Posted tagged ‘media’

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…)

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.

Work the Referee

November 15, 2013

1932.262~02

Following DPM’s post below on Michael Shear’s ACA website woes = Katrina piece, let me urge y’all to let Mr. Shear know directly of the problems you find in the piece.

Click on the link just below his bio to email him.  Again, please do so firmly, but politely.  The goal is to get better work out of Mr. Shear in the future, not to leave him in a “f**k the hippies” state of rage.

What I told him, more or less, is that most of his piece ain’t bad — he does note, albeit not strongly enough for my taste, that a crappy website aint’t a physical disaster, and that Republicans have set obstacles in the way of fixing Obamacare, a level of obstruction that Bush never had to deal with. The biggest problem lies, I said, with his lede, his framing of the story as one in which Obama’s troubles are the same as Bush’s accepts the premise of the Republican opposition. Instead, I said, he should have begun by asking if that attempted framing were true…and then the rest of the story would have followed a much more sensible (and useful) path

In other words: the goal is to get Shear from building stories on crap foundations — and if you can let him know you noticed this time in a way that suggests he can do better — that can  help.

Work the refs people. It’s part of politics these days, and if we want out side to come out on top, we gotta do so.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count1898.

Least Surprising News Ever, Media Edition

September 11, 2013

Via  Peter Lauria at Buzzfeed, Tina Brown and the Daily Beast are parting ways:

According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, The Daily Beast parent company IAC, owned by media mogul Barry Diller, does not plan to renew [Tina] Brown’s contract when it expires in January.

What might be driving this (not very) unexpected news?  The obvious, as reported in The Atlantic Wire:

At the end of August, AdWeek said The Daily Beast was on track to lose $12 million this year in a report that strongly foreshadowed today’s news….as AdWeek put it, Diller’s “goodwill may be running out.” Diller lost a fortune when IAC bought Newsweek, merged it with the Beast, and then sold it off again. He recently admitted that buying the newsweekly was a “mistake.”

Henri_Rousseau_-_The_Merry_Jesters

I’ve met Barry Diller all of exactly once, making a presentation to him for a very ill-starred media venture sponsored by another mogul.  He was polite beyond his reputation, perfectly attentive to a project in which he had no interest, and left me with just one impression:  not a man for whom you’d like to lose a pile of bucks.

One thing though — given the record of Tina Brown’s Beast before Diller bought it — what the hell did he expect?  Someday I may rouse myself to write at my usual logorrheaic length about how the failure of the Beast/Newsweek experiment — truly the least surprising possible outcome of that endeavor — is another demonstration (if any were needed) that elite media grasp of modern audiences and the shifting ownership of cultural capital falls somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic.  But today’s not that day (I hear you saying “for which the FSM make us truly grateful” — yah bastids).

But as long as you’re sticking around: one more thing.  My standard first half of a title on a Megan McArdle post is “MM is always wrong part (n).  And that’s true, of course, when it comes to matters pollitical, economic, intellectual, culinary, and pretty much anything to do with the actual stuff of what she writes.  But I have to concede that she has not-terrible career judgment.  I thought she was making a profoundly dumb move when she left the Atlantic for the Beast (unless she was pushed, which would make Tina the more of a sap for offering a damaged brand a soft landing).  But even if it was purely an error for MM to bail on The Atlantic, she was on top of her game when she abandoned the good ship Beast for her current Bloomberg News gig — as I kind of wondered in this post :*

I’m wondering if McArdle’s finely honed survival skills are in play, in which case we may be getting a leading indicator on the prospects for our Beastly friends.

Bye, bye, Tina. You’ll not be missed, but please go away.

*Andrew Sullivan’s turn to self-publishing doesn’t look that bad a move either, even if he hasn’t yet met his numbers.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Merry Jesters 1906.

For Good Times In Cambridge

April 11, 2013

Three quick notices of fine talks to attend at MIT over the next week:

My colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and Seth Mnookin will be tag-teaming Mark McKinnon — yeah this Mark McKinnon — in just a little bit, 5 p.m. this afternoon.  Ta-Nehisi will be conversing/interviewing McKinnon, and Seth will moderate in this latest in the MIT Communications Forum series of talks. It’ll be happening up in MIT’s new Media Lab building, which is a beaut, on the sixth floor, or, in MIT speak, in E14-633.  The interactive map is your friend.

Here’s the abstract for the event:

In the 2012 presidential campaign, a handful of media outlets deployed “fact-checking” divisions which reported the lies and distortions of the candidates.  Some commentators have argued that these truth-squads exposed the inadequacy of standard print and broadcast coverage, much of which seems more like entertainment than news.  This forum will examine the changing role of the political media in the U.S.  Is our political journalism serving democratic and civic ideals? What do emerging technologies and the proliferation of news sources mean for the future?

It should be interesting, and, of course, for the Balloon Juice snarlers, McKinnon’s role as a founder of the No Labels brand of (in my view) faux centrism might elicit some fun questions.  One note:  the room is fairly small, and while I don’t think this event has been hugely publicized, there might be a premium on seating.

Self-portrait_by_Salvator_Rosa

Next, (and giving y’all a little more notice) Seth and Ta-Nehisi will converse with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in  Building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses.)  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  Should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.  Again 6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, give yourself a little extra time.

Finally, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day after Carr’s, April 18 at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

Image:  Salvator Rosa, Self Portrait, 1645.  The caption reads in translation: “Be Quiet, Unless Your Speech Be Better Than Silence.”

The Day The Newsweekly Died

March 29, 2013

Let’s say you are the editor of essentially the last rag standing, the final remnant of the once insanely influential tribe of dead-tree general-interest newsweeklies.  Let’s say you are the lord of Time.

Now, we all know Time is increasingly just another one of time’s victims, a dinosaur in a world filled with post-CGI-meteor digital mammals (extended grotesque metaphor in honor of the party of the first part).  So if you’re the editor, you’ve got a tough trick:  how to cut through all those pesky byting insects? (Consistency? we don’t got no consistency.  We don’t need no Kinky People Can Often Find Good Sex consistency!)

And finally, let’s say you have no moral compass; you don’t care about what’s true, or about the pain your decisions could inflict on millions of people touched by the subject of your cover story.

That’s when you come up with this:

Time Cancer cover

It’s not possible. We’re nowhere near what’s promised on that cover.  Hell, even conceptually, you can’t “cure” “cancer.”  It’s a family of illnesses that share certain characteristics (most importantly, uncontrolled cell division) but that present a whole host of different pathologies and possibilities for treatment; no matter what advances may come, no one who can count past three expects some unitary cure.  But rather than rant on, I’m just going to outsource my rage and disdain to my friend (and MIT colleague) Seth Mnookin, writing yesterday in Slate:

 Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazine’s April 1 issue: “HOW TO CURE CANCER.” It’s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: “Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.”

Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, that’s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes combined.

According to Seth, the actual story is more a squib than the blatant idiocy implied by the cover, which is a minor relief.  But the cover on its own is hugely damaging — and Seth gets into what makes it so before coming to the heart of the matter:

Which brings us to the real problem with Time’s headline, which is not that it’s wrong, or even that it might create funding problems for future cancer researchers—it’s that in the context of a fatal disease with excruciatingly painful treatment options, it’s simply cruel.

Exactly.  Cancer has harrowed my own family — non-small-cell lung cancer took my mother ten days before my scheduled wedding, for one example — so I know to the bone what it feels like to encounter witless fantasies like this one.  But it shouldn’t require such a loss to grasp the fact that you don’t get to put the word “cancer” and the word “cure” in the same sentence — hell the same paragraph — unless you’ve cleared the wards and are carrying some folks to Stockholm in sedan chairs.  Go read Seth — and spit on the ground in front of the display everytime you see one of these.

Oh…one more thing: if you had any doubt that the newsweeklies had fully and fatally jumped the shark, doubt no more.