Opinion

Jack Shafer

You’re not really famous until you’ve quit Twitter – at least once

Jack Shafer
Sep 18, 2014 22:13 UTC

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Almost as much as celebrities love to tweet, they love to quit Twitter. And as much as they love to quit Twitter, they love to return to the social networking service.

If Nexis can be trusted, the first high-profile Twitter quitter was Miley Cyrus, who very publicly ditched the service in October 2009 at the behest of her boyfriend, actor Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus delineated her reasons for terminating her account in a rap video she uploaded, explaining to her to her 1.1 million followers that she wanted to keep her “private life private.”

Proving that returning to Twitter is as easy as quitting, Cyrus started tweeting again in April 2011 and remains a fervent user, even though she threatens to take a hiatus from the service now again. Other celebrities to quit and restart include Ricky Gervais, who left the first time after calling Twitter “pointless” in January 2010. He rejoined in September 2011. Other Twitter quitter yo-yos include John Mayer, serial quitter Alec BaldwinMinnie DriverChris BrownSylvester StalloneNick OffermanCharlie Sheen, baseball player Chris DavisJennifer Love HewittNicki Minaj, and William Shatner.

Some celebrities bail out of Twitter because they feel overexposed (Cyrus). Others leave after being trolled by mean Twitter users (Driver, Hewitt, and Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda), framing their retreats as protests against bad players. Still others, such as CeeLo Green this month, cancel after posting something controversial, perhaps in hopes that their swift exit from the scene of the word-crime will perform damage-control magic. With the past as our guide, Green will soon return, after which he’ll tweet something that he will come to regret, quit once more, then rejoin, again and again, forever spinning on Twitter’s wheel.

Of course, celebrities aren’t the only users who quit Twitter. According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey from last year, 36 percent of Twitter users polled had left the service and 7 percent had shuttered their account. Hedge-fund manager Doug Kass said good-bye in June 2013 (“…too many haters”) and returned about four months later. Earlier this month, market wizard Clifford Asness announced his exit, but he continues to tweet anyway. Sportscaster Joe Buck departed in May 2012, citing his vulnerability to “minute-by-minute criticism,” but he later got back on (although the account looks dormant now). Journalists have been known to quit, but often the departure is a stunt — a week or a month of temporary Twitter exile to clear their heads before returning and usually writing a piece about how they’ve now learned to manage their habit.

Roger Goodell, the NFL’s judge and jury, becomes his own executioner

Jack Shafer
Sep 11, 2014 21:41 UTC

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Oh, yes, let’s torch and pitchfork the NFL for its handling of the Ray Rice case and not rest until NFL Commission Roger Goodell pays for his incompetence or his bad judgment — whichever proves greater — with his resignation. Then, after a good night’s sleep, let’s ask ourselves why, after cementing his reputation across the league as a hanging judge, did Goodell pick the Rice case to appear insufficiently authoritarian?

Rice, who dealt his then-fiancée Janay Palmer a knockout punch in an Atlantic City casino elevator last February and dragged her out and dumped her like a tackling dummy, may be one of the least sympathetic players ever to appear for judgment in the court of Goodell. Rice hadn’t gotten caught violating the league’s drug policy, as did Cleveland Browns star receiver Josh Gordon, and for which he earned a one-year suspension this summer. Goodell banned Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger’s offense? A college student accused him of assaulting her in a nightclub. The quarterback was not convicted of anything. He wasn’t even charged. But Goodell punished him.

In June 2007, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson earned an eight-game suspension from Goodell for being arrested on gun-related charges. In 2008, New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress was suspended for four games after accidentally shooting himself. In 2009, quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely (and later reinstated) for dogfighting. In 2012, following accusations that the New Orleans Saints had paid “bounties” to players for delivering injury-inflicting hits on opponents, Goodell suspended three of its coaches, several players, yanked draft selections from the team, and fined it as well. The player suspensions were vacated, but Goodell’s reputation as a hard-ass was only enhanced.

Keep your frenemies list short and your enemies list shorter

Jack Shafer
Sep 5, 2014 21:04 UTC

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Compiling an enemies list was a cinch for the United States during the Cold War, what with most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal targeted its way. Friends of the Soviets immediately became America’s enemies, and Soviet enemies became U.S. friends. That made China a U.S. enemy of the highest order, a ranking sharked by the Soviet client-states of Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam, against which the United States fought. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya rose to high-enemy status under President Ronald Reagan, a position it maintained until he surrendered its nuclear program.

The enemy-allies partition had a few anomalies, notably the non-aligned nations and double-dealers like the Indians and the Romanians, who exploited frenemy relations with the United States. But it drove U.S. foreign policy for more than two generations until the Soviets sloughed off both communism and empire, laid down their ICBMs, and exited the enemy business. 

China’s reversal was more dramatic: It became the United States’ business partner in the 1990s and almost a friend. For most of the 1990s, the United States had no real rivals, a period of coasting that ended with 9/11 and its aftermath. Ever since, enemies-list has been a brain-bruising task for the U.S. government as such violent non-state actors as al Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and many others have emerged, breaking — at the knuckles — the rules of thumb that once governed enemy identification.

Why we’re so blase about global warming

Jack Shafer
Aug 29, 2014 15:26 UTC

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If you don’t regard global warming as a serious problem, your company is growing. According to the survey jockeys at Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” has declined since 2006 (from 79 percent to 65 percent). While a firm majority still considers global warming to be very or somewhat serious, the numbers show that public alarm over the topic has receded over a period during which the scientific, journalistic, and political consensus on the topic has surged the other way.

Over the same 8-year period, fewer respondents agree that the earth is warming and fewer agree that human activity causes warming. These figures must give cognitive whiplash to those who dismiss the public as a herd of easily driven sheep. The scientific establishment, the press, and politicians have a flimsy grasp of mass opinion.

Americans’ blasé and wishy-washy attitudes toward global warming may be related to the positive short-term effects of environmental policies that they observe daily. Our air and water is cleaner than it was a generation ago, as the federal government likes to crow, we’re recycling more and we’ve cleaned up more of the designated Superfund sites. Even U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined, though not by the margin that will undo the harm predicted by global warming theorists. Most Americans have witnessed social and technological progress in their lifetimes and they see evidence of future progress, so they’re optimistic. It’s only human nature that they might reject the apocalyptic impulse.

This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

Jack Shafer
Aug 26, 2014 00:42 UTC

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley

Jack Shafer
Aug 20, 2014 22:35 UTC

By uploading a video of its execution of journalist James Foley to the Web on Tuesday, the Islamic State achieves the impossible: It re-executes him every time somebody presses play.

The horror of perpetual re-execution was obviously the Islamic State’s goal. Nobody with a soul—knowing what’s coming—can listen to Foley’s speech without their hearts going full-throttle and shuddering at the murderous climax. For its troubles, the Islamic State has gotten a sliver of what it wants today. The story dominates the news. The video has become available on every desktop, laptop, and smartphone in the world. People are beseeching one another not to link to the video. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has announced the suspension of accounts that tweet the graphic images, and the New York Post and Daily News are suffering a boatload of criticism for printing screen-grabs of the murder on their morning covers.

And yet, video-beheading seems to be a strategy to nowhere. Al Qaeda attempted similar contamination of our dream pools more than a decade ago with its 2002 video killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, which was also disseminated on the Web. Like the Islamic State video, which proclaimed it was a “message to America,” Al Qaeda’s video was designed to deter the U.S. government from continuing to intervene in Iraq and to shift American public opinion. But had the Al Qaeda strategy been successful, the United States wouldn’t be bombing in northern Iraq today. More likely, the videos, which our Western eyes tell us are staged for our benefit, are really aimed at the video-makers’ constituents to attract maximum attention, showcase the groups’ power, attract recruits, and build cadres – all things that the video may actually do.

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

Jack Shafer
Aug 14, 2014 21:11 UTC

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

All the myths that are fit to print: Why your news feels familiar

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2014 22:46 UTC

Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?

Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.

At home, Hillary Clinton has commenced another presidential campaign as her party’s presumptive nominee. A new iteration of the iPhone has the press jabbering, and police everywhere seem to be overreacting to imagined threats by killing citizens. Even ancient stories, such as the Rwandan genocide and the start of World War I, have yo-yoed their way back into the news, but only because they are marking anniversaries that end in zero (Rwanda’s twentieth and the hundredth of the start of WWI).

Sometimes the news actually repeats itself, as in the case of Clinton. Such man-made cycles as elections, the Olympics, and wars lend themselves to retreaded coverage, as do the natural cycles of hurricane and tornado seasons, droughts and floods, and summer forest fires. Reporters and editors pack new events into old, familiar templates.

The dangers of deputizing Google to bust child pornographers

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2014 23:03 UTC

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“Don’t be evil” — the first sentence of Google’s “Code of Conduct” — has served as the technology company’s corporate motto since its earliest days. But given Google’s role in the arrest late last month of a Houston man on child pornography charges, perhaps we’ve been misreading it. Perhaps the motto is aimed at its customers, as in, “Don’t you be evil or we’ll have you busted.”

Google, obviously, isn’t the first Internet company to alert investigators of a user who might be transmitting or be in possession of child pornography images. Since the late 1990s, the law has required service providers to report apparent violations of child pornography laws. In 2004, for example, AOL provided a tip that resulted in a child pornography conviction. In 2007, Yahoo took similar action that helped earn a child pornography defendant a 16-year sentence. So far, the courts have rejected Fourth Amendment challenges to these prosecutions, and are likely to continue to do so. No credible sources have appeared to denounce the prosecutions as overkill, and I doubt if any will.

The Houston bust, in which John Henry Skillern allegedly sent explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email, comes a year after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond renewed his company’s commitment, which he dated to 2006, to expunge child pornography from the Web and identify its traffickers. As the company’s email policies state, “Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery. If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities. …”

Plagiarists’ real crime? Ripping off readers.

Jack Shafer
Jul 29, 2014 22:19 UTC

A man reads a newspaper in the auditorium before the lectures for the 15th biennial International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia

The plagiarists are back in the news, taking public beatings for allegedly having filed refried copy at BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and the United States Army War College, where Senator John Walsh, (D-Mont.), has just been busted for lifting portions of his 2007 master’s degree paper.

Of course, plagiarists — like shoplifters — are always with us, pinching small and large chunks of stuff that doesn’t belong to them. So I don’t think this week’s news necessarily means that a new plague of plagiarism has descended upon us, only that the law of averages decided to harvest three perpetrators at roughly the same time.

To answer the question of why somebody would commit plagiarism, you would first have to answer why somebody would shoplift. Plagiarism, like shoplifting, is a crime of optimism. Both plagiarists and shoplifters know what they’re doing is wrong. They know the odds of getting caught are high and getting higher, thanks to the advent of search engines and security cameras. They know disgrace will follow, they might lose their jobs, and in the case of shoplifting, their imprudence may earn them jail time. But as optimists, plagiarists and shoplifters ignore the nasty weather awaiting them and sail on, assuming that somehow they’ll outrun the storm.

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