FOLLOW THROUGH

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2014 by Ed

Hey! Remember that entire session of Congress – hell, practically an entire calendar year – the GOP spent threatening to force the country to default on its debt and cause a global financial crisis the likes of which the world has never seen? Boy that sure was entertaining, at least to the Teabagger moneymen and the media that covered it breathlessly around the clock.

Well, on Tuesday the House GOP proposed a clean debt limit increase. That is, they did the exact opposite of what they spent a year claiming they would do (and, importantly, exactly what they did for George W. Bush nineteen times). The fact that it's an election year certainly has something to do with it. The fact that they obviously had no intention whatsoever of ever following through on their we'll-kill-the-hostages threat probably has a lot more to do with it.

The troubling thing is that the series of threats, grandstanding, and political Kabuki theater that defined the non-crisis throughout 2013 was front page, screaming headline news. The complete and total surrender that Tuesday's vote represents was barely a blip. Maybe a paragraph on Page 10. We're too busy talking about ice and dead actors. It would seem worthwhile and newsworthy, one would think, to tell viewers and readers, "So it turns out that all of that sound and fury last year was complete, unvarnished bullshit." Maybe that could even be followed up with something like, "Next time they pull this, likely in 2015, we should remember that they're liars and charlatans. While we're at it keep in mind that if you keep electing these people, one day there might be enough lunatics to go through with it."

That wouldn't be Fair and Balanced, though. Both Sides, bipartisanship, compromise, blah blah blah.

This is among the most serious problems with a for-profit media addicted to Breaking News: there is no follow through whatsoever. The first wave of alarmist and often incorrect coverage is all we get. After 72 hours they've moved on to something else and we never hear, for example, "Oh by the way, remember that Benghazi thing? Turned out to be total bullshit. None of that orgy of speculation and accusation turned out to be true." That would be useful to know, right? Instead we have a political and media environment wherein the only thing that matters is making the accusation; eventually you'll be exposed, but the first part is all anyone will hear.

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ANATOMY OF A RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION CIRCLE JERK

Posted in Rants on September 4th, 2013 by Ed

The media industry is profit-driven like any other, and for the media profits are synonymous with eyeballs. The more eyeballs they can train on their product, the more of your attention they have to sell to advertisers. There is a particular type of story we're seeing repeatedly on the internet lately, one that is specifically crafted to go viral. The target audience for most online-oriented media outlets is the 18-54 group, and if there is one thing we love it's the sound of our own voices. If we have room to love anything else, it is getting righteously indignant in Facebook comments when our friends share news stories designed to provide us with maximum opportunity to get righteously indignant.

For all the whining that Americans do about media bias, they are endlessly capable of overlooking it or simply ignoring it when it suits their preferences and beliefs. If (political) media bias is the act of framing a story in a way that reflects unduly positively or negatively on one particular side of an issue, then I am not sure I have seen a more blatantly biased article than this popular Facebook share item from last week regarding the fast food stroke. Originally from the Detroit News, it was syndicated and widely distributed via Huffington Post.

As the authors are skilled at their craft, the text of the article is mostly bland and inoffensive. Then they quoted one of the professed strikers:

Shaniqua Davis, 20, lives in the Bronx with her boyfriend, who is unemployed, and their 1-year-old daughter. Davis has worked at a McDonald's a few blocks from her apartment for the past three months, earning $7.25 an hour. Her schedule varies, but she never gets close to 40 hours a week. "Forty? Never. They refuse to let you get to that (many) hours."

Her weekly paycheck is $150 or much lower. "One of my paychecks, I only got $71 on there. So I wasn't able to do much with that. My daughter needs stuff, I need to get stuff for my apartment," said Davis, who plans to take part in the strike Thursday.

She pays the rent with public assistance but struggles to afford food, diapers, subway and taxi fares, cable TV and other expenses with her paycheck.

"It's really hard," she said. "If I didn't have public assistance to help me out, I think I would have been out on the street already with the money I make at McDonald's."

Talk about a healthy serving of red meat. What doesn't this quote have? It tells you she's black ("Shaniqua lives in the Bronx…"), that she's an unwed mother, that her boyfriend is unemployed, and she's on what people who like to bitch about this sort of thing generically call "welfare." Best of all, she's poor and she says she has cable TV. See? SEE? This is something everyone can enjoy; right wingers get to fly into a pant shitting rage about how the money they work SO HARD for (never too hard to prevent them from commenting on this story on Facebook at work) is going to Welfare Queens to buy cable TV and twerking and Big Screen TVs and the hip-hop music. Centrists and the more patronizing left wing types get to enter Paternalism Mode to explain that we need to teach The Poors to make better choices with their money.

I wrote this post after reading the HuffPo story and seeing it moralistically debated on Facebook numerous times. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see the original version and, I shit you not, this is the very first comment on the Detroit News online story:

Capture

Thanks for making my point, Phil Koprowski, proud graduate of Anchor Bay High School in the coastal resort town of New Baltimore, Michigan!

How many people do you think the writer(s) interviewed? How many people do you think they could have interviewed? That is, what is the population of New York City fast food workers? If that group isn't 500,000 strong I'd be shocked. How many of them did they have to interview until they found Shaniqua Davis, unwed single mom of the Bronx, who is on public assistance but tells the reporter that she has cable TV?

This. This is biased journalism. This is cherry-picking a quote out of the sea of possible interviewees and quotes to make an ideological point. As a journalist, you don't go into a laundry list of what someone spends their monthly paychecks on unless you're grinding an ideological ax. You don't accidentally choose a subject for your story that fits the prejudices and caricatures in the minds of newspapers' target demographic (white people with disposable income) so cleanly. The story may be about the fast food strike, ostensibly, but 90% of readers are going to take exactly one thing away from this story: Here we go again, more black inner city single moms looking for more handouts to support their Cadillac lifestyles.

It's not hard to read a news item and tell that the writer has gone on a fishing expedition to find the most outlandish, stereotype-reinforcing quote to portray a group of people in the most negative, unsympathetic light. This story is written to produce the sound of screeching tires in the reader's mind as soon as the words "cable TV" appear, and everyone's too busy pontificating on their own industriousness or taking the White Man's Burden view of Those People (If only we could teach them our middle class values!) to think at all about media bias let alone connect the dots to this story.

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SATURATION. AND BEYOND.

Posted in Quick Hits on May 1st, 2013 by Ed

OK.

I tried the polite version of this argument last week – reminding everyone that, all things considered, the terrorist attack in Boston was handled well and did minimal damage – but a few days in airports, standing among CNN-blaring monitors, broke me. Why are we still talking about this? Let me qualify that; why are we still talking about this 24 hours per day?

Is it a story? Certainly. But jesus tap-dancing christ, watch a half-hour of CNN and witness the raw banality, the extent of the overkill being inflicted upon us at this point. It's a strange combination of wild speculation, Grief Porn, and countless interviews with individuals of no importance who do little more than idly chat about things already reported in the preceding weeks. Oh yes, let's hear from another of the attacker's college classmates. Another Marathon spectator and was kinda-vaguely near the bombing. Another important guest who will make blanket statements of dubious utility about Chechnya. Just shut up. For fuck's sake, even Fox News has moved on to something else at this point.

Look, I and the rest of the world are terribly sorry for the families of the three dead victims and the many survivors whose lives were changed forever. But my god, things of this magnitude happen every day. Here and abroad. When three people die in a freeway accident, we don't devote three weeks to it. When three people are gunned down in Chicago's South Shore, it's a blip on the screen. We pay almost no attention, here in 2013, to people who come back from Afghanistan or Iraq with a missing leg or disfiguring wound. Three people died, and for that we are all sad. But it was nearly three weeks ago, and the "manhunt" portion of the show is long over. Let it go.

What is CNN even going for here? Are they drawing out the coverage to overcompensate (and do penance) for how horribly they botched the real-time reporting? Are they trying to flank Fox News on the right, baiting viewers with more Islamophobia and Keifer Sutherland-like tales of clandestine terror, Enhanced Interrogation, and Russian secret agents? This has turned into a D-list Tom Clancy novel, and it's approximately as entertaining.

At this point it is almost interesting to see how long they can hold out before they stop doing 24-hour Boston coverage. Almost.

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YOU HAVEN'T SEEN ANYTHING YET

Posted in Rants on April 29th, 2013 by Ed

In the cacophony of Boston-related news coverage last week, the death of USA Today founder Al Neuharth on April 21 barely registered. The way perceptions of Neuharth's paper changed since its founding in 1982 is a fascinating look at how American media have changed as a whole. To put it another way, the relative consistency of USA Today over the past three decades highlights how much the rest of our media have changed around it.

Despite being the most widely circulating newspaper in the country (although the Wall Street Journal also claims this honor, depending on how circulation is measured) USA Today has always been something of a joke. Journalists and readers both derided it when it debuted in the Eighties, and it has become the butt of countless jokes. It is not difficult to see why. Its visual style – particularly its parodied-to-death front page "Snapshots" graphics – and willingness to place advertisements everywhere (including the banner headline) made it difficult to take seriously. That it was (and is) commonly given away for free in hotels and institutional settings reinforces the perception of the paper as disposable, shallow, and generally Less Serious than Real Newspapers like the New York Times, WSJ, and other big city dailies.

Favorite-Night-Takeout-Pie

As is so often the case in a nation that lets the free market determine which media outlets succeed or fail, USA Today established some measure of legitimacy with its popularity. It's hard to ignore a paper with circulation that spills into seven figures. But the hue and cry throughout USA Today's rise in the 1980s interpreted its sales figures as a harbinger of the apocalypse. "America is doomed if this is the kind of garbage we are going to read", said many a snobbish, albeit not entirely incorrect, commentator. It looks like a comic strip! It's more advertising than news! It's just so un-serious!

How funny it is to fast forward to 2013 and see USA Today in its current position as part of the "old guard" of the American media; a remnant of a bygone era. Its emphasis on graphics, ads, and short blurbs in place of feature stories all became common in the intervening years. Its graphics, in fact, now look quite tame – almost quaint – in comparison to what media outlets routinely plaster all over the internet, cable TV news, and newspapers today. In thirty years the USA Today went from the bottom of the journalistic barrel in the U.S. to an example of how things were done in better days – without fundamentally changing. Everything else got much worse.

Direct comparisons are difficult because newspapers as a medium have largely faded into the background of American media empires. Nonetheless, the weeping and rending of garments that accompanied USA Today's emergence shows how little we knew in the 1980s about how much worse the media could get. We hadn't foreseen the Glenn Becks, the 20-words-or-less Headline News network, the bombastic graphics and music, the entertainment-as-news ratings bait, and all the other rotten aspects of the system we have today. Hell, CNN has been doing 24-7 Boston Marathon bombing coverage for the past week; did it actually deliver more or better news than USA Today during that time? Probably not, unless Grief Porn counts as news now.

The pessimist's mantra – "Don't worry, it will get worse" – would have been sage advice to anyone who saw USA Today during its infancy and declared it the worst of the worst. When I watch TV news these days, I am disgusted by how bad it is. What really depresses me, though, is not how bad it is now, but that it is inevitably going to get worse.

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SHOCKING DEVELOPMENTS

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2013 by Ed

As difficult as this may be to believe, I actually felt bad for Rush Limbaugh once. Once. A little less than ten years ago, he was hired by ESPN as an NFL commentator. If you don't remember this, don't feel bad. He had the job for all of about six weeks before the network fired him for comments he made about Eagles QB Donovan McNabb:

"Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Good to know Limbaugh knows as much about football as he does about anything else. (For the unaware, McNabb was great, especially when he was young. No, he never won a Super Bowl. Neither did Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, or any number of other "greats".)

ESPN initially backed Limbaugh.

Earlier, ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro came to the conservative Limbaugh's defense.

"This is not a politically motivated comment. This is a sports and media argument…We brought Rush in for no-holds-barred opinion. Early on, he has delivered."

In other words, they brought in Rush Limbaugh to do exactly what Rush Limbaugh is known for doing. He did it, and then they fired him. The ratings for their NFL show were flagging and they wanted someone to generate some interest in it again. They hired someone for the shock factor and told him to be shocking. My point is not that what he said is defensible; the point is, the network can't act surprised that they hired Rush Limbaugh and he proceeded to act like Rush Limbaugh. The guy is not an unknown quantity. So the issue is not really what he said per se, but why ESPN would hire him in the first place.

OK.

Hypothetically, if the Oscars hired a black bear to host the ceremony, who is to blame when it turns into a trainwreck? Is it the bear's fault, or would it be more logical to ask, "What kind of moron would hire a bear to host the Oscars?"

The world was deluged with "Seth McFarlane offended everyone on Earth and is a raging asshat" pieces today. He was highly offensive, crude, and not even particularly funny (note: if you're going to be incredibly offensive you have to at least be funny). I'm reading all of this and thinking, "What exactly did they expect when they hired Seth McFarlane?" His humor is offensive, crude, sexist, homophobic, and ever since the first Family Guy cancellation, not particularly funny. He proceeded to deliver a performance that was offensive, crude, sexist, homophobic, and not particularly funny. Shocking.

The many criticisms of McFarlane read like they could have been written two weeks ago, with the specific jokes added at the last minute. That makes perfect sense, since anyone with a functioning brain stem saw this coming a mile away: the gay jokes, the awful songs, the attempts to embarrass celebrities in the crudest possible way, the bathroom humor, all of it. So the issue is not McFarlane, as he merely did exactly what could have been expected of him in that situation. I mean, the guy is not going to go out there and do PG-rated Billy Crystal humor. If he tried that, it would probably be excruciating to see. It's not what he does. No, the issue is with the Academy. They hired him. What made them think that was a good idea?

It's so much easier to blame individuals than a faceless organization. The idea that they would hire McFarlane and he would somehow censor himself or deliver a highbrow or family-friendly performance – something he has never done in the history of ever – is an effort to deflect blame from where it belongs. The Academy and the TV networks paid for shock value, they got it, and it worked (look at the coverage the "controversy" generated). So while everyone's beating the dead horse and taking a whack at the asshole who was paid to be his asshole self and proceeded to be an asshole, the bigger issue – the judgment of people who have actual decision-making power – is ignored. Again.

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COUNTERFACTUAL

Posted in Rants on January 10th, 2013 by Ed

For the past few years, every time I find myself in the presence of someone who claims that markets are efficient I offer them a simple challenge: explain the media. Explain why the American media produces a torrent of raw sewage while the commie pinko government-funded media outlets in other countries produce something that approaches actual news.

If the speaker is a complete Randroid he'll sputter something about how the American media are too heavily regulated, at which point I realize that I'm dealing with the Washington Generals of logic and I lose interest in going any farther. That's actually too stupid (and demonstrably false) to even merit a response. A reasonably intelligent person will respond that the market gives American news consumers exactly what they want (crap) hence they are efficient.

This is not wrong, but it is a red herring. It replaces "Markets are efficient" with "Markets are responsive." No one would argue that markets do not give consumers what they want. But free markets are supposed to make things better, right? The best product at the best price? That's why free enterprise built Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces while behind the Iron Curtain they puttered around in Trabants, right? The market sifts out the crap and the strong rise to the top.

But the free market and the fight for ratings (and advertising dollars) doesn't give us the best news. It gives us the loudest. The most "entertaining". The most interesting to the lowest common denominator. The networks (or newspapers, or blogs, or anything else) don't attempt to compete by offering "better" news. They just do more to make their product less like news and more like entertainment, which is why more than half of the news is sports, celebrities, irrelevant human interest stories, and opinion. They never respond to a dip in the ratings with, "Let's win new viewers with some hard-hitting investigative journalism!"

Competition only encourages the arms race among networks – who can provide the loudest, brightest, edgiest, most pleasingly biased content – the same way that it encouraged 19th and early 20th Century newspapers to use ever-larger headlines, lead with the most salacious picture, and make wild-assed accusations to get attention in a crowded marketplace. At the individual level, the incentive is always to push the envelope – to say ever more shocking and controversial things, to be the most outrageous and aggressive, to do whatever it takes to get noticed and land increasingly lucrative jobs higher up the food chain. All of this is incompatible with providing accurate, careful journalism about the important issues of the day.

If American journalism has ever been close to decent, it was during the era when the number of choices was limited, not infinite. When the only options on TV were ABC, NBC, and CBS – each running a scant half-hour of national news per day – the result was sober, relatively dull news. Sure, they didn't cover every important story. Sure, if you thought they were biased you didn't have a ton of alternatives. But is the three-ring shit-circus we have today really an improvement? Now you get to pick from a dozen different TV networks and an infinite number of websites…and almost everything you'll get, regardless of source, is crap. And the Important stories get less coverage than ever before. I'll take the half hour of Cronkite, librul bias and all.

If markets are efficient and if markets make things better, then there is no explanation for why we have the worst media in the world rather than the best. The problem is that markets don't really make things better or more efficient. They make things cheaper and they're responsive. That's why we get the news we want rather than the news we need.

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FEIGNED OUTRAGE

Posted in Rants on November 15th, 2012 by Ed

We're now a full week into saturation Petraeus Got Laid coverage and I still have not located a crap to give. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoy watching the news networks and commentators fighting one another for the coveted title of Most Morally Outraged. A married man had sex with his obsequious biographer? Why I never. It's a great opportunity for America to show off its puritan streak, and it raises the interesting question of how long a society can continue to hold a given attitude when almost none of its individual members do.

Being at least somewhat familiar with the psychology literature on phenomena like compliance, conformity, and bandwagon effects, I tend to assume that 99% of the outrage in these political sex scandals is hollow. We act shocked because everyone on TV is shocked, and we certainly don't want our co-workers / neighbors / etc to think we have loose morals, do we? It's easier to wag our finger in the same direction as everyone else than to explain that you don't really care and deal with other people (who may privately agree with you) judging you. On the rare occasions that we are forced to justify our harsh condemnation of highly visible cheaters, we justify our hypocrisy with the old saws about how public officials should be held to a higher standard than you were when you cheated on your wife.

The media's behavior is equally predictable, as "Sex and lots of it" is one of the Hearst commandments and the right-wing media is trying to string this along until they can figure out some way to make an Obama scandal out of it. They've already devoted so much time over the last five years to giving vigorous handjobs to the great General that they can't throw him under the bus as part of the administration. I'm sure it will turn out that he was set up by ACORN or something along those lines.

Sure, it's moderately newsworthy that the head of the CIA may have given classified information to a member of the media under, uh, unprofessional circumstances. Instead we're doing what we usually do – channeling our puritanical shame into an obsession with titillation and Made for TV Movie quality sex scandals. A guy cheated on his wife. Sucks for his wife. Are enough people in this country repressed enough to continue to care beyond that, or does the amount of coverage simply create the impression that there's a public demand for it?

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CHAUVINISM

Posted in Rants on August 9th, 2012 by Ed

I've paid very little attention to the Olympics, primarily because I lack the inner strength to suffer through the NBC coverage of the games. Instead of showing viewers, you know, the Olympics, they broadcast the occasional event in which an American – more accurately, one of a small handful of Americans deemed marketable – is expected to do well. There are events other than swimming, gymnastics, basketball, and the 100m dash, believe it or not. By following the No Americans = No Coverage rule, NBC (and the rest of the American media) missed one of the few legitimately interesting and compelling things to happen so far.

In a fencing match between a South Korean, Shin A Lam, and a German, Britta Heidemann, Shin was leading with 1 second on the clock, meaning all she needed to do was go one second without being touched to win. Unfortunately for her, the timekeeper – who turned out to be a 15 year old (!) volunteer (!!!) – did not start the clock when the match resumed, giving the German extra time to land a hit on Shin and win. One second was actually more than three seconds.

The South Koreans appealed, and the appeal process required the athlete to remain on the floor for the duration. In this case that meant 75 minutes. Seventy-five excruciating minutes of watching someone who has probably spent her entire life preparing for something that lasts a second, and then having the accomplishment taken away by the ineptitude of the Olympic bureaucracy. So, this is what everyone watched for an hour:

I mean, why cover that when you can do another fluff piece on Michael Phelps or Douchebag of the Decade candidate Ryan Lochte? Anyone else thinking about blowing your brains out rather than sitting through another Andrea Kremer Q & A? Yeah, I thought so.

But it's just the Olympics and sports are an irrelevant distraction, you say. You're not wrong. Yet this is symptomatic of the provincial attitude that dominates all news coverage in the US, not merely the Olympics. What the cable networks euphemistically call "World news" is a small part of all coverage and is inevitably America-centric anyway, focusing on wars (at least those of interest to the US) and economic news covered from the what-it-means-for-America perspective. As ignorant as most Americans are about their own country, our domestic knowledge is genius-level compared to what we know about the rest of the world. That ignorance has practical consequences; it's relevant that lots of Americans believe that Canadians and Brits have to wait a year to see a doctor or that France is the last bastion of Marxism-Leninism. We hear bits of foreign news filtered through our established stereotypes about other countries – the bi-weekly "Mexico overrun by drug lords" story tells us what we expect to hear without bothering with the minutiae of, I don't know, why Mexico is a narco-state and what might solve the problem.

In 2004 during the coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami, possibly the most destructive natural disaster in recorded history, several cable networks noted separately the death toll – eventually around 200,000 – and the number of Americans killed – something like 75. I remember being taken aback by the tone of that coverage, the assumption that American viewers either cannot, or do not care to, identify with 200,000 dead (brown) people but might consider this a legitimate human interest story if we point out that a few dozen American vacationers may have been in there as well. The implication that the lives were somehow differently valuable based on nationality was…I'd say shocking, but in reality its par for the course with the US media. All of our news, whether it covers sports or major world events, is passed through the "How does this affect ME?" filter in an effort to prevent us from learning anything we don't absolutely have to know, or learning much of anything at all for that matter.

Shin lost, by the way. The officials boned her a second time after the lengthy delay, despite video evidence of the rule violation.

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SOME PEOPLE SAY

Posted in Rants on July 10th, 2012 by Ed

Don't skip this because you think it's about baseball. It is, but only for a moment. Then it gets interesting.

When I peruse the internet I bookmark pages that I intend to write about, and over the weekend I grabbed an ESPN story about a baseball player who went on a misogynist rant in an effort to belittle one of his opponents. Briefly, Boston Red Sox pitcher Vicente Padilla has been accused by a Yankee, Mark Teixeira, of intentionally hitting opponents with his pitches. Padilla responded as follows (condensed; emphasis mine):

"In this sport, as competitive ball players, we get pretty fired up," Padilla said, according to NESN.com. "So I think, maybe, (Teixeira) picked the wrong profession. I think he'd be better off playing a women's sport."

Padilla then implied that Teixeira had issues with Padilla and former teammate Frank Francisco because they were Latin. (snipped)

In his interview with Deportes, Padilla didn't back off his comments.

"We are all men here playing baseball," Padilla said. "We don't need no women playing baseball."

Padilla added, "He is always crying and complaining. If he has a base hit, he cries, if he doesn't, he cries. I just meant that not even women complain as much as him."

The reason I bookmarked this on Sunday had disappeared by the time I sat down to write about it on Monday evening. The third-to-last paragraph originally read, "In his interview with Deportes, Padilla didn’t back off his comments, which are demeaning to women athletes."

To prove that I am not imagining things, here are two screencaps of the original text, which no longer appears on the ESPN story. The first screencap is from Google, and the second is from a New York sports website that quoted the original ESPN text (click to embiggen):

This was worth writing about, in my opinion, because we are so used to the media playing its game of pretending that all arguments are equally valid that I was shocked to see a phrase as straightforward as, "which are demeaning to women athletes." I found it sad that a goddamn sports website could state that directly, whereas if this story was about politics we'd have CNN and the like telling us that "some people have claimed" that the comments were offensive or perhaps an attribution to an interest group ("according to Mary Smith of the National Organization of Women…") so that readers could more easily discount it. The news is so strongly geared toward not offending its target demographic – old people, white people, males, and old white males – that a reporter flat-out telling the reader the obvious truth ("Hey, this guy said some really sexist shit!") is unusual to us. For obvious reasons, that's pretty sad.

But then ESPN's story changed. Apparently someone got offended, or the editors panicked that the (overwhelmingly male) ESPN audience might get offended, at the relatively straightforward description of Padilla's comments. I mean, you don't have to be a Jezebel editor to see this as offensive. His argument is not complex: Teixeira is not tough. He whines, cries, and is a great big pussy. You know, like a woman!

American media outlets are so hypersensitive to accusations of "bias" that editorial policy now dictates, apparently, that even the most obvious judgment calls are too risky. Yes, the reader can detect the demeaning nature of Padilla's comments without being instructed to do so by the writer. My problem here is the motive and thought process behind editing the original text. Why did the editors feel it inappropriate to characterize sexist comments as sexist? Exactly whom did the editors fear offending by pointing out that calling a male athlete a woman to imply that he is a wimp is demeaning to women?

Both questions unfortunately have very obvious answers.

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MARKETING VIGILANTE

Posted in Rants on January 17th, 2012 by Ed

By now you have probably seen the question New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane put to readers, apparently in seriousness, which he phrased as, "Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?" Brisbane does a fantastic job of sounding isolated, out of touch, and ignorant of the basic principles of journalism in asking readers:

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

In other words, the editor would like to know if readers want to see erroneous statements pointed out as such, or whether the paper should remain "objective" and simply recite whatever statements its "newsmakers" make unchallenged. When hundreds of commenters questioned his sanity, Brisbane closed the comments and typed the mother of all bitchy replies:

A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth.

That was not the question I was trying to ask. My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut “facts” that are offered by newsmakers when those “facts” are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.

This is a difficult question? To understand why, consider his disastrously poor logic and mangled interpretation of two poorly chosen examples to illustrate his point. In the original post:

As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

Then he explains what a difficult moral dilemma this is in the follow-up:

If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.

This is where I start to question what journalism school graduated this dipshit. No, it is not necessary to "crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back." Your reporter could, you know, investigate and report something along the lines of "In his 20 years on the bench, Mr. Thomas had filled out the form completely and correctly, including statements of his wife's income, every year. It is therefore unclear how Mr. Thomas could have misunderstood the form this year since the reporting procedure has not changed."

See? Look how easy that was. No head-crawling-in required. No journalistic experience required. Just a basic understanding of how to challenge a subjective claim (such as "I forgot" or "I was unaware that…"). Then he parses his second example:

Another example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage…If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Yeah, or rather than picking nits over the use of specific words the reporter could, you know, ask his interviewee to cite some goddamn evidence. "Mr. Romney, can you provide an example of President Obama apologizing for America?" Again: look how easy this is. I'm not even a journalist.

A clearer, less ambiguous example is the Republicans' repeated use over the last several years of the statement "Social Security is going broke" or variations thereof. Left untouched, it is indisputable that Social Security is solvent for at least 30, and likely around 40, additional years. That is very far from "broke", and even the qualifier that it is "going" broke is ludicrous given the timeframe. This statement should never, ever be reported unchallenged. Yet in practice it is never challenged. It is simply repeated after phrases like "Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said…"

It is legitimate to wonder how an editor from the New York Times could fail to understand this fundamental concept, or how he would need to solicit input from the mob to determine whether his reporters should practice basic journalism. But for someone so thoroughly steeped in, and partially responsible for the growth of, the Journalism as Stenography model, Brisbane's tentativeness is understandable. Modern journalism isn't about reporting and investigating and fact-checking, per se; it is about churning out a product, one that will appeal to the largest possible number of people. Muckraking is out, and keeping the sources happy is in. This is why we have "journalism" consisting of rehashed (if that) press releases.

Brisbane's comments are the logical end of the False Equivalency model of journalism, wherein every story must be presented with two equally valid sides. It's the "Some people say X, but other people say Y" technique writ large. How did this come to be? I think there are two answers to that question.

First, like on any other issue, people tend to idealize the past. American journalism has always been fairly weak on challenging people in positions of authority. Hearst and Pulitzer papers were hardly stuffed to the gills with Ida Tarbells. They were yellow rags with bleeding leads, and selling more copies was the only thing the editors cared about. While there may have been a greater emphasis on fact-checking as a result of fierce competition among newspapers, it's not like there's a golden age of investigative journalism in our recent past.

Second, the newspaper industry is dying, and fast. It is desperate to hold on to its remaining readers, and those readers are old. Really old. Old people don't want to be told that things they believe are not true. They're also the most likely to carp about Librul Bias if they aren't given an option to choose which "side" they will accept on any given story. The "Some people say X, but other people say Y" format was designed with their needs and wants in mind.

Brisbane is sad to watch here not because he is so clueless – and he is – but because you get the sense that he knows the right thing to do here and he realizes that he cannot do it. Editors are not editors because they understand journalism particularly well; they are in positions of authority because they understand the publication's need to market itself to the widest possible audience. They are gatekeepers who exist not to enforce the standards of good reporting but to screen every story through the question, "How can we write this story without conservatives getting mad at us?" And we will continue to be overwhelmingly screwed as a society as long as we define objectivity as quoting official sources uncritically and presenting opposing viewpoints as inherently equally valid.

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