State of the Media


I was originally aiming for a “Sopranos”-style ending at T/S rather than going with the typical farewell post. Journey on the jukebox. Onion rings. Ominous stalkers. Suddenly, a black screen! But what the heck. I’ve blogged in a variety of forums, and True/Slant was special in its combination of flexibility and journalistic credibility. (And also that it paid you.) It was also a great community, a portal to an array of interesting subjects and journalism about them. It was a great new media/journalism experiment, and I hope that it sparks more innovation.

Thanks to all for reading and commenting. To follow my work post-T/S, the best thing to do is to follow me on Twitter. There’s also my own website/blog. My blogging will show up there and also at the Huffington Post, the Guardian and other venues.

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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Fox News Channel controversies

Image via Wikipedia

Responding to my “death of accountability” post, Shoq says I don’t lay enough blame on the conservative establishment of think tanks and media operations, which exploit traditional media customs of fairness and “objectivity” to advance ideological and/or Republican Party agendas:

I have been railing about the collapse of accountability for years. This article sniffs around the edges of the problem, and makes some important points, but it completely misses the role that right wing think tanks like Heritage, Media Research Center, and of course, Fox News and the broader corporate media have played in the deliberate deconstruction of accountability and social responsibility.

When the public is convinced that there are no empirical facts, and that one version of events is as valid as any other, they become desensitized to the reality of most crimes and their consequences, and are far more compliant and forgiving of those accused of abusing a trust, principle, law, company, office, nation, and population. (more…)

"The only flowers of her youth," photo by Roman Vishniac

I’ve been struck lately by how history – defined as the way that we collectively perceive the past – is a plastic phenomenon. Almost nothing about the past – as experienced by those living in it – is truly accessible to us. Things that seem incredibly significant now may not turn out that way. “History is written by the victors,” of course. But the power over future interpretations may come down to the efforts of a single person.

Take a look at this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece reappraising the work of Roman Vishniac, the photographer did more than anyone to shape a collective image of pre-Holocaust shtetl life, a culture that was, of course, virtually wiped out. Whether you’ve leafed through his most famous book, “A Vanished World,” or not, your perception of that world was likely shaped by his stark images of pious Hasidim and gaunt, fearful shopkeepers with few wares on the shelves. (Well, those and “Fiddler on the Roof.”)

But this is an inaccurate view:

Jewish life in Eastern Europe, especially in the interwar years, was roiling and diverse. All kinds of people — secular and religious, urban and rural, wealthy and poor — consorted freely with one another in all aspects of what many of us would consider the pillars of a modern society: a lively and contentious political culture, a theater scene that rivaled those of most major European cities, a literary tradition comprising not only Yiddish and Hebrew work but also European fiction and a thriving economic trade that successfully linked cities and countrysides (one of Vishniac’s unpublished pictures shows a store in a tiny Eastern European town selling oranges imported from Palestine). Even Hasidic life, so easily caricatured as provincial and isolated, was nothing of the sort: yeshivas, like today’s universities, often attracted students from all over Eastern and Central Europe. The concentration of poverty and piety in Vishniac’s pictures in “Polish Jews” created a distinct impression of timelessness, an unchanging, “authentic society” captured in amber.

As it turns out, Vishniac was a bit of a fabulist. (more…)

Like many people on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time last week shoveling snow. When I came inside, I then had to endure a secondary storm of nonsense about how the winter weather disproved global warming, humiliated Al Gore, et al. This was, in turn, much-commented-upon, most incisively by Grist’s Dave Roberts, who concludes that the inability of many journalists to point out the ridiculousness of snowstorm-climate change denialism is a symptom of the profound ills afflicting traditional journalism.

Well, yeah.

But what’s really going on here? It’s not just that the press is stupid, or timid. With the fracturing of the political and media landscape, there are no sources of universally-accepted authority any more in American life (except – Oprah?). This has driven political reporters ever deeper into a cocoon of their own construction, one with no objective reference points, because all of those are disputed by somebody, somewhere. So we end up with traditional journalistic “objectivity” with the actual objective realities edited out. It’s genius, really. Reporters privilege the political process itself over policy, over science, over common sense. Political advantage, or victory, is what matters. Everybody likes a winner, after all.

When climate doubters win, though, the results are objectively disastrous. It’s pretty clear the world is lurching toward environmental disaster, and temporizing over snowstorms isn’t helping. And the doubters won quite a lot over the past few months, as this Washington Post story details, with denials and doubters seizing on the “climategate” emails and lately on mistakes in the supposedly-bulletproof IPCC report.

It ought to be possible for media outlets to separate the genuine scientific issues here from the political ones. It doesn’t take that much effort.

In the case of Snowmageddon, for example: it’s impossible to attribute a single weather event to global warming, or to the supposed lack thereof. But as Bill McKibben notes in this piece, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has risen 4 percent since 1970, which would tend to produce wetter weather in some areas. That’s useful information, even without a cause-and-effect relationship established.

In the case of the IPCC, how did mistakes and citations from interest groups creep into the IPCC report? Does this signal a broader “bias” problem? Does that appear merely in the shaping of the report and its language, in the way the authors interpret data and studies, or in the data and studies themselves? Is something truly “rotten in the state of the IPCC”? I’d guess not, because if you drill down almost all the evidence holds up. On the other hand, I don’t want my climate consensus document to contain any spin – give it to us straight! – so it’s not enough to say “move along, nothing to see here.”

But many of these questions and distinctions get lost when this moves into the field of politics and media coverage of politics. The Post itself is a living example of what happens when politics, and the protection of political interests by journalists, interferes with climate coverage. George Will has embarrassed the newspaper with his repeated twisting of climate data and his assertion that climate change is a scientific fad, like bell bottoms. This weekend, the Post featured both the McKibben piece and a column by Dana Milbank saying that because Gore and some unnamed environmental groups went overboard in attributing weather events to global warming, they deserved whatever they got from the other side. Never mind that the other side is wrong on the fundamentals.

These mixed messages are confusing. To an average reader, who may not care much about the details, the impression one gets is of science politicized and contested, with no true bottom line. This is corrosive to the debate over what to do about global warming. The Post can certainly entertain different voices on these issues. But in some ways it appears too deeply invested in the short-term political process and the conventions of political reporting, to consistently separate the real questions from the BS.

Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson

James O’Keefe, the filmmaker/journalist arrested for allegedly attempting to tap or tamper with Senator Mary Landrieu’s office telephones, is obviously foolish and irresponsible. But foolish and irresponsible can get you pretty far these days.

O’Keefe and his fellow-perpetrators are being roundly mocked. Republicans are “distancing” themselves. But the way our media culture works, I’m betting on a quick rehabilitation. This could go the way of the balloon-boy hoax, which left its authors disgraced and exiled from the reality TV world they coveted access to. But I don’t think so. O’Keefe is a commodity, especially in right-wing media circles, and by doing crazy-ass shit he enhances his value. He’ll end up on TV sooner or later, telling us what “really” happened and what his motivations were.

All this is to say, O’Keefe is not a journalist. He’s not even a gonzo journalist (let’s not insult Hunter S. Thompson with the comparison). He is a publicity-seeking ideologically-motivated provocateur. It’s an important distinction. Because what he did in exposing the apparent idiocy and lawbreaking tendencies of ACORN employees was trumpeted at the time as a great achievement not just for the cause of conservatism, or even for conservative journalism, but for journalism itself. Even Jon Stewart was wondering why traditional media outlets didn’t get that story.

But what was that whole ACORN thing about, anyway? I’m still not sure. (more…)

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

At The New Republic, Noam Schieber argues the blanket media coverage of the Haitian earthquake aftermath is just too much. It’s redundant, it’s interfering with aid operations, it’s a waste of resources. His solution: pool coverage. Just as the president is followed around by a rotating pool of reporters, maybe Haiti and other natural disasters should be too:

Just like they do for White House coverage, the major (and some not so major) news organizations could draw up an agreement to send a contingent of print, radio, and television reporters to wherever the next global disaster strikes. The participating news organizations could then use the raw material transmitted back to them to fashion their own reports. The pool correspondents could even be available to conduct on-air interviews with different television organizations, depending on their editorial needs. The arrangement would obviously be less than ideal for the outlets with the biggest budgets. But, collectively, the media would have the peace of mind of knowing it’s not exacerbating the same problems it’s trying to alleviate.

I yield to no one in my contempt for the crass, sensationalistic conventions of TV news (which, given technical demands and the quest for ratings, has by far the biggest footprint of any media). And the coverage of natural disasters employs most of those conventions, notably the faintly ridiculous notion of journalist-as-globetrotting-hero.

But do we really need less coverage of Haiti? (more…)

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