Archive for the ‘media’ category

Village Idiot: Somewhere, A Pig Wants Its Skin Back

July 8, 2017

Sometimes you get the greatest insight into folks when they think the pressure is off.

What follows has exactly no political import, and, truly, says nothing about the writer in question’s journalistic chops or beat-acumen, at least not directly.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, given my Bayesian prior holding that anything that comes out of Chuck Todd’s mouth or pen is surpassingly likely to be…well…crap, I find his gig over at Peter King’s joint as a summer replacement for the Monday Morning Quarterback column to be a thing of perverse beauty and utterly revealing.  If you take Todd as the type specimen of a Village idiot, then you can read in his attempt to display both football cred and knowledge a free-of-partisan-blinkers way to assess his actual skills, quality, and personality.

It ain’t pretty.

I’m not going to bother with an extended fisking — after all, it’s both Todd and a game — but a couple of things stand out.

First, it’s always about Todd.  Taking Todd as an archetype of Village perspective, I’m suggesting this confirms the many hints that much of what drives elite DC media is how whatever is being covered fits in with and or confirms a collective world view and sense of status.

Which is what makes a simple word count so telling.  Todd’ s column is just over 3,500 words long.  1,400 of those words — crucially the first words in the piece — dive deep into his claim to be a Green Bay Packers fan.

A couple of things on that. First, obviously, the man can root for whoever he wants. But that’s kind of the problem: there’s nothing inherently interesting about anyone’s choice sports-laundry connection.  To go on for 1400 words — nearly twice as long as a conventional newspaper column, well into short feature length already — implies that the writer has something more to say than “I was born in the midwest and my dad liked the Packers.” Not our Todd

No, what was really going on here, was a defensive crouch:  Todd has never been to Lambeau, feels this is a s problem to be explained, and goes on at great length to tell his readers that he really is an authentic football fan and a man of the Green Bay people.  Alas, the man has a tin ear. Check this out:

The most die-hard Packers fans believe you can’t claim fanatic status unless you’ve been to the holiest of football sights [sic–does SI no longer employ copy-editors?] (sorry, Canton). Honestly, I don’t blame them. If I were in their shoes, I might use that piece of information to lodge my own skeptical inquiry. But I swear, my Packers allegiance is real.

Don’t believe me? Just ask my good friend, Steve Hayes, the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard and a frequent FOX News analyst. Steve is also a part of the D.C. Packers mafia; of course, he came about his love for the Green and Gold the normal way—he was born and raised in the Land of Cheeseheads. I first met Steve, in 2000, when he was applying for a job at a publication I was running called, The Hotline. I noticed his Wisconsin roots on his résumé and, naturally, asked him if he was a Packers fan. He said he was, but I wanted to know if he was truly a diehard. I have a standard question for anyone around my age who claims to be a Packers fan: Who was Green Bay’s starting quarterback before Lynn Dickey? Well, Steve not only answered correctly, he noted that David Whitehurst also punted for the team. Steve got the job offer and he accepted. So thank you, David Whitehurst, for being just obscure enough to help me prove true Packer fandom and, more importantly, thanks for being the link to one of my better friendships in D.C.

Arrrgh! Village idiocy in one verbose package.  I’ll leave it to my fellow jackals to draw out every tin-eared wrong note there, and just point out that the whole thing is steeped in unctuous self-congratulation:  Todd’s the boss; he’s steeped in the kind of minutiae that helps folks pretend they actually know a subject such facts don’t illuminate (sound familiar in the context of elite political “journalism”?); and hiring is a boys-club adventure.

Most of all though, as I read through this endless preamble, I kept asking myself why Todd thinks I care? Peter King rubs some football fans the wrong way, I know — he is clearly one of the NFL’s inner circle reporters, and can be seen as an insufficiently critical booster of the Borg that is Roger Goodell’s plantation, but there’s no doubt he’s done the work and made the calls and knows the game and its people very well.  You can read his weekly column and get a lot of content.

Here, by the time you get to spitting distance of the half way mark, you know only that Chuck Todd is aware that he doesn’t have a lot of cred in this beat, and he protests — waaaaaay too much — that seeing him as a dilettante out of his depth is unfair.  “I do so love football! I know the names of some now obscure players!  I’m rich/influential enough to go to football games w. famous people in various cities! ‘The journalist in me’ [his words] is good enough to make me check a box score!”  It’s a plea both pathetic and, to me, confirming of my prior beliefs about Chuck: he’s a poseur and a light weight.

I’m just having some fun here over my second coffee of a weekend morning, so I won’t go on much longer.  (You’ve heard that before.)  Just one more thought.  That embarrassingly long and weak lede is a tell to Todd’s personality: he knows he’s out of his depth as a football columnist, and tries to hard to persuade himself as much as his readers that this is not so; how that might dovetail with his political commentary is, again, an exercise for the reader.

What follows, though, is more directly damning to Todd’s reputation as an analyst of just about anything.  He doesn’t do the work. He goes as far as a first impression and stops.  From the very start of the “substantive” part of the piece:

1) I think the best teenage athletes seem to be gravitating to other sports, not football.

Admittedly, this is only an observational view. But my eyes tell me that both baseball and basketball are seeing a surge in big athletic kids—that is, a bunch of young men that traditionally look more like football players than baseball or basketball players. More and more, I find myself seeing someone such as Aaron Judge or Boogie Cousins and thinking, They would be a great defensive end, tight end, wide receiver or even quarterback. I’m convinced that even just 10 years ago they would have been putting on helmets.

Look:  I don’t disagree with the point Todd goes on to make — that the NFL is likely underestimating the long term risk it faces as the cumulative risks of football become clearer and clearer.  But there is exactly nothing in what Todd says above that supports a conclusion that premier youth atheletes are choosing other sports over football.  Nada. Zip, zero, nuthin’.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last decade or so of politics, it is that the gut feelings, the “observational view,” the assumptions-not-in-evidence held (often unconsiously) by the elite commentariat are really dreadful guides to both process and (especially) the substance of politics and policy.  Here Todd confirms that such half-assed, privileged, deeply lazy approaches to complicated subjects is the default.  It’s what he does; it may be who he is.

Now one crappy column on a subject off his beat, likely written in the nooks and crannies of a busy (if not fruitful) working life is a thin reed on which to build an indictment of one person, much less his whole guild.  But hell. It’s Saturday; I’m off to do my real work in a moment; and why should the Village have all the license and all the fun.  Chuck Todd’s risible SI scribblings are at least a measure of the man, if not the full spec.  Todd himself is a member in very good standing of a guild of commentators who hold the most influential ground in American political media…

Would it be wrong to speculate that the flaws evident in this bit of off-topic fishwrap do in fact reveal the awful truth of the Village in all its infamy?

It would be wrong not to.

Annnnnnd….that was much ado about precious little. The blog will happily refund your full cost of admission.

Image: Jan Roos, Narcissus at the Spring, 1638 or earlier.

 

 

Advertisements

David Brooks Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

June 20, 2017

One sentence from today’s column that captures the pure, distilled essence of the alt-hack that is our BoBo:

And yet it has to be confessed that, at least so far, the Whitewater scandal was far more substantive than the Russia-collusion scandal now gripping Washington.

It’s all there.

The disembodied passive voice to give pulled-from-the-ass opinion the aura of ex-cathedra authority:  “it has to be confessed…” Oh yeah? Says who?

The careful weasel phrase, a scurrying for plausible deniability when this infallible dictum falls prey to fact:  “at least so far…”

The statement, presented as general consensus, that is, in fact, false:  “Whitewater…was far more substantial than…’ anything at all is simply false, and Brooks himself was both a driver of that falsehood and was and is perfectly positioned to know better than what he writes here.

The Whitewater “scandal,” as just about every non-interested party now knows, was a steaming heap of bullshit, ginned up by Republican operatives (Ted Olson!) in an attempt to damage the Clintons and the Democratic Party.

Brooks reminds his reader that he was the op-ed editor of The Wall Street Journal at the time his page was running piece after piece about the scandal that he claims was substantive — and yet, in (again) classic BoBo self-protective weasel writing, now writes “I confess I couldn’t follow all the actual allegations made in those essays…”

In other words, don’t blame him if his paper and his page retailed great steaming heaps of bullshit that as he now writes, “in retrospect Whitewater seems overblown….” (Note again the tactical use of the grammar that evades responsibility, that subjunctive “seems.”  Translation: my paper on my watch spread bullshit for partisan ends, and but all that can be said (see what I did there) is that the outcome of our work “seems” … not so great.  Nice obfuscation if you can get (away with) it.) (Yes. I like parentheses. Sue me.)

Where was I?  Oh yeah:  don’t contemn Brooks for that overblown false scandal, but take his word for it that that steaming heap of bullshit was nonetheless more real than the Russian allegations.

Oh?

No.

I don’t think I have to go into detail for this crowd about the depth and range of the Trump-Russia nexus. It may be that Brooks is trying to be clever here, and define the scandal purely as a question of whether Trump himself (and or his campaign) directly conspired with agents of Putin’s government to affect the election.

That would make that sentence yet more carefully parsed to give him cover as things like money laundering and influence peddling details accumulate.  In that, we may be seeing a preview of the approach Republican opinion-framers will attempt later on: Trump’s corrupt, but not a traitor.  But even allowing for such fine dissection of the growing scandal, there’s plenty of confirmed evidence of interaction between Trump’s campaign and significant Russian folks (see, e.g., Sessions and Kislyak).  In other words: Whitewater ended as it began with no evidence of Clinton wrongdoing.  Trump-Russia already has on public record significant and troubling revelations.

There’s a pattern here. The New York Times has given prime opinion acreage to now two partisan hack/WSJ refugees in Brooks and Bret Stephens. Both employ a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger voice to construct in the language of rueful reason narratives that directly bolster Republican positions and personalities. Both use that seeming reasonableness, the above-the-fray tone of impartial and unchallenged judgment, to say things that are clearly not true.  Those lies directly undercut reporting happening within the Grey Lady’s newsroom put out.  Op-ed editor Bennett, executive editor Baquet and publisher Sulzberger are all OK with that, it seems.

David Brooks tells plausible falsehoods in defense of some of the worst people in the history of American politics. The Times lets him; more, it has done so for decades promoting a career hack/flack to a position of influence far beyond anything his lack of rigor and intellectual dishonesty should ever have earned.

This is a big problem.

Image: Frits van den Berghe, The Idiot By The Pond1926

Reds Under The Bed

December 10, 2016

The non-revelation that Vladimir Putin actively tried to select the next US President — and succeeded — has been pretty well covered by now.  I just want to add one question that’s been bugging me all day:

What did the Trump campaign do, and when did they do it?

We do know a few things.  Michael Flynn was both a national security advisor to the Trump campaign and has ties to the Russian propaganda apparatus.  Former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort has worked for Russia and allied states, and has a rich, long-held trove of contacts with the state apparatus there.  Donald Trump himself famously asked Putin to hack Hillary’s emails.  I’m sure if we had the same access to Trump’s, his campaign’s and the RNC’s communications that we had to Hillary’s and her team’s, we could well have some very interesting reading.

Short of that, it seems a basic question to ask of the Trump circle.  Did any of them conspire with a foreign power to manipulate (steal) the election?

The fundamental crisis we face, of course, is that a foreign power fucked with our election, which ended in the result sought by an adversary.  But while that’s the obvious disaster,  it gets worse if the Russians had active co-conspirators within the Trump camp.  That moves them from illegitimate, to traitors.

513px-giotto-kissofjudas

That may seem a stretch — but given the extremely well documented Russian connections that obtained in the Trump campaign through the crucial months of the general election, it’s seems to me that it’s imperative we get real answers as to who did what to whom over here.  This is where I hope Marty Barron has his people working (I’ve given up on Dean Baquet).  And I hope there are folks at the CIA pissed off enough to help out.

Whoever does it, this really is a time that puts the idea of the elite press to the test.  Either they cover Trump and all his high crimes and misdemeanors, or they give up, and the American experiment lurches to its increasingly imminent collapse.

I live not in expectation, but in hope.*

*Hope is the thing with feathers. The one Dick Cheney kept trying to shoot out of the sky.

Image: Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas)betw. 1306 and 1308.

Peter Thiel Makes The Case For Confiscatory Taxation On Billionaires

May 25, 2016

This broke over at Forbes and is bouncing around the ‘nets today:

Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and one of the earliest backers of Facebook FB +0.49%, has been secretly covering the expenses for Hulk Hogan’s lawsuits against online news organization Gawker Media. According to people familiar with the situation who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Thiel, a cofounder and partner at Founders Fund, has played a lead role in bankrolling the cases Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hogan, brought against New York-based Gawker. Hogan is being represented by Charles Harder, a prominent Los Angeles-based lawyer.

Whatever you think of Gawker, Hulk Hogan, or Thiel himself, this is yet one more way in which extreme income inequality destroys civic life. It’s actually worse than many, given the clandestine way it deepens the corruption of the system that could (in theory) provide a check on the damage that purchased legislative and executive branches can do.

Lazarus_in_Heaven_and_the_Rich_Man_in_Hell_LACMA_M.88.91.91

Here’s a take on the poison here revealed from Caterina Fake:

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years.

Fake notes that much of such litigation is actually a form of speculation, in which rich folks gamble on the possibility of significant payout.  One can imagine the “free market” argument that such funding levels the playing field, allows those who’ve suffered real harm to recoup, and thus makes the legal system a more efficient and effective dispute-settling and behavior-changing engine. But Thiel’s pursuit of Gawker illuminates what this leads to in the real world:

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case.

For the very rich, this is a win however it goes, and damn the collateral damage.

Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit.

I leave it to the actual lawyers to weigh in on the ethics (and consequences, if any) for such a litigation approach. For myself, I’ll note that what you have here is an insanely rich guy gaming the legal system to destroy a media outfit that pissed him off.

And with that, one more thought:  Franklin Roosevelt created the social welfare state in the US as an alternative to revolution.  Today’s plutocrats might want to think about that.  In plainer terms: to remain democracies, modern democractic states need to tax polity-buying wealth out of individual hands; income taxes and a levy on inheritances.  A 90% rate that kicks in well below an estate value of a billion bucks seems a good place to start.

A blogger can dream…

Image: Cornelius Bos, Lazarus in Heaven and the Rich Man in Hell, 1547.

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

On David Carr

February 13, 2015

Update: see the error correction (in bold) below.

I know a lot of people who are both tremendously fortunate and terribly abandoned today. They are the ones who knew well David Carr,who died yesterday.

You can find testimony today to the depth of feeling Carr, the New York Times’ media correspondent, inspired across the mediascape among those who worked with him, knew him, benefited from his kindness and his rigor .  Here’s A. O. Scott’s obituary; Anthony De Rosa’s remembrance; Muck Rack’s compilation of tributes; Weigel’s take. I’m sure there’s much more — this is just a semi-random starter kit as it came over the Twitter cascade.  Speaking of Twitter, Seth Mnookin’s tweet stream is hard for me to read, only because the loss there is palpable; Ta-Nehisi Coates is as sharp as we’ve all come to expect. And for the man himself, this sampler of quotes is as good a place as any to begin to measure the loss (more here) — but the snap of one liners (or two or three) shouldn’t obscure the work itself.  He was a great and meticulous reporter — and, to my eye and ear, a better writer.

Edwaert_Colyer_Still_Life_ca_1696

I’ve got nothing really to add to the tributes above, and those flowing in from all over the mediascape.  I met Carr once, a couple of years ago.  Ta-Nehisi was a visiting scholar at MIT then, and Seth was and is my colleague in the science writing program.  Carr had hired and molded both of them at critical points in their careers, and they invited him up to give a talk. (Alas, not recorded. Damn.)  I was there, and went out for the ritual post-colloquium dinner.  Carr was great in both settings.  Talking to him at the restaurant, I was struck by what those who knew him much better keep emphasizing:  he was a magnificent listener, which helped make him the formidable reporter he was.  With old friends he would banter and bust with the best of them. But with those he hadn’t met, like me, he’s peel back layers of conversation ever so gently, utterly implacably — you never felt the probe until it was lodged in your intestines.

My impression of him on that one meeting again tallies with all the actually informed stuff you can read:  what a nice man! What a smart one! Tough as shit.

But that was it.  One conversation, a pleasant evening and off home in the night.  The sense of loss I feel as I write this is wholly disproportionate to that level of acquaintance.

I think I know why.  I’ve got a couple of possible reasons. The first is evidenced by the links above:  he was simply one of the best working journos around, and for very many on the job  he was proof that it was possible to be that kind of a reporter, that good a one.  Recall, he was at the Grey Lady, the mothership, the freaking New York Times.  Can’t get more establishment than that, and yet Carr was proof that you could be the kind of journalist for whom the story and not the status or the institution or the common “wisdom” was all that mattered.  You get the sense reading what Times folks have to say today that they really feel it — that the paper needed Carr as much as or more than the reverse, to keep front and center within the building what it can and should mean to write for the most influential newspaper in the English-speaking world.

The other reason is a bit more personal.  In the math wheeze, there is something called an Erdös number.  Your Erdös number is determined by how many people stand between you and a co-authored paper with Paul Erdös, a famously collaborative thinker who wrote papers with on the order of 500 colleagues.  If you were one of those co-authors your Erdös number was 1.  If you didn’t, then you would get the lowest number of any of your co-authors on any paper +1.

Carr was a notoriously tough-but-fair mentor, and there’s something of Erdös in him, in that those he trained carry something of his sense of what it takes to be a reporter and a writer into everything else they do.  I have the good fortune to know pretty well two folks with a Carr number of 1 — Seth and Ta-Nehisi, as mentioned above.  They are both writers, thinkers and people I admire enormously.   I take inspiration from them both.  Both of them have Ta-Nehisi has told me several times what it meant to have Carr work him over at the Washington City Paper.   His body of work and more, the way they approach the craft as I’ve seen it up close bear the marks (block that metaphor!) that Carr left on their hides as they were learning under his unsparing eye.  I’m taking notes all the time from those two (and many others, of course) — as I did and do from Carr’s own writing.  So I guess in this loose sense I’d claim a Carr number of 2.   I can tell you, though, that the difference between 1 and 2 is not one of species or even genera…we’re talking orders at least here.

It’s a sad day.  But more, it’s one that’s bereft.  Carr left a circle of influence that vastly exceeds his already large circle of friends and fortunate co-workers.  The loss reverberates there.

Image:  Edwaert Colyer, Still Lifec. 1696.

For a Good Time In Cambridge — Hendrik Hertzberg/Ta-Nehisi Coates Edition (reminder)

October 29, 2013

Hey, all you Greater-Boston folk, a reminder:

Tonight at 7 at MIT, Ta-Nehisi Coates will talk to Hendrik Hertzberg about the state of opinion journalism…

Lesser_Ury_Im_Cafe_Bauer_1898

and the related matter of the debased (my word) state of American politics.

Location:  32-123, which translated out of MIT-speak, denotes the big first floor lecture hall in the Gehry-designed building known as the Stata Ctr., located at the corner of campus where Vassar St. hits Main. See this interactive map for details.

Ta-Nehisi, as most here know, is a blogger and senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, writing about race, culture, politics, history, hip-hop, e-gaming, French language studies and anything else that comes to his notice.  Winner of the National Magazine Award for his essay “Fear of a Black President” he is also, to my great pleasure, my colleague in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program.  Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker led the New Republic won three NMAs, while taking home the hardware (is there any?) for his solo commentary at the home of the monocle and the top hat.  As I noted the first time I plugged this event, “he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  He takes writing very, very seriously — talking to one of Ta-Nehisi’s classes yesterday he let them know that the craft isn’t just hard for beginners, that he still sweats and agonizes over getting right with every single piece he publishes.

In other words — whether you want to know about the craft or the content of major-league political analysis, this should be a fun evening.

For those of you who cannot make your way to 02139 tonight, we will be recording the event, and though it may take a little bit, we’ll get the video up in reasonably short order.  I’ll let y’all know when and as that happens.

Image:  Lesser Ury, In the Cafe Bauer,  1898