Sunday, November 30, 2008

Journalists Join the Dark Side

NBC News correspondent Dan Abrams
(Photo from

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
                                                                                            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, 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

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

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 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
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

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

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. (
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?  

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Medium or the Message? Which Wins Out?

Shepard Smith and Ralph Nader going at it on FOX News

On election night, everyone was talking about Barack Obama. Even Ralph Nader popped by FOX News to respond to comments he had made earlier, asking whether Obama would be “Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations,” calling into question Obama’s supposed abandonment of thousands of working people in America. After playing the audio clip of Nader’s statements, Shephard Smith stared into the camera and dramatically uttered the challenge, “Really?” Nader defended his claims vigilantly and calmly, and started to get angry only when Smith claimed that he had been “reduced to irrelevant” and insignificant in his most recent presidential campaign. Nader called Smith a bully, explaining that he couldn’t see Smith and the plug could be pulled on him at any moment. Asked point-blank whether he regretted using the phrase “Uncle Tom,” Nader raised his eyebrow and definitively said “not at all.” He started to attempt to explain the historical significance of the term to Smith, who promptly cut him off and thanked him for his time. Liberal Values’ Ron Chusid has a comprehensive collection of reactions to the FOX News interview, but there are no dissenting voices painting FOX News as having viciously attacked Nader. Some comments posted on Chusid’s piece defend Nader and claim that he was right in what he was saying. I find that the most glaring omission here is the treatment of Nader by Smith – regardless of what he said, the interview seems to have been poised as a takedown and a move to discredit Nader completely (FOX even put up vote percentages during Nader’s speech, underlining Nader’s low tally). Nader did make some good points about being the way he was being interviewed, which seem especially relevant considering our examination of FOX News. It’s a shame that his incendiary attitude will stand in the way of a legitimate argument.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Drugs Kill... and cripple... and lead to HIV...and more

Anti-drug messages in the media are intended to scare rather than foster educated debate
Image courtesy of

The European Union is joining America in its anti-drug campaigning and preparing to launch its first drug awareness initiative. America's war on drugs, however, is hardly an ideal model. A new study shows that the billion dollar tax-payer-funded investment with heavy print and broadcast focus “failed to convince young children and teenagers to stay away from marijuana and actually might have encouraged some to try smoking pot.” The advertising led pre-teens to consider drugs as a ‘normal’ part of life. These messages also lead to a ‘forbidden fruit’ effect. Despite these charges, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was quick to point out "drug use among teens has dropped steadily in nearly every category since 2001."

There is a difference between an informative campaign and blatant fear mongering. Associating drug use with STDs and graphic images (see freaky anti-drug commercial) not only confuses the message but closes the door to healthy debate. The Office of National Drug Control Policy created a series of video news releases – advertising disguised as prepackaged news stories, failing to explicitly identify themselves as the producers. This is nothing short of ‘covert propaganda’. These tactics are successful when used by car and lingerie advertisers. But they do not encourage a conversation with the viewer as a successful anti-drug campaign should.

The media has been happy to milk the anti-drug campaign for advertising dollars for the last ten years. As of 1998, the Magazine Publishers of America have agreed not only to run advertising but to support it with convincing editorials, blatantly admitting to excluding contradictory opinions. I was under the impression that journalists aimed to provide unbiased coverage of both sides of an issue, no matter how noble a cause may be.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Old Media

Detail from Van Gogh's Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)

Print Journalism Beware: Christian Science Monitor, one of the nation’s oldest dailies will soon move from paper to web page; Time Inc. is laying off 600 employees; and Gannett plans to let go of 3,000 people, according to David Carr of the New York Times.

It’s as if the Wall Street virus has moved into newsrooms, only the public won’t react as powerfully to this crisis. After all, Joe the Plumber is a plumber, unlike Jorge the Journalist. It sounds more like this is the news industry’s business to figure out how to resolve the lost revenues in print media, not Joe’s. However, shouldn’t he be just as worried?

David Carr writes that it’s not just old media mongers who are concerned about the decline of major print outlets; He names Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt as one worried media expert who envisions major damage to the Web if the great dailies were to disappear. It would become a “cesspool of useless information.”

How else will smaller newsrooms affect Joe?

NPR’s Madeline Brand says, “There’s lots of news out there and now fewer people to cover it.”

For example, if Plumber Joe reads the L.A Times, he’ll only hear from the staff’s one movie reviewer. If he reads one of Gannett’s papers, he’ll be served news from “fewer reporters and editors overseeing the deeds and misdeeds of local government and businesses,” writes David Carr.

One “Editors’ Selection” comment (see No.8) following Carr’s article notes that online articles are read differently than printed articles.

An example of this might be Yahoo’s reporting of CSM’s new home on the web compared to Business Week’s article on the same issue.

Headlines in the Yahoo article highlight “Fully Embracing the Internet,” and “The Wave of the Future.” Business Week heads two sections of its article, “Layoffs Loom,” and “A Heftier Read.”

At the core, this sounds like a revenue/consumer issue for the news industry to resolve, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more reporting and deeper analysis on the new mutation of printed materials.

To release or not release the tape.

(Photo of Rashid Khalidi, courtesy of the LA Times)

In Fox's latest attempt to out the 'liberal media,' Sean Hannity, among others, are demanding that the LA Times release video footage of Barack Obama toasting Rashid Khalidi, the former head of the PLO in the late 70's, at a recent dinner (also in attendance: Billy Ayers). The Times has responded and since said that it will not release the tape. But how come?

The case isn't so simple or just about a tape in fact. The tape was acquired by the Times from an anonymous source and the story first went to print in April, over 6 months ago. The only mention of the tape in the story was: "The event was videotaped, and a copy of the tape was obtained by The Times" about 2/3rds of the way into the piece. Nothing about confidential sources. Nothing about what was said at the event.

We all learn during the early days of J-school, you never give up a source who requests that his/her identity be kept hidden. That's a given. But why not at least a manuscript, LA Times?

The media, in particular The LA Times, have drifted from that policy before. For example, the Times released a transcript in an article on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, during his bid for re-election in California. The governor was caught on tape speaking about Hispanics and the LA Times received the audio from an also unnamed source. They chose to run the transcript anyway.

Just a few days ago, The Times endorsed Barack Obama for president. Are they now able to deal fairly with potentially damaging information about the Democratic candidate?

While I understand the ethical grounds, the Times has already broken that deal before. Why not do the same here?

Air Obama Access Limited

Air Obama, from User Wavy1

According to, Obama did a little bit of housekeeping aboard his campaign jet Air Obama on Thursday, revoking the seats of reporters from The New York Post, The Washington Times, and Dallas Morning News. Those papers also happened to endorse John McCain. Obama campaign won’t admit there is a connection.

In an email to The Washington Times, Obama’s communication chief Anita Dunn wrote:
"Demand for seats on the plane during this final weekend has far exceeded supply, and because of logistical issues we made the decision not to add a second plane. This means we've had to make hard and unpleasant for all concerned decisions about limiting some news organizations…"
Bill Burton, another Obama spokesman however, was a little more honest, explaining that the seats were reshuffled in an effort to reach as many swing voters as possible. Though I’m still convinced these papers lost access because of their endorsement of the enemy, Burton’s explanation reveals how the Obama campaign uses the press just like they use the campaign for news fodder.

Obama’s campaign (or anybody’s campaign, for that matter) doesn’t have to let the news media to tag along aboard their jet. While the media might fancy themselves educators of an electorate in an "election of a lifetime," they’re not reluctantly granted access to a campaign jet out of a respect for their role in democracy, but rather access is granted or rejected based on a new outlet’s ability to serve as an effective mouthpiece for the campaign. What we see here with this seat revoking business is the Obama campaign strategically adjusting the levels of his media "filter" (as conservatives like to call it) to "low risk."

In fact, come Saturday the same Politico article reports that all major news papers and foreign press (save for Agence France-Presse) are not welcome on Air Obama. Instead, only the most harmless media specimen (two documentarians and a few magazine writers) will take their place.

As the election winds down and Obama finds himself ahead, he needs nothing more from the news media and looks like he’ll discard them like a two-dollar-whore.

Cartoonist Under Fire

Part of Wednesday's future-forecasting strip, from the L.A. Times article discussed below.

Newspapers may have the right to make political predictions, but what about cartoonists? Purposely satirical and unabashedly liberal comic strips like “Doonesbury” might seem like they should have free reign on expressing political views. The concern here is that the accuracy of the strip’s prediction may be off, and that the 1,400 newspapers running the strip might be unfairly associated with the strip’s incorrectness. “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau has already prepared a strip for Wednesday’s papers, in which Obama is celebrated as the victor of the presidential election. The L.A. Times reports the story, and John Robinson from The Editor’s Log takes a critical angle of attack. A commenter named Anne writes in response to Robinson’s post that any conservative who “get[s] all fired up and blame[s] the newspaper is just like a liberal Democrat tuning in to Fox News, getting angry and blaming the cable company. Change the fricking channel.” Trudeau himself responds in a Washington Post article, claiming that he chose the topic to be part of history, rather than write about something else. Why all the fuss over someone who is certainly more of a commentator than a reporter? Robinson emphasizes Trudeau’s obvious political leanings, and Trudeau notes that if his cartoon is inaccurate, it will hardly be noticed. The bigger issue is that Trudeau is hardly the only one predicting Obama to win on Tuesday, so why is his prediction taking center stage?

Who is the real Barack Hussein Obama Osama Obama?

I am not sure the Associative Property works this way.
(a screen shot from Brave New Films)

"I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!"
-Thomas Nast

Slate's Jack Shafer aptly quoted Mr. Nast in his look at the New Yorker's button pushing "Politics of Fear" cover. Painting Barack Hussein and Michelle Obama in all stereotypes that about this summer, Barry Blitt depicted the two in "standard terrorist" garb--you know, the turbans, the AK-47, the obligatory Osama Bin Laden portraite. It seemed like everyone had something to say when the issue hit the new stands. Some lauded the satire, heralding readers as sophisticated enough to understand the intended satire. Shafer, himself, wrote that "Only weak thinkers fear strong images."

Others, however, questioned the
New Yorker's taste, in inevitably the publics ability to discern fact from fiction. As Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post posited, "This is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it's going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right."

With all hurtful/illegitamate stereotypes (Barak as a Muslim, Michelle as Angry, both as radical and unpatriotic...) rolled into one cover, it seemed to become unclear to readers and pundits alike where the joke lie: in a satire of the man or the rumors surrounding him. The critical looks from all sides made it clear that how something appeared carried as much heft as what something actually said. Satire or not, people weren't sure and
not everybody seemed to trust the public to figure it out.

This past weekend,
Glenn Greenwald of Salon feared that confusion was abound once more in claiming that "One of the few things worse than right-wing pundits trying to depict Barack Obama as a Muslim in order to win the election are the ones who do it but then are too cowardly to admit they're doing it." Mark Steyn of the National Review called the media a band of "eunuchs in Sultan Barack's harem" on both the pages of the Review and on The Hugh Hewitt Show.

While not calling Obama a Muslim outright, and certainly not branding him "Terrorist," Greenwald decries such analogies as "pathetically desperate." And neither Steyn's remarks nor the
New Yorker cover were the first to draw the tie between "Obama" and "Muslim."

So again, the question is raised: can the American public look past the visual and rhetorical laden narratives of the media? Or will the satire and word play muddle their understanding of what's really being said?

These questions leave me especially fearful in light of some recent Obama endorsements. Last week,
Amir Taheri penned "Obama and the Arabs: Why Muslims See Him As One of Them" for the New York Post. Taheri drags the question to the foreground in insinuating, quite dubiously, that "While Obama has tried to push his origins into the background, his 'Islamic roots' have won him a place in many Arabs' hearts." He goes on to find that "pan-Arab nationalists angry with the United States," Palestinian radicals and gasp! liberals, alike, are hopeful in his ability to create the radical changes they are hoping for.

The kicker? According to
reliable Taheri, some Arab commentators know better than to believe all they are given and counsel readers to tread with caution. "Every American president would be governed by American interests. Obama's understanding of politics is not important here," he quotes Tareq Al-Houmayed of the daily Asharq Alawsat. After his laundry list of Arab's for Obama, he goes on to demonize the Arab world in pitting what's important "here" against what's important "there." So when he claims that "Muslims see him as one one of them," it can't be a good thing, right?

Muslim or Not is no longer the question. I can only hope that the critics who spoke so passionately against the
New Yorker's cover weren't right, and that the American people can disentangle lose connections to find stronger truths. As things stand, it seems power is in how confused the media can render the reader. Admitedly, the New Yorker adamantly declared their cover satire, but Steyn and Taheri and the Post's intentions can only be assumed.  Yet, something seems fishy.  After all, in the end, what seems to be is not exactly what is, and there seems to be power in the ability to confuse the two.