, though
rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation. Still, as Wen Stephenson,
formerly editor of the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section and TheAtlantic.com
and senior producer of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the
alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and
is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a “problem,” not an
“existential threat.” (Another note on vanishing news: Since publishing
Stephenson’s article, the Phoenixhas ceased to exist.)
Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping
journalism does not “flood the zone.” It also has a remarkable record of
bending over backward to prove its “objectivity” by turning piece after piece
into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the
subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.
When it came to our financial titans, in all those years
the press rarely felt the need for a dissenting voice. Now, on the great
subject of our moment, the press repeatedly clutches for the rituals of
detachment. Two British scholars studying climate coverage surveyed 636
articles from four top United
States newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and
found that most of them gave as much attention to the tiny group of
climate-change doubters as to the consensus of scientists.
And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed
us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace. Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history,
their news divisions went dumb and mute. The Sunday talk shows, which
supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites -- those high-minded
talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public --
were otherwise occupied.
All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters,
“The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate
change... ABC's This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes…
NBC's Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention…
Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates,
including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming
‘junk science’ on ABC's This Week. More than half of climate mentions on
the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to
address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single
scientist on climate change.”
The mounting financial troubles of journalism only
tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog. It’s unlikely that serious business
coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their
way down the slippery circulation slope. Why invest in scrutiny of government
regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation
benefits so much greater? Meanwhile, the nation’s best daily environmental
coverage takes a big hit. In January, the New York Times's management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two
environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters. How could such a
move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the
The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out
for the most serious professional self-scrutiny. Will it do for journalists and
editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned
assumptions about what constitutes news? It’s long past time to reconsider some
journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and
dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy
figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in:
some say the earth is spherical, others say it’s flat).
But don’t let anyone off the hook. Norms can be bent.
Consider this apt headline on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek after
Hurricane Sandy drowned large sections of New
York City and the surrounding area: “It’s Global
Warming, Stupid.” Come on, people: Can you really find no way to dramatize the
extinction of species, the spread of starvation, the accelerating droughts,
desertification, floods, and violent storms? With all the dots you already
report, even with shrunken staffs, can you really find no way to connect them?
If it is held unfair, or naïve, or both, to ask faltering
news organizations to take up the slack left by our corrupt, self-dealing,
shortsighted institutions, then it remains for start-up efforts to embarrass
the established journals.
Online efforts matter. It’s a good sign that the
dot-connecting site InsideClimateNews.org was just honored with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
But tens of millions of readers still rely on the old
media, either directly or via the snippets that stream through Google, Yahoo,
and other aggregator sites. Given the stakes, we dare not settle for nostalgia
or restoration, or pray that the remedy is new technology. Polishing up the old
medals will not avail. Reruns of His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, and
Broadcast News may be entertaining, but it’s more important to keep in
mind that the good old days were not so good after all. The press was
never too great to fail. Missing the story is a tradition. So now the question
is: Who is going to bring us the news of all the institutions, from City Hall
to Congress, from Wall Street to the White House, that fail us?
Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and communications at
Columbia University, is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other
books including, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall
Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin
Image by Jarapet, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012 9:26 AM
A town without bookstores is like a town without churches or bars. Minus the hymnals and happy-hour specials, the best bookshops are vital community centers where patrons can gather, share ideas, and have grand revelations or quiet discoveries. When Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York, began to fail, it tapped into the strength of its community with an inspired idea: cooperative ownership.
Last spring, rather than shuttering its doors, Buffalo Street Books sold shares of the independent shop to 600-plus local “co-owners,” raising more than $250,000, reports Christina Palassio in This Magazine. Less than a year later, the co-op bookstore is thriving.
What makes Buffalo Street Books’ co-op model successful? “The owners and employees of Buffalo Street Books do so much to make the store more than just a store; they’ve turned BSB into a community within a community,” says Chloe Wilson in The Ithaca Independent:
The store holds lectures, writer’s workshops, and reading groups on a regular basis. The store reaches out to Cornell and IC professors and works with them to supply books for their classes. The store encourages burgeoning writers and invites them to share their work. People who go to Buffalo Street Books aren’t just customers or employees, they’re members of BSB’s community.
In an industry already complicated by declining brick-and-mortar sales, answering to hundreds of shareholders has potential to add another layer of difficulty. “The messiness of running a co-op may not appeal to many beleaguered bookstore owners,” Palassio writes in This Magazine. “But with the rise in community-supported projects like [CSAs] and websites like Kickstarter and Unbound…the line between investor and customer is blurring.”
Keeping hometown bookstores alive makes the complications worthwhile. As novelist Ann Patchett told the New York Timesafter opening Parnassus Books in Nashville’s book desert last November, “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore. But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.” Like Buffalo Street Books, Parnassus Books utilizes the support of the community. Its Founder Rewards Program offers perks and discounts in exchange for member dues that range from $75 to $5,000.
In case you missed it, watch Patchett deftly explain the value of independent bookstores on The Colbert Report below. And don’t forget to support your local bookshop. The bars and churches are busy enough, aren’t they?
Sources: This Magazine(article not available online), The Ithaca Independent, New York Times
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 10:07 AM
If the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, as Edgar Allen Poe famously argued in 1846, then is the death of a beautiful woman’s child the second most poetical topic? So it would seem to filmmaker Terrence Malick, whose artful Tree of Life tries to gain emotional weight from actress Jessica Chastain’s soulful eyes and shapely ankles in the role of Mrs. O’Brien, a 1950s housewife whose son tragically dies.
It’s an image-driven film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki finds transcendent beauty in everything upon which he turns the camera, from fluttering dresses to bursting sunspots. But even as Malick’s sparse script teases out complexities in Mrs. O’Brien’s husband (played by Brad Pitt)—by turns domineering and vulnerable and loving, a man tormented by lost dreams of becoming a classical pianist—it grants no such depth to Mrs. O’Brien. Despite being a central character, she has no back story before motherhood, no vices, no lost dreams, and almost no dialogue. Instead, the camera roves insistently over her lips, her clavicles, the nape of her neck, her calves, and her slim waist with a single message: Feminine beauty equals virtue.
The New York Times calls the storyline archetypal, familiar, recognizable. In his exploration of the family’s tragic loss, Malick certainly seems to be striving for the universal, even bringing the viewer back to the creation of the cosmos in a mid-film nature documentary tracing the origin of God’s inscrutability. Filmspotting critics Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, who loved the film, wisely point out that “the connective tissue that runs throughout this film will impact so many people in so many disparate ways.” For me, the familiar impact was that of a woman being voiceless.
Source: New York Times, Filmspotting
Image by LollyKnit,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 08, 2011 10:21 AM
Ernest Hemingway’s suicide in 1961—fifty years ago on July 2—“remains one of the iconic American deaths,” writes Robert Roper for Obit Magazine. “He has come close to being remembered as much for his death as for his work, a terrible fate for a writer.”
Not only was Hemingway a rock star author in his time, but he also transformed himself into an icon of some his day’s biggest socio-cultural changes. Which is, of course, why American readers are perpetually interested in Hemingway’s suicide. Barrel-chested, he personally stood for liberty and against Fascism before it was fashionable. Paranoid depression crippled him at the beginning of a new era of neuroscience and psychological therapy. And Hemingway’s problematic, overblown masculinity drew near-universal ire from a burgeoning, radicalizing feminist movement.
Summarizing a few of Hemingway’s biographers, Roper notes that suicide was often close to the author’s thoughts:
The times just after finishing a book were some of the worst for him. Even in his robust roaring ‘20s, world-famous as an author already, he talked often about having night terrors, about feeling “contemptible,” about being afraid he was losing control—“you lie all night half funny in the head and pray and pray and pray you won’t go crazy.” In a love letter to the woman who would become his second wife, he wrote, “I think all the time I want to die.” A love letter! The inner Hemingway was agonized, was ever on the cross.
Further, the British journal The Independent argues that Hemingway’s bravura was a misread cry for help, that “when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming. You discover that, for just over half of his life, Hemingway seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.”
But in a recent op-ed column for the New York Times, his friend and biographer A.E. Hochner posits a new theory: He was harassed to despair by the FBI. Hemingway often speculated that his phones were bugged, that he was under surveillance, that he was in danger. Only after a Freedom of Information Act released Hemingway’s FBI dossier did Hochner discover the truth:
Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Not only did the American way of life come to destroy Hemingway, but Hemingway’s suicide came to traumatize generations of male American writers. “In a dialogue published in the June 1986 edition of Esquire,” remembers the Los Angeles Times’ Reed Johnson, “the writers Ken Kesey and Robert Stone cited Hemingway’s suicide as a critical blow to the American male psyche, which led some men to embrace an alternative ideal of masculinity. ‘He tricked us into following his mode, and then he conked out and shot himself,’ Kesey says of Hemingway.”
Ernest Hemingway’s career, personality, and legacy are controversial—and will ever remain so. Closing the profile in Obit Magazine, Roper asks us all to take a step back from our political agendas and literary preferences. He concludes, “That so large and memorable a personage was so entirely without hope so much of the time awakens compassion.”
Sources: The Independent, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Obit Magazine
Image by tonynetone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 09, 2011 12:51 PM
Boredom is still a driving—semi-popular even—force in art. Just look to the wide acclaim bestowed on Terrence Malick’s latest slow-burning film, Tree of Life, or David Foster Wallace’s epitomic The Pale King, a novel about (among other things) American tax law. But there is also a long-standing, all-or-nothing divide between those who seek out art at its most arduous and those who crave entertainment at its emptiest. The disagreement resembles a stalemate trench war, with intellectual critics and cultural arbiters pontificating on the importance of high-and-boring art against the masses that spend $186 million (so far) to guffaw through Hangover Part II. Of late, the snobs are fighting back—a courageous defense of boring art.
Just like eating a pile of wax beans and cauliflower, getting enough cultural vegetables can make you healthy and nauseous at the same time. Writing for New York Times Magazine, Dan Kois describes his love-hate relationship with high art:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
Boredom isn’t supposed to be fun or easy, but it can be progressive and rewarding. “I’m saying that boredom is a productive and indeed revolutionary force, by the way,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “not that its results are always or everywhere pleasant.” O’Hehir is writing specifically about cinematography, but his case can be made just as well for literature, visual arts, or independent music. Hehir sees his fellow critics’ frustration as systemic:
I think what gets critics all het up about contemporary culture from time to time is the sense that the tyranny or hegemony of entertainment has pushed boredom so far into the margins that it’s no longer available, or at least not in the density or quality required to produce cultural revolutions. What we have instead is the meta-boredom of a pop culture that’s all bells and whistles all the time, can’t be switched off and watches us while we’re watching it, rather too much like the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984.
In a joint rant, New York Times’film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis largely agree: Scott argues that the entire movie business is geared to maintain the “corporate status quo” of Hollywood and asserts “the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun,” while Dargis scoffs at the assumption that moviegoers find that “thinking is boring.”
But, really, it’s not thinking that’s boring, but life. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned critics are taking issue with bald escapism—and O’Hehir pins down the crux of the high-versus-low divide in a few short sentences:
What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them—and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.
Sources: New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon
The images are screen-stills from Hangover Part II and Meek’s Crossing.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011 11:35 AM
The rapscallions over at The Atlantic Wire have compiled a list of subversive tricks for slipping through the soon-to-be-hoisted pay wall at NYTimes.com. Like all impenetrable fortresses, the Times’ website has a few weak girders and exploitable portals.
If you’re not a paying subscriber, the pay wall will cap your visits to articles at 20 per month starting next week—after that you’ll need to either get out your credit card or don your digital ninja suit. It seems the best way to invade will be through Facebook or Twitter—visits which, according to The Atlantic Wire, “won’t count towards your allotted monthly articles.” If you can’t wait for a dispatch or column to appear on your news feed, head over to Google and search for it. After you reach the 20-article limit, you’ll still be able to read five articles per day found on Google. When you’ve exhausted those five, try a different search engine or clear your browser’s cache. (Tedious, yes, but infinitely free). Finally, one feisty programmer made a simple bookmarklet called NYTClean that allows your browser to ignore the pay wall altogether.
If these back-door tricks make you uneasy, buy a subscription to the newspaper. “As it stands,” explains the Wire, “the deluxe, access-anywhere digital subscription costs $8.75 a week. Weekday home delivery, however, is only $6.20 per week in Manhattan (it’s a bit more expensive outside New York) and it comes with the same digital access. Additionally, a Friday-Sunday subscription also comes with all-digital access and starts at $7.60 per week.” You’re also entitled to basic, unlimited NYTimes.com access if you subscribe to the Sunday edition.
Source: The Atlantic Wire
Image jphilipg, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 11, 2011 10:30 AM
Can anyone truly measure happiness? The folks at Gallup are giving it everything they’ve got. Their Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, active for the past three years, is a daily assessment of U.S. residents’ health and general well-being. Seven days a week, 350 days a year (taking time off only for major holidays), Gallup intensively interviews at least 1,000 adults on topics relating to their emotional and physical health, work and home life, and access to basic needs like food, shelter, and health care.
This month, the New York Times mapped Gallup’s results and enlisted them to find the happiest person in America by making a composite based on their exhaustive statistics.
Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. A few phone calls later and…
Meet Alvin Wong. He is a 5-foot-10, 69-year-old, Chinese-American, Kosher-observing Jew, who’s married with children and lives in Honolulu. He runs his own health care management business and earns more than $120,000 a year.
If you’re disappointed that Alvin Wong was named the happiest American alive today, don’t worry. Tomorrow, it could be you.
Sources: Gallup-Healthways, New York Times
Image by manduhsaurus, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 04, 2011 12:20 PM
Modern design, high-risk banking, economic growth, and jaw-dropping panoramas of the surrounding cityscape. These things all come to mind when you hear the word “skyscraper.” But—as the New York Times reports from Caracas, Venezuela—perhaps it’s time to start associating skyscrapers with social justice, poverty alleviation, DIY construction, and anarchism. The “Tower of David,” a 45-story high-rise and one of Caracas’ many failed development projects, has been appropriated by about 2,500 squatters as Venezuela reels in the wake of economic and housing crises.
The crafty community has figured out how to wire-in electricity and install slapdash plumbing in the bottom 28 floors (thus far). One can find a beauty salon and a dentist, if in need. Bodegas—nearly every story hosts one—supply residents with groceries and cigarettes.
Although thousands have newfound shelter, conditions remain dangerous:
The smell of untreated sewage permeates the corridors. Children scale unlit stairways guided by the glow of cellphones. Some recent arrivals sleep in tents and hammocks [. . .] Few of the building’s terraces have guardrails. Even walls and windows are absent on many floors. Yet dozens of DirecTV satellite dishes dot the balconies. The tower commands some of the most stunning views of Caracas. It contains some of its worst squalor.
Take a tour of the Tower of David and meet the intrepid denizens in the video below.
Source: New York Times
, licensed under
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 12:37 PM
It’s hard to know what to believe about the book anymore. Bookstores and publishers may be struggling, libraries might be imperiled, and readers are supposedly disappearing (or just hiding behind illuminated screens), yet books—the real, physical objects—just keep appearing in the world. Surely no endangered species has ever bred quite so profligately as does the publishing industry.
I’m certainly not going to complain, even if I might sometimes wish that, given the purportedly uncertain economics of the industry, these characters would stop throwing so much paint at the walls and spend a bit more time (and money) on quality control. Still, this is the time of year when all sorts of people who still love books and reading knuckle down and apply themselves to scouring the Library of Babel for the very best of the newest acquisitions. And no matter how widely you read or how much time you spend in bookstores, there are always plenty of surprises, enticements, obscurities, and genuine curiosities to be found on the best-of lists that proliferate around the holidays. Here are a bunch of the things, and please feel free to quibble or offer up your own suggestions:
The New York Times
10 Books of the Year (Alas, not a single surprise here), and the 100 Notable Books of 2010.
Anis Shivani at the Huffington Post: 10 best books of the year (plenty of surprises).
Five Best Books You Probably Didn’t Read
The Guardian queries a batch of writers on their favorite books of the year. As does The Millions in its sprawling Year in Reading feature. And Bookforum does the same.
asks independent booksellers to name their favorites from 2010.
Chicago’s estimable Seminary Co-opassembles its 20 favorites.
Photographer Alec Soth winnows down the year in photobooks.
For the Yoga folk, Daily Cup of Yoga has the year in Yoga books covered.
And if you still haven’t had enough, head over to Largehearted Boy for a ridiculously exhaustive roundup, and all the evidence anyone should need that books are still hanging around and –at least here and there (here, certainly)—making a dent in the culture.
Source: New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Esquire, Seminary Co-op, NPR, Alec Soth, Largehearted Boy, The Millions, Bookforum, Daily Cup of Yoga
Image by dweekly, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010 5:02 PM
For English philosopher and soccer fan Simon Critchley, the World Cup presented an opportunity to meld his love of the physical and the metaphysical. Critchley has curated a New York art exhibition and sports viewing space—how often do those worlds collide?—called Men With Balls: The Art of the 2010 World Cup.
When visitors to apexart in Lower Manhattan are not watching the real-time clash of nations on giant screens, they can take in high-minded reflections on the game, such as a cut-and-paste fantasy match in which Mexico defeats Brazil 17-0 or a 90-minute meditation on the play of Frenchman Zinedine Zidane that the New York Times called “beautiful and hypnotic.”
But even if you can’t make it to the gallery any easier than you can make it to Johannesburg, be sure to read Critchley’s wonderful essay on the apexart site. Here is a taste:
The World Cup … is about ever-shifting floors of memory and the complexity of personal and national identity. But most of all it is about grace. A truly great player, like Pelé, like Johan Cruyff, like Maradonna, like Zidane, has grace: an unforced bodily containment and elegance of movement, a kind of discipline where long periods of inactivity can suddenly accelerate and time takes on a different dimension in bursts of controlled power. When someone like Zidane does this alone, the effect is beautiful; when four or five players do this in concert, it is breathtaking (this collective grace has been taken to a new level by the F.C. Barcelona team in the last few years). But grace is also a gift. It is the cultivation of a certain disposition, some call it faith, in the hope that grace will be dispensed.
Sources: Apexart, New York Times
Image courtesy of apexart.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 8:45 AM
Photojournalist Damon Winter won a Pulitzer for his photos of Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Now he's turned his attention and considerable talent to the daunting task of documenting a year in the life of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan. The first photo and video installments of "A Year at War" are up at the New York Times website. Everything is embedded in an elegant player. All you have to do is load the page and you're thrust into the emotional lives of what seem to be mostly reluctant soldiers. It's the portrayal of that reluctance that makes the project so unique. You can get a feel for Winter's work at the New York TimesLens blog, where his photos of the battallion's last tearful and uncertain hours before deployment are collected in a slideshow. There's also an interview with Winter. Here's an excerpt:
Q: When there was a draft, like in the Vietnam War, a lot of people knew soldiers who were fighting. But now, because it is a professional army, the pain of war is less spread out. Fewer people know the people fighting.
A: It is a challenge to cut through the uniform and the conceptions about what it’s like to be a solider and what it’s like to serve in the military. We have spent so much time with them. We want to convey that sense that each person, while part of this huge machine, is an individual, leaving wives, children and loved ones behind, and making a really tough life decision to go spend a year at war.
Friday, June 18, 2010 12:21 PM
The news from Iran these days is as fit to print as ever, but surprisingly under-reported. Although the massive election protests last summer received top-tier coverage in venues like the New York Times and New Yorker, the news cycle has been a little blinder in the months since. One current story we can’t ignore comes to us from Virginia Quarterly Review:
Oxford PhD student Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour, who campaigned for opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi in 2009, was arrested on Monday afternoon, June 14, according to his wife, Fatemeh Shams.
Jalaeipour was first arrested on June 17, 2009. After attending a family wedding in Iran, Jalaeipour was prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai. He and his wife had been returning to the UK to continue their studies. The couple were members of the Third Wave campaign, a reformist youth movement that eventually backed Moussavi in the Iranian presidential election last year. Jalaeipour told the Wall Street Journal that, inspired by the Obama campaign, he had created pages on Facebook to reach young Iranian voters. After his 2009 arrest, Jalaeipour endured eighty days of imprisonment including more than fifty days in solitary confinement at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. After his release, Jalaeipour remained in Iran with his parents, as his passport had been confiscated. His wife currently lives in the UK where she also attends Oxford.
This turn of events resurrects the desperation of Jalaeipour’s previous imprisonment, which VQR will document in their Summer issue by publishing letters Jalaeipour’s wife, Fatemeh, wrote him while he was in custody. VQR is getting the word out, but it’d be nice if Iran could stay in the crosshairs of our depleted attention spans.
Source: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review
Image by Beverly & Pack, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 04, 2010 4:55 PM
Many documentary filmmakers are at their core journalists, and some of the feistier ones ferret out information and images that bring to light villainy, greed, cruelty, and corruption. So it’s disconcerting to see a documentary director being threatened with jail time if he doesn’t turn over his outtakes.
That’s what’s happening to Joe Berlinger, director of the film Crude, which tells the story of a lawsuit brought by indigenous Amazon people against the oil giant Chevron for environmental damages to the rainforest. (See a review of Crude in Utne Reader.) Chevron has subpoenaed Berlinger and the nearly 600 hours of raw footage shot for the film.
Berlinger’s attorneys have argued that the footage is shielded by the journalist privilege, which protects reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources or information, and that forcing the filmmaker to hand it over is a violation of his First Amendment rights. The filmmaker has been granted a temporary stay until June 8, when an appeals court will hear his motion for a stay on the order to turn over his film.
Berlinger has attracted some influential allies to his cause. First, the industry group the International Documentary Association and a group of filmmakers that includes 20 Academy Award winners and many more nominees issued an open letter supporting Berlinger, reported the New York Times on its Arts Beat blog. Then, this week, a group of 13 heavy-hitting media companies—including NBC Universal, HBO, and the New York Times Company—filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
He’s also been defended by that feistiest of fellow whistle-blowers, Michael Moore, who told the New York Times that the decision could have “a chilling effect”:
“If something like this is upheld, the next whistle-blower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they’re working for,” Mr. Moore said. “Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom.”
The head of the company distributing Crude issued a similar warning a statement. Seymour Wishman, president of First Run Features, cited “the high risk that other journalists in the future will be deterred from embarking on similar hard hitting investigations. In order to be informed, persuaded or disabused of misperceptions, the American public desperately needs the benefit of uninhibited documentaries like Crude, and journalists like Joe Berlinger.”
If you agree—that is, if you’ve ever seen a documentary that changed your mind about an issue—consider donating to the legal fund for Berlinger’s case at Kickstarter.
Sources: Arts Beat, New York Times, First Run Features, Kickstarter
Image by Ali Pflaum, courtesy of Radical Media.
Thursday, May 06, 2010 4:14 PM
So many American farmers are spraying Roundup weedkiller on their fields that they may be effectively creating a monster, the New York Times reports:
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of … Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them … farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
The superweed revolution appears to threaten what the Times calls the “Roundup revolution” in which many farmers combine Roundup and genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. These crops stand up to the weedkiller while most of the surrounding weeds perish—or that’s the idea, anyway. Some farmers told the paper that they’re spraying more herbicide and giving up minimum-till farming, which reduces erosion and chemical runoff.
If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.
It’s notable that just last week, Roundup maker Monsanto was defending itself at the Supreme Court in a case that involved the weedkiller’s environmental effects. On April 27, SustainableBusiness.com reported:
Today the Center for Food Safety faces off against Monsanto in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of farmers and public interest environmental organizations. Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms is the first case involving genetically engineered crops that has ever been heard by the Supreme Court.
Lower courts agreed that the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa must be stopped because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had failed to analyze the crop’s impacts on farmers and the environment. Although it remains undisputed that USDA violated environmental laws, and that it must rigorously analyze the genetically engineered crop’s impacts before deciding whether or not to approve it for sale, Monsanto is arguing that the lower courts should have allowed the planting of the illegal crop to go forward in the interim.
Presciently, the threat of the Roundup-resistant weeds covered in the New York Times came up in an amicus brief filed in the case by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity:
In this case, the significant environmental risks that warrant preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, and that also implicate respondents’ interests in particular, involve not only whether Roundup Ready Alfalfa would further contaminate conventional alfalfa (as it already has), but also the risk that large-scale use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of the Roundup pesticide, which, among other impacts, may result “in the development of Roundup-tolerant weeds.”
Source: New York Times, SustainableBusiness.com, The Center for Food Safety
John D. Byrd
, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 3:02 PM
Cuts at your favorite media organizations? Take comfort in the probability that the executives in charge are doing just fine.
From a New York Times story:
Top executives at the country’s largest media companies continued to reel in multimillion-dollar pay packages in 2009, a year of widespread cost-cutting throughout the industry. In several cases, the packages even increased from the year before.
At the top of the list is
, chief executive of the , whose pay package in 2009 totaled almost $43 million, more than twice what he made in 2008, according to an analysis by Equilar, an research firm.
Not far behind was
’s chief executive, , who was paid nearly $34 million, a 22 percent increase over 2008. , who controls CBS and Viacom, was paid more than $33 million from the two companies combined.
“Anybody who reads the business section knows the margins are being squeezed at media companies, so the fact that there are these huge packages makes no sense,” said James F. Reda, the founder of James F. Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm with offices in New York and Atlanta.
Hey, it's lonely at the top! You've got to get something out of the deal.
Source: New York Times
Image by kevindooley, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 22, 2010 3:20 PM
On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m glad to see mainstream media attention turning to the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement: corporate influence. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published Earth Day stories that explore big business’s buy-in to green groups and green marketing, and question whether commerce has co-opted the movement.
According to the Times,
So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”
Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.
The Washington Post points out that we the consumers are also to blame, having been convinced by many companies that buying their green product is the best way to save the planet. Reports the Post:
This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for “green” products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.
From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, “we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. We’re too respectful of business,” said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades—and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.
Of course, there’s always been griping by “pure” environmentalists that business has a suspect agenda—but the debate has gone beyond whether business should be a partner in change to whether it is actively pulling the strings in major environmental groups. Last month, The Nation set off a kerfuffle in environmental circles with an article, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” that called out groups like Conservation International and the Sierra Club for being tainted by corporate ties. (A fiery exchange ensued.) And last year Christine MacDonald’s book Green Inc., which I reviewed in Utne Reader, made a similar case at greater—and quite convincing—length.
It’s a vital discussion, and I for one am glad that it’s finally being had. It seems no great coincidence that on this Earth Day, President Obama took a stern line with our nation’s largest financiers over their irresponsible behavior. Talk about unsustainable: The titans of Wall Street can’t even keep their corporations sustainable in the short term, let alone for the long haul on a planet with dwindling resources. Are they our partners in creating a healthy, safe, and beautiful world? Or our enemies?
Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, The Nation, Green Inc.
Image by mandiberg, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 9:25 AM
From the New York Timestoday:
At least 14 radio stations here in the capital stopped broadcasting music on Tuesday, heeding an ultimatum by an Islamist insurgent group to stop playing songs or face “serious consequences.”
The threat left radio stations scrambling to scrub even the briefest suggestion of music from their daily programming. "Bam! Bam! Bam!"—the sound of gunshots that Somalis in Mogadishu have grown accustomed to hearing—was played by Radio Shabelle on its news broadcast to replace the music it usually uses to introduce the segment.
Similarly odd sounds—like the roar of an engine, a car horn, animal noises and the sound of water flowing—were used to introduce programs on some of the other radio stations that stopped playing music.
"We have replaced the music of the early morning program with the sound of the rooster, replaced the news music with the sound of the firing bullet and the music of the night program with the sound of running horses," said Osman Abdullahi Gure, the director of Radio Shabelle radio and television, one of the most influential stations in Mogadishu.
I dug up a listing of Somali radio stations online at Radio Station World and I'm listening now.
Source: New York Times, Radio Station World
Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3:32 PM
While the health care bill was being hammered out, a different sort of political drama unfolded in Washington at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, where environmental activists camped out for 32 hours to send a strong message to administrator Lisa Jackson: End mountaintop removal coal mining. The protest didn’t attract many prominent headlines in the shadow of the health care fracas, but like Obama and the Democrats it got the job done.
The protesters’ “purple mountains majesty” tents, built around tripods on which protesters perched, attracted just the sort of attention they were looking for, according to the blog It’s Getting Hot in Here, which publishes “dispatches from the youth climate movement”:
Almost every person who passed through our ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty’ and underneath the banner “EPA: Pledge to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in 2010” has been incredibly encouraging of our action. EPA employees, tourists and DC residents all demonstrated their support on the issue.
In addition to the many comments from EPA employees that “we are doing a great job” and “please keep doing what you’re doing,” Lisa Jackson personally tweeted her response. Administrator Jackson said in her tweet: “People are here today expressing views on MTM, a critical issue to our country. They’re concerned abt human health & water quality & so am I.”
Sure, it’s just a tweet, but parsing Jackson’s no-doubt-carefully constructed missive is telling. As Jeff Biggers notes at Common Dreams, she uses the acronym MTM, for “mountaintop mining,” a term favored by the coal industry over the more specifically descriptive MTR, for “mountaintop removal.”
Also, Jackson’s focus on human health and water quality sticks to the agency line on this issue. Biggers notes that an EPA spokeswoman yesterday said the protest was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of EPA’s role” and explained that the EPA does not regulate the mining industry, but is only “responsible for ensuring that projects comply with the Clean Water Act.”
“Except,” notes Biggers, “it’s the mining industry that isn’t complying with the Clean Water Act.”
At Grist, Joshua Kahn Russell writes that actions speak louder than tweets:
At this point in the battle to end mountaintop removal coal mining, the question isn’t about whether Administrator Jackson is concerned about the issue. The question is what is her agency going to really do about it? …
Based on Jackson’s statements on March 8 at the National Press Club, it appears that the EPA is seeking ways to “minimize” the ecological damage of mountaintop mining rather than halt the most extreme strip mining practice. A paper released in January by a dozen leading scientists in the journal Science, however, concluded that mountaintop coal mining is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits all together.
One of the chief goals of the EPA protest, which was organized by the Rainforest Action Network, was to get Jackson to accept a citizen-guided flyover of mountaintop removal sites in Appalachia. We’re still waiting for her to tweet her RSVP.
Sources: It’s Getting Hot in Here, Common Dreams, Grist
Images by Chris Eichler, courtesy of Rainforest Action Network.
Friday, March 12, 2010 3:27 PM
This image is part of the Thousand Yard Stare war postcards series. The quote was lifted from an election day report by Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times. Here's more:
The extensive use of mortars and rockets suggested that a weakened insurgency had to shift tactics, perhaps because it was unable to get cars or suicide bombers through an intense security lockdown, with some checkpoints erected every few hundred yards.
The insurgents still fighting in today’s Iraq face a far stronger government, capable now of saturating the country with police officers and soldiers. Even more important, they face an Iraqi people far less willing to support, or even sympathize with, violent resistance against the country’s democratic government.
Iraqis, seemingly inured to violence, even mocked the attacks.
“We have experienced three wars before,” Ahmed Ali, a supporter of Mr. Maliki, said in Ur, “so it was just the play of children that we heard.”
After three hours, the barrage subsided, and voting picked up as the country’s politicians implored Iraqis to cast their ballots. A ban on vehicles in the city was lifted, making it easier for people to reach polling places.
Source: New York Times
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009 2:34 PM
Polls consistently show a public split on the war in Afghanistan. Is that divide represented on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post? Not at all. According to a study published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in Extra!, “Both newspapers marginalized antiwar opinion to different degrees.”
Of the New York Times’ 43 columns on the Afghanistan war, 36 supported the war and only seven opposed it—five times as many columns to war supporters as opponents.
…In the Washington Post, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns 10 to 1: of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views.
Why the discrepancy? It’s a losing battle—perhaps even a silly one—to try and shape op-ed pages to public opinion, but a little representation isn’t too much to ask. “The American public’s majority view is a decidedly minority view on the op-ed pages,” writes Steve Randall in the Extra! report. “That’s good and bad news for democracy: It’s good news that the public is not entirely captive to the narrow, elite range of debate prescribed by newspapers. It’s bad news because, however diminished their roles as opinion leaders may be, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue to wield an unmatched influence in the nation’s capital and in newsrooms across the country.”
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Image by Indy Charlie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, October 05, 2009 2:54 PM
The New York Times has found a new source of funding for journalism: Isaac Mizrahi-designed raingear. In a memo to the company, New York Times president Scott Heekin-Canedy called the $99 coat and umbrella combo, “a summer sensation for The Times Store,” according to the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Zachary M. Seward. The New York Times has also tried creating a wine club as a way to cure their budget woes.
It’s easy to poke fun at the Times for the coat and the wine club, but Seward writes that this kind of merchandizing is “likely to play a significant role as news organizations scramble to replace print advertising revenue.”
The efforts are “a double edged sword” according to Megan Garber of the Columbia Journalism Review. Newspapers often engage in community building, and events like wine clubs—which USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are also trying—could be seen as an extension of that. And it’s not a big deal if the New York Times sells coats, as long as they use that money to fund cutting-edge journalism. On the other hand, Garber says, “it’s unfortunate that it’s not, strictly speaking, journalism.”
Both the coats and the wine club could also be seen as a replacement for the classified sections of newspapers, a revenue source that has been gutted by free services such as Craigslist. Classified ads, like the coats, had very little to do with journalism beyond funding the newspaper.
The real problem, however, is that media outlets haven’t yet figured out a way to fund their work using journalism. According to Garber, “I don’t know that we’ve proven that people aren’t willing to pay” for news. Newspapers simply haven’t figured out how to do it effectively, so far.
Nieman Journalism Lab
Columbia Journalism Review
the New York Times store
Friday, September 25, 2009 4:27 PM
A new, yet-to-be-named, local website will be forming next year to fill in the gaps left by regional newspaper shutterings in the Bay Area. The nonprofit site nabbed a hefty donation—$5 million—from San Francisco businessman F. Warren Hellman, and its expertise and manpower will come from “KQED-FM, which has a 28–person news staff, and the 120 students of the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism,” the New York Times reports.
Source: The New York Times
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:07 PM
Will the death of journalism mean the end of democracy? The newest issue of Mother Jones provides us with a rundown of depressing statistics about the state of media:
- 43% of Americans say it would hurt civil life “a lot” if their local newspapers closed. Yet when asked if they’d miss their paper, 42% say “not much” or “not at all.”
- By one estimate, an entirely Web-based New York Times could generate only enough money to support about 20% of the paper’s current staff.
- The editor of the New York Times Magazine says a typical cover story costs more than $40,000 to produce—and that excludes editing, art, and fact-checking. That’s more than Mother Jones’ story budget for freelance writers for an entire issue.
- The top 10% of bloggers earn an average of $19,000 a year. For all bloggers, the median is $200 for men, $100 for women.
Source: Mother Jones (article not yet available online)
Thursday, June 18, 2009 10:50 AM
The New York Times’ audience, erudite as they may be, can still be stumped by words like “antediluvian,” “sumptuary,” or “hagiography.” The newspaper of record recently gave reporters a glimpse into which words confuse their readers the most when they gave Nieman Journalism Lab a list of the 50 most looked-up words on their website.
A (rather annoying) feature on NYTimes.com allows readers to look up a word, simply by double clicking the text on their computers. Using data from that function, the paper released an internal memo, gently urging editors to shy away from words like “louche,” which editors managed to use 27 times so far this year.
In the memo, deputy news editor Philip Corbett reminded writers and editors that readers “probably don’t carry an unabridged dictionary along with the newspaper as they take the subway to work. And they don’t expect a news article to pose the same linguistic challenge as Finnegans Wake.”
Source: Nieman Journalism Lab
Monday, June 08, 2009 12:42 PM
On March 17, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested for allegedly crossing the border from China into North Korea while reporting for Al Gore’s user-generated news organization Current TV. In doing so, they became unwitting players in Kim Jong-Il’s ongoing political theatrics, aimed at the U.S. in particular. This drama came to a head today when they were sentenced to 12 years hard labor by North Korea’s highest court for committing “grave crimes” against the country.
For the past month and a half, Gore and Current TV have been mum on the situation, causing SF Gate blogger Phil Bronstein to question what’s going on with our former Vice President:
“Where is Mr. Gore, Nobel winner and formerly the second most powerful person in the world in all this? How about anything from SF-based Current TV, say maybe even just a public expression of concern? At the moment I wrote this, the big story on their web site is, ‘Top 10 Sexting Acronyms For Adults.’” (as of this writing, one of the top stories is “James Cameron Joins Heavy Metal” but alas, no mention of Lee and Ling)
One hopes that Gore’s silence has been out of concern for his reporters’ safety, given the situation’s potential volatility. Indeed, Fox News reports that the State Department “did not rule out” the possibility of Gore’s involvement in negotiations but refused to comment further.
Most journalists and North Korea watchers believe that Lee and Ling will eventually be released. Jason Zengerle over at The New Republic echoes the prevailing sentiment that Pyongyang will use the journalists as a bargaining chip for bilateral talks with the U.S.: “American diplomats will jump through whatever hoops the North Koreans set up for them; and that will be that.” And, Yonhap News predicts that Pyongyang will try to get the U.S. and UN to soften any political and financial sanctions in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear missile tests.
Regardless of the outcome, both Bronstein and LaToya Peterson at Racialicious view this as a defining moment for Current TV’s user-generated, “democratic” mode of journalism.
Bronstein writes: “Is this what happens when information becomes more democratic? No one’s willing to step up? If you work for a viewer-supplied TV cable network, does that mean no one has your back? This does not help the argument that the value of large news organizations is dwindling to nothing in favor of small entrepreneurs. There’s no encouragement for 2.0 reporting when its practitioners can disappear into the gulag with no one to fight for them.”
Peterson writes: “As we enter a world where corporate interests often trump stories that impact every day people, Current TV’s work developing user generated content and training citizens to become journalists is rapidly emerging as a model to follow to keep citizens engaged in their communities.
But, it is like the old truism: Nothing in life comes for free. In the process of fighting for truth, we have to dig deeper and go to places we never thought we’d go, often at the risk of running afoul of authorities who would rather this information was not released.”
Sources: New York Times, SF Gate, Fox News, The New Republic, Yonhap News, Racialicious
Monday, March 30, 2009 4:46 PM
It turns out there’s still a couple things humans can do that computers can’t—like decipher those online security checks: “squiggly, distorted letters that look like a cross between a Rorschach test and a four-year-old’s signature—a CAPTCHA, as computer scientists call them.” Computers also can’t decode scanned pages of antiquated texts with blurry, misaligned fonts, or outdated words. So a computer scientist from Guatemala, Luis von Ahn, transformed many of those seemingly useless CAPTCHAs into a fruitful endeavor.
The Walrus explains: “Now a growing number of websites, from e-commerce (Ticketmaster) to social networking (Facebook) to blogging (Wordpress), have implemented the precocious professor’s new tool, dubbed reCAPTCHA. If you’ve visited those sites, your squiggly-letter-reading ability has been harnessed for a massive project that aims to scan and make freely available every out-of-copyright book in the world, by deciphering words from old texts that have stumped scanning software.”
“The service is supplied free to any website that wants it, and in addition to helping decipher books scanned for the Internet Archive, reCAPTCHA has been recruited to assist in the digitization of the entire archive of the New York Times back to 1851…The pursuit of such public goods, von Ahn hopes, will deflect any resentment from his human scanners. ‘We could do other things, like digitizing cheques,’ he notes. ‘But banks already make enough money.’”
Source: The Walrus
Image by vlima.com licensed under Creative Commons
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 2:58 PM
The internet spreads information around the world, but freedom is more difficult. Believers in a coming tech-utopia have plenty of evidence to show the web’s democratizing force: The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was facilitated in part by new-media technologies, and blogging platforms have given a voice to dissenters in Burma, Iran, China, and many other places. The problem is, Evgeny Morozov writes for the Boston Review, “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be President.”
Reports of China’s growing internet dissent can make for compelling reads in mainstream media outlets, but Morozov writes that they’re often overblown. YouTube users recently tweaked censors with videos about a “grass-mud horse,” the name of which, in Chinese, sounds a lot like a dirty sex pun. The New York Times said the videos “raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet.”
More recently, when China blocked access to YouTube, allegedly over videos showing Chinese police beating Tibetan protestors, many assumed this would backfire on the government. Writing for Time, Austin Ramzy said that blocking YouTube gives the impression that the Chinese government is afraid of the internet and that a “ shift in how people cover the Internet in China may be lost on the government.”
In fact, draconian blocking of websites is just one part of a two-pronged strategy for Chinese information control. The Chinese government is also trying to use the internet as a tool to forward their agenda. The government has trained an estimated 280,000 people to “neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views” David Bandurski reports for the Far Eastern Economic Review. This group—known as the 50 Cent Party, because of the money they are rumored to be paid for each pro-government message—posts to chat rooms and web forums, and also reports dissident content.
“The goal of the government is to crank up the ‘noise’ and drown out progressive and diverse voices on China’s internet,” Chinese web entrepreneur Isaac Mao told Bandurski.
Even if political information is allowed to flow, assuming that information will lead to democracy and freedom is not necessarily true. Western journalists often focus on the blogs written in English, which tend to be more progressive and pro-Western. In other languages, the political landscape is much different. Morozov writes that “investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization.”
Another threat may lie in the structure of the internet itself. The web may actually serve in polarizing political atmospheres, according to Cass Sunstein, both in the United States and abroad. A recent article for Harvard Magazine explores Sunstein’s idea that personalized news services like Google News, and Time Magazine’s new “Mine” service are blocking out ideas diverse opinions, allowing people to read about what they want and filter out the rest. Without an “architecture of serendipity,” where people can happen upon diverse opinions and news, the internet could lead to extremism.
None of this disregards the web’s potential for good. Sunstein calls new technologies “more opportunity than threat,” but serious work will need to be done to promote progressive voices and politics. It also means acknowledging that the techno-utopia envisioned in a free internet may not be worth the paper its printed on.
Image adapted from photo by
, licensed under
Sources: Boston Review, Time, New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Harvard Magazine
Wednesday, February 18, 2009 1:30 PM
Barack Obama’s election is hailed as a step forward in American race relations. Now, researchers are trying to quantify the “Obama Effect” to figure out how it’s changing American culture. One study, reported by the New York Times, found that a test-taking achievement gap between black people and white people disappeared after Obama’s election. In other words, before Obama’s election, white people tended to do better on this test than black people. Now, that gap has disappeared, at least for this test.
The reason why that gap existed in the first place, Jonah Lehrer writes for the Frontal Cortex blog, may be due to a “stereotype threat.” Stereotypes can creep into the minds of test takers, making them perform worse on tests because of the threat, rather than any difference in intelligence.
An inspiring politician isn’t needed to erase that achievement gap, according to the WNYC show Radio Lab. All that’s needed is a simple change in language: When a test is referred to as an “intelligence test,” the gap remains. But if researchers refer to the exact same test as a “puzzle,” or some other word that is less loaded than “test,” the difference goes away.
“The real subtle power of a stereotype isn’t that it prevents you from the thing you want to do,” Radio Lab’s Jad Abumrad says, “it distracts you for just a beat from the thing you want to do. And that may be all the difference.”
Obama’s election could be lowering racism coming from white people, too. Tom Jacobs reports for Miller McCune that biases against black people registered significantly lower after Obama’s election in certain research. Researchers from Florida State University used Implicit Association Tests and found that the participants, 80 percent of which were white, showed no biases against black people, while previous studies showed a preference for white people. The researchers described this as a “fundamental change” in American race relations.
The post-election test results aren’t all positive, however. Other studies have shown that white people who expressed a preference for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, also expressed a preference for hiring white people over black people. That same preference didn’t come up when the participants expressed a preference for John Kerry.
“The researchers conclude that endorsing Obama helps people establish their ‘moral credentials’ as non-prejudiced people,” Jacobs writes, “and thus makes them more comfortable expressing opinions that could be regarded by some as racist.”
Sources: Miller McCune, Radio Lab, Frontal Cotex, New York Times
Image by hyperscholar, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 09, 2009 3:38 PM
Desperate times call for desperate measures and, hopefully, desperately good reporting. But when it comes to the stimulus package—the crucial tonic, we’re told, for our ailing economy—are we getting it?
I’ve been on the prowl for solid, digestible treatments of the strengths and weaknesses of the multi-billion dollar plan, because frankly, I need some help wrapping my head around it. But the stories that seem to be everywhere—those detailing the demise of Obama’s honeymoon (starts around 3:15), accounts of partisan gamesmanship, and analyses of who’s winning the spin wars—make good fodder for gossip sessions, but do little to help us understand how we got into this mess and form educated opinions about the best way out of it.
Here are a few things we found helpful (and have enjoyed) so far:
From the New York Times, lessons the U.S. can learn from Japan’s stimulus spending in the ‘90s, which included heavy infrastructure investments.
Two stories from This American Life and Morning Edition describe the Keynesian approach of the stimulus package (starts around 36:15) and evaluate its merits. TAL has also done great, compelling reporting on the housing and financial crises.
NPR’s Planet Money blog has some handy maps that act as visual guides to the stimulus plan’s expected state-by-state impact.
Marketplace’s “decoder” series translates econ-speak into language normal people can understand.
Keep it coming, people: If you’ve come across particularly good stimulus coverage, let us know about it in the comments section below.
Sources: New York Times, This American Life, Morning Edition, Planet Money, Marketplace
Monday, January 19, 2009 3:18 PM
At just a year old, poet Elizabeth Alexander was in the crowd on the National Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the country and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” This week, at age 46, Alexander will be in Washington D.C. for another historic moment—but this time with a front row seat.
Alexander, who is a professor of African-American studies at Yale, is the writer selected by President-elect Barack Obama to deliver an original poem at his swearing-in, a privilege bestowed on only three other poets in American history: Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who lent their voices to Bill Clinton's ceremonies.
In an interview with Newsweek, Alexander summed up the feelings of many art lovers, hailing Obama’s choice to include poetry in the inauguration as “an affirmation of the potential importance of art in day-to-day and civic discourse.”
For Alexander, joining the distinguished ranks of inaugural poets is certainly a high honor, but actually writing an occasional poem—verse composed for a specific event—with staying power can be a tricky task for a poet. “Once the function has passed,” writes Jim Fisher for Salon, “the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.”
But Alexander told NPR’s Melissa Block that she’s “challenged, not scared” by the assignment. And she seems to have crafted her poem with the predicament Fisher describes in mind. “[W]hat I’ve been able to do is ask myself how I serve the moment," she told the New York Times, “but hopefully in language that has value and resonance when the moment has passed.”
You can read some of Alexander's poems at her website, or listen to two recitations at NPR.org.
Friday, January 16, 2009 4:25 PM
A new form of censorship has quietly crept over the internet. Though governments continue to pursue old-school forms of prior restraint, technology is quickly making the blackened-ink style of censorship obsolete. The new ways to restrict free speech don’t require killing information entirely, governments and private companies simply inconvenience and frustrate people away from information they want to keep under wraps.
The internet was meant to foster communication, and it still creates opportunities for vibrant free speech. At the same time, computer science professor Harry Lewis writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education that the internet’s “rapid and ubiquitous adoption has created a flexible and effective mechanism for thought control.” As people increasingly rely on the internet for their news and information, banishing something from the web means effectively striking it from the public consciousness.
Governments have already begun to influence internet usage inside of their countries to enforce social and political norms. Lewis writes that on the internet, there is already “no sex in Saudi Arabia, no Holocaust denials in Australia, no shocking images of war dead in Germany, no insults to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey.”
China sits at the vanguard of this new form of censorship. The country’s famed “Great Firewall” is one of the most advanced information blocking tools in the world. Every savvy netizen, however, knows of proxy servers, encryption services, and other ways to skirt the firewall and find information that China doesn’t want its citizens to see. “The Great Firewall of China isn't impenetrable, “Jacqui Cheng reported for Ars Technica in 2007, “it just takes a little elbow grease and high Internet traffic to squeeze a few banned terms through.” That requirement of elbow grease constitutes the cornerstone of the new censorship.
Governments don’t have to censor all the information that comes into their country anymore, either. Censorship increasingly relies on one information bottleneck: Google. Jeffrey Rosen wrote for the New York Times that Google and its subsidiaries, including YouTube, “arguably have more influence over the contours of online expression than anyone else on the planet.” Governments and businesses now realize that banning information from Google means effectively censoring it from a massive audience of people, and they are developing strategies accordingly.
“To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king,” technology expert Tim Wu told the New York Times. After the Turkish government successfully lobbied YouTube to take down videos inside of Turkey that were deemed offensive, the Government tried to ban the videos worldwide to protect Turks living outside the country. These videos would all be available on websites other than YouTube, but with one website eclipsing all others for web videos, really, who would know?
In the United States, copyright laws are often invoked to frighten people into censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the McCain-Palin campaign, an unlikely advocate for internet freedom, claimed that YouTube “silenced political speech” after it took down campaign ads due to copyright violation claims.
YouTube general council Zahavah Levine responded saying, “YouTube does not possess the requisite information about the content in user-uploaded videos to make a determination as to whether a particular takedown notice includes a valid claim of infringement.” Because of that lack of information, the site often takes down videos first and examines the validity of copyright claims later. By the time videos are restored, especially in a fast-moving political campaign setting, the damage has already been done.
The website Chilling Effects documents many of these cease-and-desist letters in an attempt to combat some of the unnecessary censorship. The site was created in partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a number of universities to help people understand their First Amendment rights and protect legal online speech. But with governments and businesses exchanging and learning from each other’s censorship tactics, the strategies to restrict free speech will likely grow more sophisticated.
Friday, January 16, 2009 10:29 AM
Amid a blizzard of headlines detailing the demise of quality journalism, there’s at least one spot of sunshine poking through the clouds: The New York Times is intensifying its environmental coverage with "a new, crack environmental reporting unit that will pull in eight specialized reporters from the Science, National, Metro, Foreign, and Business desks in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage," reports the Columbia Journalism Review.
The Times’ fortified environmental unit debuts in contrast to depleted environmental teams elsewhere. The L.A. Times significantly reduced its unit last year, and CNN went even further, axing its environment, science, and technology reporting staff altogether just over a month ago.
What kind of added depth can you expect from the Times’ new environmental all-stars? According to CJR:
One of the primary goals is to get more interesting, “big-thought” environment articles onto the front page, according to assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon, to whom [the unit’s editor, Erica] Goode will report. That means more investigative work, he added, and sifting through reporting and storytelling approaches that resonate with readers. “My goal is to make 'em angry enough to do something,” Kramon said.
Image by ReservasdeCoches.com, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, January 15, 2009 1:06 PM
Last week, the New York Times announced that it would begin running ads on the front page in response to lagging revenues. A1 purists emitted a chorus of gasps, but pragmatic observers weren't as horrified. After all, plenty of newspapers around the country already print front-page ads; it’s a move that helps them stay afloat in an economy that’s been unkind to print media. James Barron, a contributor to The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages, thinks that changes to a paper's front page offer telling glimpses into larger journalistic trends. He recently talked with On the Media about shifting journalistic practices and 150 years of changes to A1.
Barron has a stockpile of interesting examples. He points to a headline from the assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt:
Maniac in Milwaukee Shoots Colonel Roosevelt. He Ignores Wound, Speaks an Hour, Goes to Hospital.
Besides being incredibly long, it wears its opinions on its sleeve in a way that papers now avoid. It’s difficult to imagine a reporter calling anyone a ‘maniac’ anymore.
Barron also sees the move away from obvious editorializing in the difference between reports of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Lincoln’s death was described as ‘awful news,’ while Kennedy’s was related in more clinical terms.
Check out the interview to hear Barron’s take on other notable changes to the Times’ A1. In particular, there’s an interesting discussion about what an increasing focus on online journalism means for the future of the front page.
Image courtesy of harshilshah100, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008 9:53 AM
Have you heard much about Iraq lately? Chances are you haven’t: Megan Garber of the Columbia Journalism Review reports that coverage of the Iraq war typically fills less than 2 percent of the news hole. That statistic alone is deplorable, but even worse, according to Garber, is the scarcity of “nuanced treatments of Iraq that would flesh out our simplistic things were bad but they’re getting better narrative into something more substantial and therefore more valuable.”
Garber describes the current attitude of the press toward the war as largely apathetic, and all too willing to report nuggets of conventional wisdom—like "the surge is working"—with little critical analysis.
Whether the quality of Iraq coverage will improve is an open question. The quantity, however, is certain to keep dwindling. ABC, CBS, and NBC have all pulled their full-time correspondents from Iraq, according to the New York Times. CNN’s former Baghdad bureau chief, Jane Arraf, told the Times, “The war has gone on longer than a lot of news organizations’ ability or appetite to cover it.”
Tuesday, December 02, 2008 2:48 PM
If you were being paid big, undisclosed bucks by companies directly affected by the issues you commented on as a media personality, would that constitute a conflict of interest? Conventional wisdom says: Of course! But two men recently exposed by the New York Times for being in exactly that situation say: Well, not really.
The supremely well-reported cover story of Sunday's Times was an in-depth report on retired General Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey is an NBC military analyst touted by the network as an independent expert, a characterization the Times calls into question by revealing his tangled web of undisclosed business ties to defense contractors. The story describes McCaffrey as a member of "an exclusive club" that "has quietly flourished at the intersection of network news and wartime commerce." They operate in a "deeply opaque world, a place of privileged access to senior government officials, where war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests and network executives are sometimes oblivious to possible conflicts of interest."
Another story, published in late November, put Dr. Frederick Goodwin, host of the public radio health show The Infinite Mind, under the microscope. Here’s an example of Goodwin’s questionable ethical judgments, from the Times’ story:
… In a program broadcast on Sept. 20, 2005, he warned that children with bipolar disorder who were left untreated could suffer brain damage, a controversial view.
“But as we’ll be hearing today,” Dr. Goodwin told his audience, “modern treatments—mood stabilizers in particular—have been proven both safe and effective in bipolar children.”
That same day, GlaxoSmithKline paid Dr. Goodwin $2,500 to give a promotional lecture for its mood stabilizer drug, Lamictal, at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla. In all, GlaxoSmithKline paid him more than $329,000 that year for promoting Lamictal, records given to Congressional investigators show.
So, Dr. Goodwin, how exactly does that not constitute a conflict of interest? Goodwin conceded that, in that instance, he probably should have disclosed his relationship with GlaxoSmithKline. But he also told the Times that since he consults for lots of drug companies, he has no bias toward any one in particular. "These companies compete with each other and cancel each other out," he told the paper.
McCaffrey, too, has spoken up in his own defense, noting that his vocal criticism of Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t “the stuff of someone ‘shilling’ for the Pentagon.” Glenn Greenwald finds this reasoning unconvincing:
Both NBC and McCaffrey are either incapable of understanding, or are deliberately ignoring, the central point: In those instances where McCaffrey criticized Rumsfeld for his war strategy, it was to criticize him for spending insufficient amounts of money on the war, or for refusing to pursue strategies that would have directly benefited the numerous companies with which McCaffrey is associated.
Friday, November 14, 2008 12:01 PM
In troubling economic times, arts funding is almost always put on the chopping block. But thanks to United States Artists (USA), an arts advocacy nonprofit, at least 50 lucky artists won’t be feeling the pinch this year.
The organization, which was founded only three years ago, just announced the winners of its 2008 fellowships, worth a sweet $50,000 to each recipient. The New York Times writes that in USA’s short history it has “won recognition as one of the few new sources of artists’ grants at a time when federal financing from agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts has diminished,” particularly for individual artists.
This year’s fellows include architects, dancers, musicians, writers, visual artists, and craftsmen, among others. Here are just a few of the fellows that piqued my interest:
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, an Alaskan filmmaker whose short film Sikumi, or On the Ice, about an Inuit hunter who witnesses a murder, is the first film made entirely in the Inupiaq language. “That was really important to me,” MacLean told the Anchorage Daily News. “Hearing Inupiaq in film and hopefully TV someday, as well, will help us re-teach ourselves the language and preserve it.”
Sweetgrass basket weaver Mary Jackson, whose craft is “the oldest art form of African origin in the United States,” according to USA.
Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect from Virginia who specializes in making Superfund and other nasty, toxic sites both beautiful and healthy again. Archinect writes that Bargmann “works to transform the waste produced by a century of manufacturing and consumption into something culturally and ecologically productive.”
Photo: Vase with Handle, 1998, sweetgrass, pine needles, and palmetto, 19" x 15". Photo courtesy of Mary Jackson.
Friday, November 07, 2008 2:12 PM
As Jake Mohan wisely reminded us earlier this week, George Bush still has a few more months in office, which is plenty of time for him to do some serious harm to environmental protections.
Bush recently aimed his firing squad at the Endangered Species Act (and not for the first time). According to High Country News, he attempted to dismantle the act like this:
Back in August, the administration proposed tweaking the law to give federal agencies the discretion to opt out of independent biological oversight when considering new projects such as highways and electrical transmission lines. The proposal would also let the feds pass on considering individual projects' global warming impacts on species. Such changes usually take months or even years to accomplish, but by late October, the Interior Department had 15 staffers slamming through some 200,000 public comments (not including another 100,000 form letters) in a mere 32 hours…
Additionally, Bush is pushing changes that will ease pollution limits for power plants, allow factory farms to self-regulate their water pollution, reduce buffer zones around streams designed to protect them from mining waste, and open millions of acres of unspoiled public land in Utah to oil and gas exploration. On the last point, the New York Times writes:
This sort of pillage would be hard to justify even if Utah’s reserves were large enough to make a difference, which they are not… And even if those reserves were worth going after, it would still be essential to protect areas of special cultural, scenic and recreational value.
So don't forget to keep an eye on the Crawford cowboy as he rides off into the sunset, lest he plop an even bigger mess into Obama’s lap than he already has.
Thursday, November 06, 2008 12:02 PM
Americans have been warned not to expect too much from Obama’s election too soon, but that doesn’t mean people can’t speculate. The Union of Concerned Scientists believes we’ll see an aggressive approach to climate change policy once Obama takes over, and 3QuarksDaily provides a nice summary of what the federal and state elections mean for science.
Obama and the next Congress are positioned to enact a comprehensive “Green Deal,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, that could modernize our energy infrastructure while stimulating the economy. Already, Obama plans to send delegates to December’s UN climate meeting in Poland, and Cosmos wonders whether Obama can break the deadlock gripping those talks.
One question still remains: Will these actions be enough to forestall the effects of the dangerous environmental regulations (or deregulations) that the New York Times blog speculates the Bush administration is pushing through during its last days in office?
Image by Ralph Alswang, licensed by Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:52 AM
In the midst of Tuesday’s transformative election, it’s easy to forget that Barack Obama won’t actually be president for another three months. In that time, a lot could happen, much of it at the whim of a person whose name we don’t hear much these days: George W. Bush.
The transition is already in effect. In a phone call to Obama last night the 43rd president effused, “What an awesome night for you... I called to congratulate you and your good bride.” (Good bride? Weird.) He also promised a smooth transition for his successor, inviting Obama and his family “to visit the White House soon, at their convenience.”
On the eve of Election Day, Democracy Now! gained some insight into Bush’s mood from White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, who shrugged off the world’s dislike for her boss, likening the presidency to high school: “Everybody would like to be popular. You can all remember that back in high school. Everyone really wanted to be popular, and some of us just weren’t. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have principles and values that you stay true to.”
Um... okay, Dana. So Bush is the social pariah who sat by himself in the cafeteria, and got back at us preppies, jocks, and pretty girls by invading Iraq and curtailing our civil liberties? In reality, most of Bush’s decisions seemed driven precisely by political expediency rather than some internal, principled compass; he was too concerned about being popular with his base and his advisers.
With relatively little at stake politically, now is a probable time for Bush to advance his most controversial agendas, like the brazenly unconstitutional move to assign U.S. troops to U.S. soil or last-minute changes to environmental regulations. On Monday the New York Times summarized Bush’s “parting gifts” and predicted “those we fear are yet to come” before January in the realms of civil liberties, environmental protection, and abortion rights.
While we deserve a celebratory grace period in the wake of Obama’s victory and a hopeful honeymoon after he’s inaugurated, we must be especially vigilant in the last days of Bush’s presidency. The end is in sight, but it’s not here yet.
Friday, October 31, 2008 1:52 PM
Unlike most of the electorate, some political reporters are not eager to wake up on November 5 with the longest campaign in history a good night’s sleep behind them. “It's kind of like, this is who I am now,” Andrew Romano, a Newsweek blogger, tells the New Republic. “[S]o the idea of the campaign being over and not doing a politics blog is a little bit like, who am I after this election?”
Politico’s Ben Smith shares Romano’s sentiments. “It's so built into my system, that it's going to be hard to stop,” he tells TNR. “It's really pathological.”
But the tight psychological grip campaigns hold on reporters won’t be missed by all those covering the political beat. After the last presidential campaign, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley tells TNR it took her “a good month to stop waking up in the middle of the night in a panic that I've missed something.” Matt Bai of the New York Times notes that some reporters have been on the trail for nearly a year: “There are guys who went out to the primaries in November, December, and thought they'd be done in February or March, and they just never came home.”
Reporter weariness recently caught the critical eye of the Columbia Journalism Review, who took the New York Times to task for what they deemed an instance of lazy campaign coverage. Questioning the relevance of a Times cover story, CJR warns reporters not to “take out their election fatigue on voters.” Just pen a few more good stories, guys, then you can come home and sleep. . .or just keep blogging.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 12:40 PM
The events, and often even the non-events, of the 2008 election season have spawned a growing group of die hard political junkies, whose habit for constant information about Obama, McCain, and Palin (sorry Biden) is nursed by the legions of reporters and bloggers working the 24-hour news cycle. But with less than a week remaining in the horserace, what’s actually worth reading? Here’s a brief, and by no means comprehensive, guide to political writing for the home stretch.
First, a few from the New Yorker: Particularly fit for mention on this blog is James Wood’s “Verbage” essay, detailing the Republican Party’s “deep suspicion of language.” A thorough piece on Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is an antidote to the hyper-partisan tone that is sure to dominate the campaign’s last throes. And an essay from David Sedaris is likely the only place you’ll find the choice in this election compared to choosing between chicken or a “platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it” on an airplane.
From last Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich’s column may help ease the anxiety of Obama supporters worried that racism will decide this election, arguing that “white Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe.”
In the blogosphere, Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith seem to require little sleep. Their blogs are updated almost constantly and are two of the greatest information sources for full-fledged election addicts. (They also prove that it is possible to be too informed.) But Politico does stellar reporting too. This week one piece that stuck out explained McCain’s negative media coverage with detailed and self-reflective treatment, which I haven't seen done elsewhere.
Looking back a bit, Michelle Cottle’s blog post, “Spare Me Your Reverse Snobbery,” for the New Republic remains one of my favorite rants of the season, and though it was published in late September, it's still relevant. So is the year-long perspective offered up by Alec MacGillis in a recent piece for the New Statesman, which thoughtfully chronicles the reporter’s time on the campaign trail with Obama, beginnning with the Iowa primary last fall.
If you need laughs more than thoughtfulness at this stage, Wonkette will surely deliver. They’re snarkier than Sarah Palin and refer to John McCain by the pet name Walnuts. What more could you want?
Add your suggestions to the list in the comments section below.
Monday, October 06, 2008 6:43 PM
With less than a month to go until Election Day, Barack Obama and John McCain are pegging their hopes on two very different campaign strategies. Obama is waging a ground war to get out the vote, while McCain is lobbing grenades at his opponent’s character. Which tack wins in November will say as much about Americans as it does about the two candidates.
The two camps’ approaches have come into stark relief over the last few days. On Saturday, Greg Strimple, a top adviser to McCain, dimwittedly announced to the Washington Post that “We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans.” Then the surrogates were unleashed on the Sunday talk-show circuit to stoke the fear about Obama’s association with Weather Underground cofounder Bill Ayers. Here’s a quick-and-dirty video roundup from the weekend smearfest by TPM:
Sarah Palin has beaten the same drum on the stump, saying Obama was “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” And in Bill Kristol’s column in the New York Times today, she resurrected—at the conservative shill’s prodding—the specter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
I pointed out that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers — and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?
She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”
And in advance of Tuesday’s debate, McCain unleashed his own vitriol. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” McCain asked a cheering crowd in Albuquerque, tipping his hand to show what will surely be the strategy from now until November 4: Scare people away from this Barack (Hussein) Obama.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Obama’s key strategy came center stage as the deadline for registering new voters in several states hit. The Washington Post parsed the preliminary numbers, and things do not look good for McCain:
In the past year, the rolls have expanded by about 4 million voters in a dozen key states -- 11 Obama targets that were carried by George W. Bush in 2004 (Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico) plus Pennsylvania, the largest state carried by Sen. John F. Kerry that Sen. John McCain is targeting.
In Florida, Democratic registration gains this year are more than double those made by Republicans; in Colorado and Nevada the ratio is 4 to 1, and in North Carolina it is 6 to 1. Even in states with nonpartisan registration, the trend is clear -- of the 310,000 new voters in Virginia, a disproportionate share live in Democratic strongholds.
(USA Today has a handy chart showing the two sides’ gains in battleground states. And to read a great account of what this effort looks like on the ground, read FiveThirtyEight’s dispatch yesterday from Tippecanoe County, Indiana.)
And so as McCain, Palin, & Co. rumble in the muck, the Obama team is still steadily hitting the pavement, reaching out to new voters in an attempt to remake the electoral map. (For an excellent dissection of Obama’s long-term strategy, read the American Prospect’s September cover story, “It’s His Party.”)
Now, that’s not to say the Obama campaign hasn’t launched its own negative assault. Today, they unveiled their Keating Economics documentary and website. But, as Utne.com’s Jake Mohan notes, “it remains to be seen whether anyone besides the die-hard wonks will sit through a 13-minute video about the economy—and how well Obama’s attack will stick” amidst the McCain camp’s sharper jabs.
Then there’s the qualitative difference between the two negative tacks. The Keating punches are based in criticisms of policy, while McCain’s assaults are meant to question Obama’s character. If Obama wanted to take that lower road, he could, of course, run ad after ad showing Palin being blessed by a witch hunter who wants to ensure she’s elected so she can put God back into the public schools. Or, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted on Meet the Press, the Obama campaign could start hammering McCain for sitting on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Begala explains:
You know, you can go back, I have written a book about McCain, I had a dozen researchers go through him, I didn’t even put this in the book. But John McCain sat on the board of a very right-wing organization, it was the U.S. Council for World Freedom, it was chaired by a guy named John Singlaub, who wound up involved in the Iran contra scandal. It was an ultra conservative, right-wing group. The Anti-Defamation League, in 1981 when McCain was on the board, said this about this organization. It was affiliated with the World Anti-Communist League – the parent organization – which ADL said “has increasingly become a gathering place, a forum, a point of contact for extremists, racists and anti-Semites.”
Now, that's not John McCain, I don't think he is that. But you know, the problem is that a lot of people know John McCain’s record better than Governor Palin. And he does not want to play guilt by association or this thing could blow up in his face.
Bye, bye, Florida.
Instead, though, Obama seems focused on the ground war, a strategy that tends to make Dems fret about not swinging back hard enough (see Kerry, Swift Boat). And the nervous Nellies could prove to be right, though I can’t help but think back to 2000, when Bush’s evangelical get-out-the-vote effort stealthily won the day.
It all depends on whether American voters opt to open their hearts to seedy fear-mongering, and, if they do, whether a crop of newly franchised voters outnumber their weaker fellow citizens. In that way, this election seems more a test of Americans than of John McCain or Barack Obama.
Adapted from image by
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, September 22, 2008 4:32 PM
Now that Sarah Palin’s meet-and-greet with the media is almost a distant memory, McCain aides are taking their turn in the ring, and the gloves are off. In the second big McCain-media tussle of the fall campaign, McCain strategist Steve Schmidt unleashed fiery attacks against the New York Times, calling the venerable paper “a pro-Obama advocacy organization” and claiming that “it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization.”
Schmidt's fury was sparked by a story about McCain campaign manager Rick Davis’s ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Times reported that Fannie and Freddie paid Davis almost $2 million while he served as president of an advocacy group the companies formed to fight increased regulation, and that Davis held the position primarily because of his close relationship with John McCain.
Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, responded to the campaign’s accusations in an email to Politico:
It's our job to ask hard questions, fact-check their statements and their advertising, examine their programs, positions, biographies and advisors. Candidates and their campaign operatives are not always comfortable with that level of scrutiny, but it's what our readers expect and deserve.
According to Politico, McCain aides also held a conference call encouraging reporters to hit Obama harder. “But,” writes Ben Smith, “the call was so rife with simple, often inexplicable misstatements of fact that it may have had the opposite effect: to deepen the perception, dangerous to McCain, that he and his aides have little regard for factual accuracy.” (Are we sensing a pattern here?)
When Politico pressed the campaign about the inaccuracies, they got this response:
One McCain aide, Michael Goldfarb, said Politico was “quibbling with ridiculously small details when the basic things are completely right.”
Another, Brian Rogers, responded more directly:
“You are in the tank,” he e-mailed.
Of course, it is a reporter's job to identify such "small" falsehoods. But, no matter, the media-bashing continues. Until next time. . .
Image by soggydan, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008 10:17 AM
Hillary Clinton did her duty last night. She threw her support behind Barack Obama and delivered the requisite sound bites. There was “No way. No how. No McCain.” And a favorite here in Minnesota, “It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities, because these days, they’re awfully hard to tell apart.”
What she didn’t do was say much about Obama’s platform, leadership abilities, or vision. In a 23-minute speech, Obama the candidate (versus Obama “the Democrat who is not me”) got about 3 minutes of time—and that's a generous tally. For a speech that’s drawn most of the convention’s limelight, that’s a big void. It was evident, as the New York Times reports, that Obama’s team had little input in its writing.
We could see more of the same tonight, when Bill takes the stage. We’ll definitely hear about Hillary. But given reports of Bill’s bruised ego and his lust for recognition of his accomplishments in office, we could get not only a primaries flashback, but a ’90s flashback, too. Here’s hoping he saves some room in his speech for the nominee.
Watch Hillary’s speech:
For more of Utne.com’s ongoing coverage of the Democratic National Convention, click here.
UPDATE (8/27/2008, 5:00 p.m.): My colleague Elizabeth Ryan points me to some choice analysis by Anne Taylor Fleming at the Washington Independent:
Yes, she endorsed Obama—mentioning him at least a dozen times. But what she endorsed was the candidate — not the man. He had no flesh on him. He was the Democratic candidate, and that was enough for her.
There was no talk of Obama’s passions, his career, their shared goals and ideals. Of course, she reaffirmed the big “D” democratic values. We’re for the forgotten, the working class not the upper class. We’re for energy independence and a restitution of the respect America used to garner around the world, so squandered in the last eight years. We’re for health care and hope and change. That’s why I ran, she said—underscore “I.” She never said that’s why Barack Obama is running. It was a passionate but strangely impersonal—almost totally impersonal —endorsement.
Friday, August 22, 2008 1:57 PM
Last week’s New York Times detailed the tragic case of Hiu Lui Ng, a New Yorker of 17 years who died a grisly death after his cancer and fractured spine went insistently undiagnosed at a detainment center in Rhode Island. This week, the paper followed up with a similar story of a detainee who crossed paths and cells with Ng; Marino De Los Santos lived to tell his tale (and file a lawsuit). The July issue of KoreAm recounts the cases of two women—one who died in custody, the other still ailing there—and their thwarted attempts to receive proper care. And in an extensive investigation back in May, the Washington Post weaved the narratives of several detainees—many who died, some who survived abysmal care—into a withering dissection of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaucracy fatally unequipped to meet the post-9/11 demands hastily placed upon it.
In the past five years, the Post found, 83 detainees have died in custody or soon after being released. Thirty of those deaths, according to analysis and expert reviews arranged by the Post, may have been caused by the actions, or inaction, of medical staff. “The detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons and some have fewer comforts than al-Qaeda terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” the Post’s Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote.
I’ve often wondered at the unwitting and anodyne adoption of the word “detainee” in the years since September 11, 2001—its easy migration from referring to “terrorists out to kill us” to aspiring immigrants and asylum seekers swept up in the bowels of a frightened, misguided bureaucratic reflex. “Detainee,” it seems, is meant to delineate someone outside the criminal justice system per se, someone whose case awaits judicial review. “It’s not like we’re throwing folks, in prison, see; they’re going to detainment centers.” The words roll of the tongue and the conscience.
But as the dismal state of medical affairs at the publicly and privately run “detainment” facilities shows, it’s time to start calling things by their right names. Perhaps if people “detained” because of paperwork glitches (which played a crucial role in Ng’s situation) or people denied proper medical care because of software errors (see Yusif Osman’s case in the Washington Post) were reported as being sent to “death houses” or “disease centers,” our linguistic faculties might be triggered into focus, and with them our moral compass.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 5:32 PM
“It’s a 9/11 thing.”
We’re all well-accustomed to hearing this rote justification as we stuff toiletries into a tiny Ziploc bag at airport security or question the aesthetic judgment behind the makeshift, gigantic cement pylons encircling downtown buildings. But here’s an unexpected use of this most 21st-century of mantras: The response above came from an escalator company representative explaining why the firm couldn’t give a reporter from Next American City information about their products’ energy use and pricing.
The industry has good cause to be cagey. These icons of modern ease are dinosaurs when it comes to energy efficiency. As Next American City reports, “[t]he national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses.” That’s a lot of wattage for devices that keep draining electricity even when they’re not being used (which is much of the time).
There are some attempts to green escalators. Next American City notes the efforts of J. Dunlop Inc., which has applied for a patent on a design for a plastic elevator step whose lighter weight would require less energy than the current heavy aluminum versions.
The article does not make mention of “variable-speed escalators”—those that stay still or move very slowly until someone in need of a lift climbs aboard. New York City is in the midst of transitioning a handful of subway stations to this more energy-efficient version. But, as the New York Times reports, the escalators hit a few bumps on their inaugural voyages: only 22 of the 35 escalators slated to shift to variable speed at four stations were functioning properly by showtime on Monday.
An earlier piece announcing the initiative notes that such technology hasn’t yet been approved by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (New York City Transit had to get a work-around OK from state code enforcers for the experimental program.) The “sleep mode” or “intermittent operation” technology is used, however, in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Israel.
So perhaps that’s one greener option for stateside escalators in the future. Or, there’s always the other route: Take the stairs. As one mechanical engineer puts it to Next American City: "If you have a place like a mall, you could install an elevator for the elderly and the disabled and tell everyone else to take a walk. It’s not the kind of machine that you can make practical. Because it’s not."
Image by Jan the manson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 01, 2008 5:39 PM
The New York Times reports that the military is cracking down on photojournalists who take pictures they don’t approve of, in many cases booting photographers from their embeds or keeping them away from combat. “By a recent count,” the article claims, “only half a dozen Western photographers were covering a war in which 150,000 American troops are engaged.”
Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images, was removed from his embed after one of his photos—a haunting image of a hysterical 5-year-old girl whose parents had just been killed by U.S. soldiers—was widely published. (We featured the photo in our May-June issue, with George Packer's essay “Kindness Amid Carnage: The Iraq We Don’t See.”) Hondros did, however, find an embed in a different city.
The military’s embed policies don’t just keep photos of wounded and dead Iraqis out of our newspapers. “After five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths,” the New York Times reports, “searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.”
Friday, August 01, 2008 11:53 AM
An economic downturn could be a mixed blessing for U.S. libraries. On the one hand, recession drives up library usage, as more people borrow—instead of buy—books. Libraries also provide information (and computer access) for job seekers, as well as cash-strapped citizens who are learning about a more frugal DIY ethic. Both the New York Times and National Public Radio have recently reported on this phenomenon.
Caveat lector, though. As we saw in 2003, tough economic times can also spur budget cuts, putting a strain on already-thin public and school library resources. Better-but-not-best-case-scenario, libraries will have to serve increased demand on static budgets. The FISH Bits blog, all about “creating great school and public libraries,” has some smart thoughts on how libraries can thrive during this crunch time.
Thursday, July 31, 2008 10:13 AM
It's tempting to succumb to liberal guilt when “everything from melting ice caps to parched croplands threaten an all but certain apocalypse—on our watch,” as we wrote in the March-April issue of Utne Reader, but it turns out there's less to be guilty about than we thought. Tuesday’s New York Times assures us that 10 things we worry about are no cause for concern. From defending the harmlessness of hot dogs and plastic bags to claiming BPA in plastic bottles is not harmful to humans, the list will irk many, even as it frees a few to scarf down a foot-long, take a swig from their Nalgene, and crank up their car’s AC.
Wednesday, June 04, 2008 10:56 AM
A lot of ink has been spilled over recent experiments that study religious experiences using brain scanners. Brendan Mackie wrote about the experiments back in 2007 for Utne.com. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about how neuroscience will “not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.”
Brooks’ assertion is entirely backwards, according to Kelly Bulkeley, writing for the Immanent Frame religion blog. Since religious experiences have differed drastically in the brain scans, depending on the person and the religion, Bulkeley writes that neuroscience will likely undermine people’s faith in a monotheistic God, favoring a more polytheistic view of religion. It will, however, reaffirm the importance of the Bible as “a valuable collection of teachings about history, morality, and collective meaning-making.”
Thursday, April 03, 2008 1:14 PM
Down with celebrity profiles, the steroids saga, and blow-by-blow business news. Let’s bring back good storytelling.
by Michael Rowe
Does sports journalism suck? In terms of urgency, the question is less national defense and more spilled milk, but I do feel like weeping whenever I peruse ESPN.com, fending off the bilge and looking for a piece that tackles an actual ethical or social issue. Or just tells a good story. Sportswriters don’t deny me this material outright. It’s simply the case that I have to wade through creeping sludge—predictable opinion, endless stats, finance-obsessed business news, empty profiles, and repetitive analysis—to read the kind of investigative and narrative reportage that appears sometimes in, say, Play, the New York Times’ prestige sports magazine. Nevermind that Play is a quarterly—an island in a sea of dead, beaten horses.
My complaint isn’t novel, of course. Gripes about sportswriting have sprung up from various quarters of the press. For a recent example, read the novelist Richard Ford’s crotchety screed from the Fall 2007 issue of Play. Still, few have offered a clear diagnosis. Is something wrong with the way journalists cover sports? Or, are the whiner-critics just impossible-to-please cranks? We can shrug dismissively and say it’s a little of both, but that would ignore the true culprit plaguing sportswriting: the cruddy specter of “insider knowledge.”
Start with the fantasy football syndrome. This internet-facilitated imaginary game, in which you “draft” players whose statistical achievements become points for your team, has become so popular that TV sports analysts and sportswriters routinely advise viewers and readers on which players they should or should not stock on their fake roster. In one particularly entertaining instance, an NFL Network analyst queried ex-coach Jim Mora—who piloted the Saints and Colts before retirement—about his fantasy football squad. Mora dismissed the whole caboodle with mumbles and an eye roll.
Of course Mora doesn’t get it: He used to coach in the NFL. Football coaches rely on probabilities generated by statistical analysis to inform their play-calling. And that's the central appeal of fantasy football: It mimics the act of coaching by passing off numbers—who gains more yardage against whom, who tends to choke when, and how one defense fares against a certain offense—as insight into the game. Thus we play at possessing professional knowledge, and, in the absence of the required muscles, numbers transport us inside the game as virtual shot-callers. Mora has no more interest in fantasy coaching than I have in playing a game of “fantasy infant”—been there, done that. It’s the fantasizing spectator who wants to be caught up in what he imagines are the details.
The push for the inside scoop reduces sports coverage to gossip slinging. The players who merit media scrutiny aren’t professionals, exactly; they're celebrities. Writers cover the indispensable liabilities (Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, and their misdeeds) and the singular talents (Johan Santana, Randy Moss, and their superstardom); readers gawk at their larger-than-your-life lives and want to know more. Sports Illustrated, in its 2007 NFL preview issue, broke from this tendency when it profiled, in brief, a long snapper from the Denver Broncos, emphasizing his minor but indispensable talent—hiking the ball 8 or 15 yards. By and large, however, it’s precisely these workaday pros we relegate to the background.
The untold stories of mere professionals might inform us, though. After all, many of the most successful baseball managers and football coaches were themselves unknown, unheralded, and undistinguished as players. As it turns out, they knew a thing or two anyway and were likely shrewd observers of the pro world. Nevertheless, what you read about sports concerns the superstars: who they are, how they do it, what they think.
Another, less obvious symptom of sportswriting’s blinkered perspective is the endless rehashing of the blogosphere. Online, and increasingly in print, journalists bow down at the altar of each others’ opinions, which typically concern the bureaucratic minutiae of draft choices, business rumors, and team finances. Sometimes, of course, writers rearrange the sacraments or chop the altar up, but ultimately they traffic in news and opinions about the news, nurturing the obsessive in every sports fan.
Some sportswriters readily acknowledge this trend. Robert Weintraub, who has written for Slate, Play, and the Columbia Journalism Review, says that much news-oriented sports coverage is often seen as “not opinionated enough.” In a world of judgment and pronouncement, he says, “everything is framed as an argument.” Sports journalists are insiders in the proverbial know, whatever bloated shape it takes. Accordingly, they dispense with incredible vigor their judgments against, among other things, the personal character of players and coaches and the business decisions of team franchises. For an example, read any Bill Simmons column on ESPN.com.
It’s not that this kind of writing is worthless. Reading it can teach you how the pro game is played. But writers like Simmons, who is very creative, lead their audience into the thicket without stepping back for the long view. They narrate no overarching point; they stir us to be entertained, not edified, challenged, or rocked a little out of our adoration.
“The talking head culture,” says Michael Rand, a sportswriter and blogger for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “is not necessarily the result of the internet.” The 24/7 nature of news, an evolutionary trait that’s ossified over the past 20 years, compels reporters to dig ceaselessly for novel information, rather than hone stories. Or, alternatively, writers hone a few stories (steroids, draft day) over and over, incrementally adding a bite of information here and a snatch of insight there. The end result: stories on repeat, with no takeaway but the intense fandom of all who write about sports. It’s media saturation to make wet blankets of us all.
But so what? What kinds of stories can we really expect in this echo chamber? I’m not asking for sportswriters to be allegorists, uncovering the cultural symbolism of professional athletics. On the contrary, sportswriting already belabors the symbolism of sport. For instance, ESPN.com’s recent profile of Wes Welker, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, reproduces that most common of sentimental sports narratives: Before incredible success, there was the adversity of not being quite as successful. The profile gussies up the chronology of Welker’s high school, college, and pro careers, but in the end Welker’s hard work signifies success only because he’s now famous.
Instead, let’s have more narratives like Chuck Klosterman’s recent piece in Play documenting the lives of several unremarkable NBA players whose careers were transformed when superstar Kevin Garnett became their Boston Celtics teammate. At least to a certain degree, Klosterman recounts the story of professionals, not celebrities.
Or there’s the Times’ investigation of sexual harassment at New York Jets games. Reporter David Picker found male fans congregating near a concourse in the Giants stadium. They were there, as Picker writes, to cheer “an obscenity-laced chant, demanding that the few women in the gathering expose their breasts.” If this portrait of besotted NFL fans doesn’t conjure the loony and occasionally reprehensible character of contemporary sports fandom, nothing will.
From the alternative press, which so often shuns sports coverage, there’s Sherman Alexie’s politically irate sports column, Sonics Death Watch, for Seattle’s alt-weekly the Stranger. Short and incisive, the column digs into the racial preferences of fans, the morality of pure talent, and anecdotal evidence of testosterone overload. It’s a riot.
So why aren’t there more of these kinds of attempts at investigation and storytelling? Primarily, because literary concerns might look a little stupid in the atmosphere of contemporary sports coverage, especially given the sordid epic of steroids. As Hal Crowther, an Oxford American essayist and author most recently of Gather at the River, told me, if you’re “a sportswriter with any sense of yourself as a writer, it’s hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
It’s not so much that the under-nuanced steroids saga ought to be disregarded; it’s simply the case that doping acts as a gravity well, sucking in the attention of fans and sportswriters alike. It’s easy to get your pique up over such scandals and refuse to understand the motivations compelling pharmaceutical enhancement at the cost of giving in to the 24/7 news cycle and prioritizing scandal over more sophisticated reporting.
And that’s ultimately what I want to read: sophisticated, contemplative journalism—not footnotes to press conferences, business transactions, and player quotes. I want sportswriting to offer evidence of athletic struggle, not celebrity, evidence that “professional” sports tells me something about the cruelty, appeal, and exhilaration of playing. Fans and sportswriters, spectators all, may try to get inside sport, but few of us are on the sidelines and even fewer are on the field. Readers have been left to digest fantasy fluff and their own obsessions. If it has become increasingly difficult to admire athletes and appreciate sports, we ought to realize that their potential for narrative, for story, made them newsworthy in the first place.
Friday, February 22, 2008 11:25 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.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008 10:34 AM
As the Olympics approach, all eyes are on Beijing—and they’re noticing that the view is pretty smoggy. Despite China’s promise of cleaner air for the Summer Games, which begin on August 8, many observers are speculating that the world’s top athletes will probably be breathing some of the world’s most noxious air.
The New York Times recently reported that many Olympic teams are “preparing for the worst” in terms of air quality. For the U.S. athletes, that means training elsewhere, delaying their arrival as long as possible, and maybe even donning filter masks until competition time, at the risk of offending their Chinese hosts.
There’s more at stake than feelings. Kathryn Minnick takes a deeper look at the environmental backdrop to the games in the Winter 2008 issue of Earth Island Journal (article not available online), noting that “the big question is whether short-term ‘face’ or long-term change will win out.”
The games “have morphed into a pageant of environmental correctness,” Minnick writes, with China making a host of green promises in order to land the coveted games. Beijing has been making real progress in some areas, for instance, changing its power generation mix, tightening car emission standards, and cleaning up some of its most polluting factories. And the Chinese have included lots of flashy, high-tech green features in high-profile Olympic venues like the “Bird’s Nest” main stadium and the “Water Cube” swimming stadium.
However, other goals appear to be overblown or perhaps unattainable, environmental observers tell Minnick, and that pesky smog problem looms. Air quality figures for the final day of a four-day August trial test went “mysteriously missing,” Minnick writes.
“China’s attempt to stage a green Olympics is a good sign,” she concludes, “even if being sustainable was a requirement for holding the Games more than it was a free choice.”
Photo by Peng Bo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008 4:34 PM
Anyone who’s cracked open a supposedly groundbreaking graphic novel in recent years and found themselves bored silly by panel after nearly identical panel depicting an endless parade of young-adult ennui: You’ve got an ally in Ted Rall. In a recent commentary, Rall hauls Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and other darlings of the art-comics world to the woodshed in an acerbic takedown. Describing how the New York Times’ foray into art comics, The Funny Pages literary supplement to the New York Times Magazine, has been a flop, Rall summarizes Ware’s serialized work “Building Stories” thusly:
“Anticipation yielded to disappointment as Ware, in his typically mannered and obtuse style, rendered the paint-drying anti-drama of a dowdy middle-aged, one-legged . . . spinster wallowing in self-inflicted depression in a hundred thousand earth-toned squares. Unless you count phony, plot-less, generalized angst, nothing happened in ‘Building Stories.’ Ever.”
Ouch. As a syndicated editorial cartoonist himself who is unabashedly topical and political, Rall is of course wide open to the charge that he just doesn’t get it, that his hit-you-over-the-head style is itself flawed and unfunny, or that he’s simply swinging back after the art-comic tastemakers at Comics Journal called him an “utterly worthless political cartoonist.” But at its core Rall’s critique must sting because there’s a bit of truth to it. “When a reader doesn’t understand a cartoon, it isn’t because he is stupid,” he writes. “It is because the cartoonist has failed.”
Now that’s something for a comic artist to be depressed about—and to turn into a novel, of course.
Image from the New York Times, by Daniel Clowes.
Friday, December 28, 2007 3:57 PM
Just as a nerd with a makeover turns his back on old friends, the increasingly digital New York Times must say goodbye to some of its dusty analog staff. A recent casualty, on November 28, was the legendary Recording Room, which reporters could reach via telephone to dictate their stories to dutiful transcribers. But nowadays reporters can just e-mail their stories in, whether from Kansas or Kathmandu, and the Recording Room has been rendered obsolete.
John Koblin wrote about the Room’s life and times for the New York Observer, and some Times veterans have since added their own stories and goodbyes in the comment thread. Calling the Recording Room while reporting overseas was a “great comfort, something akin to talking to your mother,” wrote one commenter. Another reporter was less nostalgic:
The Recording Room sometimes misheard ordinary words, leading to embarrassment or worse for the reporter or subject of the story. One time I was reporting on the volunteer work done by a famous conductor-composer in the New York suburban community in which he lived. I wrote something like,
“he gives his time effortlessly on behalf of music.” In print it became “he gives his time fruitlessly on behalf of music.” The composer was furious and demanded a correction, which he got.
And so the Recording Room goes the way of the carriage, the chimney-sweep and the record label: to the annals of obsolescence.
Thursday, November 15, 2007 5:31 PM
There’s good news for the icy-hearted cynics in all of us: Protests actually work! A new study shows that protests against misbehaving corporations can send a company’s stock prices tumbling—just as long as the New York Times is there to cover it.
Writing for Columbia Journalism Review’s business-media blog, Elinore Longobardi discusses a new study that analyzes how media coverage impacts protests against corporations. The paper, written by sociologists Brayden G. King and Sarah A. Soule, will appear in the next issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.
King and Soule examined New York Times coverage of protests from 1962 to 1990, and discovered that while boycotts didn’t make much difference—nor did the size of the protest—Times exposure caused the defamed company’s stock value to drop between 0.4 and 1.0 percent (on average). The effect took place within one day, and the longer the Times article, the bigger the loss.
The study cites prominent examples from the time period, including protests against Dow Chemicals over its role in the Vietnam War.
The data for this study ends in 1990, but King and Soule are moving forward with additional research through 1995, which will introduce companies like Gap and Nike into the mix.
As for only choosing the Times, King and Soule found that it was the only paper worth analyzing—the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post gave paltry space to protests by comparison.
For more on protest, check out the cover story from our May/June 2007 issue: Protest is Dead. Long Live Protest.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007 4:37 PM
Internet pornography featuring minors, a business reporter making secret payments, and... the New York Times? In 2005 the Times ran a front-page story exposing the hidden world of webcam porn artists. It followed one boy who, with a webcam in his bedroom, became an underage internet porn star before spiraling into a morass of drug abuse and depravity. In New York Magazine, David France uncovers the sordid story behind this story. Controversy buzzes over the question of why Kurt Eichenwald, the Times reporter who broke the story, paid Berry up to $2,000 while posing as a fan—without telling his editors. Eichenwald has since left the Times, and feels hounded both by marauding journalists and a secret, shadowy gang of electronically-connected pedophiles. Check out the whole story and its tawdry details.
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