Archive for the ‘Journalism and its discontents’ category

Floor Polish or Dessert Topping: Media Edition.

September 7, 2016

I think it’s always a serious risk to disagree with Adam; he’s basically always right.  But I do find myself differing from him on one question: is The New York Times actively trying to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency, or are their actions better explained by a less evil, more dangerous tendency?

Adam’s on the overt evil side: they’re trying to shiv her side. I’m thinking that what we’re seeing is an unconscious process, which is actually a much more difficult problem to tackle within elite political journalism.

My view:  I communicate with some NYTimes people, and I’ve known some there for a long time, though I’m not in close touch with that cohort these days.  I don’t have any contact with the Sulzberger/Baquet level, but below that I’m quite confident that there’s no conspiracy going on.  If you could ask just about anybody at the Times, I’m sure they recognize that Trump is a shit show and all that.

But that doesn’t alter the problem there, the way the deck is nonetheless stacked at the Times and other top-echelon outlets.

A big part of the reason, ISTM, is that within a lot of journalism there is a very particular definition of what a story is, and the concept of accuracy is narrowly defined.  A story need not be about facts, but about claims of alledged facts — Clinton’s emails raise pay-for-play concerns; and to be accurate such a story need only rise to the level of “some see in the new email release more indications of a pay-to-play connection to the Clinton Foundation.”   That is — the fact that someone is willing to say such a dreadful deed took place makes the statement and the story “accurate” even if no reasonable reading of the underlying material suggest such nefariousness actually took place.

Goya_y_Lucientes,_Francisco_de_-_Fool`s_Folly_-_Google_Art_Project

That paradigm leads The New York Times and the rest of them to make the same mistakes over and over again — and to get played in the same way seemingly every week. The right wing media activist camp — think Judicial Watch and the email farrago — is very good at pushing the story buttons, and you have a circumstance where the Times bites, over and over again, and finds itself once again dipping into  the Clinton well.

What makes that so wretched is that if The New York Times were anti-Clinton in the way, say, Fox News is, there’d be an obvious counter:  consider the source. But because this is done within a framework that the top practitioners believe is the right way to do journalism, pushback often serves to confirm their judgment in their own eyes. If partisans complain, they must be doing something right.  And given that the elite media basically talks to itself, it’s hard to insert a corrective, though I and many others are trying to do so on and off social media.

 It’s also important to note that the Times  did engage the Trump-Attorneys General bribery story today, placing it prominently on the website.  There are some oddities in the story — not uncommon for a publication playing catch-up.  And the test will be the follow up: how deeply the Times chooses to pursue each of the elements of the story in the days ahead.  If they do give it the full effort, then (a) that will be good and (b) it will suggest that much of the crap coverage of Clinton we’ve seen is the product of pre-existing bias (Clintons are yucky) combined with the story dynamics and incentives discussed here.

There’s an interview with Bob Woodward that the Harvard’s press office published today that to me expresses the problem of a Village, an epistemically closed community of practice that can’t easily interrogate the ways its own methods undermine the mission that they do in fact, sincerly, believe they’re pursuing. Woodward says:

Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I interviewed Trump and we published the transcript and there are all kinds of things in there. For instance, he says, “I bring out rage in people,” and he’s proud of it. He forecast a giant recession, he was very pessimistic about the economy, and since then it’s only done better. He was asked, because he was running in the primaries in the Republican Party, a party that contained Lincoln and Nixon, “Why did Lincoln succeed?” And Trump’s answer was, “He did some things that needed to be done.” [We then asked,] “Why did Nixon fail?” “Because of his personality.” And we had to say, “Yeah, but his criminality was part of it.” And Trump said, “Oh, yeah.” It tells you who he is. 

The same with Hillary Clinton. There were just voluminous stories on her. Let me give you an example from The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2016, a two-part series they did on Hillary’s role in Libya. It explains her role, exactly what she wanted to do. At one point, after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s death, it quotes her saying to some of her staff, “We came, we saw, he died.’ There was a series of spectacular Post stories about the Clinton Foundation, about her time at the State Department, and so forth. 

The Trump interview is a story, sure.  It was accurate, in the sense that I’m sure Trump said what Woodward and Costa said he said.  It’s not revealing of very much — like what Trump has done and what his actions in the various enterprises he’s undertaken would tell us about a potential Trump presidency.  But its accurate.

More important for the discussion of Clinton and whether press treatment of her reflects conscious or unconscious bias is the comparison between the kind of material Woodward celebrates as journalism about Trump vs. what he recognized in the Clinton Coverage.  The Libya story he cites is a perfectly reasonable one one, exactly what you’d expect a newspaper to do.  The Clinton Foundation stories…not so much, and so on.

The point’s obvious, I think.  All of the stories listed above are “news” in some way.  They meet (mostly) the narrowest criterion of accuracy.  But they add up to a very different body of work, and evidence of very different approaches to the two candidates, born, I think, of the construct of the “sweet story” much more than of a planned journalistic campaign to derail Hillary.

TL:DR?  You don’t need to invoke malice.  An intellectual laziness* born of bad craft habits and professional norms fully explains what we see — which is bad news, as that’s harder to fix than explicit enmity.

*I don’t mean to suggest that Times journalists and their peers elsewhere are lazy in the sense that they don’t work hard.  They work constantly for (in almost all cases in the print world) relatively short money.  I’m just saying that they don’t sufficiently train the traditional journalist’s skepticism on their own endeavor, and so find it very hard to credit outside criticism, or to recognize what it is in fact they’re doing, not just day by day, but summed over the life of a campaign.

Image: Francisco de Goya, Fool’s Folly, 1815-1819

Dear Washington Post

September 6, 2016

Here’s another slightly edited dispatch from my ongoing off-social-media conversation with some political reporters on the obvious implicit bias I see in coverage of Clinton vs. Trump.  The reporters I’ve engaged publicly and privately don’t see it that way — and they are, I firmly believe, sincere and honest in that belief.  So the task, as I see it, is to build the argument story by story and (as possible) in analysis of the sum of coverage, that they’re wrong, and to do so in a way that honest and expert reporters can read, analyze, and, I hope, become persuaded by.

What caught my eye today was this article in the Washington Post, “Inside Bill Clinton’s nearly $18 million job as ‘Honorary Chancellor’ of a for-profit university,” by Rosalind S. Hellerman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.  That story has received professional praise as a well reported deep dive — and it is!  Really.

School of athents

By that I mean:  it is definitely a long (2604 words) and detailed dissection of Bill Clinton’s involvement with Laureate University, a major international for profit higher-ed company.  The reporters play fair by the rules of the craft:  they show their work, and a reader can see where each individual fact comes from.

But does that make it a good story, an honest one, or one that within the larger story — that of the 2016 presidential election — meets basic standards of journalism as it serves readers interests?

Not at all.

That’s what I argued below in my note to one of my correspondents.  Here, the point is that the elite political press — like any group of people working on the same stuff in substantial isolation from the outside world — has its own professional criteria for excellence.  They’ve got a value system and an expectation or understanding of what represents good work or bad.  They’re not all wrong in that.

But as far as I can see from the outside, theirs is a bunker-dwelling, mostly technical standard: well reported = good, for example.  I don’t think that there is a conspiracy at the Times  or the Post, or CNN or what have you simply to shiv the Clintons.

But what I think outside the bunker (and please do recall:  a presidential campaign is a mind-and-body deranging experience; these folks really are working without access to a lot of the reality checks that could help) those of us who are looking at the coverage both closely and synoptically see the problem not as one of reporting, but of coverage.

That is, what matters is the way stories are assigned, framed, their narratives interpreted within each piece, how they’re edited and placed (2604 words!) affects the overall message readers and the electorate as a whole receive.

Thus, the ongoing and increasingly inexplicable failure of The New York Times to engage what should be a burgeoning Trump bribery scandal with state attorneys general and Trump U.  Thus all the stories on the Clinton foundation which (a) failed to show what was implied and (b) omitted crucial context, like the Bush Foundation headed by a Powell.  And thus today’s story, in which two good reporters distill what had to have been a substantial amount of work that taken all-in-all demonstrates that Bill Clinton made a lot of money while there was, in the words of the story itself, “no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton…”

What there was, instead, was a reason to ask whether or not such special favors might have taken place.  The answer was no.

There the story should have ended.  But because this was the Clintons, and this is the elite political press, it was impossible to accept that answer.  Hence what is a type specimen for how the press is getting this election wrong — with potentially disastrous consequences.

With that as prologue (I know…logorrhea…), my breakdown of the piece for my journalist-contact.  We began by marveling at the size of Bill’s fee — which truly is pretty astonishing:

__________________

I agree with you on the sum, though from where I sit, with my full time job in higher education (and a professor’s kid, and w. two professor-siblings and, and, and…) what bothers me most about that clearly outsize wage is that it is less of an outlier than it should be.  As I’m sure you know, top academic positions at a lot of places are now paid at seven figure levels.  A million or so/year as a college president  is different from $3.6 million/year as an honorary chairman, certainly.  But it’s also true (and a scandal) that higher ed, both non and for profit has headed down the same path for CEO and senior management compensation that large businesses have.  That’s troubling.

But what got me about the story was the contrast between the reporting craft you rightly recognize: meticulous, detailed pursuit of both individual incidents and the financial details…and the lack of any substance to the clear thrust of the story: that this was another example of soft corruption in the Clinton family.  You look at the lede and it clearly asserts a pay-off.  Clinton invites someone to a working dinner who is an FOB, who later hires Bill for lots of money.   (more…)

Dear New York Times…

September 2, 2016

Hey, folks.  Been spending way too much time on Twitter lately, ranting about coverage and the election, and hence have sucked up all the would-be blogging time.  But in doing so, I’ve managed to begin a conversation with some folks who actually perform such coverage.  One of them asked me to be specific about a charge they found hard to swallow:  that there is a systematic difference between the way Trump is covered and Clinton is in the major venues.

Rockwell fact and fiction

That correspondent and others pointed out, accurately, that at least since May, and in many cases before then, there have been major, damning, utterly critical stories about Trump.  Given that, wouldn’t complaints about, say, stories on Clinton’s emails or the alleged corruption inherent in the Clinton Foundation-State Department nexus suggest more a partisan reaction, hypersensitive about stories critical of the side I favor, rather than a measured accounting of the full coverage record?

My answer was and that while there are indeed such stories, and that many of the Clinton pieces that have enraged me are at some definition of accuracy perfectly on-the-beam.  But then I go on to say that the question of systematic bias is not about each single story.  Rather, it turns on the entire editorial apparatus of campaign coverage: how those stories are assigned, pursued, resourced, and extended past day one or two coverage, and how the facts within them are set up for interpretation.

That argument leads to an obvious and appropriate response:

Prove it.

It’s going to take me some time to do so across the range of questions I’ve actually received.  But there was a piece in today’s New York Times that provides a case study (the fancy name for anecdata) that offers an example of the gap between fine-scale factual accuracy and a truthful exercise in journalism

For the record:  what I’m attempting to do isn’t simply to say “You Suck!” to The New York Times, the first target of my logorrhea below, or anyone else.  It is to help smart and incredibly hard working people realize what’s often hard to notice deep in the weeds and the mud.  That would be exactly where one is in the maze — which would be the first step to navigating to somewhere better.

With that as prologue, here’s what I just wrote to one of my correspondents.  That reporter challenged me on several points, and I began what will be a multipart response by walking back, just a little,  my somewhat incendiary claim that current campaign coverage reminded me of the Times’ Iraq war lead-in coverage — to which I added my own desire to give a specific example of what I meant by a biased approach to a story.  So here goes, in a slightly edited version of what I sent in private:

________________

…The Iraq War mention isn’t a perfect analogy, I’ll agree:  there’s no comparison to Judith Miller in the Times’ current campaign coverage, and there’s no sign I can see of the editorial or management errors that allowed her coverage (and other stuff too, TBH) such impact.

 The Iraq war serves for me, and I think many critics of the Times as a kind of existence proof:  the Times is capable of major failures that have huge consequences, which means, to me, that it’s important to be very vigilant.  I know this seems obvious, and perhaps even insulting to those inside the organization – but from outside the newsroom, it often appears that the NYT has a difficult time admitting errosr, especially those more complicated than a straightforward factual mistake.   A personal anecdote:  I had drinks some years ago with a NYTimes reporter (still there, not on the politics desk) and at one point in our conversation (late, after a number of rounds) he said something like NYTimes reporters don’t write stuff that’s not true; we get more scrutiny than you believe so we make sure it doesn’t happen. (Fallible memory, some years, but that was the gist).  And I’m sure the scrutiny is there (heck – here I am part of it.) But that was not a reassuring statement, as I think you can see. 

 I’ll get into this more below but my broad framework is that with exceptions, the way the thumb is on the scale (from my point of view) in NYT coverage of the campaign is not at the level you work, on the reporting day by day and the production of individual stories.  It is rather on the editorial apparatus that creates the framework for readers to interpret your coverage.

You ask for specifics – let me give you an example from today’s paper, “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation to State Dept.”

[Edited to add:  Hmmm, didn’t realize how long this sucker was on the page. Continued after the newly inserted jump] (more…)

What Ailes The Republican Party?

July 19, 2016

I’ve been thinking about Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against that omphalos of evil, Roger Ailes, since it dropped.  You all know the essence:

In a suit filed Wednesday in superior court in Bergen County, N.J., Carlson alleges that Ailes “unlawfully retaliated” against her and “sabotaged her career after she refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment.”

“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better,” the complaint says Ailes told Carlson last September when she complained to him. He allegedly added, “Sometimes problems are easier to solve that way.”

Even in that first story, there was plenty of evidence that Ailes is a serial harasser, a man for whom the women in his employ are objects to be manipulated (in the root sense of that word) at his pleasure:

While an executive at NBC, Ailes was accused of making sexually suggestive comments to various female underlings, according to a 2014 biography of Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” A young woman named Randi Harrison said Ailes offered to her increase her salary by $100 a week if she would have sex with him, according to the book. A producer named Shelly Ross said Ailes posed “romantically suggestive questions and made flirtatious comments about her appearance.” Ross said she told him, “This is making me uncomfortable.”

Over the next several days, many more women have come forward to add their accounts:

In recent days, more than a dozen women have contacted Carlson’s New Jersey–based attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, and made detailed allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes over a 25-year period, dating back to the 1960s, when he was a producer on The Mike Douglas Show. “These are women who have never told these stories until now,” Smith told me. “Some are in a lot of pain.” Taken together, these stories portray Ailes as a boss who spoke openly of expecting women to perform sexual favors in exchange for job opportunities…

Vouet,_Simon_-_Lucretia_And_Tarquin

Read the whole piece at that link for some heart breaking memories.

If Ailes is really gone, the nail in the coffin may have been hammered by the Fox News megastar,  Megyn Kelly:

According to two sources briefed on parent company 21st Century Fox’s outside probe of the Fox News executive, led by New York–based law firm Paul, Weiss, Kelly has told investigators that Ailes made unwanted sexual advances toward her about ten years ago when she was a young correspondent at Fox. Kelly, according to the sources, has described her harassment by Ailes in detail.

New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman has been doing seriously good work on this story, which makes this nugget from his Kelly post so interesting:

According to two sources, Monday afternoon lawyers for 21st Century Fox gave Ailes a deadline of August 1 to resign or face being fired for cause.

So, good.  It looks like a truly monstrous figure is on his way out.

I’m as thrilled as anyone at that likely outcome, for all that Ailes’ well-padded crash ($40,000,000 buys a lot of whisky to cry into) is coming decades late.  But there’s a larger story that isn’t getting enough attention.

That is:  Roger Ailes isn’t just a network boss who has managed to deliver ratings to his owner.  He has been perhaps the single most important figure in the forging of today’s Republican party.  His Fox News has set the agenda, constructed the alternate reality, shattered the norms, and altered much for the worse what it means to be a Republican leader or voter.

He’s the architect and engineer of the hate-based, race-focused, anti-science, know-nothing tendency in American politics.  His triumph, his conquest of so much of American government at every level, has reached its apotheosis in the home-video version of Triumph of the Will we’re all seeing in Cleveland this week.  And he is a person who has, throughout his entire working life it seems, defined women as toys to be played with or broken at his whim.

I do not suggest that the Republican party, even in its current desperately debased state, is filled with people who would do as Ailes is alleged to have done.  But Ailes’ signal success has been in shaping how the party thinks, how its members and leaders think the world works.  And that influence is shot through with a sense of whose views count and whose don’t.  In Ailes life, half the world doesn’t rise to the level of agent, of people whose existence demands respect.

The fish rots at the head.

Image:  Simon Vouet, The Rape of Lucretia, 17th century. (Not my favorite of this subject. Rubens’ is great, and I’m a sucker for Tintoretto’s pearls.  But I wanted to keep the post SFW, so Vouet will do.)

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.