Posted tagged ‘New York Times’

Things I Hate #476.4: Sloppy Writing About Cancer

June 2, 2012

In Thursday’s New York Times Andrew Pollack wrote a mostly unobjectionable, informative piece on an innovation in treatment for a variety of cancers.  The trick he described involves attaching chemotherapeutic agents to antibodies that bind to specific markers on cancer cells — compounds dubbed antibody-drug conjugates.  Such therapies aim at more precise targeting of cancer drugs, which researchers, drug companies and patients hope will yield more effective results with fewer side effects.

Pollack lays out the basic technology in the piece nicely, and he frames the science within the usual sorts of anecdotes about patients on some of the drugs under trial…all pretty bog-standard medical reporting.

So why am I pissed off?

This sentence:

By harnessing antibodies to deliver toxic payloads to cancer cells, while largely sparing healthy cells, the drugs are a step toward the “magic bullets” against cancer first envisioned by Paul Ehrlich, a German Nobel laureate, about 100 years ago.

Two thoughts:  first, the lesser offense, the phrase “envisioned by Paul Ehrlich, a German Nobel laureate,” is an attempt to assert unearned authority.  The dreamt-of “magic bullets” gain a quality of respectability from association with some long-dead smart guy.

That Nobel cover helps set up the second, greater claim, and the more damaging flaw in this piece: the implied outcome for someone actually receiving the hinted-at magic bullet.

Pollack, were he here, might try stop me at this point, noting that he only suggests “a step toward” the miraculous promise of a bullet to strike cancer down — and not that cure itself.  And so he does.

But really, the whole framing of magic bullets  is the problem.  Pollack gives evidence of why this is so — at least by implication — later in the piece.  The patient in his lede has breast cancer.  for breast cancer.  Much further down the piece we learn that the antibody-drug conjugate treatment she receives only applies to those 20% of breast cancers that express an excess of a particular protein.  That speaks to one reason why magic bullets remain so elusive almost half a century into the “war on cancer:”  cancer is not a disease. Rather it’s a family of illnesses that share the property of unconstrained cell division — but respond often very differently to given choices of treatment.

Again, there’s no doubt in my mind that Pollack knows of the real harm to be done by talk of cures for cancer; almost all of the article is sober enough about the gains achieved so far by this approach (real, but not curative) and of the limits the given therapies face.

But even good reporters can fall prey to the easy phrase or the inaccurate shorthand of the beat.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter.  No one cares if a football writer uses the phrase “smash mouth” in every piece about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry.

Cancer is different.  The hunger for a cure is obviously and understandably overwhelming. But such hopes run straight into the basic science of cancer — which has undone seemingly imminent magic bullets time after time.

New hope, the prospect of more time, improved quality of life, and — with good fortune — increased remission rates.  Those are all fine as ways to frame the real advances in cancer therapy.  Present them with all the optimism one may reasonable feel.  But to imply that we’ve moved meaningfully closer to what amounts to a cure?  Until and unless that’s really true, it is beyond misleading to suggest that particular advances offer more than they do.  Very rapidly we’re into the territory of the cruel.

So yeah, even as a throwaway.  Even with the imprimatur of a Nobel laureate, alive or dead.  Even with good intentions. This kind of carelessness bugs the living crap out of me.

No snark, no jokes, a dark subject, no fun.  Nothing new here, either; I’m guessing everyone reading this has a pretty good idea that cancer is a bear of a disease(s).

What can I say?  This one strikes close to home.

Image: Zacharias Wagner, Crab, from Thier Buch (Animal Book), 1641.

Just In Case Anyone Was Worried About A Sudden Shortage…

January 13, 2012

…one more thought on Truth-Vigilante-gate.

I certainly agree with what seems like every front pager at my other bloggy home  Balloon Juice (some more than once!)* feels about the ludicrousness of anyone even having to ask whether or not it might make sense to call out lies in print.  But it still seems to me that for all the fun at the expense of the Grey Lady, one key element in the story has been underplayed.

That would be that covering politics today is actually a genuinely different and more difficult task than it was back when folks like me (folks I knew) first got into the business at places like the Times.

The problem is really simple.  The current Republican elite simply has no problem lying.

In this short post I’m not going to retail even a tithe of the examples available, instead outsourcing just a taste of the tsunami of bullshit that constitutes GOPster public argument to Steve Benen, who himself confines his review to the bullshit spewed by the current frontrunner, that 3-dimensional caricture of Eliot’s trope, one Willard Mitt Romney.

He/they lie all the time.  About anything.  But — and this is the key — for all the “politics ain’t beanbag” and “they all do it” reflexes, this really is a new (ish) phenomenon.

Now, I’m not saying that American politics hasn’t included a lot of lying for a very long time.  But the difference now is that it’s not just the agents — John Adams’ rumoristas or the Swift Boat scum — but the principals themselves who are now willing to retail and repeat direct falsehoods into microphone after microphone.

That’s hard to confront, even for experienced hacks:**  most of us don’t think people will flat out lie to our faces — especially when the lie is easily checked.  When I got started as a reporter, I was certainly trained to expect sources to spin, dissemble, shape their accounts.  But the idea that they would default to flat out lying, as opposed to retreating to it when pressed — that really wasn’t the expectation.

The goal was to write a story in which the spin was unwound.  If you could do that — demonstrate through the totality of your reporting how, say, jobs lost to downsizing were either corporate raiding at its worst or the best outcome for what would otherwise be a bankrupt business — then you’d done your job.

So, yes:  to the question of whether the Times or any journalistic operation should become  “truth vigilantes,” the answer is, obviously, yes.  Still, it’s important to remember that the Times  and its reporters face this problem specifically because the Mitt and his merry men have made the gap between what they say and what actually is so deep and so wide.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone here.  But it is important to condemn the greater sin as well as the lesser. It is genuinely difficult for the individual journalists tasked with the job of covering the election this year to do that job well  because a forty+ year campaign to derange our politics has come to full flower in the Romney campaign.  (Not to mention in GOP politicking and governance across the country.  Think Scott, Daniels, Kasich, Walker, Perry, and all the rest.)

Root causes matter.

*Plus, it seems, all those others on ‘branes in the bloggy multiverse.  I’m not even going to bother to link; throw a rock in this quarter of Blogistan and you’ll hit something relevant on every bounce.
**I’m using the word here in its Fleet St. sense, with love.
Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In the Cafe, 1898

Eternal Vigilance…

August 28, 2011

… is the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man, you know.

And while “liberty” is rapidly rising to the level of “patriotic” as a word as hollow as Annie Dillard’s frog, all of John Philpot Curran’s fury still holds iwhen we’re talking the defense of our own minds in the face of the relentless, repetitive, numbing, booming bullshit machine of the right.

Case in point?  The usually estimable David Leonhardt, economics correspondent and soon-to-be Washington bureau chief for The New York Times.  In today’s Week in Review section, he’s written a mostly fine piece on the vexing question of why Bush appointee Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has led the central bank to its current state of inaction in the face of all the economic hardship the United States now endures.

Most of the piece is on the money — so go read it. In brief(ish…remember who’s blogging–ed.) Leonhardt notes, correctly, that within the academic community both liberal and conservative economists are having a robust debate about exactly what the Fed can and should be doing.  But, he documents, the Fed has essentially collapsed the public debate to whether we should worry about essentially flat inflation at every waking moment, or merely most of them.

Leonhardt accurately diagnoses the incentives that make this intellectual vapidity the soft option for Fed chief and his colleagues:

Mr. Bernanke knows that if he errs on the side of passivity — worrying more about inflation risks than unemployment — he risks only a modest flogging from colleagues and politicians.

He even takes the next step and correctly identifies the reason why the penalty to be feared for taking action is assymetrically worse than that for the rolling disaster we now endure while the engineer dozes at the switch:

If he leans the other way, he risks being accused of, well, treason.

Yup:  he calls out Rick Perry by name and the GOP by clear implication for creating a political context in which the price of acting to aid the economy is a traitor’s badge.

So, Leonhardt knows this bully-boy intellectual thuggery is happening, and he knows its bad, and he talks about options to be taken even now — and all this is a good thing for whatever chance we have of wresting the economic debate back from the strategically ignorant who are transferring wealth, public and private, from the middle class to the richest among us.

But despite this quite explicit truth-to-power approach, you can find in this piece evidence of just how destructively successful the right has been in conditioning the basic structure of political debate over the last decade and more.  Leonhardt talks about the organization of the Fed as one of the real impediments to the adoption of policies that might trade general economic advantage for pain for the banks.  He talks, reasonably enough, of Obama’s choice of inflation moderates, rather than doves for the appointments he controls.  But then he says this:

The Obama administration has also been slow to fill some Fed openings. At least one of the 12 seats has been vacant since Mr. Obama took office, and two are now.

And whose fault is that?  Leonhardt’s account clearly blames Obama and his administration.  This is false.  The Obama team was slow — that part is true; but the responsibility for current vacancies lies squarely with a GOP Senate minority determined to block any move that might lead to an effective economic policy.

Leonhardt himself certainly knows this.

How can I be so sure?

Because his own newspaper has fully covered the key events that expose Republican knavery on these appointments.  First, Obama made appointments to all the vacancies more than fifteen months ago.  The nominees were all economics thinkers of the kind that Leonhardt seems to feel is missing from current Fed discussions.  What’s more, Leonhardt undoubtedly knows the story of my MIT colleague, Peter Diamond, an expert on unemployment and social insurance of eminence sufficient to have earned him the most recent Nobel Prize in economics, whom Obama nominated for a Fed governorship three times.

Diamond, recall, was blocked by career sucker-off-the-federal-teat Richard Shelby, point man for the destroy-the-country-to-save-it cabal now operating under the name of the Republican Party.

On his withdrawal from the nominating process, Diamond, again in the Times, pointed out what a disaster the Shelby doctrine for appointments would be for the future of intelligent policy making, of governance.

I’m picking on Leonhardt here not because he’s complicit in all that knavery.  You can tell from his writing over several years that he did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday; he knows who’s doing what, and for what reasons, and he’s spent a considerable amount of time exposing lots of Republican nonsense on everything from — well, stupid inflation tricks at the Fed now to GOP misdirection on the healthcare debate.  He is, genuinely, one of the good guys, and I’m extremely happy that he will be leading the Grey Lady’s Washington coverage heading into the next election cycle.

But that’s my point:  the notion that both sides do it, seems to be almost surgically implanted in the current journalistic frame for political reporting — and that makes it hard to think and write clearly about contentious issue even for those who clearly understand that both sides don’t, at least not in remotely symmetrical ways.  And the constant dinning of Obama’s culpability for more or less everything, including the damn four hours of rain delay in yesterday’s games at Fenway, makes it way to easy to grab the first factoid — Fed vacancies! — as evidence of mutual malfeasance.

But that means that Leonhardt’s readers don’t get the correct story.  Just to belabor the obvious one last time: Leonhardt’s story boils down to the notion that the Fed is failing now for two reasons:  fear of the pressure brought by Republican hacks shouting “treason!” and(at least partially) the Obama failure to appropriately populate the Fed board. But if you don’t know that the same Republican brown shirts shouting down reasoned deliberation are the ones making it impossible for Obama to execute his nominating power, then you can’t figure out who’s responsible for our current policy paralysis.

Eternal vigilance, baby.

Images:  Jean Clouet, Portrait of a Banker, 1522

Rembrandt, Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, 1630

The Beast In Me*

May 28, 2011

I’m still enjoying that special lassitude that comes from trying to persuade my bone marrow to pump out enough red blood cells to deal with the oxygen pressure at 2,600 meters — Hello Bogota!….

…but I’ve been watching this blog go ape over the last few days (in a good way) and feel the need to see if I can’t contribute something to the show.

So here’s a bit of meta-media snark I worked on a bit ago, only to see it vanish into the end-of term swamp:

I know that the party-strewn resume of Tina Brown is of little moment (very little) compared with all the examples of GOP folly and malice chronicled there, everywhere, and here, today and everyday.   Even so I just can’t quite get past the astonishingly inadvertant MSM self-revelation in the Times Sunday Magazine profile of Brown — that once and present editor, now running both her upper-middle-brow web project, The Daily Beast, and that moss-covered perpetual second sister, Newsweek.

This paragraph was the first to set me off:

The Beast, as Brown calls it, is a long way from profitability, it’s an impressive achievement whose relatively few visitors (just under four million uniques per month) belie its cultural influence.

Its cultural influence?  I mean, I know I’m out of it, but except for some mild fun at Meghan McCain’s expense, and a kind of genteel averting of eyes at some of the more vacuously embarrassing conventional wisdom retreads that showed up there early on, I can’t recall any real engagement with yon wee beastie.


Rather, what it actually seems to be, as the Times can’t quite avoid saying, is an expensive but mediocre performer by the metric that matters in the infotainment business:  people ain’t coming and the dollars aren’t following its diminuitive audience.  Losses last year, according to the article, reached a cool ten million.

Now I know that both Brown and her Boswell are trying to suggest that the place is still somehow influential, a shaper of minds and ideas.  But again, unless I’ve just completely missed it, no.

Hell, just to do due diligence I’ve been and come back to this post in the last five minutes to see what’s up there. [This visit took place more than a week ago.  Too lazy to repeat.]  Retreads of info about Bin Laden that is everywhere else on the web, including much more straight-news branded sites, a review of advice from Mika Brzezinski about how to ask for a raise, (Mika Brzinski!), complete with a description of the book party at which Morning Joe folks told the author how wonderful Mika is (scoop!…up to a point, Lady Evans) , a piece I refused to click on Osama Bin Laden and Michael Douglas as Viagra brothers…and you get the idea.

What a huge, holy hillock of who cares.

And then there is the searing instinct for the new, the zeitgeist of modern media and those who can bend it into new forms of making meaning.  As old friend Hendrick Hertzberg says, “Tina’s a revolutionary leader,” Hertzberg says.  Or not:

Brown’s early issues have been strewn with standbys from her Rolodex: Hillary Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Judith Regan, James Carville, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yup, when I think of media revolutionaries, Ahhhnold and Regan (she of the O. J. Simpson “confession“) are names that pop right to top of mind.

And then there are her plans to remake Newsweek. I can’t say I have had any interest in the magazine for decades, which is a symptom of the problem Brown was hired to address, of course.  But I’m not sure this is going to help:

A new section called Omnivore: Want has featured $2,100 Chanel shoes, a $6,500 Audi bicycle and a $10,000 Burberry “Python” trench, items that would not be within reach of your average newsmagazine reader but that would feel right at home in, say, Vanity Fair.

So the salvation of the newsweekly business is to turn them into smaller, more cheaply produced versions of the aspirational titles? Apparently yes:

“There’s a great kind of high-low, newsy, sexy thing that the European newsmagazines have,” Brown said. “They have this great sort of slightly freewheeling pagination, where they go from a great sexy picture of an expensive watch to Libya or something. So I’d like to have more of that feeling in Newsweek. I think that’s a great thing for a magazine, because that’s where we all sort of are now, we’re all multiplatformed, everything’s messed up with everything else.”

Ahh, the smell of word salad in the morning.  It’s not just that I have no desire to go from pictures of a fancy watch, say, or even of the good Bruni — Carla, of course — to the sight of wrecked lives…it’s that there are already folks who do this better, and Brown seems to be putting Newsweek into a familiar second banana kind of place:  chasing somebody else’s editorial vision and formula.

The multiplatform blather at the end of the quote is a subject for another day; here I’ll just say that the fact that this sounds exactly like traditional media spouting of about a decade ago, when the great idea was to dump print onto a web page and call it multimedia.

OK — that’s enough sideswipes at Tina Brown.  There’s a bigger (to me) point here: All of this appeared in the Times Magazine.

The real howlers here are not Brown’s — for all of the crass money-as-pheramone, Sully-chasing inanity attending this merger, she’s pursuing a recognizable strategy to pull a lazarus on Newsweek.  I’m not sure Dr. House himself could save that patient, but full marks for trying.

No, what really got me about this piece was what it confirms (again) about how the Village sees itself.  What does it say that a writer could write and an editor could pass with straight faces all that heavy breathing about the cultural significance of a place that provides a soft-landing for Judy Regan?

It tells me that it’s same-old, same-old over there.  There is an information cartel at the center of our national media, struggling to maintain its hold on the bytestream.  And, just to connect all this to the themes of this blog over the last few days, I’d say that the fact that the Times could produce such hagiography over the fact that Tina Brown is ruling a new roost for conventional, right-leaning hacktitutde tells us all a lot about why the mainstream media has found it so hard to cover even the basics about things that might actually interest the broad middle class audience the newsweeklies used to own.

*Couldn’t resist the title, not least because this title lets me post this:

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Images:  Poster for the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Great Shows Combined c. 1897.

Eduoard Manet, Running at Longchamp, 1864

Something to take our minds off woe while we wait…

January 8, 2011

I know that the thoughts of the community here, and mine certainly, are with Rep. Giffords, the wounded in that horrible incident, their families, and the loved ones who have been lost.

I know what my first reaction is to the shooting, beyond grief for the individuals directly afflicted and longing for a society where this does not happen, but I think John’s right, and not just because the facts aren’t all in.  I’m trying to leave space in my head and my heart just for those who have been so horribly touched by this before picking up my cudgel again in what surely should be purely political battles.

So, just to provide a moment’s distraction, let me point out an article in The  New York Times that reminds us that even in hard times, the kids can be all right, thank you very much.

In it, reporter Sam Dillon tells the story of William Fitzhugh’s work on The Concord Review, which publishes exemplary research papers (what I remember as term papers) by high school students.

Fitzhugh comes off as a complicated character, which is one way of saying that he sounds like he could be a total pain in ass.  And the fact that his journal now publishes almost exclusively work from private school students — while public school work used to have a much higher representation — reminds us of the fact that the barriers to membership in the elite are there and real, and growing higher.

But three quick quotes/thoughts.  First, Fitzhugh reminds us of the joy of encountering really good work.

Mr. Fitzhugh said he has so far been unable to find the right person to succeed him, and the review’s future as an online journal remains uncertain.

But when he feels discouraged, he said, a new essay will often arrive, like, say, the 11,000-word paper that came in the other day from a student in Hong Kong examining the history of scientific inquiry in China.

Suddenly he is thrilled anew that the review has called forth impressive work from a young scholar on the other side of the earth.

“It’s a great essay, and I can’t wait to publish it,” he said.

Second, on a truth I know to be real from my own work as a teacher of writing and documentary film-making:

Mr. Fitzhugh…taught history for a decade at Concord-Carlisle [Public] High School in Massachusetts. When he started teaching in 1977, he was advised by colleagues to assign only short papers, five to seven pages — if at all.

But well into his teaching career, he received a high school sophomore’s thoroughly researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union.

“That taught me I hadn’t been asking kids to work as hard as they could,” Mr. Fitzhugh recalled.

Amen and amen.  Students can do much more than they or you are sometimes prepared to believe.  If you don’t tell them that they can’t, they may delight you.  Moral, to self, as I prepare what I know to be a very demanding course: frame the assignments so that the students have a venue in which to do something satisfactory — while never eliminating the possibility of going for something extraordinary.

Last:  the piece provided a nice nod to oft-reviled teachers’ union chief Albert Shanker, who gave Fitzhugh early and eager support:

One of its earliest cheerleaders was Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who before his death in 1997 wrote at least two newspaper columns and personal letters to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, extolling the review and urging them to provide it with financial support.

“We know that most of the youngsters in our schools don’t write very much or very well,” Mr. Shanker wrote to the endowment’s president, Lynne Cheney, in 1991. “There are probably teachers who don’t believe their students are capable of putting together a decent paragraph. The Concord Review shows them how much our students are capable of.”

Exactly. Our kids are capable of great things.  It is good always, and especially at times like these, to be reminder of this.

And now, back to thinking about those in peril and in sorrow.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus at his desk, (Rembrandt’s son) 1655.

In Which the Times’ Daddy Complex Escapes the Opinion Page for Wider Pastures

June 6, 2010

I just read Matt Bai’s piece for this week’s “Week in Review” section of the NY Times.  In it he makes the perfectly sensible point that administrations are undone by the fact or appearance of not just one crisis unmet, but a series of them.

Then he goes blooey, trying to place the Obama adminstration and the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster into the framework he identifies in describing the demise of the Carter and the second Bush II presidencies.  The result is incoherence, leading up to yet another wail for Daddy President to come in and make all the bad stuff go away.

Bai begins his Obama thumbsucking this way:

The man-made catastrophe in the gulf does not yet constitute an existential threat to Mr. Obama’s presidency. (There’s not much Mr. Obama can do about it at this point, anyway, short of slapping on a scuba suit and sticking his hand in the pipe until the relief well is completed.)

Pretty sensible, right?  There is a lot of blame to go around for the Deepwater Horizon wreck, and this administration was at least caught unawares of the risks involved in deep water drilling, but no one is claiming that the primary failures were Obama’s.  And Bai seems to understand that when you are dealing with a very difficult technical problem, you can’t ask that much of the President.

But then he goes on to make his core point, that thought about accumulating appearances of incompetence or failure in the face of crisis.  In essence, he argues, that the Presidency is a matter of theater, and what matters most is being seen to be in control, and not necessarily  actually accomplishing anything in the crises.  He acknowledges, for example, that Carter was probably done in by runaway inflation, but it was everything from tanks in Afghanistan to the fall of Skylab (no, really) that made him vulnerable.  On the other side, Bai tries to argue that Clinton’s high approval ratings had as much to do with his calm after the Columbine shootings as it did with low inflation, budget surpluses and high employment whilst the nation was at peace.

This is, I think, handwaving of the highest order.  Bai caps his analysis by noting, again correctly, that one of FDR’s strengths coming in was to seem active in the face of the Great Depression.   But this misses the point that more of it worked than not, with the exception of the decision to go for deficit hawkery rather than continued stimulus — and that sustained rise in output and economic activity may have had rather more to do with FDR’s lasting popularity than the mere appearance of effort.

Worse, this passage in the piece signals the moment at which Bai goes in for full self-parody, telling us that “Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.”

“Just do something,” you can almost hear Bai scream at Obama.  “Anything.”  Doesn’t matter if, as Bai has already told us, he can’t.  He should be seen to be solving an unsolvable problem (or at least, one that is unsolvable swiftly and to order).

And why is that so important now, more so than in previous periods of real crisis in American history?  Why, of course, because we know that government cannot actually accomplish anything.

In part, this is probably a function of our having lost so much faith in the ability of government generally. There is, after all, a short distance between believing that government doesn’t solve our problems to believing that government actually causes them, and a lot of Americans in the last few decades have made the leap. If tar balls are turning up along the Gulf Coast, then some bureaucrat somewhere must be to blame — and why not the bureaucrat-in-chief?

Here he drinks the kool-aid. It would be a different (and better) piece if Bai were to think just a bit about his easy use of that convenient word “our” having lost faith — who is this we, and how were we constructed?  There is no data at all to support this statement — rather, it’s presented as a truth universally acknowledged, and one that emerges (as we will see) organically from social and economic change over the last forty years.  That Bai can’t bring himself to note the sustained thirty year attempt to erode government capacity under a succession of GOP presidents is a tell, in my view.

But the headscratcher in that paragraph is the assertion that, for non-tinfoil-hat-wearing Americans, it is a short step to go from saying government is incompetent then government blew up the damn well.  I don’t know the polling on this, but I’m going out on a limb and say this is Matt Bai just throwing sh*t out there.

Then there’s this

On a deeper level, though, we may be reacting to our own lack of control as workers, providers and parents. For about 40 years, since the onset of industrial decline, Americans have been trying to negotiate an increasingly unstable economic and cultural landscape, the effects of which are clear in any community where factories or farms (or often both) have withered away — substance abuse, failing schools, higher rates of crime and divorce. The chaos is all around us, and what we ask of a president, increasingly, is to somehow use the instruments of government to rein it in.

Huh?  Crime rates are down, and so are divorce rates (see table A3) over the last several years — both facts that have been widely reported, including just two weeks ago in the pages of the distinguished journalistic organ for which Mr. Bai also writes.

If the chaos is all around us it is a creation of something other than the facts on the ground — that GOP attempt to portray an American in crisis, for example.  And more important, it doesn’t give the reader any confidence in the analytical skills of a writer when they toss around such easy — and wrong — “facts.”  This is basic journalism here:  before you say something is so make sure that it is.

Let me offer just a guess, here.  I don’t deny that there is frustration and a sense of inadequate governmental response to problems right now. But I don’t think it has much to do with with a cultural landscape in which over forty years or so women got to decide if they wanted to have sex for fun and African Americans learned that they could in fact, by law, vote (this is my interpretation of what the term “cultural landscape” means, more or less).

The economic landscape is more important — but the actual angst derives from what this chart is telling us, and not from any existential sense that we aren’t a steel forging nation anymore.  (Bai, born in 1968, may not remember what deindustrialization actually felt like.  We are in a vastly different economy now, and its stresses are very different from those days as well.)

Bai goes on to write

The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.

Obama sees himself as an intellectual critic of government?  This Obama?  Not with you here, man.

The disconnect was on vivid display during Mr. Obama’s news conference late last month, when, despite professing full responsibility for his administration’s response to the leak, he referred several times to what the “federal government” was doing, as if he himself were merely a disappointed spectator like the rest of us.

I guess this means Bai doesn’t like it when a President acknowledges in his rhetoric that he cannot, in fact, scuba dive down to 5,000 feet below sea level and slam his own Presidential hand into a gushing oil well.  It might just take one or two other folks, an agency or two, you know, the federal government.

He railed coolly against the “cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship” between oil companies and the government, despite the fact that his administration had been governing for more than a year. And he seemed unbothered admitting to reporters that he didn’t know whether his own director of the Minerals Management Service had been fired or resigned.

I’ll give Bai this one: Obama should have his story clear on the MMS head.  The problem is that he is actually right about the cozy and corrupt relationships, which proliferated under his predecessor and have not yet been adequately dealt with.

By the time the president spoke again at the White House and then revisited the gulf on Friday, he seemed genuinely enraged at BP. The writer in him, perhaps, sensed that the oil from a snapped-off pipe on the ocean floor might yet come to signify something deeper about his administration.

Or maybe the President in him sensed that an ocean destroying gusher is something to be enraged about.

But chaos-weary Americans no longer needed him to share their outrage at the leak. They needed him to finally shut it off.

Except, Mr. Bai, see Mr. Bai above: he can’t do that, at least not without enormous technical effort led by the offending party, BP.

This is Bai just giving up.  (Or channeling his inner MoDo.)He can’t stand the difficulty of being an adult in the world — or rather, worse, he thinks the rest of us can’t — and he is reduced to wailing, “Papa!  Make it stop!”

I get that the polls are saying that Obama has taken a hit over his response to the oil gusher.  I think he should:  not because he could have solved it any sooner, but because he did in fact, in my view, fail to convey the scale of, the risks inherent, and the time commitment required to confront the crisis as pointedly and as swiftly as he should have.   He is the teacher in chief, and he didn’t quite get there this time.  Also, I think it is fair to say that the original government response was slow and disorganized, and needed to be much more rapidly reformed.

But this notion that all of America somehow thinks that over the last forty years of significant change in American culture, we’ve suddenly decided that we can only surivive if the President is our daddy is nonsense — or more formally, an assumption not in evidence that cannot therefore be taken as a reliable conclusion.

(And I’m not even going into the ahistoricity of Bai’s piece.  This is hardly the first time in American history when cultural and economic change has seemed overwhelming.  We’ve gotten by without parental Presidents in the past, and I rather expect we will do so again.)

So , to channel my inner Brad Delong even though it’s important to note that Matt Bai himself is far from terrible, most of the time)…we do need a better press corps.

Images:  Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux, “Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon with his daughter Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon,” 18th c.

Civilian Conservation Corps constructing road, 1933

Georgios Iakovidis, “The Naughty Grandson,” 1884.

Adventures in Lede Writing, Or Don’t Try This At Home Folks, NY Times Sports Page Department

May 4, 2010

The first two paragraphs of today’s Times piece on the Boston Celtics victory over King James and his Cleveland court, presented uncut, for your edification:

When the Boston Celtics sputtered through the regular season, they were dismissed with descriptions appropriate for a high-mileage car. They were old, slow and unreliable.

They might have leaked leads often this season — particularly in the fourth quarter — but they are still effective in large doses, and Rajon Rondo, their point guard, remains a blur on the court and a pest to opponents.

Mix metaphors much?*

This blog is ostensibly about science, especially in its intersection with public life.  It does a fair amount of politics/critique of political coverage (in which I try to nod, at least, at something informed by science defined pretty damn loosely). But every now and then the reader and writer in me just gets loose.

This is one of those times.

So, to recap:  the Celtics are a malfunctioning car; they leak (which I suppose a car could do, but is something I associate more with boats and buckets), they are a drug, an optical illusion and must be very well dressed, for a key player is identified as quite gnatty. (Sorry.)

Oh FSM, is this bad writing.

Not only do the images collide into incoherence, the whole thing just doesn’t make sense.  How does being a drug that is effective when consumed with Belushi-like incaution fix leaks? I mean, huh?

I know that sports pages have long been an incubator for self-consciously edge-teetering writing/writers.  Some of the habits have infected other sections, some places (see, e.g., the metaphor happy stylings that shows up from time to time in Science Times.)

But while the play of images can truly transport a reader into the world of the story, you have to remember:  you, the writer are the master and commander of that transport, and not the other way round.  The author of the passage above had long since lost control of his charges.  What you see there is what happens when the inmates (swarming one’s brain) take over the asylum.

Ah.  That feels better.

*I know, I know. But I got my professional writing start at Time Inc., where not only backward reeled the sentences until boggled the mind, but alliteration alleviated that aggravations of the day. Sometimes the apple just doesn’t fall that far from its aboriginal arborial accomodations.

Don’t forget to tip the nice people bringing you drinks — and come back, y’all.  I’ll be here all week.

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, “The Fifth Plague of the Egyptians:  The Plague (die Peste).”  1800.  O.K.:  I know it’s a reach. But I love Turner, and the title almost gets us there, and heck, it’s no more a non sequitur than anything in the original, so there.  Plus, it’s my blog. Also.

Dog Bites Man: Tom Friedman Mischaracterizes US Interventions.

July 15, 2009

Atrios sent me in search of Tom Friedman’s latest, and, like its author, it’s a bizarre piece of work.

Backstory:  back in the dawn of time, when giants still walked the earth (Mays in center field; McCovey at first base, Marichal on the mound), and humans preserved their communications in scratches on clay, Tom Friedman was a real reporter and a good one.  He spent time in country, he worked sources, he could write.

Somewhere along the line, though, during the Clinton years, I believe, he seems to have convinced  himself that his wealth of experience had given him the key to all mythologies.

Hence such trifles as his “argument” that we should invade Iraq to show that the US could punch somebody,* the endless iteration of “Friedman Units” and so on.

And now, with the war in Iraq now in its Pilate phase…

…Friedman comes up with a column that captures so many of his deficiencies in one place.  There is the complete abandonment of the reportorial function.

He doesn’t talk to folks, he tags along (his phrase) with US JCS Chairman Admiral McMullen.  Nice company, to be sure, but not that in which you will find unvarnished opinions being expressed.

He doesn’t seem even interested in testing his assumptions against any possibility of contrary information anymore:

“In the dining hall on the main base, I like to watch the Iraqi officers watching the melting pot of U.S. soldiers around them — men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics — and wonder: What have they learned from us?”

Wonder?  WONDER? You’re a journalist — or rather you used to be!  You don’t blow wonder through your ass.   You go find out what they have learned from us.  But no…that would be (a) heavy lifting and (b) dangerous…so much so that it might render this kind of conclusion not merely pathetic, but simply unsayable:

We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.

Well, how much have we and they accomplished?  Some, I’m sure…but given this kind of news, buried in what used to be called the b section, but popping up with depressing regularity, perhaps not as much as Friedman’s breezy tour with the brass may indicate.

And in any event — how is it possible that a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker™ no matter how burnt out, overly comfortable, and generally hackified could actually bring himself to write such a Hallmark Card notion:  that the events of the last six years (12 F.U.s, if you’re counting)are coming to rest in a satisfactory state because, hey, we can all work together?

I guess there is a thread of naivete left to me.  I grew up thinking that there was something special about the New York Times. I met Tony Lukas when I was 18, Tony Lewis some time later — and people like that impressed me for the fire they had, that seemed to come from that newsroom.  You didn’t get comfortable there, it seemed to my juvenile eyes.  Even when you got big, you felt the pressure the place forcing you to make that last call to get it right.

I know that’s a fantasy, and I’m sure it was never as true as I wanted it to be.   And even with the decline of the Times (Judith Miller, anyone…Ross freaking Douthat?) it’s still better than the whatever that other emblem of journalistic moxie, the Post has become.  But that’s kind of like saying that liver is better than spam…

But still…Friedman could once actually do the job he mails in now.  It’s painful to watch.  He should pack it in.  Otherwise it’s just going to go ever further down hill.  For, in this column as in this post, he and I save the best/worst for last.  If Friedman hopes to hang on above Kristol territory, he has to find a way to stop writing stuff like this:

After we invaded and stabilized Bosnia, we didn’t just toss their competing factions the keys.

Except, of course, we did not invade Bosnia.  The American led NATO intervention in the Bosnian War occured in 1995, just as Friedman was making his ultimately disastrous move to the NYTime’s Opinion pages, so he perhaps may have been distracted, but the military action taken by the US and its allies consisted of 3515 aerial sorties:  a hellacious bombing campaign.

If this seems like a distinction without a difference, think again:  many DFHs without Friedman’s bully pulpit tried to suggest that the range of analogies being drawn to justify the Iraq War back in 2002-2003 were false.  Iraq wasn’t Japan in August 1945; Bagdad was not Berlin; displacing Saddam was more like witnessing Tito’s death and the start of the Yugoslav disintegration than it was our ratification of Balkan partition in 1995 — and not much like that either.  Friedman chose then not to know any historical complexity.  He still does.  And as he continues to scrabble to find justifications for his own disastrous cheerleading for the Iraq war,  he’s willing to get basic facts wrong to prevent the slightest dissonant fact from disturbing the eternal sunshine of his mind.

If it were me, or any other mere blogger, or even one of the deranged commenters at Redstate thus deluded — who cares.  But despite the evident decline of even the flagship mass media organizations, the power that comes with the NYT platform and the inertial weight of Friedman’s own brand means that when he says stupid sh*t, he can get people killed.  And that’s why this matters.

*From Wikipedia:

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2003, Friedman said:

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.[23][24][25] ..We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth…

Similarly, in NPR’s Talk of the Nation, September 23, 2003:

.. and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message.

Image:  Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, Christ Before Pilate (detail of Pilate Washing his Hands), 1533-34

Remind Me Again: Why Is David Brooks?

November 15, 2008

This is now very old business, at least as measured in blog-years, but David Brooks’ column the day of the elction set at least one new low, even for that genial crater in the right’s intellectual desert.

“A Date With Scarcity is a Brooks classic, one in which a truly impressive range of writerly faults and intellectual bad faith on display.

The tell comes early.  Consider the voice of the following:

The baby boomers, who entered adulthood promising a lifetime of activism, have been a politically undistinguished generation. They produced two presidents, neither of whom lived up to his potential. They remained consumed by the culture war that divided their generation. They pass their political supremacy today having squandered the fat years and the golden opportunities. Month by month, frustration has mounted. Americans are anxious about their private lives but absolutely disgusted by public leaders. So change is demanded.

Oh, those damned baby boomers, politically indistinguished; whose two Presidents — Clinton and Bush-the-self-made-son — are equivalent in their disappointment; whose quagmire of a culture war is somehow a fact of nature, and not a highly successful element in a 50 + 1 electoral strategy; that generation that must be at fault for the squandering of opportunity that has nothing to do with specific, identifiable policy positions championed by the party so recently in power.

And then the passive voice:  “Change is demanded.”

This is how you tell when a writer does not have the goods.  If Brooks actually had a body of real facts at his disposal, he wouldn’t need to play coy, and pretend we all know who he is talking about.  It is, of course, those darn Obamabots whose reaction to financial crisis is to be answered by change.

The bad faith of the writer permeates the rest of the piece.   He writes

Barack Obama is a child of a child of the 1960s. His mother was born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s mother was born in 1942.  I do not know of any person who pays attention who thinks that someone who was eighteen in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency is “a child of the 1960s.”  It’s typical Brooks.  He has one incredibly simple (simple-minded) mold into which he squeezes all manner of analysis, and by God he will push or pull whatever he needs to make it all fit.  Again, ask yourself why someone who knows the facts cannot bring himself to grasp them — or would rather mask them under the screen of the kind of construction that gives a date in the form “five years earlier than another event, year unspecified.”  Bad faith.  Lying by carefully constructed “accurate” falsehood.

Then there is the scribe of Bobo-land‘s penchant for meaningless pop-sociology.  Obama himself is a member of the post sixties generation, (a generalization so vapourous as to defy attempts to ridicule it), defined by Brooks as

…a generation of sunscreen and bicycle helmets, more anxious about parenthood than anything else.

As I said…impossible to parody: how can you belittle a claim that reads as its own reductio ad absurdem.  But hold the guffaws for a second and read it again.  What on earth is Brooks saying here?  That Barack Obama and those who voted for him shouldn’t put sunscreen on their kids?  That it makes sense to be an organ donor on your way to work* to demonstrate your lack of prudential caution?

More to the point, is he trying to argue that our predicament today derives somehow from the suggestion that the Obama family — and my own, with my eight year old son to think about, cannot hold at once, and distinguish between private and communal, public matters of concern?  (And if so, then with the corollary that our parents gave not a fig for their kids as they figured out how to chase the Nazis across Europe or the Communists out Hollywood.)

This is an example of someone who is clever — for Brooks is certainly that — but for whom reality has become so painful that he now chooses not to think.

Does he have any data to suggest that the people he describes are real?  Of course not — at least none on display.  Amazingly, though, the piece gets worse, Brooks analysis more unhinged.  He writes, for example, that Obama “has lived his entire adult life within a few miles of one or another of the country’s top 10 universities.”

Yeah.  So?  The same could be said of George Bush the elder, for example, or for a bunch of wiseguys with the middle name “the”** — the whole membership of the Winter Hill Gang of my own geographical locale spent their entire lives within a very few miles of  Harvard and my home institution of MIT (at least those portions not given over to enforced state-funded domiciles).

The fact that Obama has lived in big cities is somehow an indictment of … what, exactly?  That he is well educated, and hence somehow imperfectly prepared for contemporary challenges?  By this standard a candidate who took several years to make it through five institutions with a final degree in broadcast journalism might in fact be preferred to a Harvard Law Graduate turned constitutional law professor — but I submit that such an argument, implied or overt, tells you more about its utterer than its object.

And amazingly, Brooks plumbs yet new lows, (reminding me of the possibly apocryphal British armed services fitness report that stated something like “since his last review this officer has struck bottom and begun to dig.”)

Brooks writes, after noting that Obama’s upscale, educated cohort has supported him, and is now poised to become the ruling class (as if the well educated and wealthy across several fictitious “generations” don’t make up the ruling class now), that.

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply.

What’s with this “favored by genetics” stuff?  Is Obama the President-elect because of his miracle brew of Kenyan and American genes?  My wife, daughter of the Mayflower (in potentia) on one side and Lithuanian Jew on the other — she is somehow favored above all others?  And so on.  Really, this is simply nonsense.  Literally.  What on earth does Brooks mean by his claim of a genetic glow over Obama supporters?  In fact what’s going on is a familiar enough, of course:  the simple-minded recourse to genetic determinism is what people do when they don’t have anything coherent to say about the actual group under scrutiny.

Finally, as this screed has gone on too long, so I’ll just note that Brooks finished his column with yet one more lie, a statement that only makes sense in the context of the narrative Brooks wants to be true, rather than the one that on the evidence is actually unfolding before us.  He writes that

We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.

Well, part of that sentence is true enough:  the smart folks now taking the reins from one of the most self-congratulatory stupid administrations in history will face enormous problems with constrained resources.  But does Brooks really mean to say that Obama, his circle, and much more broadly, his voters do not recognize the disaster we face?  Has he not noticed that there is a broad plan being proposed?  It may or many not work, but Obama has been clear for two months or more now (and really throughout the campaign) that there is a ton of work to be done to dig ourselves out of a mess created over many years of misrule.

Brooks has to know this.  He can read; he has ears to hear; he has watched what’s been going on this election season.  Yet he chooses not to credit the evidence of his own senses.  He is the columnist equivalent of the little child who thinks that the world can be made to conform to whatever he says it is.  In Brooks’ imagination, Obama and his supporters are not legitimate heirs to the establishment that ought to rule, no matter how incompetent they may been.  So it must be, because he thinks so.

Remind me again:  why does the New York Times bother with this stuff?  Or as Brad Delong is wont to say:  why, oh why can’t have a better press corps.

(And let me say — I don’t object to Brooks’s politics.  It’s the contempt for his audience on display in the because-I-said-so content-free arrogance of his writing.  There are conservative thinkers who actually pay attention to the real world who could make much better use of his real estate. Tyler Cowen comes to mind, for just one example — and the weekly dialogue that would result from his and Paul Krugman’s presence on the same page would be worth the price of admission.)

*a phrase used in my hearing by a former e.r. doc to describe those who ride two wheeled vehicles without helmets

**see, e.g. Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi.

I Have Seen The Light: A Revelation on Reading David Brooks This Morning

October 3, 2008

David Brooks is Sarah Palin.

You can see what I mean in five minutes with today’s Times op-ed page.  On the one hand, this, from Brooks.  On the other, this from Paul Krugman.

I have to admit to a certain weariness of spirit everytime I pick up Brooks’ “work” (sic — ed.) these days.  How often must one say the same thing in a slightly different context:  that Brooks is a glib hack, too lazy to do even the minimal work required to flesh out his preconceptions with even the most fragile of veneers of fact or experience?  I complained here that he wasn’t even trying anymore, and nothing in today’s effort suggests otherwise.

Of course, given the reach of the pulpit he possesses from which to bully the rest of us, he needs to be stomped as often as he rises on his hind legs. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance (as Sarah Palin reminded us last night explaining why she wants to kill Medicare).*

So here goes.  Today, Brooks argues (a) that because Palin spoke in complete sentences, she met the “survival” test; (b) she was just folks, and though such casual style won’t wash in the elevated circles in which Brooks travels, it could do very well out there in flyover country.

By the way:  I’m not kidding about the disdain for his alledged fellow GOP supporters Brooks displays these days.  Here’s the same notion in his words:

To many ears, her accent, her colloquialisms and her constant invocations of the accoutrements of everyday life will seem cloying. But in the casual parts of the country, I suspect, it went down fine.

Memo to all those casual parts of the country.  Now y’all know what Serious ™ conservatives think of you.

Last, Brooks alleged that Palin had reached debate parity with Biden; that she was a radical alternative to Washington insiders; and that, while no game-changer, her performance was an unexpected, “vibrant and tactically clever” tour de force.

There are of course, problems with this interpretation.  Two big ones.  The first is that the column as a whole is a list of nicely constructed platitudes presented with no clear connection to what actually happened.

In fact, much — really most — of the piece could have and may well have been written before 9 p.m. last night.  Except for the fact of Palin’s black suit, and the fact that she can pronounce the name of the president of Iran, more than half is Brooks waffling on about terrified GOPers hiding behind sofas and the grand significance of casual Fridays to the great scheme of things.

Such airy generalization is the trick that bored college students use to flesh out the last three hundred words of an eight hundred word assignment.  As I’ve said before, if I were surnamed Ochs or Sulzberger, I’d want a refund.

But this same laziness – or worse — caused Brooks to miss the key story he thought he was covering.  The question the post-debate polls asked was simple and obvious:  Did Palin do what was necessary in the debate?  Did the debate persuade the uncertain that Palin was ready for the job she seeks?

Brooks can’t answer that question.  He couldn’t even ask it, because unlike musings on politics as performance, this one could be answered in ways he still does not wish to accept.

And it was:  within the statistical limits of the polls, the answer was no; her numbers on this question were effectively unchanged, at least as a first reaction to the debate.

That fact leads to the conclusion that Brooks is struggling to avoid: The fact that Americans by a notable majority in the context of such a divided electorate see her as unqualified reflects not on her, but on the man with whom those polled disagree:  John McCain.

This blog exists as a defense of empiricism and the use of the analytical methods of science to interpret the raw data of experience.  There are, of course, lots of pundit/hacks who daily commit sins as bad as those of Brooks — willed ignorance, cherrypicking of data, ignoring contrary facts, howling intellectual solecisms and all the duplicitous arsenal of the ideologically blinded right.

But I have to confess that Brooks gets my goat more than most precisely because of his pretention to scientific respectability — his musings on neuroscience, his assertion of soft-science knowledge and authority.  It’s BS — a facade and a fraud.  Today’s offering is the latest of a “what I thought while seated in the smallest room of the  house” tossed off little number.

We deserve better from the New York Times.  Hell — the Right deserves better from somone supposedly representing the view from that side of the debate in the most visible of positions.

And of that David as Sarah reference:  Compare Brooks’ offering today with Krugman’s.  Now, whatever you think of Krugman, he is, like Biden, expert in his area, aware of the ground of experience, deeply knowlegable.  His column today, not about the debate, focuses instead on the financial crisis and its broader economic implications.

It’s not a particularly data-dense column — but it makes reference to facts, it suggests reasonable inferences from those facts; it provides a framework for pursuing some of the top level claims more deeply (and Krugman does, in fact, get you the latest awful numbers for you in his first blog post of today) and so on.

Again — while I’m a Krugman fan, others surely disagree.  But when they do they are forced to engage him on the ground of the data and his argument.

Brooks exerts no such compulsion.  He has his talking points; he is glib and plausible.  Pushed even a little, it becomes painfully obvious that there is no there there.

Isn’t in time the Times had mercy on this out-of-his-depth man and sent him back to the Weekly Standard wading pool in which he can’t hurt himself so easily?

Image:  Artist unknown, “The Swaddled Twins” dated 7 April 1617. Source: Wikimedia Commons.