Archive for the ‘Journalism and its discontents’ category

And I’ll Take Racist Media for $200, Alex

October 1, 2014

Alex:  What is the question that evokes the answer:  “A cartoon with a watermelon punchline referencing the President of the United States.”

We reply in chorus: “What was the racist garbage in the Boston Herald today?”

Again, this has been picked up in the comments, but it’s been making me crazy for a couple of reasons.  For the obvious one, I’m just going to outsource to Charles Pierce, who knows the Herald very well indeed:

 Let’s move along down my personal resume to The Boston Herald, where the current editors, whom I know well, today made me ashamed ever to have set foot in the place, let alone worked there for six years. They ran an editorial cartoon by someone named Jerry Holbert. In the cartoon…the White House intruder is in the bathtub while the president is brushing his teeth. The caption reads: “White House Invader Got Farther Than Originally Thought.” This is what the cartoonist, Holbert, has the intruder saying from the tub.

“Have you tried the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste?”

Pierce notes the hollow contempt for those of us disgusted by this in the non-apology that followed our outcry, the assertion that there’s not a racist bone in Holbert’s body, that he was just referencing his own kids toothpaste, and that, wait for it….

…we didn’t mean to offend anyone.  Take it away, Charles:

Of course, it was not meant to offend anyone. That was just a bonus. What it was meant to do was to appeal to the base prejudices of the elderly white suburban demographic to which the Herald has been pitching itself for three decades. It is racist hooey pitched to fans of racist hooey. Period. And, like so many other things, it is different with this president. It is different because there are no rules.

I got the remnants of my day job to get back to, so I’m just going to touch on the most clueless bit of attempted contrarian justification for this bit of garbage, this, coming from Jonathan Chait:

I don’t think the joke hinges upon black people liking watermelon. I think the joke is about the Secret Service’s security failures. Obama himself is not even the subject of the joke — his perspective is that of, or close to, the reader’s. The point of the joke is that White House security is so lax that a random person could wander into the president’s living quarters undetected and take a bath, and regard this as so casual he could chat about a commonplace topic as toothpaste.

Glad that’s clear.

Black people liking watermelon is certainly not the main comic premise of the cartoon

Well, that’s alright then, dear, isn’t it?

and was probably not intended as a secondary premise, either.

And you know this, how? Because you’ve peered deeply into Holbart’s eyes?  You’ve seen into his soul?  You know him to be a good man?

The cartoonist, Jerry Holbert, explained that he came up with watermelon because he was thinking of his kids’ Colgate watermelon-flavor toothpaste.

My kids. Yeah. That’s it!

Possibly he made a subconscious connection between a black president and watermelon.

Because, of course that’s what anyone would do when contemplating the first African American president.

But it seems very doubtful this was his intent.

“Seems?”

“Seems!”

“Seems…”

Two things:  1 — when an experienced reporter falls back on “seems” you know they got nuthin.  They’re telling you what the wish to be true, not what they know, or necessarily even think is likely.

and 2:  Chait should know better, but has tangled himself up around race before, so may not, but racism, like sexism, or anti-Semitism or any form of bigotry and dehumanization of the other, is not about what is in someone’s heart.  It’s not a question of essence, of identity, of who someone is.  It’s all about what one does and says.  Action in the world defines both the sin and the good deed.

In this world, as opposed into that swelling in Chait’s spotless mind’s eye, Holbert used one of the oldest caricturers with which slave-holders benefiting from stolen lives and labor sought to limn African Americans as simple, lazy and unoppressed by their oppression.  It’s an explicitly racist trope, and everyone who’s reached the age of reason (Holbert is my age to the year) knows it.

Turner Slave-ship

Holbert may be certain that he has not one prejudiced bone in his body, but what he or Chait thinks about intent or the “real” import of this cartoon is utterly irrelevant.

The cartoon speaks for itself, and its creator, and its defenders…to the shame I fear they will not feel.

J. M. W. Turner “Slave-ship”  1840

Not Even Trying To Hide It: Politico’s The President Must Die Edition

October 1, 2014

So, today we learn via  TPM* that a bottom feeder by the name of Ronald Kessler, writing at Politico, has nailed the real take-away from the Secret Service scandal:

Agents tell me it’s a miracle an assassination has not already occurred. Sadly, given Obama’s colossal lack of management judgment, that calamity may be the only catalyst that will reform the Secret Service. (h/t Commenter JPL at Balloon Juice)

Give him credit (sic).  With this, Kessler hits the daily double.  He blames President Obama for something no other — and for “other,” read, I’m afraid, white — President would be expected to do:  get involved in the day to day management of his protective detail.  And then Kessler adds that in imagining a fix for the problem, he regrets the necessity of the president’s death.

37.884

I’m gobsmacked. Completely.  On the one hand, there’s nothing new here.  It is just one more instance in the long-running guerrilla propaganda war to delegitimize and disempower a twice elected president.  Its impulse is profoundly anti-democratic, deeply committed to the control of government by any means available.  It’s part and parcel of the series of incidents large and small that run from heckling during a State of the Union (imagine the reaction if someone had done that to C+ Augustus!) to a claim that somehow this President mustn’t appoint anyone to be approved by the current sitting Senate.

And yet, this ain’t just the eternal return of the same.  You have here a writer openly near-predicting the murder of the first African American president; accusing him of the basic failures that make that murder likely, and consoling himself that after that murder, things may get better.  It’s as near to cheerleading an assassination as I can imagine, while steering just clear of an explicit call for that event.

In a civilized society, advertisers and readers would flee Politico as if it suffered from the combined effects of Ebola, the bubonic plague and rabies.  And they would spit on the sidewalk anytime Mr. Kessler dared show his face.  In this one…

*No link to Politico; no rewarding the sewage rakers.

Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesarbetw. 1859 and 1867.

For Our Own Good

August 22, 2014

If there was a golden age for American media, it was long ago and it was short.

Over at The Atlantic, Torie Rose DeGhett has an excellent, utterly unsurprising article about a photograph taken in the last hours in the first Gulf War.

The work of  the the then 28 year old  photographer Kenneth Jarecke, the image captures a fact of war hopelessly obscured by the shots that angered  Jarecke enough to postpone a planned hiatus from combat photography.  “’It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank.” — or, once combat actually began, gaudy displays of gee whiz toys, the disembodied beauty of missile exhausts, or bloodless shots of tires and twisted metal.  War as video game, or a spectacle for the folks back home.

Here’s DeGhett’s description of Jarecke’s riposte:

The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.

Go to the link.  Look at the shot.

It’s a great photograph — great technically, and better as a work of art, in that it tells a story and commands empathy, all  in a single frame.  Most of all, though, it is essential journalism.  It said, clearly, what war costs.  It reframed — really, it guttted — the narrative of violence without pain that was so much the preferred description of the Gulf War in Washington DC.  Its viewers got to see what was done in their names.*

Or rather, it didn’t and they didn’t.  DeGhett documents the photograph’s journey from the battlefield to it’s near complete obscuration.  The in-theater Time photo editor sent it back to New York; Time passed and so did Life.  The AP in New York pulled the shot from the wire.  No one would touch it in the US, and in Europe, only the British Sunday paper The Observer, and the French daily Libération ran the image.

The key here, as DeGhett writes, is that there was no military pressure not to publish Jarecke’s photograph.  The war was over by the time his film got back to the facility in Saudi Arabia where the press pools operated.  The decision to withhold the shot from the American public was made by the American press, by editors at the major magazines, at The New York Times, at the wire service. The chokehold on information at the top of the mainstream media was tight enough back then that most newspaper editors, DeGhett reports, never saw the image, never got to make their choice to publish or hide.

You can guess the excuses.  “Think of the children!” For the more sophisticated, a jaded response:

Aidan Sullivan, the pictures editor for the British Sunday Times, told the British Journal of Photography on March 14 that he had opted instead for a wide shot of the carnage: a desert highway littered with rubble. He challenged the Observer: “We would have thought our readers could work out that a lot of people had died in those vehicles. Do you have to show it to them?”

Why yes, Mr. Sullivan, you do.

This is an old story, and as DeGhett notes, it’s not one that would likely play out the same way today.  It’s not as if, what with Twitter and ‘net journalism and the camera phones and all that, horrible images of value and images that are violence porn are not hard to find.  (As always, for each of us, YMMV in drawing the line.)  But her piece is still a very useful piece of journalism, for two reasons.  For one — the picture is really extraordinary, and it has a minatory value that exceeds the tale of the moment it was not allowed to tell.  When John McCain and Lindsay Graham and their merry band of bombers call for war here, war there, war everywhere — and even or especially when a situation like the rise of ISIS seems to a broader slice of our country to merit the attention of the US military — we should remember what such attention looks like on the ground.

For the other:  this reminds us what it looks like when the media — national press in particular — conforms its narratives to the needs of its sources, or even just to the wisdom that prevails among a handful of fallible, comfortable, Village elders.  They’re doing it still, as best they can — and their best is still pretty effective.  This shot is a reminder of that power, and the amoral disdain for the reader, the viewer, the citizenry with which that power is too often wielded.

Let me (as DeGhett does) give Jarecke the last word:

As an angry 28-year-old Jarecke wrote in American Photo in 1991: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

*You’ll note the obvious.  Unusually for me, there is no image accompanying this post.  Jarecke’s photograph is under copyright and can be seen at the link.  No allusive work of fine art really works against that shot, I think, so, none is offered.

 

 

 

 

 

Yeah — Ross Douthat Is Still Bluffing

February 9, 2014

The Grey Lady has a problem.

It needs, or thinks it does, a clear, articulate, analytically sophisticated conservative voice on its op-ed team.  David Brooks is tasked with handling most of that load, with the results we’ve discussed here many times, but Ross Douthat was the right-wing wunderkind poached from The Atlantic who was supposed to be the conservative model of the new generation of precocious opinion journalists that bubbled up during those halcyon days of the early to mid-2000s blogging boom.

Guillaume_Budé_by_Jean_Clouet

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Consider today’s column.  I’m not going to do go full metal fisk on the piece.  Douthat tries to persuade his audience that the CBO report — the one that showed that the ACA works as intended,  liberating workers from jobs they perform only to hang onto health benefits — is actually testimony to how liberal government denies the dignity of work.  You can read the thing for yucks if you like that kind of up-is-down talk.

Here, I want to get to is the basic dishonesty not just of one argument in one column, but of Douthat’s method as deployed here.

The test was to click on each link in the piece, and see if Douthat’s claimed sources actually supported whatever he invoked them for.  Spoiler alert:  almost to a one, they did not.

Link number 1 is actually OK.  Douthat invokes a Keynes essay, and that essay appears at the end of the intertube he lays down, making the prediction Douthat says it does.

What comes next, though, ain’t so pretty:

…well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago…

This link takes you not to an original study but to a summary of others’ work posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  If Douthat had checked behind that summary he would have found that the picture of socially climbing workers taking on ever more hours over time isn’t exactly right:

these figures show that (a) the incidence of long work hours fell in the recessions of 1983, 1992 and 2002; and (b) that long work hours rose sharply in the 1980s, more slowly in the 1990s, and –as in the Census data– declined somewhat between 2000 and 2006.

That messier, hence less convenient picture is just the appetizer for the real misinterpretations to come.  Douthat claims that money and status drive folks to work long hours.  But the NBER summary at his link asserts,

Studies suggest that perceived job insecurity has risen substantially among highly educated workers.

Aha! Not virtue but necessity keeps people on the job nights and weekends.  From the underlying paper:

We find that two group characteristics — a rising level of within-group earnings inequality (at fixed hours) and a falling (or more slowly growing) level of mean earnings at ‘standard’ (40) hours– are associated with increases in the share of workers usually supplying 50 or more hours per week.
IOW, even for better educated/salaried workers, long hours are a response to a decline in or threat to earning power at normal so much  a status thing, and not exactly a rising pay story either.
It gets worse when Douthat finishes his sentence with an implied indictment of lower-paid labor.  He writes:

…while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_Peasants_in_a_Tavern

Once again, the linked piece doesn’t say quite what Douthat claims.  It does have a political tinge — its author cites Charles Murray admiringly, which is always a tell — but the analysis is plain enough:

…a big factor is that – partly due to globalization and technology – the wages of less-skilled, less-educated men have been falling. Simply put, that makes them less willing to get off the couch, particularly if finding a job demands running a gauntlet of on-line applications or requires a move or a long commute or surrendering government benefits.  The surest way to put the most employable of these men back to work would be a stronger economy in which jobs were more plentiful and employers couldn’t be so picky about filling openings. [emphasis added]

So it turns out that Douthat’s disaffected workers aren’t merely and passively disconnected.  They’re barred by actual conditions in the real world from finding work.  A better economy would lower that bar and see re-entry into the labor force.  To be fair, Douthat does note that rising inequality has an explanatory role to play in what he claims are two trends. But the links he provide to support his attempt at social analysis confirm essentially nothing of his interpretation.

Onwards!

Next up, Douthat engages the CBO report itself:

The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.

Yet again, Douthat links not to the report itself, but to a Washington Post article summarizing and in part spinning that document.  And it turns out that Douthat’s “full time workers” disappearing number is not quite right.  Here’s what the CBO actually reported, (p. 127)

Because some people will reduce the amount of hours they work rather than stopping work altogether, the number who will choose to leave employment because of the ACA in 2024 is likely to be substantially less than 2.5 million. At the same time, more than 2.5 million people are likely to reduce the amount of labor they choose to supply to some degree because of the ACA, even though many of them will not leave the labor force entirely.
I’ll admit that’s a relatively minor error on Douthat’s part (though the rhetorical torque he applies with the word “disappeared” puts it into the realm of bad faith to me).   But more important, note that Douthat didn’t delve into the actual CBO report itself, at least not enough to grasp any nuance — relying instead on the Post article’s own flawed account.
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IOW:  sometimes the little mistakes are the most revealing.  You can’t argue with folks who don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those of us trying to understand health care in America by reading the country’s newspaper of record should have the confidence that what they find there is based on best attempts to identify actual facts.  Douthat does not encourage such confidence.
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Please proceed, columnist!
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Next, we have Douthat’s attempt to claim that there really is a better, conservative alternative to Obamacare.
the design of Obamacare … makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.
I think he’s trying to say that giving everyone health insurance that almost never insures would trap more people in the jobs they’d need to mitigate the risk of everyday mishaps, but that’s for another argument. I could also  take issue with the notion that the document he links is an actual alternative, and not some cobbled together bit of hand-waving and familiar right wing talking points on health care.  But there’s no doubt that at the point we’re still  the territory of op-ed privilege.
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But here’s the real problem — and it’s one Douthat could very well have slid past all but the most careful of editors.  In the next paragraph he writes:
One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults

That sounds like a good serious pundit doing his homework and digging into the academic research on his topic.  But if you click that link, it won’t take you to any study — not even a Heritage parody of social science.  Instead, it returns you right to the doorstop of the “alternative” proposal Douthat invoked in the prior graf.  There’s nothing else there at all, and certainly nothing any neutral observer would recognize as actual inquiry.  This is just a lie-by-citation.

Believe it or not, the beat goes on.  Douthat bloviates on his own dime for a few paragraphs before coming up with this :

On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

There are two classic blunders: The most famous is  never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is never, ever, trust Ross Douthat when he tells you what “the left” is thinking.

The first link takes you not to a critique of capitalism by, say, Joe Biden or even the House Progressive caucus, but to a lengthy and fascinating New York Times account of a book by a French economist that has yet to appear in English.  It’s an important piece of work, I hear, but hardly evidence of a growing American political tendency.

The second brings you to an interview with the author of another book yet to be released —  by Gregory Clark, an economic historian at Davis who has been arguing for some years for a biologically heritable account of economic outcomes.

There’s lots of people who argue with Clark’s work.  But for this discussion the question isn’t whether his brand of biological economics is bonkers or worse.  For this argument it is, does Clark speak from or for anything that could remotely be called the left?

The answer is no: he is one economist controversial within his own field, whose views, if they have any political stamp, have been much more eagerly received by latter day eugenicists than by any recognizable wing of, say, the Democratic Party.

Again: Douthat is a pundit.  He gets to be stupid on the Times’ dime.

But he shouldn’t get to claim authority he doesn’t have — the intellectual buttresses of knowledge he hasn’t actually worked to acquire or analytical effort he hasn’t put in.  Every single link in this piece but the one that just takes to Keynes is flawed, often deeply so, in the sense of supporting the superstructure Douthat wants to erect on top of his claims of erudition.  At best, he’s bibliography-padding, attempting to baffle his readers (and, I think, his editors) with the appearance of someone who does the hard work of thinking.  At worst, he’s misappropriating others’ labor to his own ends.

Echoing Gandhi’s apocryphal jibe:  were I asked what I think about right wing public intellection, I’d reply, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Images: Jean Clouet, Portrait of Guillaume Budé, c. 1536.

Adriaen van Ostade, Carousing peasants in a tavern, c. 1635

 

What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming

January 18, 2014

By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.”  Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)

Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead.  She writes:

In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.

In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.

Whap!

I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills.  A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*

At this point, a bit of housekeeping:  I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow.  Take the blog off your RSS feed.  There.  Was that so hard?  (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)

I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine.  The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.

Smierc_Tomasza_Becketa

The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe.  The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell.  The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly.  There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations.  (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)

But all of that and more has been amply discussed already.  What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:

As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.

A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

And therein lies the nub:  (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.

That is:  Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections.  They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis.  He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life.  He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.

And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care?  What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?

Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.

Leonardo_Anatomy_of_the_Neck,_c._1515

Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.

There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %.  It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!).  The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality.  The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene.  Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything.  But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness.  How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds?  Too easy?  Get me rewrite!

Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.

So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.

*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:

I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

Softly, softly…

Images:  Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515

David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

January 4, 2014

This story has been covered plenty, and the deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_024

I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

I think I know where Brooks got his 1/6 figure.  One quick bit  of Googling led me to this summary from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  It states:

It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens)…

Already, you can see the error.  Brooks says marijuana is addictive for 1/6 teenagers, full stop.  Not so: it’s only 1/6 of those who use the stuff.

Neufchâtel_-_Bildnis_des_Nürnberger_Schreibmeisters_Johann_Neudörffer_und_eines_Schülers

Go one step deeper into the literature.  In the underlying paper [PDF/paywall] to which the NIDA document refers, it turns out

The lifetime risk of dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9% rising to one in six in those who initiate use in adolescence.

Same problem: the risk of dependence is only for those who use.

Note one complication:  there’s an issue with what it means to use here.  Daily? Weekly? Annually? This paper implies that the term refers to at least a weekly date with Mssrs. Zig and Zag, but the underlying source for the figure on adolescent dependence is a book to which I don’t have ready access.  So take that as a bit of unfinished business.

In case a little more context might help, one more turn to the internet turns up the invaluable Monitoring the Future folks, who provide a wealth of data about what Kidz Theze Dayz are really thinking and doing.  (Thanks again to Maia Szalavitz for help getting to the right sources for this post.)There you find that regular (daily) teenage marijuana use (PDF) runs about 1% for 8th graders, and rises to about 7% for high school seniors.  Loosening the definition of user to all those who blow a little dope once a year, (PDF) you get the scarier numbers — about 17% for the younger cohort and close to 40 % of twelfth graders.  Those numbers still don’t get you close to any reasonable interpretation of Brooks’ throwaway remark.

This isn’t rocket science.  Rather, we’re talking journalism 101.   That line should have tickled any experienced newshound’s bullshit detector.   If you read Brooks as claiming that one in six teenagers will be addicted then you run up against the actual lifetime risk for marijuana dependence, which, depending on the study, runs between 4 and 8 % of the population.  You just can’t get from here to there.

And if you read him as saying that there’s some independent measure that whether or not they actually smoke, still, if they did, one in six kids would be unable to control their ganja jones, you have to ask, how could you know that?  What possible experiment could show how many of the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana even once a year would nonetheless be utterly unable to control their urges after that irreversible first toke?  It’s just nonsense…

…which makes me wonder, first does no one edit the Op-Ed. pages anymore?  Even if Brooks can’t or won’t do the work needed to deliver a minimally competently reported piece, someone else had to have read it before it hit print.  If I were the boss of the Times, I’d be asking who missed what and why.

Quentin_Massys_030

The thing is, Brooks commits sins like this all the time, but usually disguises them better.  Here he just flat out blew it, which makes it easy to say that this is the kind of crap journalism a place like The New York Times simply shouldn’t allow to reach the outside world.  But don’t mistake this as an aberration; this is how Our David rolls.  The wonder is that the Times seems willing to trade little bits of its credibility with each new BoBo-ism for the clicks and visibility that the mysteriously but undeniably influential Brooks delivers.

Sad…and in the long run a bad bargain for the Grey Lady, if you ask me, which they didn’t — and won’t.

*Weigel really did nail it, but for sheer awesomeness, no one did better than Gary Greenberg, whose remembrance of bonging with Bobo had a lot of folks fooled earlier in the day.  Check this out:

…let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just great stuff.  (Also — what’s great is the list of folks who believed Greenberg’s piece was true.  Andrew Sullivan, for one (appending a correction to his post after a bit) but my favorite reaction came from Tim Carney, who snapped at  those ridiculing the gullible, tweeting, “That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”

‘Bout sums up the state of the too much of the media, wouldn’t you say?

Images:  Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants Drinking and Making Music in a Barn, c. 1635.

Nicolaes Neufchatel,  Portrait of Nurenburg Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a student, 1561.

Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

 

 

It’s Always Projection With These Guys

December 31, 2013

So, Dr. Strangelove Charles Krauthammer weighs in on the latest news out of Benghazi — which is to say the non-news that there was no conspiracy to cover-up whatever evil Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are supposed to have done in this latest round of conspiracy mongers.

You may recall that a few days ago, The New York Times showed what real newspapers can do when they put some muscle into a story, and dug into the events that led up to the four American diplomats’/intelligence officers’ last hours in Benghazi.  They concluded that it was a confusing situation, that (as reported at the time) an incendiary video helped gin up a crowd, and that (as President Obama noted, to Romney’s eternal embarrassment, the next day) local Islamic militants were also involved.  The key finding: no meaningful al Qaeda link, as the Benghazi dead enders have been trumpeting for a while now.

So, if you are such a dead ender — that is to say, if you are a member of the modern GOP and/or part of its supportive claque in the DC media — what do you do?

Sane people might say, OK, nothing to see here, let’s move along.  I mean, even the Birthers (in office — not the Orly Taitz variety) finally gave up.  Also: Benghazi does have a real political downside.  The more it becomes obvious that there is, in fact, nothing to see here, that bad things happen in the world and not even a Kenyan Moooslim arsenal of superpowers can prevent them all, then the blowback for using American dead for such obvious political purposes starts to bite.

Hell, it already did.  See, again, Mr. Romney, burned not once but twice on the campaign trail for overeager Benghazi baiting.

But, of course, the set of sanity does not overlap with the set of those professionally committed to the destruction of all things the Democratic Party might support, a gang which includes much if not all of the GOP congressional delegation.

Cold_Shower_by_Georgios_Iakovidis

For example, consider this, from Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a shining light of Georgia’s delegation to the Capitol:

“Of course Secretary Clinton was in charge at the time, and you know there are just now a lot of rumors going and pushing about her running for president in 2016,” he said on Fox News, as recorded by the Hill. “So I think they are already laying the groundwork.”

OK — so utterances of rabid partisanship have become SOP in the House GOP, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked,  But what about that class of folks who consider themselves above the grubby world of politics — AKA the grandees of Washington’s media village.  Enter Charles Krauthammer.  There are none who combine the unmerited mantle of authoritative judgment and sheer malice more completely than our man Krauthammer — inexplicably treated as a serious analyst of modern politics and wholly engaged in the construction of the One True Narrative, reality be damned.

Hence, reacting to the news that the NYT op-ed editor had ridiculed Westmorland et al.’s claims Krauthammer erupted:

“By being defensive about this, he’s making it quite obvious the reason that the Times invested all the effort and time in this and put it on the front page is precisely a way to protect the Democrats, to deflect the issue, to protect Hillary, who was exposed on this issue as almost no issue in her tenure in the administration. It is obviously a political move.”

I actually think that’s what Krauthammer believes, along with Westmoreland and the rest of the GOP officeholders chasing down the Benghazi “truther” rabbit hole.  Why shouldn’t they? It’s what they would do.

Hell, it’s what they are doing:  to belabor the obvious, crying “Politics” avoids the necessity of parsing what the Times actually reported.  It saves having to defend the various claims of whatever it is that Clinton or Obama is said to have done wrong. Most of all, it ducks the obligation to take on what did happen in Benghazi with enough thought to inform deliberations that lead to, for example, not blowing up stuff in Syria.  Much easier to accuse the other side of doing exactly the vicious shit you would have.

These are not people to be allowed near the reins of government. They probably shouldn’t be allowed near scissors.  Danger to self and others and all that.

Image: Georgios Jakobides, “Cold Shower” 1898

 


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