Saturday, April 16, 2005

Damn that Bob Somerby . . .

Damn that Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler. Each day lately he makes it harder and harder to pull quote by writing these incredible pieces with so much information that picking one section means implying that others aren't worth noting.

On a good day, members and myself can usually do a good job of pull quoting from something. And if I'm the one pull quoting from one of his entries of late and am at a loss of which important section to utilize, I can usually justify the pull quote based on one of two things: he's addressing the New York Times (which we focus on here) or he's describing the war on Al Gore that the press declared (an issue that he writes passionately about). If it's the former, that's our focus more often than not, so I don't ever feel bad for emphasizing that. If it's the latter, since he's been such a strong voice on the distortions of Gore's statements and records, it deserves to be noted and I can justify that.

But today (actually yesterday, it's now Saturday and we're referring to Friday's entry) he blows away the two backups I usually have for picking one section from an entry that covers so much and does it so well. When all else fails (or if it's a Klein piece I want to enjoy/savor in print form), quote the opening.

There's no way to do any form of justice to Somerby's piece today (actually Friday) without noting it in full, so we'll throw fair use out the window and quote it in full.

Just joking.

We've done magazine spotlights on The Progressive and The Nation recently. (We'll do In These Times soon as well. The last issue I received in the mail had a cover story that would have had the community groaning -- and e-mailing to complain -- not because of the points made in the article but because of the reliance on the false stereotype of "Red" states and "Blue" states. That's the only reason we haven't done a spotlight on In These Times.) (I'm speaking of the two entries where the magazine themselves were addressed, not just a "check out this." And on The Nation one, Gina felt I didn't speak enough as to why I found the magazine a must read. She's probably correct. So it could be argued that there were not two magazine spotlights but one and a half.)

The print medium is not the beginning and end of the world of good journalism. (And my reasons for avoiding The Nation online when possible -- other than the web only features -- is because I'm used to/reliant on getting an issue in the mail and being able to read it away from the computer screen.) There are many wonderful pieces that appear online only.

And if someone asked me to pick only one web site by an individual to highlight, I'd pick The Daily Howler. Which isn't to say I agree with every opinion Somerby shares (the community and I disagreed with Somerby on the issue of Lawrence Summers), but Somerby argues his case well and it's a joy to read his writing. (And speaking for myself, not the community, disagreements would make up less than ten percent of the time.)

Community member Dallas and I often exchange e-mails on The Daily Howler (Dallas also loves The Howler) and recently he asked what I thought Somerby's best service was. Dallas' offered that he provides a constant check on the press. I'd agree that's valuable and a good point. I'd offer that Somerby backs it up.

It's not a surprise to any informed news consumer that the mainstream media so often gets it wrong. (Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. I probably get it wrong more often than any.) But Somerby's not just calling out, "Wrong!" or "Wrong again!" Instead, he's documenting how it was wrong.

Why does that matter?

(Consider this an op-ed and all statements my own personal opinions which anyone's free to disagree with either in a private e-mail or in comments to be shared with the community.)

We love the narrative. That's what story-telling is all about. That's what it's always been about.
When a movie is made of an actual event or of someone's life, facts will always lose out to the narrative. What's emphasized about Billie Holiday's life in Lady Sings the Blues, for instance, says more about the kind of movie Berry Gordy wanted to make than it does about Billie Holiday's life. (I enjoy the movie Lady Sings the Blues and am not attempting to slam it. But the fact remains that the film plays fast and loose with the actual facts and events.)

When you or I retell our day at the end of the day, we'll pick out the biggest event (or what seems the biggest) and work other events into the tale in relation to that event. That's the narrative and I would say we're all guilty of it but it's such a human characteristic that I don't think we can be "guilty of" it anymore than we can be guilty of breathing.

When a professional storyteller (say a novelist) is imposing a narrative, it's part of what they do and part of the form they're working in. But a novelist (or screenwriter) usually doesn't claim to be objective.

The mainstream media claims to be objective. Obviously, any story that makes it into print contains the reporter's opinion of what was the most salient detail (and the editor or editors).
That's probably understandable and hopefully the person's been trained in some way (self-educated or college educated) to pick out aspects that are rated to be important (on whatever scale).

But as feature writing has seeped into hard news, the use of the narrative has gone beyond what many think the news should do. A meta narrative is being imposed upon a piece to put it into a larger scheme (strange considering how the press has so lost their sense of perspective). To use one of the issues Somerby has devoted a large amount of attention to, the war on Al Gore.

The meta narrative became that Gore is a liar who will say anything to get elected so the details included in stories (often false and when not false, often stretched the point that they should have broken) were shaded to fit the meta narrative.

Perspective would be to say that Gore spoke out for this; however, he said this previously in a speech or voted for this while in the Senate. Meta narrative is not perspective. It's the tool/device of creative writing. And it's seeped into the hard news. (I'm speaking of print news. I have no use for TV news.)

What Al Gore wore wasn't a character revealing trait. He was slammed for what he wore in some instances, he himself; and in others he was also slammed because others supposedly picked out what he wore. Which was the truth? It's an unimportant issue but having made such a big deal out of it, the press should have decided which was the issue.

But the meta narrative was "Gore is a liar" so they didn't even bother to figure out which aspect to go with. "Phoney Gore picked out more phoney clothes to wear" was at odds with "Phoney Gore can't even dress himself." But the same reporters could alternate both "perspectives."

When I'm watching a movie, I know that I'm getting the set up in the first ten minutes (more and more the first five) and in that first ten minutes, I'll get the moment that jolts us into the first act. I know to look for the midpoint and that we have to be carried into the second act around minute sixty-seven or sixty-eight for a comedy (which usually run around ninety minutes). That's an artistic form and there are rules and conventions (which some trailblazers break).

The news isn't supposed to be that way. Good reporting doesn't require "art." (For instance, when I've praised John F. Burns in the past -- in the past -- I noted that he did the basics and covered them well: who, what, where and when.) It requires telling what just happened.

And perspective isn't the writer's (or editor's) personal theme that they've latched onto. That's really sloppy reporting, in my opinion. A reviewer will do that. But a reviewer isn't writing hard news. Hard news is supposed to be about what happened, so why is it so often about fitting something into a preconcieved framework? Cherry picking bits and pieces to prove your opinion before you even witnessed the event?

Now maybe objectivity is all a pose (I wouldn't argue with that) but when the mainstream press wants to argue that they are objective, they can't do that and continue to rely on meta narratives that they are imposing.

The meta narrative also means avoding asking questions because the reporters already "found" the story before the event takes place. Therefore, why ask questions or show skepticism when all you have to do is find the bits and pieces necessary to back up the meta narrative you've already imposed?

With the war on Gore, the press overwhelmingly let the RNC set the agenda. They ran with those talking points. If they thought it would make them buddies with the RNC, they were mistaken. Unless they've gone over to Fox "News," they're still (wrongly) labeled the "liberal media" and exceptions aren't often made for individuals.

How dumb is the press covering politics? I often wonder that. There's never been a campaign I've worked on where in some manner it wasn't stressed that you do two things: kiss their ass and make sure you provide good snacks. Keep 'em fed and flattered and you can usually count on good press as long as you're feeding and flattering better than the opposition.

And I've seen that work when utilized and fail when not. (I can remember one woman who was raked over the coals and lose her seat in what largely appeared to result from her refusal to provide more than basic cold cuts.)

But maybe they're not stupid and spoiled (and there are exceptions in every category so anyone reading this who wants to insist in an e-mail, "That's not me!" consider yourself the exception and save the e-mail)? Maybe they're just another person in our society addicted to access and working on their anecdotes?

Maureen Dowd had a column entiled "I Got a Nick Name." Hold on, and I'll see if it's in BushWorld (now out in paperback). Yes, it is. It starts on page 125. She writes about the various nicknames the Bully Boy has for members of the press. (I believe her nickname is "Cobra;" David Gregory's is "Stretch.") Dowd's not (as I read her) trumpeting that she had a nickname. (The administration has ignored Dowd -- thereby missing the point of kiss their ass and feed 'em well.) Now maybe, if for instance, Margaret Carlson is dubbed "Half-wit" by the Bully Boy, it's a great anecdote for her and one she'd never tire of telling? (To the best of my knowledge, the Bully Boy's never dubbed her Half-wit. So we'll take the opportunity to do so.)

And maybe the access that comes with that is just too damn too much to let actual reporting interfere? Certainly the "Maverick" McCain press can be traced to the illusion he's created of access.

But there's been a huge breakdown in journalism where feature writing has seeped over into what was supposed to be hard news. And that should frighten you because as hideous as the rules imposed by the administration on journalists who want access are, they can get a lot worse.
Any feature writer can tell you that long gone are the days when you could spend days with the subject you were profiling, long gone are the days when you could write whatever about the subject. Now each interview with a celebrity tends to come with a list of guidelines (often including which subjects are off limits) and they sometimes usually include when the article will be run.

If the press doesn't address the reality of hard news soon, expect things to get much worse.
I'd trace the breakdown to when celeb covers became common place at Time, et al. (Long before the synergy that created "AOL TIME WARNER DISNEY ABC . . .") When p.r. reps realized that the cover wasn't just a boom for their client but also for the magazine, they began imposing guidelines. (Pat Kingsley is either the worst or the best example of that -- depending on whether your the press or her client.)

There's a lot of talk (which is true) about the fact that news divisions have been cut back and about how the various mergers have led to "cross-promotion" (what we used to just call hype).
That has happened. But there's also the very real fact that what we think of as hard news has disappeared or eroded. And this isn't about "attracting young readers." This predates the new panic over, "Young adults don't read us!"

Katrina vanden Heuvel rightly pointed out that the Times elected to front page a story on Judith Regan (questionable choice for a front page -- but remember, the Times is trying desperately to become a player in L.A. -- and failing miserably -- and the story was Regan goes to California).
vanden Heuvel noted that in this front page story (which making the front page of the main section should require it be a hard news story) the issue of Regan's love nest visits with the recent failed Homeland Security nominee weren't even raised.

How do you do that? How do a hard news story on a woman who's most famous (infamous) in recent months for shacking up at Ground Zero?

Either Regan's publicist made sure that issue was off limits (and raising it would end the interview) or else the line between feature reporting and hard news is not just blurry, it's invisible now.

The meta narrative was "Judy goes to LA where she will no doubt be a huge success just like here!" (Which not only sets the Times up to be a player in coverage of L.A. but also, subtext, says to L.A., "New Yorkers have great ideas too! Don't short change us, L.A.!") And anything that painted ambassador Regan as anything less than the huge success light was eliminated from the story.

As I remember it, one of her best sellers, by Michael Moore, wasn't released willingly and required pressure on the company to get it out. That detail would interfere with the glowing portrait, so it's not included.

If, as a country, we're having trouble grasping complexities, part of the reason might be because we've lost them as the meta narrative has rushed to turn everyone into saint or sinner. And the meta narrative is a creation of feature writing.

I don't want to come off like someone's who's stood against feature writing. (I still enjoy it when it's actually good. That's less and less these days.) In school, I did feature writing. I competed in feature writing contests (and did well). (Note: There was no desire to be a reporter on my part. The paper wouldn't have been turned out if people didn't all throw in what they could. There were issues when it was basically myself and one other person putting out the whole thing.) (Her more so than me.)

I liked feature writing and could do it easily because it's light and frivilous (both of which I can be -- more often than I should be at my age). And I've heard the debates on the pro and cons of feature writing and hard news for sometime. I did feel (and still do) that anything is topic for the front page of the main section. But not written in anyway. If you're going to do a hard news story, your requirements are greater than with a piece of feature writing.

Howell Raines was slammed for running a piece on Britney Spears on the front page of the main section (of the Sunday edition of the New York Times). (That sentence has way too many "of"s, I know.) (But in a feature piece, you could get away with it if you did it humorously -- I didn't, I'm just being lazy.) But Britney Spears can be a front page story. (I wouldn't read it, but . . .)
Provided you're doing something other than a feature on Spears. Spears can be an entry point in a serious article/hard news on what sort of image sells today, for instance. (I believe her sales have eroded -- though no one seems to notice -- and as such, unless that was the topic, she'd be a bad pick for a state-of-music front page story.)

This debate predates me (I heard it all the time growing up from my grandfather who worked for a newspaper). But somehow, when someone wants to write about why people don't read papers as much now or why the newspapers aren't the trusted sources they once were, no one wants to remark on the erosion of hard news. Somerby (getting back to the topic) has spent parts of the week noting that an op-ed columnist wants to tackle the issue of how the media is seen but doesn't want to address anything other than comments/complaints from the right.
I'd agree with Somerby on that.

I'd also add that the columnist seems unaware that his own industry has lost it's way (not just the columnist's paper) and fallen into feature writing passing as hard news. (Feature writing can often be nothing more than p.r. When people complain that the news industry has served as a p.r. mouthpiece for the Bully Boy, whether they realize it or not, they may be noting the decline of hard news.)

Imposing the meta narrative is a tool of columnists, reviewers, and feature writers. It's not supposed to be a tool for hard news. And if concerned columnists want to explore topics about the decline in readership or trust, they'd do well to note that topic. (One I can't imagine any of them being unaware of since it predates all of them.)

When Somerby backs up his points of the meta narrative (and that's what I see him addressing -- as always, I could be wrong), he's not just saying "They got it wrong!" He's showing how they shaped something. Sometimes he's focused on hard news, sometimes he's focused on a columnist, sometimes he's focused on some "larger message" that they're selling us.

This is a serious issue (to Dallas and myself at any rate, though once upon a time it was a serious issue to the press itself) and it surprises me that no one's thought not only to explore it (no one at a paper) as a regular op-ed or that a paper hasn't realized that Somerby would be a great op-ed addition. There was a time when the kind of criticism he provides would be appreciated because it would delight and enrage readers.

For selfish reasons, I'm glad that Somerby hasn't been snapped up. Two days a week in a paper would be a big step down to someone who enjoys reading him five days a week. But considering that he takes no advertisements at his sites and that he, like everyone else, has to eat, it does make me sad that no one's offered a paid op-ed job. (Or for that matter, a regular slot as a guest on Air America.)

He makes you think and provides you with something beyond a simplistic "wrong!" Again, I have disagreed with his opinions on occasion, but even then I've enjoyed reading his arguments.

Somerby might argue, and he'd be correct, that of course he wouldn't be hired by a paper. The ones being hired are the ones who stay within the established lines of what is now acceptable criticism. (Thank God for FAIR, but the periodical MORE is missed -- by me anyway.) These days errors are "systematic" and carry no personal responsibility. And you don't call someone to task (unless they are a competitor). Certain op-ed writers decry the "partisan" nature that they feel our country has descended into (as though people just woke up and decided "I'm going to be partisan today for no other reason than because someone online is") but they refuse to address any criticisms of their own industry.

Everything's always "fine" and everyone's doing a wonderful job inside the circle, to hear them tell it. Lloyd sent me an editorial from the LA Times which was an apology for some racist (I believe it was racist) coverage in the far past. He'd wanted a comment on it personally (which he got) and one here (which he didn't, I've been running behind all week -- more so than usual).
I don't remember the editorial now. (It's rare that one of the 800 to 1000 e-mails that come in a day don't copy and paste something and they tend to all blend and blur after awhile unless I comment when they're fresh.)

The opinion I shared with Lloyd was that the LA Times apology was like the Times apologies. ("The Times" refers to the New York Times throughout. When speaking of the Los Angeles Times, it is noted as the "LA Times," otherwise, "the Times" refers to the New York Times.)
It comes very late (the WMD apology was an exception), after all the participants are gone, and
it puts the blame on systematic problems while noting that they wished someone had brought it to their attention at the time. The fact of the matter is that it's usually something that was brought to their attention. Criticism in real time is usually ignored and it's often a case of "reiventing the wheel" because the media doesn't make us aware of earlier criticisms. For instance, Birth of a Nation, a racist film, was not endorsed by all when it was released. (Check out the history of the NAACP if you truly believe that everyone was saying, "Way to go D.W.!")

And the above might not be fair to the LA Times. I'll admit that I honestly don't recall the subject of the editorial/apology. What I do recall is what I wrote back to Lloyd. Where's the apology for Jean Seberg? Where is it?

Will it ever appear? Or will they continue to act as though that was all the doing of Joyce Haber and that no one else was involved in that smear campaign? When an editorial staff (later editor of the paper) passes along a tip and vouches for the source, Joyce Haber (who was serious about her job but not a hard news journalist) is going to run it. At what point does the paper apologize for that? When all the participants who've gotten a pass (or one) is long forgotten?

That's how these apologies/clarifications tend to be handled. Long after everyone's gone and with some note of how at the time, there was no criticism or questioning of the original reporting.
As though the paper, whichever paper, had just suddenly discovered a problem on their own or just been made aware of it.

If confronted in real time, the people responsible might be forced to be creative. Yes, I vouched for that tipster, yes, that's my hand writing, but I just can't recall any details now. Or, even better (different person, same issue), I was trying out a "motor scooter" and fell off it that day during lunch, so I'm not responsible. (That really is an excuse that was offered.)

So these apologies always come late ("if they come at all" -- Tracy Chapman, "Behind the Wall" from her self-titled debut album).

And it's hard for me to get overly excited about apologies that don't come with any responsibility.

Bob Somerby provides real-time criticism and, provided The Howler is up for many years to come or some of the criticism from it is turned into a book by Somerby, it will be very interesting in fifty years or more to read the "clarifications," "editorial notes" and "apologies" that will be forthcoming. "We had no idea" carries a lot less weight when you don't have to dig through microfilm to find out that yes, they did have an idea; yes, they were informed in real time of the problems with the reporting.

The press has never been perfect and it never will be because people aren't perfect. (I'm certainly not.) And any commentary on the loss of trust in the press should carry with it comments on the long history of demonizing the press as the "liberal media." And a columnist (it was a Times columnist which is why we're not naming, he's not the problem, the attitude is, which is why we're addressing it) should address that. He or she should also be prepared to address the reality of the erosion of hard news.

Focusing on criticism from the outside and not examing the very real move from hard news reporting to feature writing isn't something that should be easily dismissed.

It's an issue that Daniel Okrent (still waiting to see if he comes across where the Times pushed "paper of record" -- doubt he will) dismissed, without addressing. Writing of the way the paper was versus how it is, he offered that no one would want to read the cut and dry way the paper once reported. Well of course he'd think that way, he's not from the newspaper world, he's from the magazine world and from the magzine world of feature stories.

His whole life has been teasing the reader interest, finding a sensational angle to hook/hype the story.
He's the last person apparently that we could look to for a defense of hard news. (Why he was ever chosen as the public editor of the Times . . .) I'm not that excited about the new public editor (based on reporting from people who've worked with him at the Wall St. Journal) but maybe, if nothing else, he can address the surrender of the standards of hard news to feature writing.

On a day to day basis, five days a week (six if we're lucky enough to get a weekend Howler), Bob Somerby addresses the meta narrative with concrete examples. How supposed different voices are somehow speaking unison. It's not just that one repoter got something wrong, it's that so many did and the reliance on imposed meta narratives in supposed hard news reporting is often the cause. Which seems to suggest that papers are no longer comfortable with being "the first draft of history" and now desire to be the last draft. Won't happen.

Historians will dispense with the easy praise so many currently earn. Historians can do that because, as with these "editorial notes" and apologies, they come several years down the line.
James Wollcott's dubbed certain individuals Attack Poodles (read the book, it's informative and will make you laugh). And let's hope that their present moment of fame and all the goodies that fame provides are enough for them because there's no legacy for them. (No noble one anyway.)
Truth telling matters and as Rebecca noted last week, Robert Parry is not known today for being a popular writer (or jovial TV pundit), he's known because he wrote about what others didn't want to.

Which brings us, finally, to Friday's Howler. Somerby's addressing how certain indivduals not only shy away from informing you that the emperor has no clothes on, they also cover for the court jestors and stenographers. In this case, Time magazine fluffs for Ann Coulter. I'm not sure whether it was Time or People that pioneered the instant-feature (hype, hype, hype, detail, hype, hype, hype) but they're of the same parent company and they've crossbred many times over. The result is that Coulter can be a noted person (one of one-hundred) and therefore, Time's happy to fluff. From The Daily Howler:

But Carney's magazine wants to pander to people who find themselves drawn to Coulter. Therefore, Carney is paid a very good wage to type a paragraph like the one that follows. Yes, this actually is the way he ends his three-paragraph profile:
CARNEY: In her books, Coulter can be erudite and persuasive, as when she exposes the left's chronic softness on communism. But her signature is her gleeful willingness to taunt liberals and Democrats, to say out loud what some other conservatives dare only think--that Bill Clinton is a "horny hick," for example, and his wife "pond scum." It's what makes Coulter irresistible and influential, whether you like it or not.

According to Carney, Coulter–who thinks that twenty percent of the public are traitors–is frequently "erudite and persuasive, as when she exposes the left's chronic softness on communism." But as Digby pointed out earlier this week, Carney is cleaning up for Coulter when he presents this mild construction. What does Coulter actually say in Treason, the book to which Carney alludes? As Digby notes, this is the way she starts her critique of the left's great softness on Communism:
COULTER: Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love American, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence. The Left’s obsession with the crimes of the West and their Rousseauian respect for Third World savages all flow from this subversive goal. If anyone has the gaucherie to point out the left's nearly unblemished record of rooting against American, liberals turn around and scream "McCarthyism!"

Is Coulter sincere--or is she just playing the rubes, separating them from their money? We
don't have the slightest idea. (For what it's worth, she has always struck us as the one public figure who may well be mentally ill.) But as almost any sane person can see, that is the work of a screaming nutcase if we assume that Coulter is sincere. Indeed, Treason was such a nut-cake book that a long string of major conservative writers stepped forward to denounce it when it appeared. But not Carney! Carney pretends that Coulter made an "erudite" presentation, a presentation that was quite "persuasive." In fact, Treason was denounced as the work of a crackpot all across the conservative world. But Carney is playing Time's readers for fools. So Time's readers don’t have to be told.
Why did Carney write this odd profile, ending with this odd summation? After all, a person like Coulter can be quite "influential" without being "erudite" (or "persuasive," if judged by normal standards); why did Carney feel he had to pretend that Coulter makes perfect good sense? Simple answer! Like Coulter, Carney is being paid good money to play the rubes for total fools. His owners want to sell them mags, and they want Carney to keep them happy. So Carney typed what he was told. He's paid good money for typing this drek--and like good boys throughout human history, he was willing to work for the dough.

There's much more worth reading, the entire thing in fact. Damn that Bob Somerby.

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