Journalism done right, and writing done wrong

First, for the good journalism, which I will quote at length (think of it as a counterexample to yesterday’s post about Jake Tapper’s misconception of media fairness):

Does any journalist who is not an overt shill for the right actually believe that Republicans are pushing voter ID laws because they’re concerned about voter fraud?

No, of course not.

And for good reason. Voter fraud simply isn’t a problem in this country. Studies have definitively debunked the voter fraud myth time and again.

In Pennsyvlania, which just adopted a tremendously restrictive photo-ID law that could disenfranchise 1 in 10 voters, state officials conceded they have no evidence of voter fraud, nor any reason to believe it could become a problem…

And the pursuit of this goal ostensibly in the name of voter fraud is an outrageous deception that only works if the press is too timid to call it what it really is.

For reporters to treat this issue like just another political squabble is journalistic malpractice. Indeed, relating the debate in value-neutral he-said-she-said language is actively helping spread the lie. After all, calling for someone to show ID before voting doesn’t sound pernicious to most people, even though it is. And raising the bogus issue of voter fraud at all stokes fear. “Even if you say there is no fraud, all people hear is ‘fraud fraud fraud’,” said Lawrence Norden, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Think about it. If you were covering elections in another country, and one political party was actively trying to limit voting in the name of a problem that objectively didn’t exist, would you hesitate for a moment to call out that tactic — and question that party’s legitimacy? Hardly.

Modern American journalists strive for impartiality, but there is a limit. Mainstream journalists shouldn’t be afraid of being accused of taking sides when what they’re doing is standing up for basic constitutional rights. Indeed, the greater danger is that readers condemn them — or even worse, stop paying attention to them — for having no convictions at all, and no moral compass.

The GOP has taken increasingly radical positions, confident that the media’s aversion to taking sides will protect it from too much negative coverage. But failing to call out the voter ID push is like covering the civil rights movements and treating “separate but equal” as if it was said with sincerity.

And now, for the bad writing (on the part of Lehrer, not Moynihan):

Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

I don’t join the stampede of writers and journalists jumping up and down on Jonah Lehrer’s grave out of a barely concealed sense of schadenfreude. The amount of pressure and panic that he must have felt in order to do this had to have been immense. That doesn’t excuse it. But it certainly isn’t cause for celebration by anyone else either.

Capturing sound at the Olympics


The Atlantic ran a fascinating piece a couple weeks ago (seems I’m behind on everything these last few days) on the advanced sound engineering that’s been implemented for the London Olympics:

For the London Olympics, Baxter will deploy 350 mixers, 600 sound technicians, and 4,000 microphones at the London Olympics. Using all the modern sound technology they can get their hands on, they’ll shape your experience to sound like a lucid dream, a movie, of the real thing.

Let’s take archery. “After hearing the coverage in Barcelona at the ’92 Olympics, there were things that were missing. The easy things were there. The thud and the impact of the target — that’s a no brainer — and a little bit of the athlete as they’re getting ready,” Baxter says.

“But, it probably goes back to the movie Robin Hood, I have a memory of the sound and I have an expectation. So I was going, ‘What would be really really cool in archery to take it up a notch?’ And the obvious thing was the sound of the arrow going through the air to the target. The pfft-pfft-pfft type of sound. So we looked at this little thing, a boundary microphone, that would lay flat, it was flatter than a pack of cigarettes, and I put a little windshield on it, and I put it on the ground between the athlete and the target and it completely opened up the sound to something completely different.”

This is pretty impressive, but it’s the bit at the end that strayed a little too close to 2008 Olympics-style manipulation:

“In Atlanta, one of my biggest problems was rowing. Rowing is a two-kilometer course. They have 4 chaseboats following the rowers and they have a helicopter. That’s what they need to deliver the visual coverage of it,” Baxter explains. “But the chaseboats and the helicopter just completely wash out the sound. No matter how good the microphones are, you cannot capture and reach and isolate sound the way you do visually. But people have expectations. If you see the rowers, they have a sound they are expecting. So what do we do?”

Well, they made up the rowing noises and played them during the broadcast of the event, like a particularly strange electronic music show.

“That afternoon we went out on a canoe with a couple of rowers recorded stereo samples of the different type of effects that would be somewhat typical of an event,” Baxter recalls. “And then we loaded those recordings into a sampler and played them back to cover the shots of the boats.”

It’s one thing to enhance the actually existing sound during an event to enable TV viewers to hear things that couldn’t be picked up in person at the stadium or arena. It’s quite another to fabricate the sound entirely from preexisting recordings. Alexis Madrigal wraps up his piece with the following (grammatically confused) thought:

But how bright is the line that separates factual audio from fictional audio a bit thinner and more porous than we’d like? If we want hyperreality as an end, can we really quibble about the means?

Is it really that porous of a line? Seems to me that one sound’s real, and the other’s not. Either way, the whole thing is very, very cool technology.

ABC’s Jake Tapper takes on The Newsroom

Actually, he took it on over a month ago, but I somehow missed it until just now. In the pages of The New Republic, Tapper took Sorkin to task:

There’s much to criticize in the media—and TV news in particular. But though “The Newsroom” intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn’t much of an expert on the subject.

So far, so good. But what bothers me about Tapper’s critique is that he dislikes The Newsroom for all the wrong reasons. Here’s the crux of the problem with the show for Tapper:

McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.

See, this is the crux of my problem with Tapper. I have a whole laundry list of complaints about The Newsroom — from the excessively preachy tone of all the dialogue to the half-baked and subpar romantic suplots to the improbably lucky connections the newsroom stuff was able to milk for details following the Gulf oil spill, and a million other things besides.

But if there’s one thing Sorkin doesn’t get wrong, it’s also the one thing that rubs Jake Tapper the wrong way. This is unfortunate, because — as someone who, admittedly, is not as familiar with Tapper’s journalism as I should be — I nevertheless have some unexplained fondness for the guy. But it appears something about Sorkin’s critique struck a little too close to home.

But before I get into that, Tapper’s not finished:

And when McAvoy goes after a National Rifle Association campaign to portray Obama as anti-gun, he insists on depicting it as a moral crusade in defense of the public good. But he never feels the need to question whether—in the midst of crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the international economy—it’s really so noble after all to devote one’s limited resources to fact-checking relatively unimportant political attacks. As such, it’s hard not to judge the resulting segment as falling short of McAvoy’s newly idealistic raison d’être—though Sorkin clearly seems to think otherwise.

Tapper goes on to say that McAvoy, much like other cable news stars, is blind to his own ideology. There may be a crumb of truth in that. But aside from the anchor’s comically atrocious disdain for the common people (“we are the media elite,” McAvoy declares on-air, without a smidgen of irony), it seems that the NewsNight anchor’s worst crime in Tapper’s eyes is assigning the truth any relevance at all. There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, and an economy in crisis. Why not discuss that?

But to those of us who would like to see something more from the news than a mere dash-to-the-bottom for the juiciest new storyline (another suicide bombing in Baghdad! stocks fall 2% in an afternoon!), it really does matter whether the NRA lied about Obama’s alleged anti-gun record. And it really does matter that Michele Bachmann falsely claimed the Obamas’ trip to India cost American taxpayers $200 million per day. (It would appear that even Tapper would agree with this last assessment: he filed a short report about the White House’s rebuttal of Bachmann’s claims.)

Tapper treats the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as completely separate entities from the “relatively unimportant political attacks” to which Sorkin’s Will McAvoy devotes so much of his time. But the aggregate effect of lie after lie being spouted by many vocal Republicans at the time, without any fear of being held accountable by the media, helped to fuel the popular discontent that has rendered Obama a much less effective president on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Political capital is a very real thing.

But that’s not actually the biggest mistake Tapper makes. Indeed, he believes some stories are irrelevant, and yet he and his organization, ABC News, continue to cover them indiscriminately. But the one thing they’ve forgotten to do right — and practically the only thing Aaron Sorkin actually got right — was to nail the coffin definitively on the constant stream of baseless attacks emanating daily from right-wing circles. (Tapper’s tepid report on the India misinformation story, especially given the update he tacked on at the end, leaves the impression this was just another political squabble between perpetually lying politicians. It wasn’t: one side was lying. The other side wasn’t. This matters.)

This isn’t about being ideological. It’s about doing the very thing Jake Tapper thinks he’s doing by focusing on the “moderates and liberals wielding [power]:” holding our elected officials accountable. This is not to say that liberals or Democrats or Obama himself shouldn’t be held to account either. But to simply assume that pointing out one side’s deliberate falsehoods is somehow partisan — without even bothering to evaluate whether the other side is actually guilty of the same crimes and to the same extent — is actually taking sides. It’s taking the side of those who choose to distort and disguise and deny the truth, at the expense of those whose attachment to facts is at least somewhat stronger. (These are all politicians, so we can safely assume no one’s that sentimental about honesty.)

Jake Tapper may be a good reporter, but his attack on Sorkin’s “moral crusade” smacks of New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s prejudicial term “truth vigilante.” Sorkin is a lot of things: preachy is one of them, for instance. But being evenhanded — as in a real balance based on facts, not the faux balance based on the terror of appearing partisan advocated by Tapper — is not something Sorkin got wrong. It’s something Tapper didn’t get right.

50 Shades of Grey gets the literary treatment

The New York Observer‘s Velvet Roper blog dishes on an unsurprising critical consensus at a panel event:

Ostensibly the panel had gathered to discuss whether E.L. James’s blockbuster book was a step forward for American sexual culture. “I just want to say right off the bat that we are not going to be discussing the book’s literary merit,” said McNally Jackson’s Amy Lee, the moderator for the event. Yet despite this disclaimer, many of the panelists seemed unable to resist taking a few cheap shots at its notoriously clumsy prose, referring to the book repeatedly as a “piece of shit.”

Ms. Jong seemed especially preoccupied with the book’s literary offenses. “What possessed the publisher to not even edit the book?” she began. “I don’t believe anyone ever said ‘holy cow’ at the moment of her first orgasm,” she said disdainfully, voicing a familiar criticism that she would repeat more than once before the end of the night.

My two cents? Methinks literary greatness isn’t what E.L. James was shooting for. I’m sure she has more than enough cash now to buy herself an editor or 70. But why bother?

The Newsroom slides further into the abyss

I know I’m late on this, but I watched Episode 5 of The Newsroom a couple days ago. And wow, has that show ever jumped the shark. It’s gotten to the point where, if Sorkin and Co. don’t wake up soon and at least wink half-heartedly at the audience in some way, the show may rapidly devolve into a “hate-watching” fest (thanks to Victoria for that term) for everyone who bothers to tune in.

Also, self-plug: a slightly revised version of this post is now on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site. You can check it out here.

A response to Steve Almond on our late-night political comedians

Jon Stewart

Michael Potemra of the National Review Online takes issue with Steve Almond’s critique of the late-night comedy duo Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (previously covered here):

The Baffler writer…calls the work of Colbert and Stewart an “almost entirely therapeutic” attempt to “congratulate” the viewers, and criticizes the viewers for “accept[ing] coy mockery as genuine subversion.”

But what if we, the viewers, don’t want genuine subversion of the exact same things you happen to want to subvert? Furthermore, what if we don’t mind laughing even about some things we agree with? Both Colbert and Stewart make fun of some of my own political views. I was thinking of saying that I like them in spite of this; it might be more accurate to say that I like them, at least in part, not in spite of this but because of it — because I don’t want to live in a country where people can’t laugh at themselves, and where everybody takes himself and his own opinions as seriously as the Baffler guy seems to.

I don’t think this debate comes down to who takes himself more seriously. It’s about who you think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are. If you think they’re simply comedians, you react as does Potemra. But if you suspect that behind their mock rage lies something a little more like…real rage, then perhaps you wonder, as Steve Almond does, why they don’t take that last, significant leap into hard-edged social commentary. Instead, we’re treated to the now all-too-familiar sight of Jon Stewart retreating behind the tired trope of “I’m just a comedian.”

Which he isn’t. Comedians generally don’t get CNN shows canceled. And they don’t play major roles in passing healthcare legislation for 9/11 first responders. Stewart, like so many of The Daily Show‘s hapless victims, wants it both ways. It’s just that, since he himself is the subject of this conversation, we don’t have someone funny around to point out his blatant inconsistencies.

Instead, we have Steve Almond. Where Potemra is right, I think, is in judging just how mainstream Stewart really is. Over the past few years, I, too, have wondered if Stewart were going soft. But more and more I’m guessing he was never that leftist to begin with. The Bush years presented fruit ripe for the picking, so it was easy to paint Stewart as a liberal. But now that a Democrat (albeit a fairly conservative one) is in the White House, it’s quickly become apparent that Stewart has little interest in pressing against the dominant strand of right-wing thought that’s gripped American politics over the last few years.

Like Steve Almond, I want Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to take up the liberal baton with more vigor. I’m just not sure if that’s who they are, or if it’s simply who I wish they were.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan at the always-excellent Dish for linking to Potemra’s piece.)

A smattering of gun control-related links

Over the past few days, I’d kept meaning to post something about gun control in the wake of the Aurora shooting, but I never quite found the time. Meanwhile, the links that I felt added something to the conversation kept piling up in my browser to the point of slowing down my computer.Well, God knows I need my laptop running optimally for appropriate time-wastage purposes, so here is a collection of links relating to the gun control debate that’s been swirling ever since James Holmes’ violent rampage.

First, Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory wonders when the Massachusetts delegation will start heralding its own sterling gun control record and attempt to expand its success to the national level:

Legislation has been languishing in Washington since last year’s Tucson massacre to outlaw lunatic gun clips that hold more than 10 bullets at a time. Add in the fact that the alleged killer, with his freakish orange hair and absent eyes, was a veritable poster boy for stronger national gun laws. The result should be a hue and cry, far and wide, for the type of sensible gun policies that could save lives.

And in that regard, there’s nobody better to lead on the issue than the members of the Massachusetts delegation. This state has some of the strongest and most successful gun laws in America. We have an assault weapons ban. We have safety training requirements, licensing, registration, and a waiting period.

And we also have something else. Massachusetts has, per capita, the lowest rate of gun-related fatalities of any state in the nation – number 50, with 3.14 annual deaths per 100,000 people. The national average is 10.19 deaths. The worst state, Louisiana, has 18.03 deaths.

Think about this. We are an industrial state with a congested city. We are bordered by Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, states that have no gun controls to speak of. And fewer people die here than anywhere else from firearms. And there’s really a debate over whether stronger gun laws work?

Michael Bloomberg was affiliated with Salomon ...

Meanwhile, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is (admirably, in my opinion) continuing his one-man crusade to take on the National Rifle Association in an op-ed for…OK, for Bloomberg View:

There is one particular fear the NRA manufactures with great success: fear of electoral defeat. Romney has walked away from the assault-weapons ban he once supported, and in nearly four years, Obama has offered no legislation to rein in illegal guns. In Congress, the NRA threatens lawmakers who fail to do its ideological bidding, although its record in defeating candidates is much more myth than reality.

What can be done?

One of the U.S. Senate’s most pro-gun members has paradoxically shown how the battle might begin. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, also the chamber’s most sincere fiscal conservative, has made it his mission to diminish the influence of another ideological group that has exercised unwarranted sway over public policy: the anti-tax absolutists led by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform.

To confront Norquist, Coburn identified an indefensible tax — the ethanol subsidy — isolated it and forced a vote on it. His colleagues, many of whom had signed Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes, were forced to choose between opposing what Coburn decried as an obvious “special interest giveaway” or looking like spineless shills for Norquist. By heightening attention on the vote, the tactic worked. The $5.4 billion ethanol subsidy was voted down.

The Coburn approach could be applied to guns. Elected officials who profess to be tough on crime but who also oppose tougher measures to stop illegal guns can’t be in two places at once — particularly when many law enforcement organizations support basic gun measures that simply don’t exist today. In the same way Coburn pointed out the ethanol-corporate welfare contradiction, a pro-gun senator can point out the obvious: It’s impossible to support police officers and law enforcement agencies and also oppose giving them the tools they need to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

Then, GQ provides a little counterbalance to Bloomberg’s optimism on the possibility of confronting the NRA:

I asked a Democratic legislative staffer for a first-person description of the NRA’s power on the Hill. Here’s the response I got, on the condition that I not provide any further identifying information. It’s pretty breathtaking.

We do absolutely anything they ask and we NEVER cross them—which includes asking permission to cosponsor any bills endorsed by the Humane Society (the answer is usually no) and complying with their demand to oppose the DISCLOSE Act, neither of which have anything to do with guns. They’ve completely shut down the debate over gun control. It’s really incredible. I’m not sure when we decided that a Democrat in a marginal district who loses his A rating from the NRA automatically loses reelection. Because it’s not like we do everything other partisan organizations like the Chamber [of Commerce] or NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] tell us to…

Pandering to the NRA is the probably worst part of my job. I can justify the rest of it—not just to keep the seat, but because I believe most of the positions he takes are consistent with what his constituents want. But sucking up to the NRA when something like Colorado happens is hard to stomach.

And then there’s the tiny little matter of the American people themselves:

Firearms sales are surging in the wake of the Colorado movie massacre as buyers express fears about both personal safety and lawmakers who are using the shooting to seek new weapons restrictions.

In Colorado, the site of Friday’s shooting that killed 12 and injured dozens of others, gun sales jumped in the three days that followed. The state approved background checks for 2,887 people who wanted to purchase a firearm — 25 percent more than the average Friday to Sunday period in 2012 and 43 percent more than the same interval the week prior.

Dick Rutan, owner of Gunners Den in suburban Arvada, Colo., said requests for concealed-weapon training certification “are off the hook.” His four-hour course in gun safety, required for certification for a concealed-weapons permit in Colorado, has drawn double the interest since Friday.

The more things change…

Why writer$ write

Tim Parks wonders about the correlation between quality of writing and the amount of income received from doing it:

Asked to write blogs for other sites, some with much larger audiences, I chose to stay with the New York Review, partly out of an old loyalty and partly because they pay me better. Would I write worse if I wrote for a more popular site for less money? Or would I write better because I was excited by the larger number of people following the site? And would this larger public then lead to my making more money some other way, say, when I sold a book to an American publisher? And if that book did make more money further down the line, having used the blog as a loss leader, does that mean the next book would be better written? Or do I always write as well or as badly as I anyway do regardless of payment, so that these monetary transactions and the decisions that go with them affect my bank balance and anxiety levels, but not the quality of what I do?

I don’t know about Parks, but the reason I keep up this blog is the huge stack of cash each post brings in.