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There's a fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie wrote, “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.” What is done—or not done—with the photograph after that moment, is also a moral decision. One image that immediately comes to mind when thinking about this quote is the naked girl, running down the middle of a street after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The photo, taken by Nick Ut, was published only after Ut’s editors made an exception to the frontal nudity policy that was in place.

As the U.S. engages in airstrikes in Iraq yet again, it’s somewhat astonishing that there aren’t iconic images from the previous forays in the country. One reason is that the media’s focus has been trained on U.S. troops —whether it’s embedding with them during missions or telling their stories once they’ve returned. Another reason is that photos which may be sensitive security-wise have to be screened by military information bureaus before getting the go-ahead to be released.

While in Iraq in 1991 photographer Kenneth Jarecke took a wrenching photo of a burned-out convoy in which there were incinerated corpses, one of which looked like he had been trying to escape from the truck as it burned. In taking the photo, Jarecke remarked, “But if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies. It’s what I came here to do. It’s what I have to do.” While it was approved to be distributed by the military information bureau, no U.S. magazines or newspapers ran it. The decision surprised the photographer who said, “When you have an image that disproves that myth, then you think it’s going to be widely published.” That myth, that the war was made up of “surgical strikes,” making it sound neat and clean, was of course not the whole story. Debate went on at many major publishing outlets like the Associated Press and LIFE, but as the managing editor of TIME told the photo director, “TIME is a family magazine.”

Other powerful images have made it into newspapers and magazines although in different forms. In a 2012 image from Afghanistan, a 12-year old girl, wearing bright green, stands screaming amid bodies following a suicide bombing in Kabul. The photograph was published on the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, however each ran different versions with some cropping out the foreground where there was a dead baby.

This past May, discussion arose after photos circulated showing two teenage girls who were gang raped and then hung in India. Some websites chose to blur out the faces of the girls who were cousins. On The New York Times’ mobile app, they showed the photo from the shoulders down. The father and uncle of the girls said he, “didn’t have any problems in people taking the photographs; the problem is the thing that happened with our children.”

As war and atrocities continue to unfold, so does the fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality. It’s the media’s job to discern where that line holds and to use photos that aren’t violent for the sake of being violent, but to choose the ones that have a story to tell. After all, without Nick Ut’s image, we wouldn’t come to know the rest of the story of the so-called “Napalm Girl”—her name is Kim Phuc and she now lives in Canada with her husband and two children. She has kept in touch with Ut, who drove her to the hospital after taking the photograph and also won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Phuc says, “I can accept the picture as a powerful gift.”

Photo by Emilio Labrador, licensed under Creative Commons.



‘Cli-fi’ is an emerging genre that merges literature's latitude with today's climate change problems.

Most of us don't like hearing the words 'climate change' and 'fiction' in the same sentence, but the genre of climate fiction or ‘cli-fi’ is one case where it's okay. As a literary subject, dystopian climate change tales are gaining the attention of publishers and readers alike. Fictional characters serve as commentary on the environmental problems we are facing in reality, as climate change alters our communities and outlook on the future.

The genre distinguishes itself from traditional science fiction in two major ways. First, most sci-fi adventures take place in the far future whereas cli-fi is a reflection of present day and near future situations. Secondly, it acknowledges that disaster scenarios are man-made, a result of human decisions (or indecision).  

Authors who have published works that fall into this category include recognizable names such as Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, and Barbara Kingsolver. Nathaniel Rich penned Odds Against Tomorrow which happened to have been edited during Hurricane Sandy. He says, “I had the very strange experience of editing the final proof of my novel one night, going to sleep, and waking up and essentially seeing it adapted on cable television the next morning.”

Literature’s latitude has allowed the subject to be tackled from a variety of angles. Rich’s novel doesn’t even mention the term ‘climate change.’ Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech commented, “Scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue. And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this - a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness.”

The genre seems to be gaining traction. Other authors such as Staci Lloyd and Joshua David Bellin have written books in the cli-fi genre with the young adult market in mind. And there’s even a course at the University of Oregon that focuses on the genre’s emerging impact on popular culture and awareness of climate change.  

Photo courtesy of the author.



The Participant Index wants to discover which films inspire people to action.

Have you ever watched a documentary that’s moved you to tears? Or perhaps moved you enough to get involved with a particular issue? Or even change your entire lifestyle?  The unique role of documentaries is to inform, entertain and in many cases, urge people to take action.

But what exactly prompts people to do something? Participant Media wants to find out which is why they are developing the Participant Index. Using information gathered from viewership numbers, social media, and online surveys, the company has formulated a ratings system with a scale from one to 100. So far they’ve found that films revolving around the food system and animal rights had the most impact on individual actions while economic inequality was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Additionally viewers were most interested in issues of education, health care, human rights, and crime, but not so into female empowerment or digital intellectual property rights.

In terms of the ratings numbers generated so far, the online series Farmed and Dangerous ranks a 97. The film The Square about the Arab Spring in Egypt comes in at 92. These figures are averages which take into account emotional involvement and action taken, information gathered from the online survey. However one potential challenge will be figuring in how much action can actually be taken. Someone can adjust their eating and consumer habits immediately while helping bring freedom in Egypt is much trickier.

The index will also be applied to some feature films that have a message behind them such as Promised Land which takes on the fracking industry. Chief executive of Participant Media, James G. Berk says, “If this existed, we would not be doing it. We desperately need more and more information, to figure out if what we were doing is actually working.”

It will be interesting to see how the Index is utilized and if it will change what we end up seeing on screen. Hopefully it can assist filmmakers in finding ways to make movies on typically underreported issues more appealing while also inspiring viewers to connect on screen experiences into their own lives.

Photo by Tulane Publications, licensed under Creative Commons.



Wikipedia's standards have never been higher, but the site needs to attract a new generation of editors to survive. 


Wikipedia’s launch was kind of an accident. Initially founder Jimmy Wales envisioned an online encyclopedia vetted and edited exclusively by experts—basically a free, online Britannica he called Nupedia. But it was Nupedia’s crowdsourced sister site—designed to let users create entries that experts could later perfect—that took off. It didn’t take long for Wales to dump Nupedia and embrace his radical side-project, which blossomed faster than anyone expected. Today Wikipedia is the sixth most visited website on the internet (ahead of Amazon and Twitter) and its authority online is almost without parallel. Google the Krebs cycle or the French Revolution, and Wikipedia is the first page you see.


But behind Wikipedia’s success lays a tough balancing act, says Tom Simonite at Technology Review, and that balance may now threaten the site’s long term survival. From its beginning in 2001, Wikipedia has struggled to reconcile its conflicting missions, from building an authoritative source for all information on the planet to doing it all through open, anonymous, and decentralized volunteer labor. These contradictions came to a head in 2005 when a volunteer posted a defamatory “bio” accusing journalist John Seigenthaler of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Big changes followed: editors introduced a system of bureaucratic hoops and automated edits to combat vandalism and raise standards. New edits were now easier to spot and dispute, articles were harder to change, and new computer “bots” roamed the encyclopedia to flag down formatting mistakes and vandalism.


The new policies were effective, says Simonite, and then they were too effective. The changes did much to improve Wikipedia’s quality and image, but they also led to a drop in participation that’s hounded the site ever since. Today, first-time users encounter byzantine editorial guidelines and swift reprimands for mistakes, leading many to simply leave: since 2007, Wikipedia has lost more than a third of its volunteer base. And with fewer newcomers comes less diversity. More than ever before the pool of volunteers is overwhelmingly Western, male, and nerdy, with predictable consequences for the site’s coverage (the ratio of Pokémon profiles to articles on female novelists is revealing, says Simonite).


A larger problem is that the internet’s social landscape has shifted over the past decade, from anonymous, collaborative communities to commercialized, egocentric hubs like Facebook. Wikipedia remains one of the last of the internet’s old-style gatherings and one of the largest. But with Twitter and Facebook dominating our online lives, “people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it,” Simonite adds.


And while the folks at the Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues, their authority to introduce changes is limited. Wikipedia has always been a community project, and it’s the community that takes the lead in determining and implementing policies (like it did to combat vandalism). If that community is going to survive, it needs to grow.


Image by Giulia Forsythe, licensed under Creative Commons.  




Corporate media ownership is every bit as serious today as it was in 1988.

In 1988, media ownership and consolidation was a new concept for many Americans. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent had just appeared in print, and Extra!, by now perhaps the most important source of media criticism in the country, was barely a year old. Yet corporate ownership of local and national media was just ramping up—it just wasn’t front page news.

Maybe that’s why Lynette Lamb’s story about media ownership topped Project Censored’s list of the “Top 12 Censored Stories” that year (reprinted in Utne’s Sept./Oct. 1988 issue). “The rapidly increasing concentration of media ownership in the U.S. raises critical questions about whether the public has access to diverse opinion,” wrote Lamb. “And not surprisingly, the impact of this information monopoly continues to be ignored by the mass media.”

“Just 29 corporations control half or more of all media (including book publishers, TV, radio, newspapers, and movie production companies),” she wrote. “Six months later… the number was down to 26.” Exacerbating the problem, Lamb added, was the interlocking boards of directors between media giants and major corporations. Top executives at the New York Times, she said, also sat on boards for American Express, IBM, Merck, and several other large companies.

“A shrinking number of large media corporations now regard monopoly and historic levels of profit as not only normal, but as their earned right,” she added, quoting media expert Ben Bagdikian. “In the process the usual democratic expectations for the media—diversity of ownership and ideas—have disappeared.”

Bagdikian’s warning was nothing if not prophetic. Within a decade, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a sort of Citizens United for corporate media, had lifted the floodgates of cross-ownership and corporate mergers, especially in local radio markets. By 2001, more than 10,000 radio stations had been bought and sold, leaving just two companies, Clear Channel and Infinity, to dominate commercial airwaves in most U.S. cities.

Six years later, just eight companies held sway over America’s mass media universe, from TV to publishing to the World Wide Web. This nifty timeline from Mother Jones shows just how much the ownership landscape has changed over the past two or three decades (note the dramatic increase in mergers after 1996). What’s more, the problem of interlocking corporate leadership has not gone away, and has resulted in conflicts of interest. A 2009 FAIR study in 2009 found that seven major media corporations share directors with health insurers and pharmaceutical companies—a fact that helps explain those sources’ overwhelming hostility to single-payer proposals during the health care debate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interlocking ownership.

Then as now, what it all boils down to is less critical debate, more conflict of interest, and a narrower picture of the world. “Although this will undoubtedly prove profitable for the shrinking number of media moguls,” wrote Lamb, once again quoting Bagdikian, “it is highly dangerous to freedom of the press.”  

Other top censored stories in Utne that year included biowarfare research at American universities, government secrecy during the Reagan years, and corporate cover-ups on nuclear safety.

Lynette Lamb’s original story appeared in Utne’s Jan/Feb 1988 issue.

Image by Edkohler, licensed under Creative Commons.

reza aslan

Reza Aslan is an internationally-respected religious scholar. He earned a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School as well as a Ph.D in the sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's written extensively on a variety of religious topics from an academic perspective. Ask Lauren Green of Fox News, though, and she'll say those credentials hardly qualify Aslan to write about about the historical Jesus simply because of one reason—he's a Muslim. 

Green said as much when she recently interviewed Aslan on the online show "Spirited Debate" (video below). Aslan was there to talk about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but spent most of the 10-minute interview trying to explain just how ridiculous it is to focus on the fact that he also happens to be a Muslim. As Aslan later said in a radio interview that Tom Kludt posted on Talking Points Memo, "It's weird to all of a sudden talk about it as though only practitioners of a faith can write about the prophets of that faith," he said. "If that were true, there would be a lot fewer Islam books out there."

The Fox News interview is followed by the author's note from Zealot, in which Aslan talks about his personal faith and fascination with Jesus.


Reza Aslan's author's note from Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:

When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God. Amidst the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games, and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school. In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity. Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return the Jews had him nailed to a cross. Though he could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die. Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins. But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God. In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable. After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being a spaceman. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face. Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts of my own.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions—just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years—left me confused and spiritual unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying. I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them as an adult a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him. Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ. My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we begin our examination of the Jesus of history. For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. Rather than burden the reader with the centuries-long debate about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, I have constructed my narrative upon what I believe to be the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history. For those interested in the debate, I have exhaustively detailed my research and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with my interpretation in the lengthy notes section at the end of this book.

All Greek translations of the New Testament are my own (with a little help from my friends Liddell and Scott). In those few cases in which I do not directly translate a passage of the New Testament, I rely on the translation provided by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. All Hebrew and Aramaic translations are provided by Dr. Ian C. Werrett, associate professor of religious studies at St. Martin’s University.

Throughout the text, all references to the Q source material will be marked thus:

(Matthew | Luke), with the order of the books indicating which gospel I am most directly quoting. The reader will notice that I rely primarily on the gospel of Mark and the Q material in forming my outline of the story of Jesus. That is because these are the earliest and thus most reliable sources available to us about the life of the Nazarean. In general I have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.” While these texts are incredibly important in outlining the wide array of opinions among the early Christian community about who Jesus was and what his teachings meant, they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself.

Although it is almost unanimously agreed that, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, the gospels were not written by the people for which they are named, for ease and the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to the gospel writers by the names by which we now know and recognize them.

Finally, in keeping with scholarly designations, this text employs C.E., or Common Era, instead of A.D. in its dating, and B.C.E. instead of B.C. It also more properly refers to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible or the Hebrew Scriptures.

Excerpted from ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan Copyright © 2013 by Reza Aslan. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 




This post originally appeared at Shareable.  

Vinyl records are back. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (what a mouthful!), 2012 saw the highest vinyl sales in 16 years. I've seen this trend with my own eyes. The vinyl bins in the Bay Area record store where I work, which used to be frequented by older collectors, crate diggers and hipsters, are now frequented by...everyone. It's not unusual to see a 13 year old flipping through the wax, a herd of UC students comparing album art, or a 30-something executive with several records under his arm.

Considered by purists to be a warmer, superior medium, records offer listeners a way to connect more directly with the music. And vinyl, with its sizable packaging, flip-it-over format and visible grooves, is a hands-on, tactile experience that lends itself particularly well to group listens.

Recently, a shop in north London was transformed into a vinyl-only lending library called, quite aptly, The Vinyl Lending Library. The brainchild of Elly Rendall and Sophie Austin, the library was created to give people access to a wide variety of musical styles, allow them to borrow and share records, and to help build community around music. Rendell and Austin also plan to use the space for DJ lessons, documentary screenings and more.

Stocked entirely with records donated by the public, the library is free to those who donate records. A small fee is charged for those who simply want to borrow music. Members can take up to five records at a time.

While some of the details, such as what to do if someone doesn't return the records they borrow, will be worked out as things progress, the library is now open and borrowing has begun. The plan is to develop trusting relationships between the library and its members and build a DIY, reputation-based community where benefits can be earned as members demonstrate their trustworthiness.

If all goes well, the lending library could serve as a model for people who want to share the love of vinyl without the expense and space issue of having a personal collection.

Image by Stoke Newington/Hackney Gazette  

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