Archive for the ‘Journalism and its discontents’ category

I’ll Take Journalism I Disdain For $1,000, Alex

March 7, 2016

This, in today’s Grey Lady, got my goat:

While Mr. Sanders’s direct rhetoric is an enduring source of his success, Mrs. Clinton has a way of meandering legalistically through thickets of caution and temporization.

Asked whether she would fire the head of the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to remedy water problems in Flint, Mrs. Clinton gave a nearly 200-word response emphasizing the need for a full investigation to “determine who knew what, when.” Mr. Sanders’ 16-word response drew enormous applause: “President Sanders would fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act appropriately.”

On the one hand, fine:  as a performance critique, that’s a perfectly understandable distinction to draw (though in this case even the stated critique is patent BS, about which more in a moment).  But there’s more to political journalism than amateur theater criticism.

William_Hogarth_028

Some interest, even a glimmer of curiosity in the quality of the content of the answer would be welcome.

So, let’s take a look.  When asked if she would fire people at the EPA over the Flint crisis, here’s what Clinton actually said:

CLINTON: Well, I think that the people here in the region, who knew about this and failed to follow what you just said, rightly, the law required, have been eliminated from the EPA.

COOPER: So far, one person has resigned.

CLINTON: I don’t — well, I don’t know how high it goes. I would certainly be launching an investigation. I think there is one. I was told that — you know, some of the higher-ups were pushing to get changes that were not happening.

So I would have a full investigation, determine who knew what, when. And yes, people should be fired. How far up it went, I don’t know. But as far as it goes, they should be relieved, because they failed this city.

But let me just add this, Anderson. This is not the only place where this kind of action is needed. We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate.

(APPLAUSE)

We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint. So I’m not satisfied with just doing everything we must do for Flint. I want to tackle this problem across the board. And if people know about it and they’re not acting, and they’re in the government at any level, they should be forced to resign.

So — yes, she’d fire people when and as they were found to be culpable, but such actions, she argues, are not enough.  I’d go further, and say that they’re cosmetic, unless the same duty of care that Flint deserves is applied across the board.

And I don’t know about you, but to me, the demand to take the lessons of Flint on the road is hardly a legalistic detour into “thickets of caution and temporization.”  The gap between that characterization and what was actually said (and not quoted in the offending thumb-sucker) is, shall we say, interesting.  Given the Times‘ history with Hillary, I’d even say, suggestive.

I know it’s a lot to ask (it isn’t, actually. It’s merely impossible for current practitioners to answer — ed.) but I’d like to see even a hint of acknowledgement that what Clinton said may have been less dramatic than Sander’s reply, but, just maybe, contained something worth thinking about.  Even more, some recognition that two hundred words is not too much to spend on the problem of failed infrastructure, the abandonment of governmental responsibility, and poisoned kids.

Just for perspective — the average speaker takes roughly 80 to 90 seconds, maybe a skosh more, to utter two hundred words.  I’d have thought a hero of the English language like a New York Times reporter might have the stamina to stick it out that long.

Color me grumpy.

Image:  William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment from the Humours of an Election series, c. 1755

The Love Song Of David Brooks, Or Who You Gonna Believe…

October 30, 2015

Bobo, or your own lyin’ eyes.

Amazingly enough, I’m not going all John Foster Dulles on Brooks’ latest grotesquerie:  all you need to know can be read in this brief passage:

At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable.  What matters is how a candidate signals priorities.

Umm. David.  We remember George Bush’s plans.  They signaled his priorities just fine…and he proceeded as promised to turn a robust budget surplus into the biggest upwards income redistribution in memory, along with deficits from here to Atlantis.

I had thought to fisk the whole damn column, which is full of low-hanging fruit.  But really why bother?  It’s all there in that don’t “get too worked up “by what alledged “wonks” actually say about the policies they wonkishly espouse.  Because it’s not like they mean it.

Except they do.

And once again we see:  David Brooks is a terrible public figure not because of his politics but because of his character, his willingness to be a loyal apparatchik transcribing whatever counts as pravda in that universe in which Republicans are the natural party of power.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Or to put it another way: he both is and broadcasts a stupid person’s idea of what a smart conservative sounds like.

PS:  Krugthulu agrees.  What I like best about this is the absence of even a shred of collegial courtesy.

Which is as it should be.  If you’re going to opine in public, then it’s your job to do so by saying what you really think.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs — The Topsy Turvy World. 1559.  I highly recommend checking out the image at the link.  The notes embedded in the picture explain it’s relevance here.  See, e.g. the roses before swine above.

 

Because No One Knows The Essence Of Blackness…

October 8, 2015

….like an  old, filthy-rich white guy.

Alexander_H_Stephens_circa_1875_by_Brady_&_Co

Here’s noted sociologist of race and authenticity, Rupert “Bug-Eyed Monster” Murdoch

“Ben and Candy Carson terrific. What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?…” [via TPM]

Ummm.

Rupert…

…Protip:

Take it from a  fellow person of the Caucasian persuasion:

You don’t get a vote.

Or, consider the shorter:

Bugger off, mate.  May all your chooks become emus and kick your dunny door down.

(PS — anyone besides me think it … let’s just say “odd” … that the new owner of National Geographic should fall in love with a stone-cold evolution denialist? Just askin’.)

Image:  Brady & Co, Cabinet card portrait of Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens with a servant, formerly a slave c. 1875.

In Which David Brooks Sets A World Record For Long Jump Over A Shark*

September 8, 2015

David Brooks is an embarrassment — not news, I know.  But while he’s always been glib, his intellectual sloth has only deepened as over and over again, reality has refused to accord his views the respect he believes they deserve.

Case in point:  today’s column, titled “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn”.

The entire thing is a dog’s breakfast — centered on a cynically ahistorical description of political parties, an argument that, in effect, the Republican Party’s inability to rein in its crazies is caused by a rise in “assertive individualism.” That, of course, omits all that uncomfortable record of explicit radicalization built into the fabric of Nixon’s southern strategy and its sequels.

But that’s Brooks’ problem:  he aims to dismiss Trump, and to a lesser extent Carson, as betrayers of an imagined American ideal, and he doesn’t want to confront what their current success says about the Republican Party as a whole.  So, enter Bernie Sanders.

The problem Brooks has there is that Sanders is not the same type of candidate as the GOP’s id-sters: he’s running a conventional Democratic campaign, drawing on a conventional subset of the Democratic base, and he’s advancing ideas that are, for the most part, absolutely within the Democratic party mainstream.  Brooks entire anti-party indictment of Sanders is that he is an independent who merely caucuses with the Democrats.

That’s weak tea, which Brooks seems to sense, which may account for this, the straw of nonsense that breaks this column’s back:

These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing.

These sudden stars are not really about governing. They are tools for their supporters’ self-expression. They allow supporters to make a statement, demand respect or express anger or resentment. Sarah Palin was a pioneer in seeing politics not as a path to governance but as an expression of her followers’ id.

Let’s review:  Carson and Trump:  no experience in any elected office.

Sanders:  four terms (eight years) as mayor of Burlington, VT.  Member of the United States House of Representatives for sixteen years.  Currently a second term United States Senator with almost nine years on the job.  Among other roles, he serves now as the ranking member of the Budget Committee — one of the big three committees that have jurisdiction over taxes, appropriations and budget policy.**  The ranking member, of course, is the senior member of the minority party on a given panel, which is to say that Bernie Sanders is currently serving as the Democratic party’s lead force on the committee that articulates the large scale policy structure of federal spending.

But David Brooks has said that Bernie Sanders has little experience in the profession of governing, and Brooks is wants to appear to be an honorable man.

Brutus_and_the_Ghost_of_Caesar_1802

Seriously:  Sanders has managed departments that plow snow and fill potholes; he’s handled constituent services for the state of Vermont for more than two decades.  He’s caucused with Democrats and carries a full portfolio of the bread-and-butter of legislative work, the committee duties where so much of the legislative process really happens.  Whatever you think about his politics, his self-identification, his campaign, one thing is simply a fact:  Bernie Sanders has spent most of his adult life immersed in the daily practice of governing.  (And his supporters, pace Our David, include among their number those who are less interested in self-expression than in Sanders’ emphasis on the need to reform the US economy.)

Put it another way:  Sanders has a deep history of explicit policy experience behind him, a set of views and arguments that inform an extensive body of proposals in his presidential campaign.  Trump and Carson?  Not so much.***

Which is to say:  Brooks is not just wrong here, he’s guilty of one of two sins here:  either he’s utterly, contemptuously, slothfully ignorant, or he knows Sanders’ record, and he’s chosen to hide that knowledge from his readers.

I could go on (you know I could) — but there’s no point.  When a piece of work is based on a false premise, that’s pretty much it.  An interesting question would be why the challenges to perceived front-runners in our two parties are so different in kind and quality.  But actually engaging that mystery (not!) would require explicit acknowledgement that the Democrats remain the kind of civic institution, a coalition across a range of interests, backgrounds and views that Brooks extols, while the Republican party, increasingly, does not.  And if the two parties are not the same, what’s a faux-centrist water carrier for the GOP elite to do?

I gotta confess to an journeyman’s complaint here.  I disdain Brooks’ argument and the view he’s attempting to advance, but there’s nothing new (or terribly wrong) in that — what’s political writing for if not to dispute public life?  What really gets me here is the sheer contempt the basic craft, the job of any writer making a case.  Brooks’ attempt to lump Sanders into a category in which he manifestly does not belong is purely lazy.

And obvious!

And unnecessary!

Brooks could have written the entire column on Trump and Carson as case studies in the rise of iconoclasm in politics and the piece would have read fine. He wouldn’t perhaps, have been able to write the same jeremiad about “solipsistic bubbles”**** in which his adopted countrymen choose to ignore the reasoned advise of the wise men Brooks has chosen for them.  Too high a price, I suppose.

*An homage to my grandfather Tom, as it happens, who once held the world record for long jump on horse. Truly. An insight into his horsemanship — and perhaps his post-dinner judgment — can be found here.

**It’s the weakest of the three committees involved in managing the federal budget; Appropriations and Finance have more direct power.  But Budget is where the large scale policy agenda for federal spending gets its day.

***You could make the case that Carson has lots of positions, and you’d be more or less right.  That said, a slogan and a paragraph do not a policy position make.

****That the phrase better describes the media village in which Brooks resides than it does most of America is a case of projection we can pass over in silence.

Image: Edward Scriven, engraving from an original by Richard Westall, “Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar,” 1802.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 


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