Wednesday, November 16, 2011 11:15 AM
After more than thirty years as a media critic, Utne Reader contributor Norman Solomon is running for Congress. Dennis Bernstein at The Progressive spoke to Solomon about this career change. “For more than forty years, I’ve been writing to change the system; now I’m running to change the system,” Solomon told Bernstein.
For decades, we’ve seen one disaster after another as progressives have routinely left the electoral field to corporate Democrats and their Republican colleagues. We desperately need to go beyond the false choice between staying true to ideals and winning public office. Progressives can—and must—do both.
The article quotes Sean Penn, one of Solomon’s campaign supporters, at a recent fundraising event, recalling a trip he and the candidate took to Iran just before the Iraq war began.
“As hundreds, then thousands, gathered around the circle of singing women, suddenly it was the appearance of the special police,” Penn said. “And then out came the batons. As things got chaotic, I briefly lost Norman in the crowd. I was about twenty-five yards from getting to that inner circle of women who were taking bludgeons to the heads. And then I saw Norman, not flinching, standing directly beside them, and he stayed through it all.”
Read the rest of Bernstein’s article about Solomon and read his piece “Democrats Must Push Back” at utne.com.
, The Real News
Wednesday, March 09, 2011 10:07 AM
According to Pew Charitable Trust’s 2008 “State of the News Media” special report on public attitudes toward the news media, “Majorities of Americans continued to say that journalists are often inaccurate (55 percent), do not care about the people they report on (53 percent), are biased (55 percent), one-sided (66 percent) and try to cover up their mistakes (63 percent).” It’s clear that much of the public deems journalists untrustworthy. As a recent grad from a journalism school, it’s painful to admit how fallible the news industry can be. One near-omnipresent snare for journalists—and a scourge of journalistic integrity—is the facile use of press releases to write stories, what has been dubbed “churnalism.”
The UK-based Media Standards Trust, “an independent registered charity which aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public,” developed a website called Churnalism so that journalists and consumers can discern spin from news. “The site compresses all articles published on [UK] national newspaper websites . . . and then stores them in a fast access database,” according to the Trust’s website. “If the engine finds any articles where the similarity is greater than 20 percent, then it suggests the article may be churn.”
Expecting a snide, skeptical, uninterested response from the ostensibly guilty journalists, Media Standards Trust baited the news cycle with a discreetly published, fake press release for an unbelievable product. The Trust’s Martin Moore elaborated during an interview on WNYC’s On the Media:
Chris [Atkins, a collaborator with the Trust] invented what he called the “chastity garter belt,” which a woman would put around her thigh and had built-in technology which would record, by various clever scientific means, like her, her rising pulse rate and, and moisture levels on her leg, whether or not she was about to be unfaithful. And if she was, it would text a message to her partner warning him, so he could rush back and either forestall or catch, catch her before she did so.
Like hungry goldfish, the press gobbled the plump worm dangling before them. Chicago’s WGN-TV ran a short segment and, as Moore detailed during the WNYC interview, “The story was picked up by The Times of India, in the States, in Slovakia, in Greece, in Israel, all around the world.”
That, folks, is called egg on the face.
As an end note, just a reminder the public shouldn’t only be concerned with sneaky, unverified pitches from snake-oil retailers. “Not all churnalism comes from commercial sources,” warns the Columbia Journalism Review. “Much of it has political sources: public authorities trying to spin bad news, medical firms trying to obscure poor results, and political lobbying groups.”
For what it’s worth, 55 percent of this post was cut and pasted from various websites and not independently fact-checked.
Sources: Columbia Journalism Review, On the Media
Image by quinn.anya, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 5:06 PM
“Conservatives cannot govern well,” wrote Alan Wolfe in a widely circulated 2006 Washington Monthly essay, “for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”
Now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, thanks in no small part to the rabidly anti-government Tea Party movement, Wolfe has updated his thesis. Conservatives, now that they have a chance, simply won’t govern.
He writes in Democracy Journal:
Every indication we have suggests that in the wake of their midterm success, Republicans will continue on the same path of just saying no. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but gave the game away when he announced that “the single most important thing we want to achieve” was not the recovery of the economy or passage of any particular legislation but “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The United States now has a major political party that has dropped policy entirely in favor of politics. The consequences for the future of American democracy will be serious indeed. …
It is commonly said that polarization has become the country’s most serious political problem. But polarization implies two poles, each of which is organized around ideas. The newfound opposition for the sake of opposition characteristic of the conservative movement suggests a far greater danger to democracy than polarization. That danger is not cynicism; even a cynic cares. What we witness instead is nihilism—and in the most literal sense of the term. Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine holding that because life lacks meaning and purpose, it is foolish to believe too fervently in anything. … Right-wing firebrands in the House promise that come hell or high water, they will not compromise. In any democratic political system, but especially in one with divided powers, no compromise means no governance. We can expect a significant number of House members to stand firm in their denial, no matter what happens to the economy, the environment, or the country.
Over at Media Matters, Eric Boehlert accuses the media in general, and the New York Times in particular, of “giving Republican obstructionism a pass.”
“Republicans,” he writes, “have been practicing an unprecedented brand of obstructionism since Obama’s inauguration, but the press has been treating it as normal. It’s not. It’s radical.”
Source: Washington Monthly, Democracy Journal, Media Matters
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Friday, March 26, 2010 12:45 PM
For anybody who doesn’t read the reliably iconoclastic TomDispatch.com, now is as good a time as any to start. At Utne.com, we often reprint the essays Tom Engelhardt posts and we’re grateful that he allows us to do so for nothing. The least I can do in return is point you to his website. I urge you to bookmark it, subscribe to his RSS feed, or signup for email notifications!
His latest post is classic Engelhardt. After publishing an Iraq op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, he received a simple piece of feedback: “When was the last time you visited Iraq?” Here’s his response:
A critique in 15 well-chosen words. So much more effective than a long, angry email, and his point was interesting. At least, it interested me. After all, as I wrote back, I’m a 65-year-old guy who has never been anywhere near Iraq and undoubtedly never will be. I have to assume that my emailer had spent time there, possibly more than once, and disagreed with my assessments.
First-hand experience is not to be taken lightly. What, after all, do I know about Iraq? Only reporting I’ve been able to read from thousands of miles away or analysis found on the blogs of experts like Juan Cole. On the other hand, even from thousands of miles away, I was one of many who could see enough, by early 2003, to go into the streets and demonstrate against an onrushing disaster of an invasion that a lot of people, theoretically far more knowledgeable on Iraq than any of us, considered just the cat’s meow, the “cakewalk” of the new century.
It’s true that I’ve never strolled down a street in Baghdad or Ramadi or Basra, armed or not, and that’s a deficit, if you want to write about the American experience in Iraq. It’s also true that I haven’t spent hours sipping tea with Iraqi tribal leaders, or been inside the Green Zone, or set foot on even one of the vast American bases that the Pentagon’s private contractors have built in that country. (Nor did that stop me from writing regularly about “America’s ziggurats” when most of the people who visited those bases didn’t consider places with 15-20 mile perimeters, multiple bus lines, PXs, familiar fast-food franchises, Ugandan mercenary guards, and who knows what else, to be particularly noteworthy structures on the Iraqi landscape and so, with rare exceptions, worth commenting on.)
I’m certainly no expert on Shiites and Sunnis. I’m probably a little foggy on my Iraqi geography. And I’ve never even seen the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. On the other hand, it does occur to me that a whole raft of American pundits, government officials, and military types, who have done all of the above, who have spent time up close and personal in Iraq (or, at least, in the American version of the same), couldn’t have arrived at dumber conclusions over these last many years.
Read the rest of When Was the Last Time You Visited Iraq?
Wednesday, February 24, 2010 1:13 PM
When I started thumbing through the special “War Torn” issue of New Youth Connections (“the magazine written by and for youth”), I fully expected to find blog fodder. After reading the issue, I can't decide on just one article to single out. If only the “adult” press (get your mind out of the gutter, dirtbag) had the courage to approach the issue of war from so many angles and so unapologetically. The issue feels like one long, really important conversation.
There's the young woman writing about eavesdropping on her brother's late night calls to mom from the Iraq war and the guide to helping friends and family members with PTSD. There’s a full page fact sheet on resisting military recruiters (“If you come from a troubled home, you already have an idea of the psychological damage that an environment like that can have on you,” writes a teen who organizes against recruiters, “and it’s probably going to do even more harm to be in a war.”). Then there’s a full page dedicated to the testimonies of teens who have enlisted already or are leaning towards it (“I'm worried that what [the recruiters] say is bulls--t,” writes one teen. “That’s why I ask the soldiers what the military is really like.”).
It’s not all about America's wars. A young man from the Ivory Coast writes about the ways “a civil war divided my crew.” Elsewhere in the magazine a young Palestinian defends Al Jazeera: “I never watch Al Jazeera without my eyes getting teary.”
Want to see the staff of New Youth Connections in action? Here you go:
Source: New Youth Connections
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Friday, February 12, 2010 5:21 PM
The lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurring and giving rise to a new form “that we might call ‘true fiction,’” writes Alissa Quart in Columbia Journalism Review. Quart sees examples of this phenomenon all around, including Dave Eggers’ brilliant book What Is the What, which tells but also takes a few liberties with the tale of a Sudanese “Lost Boy”; the forthcoming graphic novel A.D. by Josh Neufeld, which depicts post-Katrina New Orleans; and even The Hurt Locker, the war film that is presented as fiction but is based on an original nonfiction magazine article.
Quart is quick to acknowledge that the fiction-nonfiction hybrid isn’t all that new, but she contends that writers well known for mixing the two, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, “imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.” Members of the newer breed, she notes, “seem to be backing away from categorizing things as ‘true,’ even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be.”
The new anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, Quart writes, even makes the case “that some works long considered fiction are actually closer to this hybrid form,” and she quotes from a piece by the anthology’s editor, John D’Agata: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”
Coincidentally, it was a recent story by D’Agata in The Believer that left me confused about what was information and what was art. In “What Happens There,” D’Agata traces the final moments of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who killed himself by jumping from the top of the 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The writer does several things at once: In the guise of a reporter, he attempts to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding suicide in Las Vegas, which has the highest suicide rate in the nation year after year. Wearing a memoirist’s hat, he interweaves his own experiences in the city, where he briefly lived to care for his mother. And as a facile prose stylist, he attempts to vividly convey the sights, sounds, and smells that Presley might have encountered as he walked toward his deadly jump through the sprawling casino complex.
I was immediately drawn in by D’Agata’s deft, artful writing, and yet as the tale unfolded I was stopped cold at several junctures, mostly because as a journalist I had certain expectations about what I perceived as, first and foremost, a piece of journalism. To wit:
• The story begins with the glaringly vague time reference “one summer,” yet anyone with Google at his fingertips can learn that Presley committed suicide in 2002. Why not place the story’s main event in time for the reader? When is one of the six key story components in classic news journalism—components that are, ironically, the organizing principle of D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain, which includes the suicide tale.
• After meeting with Presley’s parents to discuss their son’s death, he writes, “At some point, it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.” I first read this as a jarringly understated admission, delivered almost as an aside, that he had misrepresented himself to the parents in order to meet with them. Ethical red flags were flying all over the place before I figured out elsewhere—via his book’s jacket notes—that D’Agata himself had believed he might have spoken with Presley on that fateful night. Maybe fans of the new “true fiction” will read right past this, but for me this was a major stumbling block.
• D’Agata pays a private investigator $400 for “vital information” about Presley that he’s unable to ferret out himself, and rather than praising the investigator’s ability to dig up these details, he feels compelled to coyly note that she “had a smoker’s voice, a barking dog and screaming kids and Jeopardy on in the background” when he called her. Yeah, and she probably was overweight and wearing ridiculous slippers and sucking on a Bud Lite. D’Agata clearly has a keen eye for detail, but extending it to someone who’s basically helping him report the story, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge dose of classist disapproval, gave me a shudder of discomfort.
• D’Agata is able to get only one local official to go on the record about the suicide, county coroner Ron Flud. The coroner seems like a pretty straight-up guy—“a finder of facts,” he calls himself—who invites D’Agata into his office and expounds insightfully on the taboo of talking about suicide. But apparently this still isn’t enough for D’Agata. He calls Flud out for not answering a question about whether a suicide jumper is likely to lose consciousness in a fall, then proceeds to relay, in a self-serving writerly flourish, several things that Flud did not say.
• Someone who knew Presley hangs up on D’Agata when he asks personal questions about the deceased. But we don’t know who because the writer doesn’t tell us. The conversation is transmitted as a terse, paraphrased exchange with no context or explanation. Literary, yes, but mystifying.
• Finally, D’Agata appears to have never visited the suicide victim’s memorial website, which has been online since 2005. Here he could have gleaned several intimate details about Levi Presley—details not mentioned in the article—from reminiscences written by friends and family, and he could have learned the names of several sources to pursue for his allegedly hard-to-find interviews. He also would have learned from the entry by “Mom” that Presley’s mother called him her “precious Boomer”—from “baby Boomer”—not “Booper,” as D’Agata writes.
In the end, the story seems to be a case in which a creative writer took on a semi-journalistic task, in the process taking liberties that some audiences may enjoy (James Wolcott of Vanity Fair certainly did, calling the story a “show stopper”) and that others may find confusing, distracting, or journalistically dubious.
If we are indeed entering a new world of hybrid literary journalism—one in which, Quart writes, “we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints”—I for one hope we remember that some subjects, like a teenager’s suicide, seem to demand a deep and abiding respect for facts and clarity. At first impression D’Agata appears to be honoring the memory of Levi Presley by speaking the unspeakable—yet by the story’s end, at least to this reader, he appears to have done just the opposite.
Source: Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer (subscription required), Vanity Fair
Image by Marcin Wichary, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010 1:55 PM
The American Society of Magazine editors created a video called Covering the Decade: The Story of the Century's First 10 Years as Told Through Magazine Covers. It's a bit of a disappointment. The magazines chosen to tell the story of the decade are mostly the kind of glossy fare you find in airport newsstands. Mostly, the alternative press is left out of the mix (there are a few exceptions, most notably the inclusion of an Utne Reader cover).
What is more frustrating is their handling of the Iraq war. There are two covers chosen to tell the story of Iraq. First, there's the Tales of the Tyrant cover from the Atlantic Monthly. You ought to have an easy time divining which tyrant is on display. Next is Time's "We got him!" cover. It's Saddam Hussein again, fresh from his hole. The story of the Iraq war, it would seem, is a simple one: There was a tyrant and we got him.
The story is a bit more complicated than that—and less tidy. So I made my own video. I ravaged the Utne Reader library looking for covers from the alternative press that helped to tell the complex and terrible story of our war in Iraq. Utne Reader librarian Danielle Maestretti and art director Stephanie Glaros helped me. Here's what we came up with:
The covers create a powerful narrative, but there is still something missing. We struggled to come up with covers that represented civilian suffering in Iraq, which has prompted a second library hunt. I'm looking through the archives of every notable political magazine in our library for cover stories on civilian suffering in Iraq. I'll let you know what I find. If you can remember a cover, tell me about it in the comments section!
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010 3:11 PM
One of the earliest Thousand Yard Stare posts was An Expert’s Guide: How Not to Write About Afghanistan. Now we're all going to school on Yemen—and that includes plenty of journalists. We all know what that can mean: plenty of broad, misleading statements delivered with utter confidence. Not to worry. Yemen expert Brian O’Neill, who blogs at Waq Al-Waq, is on it. Here’s an excerpt from their critique of a Daily Beast article by Bruce Riedel, who writes that “Yemenis are desperately poor, half illiterate, and very young, but armed to the teeth. Every male always carries a large dagger with him and usually an automatic weapon”:
The armed to the teeth thing is particularly aggravating. The large dagger that “every male always carries with him”—a statement that isn't true, by the way—is a curved ceremonial and decorative blade. This has nothing to do with being armed. Hell, I have one, and I am the least dangerous person you'd ever meet. As for the automatic weapons, there are obviously a lot of guns in Yemen, and that is a threat, but the numbers are greatly exaggerated. Derek Miller of the Small Arms Survey argued in 2003 that the number of weapons in Yemen is less than 10 million—a large and worrisome number, sure, but one that doesn't give credence to the admittedly more dramatic “armed to the teeth” phraseology. This does far more to confuse than it does to help. We don't want to underestimate the problem of arms, but we also don't want to overestimate it.
…Then there is this throwaway: "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds are mostly in Yemen’s south, in the remote Sunni tribal provinces that the British, communists, and Saleh have never really governed, and where Osama bin Laden’s family comes from."
You should know by now that steam is literally pouring out of my ears. Riedel here has committed the cardinal sin of Yemen-writing: mentioning Osama bin Laden's familial ties as if they mean something (though he avoided the traditional cliche of "the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden"). If you are reading an article where the writer mentions this, immediately treat everything else as suspect. This is the best advice we can give you here.
Source: Waq Al-Waq
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009 2:55 PM
Editor's Note: "Excuse the gloom in the holiday season," writes Tom Engelhardt in the latest essay at his site, TomDispatch. The gloom is thick as he revisits the history of his site in his final post of 2009. It's a look back at a decade of war in Afghanistan. There’s a gravity to Engelhardt’s essay that is missing from much of the Afghanistan coverage in the mainstream media. Obama’s surge is being spun as the beginning of the end and at least 58% of the American public is buying that narrative. Engelhardt is not. He sees endless war and no end in sight for TomDispatch, his outlet for reportage and essays that chip away, week after week, at the arrogance and tragedy of empire. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, In Nightmares Begin Responsibilities:
Our endless wars are nightmares ... If only we could wake up. I was reminded of our strange dream-state recently when I reread the article that sparked the creation of what became TomDispatch. I first stumbled across it in the fall of 2001, after the Towers came down in my hometown, after that acrid smell of burning made its way to my neighborhood and into everything, after I traveled to “Ground Zero” (as it was already being called) to view those vast otherworldly shards of destruction via nearby side streets ... In late October 2001, a friend sent me a piece by an Afghan-American living in California that spurred me to modest action.
His name was Tamim Ansary and he posted it online on September 16th, just five days after the attacks on New York and Washington, having listened to right-wing talk radio rev up to an instant fever pitch about “bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age.” His piece went viral and finally reached … by email sometime in October after the Bush administration had begun the bombing campaign in Afghanistan that preceded its invasion-by-proxy of that country.
Ansary wrote “as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden,” and yet his piece was a desperate warning against the American war to come. He wrote with passion and conviction, with knowledge of Afghanistan and a kind of imagery that was otherwise not then part of our American world:
“We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely.”
It was the image of our bombs only “stirring the rubble” that stunned me. I had been reading the papers for weeks and had seen nothing like it. It seemed to catch the forgotten nightmare of the Afghan past as well as the nightmare to come at a moment when the only nightmare on the American mind was our own. Our own chosen imagery was then playing out in repeated public rites in which we hailed ourselves as the planet’s greatest victims, survivors, and dominators, while leaving no roles for others in our about-to-be-global drama—except, of course, for greatest Evildoer (which Osama bin Laden filled magnificently). It wasn’t only our foreign policy that was switching onto the “unilateral” track, so was our imagery.
Small wonder, then, that the strangeness of that single image moved me to gather the email addresses of a small group of friends and relatives, copy the piece into an email, add a note above it indicating that it was a must-read, and with that modest gesture, quite unbeknownst to me, launch TomDispatch.com.
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Monday, December 21, 2009 3:33 PM
Remember when the U.S. military first started talking about their "smart bombs"? It was as though these bombs could float into the bad guy's living room, slide up next to him on his couch, and end his life without so much as a tilted picture frame as evidence. It seemed to make supporting war easier. Suddenly war was smarter.
There's a new fad in smart warfare, and it's called "counterinsurgency." In a piece on the "cult of counterinsurgency" for The New Republic, Michael Crowley quotes from an Army manual: "Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war."
This "thinking man's warfare" was at the heart of the surge in Iraq and is central to Obama's surge in Afghanistan. The result: There has been excessive network news face time for America's counterinsurgency experts. Crowley writes about a recent appearance by Lt. Colonel John Nagl of the Center for New American Security on Rachel Maddow's show:
Had someone like Bill Kristol given that same assessment of Obama’s speech, Maddow might have tarred him as a bloodthirsty proponent of endless war. Which is why Nagl is one of the administration’s most important allies as it tries to sell the United States on a renewed commitment to Afghanistan.
...With the authority of a man who has worn a uniform in combat, and the intellectual heft of a Rhodes Scholar, he has helped to persuade many liberals that pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the only viable path to success.
Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation isn't buying it. He tells The New Republic, "Even the Iraq surge caused a dramatic increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes."
Most Americans never hear about the collateral damage from the bombings that accompanied the surge of ground troops in Iraq. In fact, the only thing most people ever hear from counterinsurgency boosters is that the surge was a success in Iraq .
"Some contrarian military thinkers that the story is far more complicated," writes Crowley. "It's not clear that the Sunnis needed our encouragement to turn on Al Qaeda, for instance, and ethnic cleansing may have burned itself out." These holes in the success-of-the-surge narrative have been largely ignored in the national discussion about Obama's strategy in Afghanistan.
One military man who isn't preaching the gospel of counterinsurgency is Colonel Gian Gentile, who tells The New Republic: "I think history shows that if a nation is going to try this kind of military method—population-centric counterinsurgency, which is also nation building—it doesn’t happen in a couple of years. It’s a generational commitment."
If there is a generational commitment to anything, it's to a future of counterinsurgent warfare around the globe. Exhibit A: the latest Pentagon budget, which, Crowley writes, shifts "billions of dollars away from high-tech weapons systems designed for fighting a great power like China, toward equipment like aerial drones and armored personnel carriers."
Colonel Gentile is adamant: This shift is a mistake. "Sometimes strategy demands restraint instead of military adventures," he writes at the Foreign Policy website. "As much as we want to define populations as ... subject to our manipulation and management ... they are not to be 'changed' for the better at the barrel of an American gun."
Source: The New Republic (article not yet available online), Foreign Policy
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Image by the Department of Defense.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 4:12 PM
I don’t know who deputized Christian Bleuer to police the reporting coming out of Afghanistan, but I approve. Bleuer, a researcher at The Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic studies, has constructed a fierce critique in the form of a sharp and moderately humble list of 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan. It’s published at his blog, Ghosts of Alexander. The list is a critical tutorial for reporter and armchair media critic alike. Here is just a taste:
Use exoticisms that make you sound really informed. Something like “Pashtunwali,” “Deobandi,” “badal,” “arbakai,” “jirga,” “shura,” etc… You don’t understand these terms in their social context. But no worries, neither does your reader.
Selectively quote an expert. You could (and this is totally, totally fictional) interview a professor who specializes in some aspect of Afghanistan for 45 minutes and then use a sub-10 second clip that confirms your pre-set agenda even though they said about a dozen other things in the same interview that contradict your agenda. Don’t worry, professors are not media- or internet-savvy enough to find a way to publicly shame you in justified retaliation.
Report from a one week embed that consists of a trip by Blackhawk helicopter to a secure [Forward Operating Base] and then talk about what it’s “really like” in a combat zone.
Totally ignore all of the literature on Afghanistan and then complain that nobody knows anything about something that is actually somewhat well researched. This allows you to fill an imaginary void with your bad analysis and then claim that it’s original and important.
Don’t go back and retroactively scold yourself for violating your own advice. Only bloggers will report the fact that your advice contradicts your past actions.
Source: Ghosts of Alexander
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Image by sskennel, licensed under Creative Commons.
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.
Friday, October 09, 2009 6:12 PM
Simpsons fans, brace yourselves. The Huffington Post picked up an AP report that Marge Simpson will be on the cover of the November issue of Playboy, available on newsstands October 16, apparently in an attempt to attract 20-something readers into the audience—whose average age is 35.
I hate to ask a perhaps obvious question, but… shouldn’t die-hard Simpsons fans also skew that way? Not that the humor of the longest-running American sitcom doesn’t transcend the ages, but choosing a character from a show that debuted in 1989 and garnered its greatest praise in the 1990s seems a bit of a weird choice for nabbing the 20-something set.
But then there’s really nothing not weird about any of it. Kelsey Wallace over at Bitch catalogs the panoply of unanswered questions:
Honestly, I don't know what is weirdest about this. Is it:
- Playboy thinking that a cartoon character is remotely erotic/sexy to the average reader?
- The Simpsons thinking that putting their animated character on the cover of a nudie magazine is a good idea?
- That the rest of the cover is also laid out in a decidedly creepy “The Simpsons Does Porno” cartoon style? (Sorry Benecio! Bum luck getting in this issue!)
- That Playboy CEO Scott Flanders insists that the three-page spread of Marge inside the magazine contains only “implied nudity”? (Thank goodness, because the real worry here was that we might see a cartoon nip slip.)
- That this all might turn out to be a wild success, proving that I am unknowingly hooked on crazy pills?
Kelsey, you are not hooked on crazy pills. It is Marge, it is Playboy, and it is baffling.
Sources: Huffington Post, Bitch
Monday, October 05, 2009 12:50 PM
Dan Gillmor, director of the
Knight Center for Digital Media, has issued 22
new rules for news organizations. He offers up his edicts as
weapons against lazy and unimaginative journalism. Here are four of
- Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One
example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box
called "Things We Don't Know," a list of questions our
journalists couldn't answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories
would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the
organisation's website would include an invitation to the audience to
help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.
- We would replace PR-speak and certain Orwellian words and
expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we
interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of using
direct quotations. (Examples, among many others: The activity that
takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming. There is no death
tax, there can be inheritance or estate tax. Piracy does not describe
what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing
- If we granted anonymity and learned that the unnamed source had
lied to us, we would consider the confidentially agreement to have
been breached by that person, and would expose his or her duplicity,
and identity. Sources would know of this policy before we published.
We'd further look for examples where our competitors have been
tricked by sources they didn't name, and then do our best to expose
- Beyond routinely pointing to
competitors, we would make a special effort to cover and follow
up on their most important work, instead of the common practice today
of pretending it didn't exist. Basic rule: the more we wish we'd done
the journalism ourselves, the more prominent the exposure we'd give
the other folks' work. This would have at least two beneficial
effects. First, we'd help persuade our community of an issue's
importance. Second, we'd help people understand the value of solid
journalism, no matter who did it.
What would you do differently?
Thursday, September 03, 2009 4:22 PM
What would Buffy do—if the beloved (and powerfully feminist) vampire slayer encountered the Twilight series’ Edward Cullen? Video remix artist Jonathan McIntosh has crafted an answer in a beautifully edited video mash-up: Buffy vs. Edward (Twilight Remixed).
Writing on the blog Rebellious Pixels, McIntosh explains that his video remix is more than “a decisive showdown between the slayer and the sparkly vampire.” His piece of transformative storytelling—protected under fair use doctrine—dishes out a “
pro-feminist visual critique of Edward’s character and generally creepy behavior.”
“Seen through Buffy’s eyes, some of the more sexist gender roles and patriarchal Hollywood themes embedded in the Twilight saga are exposed in hilarious ways,” he writes. The remix also functions as “a metaphor for the ongoing battle between two opposing visions of gender roles in the 21ist century.”
Watch for yourself:
Source: Buffy vs. Edward, Rebellious Pixels
Thursday, September 03, 2009 3:34 PM
It’s been an exciting but bumpy ride for the independent press in Eastern Europe in recent years. In the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, things got a bit bumpier this summer: The editorial staff of the Riga-based Baltic Times, an English-language newspaper that covers all three countries, quit en masse in late July because they hadn't been paid in four months and say they were being forced to write articles that favored advertisers, reports Latvians Online.
The encouraging thing is that they did what used to be nearly impossible: They launched a rival publication within weeks.
“Baltic Reports, which was officially launched today [August 25], is an independent online media portal established by former staff of the Baltic Times,” editor Kate McIntosh wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
“We had a disagreement with Riga staff journalists” was the understated characterization of the dispute by Baltic Times managing editor Sergey Alekseyev in an e-mail to Latvians Online. Alekseyev said the publication will continue.
In announcing their resignations, the ex-staff at the Baltic Times acknowledged financial pressures played a role in the drama—but so did journalistic standards: “While we appreciate that these are hard times economically for business and companies, we felt that it was no longer possible to continue to produce a professional product under such circumstances.”
Sources: Latvians Online, Baltic Reports
Image by PhylB, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, August 13, 2009 9:14 AM
Earlier this summer, as part of a master’s program at Emerson College, Kerry Skemp began blogging and tweeting about online commentary (i.e., comments left on websites or tweets) and its role in the future of publishing. The resultant blog, You’re Talking a Lot, but You’re Not Saying Anything, is filled with rich observations. For anyone who hasn’t been following all along, Skemp recently summed up the lessons learned with the ultimate “meta-commentary” post: “Commentary on My Commentary on Commentary.”
The distillation is fascinating stuff: a vision of online commentary that rebuffs proverbial complaints of commenters-as-trolls-and-idiots and slays simplistic traffic-building stratagems. “Online commentary both is and affects publishing,” Skemp writes. “It is publishing in the sense that it ‘makes public’ information that would otherwise remain private. In doing so, commentary (ideally) affects more than the commenter and the person being responded to.
“The unique nature of commentary on the internet allows it to be read by an unlimited number of people with varying levels of connection to the topic at hand. An astute comment can educate and inspire others; a negative or uninformed comment can motivate others to help educate. Admittedly, online commentary doesn’t give rise to enlightenment: but it can, and should.”
Finding enlightenment in a comment field might seem a bit farfetched, but Skemp backs up the claim with savvy observations that will be interesting to track as online comment infrastructure evolves. The presence of nasty (or self-serving) commenters, for example, means that “the art of commentary includes determining what to weed out,” a.k.a., a dose of media literacy. Additionally the “Twitterfication of commentary”—knowing who’s reading what you publish—injects accountability into the system, eliminating the anonymity under which bad manners and cheap shots flourish.
But more than commentary shifting toward more refined discourse, Skemp ultimately sees it functioning as a sort of super-discourse. “Commentary is the future of . . . search, and potentially even publishing,” she writes. “Commentary is the future of finding everything we need online, and responding to what is already online. Algorithms can only go so far without the human input that comes in the form of commentary: data showing what people think about other data.”
Source: You’re Talking a Lot, but You’re Not Saying Anything
Image by preater, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009 11:32 AM
If the internet is killing books, the blog to book deal is an ironic reward for blogosphere fame, writes Sarah Hromack in the July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail:
How strangely anachronistic is it (and yet, extraordinarily telling) that those who participate in perhaps the most monumental democratic exercise ever—and who do so daily, often for a living—would seek to tame the great, unbridled, immaterial beast that is the Internet with some high-gloss stock and two binding boards? How thoroughly odd it is that one would attempt to translate the particular digital reading experience of the Tumblr blog, or Twitter feed, or Facebook update into an analog one.
Source: The Brooklyn Rail
Friday, July 31, 2009 3:00 PM
Did you hear the story about Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking communion and then stashing the wafer in his pocket? Don’t get your hackles raised yet: The faux pas apparently never happened. Over at the venerable Columbia Journalism Review, Craig Silverman dissects how such a strange fabrication could have ended up on the front page of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.
Source: Columbia Journalism Review
Image by dtcchc, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 10, 2009 3:26 PM
Singapore-based ad agency Ogilvy & Mather has completed a series of ads for Matchbox called Young Warriors. It’s a rather frightful experiment with illusion. Young, white boys no older than 5 years old pose with some of the most lethal killing machines now in play in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is militarism at its worst: children piloting machines that kill children and their families (oh yes, and terrorists). Sure, kids play soldier all the time, but they are engaging in imaginative play, not warrior fetishes.
The campaign is crass enough on its own, but a tour of Ogilvy & Mather’s website adds a new layer of revulsion, namely their advice on advertising in a wrecked economy:
The key to success will be understanding the new shopper, brand and retailer. Find out how to create ‘win-win’ shopper marketing solutions and how to turn shoppers into buyers in this recession.
Here’s more of that “win-win” vision made manifest:
(Thanks, Creative Review)
Friday, July 10, 2009 11:59 AM
When the BBC published its series of interviews with Gaza residents talking about Hamas, they pushed the most compelling conversation (and the only comments by a woman) to the bottom of the page. It’s a conversation with Tihani Abed Rabbu. Her teenage son Mustafa, her brother and her closest friend were killed during Israel's January assault, codenamed "Operation Cast Lead."
Journalist and Middle East analyst Helena Cobban took issue with the placement of Abed Rabbu’s story. On her blog, Just World News, she protests the placement of this woman’s story:
Too frequently decision makers in the [mainstream media] simply marginalize women's experiences. But women's work in holding families together in very tough times lies at the heart of the social resiliency that can either save or break a community that's in conflict. So it is not only a compelling 'human interest' story—it is also at the heart of the big 'political' story regarding whether, for example, the people of Gaza or South Lebanon end up bowing to Israel's very lethally pursued political demands, or not. Maybe the BBC could, at the very least, elevate Ms. Abed-Rabbu's story to the top of that page?
Here’s a profoundly unsettling excerpt from the interview with Abed-Rabbu:
"I'm afraid that after I have lost Mostafa, that I will lose somebody else as well. When my children go to sleep, and I look at them, I start to think 'who is next—is it Ahmad's turn, or his brother?'
"What worries me is the safety of my family, my sons and my husband. My husband is going through a difficult time, a crazy time. He wants to affiliate with Hamas, he wants to get revenge after what they have done to us.
"How do you expect us to be peaceful after they have killed my son and turned my family into angry people—as they refer to us, "terrorists". I cannot calm my family down.
Sources: BBC, Just World News
Amir Farshad Ebrahimi
, licensed under
Thursday, July 09, 2009 2:51 PM
You've surely encountered Dwell magazine in your travels. It's the oversized architecture and design magazine exploding with beautiful homes and objects for the fairly well heeled. We couldn’t help but have a giggle when Metropolis (an architecture and design magazine for the really well heeled) took a stab at Dwell in their blogs. Here’s their Open Letter to Dwell Magazine:
Love the magazine. As a favor, I have rewritten the Table of Contents of your July/August issue:
Cover House with Horizontal Wood Slats
Page 43 House with Vertical Wood Slats
Page 52 House with Horizontal Wood Slats
Page 58 Ice Cream Makers
Page 66 Pavilion with Horizontal Wood Slats
Page 70 Philadelphia
Page 80 House with Horizontal Wood Slats
Page 88 House with Horizontal Wood Slats
Page 96 House with Vertical Wood Slats
I hope you find this useful.
Jeff Speck, AICP
Putting aside the vertical and horizontal slats appearing on the Metropolis homepage, it's a fair observation and a good ribbing. And not surprisingly, commenters used the opportunity to do a little ribbing of their own:
Gary @ 6:30 am: "At least the slats *are* a reason to read Dwell. No-one reads Metropolis
Herbert @ 10:37 am: "Well, at least Dwell sends me my magazine. And yes I subscribe to both."
I believe the man they called Jesus had words for dust-ups like this one: "First take the vertical wood slat out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Oh snap!
Wednesday, July 08, 2009 9:42 AM
Despite Al-Jazeera’s international reputation for serious investigative reporting, the company's English-language station has yet to find a cable provider in either the U.S. or Canada.
The Canadian magazine This comments that “Canada can no longer afford to shun the world’s first truly global news network—especially one that is both steered and shaped by Canada’s best and brightest.” Al-Jazeera English is, after all, broadcast in more than 140 million households and in at least 100 countries. Why is North America so far behind?
Al-Jazeera isn’t giving up easily. “The network’s inability to secure cable providers in the U.S., and the highly politicized battles to undermine its effort for access across the continent, have left it embattled but not defeated.”
Only in Toledo, Ohio and Burlington, VT has Al-Jazeera English found a home with a cable provider, although not without opposition. When viewers in Burlington complained that the station is anti-American and anti-Semitic, town hall debates raged and Al-Jazeera was taken off the air. Recognizing that the station offers “alternative” perspectives, the city council eventually reinstated the channel.
In the United States you can catch up on Al-Jazeera's website or on Link TV.
Source: This (article not available online)
Image by Joi, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 18, 2009 2:55 PM
Making fun of magazine covers is like netting fish in a barrel, but that doesn't mean it's not funny. In a stunt aimed at catering specifically to its core readership of cranky libertarians—who still inexplicably doubt the existence of climate change and, if they didn't like pot so much and God so little, would look a lot like, well...conservatives—Reason magazine went through a stack of Time magazines to showcase the Top 10 Most Absurd Covers of the Past 40 Years.
Highlights include a black-and-red line drawing of Satan ("The Occult Revival: Satan Returns"), a little boy sporting a crocodile tear ("Crack Kids: Their Mothers used drugs, and now it's the children who suffer"), and a ghostly, wide-eyed little boy who, sitting in front of a keyboard, seems to be possessed by demons ("Cyberporn: Can we protect our kids—and free speech?").
The write-ups following each cover image, packed with data and designed to take the air out of Time's perpetually hyperbolic balloon, are quick-witted and, not suprisingly I suppose, well-Reason-ed. That said, one can't help but notice that the same critics who are up-in-arms over this fear-mongering and tabloid imagery are the same people who champion wild west capitalism. And the strategies Time uses to sell these covers are not only timeless and textbook, they're proven to win. So, the item leaves me wondering what's more important: Responsible headlines and reasoned journalism or big sales.
Thursday, June 18, 2009 11:52 AM
How young is too young to watch TV? The Week reports that researchers at the University of Washington have found that television watching decreases verbal interaction between adults and children, interaction that is crucial to brain development. The study found that for every hour the television was on, adults spoke from 500 to 1,000 fewer words to their children. This was true even if the TV was only background noise.
Ever since Teletubbies first sashayed into American homes over a decade ago, we’ve witnessed a steadily growing market of DVDs and so-called educational products aimed at getting toddlers and babies to watch television. But, while criticism of shows like Teletubbies has been limited to Jerry Falwell’s “outing” Tinky Winky, the larger question of the effects of early childhood exposure to TV has remained controversial.
Critics contend that television contributes to desensitization, lower attention spans, and poor cognitive development, while proponents claim that it all depends on the types of shows kids watch and the amount of exposure. They argue, for example, that shows like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer teach children valuable lessons about culture and language. And now products like Baby Einstein claim that television-watching is beneficial for children as young as infants.
Source: The Week
Image by x-eyed blonde, licensed under Creative Commons
Friday, June 12, 2009 1:26 PM
“Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes?” Katha Pollitt writes in The Nation. “Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone!”
The wave structure tossed around in the media “looks historical,” Pollitt writes, when in reality it’s anything but. Second wavers (like Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem) are in their golden years; third wavers (known for staking a renewed claim on “girl culture” and their passion for the intersection of race, class, and gender) are approaching 40.
Yet third wave “continues to be used to describe each latest crop of feminists—loosely defined as any female with more political awareness than a Bratz doll—and to portray them in terms of their rejection of second wavers, who are supposedly starchy and censorious. Like moms. Somebody’s mom, anyway,” Pollitt writes.
Aside from being inaccurate, this wave narrative reduces feminism into a tired battle between sexual freedom and repression. “Why not acknowledge that there will never be a bright line between pleasure and danger, personal choice and social responsibility, open-minded and judgment?” Pollitt writes. “The fine points of sexual freedom will all be there waiting for us—after we get childcare, equal pay, retirement security, universal access to birth control and abortion, healthcare for all and men who do their share at home, after we achieve equal representation in government, are safe from sexual violence, and raise a generation of girls who don’t hate their bodies.”
Source: The Nation
Tuesday, May 19, 2009 4:55 PM
You know the adage: Sex sells. The wizards who cooked up the low-cal, chocolaty Mars Fling, however, seem to have taken the maxim a bit too, um, literally. In a Bitch-at-its-best take down, the feminist magazine wryly dissects a marketing campaign that urges women to “pleasure [themselves] with this chocolate sensation time and time again.”
Tuesday, May 12, 2009 6:08 PM
How much responsibility should be put on the media for hate crimes? Its fair share, according to Extra!, the publication of media watch dogs FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting). In response to a 40 percent increase in hate crimes against Hispanic people, a UCLA professor conducted a study aimed at quantifying hate speech on commercial radio. Chon Noriega found “systematic and extensive use of false facts, flawed argumentation, divisive language, and dehumanizing metaphors . . . directed toward specific, vulnerable groups.” In reaction, the National Hispanic Media Coalition has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the scope and potential human cost of hateful broadcasts.
Friday, April 10, 2009 11:03 AM
Are young people in the digital age perpetually plugged-in drones, or tolerant, politically and socially shrewd citizens with untapped potential? There has always existed a culture gap between educators and their students, but technology seems to have widened it into a chasm. Given the alienation that many educators feel from their students today, the debate over the fate of so-called “Digital Natives” and how to teach them continues.
William Deresiewicz over at The Chronicle Review laments the loss of solitude for today’s youth. He worries for his students and the apparent nonstop nature of their connectedness, from Facebook to Twitter to text messaging.
“Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration,” he writes, “but it is also taking away our ability to be alone.”
Deresiewicz then wonders what this loss portends: “And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life – of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing ‘in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures’, ‘bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.”
Barry Duncan and Carol Arcus take a less pessimistic stance at the Education Forum of Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. While acknowledging the concern for Digital Natives’ ability to think critically about the media they consume, Duncan and Arcus instead see an opportunity to “link this multi-sensory, multi-modal, multi-literate experience to new notions of literacy and identity.”
They suggest that “Net Geners” might be “smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors. They are more politically savvy, socially engaged and family-centered than society gives them credit for.”
And, they see in the conversation around teaching Digital Natives the possibility “to figure out and invent ways to include reflection and critical thinking in the learning...but still do it in the Digital Native language.”
Sources: The Chronicle Review, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation
Image by Bombardier, licensed under Creative Commons
Friday, February 27, 2009 1:03 PM
Radio Afia, a half-hour radio show broadcast three times daily in Darfur, Sudan, and eastern Chad, started with a noble mission: To provide Darfuri citizens mired in war or displaced by violence with objective news and information about the crisis—the kind they weren’t getting from the Sudanese government. But poor execution has left the promise of that mission unfulfilled, according to a report by Sheri Fink for ProPublica.
Started with funding from the U.S. State Department, Radio Afia’s critics blame its failings on cultural ignorance and a soft approach to coverage of the Sudanese government. The program is broadcast in standard Arabic, which critics say most of the intended audience not only can’t understand, but find “offensive because it [is] associated with the people who were killing them,” according to Fink. Radio Afia has also come under scrutiny for the firing of one of its outspoken newscasters, who reportedly battled with his bosses over what he saw as their lax coverage of the government.
If true, the shortcomings of Radio Afia identified by its critics are disappointing considering the continued scarcity of free information in Sudan, which the project was intended to combat. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, government censorship of media and tight control of free speech is escalating. “Free and fair elections require a free and open media,” said Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch in a press release about the report. “Khartoum's repressive practices and abuse of those who criticize it put such elections at great risk.” And as violence in Darfur intensifies, writes Fink, "[g]etting news to Darfuri civilians is more important than ever.”
Sources: ProPublica, Human Rights Watch
Image by hdptcar, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 30, 2009 10:15 AM
For those who’d call current sports journalism fluff: Gary Andrew Poole agrees with you. In an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, though, he muses that it needn’t be. The shortcomings he bemoans—an emphasis on sensational stories, a move away from longer narrative work—aren't specific to sports writing, and neither are the market pressures he observes: the growing importance of web reporting, the increasingly rapid turnover of news items.
But Poole argues that sports writers are uniquely positioned to resist these trends. After all, fans can probably live without to-the-second updates on batting averages and shoulder injuries. A renewed focus on thoughtful analysis and creative storytelling might remind us why sports matter in the big picture, by exploring how they reflect our cultural values and imagination. Take a look at the article to hear Poole elaborate and to catch some insightful comments from readers, or consider other reasons why sportswriting has lost its game.
Image courtesy of Kevin Klöcker, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 9:42 AM
Edgar Allan Poe would have turned 200 this past Monday, and the occasion has inspired a torrent of commentaries on the horror writer’s legacy. Many offer pretty run-of-the-mill observations: Poe was a weird guy . . . he wrote some macabre stuff . . . gee, we still read him today. Nick Mamatas’ Smart Set essay on Poe presents one alternative, breaking out of the typically plodding retrospective mode to venture some compelling thoughts on why Poe still matters, or could matter, if we let him.
The insights are a bit buried in the uneven piece; Mamatas has a lot to say and sometimes gets mired down in tangents and sarcasm. But he’s interesting when exploring the way that Poe’s best work faces evil unsparingly, without judgment.
“[Poe] was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice,” Mamatas writes. Instead, as H.P. Lovecraft asserts in his 1920s survey piece "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Poe was the first to perceive "the essential impersonality of the real artist. . . [that] the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing….”
Much of what we consider horror today can’t resist the impulse to moralize:
The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would. Stephen King's novels summon up dark miracles that threaten families, towns, and occasionally civilization itself, but these evils are put down more often than not thanks to the power of friendship.
Too often, says Mamatas, we overlay scary stories with an ethics that simply isn’t there. And in so doing, we protect ourselves from two unpleasant thoughts: one, evil doesn’t always have a moral; and two, we don’t always find it as baffling or reprehensible as we believe we should. Ultimately, Mamatas wishes we’d dispense with what we know about Poe’s life and work and allow ourselves to really read him—to see what happens when we take a look at evil without shielding or exempting ourselves from it.
Image by Bob Jagendorf, 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.”
Thursday, December 11, 2008 10:15 AM
A lot of intelligent women find themselves torn between dismantling the superficiality of “women's interest” magazines and buying into it. Wendy Felton is one of those women, and she uses her three-year-old Glossed Over blog to rant, rave, and dissect fashion spreads and stories from publications like Cosmopolitan and Glamour.
Felton doesn’t claim to be an expert (she’s a freelance writer and editor), but simply a fan of women’s magazines who is continually disappointed by their contradictory messages and incongruous advice. So why does she bother reading them? It’s a guilty pleasure “that lets me get juiced up on righteous outrage while simultaneously allowing me to ogle lip gloss and shoes.” The right mix of cynicism (one post is titled “Marie Claire editors were the girls I hated in high school”) and acknowledged shallowness makes her commentary, at once funny and incisive, relatable to a broad (if mostly female) audience.
Image courtesy of evans.photo, licensed under Creative Commons.
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 21, 2008 1:21 PM
Now that the election is over, the great scapegoat of ’08, Bill Ayers, has emerged from hiding to embark upon a grand media tour. He made his post-campaign coming-out on Good Morning America, gave speeches in Washington that drew ample coverage in the mainstream press, and has been popping up in countless other news outlets, including Democracy Now! and Salon.
The substance of the Ayers coverage may not warrant the amount of time it consumes. But if there's one Ayers interview actually worth paying attention to, it's the one he gave to Fresh Air host Terry Gross on November 18, according to James Fallows. Fallows says Gross’ interview with Ayers exemplifies how good she is at her job—and how bad so many other professional interviewers are at theirs. Here’s why he thinks Gross is so great:
…[W]hat she shows brilliantly in this interview, is: she listens, and she thinks. In my experience, 99% of the difference between a good interviewer (or a good panel moderator) and a bad one lies in what that person is doing while the interviewee talks. If the interviewer is mainly using that time to move down to the next item on the question list, the result will be terrible. But if the interviewer is listening, then he or she is in position to pick up leads ("Now, that's an intriguing idea, tell us more about..."), to look for interesting tensions ("You used to say X, but now it sounds like..."), to sum up and give shape to what the subject has said ("It sounds as if you're suggesting..."). And, having paid the interviewee the respect of actually listening to the comments, the interviewer is also positioned to ask truly tough questions without having to bluster or insult.
If you have this standard in mind—is the interviewer really listening? and thinking?—you will be shocked to see how rarely broadcast and on-stage figures do very much of either. But listen to this session by Gross to see how the thing should be done.
Image by BlogjamComic, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, November 20, 2008 5:00 PM
For the past five years, the Center for Media and Democracy has singled out the PR hacks most deserving of negative attention, handing out Falsies Awards each year to those guilty of “polluting our information environment” with spin, subversion, and downright dishonesty.
This year’s nominees include Mail Moves America, which insists that junk mail is actually important communication, to “Clean Coal” campaigns from Americans for Balanced Energy Choices. (Both are front groups funded by advertisers and coal producers, respectively). There’s also an opportunity for write-ins if you think a particularly deserving person or organization is missing from the list.
In addition to pinpointing these media evils, the Falsies committee gives out the “Win Against Spin” award to honor those who have been a sharp knife of truth cutting through the B.S.
Voting ends December 1, so cast your ballot and give these nefarious nominees what they deserve!
Image courtesy of the Center for Media and Democracy.
Monday, October 13, 2008 5:04 PM
Film critics are grumbling about Disney’s decision to use blogger comments—rather than official reviews—in ads for its latest film, the UK release The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The studio lifted online plaudits like "Simply stunning" from IMDb.com, reports Telegraph, in a move that some professional critics view as a preemptive strike by the studio's marketing department, which may have feared negative reviews and decided to use existing blogger praise for blurbs instead. Then there's the question of accountability: Who’s to say that the quoted praise, which is all but anonymous when submitted by Theedge-4 or Pete63, wasn’t written by a producer or actor from the film?
Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine ridicules the controversy: “How dare a movie studio quote the people who actually buy the tickets and watch the movies? How dare they give respect to the audience?” It’s difficult to say how much influence these blurbs have over potential moviegoers, but those who oppose Disney's decision have common sense on their side. The average person is probably more inclined to believe a full review from an established voice like the New York Times’ A.O. Scott than a sound-bite accolade from an unknown entity like the Disney-quoted blogger Mjavfc1.
Image by casalingarevival, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 03, 2008 1:45 PM
Much as we wish it weren't true, brainwashing exists far beyond the realm of sci-fi movies or cult worship. Cracked.com has broken down the six brainwashing techniques presented to us nearly every day by thousands of political ads and biased media sources. With both presidential parties scrambling to reel in voters by November, it's fascinating (albeit somewhat horrifying) to see the ways in which the American public is being suckered or bullied into thinking what They want you to think. (Note: slightly NSFW due to some mind-controlling cleavage.)
After reading, spend a minute or two perusing news and political websites and see how easy it is to find examples of these techniques. It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt, only instead of candy, the prize at the end is a frustrating awareness of how pervasive mind-control efforts really are.
Here's an excellent example of #5: Does Obama Support the Killing of Infants?
And an instance of #1: McCain the Patriot: "Country First or Obama First"
Image courtesy of
, licensed under
Thursday, September 11, 2008 2:08 PM
When Chicago stand-up comedian and political activist Ken Swanborn died, his family placed a paid death notice in the Chicago Tribune ending with the request “In lieu of flowers, please vote Democratic.” The Tribune quickly removed the line from the obituary before it ran, citing a policy against “discriminatory or offensive” material. Chicago Reader blogger Michael Miner cried foul and was told by a Tribune employee that the deleted line could potentially offend Republican readers. But, Miner points out, what about offending the family who paid to place the announcement?
Is this a denial of free speech or merely a newspaper trying to stay neutral?
Wednesday, September 03, 2008 4:35 PM
Police officers in Flint, Michigan are not allowed to speak to the media. Period. The ban, introduced by interim Police Chief David Dicks, forbids police officers from talking about internal affairs or official duties. But the ACLU claims that the ban is so broad it prevents “speaking about manners of public concern that have been consistently found to be protected under the First Amendment.” The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the police department and requested an injunction against the ban after three officers were fired for speaking to reporters. Though one officer has since been reinstated, the constitutionality of the ban remains in question.
(Thanks, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 1:31 PM
That culturally ubiquitous slice of youth culture known as hipsters now finds itself under the microscope of the always provocative Adbusters. The magazine’s latest issue—and, to some extent, its overall editorial mission—is predicated on the alleged cultural malaise of the past 50 years, beginning with the rise of postwar consumer culture as an inevitable byproduct of Western ingenuity. “Practical cleverness beats the crap out of spiritual wisdom on the battlefield and in the marketplace, as the West has made clear over the last 500 years,” the preface declares. “But cleverness without wisdom sooner or later destroys life.”
Douglas Haddow’s lead essay, "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization," takes it from there, positing hipsters as avatars of the narcissism and spiritual emptiness Adbusters laments, and as the probable harbingers of civilization’s decline. “We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum," Haddow writes. "So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality, and is leaving a generation pointlessly obsessing over fashion, faux individuality, cultural capital and the commodities of style.”
As much as the cantankerous square in me wants to see hedonistic youngsters taken down a peg, I think this essay might be giving hipsters a bit too much credit, overestimating both their cultural impact and longevity while longing nostalgically for a chimeral sense of past “cool” whose own authenticity is itself suspect. “An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather than creating it,” Haddow claims. But is this sort of inversion really so unprecedented? Are hipsters the first generation to practice it? And isn’t it more accurate to say that all youth everywhere, not just hipsters, end up doing both the creating and the consuming of culture, with the advertising and entertainment industries serving as mediators?
Yes, the commodification of cool is obnoxious, but it’s not novel and it’s not an agent of the apocalypse. Casting oneself and one’s peers as the “last generation, a culmination of all previous things”—as Haddow does, in his essay’s dour conclusion—displays the same narcissism and myopia as the culture he’s skewering. Hipsters are really nothing more than the latest manifestation of the disaffected, nihilistic youth population that mutates into a new form with each generation. They’re an obnoxious but essentially innocuous pocket of youth culture whose era is already waning, especially now that hipsterdom has been thoroughly assimilated into mainstream culture, branded, and codified into a household word. The hipster fad is now so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless: everyone and no one is a hipster.
Besides, I’m immediately suspicious of any author who posits the “end” of anything. Hipsters represent the end of Western civilization? Really? Alarmist generalizations are guaranteed to sell magazines and generate angry emails to the editor—in fact, the inevitable debate will probably be more interesting than the article that inspired it. But ultimately, I suspect hipsters are simply kids in a phase they’ll eventually grow out of, just like the Gen-Xers, punks, hippies, beatniks, and flappers before them.
Image by Joseph Mohan.
Friday, August 08, 2008 10:42 AM
Is anyone else going meme crazy these days? Maybe it’s just some strange conflation of meme-talk here at the Utne Reader office, but if I hear (or read or sniff) one more reference to a meme, I’m going to drink everyone’s milkshakes, and then make all the straws into my new bicycle.
I know: I should pity the meme. These are heady times for a term coined in 1976. Back when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave memes a name in his book The Selfish Gene, there was no world wide web to speed along cultural transmission. Memes, as Dawkins defined them, are self-propagating cultural phenomena such as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He likened them to genes. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” Dawkins explains how Darwinian principles, like natural selection, govern that evolution.
These days, all your memes are belong to us, and by us I mean the Internets, by which I mean the web. Linguistic and media-driven memes in particular spread swiftly online. If you don’t pay attention (see: if you have anything else to do during the day except troll online), you can miss a whole meme-elution. Not being up to meme-speed = awkward social encounters. Picture yourself standing in a room, tepidly smiling as everyone riffs about some walrus that lost its bucket. Getting the jokes in the late-night monologue? Forget it.
“One week: That’s how much time an Internet meme needs to propagate, become its own opposite, and then finally collapse back in on itself,” Christopher Beam writes on Slate. Beam based his observation on the lifecycle of the wildly popular “Barack Obama is your new bicycle” meme.
That well-known meme all started with a website of the same name, and on August 5 (drum roll, please) Gotham published a Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle book. Website creator and Wired contributing editor Matthew Honan isn’t the only meme-generator to get a book deal lately. This March, Gawker reported that Random House paid at least $350,000 for the right to publish Stuff White People Like, based on (you guessed it!) the website of the same name.
All this makes me wish Chuck Norris would step in and deliver some round-house regulation. Memes, old-fashioned memes, naturally-occurring memes, have a lot to tell us about how culture stalls and grows. Rewarding senseless Internet memes, however, with two things our society likes very much—cash and publicity—will only motivate imitators. If Internet memes become a popularity contest with a cash reward (exploiting a lowest-common-denominator urge to be in on the joke)—are they still memes? Out in the blogosphere, you already can spot people discussing how to propagate preferred memes. In the inevitable march of the Internet memes, I just hope the best viral marketer wins.
Images by Rachel Pumroy, Women, Fire & Dangerous Things, and Peter Mandik, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008 12:32 PM
The current issue of the Minnesota Women's Press improves upon one of Ms. magazine's popular sexism-shaming features. The Ms. version, "No Comment," simply reprints offensive ads alongside contact info for the companies they represent (here's an example, from the Spring 2005 issue). The Women's Press iteration may be a copycat, but its copy is better executed—it actually spells out what's offensive about the ad in question, a bit of directness from which the Ms. feature could benefit.
In this case, the Women’s Press takes on a BMW ad for pre-owned cars, which displays a come-hither-looking blonde woman with the caption “You know you're not the first.” “Isn't it common knowledge,” the Women’s Press snarks, “that a good used woman is just like a good used car? Or maybe the car is preferable because it doesn't talk back—or doesn't ask questions about a man's past ‘driving history.’”
Some people don’t get puns, and some of us don’t immediately spot sexism in the tiny reprinted versions of these ads—I’ve stared at more than one in Ms. without realizing what the problem is—and most of the time, a little context or analysis goes a long way.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008 10:44 AM
Everyone seems to be watching the economy a little more closely, whether they're most concerned about the foreclosure crisis, credit card debt, or paying for college. Media coverage often misses the boat on these complex issues, but lively economics blogs have stepped in to fill the void, delving into politics and media criticism while deciphering the latest research. Here are a few to get you started:
Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, criticizes and clarifies the media’s economic coverage at the American Prospect's Beat the Press blog.
Brad DeLong, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley, writes Grasping Reality with Both Hands, where he frequently corrects errors in economic and political reporting under the not-so-subtle heading “[Publication Name] Death Spiral Watch."
, an oft-updated site maintained by George Mason University economics professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, appears on DeLong's helpful list of recommended econ blogs. Last week, Tabarrok posted an in-depth critique of the latest "math wars" study that questioned the existence of a math ability gap between boys and girls, attracting dozens of responses about sexism and former Harvard President Larry Summers' 2005 imbroglio over sex and scientific ability.
Another pair of George Mason economists, Donald Boudreaux and Russell Roberts, author the more conservative Cafe Hayek, which can be refreshing in challenging such conventional wisdom as the evils of Wal-Mart or off-shore drilling.
At The Fly Bottle, Cato Institute research fellow Will Wilkinson offers a center-right view of economics, from critiquing global-warming alarmism to questioning the benefit of the minimum-wage hike.
is a Harvard professor who blogs (infrequently, but quite readably) about globalization and economic development. For a more regular feed, Rodrik recommends Yale political scientist Chris Blattman's economic development blog.
Image by genericface, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 14, 2008 6:04 PM
The progressive blogosphere is a-ragin’ today about the rumor-mongering, naive, chaos-inspiring New Yorker cover of Michelle and Barack Obama terrorist-fist-jabbing in the Oval Office as a portrait of Osama bin Laden approvingly gazes on, alit by the flames of an American flag sizzling in the fireplace.
Progressives are pissed, and to prove it, they’ve dug out their lit-crit hats to scold illustrator Barry Blitt on the inner workings of satire and why he missed the boat and fell into no-no land. (I think the man who came up with this cover
probably has a thing or two to teach us all about good satire.)
When I mentioned the hubbub to Utne’s art director, Stephanie Glaros, she told me the illustrator blogs were equally enflamed, but in Blitt’s defense. Thank goodness some folks have thick enough skins to rally to his side. Let’s just hope that some of that sensibility migrates from the art world to the political commentariat sometime soon.
First off, progressives need to stop playing thought police to protect those weak-minded ninnies from Hicksville. Here’s a prime example from Rachel Sklar at HuffingtonPost: “Who knows if the people in Dubuque will get this?” Really? Must it be assumed that everyone who doesn’t live in New York, Chicago, or [insert shiny metropolis here] is both devoid of rational thought and a sense of humor?
In a more thoughtful assessment, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the image doesn’t go far enough to separate itself from the views it intends to harangue. “My point is that that this cover actually does reflect—not exaggerate, not satirize—the views of a sizeable portion of Americans,” he writes. He points out that some 13 percent of Americans actually think Obama’s a Muslim. It’s a horrifying stat. But consider a few more: Just last summer, 41 percent of Americans still thought Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11. And while 62 percent of Americans believe in the devil, only 42 percent believe in evolution.
Here’s the thing about good humor: Not everyone’s going to get it. Comedy, satire, humor, whatever you want to call it, is absolutely essential to a vital culture of political criticism. If we muzzle our humorists—going so far as to inveigh against those who have the clear intent of lambasting ignorance—than we’re in for a very boring, very unreflective four to eight years if Obama moves into that toasty, Osama-adorned Oval Office.
UPDATE (7/15/2008): Rachel Sklar writes in to note that I missed the reference in her Dubuque line, which was readily available in the link she provided. Point taken: Looks like the gal in Minneapolis didn’t get it. But the connotation, wink or no, remains. Later in her post, Sklar writes, “Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke” on the magazine's cover, suggesting that most other folks probably aren’t worldly enough to join in on the chuckle. Sklar isn't the poster girl for perpetrating this meme—she’s certainly not alone in it—but it’s there.
Friday, June 06, 2008 5:51 PM
“Let’s take off the gloves,” moderator Paul Schmelzer of the Minnesota Monitor said to his panelists, an assembly of media critics charged with talking about their changing role in an evolving media landscape. The question: What could they be doing better?
Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called for more rounded subjects. Critics get mired in deconstructing the coverage of domestic and party politics, she said. Among the areas in which Jackson would like to read more are the disability community, labor news, and feminist and antiracist criticism. She also noted a tendency to focus heavily on print media, neglecting mediums such as radio. “Wherever the influence is, criticism should be,” she stressed.
Eric Deggans of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times noted that media critics don’t criticize themselves very well, that they’re more cautious when approaching their own institutions. Deggens also pointed out the lack of media criticism on TV; he’d like to see the nightly news dissecting media coverage. “[Producers] don’t think viewers are interested,” he said, “but they could get them to be interested.”
Media Matters for America
's Eric Boehlert suggested refraining from personal attacks. It’s a model that’s worked for Media Matters, which keeps its criticism focused on “comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” as opposed to demonizing conservative pundits.
Finally, Diane Farsetta, from the Center for Media and Democracy, chimed in with the need to form partnerships with community, university, and other local organizations. If the media is missing a story, or misreporting the information, instead of “becoming an expert in 30 minutes,” make a community connection, she counseled. Then when you deliver your criticism, you can direct the criticized party to an expert source.
For more on the National Conference for Media Reform, click here.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008 11:07 AM
Let’s play word association. Except, when I say, “Rupert Murdoch,” you don’t hiss and croak, “sulfurous prince from the bottomless pit.” Instead, do like Columbia Journalism Review and see Murdoch’s Fox Business Network as potentially the most relevant and useful—not to mention populist—resource for financial news out there. It may have its irritating quirks and it may not be widely watched (yet), but its perspective is fresher than wealthy-investor-oriented CNBC. Maybe that jargon barn is hell’s true diplomat.
Image by World Economic Forum, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007 3:07 PM
Imagine paradise: The nightly news would expand its coverage beyond “This popular brand of soda could be giving YOUR dog cancer—find out which one after the break!” to offer meticulous deconstructions of politicians’ semantics. Imagine that journalists didn’t take press secretaries’ mendacious word choices for granted. Imagine that American newspaper-readers could have the tools to cut through political spin and perfidy. Imagine, if you will, the rhetoric beat.
Brent Cunningham suggests in the Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.-Dec.) that the rhetoric beat would help keep “political discourse as clear and intellectually honest as possible, and to make readers and viewers aware of how the seemingly benign words and phrases they encounter daily are often finely calibrated to influence how they think about ideas.”
Word choice holds a lot of power over the way we think. Politicians exploit this by using “linguistic framing”—consciously choosing just the right phrases to sway the public onto their side of an issue. For example, it makes a significant difference if you talk about Iraq as a sectarian conflict vs. as a civil war, or if you debate a death tax instead of an estate tax. So, if the politicians are busy fine-tuning their language, it might be appropriate for journalists to keep an eye on how they’re doing it. And thus, the rhetoric beat. “[U]nless this bad language is outed, so to speak, it can dominate public discourse on a given subject and preclude the serious consideration of other possibilities,” Cunningham writes.
The rhetoric beat would be useful, no doubt, but would it capture the public’s interest? I’d guess that the bulk of the U.S. newspaper-reading Republic cares less about politicians’ stances on the important issues than they care about last night’s episode of Scrubs. So why would they suddenly step up and get excited about the ultra-wonky field of semantics?
Perhaps I should hold my cynicism: The problem may just lie in Cunningham’s own linguistic frame. Rhetoric beat sounds a bit stolid. How about the blabber beat? That sounds easy enough to swallow.
Thursday, October 25, 2007 2:59 PM
These days, the newspaper industry is like a salmon that's just woken up from a nice nap to find itself flapping on the deck of a fishing boat, with a big hook through its lip. But one newspaper is thriving, and perhaps its business model is one that behemoths like the New York Times can emulate. That paper is the Onion, weekly purveyor of fake news, which has seen its print circulation grow 60 percent in the last three years.
Greg Beato writes in the November issue of Reason that newspapers can follow the Onion's lead by writing stories with more energy, abandoning the curse of the he-said she-said journalistic "Double Objectivity Sludge" that clogs the pages of news dailies. "Why not adopt [the Onion's] brutal frankness, the willingness to pierce orthodoxies of all political and cultural stripes, and apply these attributes to a genuinely reported daily newspaper?" he asks.
This sort of non-objective journalism does have precedents. Just look at H.L. Mencken, who made his crusty opinions palatable by doling them out with a diligent mind and a sharp wit. Or what about Mark Twain? He got his start writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper that reported about as many facts as the Onion. These writers show that maybe the news doesn't have to be boring for it to be true. —Brendan Mackie
(Thanks, Arts and Letters Daily!)
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