Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Silenced by the TierneyLab

Scrabble Messages, this image is anti-copyright.
Audrey K. Tran

In John Tierney's post, "Contrarian Carbon Cutters," he only summarizes and links to three articles that attempt to destroy a few environmentalist ideas on reducing greenhouse gases. However, if Tierney's mission is to "Put Ideas in Science to the Test" as the T-Lab claims to do, he fails to show any analysis and testing on the misleading ideas published in this post.

Tierney should have consulted an expert before he promoted Matt Power's article, "Old Growth Forests can actually contribute to Global Warming," which advocates "[treating] forests more like crops than monuments to nature." Just to clarify, Powers means we should cut old trees to make room for new ones since mature trees absorb less carbon dioxide than young ones.

Nature Matters did a great job of debunking Powers by re-analyzing the exact papers and studies used in Power's article. Powers used Canadian Forests as one example of mature trees that "give up more carbon than they actually lock down in new growth." However, as Nature Matters points out, he fails to include the fact that Canadian forests were subject to wildfires, which account for the decrease in carbon dioxide absorbed by this particular forest .

In any case, the mere logging process required to remove mature trees would release more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Tierney also points to Joanna Pearlsteins' article, "Organics are not the Answer," but he misrepresents her message. "Shun Organic Milk" heralds the T-Lab's summary of Pearlstein, but her last words reflect that we should consider locally raised food over both industrial and organic farms since less traveling is involved.

I do admit though, that Pearlstein's piece is overly anti-organic, so I can see why Tierney would portray it as such, but he could be more thorough and actually link directly to the piece so his readers can decide for themselves. Only two links are offered in "Contrarian Carbon-Cutters," which would shock any ethical blogger. Saint of the Web, Jay Rosen discusses "The Ethic of the Link" in this YouTube clip.

My last comment concerns the T-Lab's failure to post a comment I made over two weeks ago involving some of the previous criticism.

Should it really take so long for my post to be moderated, even if that article isn't a recent one? I've commented on an old article before for Andy Revkin's Dot Earth and I didn't have to wait this long at all.

Well luckily, I've got access to the Watchdogs and Lapdogs platform, which unlike the T-Lab, continues thoughtful conversation and criticism instead of silencing it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Public Relations Invasion

Corporations view news generation and public affairs as two sides of the same marketing campaign - journalism and public relations are becoming inseparable and indistinguishable
Courtesy of http://monarkkumar.blogspot.com/

Graduating this semester, right now, finding the perfect job (in a perfectly screwed up economy) has become an all-consuming effort. While browsing job descriptions for public relations and marketing positions, the qualifications are eerily similar: “Bachelors degree in public relations/communications, journalism or related field,” as though journalism and public relations were just two sides of the same coin.

Central Michigan University offers a journalism major with public relations concentration priding itself as, “the only journalism program of its kind in Michigan with concentrations in advertising, news editorial, photojournalism, and public relations.” So does the Southeastern University, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication and the University of Arkansas Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism. Tom Rushing, in his essay, ‘Controlling the Masses: From Religion to Bernaise’ laments: “The journalism schools in the U.S. are very few and most have switched over to public relations. Journalists will soon go the way of the dinosaur if something does not change this horrible trend.”

In an interview, David Meerman Scott, author of ‘The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasts, viral marketing and online media to reach your buyers directly,’ explains that “the best marketing is journalism.” He advocates ‘brand journalism’ which involves “a company hiring journalists and creating really interesting marketing materials from the perspective and using the skills of someone trained in journalism.”

John Lloyd of the Financial Times offers a less jaundiced view than Rushing: “Public relations and journalism do not inhabit separate worlds; in particular, the relationship between them is not that of sleazy liars seeking to seduce seekers after truth. Truth does not reside on one side only…Journalism cannot understand itself unless it understands what public relations has done to it; how murky and grubby the relationship can become, with the connivance of both, and how the relationship might work to the benefit of citizens who should be told something like the truth. It is a self-regarding conceit of journalism that we are the dogs for whom public relations furnishes the lamp posts.”

There is a growing symbiosis between journalism and public relations. As much as we may hate it (and we do), journalists may not be able to treat public relations as the disregarded step-sister for much longer – she’s already dancing with the prince. To be able to spot public relations tactics that contaminate news, knowledge of those tactics is necessary. A greater understanding of PR, propaganda and Bernaise may be the road to more accurate journalism.

Just What Is Okay These Days?

Photo by Matthew Jackson which accompanies John Fay's piece for Proposition 8 in the University of Washington Daily.

On November 25, 2008, the Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Washington, published an editorial by student John Fay titled “Gay Marriage? Let’s stop and think about this.” Fay’s article proved controversial enough, with almost 600 comments posted online. What has come under fire even more is the accompanying illustration, which shows a man and a sheep side-by-side. Illustrator Matthew Jackson claims it “was meant to convey the point Fay made in the opinion article about the legalization of gay marriage leading to the legalization of bestiality.” Daily editor-in-chief Sarah Jeglum has refused to issue an apology for printing the image, citing free speech and balanced viewpoints as perfectly reasonable and allowable. The image of a man and a sheep does seem to reflect the tone of Fay’s piece, though he’s quoted in The Seattle Times as “adding that he could have done a better job explaining his reference to bestiality.” I find myself encumbered by my own biases quite a bit here, but Fay makes a number of missteps and unsupported claims in his piece, such as the unevidenced assertion that “homosexuality is more of an emotional condition” and a gross error of omission when he says that many who opposed Proposition 8, a California law to ban gay marriage, were threatened with the loss of their jobs, ignoring completely any historical evidence of people being fired after coming out. The Daily also presented an opposing viewpoint to Fay’s article titled “Proposition 8 disappointing” by student Sarah Gaither. Gaither’s article, less aggressively written and accompanied by a more passive illustration of two women, is far more carefully composed and evidenced, using statistics and quoting sources rather than Fay’s humorous allusion to The Simpsons. Regardless of the balance presented with the two opposing pieces (Gaither’s, for the record, boasts under 100 comments), the printing of Jackson’s graphic seems irresponsible and unwise at best. Kyle Rapinan, a freshman at the University of Washington, started a Facebook group called “Students for a Hate Free Daily,” which he claims exists to “promote tolerance” and which he underlines is not against the paper itself but rather its careless and, he believes, insensitive practices. At a rally held on Friday, speakers stressed that they do not promote censorship but instead seek to “use this as an opportunity for learning; as a catalyst for change.” This situation strikes me as very similar to the subject of a previous blog post of mine regarding Ralph Nader’s usage of a taboo phrase and his subsequent takedown on FOX News. There doesn’t seem to be any excuse or forgiveness for using coarse and disrespectful language or imagery. The staff of the Daily seems not to have thought about their readership, but more importantly, the editor doesn’t seem to care that readers were upset about the image and even organized a rally to protest it. The staff of the Daily have the right to print whatever they want, but they should also have the sense to know what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chambliss Wins, Media Declares Democrats Dead

Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin faced off in the Georgia Senate runoff (photo via AOL News/Getty Images/AP)

Alex Koppelman, in Salon's War Room blog, bullet-pointed media coverage of the recent Senate run-off in Georgia, highlighting a trend that was beginning to become bothersome. When collected in a list, the MSM's forced narrative of a backlash against Democrats and Barack Obama is wholly laughable. Add quantitative data into the equations -- via poll numbers -- and "unfounded" doesn't even begin to describe the baseless story arc.

CNN, for instance, reported on a "real dose of harsh reality" for the Obama team, in the words of David Gergen. He continued:
I think this actually puts a lot more pressure on Barack Obama to govern much more from the center and not from the left. He is going to need Republicans now.
Now, mathematically, of course, this is true -- the Democrats did not reach their "super-majority" and Obama will need some Republican support in Congress. But the extreme, dire tone adopted by much of the media is a sensationalism that has little basis in reality. "Democrats are getting a glimpse of their own limits," ABC's Rick Klein wrote.

But as the Salon post points out, Chambliss won his first race 53-46 -- a respectable margin that would probably increase as an incumbent. Not to mention, Georgia is a pretty fixed red state -- even in an election where traditional Republican strongholds like Virginia and North Carolina fell, McCain carried the Peach State. Bush saw a 58-41 victory there in 2004.

To call this rather predictable Republican victory any sort of bellweather is a search for media drama and nothing if not premature. Let's see an inaguration before we write our obits for Obama's public support.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Satire on Religion

Cartoon on Palin offends Pentecostals

The Washington Post cartoonist Pat Oliphant received some serious flak from the Pentecostals for his sketch on Sarah Palin’s faith. According to the WP ombudsman herself : “Speaking of overdoing it, a political cartoon by Pat Oliphant that appeared on washingtonpost.com Wednesday prompted complaints from about 350 readers who said he lampooned their faith.”

Dr. George O. Wood, General Superintendent for ‘The General Council of the Assemblies of God’ was one to express his outrage: "The cartoon is despicable. Millions of Christians today follow the example of first century Christians who prayed in other tongues. The Washington Post would not think of printing a cartoon that mocked members of the Muslim or Jewish faiths. It should be ashamed.”

Which brings us to the question, when it comes to religious satire, where should we draw the line? Do we exclude cartoons that are openly critical of ‘people of faith’? Should we exclude those that will potentially incite violent and negative reactions? Should we exclude those that would offend a majority of readers - the religious majority? (Should we prove Chomsky’s ‘flak’ filter?)

William Thrall in ‘A Handbook to Literature’ defines satire as a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling.”

According to On the Media, New Atheists have taken on the remodeling task. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, calls for less moderation. “Because moderates insist that we respect their religious faith, we can't criticize the role that religious faith is playing in dividing people.”

Austin Cline’s Atheism blog on About.com claims that “it's arguable that by singling out satire and sarcasm for special objection, people are effectively admitting that such methods can do more than ‘sober’ and ‘serious’ critiques to poke holes in their favored beliefs. If that's the case then the truth is that we need far more of them, not less.” The humor under attack is “the sort of humor which is designed to challenge the powerful and the privileged by denying them the sort of deference or respect which helps reinforce their authority.” Films like Maher’s ‘Religulous’ are a “chance to laugh about the thing that we hold very sacred and that, in a way, remains a taboo in our society to question.” Sam Harris hopes, “maybe we’ll just have people making jokes that are funny enough and true enough, so as to put religious certainty in a bad light.”

With the ever dwindling separation of church and state and the undeniable role of religion in political campaigning, religion and God (or Bob, as hailed by the Church of SubGenius) are not so much a personal choice but a human institute deserving of scrutiny. Logic and science do not fare well against faith and belief. Religion is too taboo a subject for debate in many social circles. Humor is a powerful weapon, not just for non-believers but for those looking to critique the status quo. Satire is not intended to please everyone - religious satire can be held to the same standard as political, economic or social satire. And here’s the controversial bit of my argument: When in doubt, better to err on the side of controversy than on the side of nothing at all. (Ironically, when picking links to examples of offensive cartoons, these were not my first choice. My original picks may have been too offensive.)

Caveat Emptor

Levine demonstrates the power of humility with his self-portrait.
(Courtesy of Answers.com entry on caricature)

“I love my species,” gushed caricaturist David Levine in
David Margolick’s November Vanity Fair profile. Famed for their “lapidary precision and devastating eloquence,” Levine’s portraits have been a mainstay on the pages of The New York Review of Books and in the minds of its liberal intelligentsia readers for decades. Now 82 years old, he finds his sight waning and his editors find his hand, and wit, wavering.

Margolick’s story raises lot of questions, but is quick to point out the role of Levine’s strong voice in the accuracy his work.

In a 1968
Times review of a Levine show, Hilton Kramer writes” “[Levine] has restored this marvelous but neglected genre..and thus reminded us that the draftsman’s pen, no less than the writer’s, may sometimes be an effective and highly amusing instrument of critical discourse.” I assume Levine was flattered, believing that “If I can’t do it the way Charlie Chaplin did it, words are not going to help.”

After reading the article that would accompany his drawing, Levine set out with to capture his subjects with honesty and relevance. Effective in capturing the zeitgeist, his intentions extended farther: “by making the powerful funny looking, he theorized, he might encourage some humility or self-awareness.” Accurate and shrewd, where photographs could simply conjure, Levine’s renderings could embed themselves within the cultural conscious. All expectations thrown aside, the strength of his caricatures result from a joint effort between his eye, hand, heart and mind.

Levine’s work throws a strong, and unforgettable punch in the writing, er, drawing, of history, but is it good journalism?

Ethics of conduct sit high in the journalist world. Such codes, however, are usually considered stifling to artists. But it seems that the visual is inherent in our understanding of reality, and inextricably tied to journalism. After all, a flashy portrait by
Schoeller, Leibovitz, Avedon or Platon is as likely to sell a magazine as it is a subject, story or bias.

On the Media took a closer look at the relationship between art, journalism and ethics last week on its show “Snap Judgments.” Talking with journalists and photographers, they took on the rules (or lack there of) that govern journalistic portraiture, specifically the photographic.

It shouldn’t take an art critic to understand the implications of photography’s wide-angle lenses, obtuse angles, nonstandard lighting and digital retouching while posturing seems somewhat inherent in portraiture. These “tricks” are, more or less, to the photographer what a pen and ink are to Levine.

Portrait Photographer Jill “Manipulator” Greenberg caused waves when she employed a few of these “tricks” while shooting John McCain for the September cover of The Atlantic. Using a strobe, she caught shadows and bloodshot eyes--not quite image of a heroic presidential candidate the magazine had hoped for, but the ghastly candidate she so openly despised.

"You know," she told NPR, "especially when this election was so crucial to me and my family, I just felt, you know, maybe coloring outside the lines this one time wouldn't be such a big deal."

I tend to think Levine would not disagree.  Levine was famed for his ability to pen images that captured precisely what he saw in his subject. At times harsh, they resonated. But the uproar over Greenberg's portrait led Bob Garfield to beg the question: "Where is the distinction between artistic prerogative and photo 'gotcha'?" What happens to ethics when art and journalism collide? Does manipulation lend meaning to an image, or pin it down? Can it lend truth, bringing an image closer to reality? Or does it simply distort it?

History is a reenactment of past experience in the mind, writes
R.G. Collingwood.  Errol Morris, a documentarian famed for his use of reenactments, echoes this idea to the CJR, believing that "reenactments are designed to facilitate that process of going back there in the mind." Designed to take the audience into the scene, the reenactments are not literal, but rather, "often they show certain details that you want to think about." I like to think that this is what portraiture is about: not a literal transcription of what is, but a timeless translation. And maybe, if this takes a slightly heavier hand, so be it.

A Morris reenactment of the infamous Abu Gharib photo.
(courtesy of PopPhoto.com)

Mediated by an artist’s pen and paper, and often with the label “cartoon,” portraits like Levine’s are often written off. When it comes to photography, it seems people believe the lens provides an unmediated truth.  Neither should be ignored.

For exactly this reason, I think Morris was right in supposing that "photographs served as a cover-up as well as an expose" in the presses coverage of past events. Their verisimilitude captures a believed reality, and it is easy to forget how this moment came to be. To some degree, every photograph, be it by a photojournalist or artist, is carefully framed and focused. 

"Usually visuals are designed to stop us from thinking, not to encourage us to think," Morris says, "I'm very fond of pointing out to people that reality is reenacted inside our skulls routinely. That's how we know about the world. We walk around in the world; the world isn't walking around in us." So while it is true that photographs can at times be
reductive, the power images hold to open doors should not be forgotten. If the media is presenting us with a map of this reality, journalists being our guides, can we blame them for using every tool at their disposal to add depth and clarity? Punchy portraits, like Levine's, leave the mind on fire, whereas innocuous snap shots (if such thing is even possible) can dead end a moment, so why not lend a little editorial license?  This might lend more responsibility to the consumer, but shouldn't we be doing that anyways?  Maybe "good journalism" is in the hands of "good readers."  With a little good faith, prerogative can lead to an interesting photo, and, to every mogul's delight, a little extra pocket cash.  

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Journalists Join the Dark Side

NBC News correspondent Dan Abrams
(Photo from whereistheoutrage.net)

Veteran journalist and former NBC News legal correspondent Dan Abrams is jumping ship after 15 years in the industry and moving to the private sector. His newly formed media consulting firm, Abrams Research, is actively recruiting working journalists, bloggers and radio and news personalities as "media experts" to advise their corporate clients.

In a New York Times article, Abrams said there is "an enormous number of very talented, experienced media professionals around the world who would be ready, willing and able to advise businesses on media strategies" and bragged that in just five days, Abrams Research received over 600 applications, many of them household names in journalism.

Having endured the treachery of home town heroes as a sports fan, I understand loyalty only goes so far and sometimes you need to think with your wallet. As the economy worsens, journalists, especially print journalists, aren’t going to pass up the opportunity to make some money on the side as consultants. The real problem here is that instead of defecting completely, they’re becoming double agents, cutting through the spin as journalists during the day and helping companies dish it out as consultants by night.

In his Gawker post "Dan Abrams’ Ring of Media Informants," Ryan Tate sums up the issue at hand: "But a general magazine editor, or blogger… really should not be getting paid to answer questions about how a publication — like, say, his — might cover something when he may well have to decide how to cover that very thing a short time later, with the added complication of having been paid/bribed by the subject."

Abrams insists that his company's ethics guidelines include "a ban on full-time journalists consulting with companies in their area of coverage." But consultants need to be familiar in the area they’re advising on. This becomes a difficult line to toe: an expert must be familiar enough with a topic to know what they’re talking about, but also be sure that they will not to be asked to cover it.

Conflict of interests aside, I’d say it’s impossible to be a media consultant for corporations and a good journalist at the same time. Call me na├»ve, but hopefully a good journalist is motivated by the belief that a healthy and free press is important to a democracy and a public service to the electorate. A media consultant, on the other hand, helps companies skew media coverage to their favor. It views media is a tool to increase business. Aren't these two attitudes mutually exclusive? Could they both exist in one person?

According to former Washington Post VP Ben Bradlee, a good reporter has "got to love what they're doing; they've got to be serious about turning over rocks, opening doors. The story drives you." This type of doggedness only graces those who actually believe in what they’re doing. I think it's safe to assume that those journalists applying to Abrams Research don't fit into this category.