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.

Back to the Filter...

(A collage of retired military members working now as analysts on various newscasts. Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

The NY Times had an elaborate front-page look (over 5,000 words!) at a potential conflict of interest between an NBC analyst and opinion writer and the war on terrorism. This is the follow-up to the original story the paper ran in April about the same topic: the use of military analysts by the mainstream media and their relationships with the government and their personal investments in military conflicts.

The paper's latest report's particular focus is on General Barry McCaffrey. Currently, he is an analyst for NBC and a writer. What's the catch? He serves on various boards with direct ties to the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He sat on the advisory council of Veritas Capital (a company that acquires contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan), was a chairman of Global Linguist (a group that worked out a multi-billion dollar deal to provide translation services in the war-torn areas) and has consulted for Defense Solutions, a military contracting organization. (Thanks, Politico.)

On his own personal website, McCaffrey does list some of his associations. But not all. In particular, he doesn't mention his relationship to the second largest contracting firm in Iraq: Veritas Capital, or his clients. And on NBC, the organization has never once mentioned any of these potential conflicts of interest.

In December of 2006, when the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group advocated for a 2008 withdrawal from the country, General McCaffrey couldn't have been clearer in his dissent for the finding. On NBC, he said, were the US to leave Iraq, the country would be a "Pol Pot's Cambodia." McCaffrey also rejected the idea that the White House was too isolated and that in fact, Cheney and Bush were both still objective and alert to the conflict.

The question here is: is McCaffrey voicing his very public opinion about the war on terror and his advocacy for a prolonged military presence there because he believes it's what's best (he's showed up almost 1,000 times on NBC over the course of the conflict!), or on the flip side, is he looking for the quick buck that's assuredly going to him as the US continues to fight?

Perhaps the bigger problem here, is that the NY Times has been practically the only major member of the media that has covered this story. Politico (it's where I came across this information), to its credit, has reported on each of the Times's two long pieces. But where's the rest of the media? Senator John Kerry has called their response to the story "deafening."

So, if I've got it correctly...NBC (and others) is using military analysts with clear stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide us with their opinions about the war. No one's talking about who these people are connected to. And other news organizations aren't even covering this story. In fact, big-shots like Brian Williams and Steve Capus, president of NBC News, have even defended people like him and their impartiality.

This isn't good news for us, that's for sure. Isn't this what Noam Chomsky's so worried about---who's talking to who and why (aka sourcing)?

Rise of the Celebrity

This week Roger Ebert rants on Chicaco Sun Times, about how the AP degrades newspaper film critics by making them write about celebrity gossip. What better way to drive up ratings for the dying newspaper than feature Justin Timberlake's dog walks?

He asks, why bother with antertainment beat at all, if all the audience wants is the juicy celebrity in every aspect of the media? Ebert quotes:

The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers
voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people,
festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to
meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover
the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a
wall.                                                                        photo courtesy of jackbook.com
                                                                                            Palin the celebrity.

One may ask, why is the actor or actress' personal life more interesting to cover than the movie that they are star in? The movies storyline, cinematography, and their acting abilities seem to be trivial compared to the tabloids. More to the point, the celebrity culture is infantalizing readers, says Ebert. he says, "it is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out."

Take the 2008 presidential campaign, for example. If the election was a movie, then everything that led up to it, seemed more or less like tabloids on the celebrity candidates. if you think about it, what really made Palin's character? Her infinite number of scandals like how her campaign spent more than 150K on her clothes or her teenage pregnant daughter have driven enough traffic for both presidential candidates alone. According to PEJ's news index, 24% of the newhole consisted of Palin as the VP candidate. So feeding the public infantalizing news may be boosting sales. But it is driving entertainment and even politics down the drain?

Monday, November 24, 2008

HuffPo Hits Jackpot, Makes Promises

SNL Does Arianna Huffington

After experiencing stellar traffic growth -- 474% since September 2007 -- Huffington Post has scored a new investment to the tune of about $20 million, paidContent.org and Times UK are reporting.

In the Times UK story, it is suggested that the new funds will go toward developing various United States local news sections, as well as more investigative journalism projects. While admirable in theory, I don't think anyone is looking at a site like HuffPo for any substance. Yet.

As the Paid Content posts states, "HuffPo’s real daily value is in its aggregation and the spin on it, and investigative, while admirable, will not bring in the dollars needed."

And while sites like HuffPo and Drudge are certainly invaluable for a frantic link-jumper and news junkie like myself -- and obviously thousands more during up-t0-the-second election coverage -- but why can't there be a balance between journalistic fast food and the fresh grown organics? The quick links and off-the-cuff commentary are the main pull, sure, but why not use those ad dollars and large investments for the bettering of the field. Imagine the stories Perez Hilton could bankroll.

New investigative outlets like the well-funded ProPublica and the budding Real News Project have a solid ideological basis of unadulterated journalism for the people, but they lack a hook. It is exactly the vaguely trashy, quite unabashedly partisan voice that HuffPo provides that can make long form, expensive investigative journalism and local news once again a viable business option.

Notes on a Scandal

I think it's time to think about what we are seeing or to turn our eyes away.
(Courtesy of Wired.com)

It wouldn't be earth shattering to suggest that people love scandal, but in the latest New York Review of Books, Mark Danner writes that the scandal filling our airwaves today is not the same scandal we once loved.

Historical scandals, like Vietnam and Watergate provided an neat and tidy arc of revelation, investigation and catharsis for the public. Journalists would break the story before the press, Congress, courts and American people would step in to "construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept." Upon the creation of this truth, a sentence could be handed over, shame and wrongdoing purged; life can return to a state of relative normalcy and grace once more.

While this once reigned true, Danner believes that scandal reigns in today's society for a different reason. We are in an age of perpetual scandal and "Scandal is our growth industry," he declares. Once a means of release, the state of permanent of "frozen" scandal has since presented itself to the media as a point of metastasizable, perpetual public interest. "The gift that never stops giving," "unpurged and unresolved," scandal transforms from a political reality to a commercial fact.

But scandal is nothing more than a myth, he says. Calling on images of power, media and the masses as forces of justice and rectification: as soon as we are alerted, there is no wrongdoing is too difficult to overturn. This is the selling point for the media.

Danner hypothesizes:
The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people's ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist--well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then--so the myth implies--is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. 

A wise mass media has noted that perpetual scandal can give them the soul power of expiation: in order for society to be cleansed, they must let us know where to begin. The natural sense of good that once proved central in scandal has been rendered irrelevant without information--information only the press can provide, that is. And so, once happy mythmakers, journalists have been reduced to scandal-mongering; scandal, after all, denotes success.

Scandal is cheap, easy and enduring. Complicated plots feed the "verbal slash and parry" that dominate televisions while providing room for subplots and spinoff stories. Tapping into an unending scandal releases an endless stream of news, and for those of us stuck in the past, it offers hope of societal cleansing. Unfortunately, that may be nothing more than an illusion.

Perhaps this past week’s resurgence of Eliot Spitzer and Ashley Dupree prove a relevant example. Caught in an unfortunate position last spring, the two have been dragged along by the media. Months and months later, we are still on the edge of our seats, listening to
justifications and watching for missteps. While Spitzer and Dupree could, at this point, remain out of site, the media keeps dragging them into the spot light in hopes of letting their story play out into “something one can stand on either side of,” or better yet, “Something we can live with.”

So in the age of Frozen Scandal, Spitzer and Dupree will never be written off as wrongdoers; and guilt will never be definitely proven and shut but instead continually spun into new lessons to be learned. “Can you not hear the wheels of scandal spinning?,” Danner asks, “It is the music of our age.” We can't avert our eyes, but what we are seeing is no longer clear.  The media, the “gatekeepers of our ignorance,” are no longer drawing the curtains to expose and clear away scandal, but covering up what could be a dystopian stasis with a phantasmal and unending blanket of scandal.  Does the comfort we seek in scandal result only from a pataphorical truth? It's time to ask for more--or maybe to simply turn our eyes and look for ourselves

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama must move to the center - smart advice or media myth?

Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a moderate Democrat and a usual-suspect around Washington 
(Photo from Chicago Tribune)

In this myth-debunking article, Huffington Post’s media critic Norman Solomon takes the mainstream media to task for advising Obama to steer to the right during the first years of his presidency. He cites a San Francisco Chronicle article that said political observers say Obama “must tack toward the political mainstream to avoid miscalculations made by President Bill Clinton, who veered left and fired up the 1994 Republican backlash.”

Solomon explains they have their history wrong. After his election, President Clinton actually did drift to the center: once elected, he changed his position on gay rights in the military and quickly rescinded his nomination of leftist law professor Lani Guinier after clamoring from the right. After waging a “put the people first” campaign, he stacked his economic positions with private-sector bigwigs and passed NAFTA, a corporate fairytale of a trade-agreement. Nonetheless, the myth remains that it is imperative for a Democratic president-elect to move to the right or they’ll have a mutiny on their hands. Democrats may have been crushed in the Senate races two years later, but it wasn't because Clinton was too liberal.

Solomon says that “warning Democratic politicians against being ‘liberal’ or moving ‘left’ remains a time-honored -- even compulsive -- media ritual” and predicts that the media will again propagate this myth and be pleased with Obama for not lurching to the left as he fills his positions with experienced Washington and corporate mainstays.

Surprise, surprise, The New York Times remarked that from the looks of his early staff and cabinet picks, Obama “is planning to govern from the center-right of his party [and] surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.” Instead of nailing Obama on not delivering the “change” he promised, they praise him for assembling a politically dynamic team. The headline says it all: “Obama Tilts to Center, Inviting a Clash of Ideas.” Unfortunately, it looks like Solomon may not be far off the mark.

Though the media are acknowledging Obama’s moderate movements, it’s discouraging to see that they are convinced a candidate cannot remain true to his campaign promises without committing political suicide. The media shouldn’t praise a candidate who’s been peddling change for playing it safe and so far, Obama has received too few slaps on the wrist.

A Skeptical Blog

Courtesy of Babble.com

My interest in the offshore drilling debate introduced me to the work of John Tierney, who often disputes scientific studies published in the media. For example, Tierney’s most notorious article, “Recycling is Garbage,” argues that recycling is not cost effective and philosophically unsound. In 1996, this article probably lifted guilt off the shoulders of millions of people who don’t recycle.

In a sense, he works against the fear-mongering news media described in Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear. Part of this book argues that America’s culture of fear comes from the media, which “bombard us with sensationalistic stories designed to increase ratings.”

But unlike Glassner’s extensive study of the media and surveys from various universities, Tierney’s articles use a “less-than-thorough glance at the research,” according to Daniel Luzer who writes for Polite.

In reference to his arguments for offshore drilling, I’ve found his use of facts to be questionable. For example, in “Global Warming vs. Offshore Drilling,” Tierney dismisses drilling opponents’ fear of oil spills by citing a study from 2003: ““only 1 percent of oil that entered the U.S. waters during the 1990’s came from extraction operations […] it amounted to only 3 percent of the total […] oil as entered through natural seepage from the ocean floor” (italics added).
This reference to a 2003 study regarding statistics of the 1990’s eliminates our consideration of the environmental damages caused by Hurricane Katrina two years after the study. Because the more intensive storms of this decade occurred after the study, the information regarding the 1990’s almost seems irrelevant.

While it’s true that recent oil spills from storms have not impacted the environment as extensively as they did forty years ago, the concern for oil platform damages is not a small worry. When Fernbank science center’s geologist, Dr. Bill Witherspoon reviewed this article, he said, “The 3 percent figure sounds obscenely high to me considering how much oil has been produced. That is an enormous quantity of poison loosed on the environment over time.”

Tierney also uses the idea that statistically, most spills come from tankers bringing oil to the coast, not from platforms off the coast. However, oil platforms built far off the coast rely on such tankers to transport oil from the wells to refineries on land. This statistic might actually include tankers that operate in conjunction with oil platforms, so the increased number of platforms off the continental shelf could remain just as risky as foreign tankers.

I can’t review a huge amount of Tierney’s writing in one post, but for more fact checking, visit Krum’s thoroughly researched blog post on the TierneyLab.

This post reviews Tierney’s skepticism from recycling to global warming, but it leaves out his take on the fuel debate. I’ll forward my thoughts to Krum for his insights.

The media was pro-Obama? Reallllllly?

(President-elect Obama and Senator Clinton on the trail. Photo courtesy of the NY Times.)
So, it's been nearly three weeks since Barack Obama won the election. Everybody, including the media, is feeling some election withdrawal. Good thing we can still talk about it in different ways though, right? Our solution: analyzing the media's coverage of the candidates in a post-election world. Yay!

First, the Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, concluded that the paper did in fact tilt towards Obama throughout the campaign. She wrote that "Reporters, photographers and editors found the candidacy of Obama, the first African American major-party nominee, more newsworthy and historic." She also wrote that the Post did not vet Obama thoroughly, especially over his undergraduate years, his early political roots in Chicago and his relationship with slumlord Tony Rezko.

Now, Mark Halperin, of Time magazine, said on Friday at the Politico / USC conference on the election, that the media's coverage of the election was incredibly unfair. Halperin said, "It's the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage."

He went on to cite the New York Time's profiles of the two potential first ladies, as evidence of bias. He called the Cindy McCain story "vicious" while calling the Michelle Obama profile a "front-page endorsement of how great of a person [she] is."

Another panelist, New York magazine's John Heilemann, agreed with Halperin, in his assessment of the fairness of the coverage.

Halperin, in closing, said "I think it's incumbent upon people in our business to make sure that we're being fair. The daily output was the most disparate of any campaign I've ever covered, by far."

So, now that several prominent members of the media have come out and declared that the media failed us yet again, what's there to do about it?

We have another election coming up in 2 short years, not to mention 4 years of a new administration, with a country that's on the fritz. The media can get it right there for starters. And let's pray they do for our sake.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Campaign-Withdrawal Syndrome: Today's Obama-centric Media.

Whether at school, work or just walking through the streets, you'll probably see someone proudly donning the necessary Obama pin on their coats. Trying to make a quick buck off the president-elect, the media has been extremely eager to merchandise the election moment to the Obama-thirsty public.

From HBO's campaign documentary and NBC's Yes We Can DVD (pictured left by newsbusters.org) to commemorative plates and media-churned catch phrases like "Obamaism," the MSM has turned Obama into the next pop-culture phenomenon.

Since election night, TV ratings and online traffic have fallen, as viewers are seemingly quenched of their political thirst, says Paul Farhi. One might argue that the unstable economy is leaving large news corps like NYT (who cut dividend from 23 to 6 cents per share) desperate to keep themselves in business. Desperate enough to advertise Obama commemorative coins (pictured on the right, advertised on FoxNews.com).
NBC News President Steve Capus, who oversees MSNBC, says people who watch cable news, "are notorious for their short attention spans. If they don't like what you're doing, they're gone." (Farhi)
Can we really blame the media for their Obama-centric coverage? Yes We Can.

The problem isn't Chomsky's theory of the media's profit-orientation or a liberal-media bias this time.

According to Howard Kurtz, journalists who are fueled on Obama's glory, "have crossed a cultural line into mythmaking," and perpetuated America's celebratory state. The MSM's "hyperventilation" (Kurtz) disillusionizes viewers to have unreasonably high expectations for the new leader. He comments:

Obama's days of walking on water won't last indefinitely. His chroniclers will need a new story line. And sometime after Jan. 20, they will wade back into reality.

Ultimately, should we criticize the media for suffering from "campaign-coverage-withdrawal syndrome?" If they're not doing their basic duties of journalism, then yes. Consider also the following:

John Kirch criticizes the media's blind spot on third party candidates. Coverage leans towards whatever drives ratings. But Kirch argues that it's detrimental to democracy because the abysmal percentage of Nader and Barr coverage shadows the new "ideas that they espouse."

And what about the hoax of fake McCain advisor, Martin Eisenstadt (source Palin-Africa leak), which completely went over reporters' heads undetected and made MSNBC file a retraction?

The media may be doing the public a disservice if they are doing ineffective reporting and are instead, ratings and profit-oriented.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Citizen Journalism's Questionable Potential

Is the power of the Internet strong enough to change journalism?

Erin Rosa published a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review on November 19th titled “New Media, New Opportunities.” Her piece discusses the decline of print and the rise of the web in the sense that it is providing access for a wider array of those who strive to be journalists. She claims that “journalism is becoming a more egalitarian profession,” citing the example of “an unemployed nineteen-year-old using free blogging software [who] can report on the results of a controversial city council vote restructuring Denver’s election bureau and scoop a weathered professional before he even makes it back to the newsroom.” Praising the advent of online reader comments, Rosa concludes that “this new kind of journalism, based on old-fashioned reporting but propelled by public participation and rooted in the inclusive nature of the Web, will continue to thrive as newsmakers begin to see information as less of a commodity and more of a continuing dialog with their audiences.” Her analysis of this new form as presenting new opportunities to journalists is valid, but I think she’s getting a bit confused along the way. She’s presuming that unaffiliated bloggers with no credentials can attain the same level of access as journalists who work for big name news organizations due to the equalization provided by the Web. While citizen journalism is often decried in journalism classes, that doesn’t mean it fully discounts its potential successes and effects. I do feel that Rosa is making a leap to her conclusion that isn’t supported by logic or factual evidence. She’s forgetting her own experience that made it possible for her to get to the place she is today. The Web hasn’t completely changed things yet, or has it?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Personalities of the Press

Rachel Maddow is a patriot - photo by Paul Shoul

Nearly every self-aware journalist can toss around the joke that while "two is a coincidence, three is a trend" and therefore may warrant a story. Instead of tackling a specific news item on the blog this week, I'll grapple with the celebrity profiles of our newspeople.

Rachel Maddow is a media darling lately, scoring write-ups left and right (but mostly left), including this New York piece, which really seems to highlight her personal wit, hard work and intellectual nature.

Now Maddow, of course, is the newly appointed queen of the punditocracy -- and if O'Reilly is king, maybe that makes Matthews Hamlet? -- but Katie Couric has garnered substantial interest since she took control of the CBS desk, including this generally favorable report by the Times media columnist David Carr. Couric's predecessor, of course, Dan Rather has been a celebrity fixture, especially in his decline.

Do we need to "know" those who give us the news? Edward Murrow was doubtlessly a "celebrity," but how much of that was fed the public by his media contemporaries and how much of it was our own projection? We grow to trust these people, we hope they're just like us. But I'll go out on a limb and say that we had no idea what the inside of Murrow's apartment looked like or how he and his lover spent their nights like we do about, say, Maddow.

And how does the effect vary between pundit and news anchor? Surely Papa Bear O'Reilly is paid to be a character. Larger than life. A celebrity. But I'm tempted to say that the difference is slim to none, with 34% of Americans watching cable news on a daily basis -- 2.4 million the Factor, alone -- according to a Pew report from 2006. People are getting their news from the Olbermanns, Maddows and Hannitys of the world.

So, give me their background, sure; their upbringing and education are likely predominant factors in shaping in their worldview. I just don't think I need to know their favorite LES dive bar, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

That Dan Rather lawsuit is still going on...?

(Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, courtesy of the NY Times website.)
The answer to the question is 'yes' apparently. After filing a lawsuit against CBS News, his old long-time employer, last year, Dan Rather is still aggressively pursuing the case, attempting to get CBS News to release as much information as possible while still in discovery.
Though, 5/7 of Rather's charges have been dismissed, two remain. And Rather has fought tirelessly for the rest of his case to be heard. In fact, he's used over 2 million dollars of his personal fortune to pay for the trial. What keeps him going on?
Rather says, "I want to go the distance...Like any good reporter, I want to get as many as facts as possible; I want to get to the bottom of the story.”
Just yesterday, more of the story has come to light. Apparently at odds over some in the media and government's stances, as well as even his own at the point where he apologized for Memogate, a new report released says that there was actually GOP involvement, not liberal bias. Rather has claimed that CBS feared backlash from the Right and that's why they shut the story down so quickly and eventually forced him out of the anchor's seat. He also has said that CBS looked to stack its panel with a far-right voice like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge.

Heck, the old president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, has even acknowledged (under oath) that the News Department was scared of the right's reaction to what it put out: “CBS News, fairly or unfairly, had a reputation for liberal bias,” and “the harshest scrutiny was obviously going to come from the right.”
So, it looks like Dan Rather's 2 million dollars won't be spent in vain. His trial is forthcoming at the beginning of next year and his somewhat tarnished reputation may still yet be saved. But what do we think about the GOP potentially limiting the discourse on George Bush's service and the network itself being fearful of retribution by the party? It's not good for the us that's for sure.

Greta and Sarah: BFFs

(Photo from Fox News Channel)

Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren had beef with this portion
Howard Kurtz’s Nov. 13th column for The Washington Post about her latest interview with Sarah Palin.
[Balitomore Sun TV Critic David] Zurawik calls the Van Susteren interview "beyond friendly," saying: "Greta Van Susteren is totally sympathetic to her and makes no secret about it."
In the blog post (which was removed shortly after it was posted,
here is a screenshot), Greta complains that Kurtz didn’t give her the opportunity to defend herself against Zurakwik’s criticism, even though Kurtz had called her about another topic the day before. Fox News’ mantra “fair and balanced” must be going to her head. Kurtz is under no obligation to provide all sides of every single assertion in a column and should feel free to quote a prominent TV critic without the journalists reference complaining. 

If his column had been specifically about Fox News’ treatment of Palin, then she would have had a point. Kurtz doesn’t give her a chance to respond to 64 words at the tail end of a 1,000 word piece and Greta feels betrayed!? That’s ridiculous. It’s no surprise she took the blog post down, realizing she’d made a mountain out of a molehill.

Zurawik’s characterization of Van Susteren’s interviews as sympathetic is self evident to anyone who has seen any of them. In her latest interview, Van Susteren spent
the first half of the interview letting Palin address rumors about her $150,000 wardrobe and whether or not she insisted Africa was a country. The interview is so pedestrian and accommodating in these ten minutes that Palin herself looked bored. In Susteren’s previous interview with Palin shortly after her nomination, she played to Palin’s strong suit asking her about sports and Title IX, hardly relevant for someone who’s a heartbeat away from the presidency.

In the rest of her blog post Susteren goes on to defend her treatment of Palin, insisting that “you can get a lot of information out of guests by being polite” and that sympathetic does not equal ineffective. But it does equal useless.

When she’s asked general and open ended questions, Palin never has to venture far from her comfort zone. Anyone can speak generally about anything. Palin needs to be driven off her talking points so she can prove to American that she actually understands the issues and has the ability to think critically about them before there’s any talk of 2012.

Greta Van Susteren’s interviews are like meet and greets when they should be obstacle courses.

An Update from the Martha Stewart Blog

Photo courtesy of Dean Perry and Tattyworld.net

For at least one day, I was able to post a note to Martha Stewart regarding her misrepresentation of Halloween under "Halloween at My House," created on October 28, 2008.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Martha,

How could you allow Michael Boodro to make such self-gratifying remarks in October's Editor's Letter? He wrote of your enterprise as being "no small part responsible for Halloween becoming an international phenomenon." I'd like to know why he thinks so. Mr. Boodro also heralds the letter with "HALLOWEEN has gone global," and please correct me if I'm mistaken, but that's not news. Halloween didn't begin in America as he suggests; it has European origins deeply rooted in Gaelic culture. Also, this holiday should hardley be considered "global" since predominantly western cultures celebrate it. Boodro only names the U.S. the U.K. and France as participants.

Also, in 2006, I read that this holiday has all but died in France because of anti-American sentiments. Boodro's remark seems to ignore this since his core descriptions relate his past Halloweens in France.

This editor's note reminds me that your magazine is all about being a business. Like Boodro's letter, your inclusion of comments from the public are always positive, hardley critical. I am offended that MSL only publishes "how-to" questions, as if your audience doesn't posses enough analytical skills to pick apart the cultural agenda set by Martha Inc.

Many thanks for your attention,

Audrey K. Tran

I checked the blog just yesterday and couldn't find my post.

Fake expert leaves reporters feeling shameful and looking biased.

Photo of phony McCain adviser Martin Eisenstadt.
Courtesy of Eisenstadtgroup.com

As the post-election hype rolls on, the Palin-coverage took a twisted turn, which left viewers scratching their heads.

According to NYT, a pair of filmmakers pulled an elaborate Internet hoax by impersonating a McCain adviser.

When Fox News reported that an unnamed McCain adviser said Palin did not know that Africa was a continent, no one thought to ask the defendant whether or not the fact was true. Instead, the anonymous source's Palin/Africa story spread like rapid fire. Well, because, on top of her infinite foreign policy widsom, it was another Palin-fumble, right? Soon after, MSNBC anchor David Shuster reported Monday that it was Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy adviser, who leaked the claims.

The only problem is, Eisenstadt is a made-up character.

Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin admitted to creating created Eisenstadt and convincing blogs to pitch a TV show based on the character.

Shamefully, MSNBC reported a retraction, saying, "Eisenstadt should not have made air." But also, they claimed, "someone in the newsroom received the Palin item in an e-mail message from a colleague and assumed it had been checked out."

Had exposing everything negative about Palin become so routine that no one remembered to fact check their sources? You would think after the Stephen Glass fiasco, reporters would be more careful...

But while right-wing supporters pointed the finger at a liberal-biased media who was too "anxious to report any negative reports on Sarah Palin without first confirming the information (Michael Calderone's Politico blog), Howard Rosenberg argues otherwise in his article.

With the 24-hour news cycle they (today’s media) rush into anything they can find,” Mirvish told The New York Times. (NoTimetoThink.com)
Rather than accuse MSNBC for possessing a liberal slant, Rosenberg says, "it was rushed on the air because MNBC–as do so many in the media these days–was moving Too Fast to Think."

But my problem , however, is how easily we were dooped by bloggers, who got an even bigger voice through careless news broadcasters. Should we consider Gorlin and Morvish abusers of the Internet for its impacts and benefits of an open forum? Or have they just opened the media's eyes (big media, like Fox News and MSNBC, for that matter) to rely less on the Internet for sources and more on reporting, next time?


Hiroshima, 1945: Sometimes it's what's no longer there that is the most striking.
(Courtesy of International Center of Photography)

Imagine taking the dog out for a walk and returning with a suitcase containing a (mostly) unseen history in your hand? According to Adam Harrison Levy's article in DesignObserver, that's exactly what happened to Don Levy, a Watertown, MA man.

Levy found a suitcase full of black-and-white photographs telling the story of a devastated and destroyed post-atom bomb Hiroshima--a story many have heard, but few have fully seen.

"On september 18, 1945, just over a month after Japan had surrendered, the U.S. Government imposed a strict code of censorship on the newly defeated nation. It read in part: 'nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility.'"

Keeping the images out of sight kept grief and anger directed at the U.S. and it's new weapon at bay. But Levy thinks that "this suppression of visual evidence served a third purpose: it helped, both in Japan and back home in America, to inhibit any questioning of the decision to use the bomb in the first place." Are visuals more jarring to emotional memory? And if so, can the censorship (or perhaps careful placement of) of choice visuals redirect the collective memory?

The first page of a Google Image search for "Hiroshima 1945" provides twenty pictures. Of the twenty photos, more than a third are of the foreign and brilliant mushroom cloud, while many of the remaining are far off aerial shots.

A similar search of "iraq war" leads to twelve photos of heroic soldiers and two of protestors. All but one of the twenty images regard Americans. When I repeated the search with the "News Content" filter on, I got nary a image of casualty American, Iraqi or anything else.

Sure, these aren't the only images the American public has witnessed of either event, nor are they the only one's left accessible. But if page hits mean anything, these seem to be the ones the linger closest in the collective memory.

With the Defense secretary warning of an aging U.S. nuclear arsenal and nuclear war looming (or, you know,
not...), I do find myself hoping for tranquility. But shouldn't this peace of mind stem from a full understanding, rather than a carefully constructed and deceitful image? It's easier to traverse a landscape you know well, then one you simply think you know, so shouldn't we be given all the pictures and then we can decide what's right?