Jack Shafer

Jungle fever clouds chimp obituary

Jack Shafer
Dec 28, 2011 22:22 UTC

There are no slower slow-news days than the ones that fall between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Washington depopulates, Wall Street evacuates, and corporate America vanishes, creating a massive news drought that not even bad college football bowl games can fill. Journalists respond not by digging deeper for news but by imitating the hot-shot vacationers: Newsroom bosses and their hot-shot reporters escape if they can, leaving their newspapers, wire services, and broadcasters short-staffed and snow drifts of wire-service copy fill newspapers everywhere.

So, if Cheetah (the spelling varies, with some outlets using “Cheeta”), an elderly chimpanzee who died at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., on Dec. 24, wanted a Viking send-off from the press, he couldn’t have picked a better time to expire. The Tampa Bay Tribune appears to have been the first to break the story of his death yesterday in a short story. According to the Tribune, this wasn’t just any dead chimpanzee, this was Johnny Weissmuller’s co-star in a couple of Tarzan films from the early 1930s. Sanctuary spokesman Debbie Cobb told the Tribune that Cheetah, roughly 80 years-old, had been acquired from the Weissmuller estate in Ocala, Fla., sometime near 1960. Hundreds of news organizations repeated the Tribune‘s claims, either by republishing the Associated Press rewrite or by creating their own derivative accounts, including ReutersCNNMSNBC.com, the Washington Post, and the London Telegraph. Even the New York Times published a credulous Cheetah story on its Arts Beat blog today at 9:53 a.m., mostly based on the Tribune piece.

The death of Tarzan’s Cheetah at a Florida roadside zoo was “too good to check,” as journalists like to put it—especially during a holiday week. Had anyone bothered to make a few phone calls, plumbed a few news databases, or relied on common sense, they would have instantly discovered how improbable it was that the chimp had worked in the movies with Weissmuller.

For one thing, it’s unlikely that a male chimp would live to the age of 80. The oldest chimp residing in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility, says Steve Ross of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, is Lil’ Mama, and she’s in her early 70s. The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is not the greatest animal facility in the world. It’s not AZA-accredited and it has a bit of a dodgy history. Previously doing business as Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm, the attraction had been closed for about a decade when the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) ran this 2008 article about its reopening. The paper reported:

In 1999, the USDA stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes and improper record-keeping.

OTUS and the golden age of political reporting

Jack Shafer
Dec 24, 2011 00:09 UTC

Just what the country needed: Another political Web site.

At the beginning of the week, ABC News launched OTUS, its political news supermarket with its top political reporters (Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Amy Walter, and George Stephanopoulos) hunkering on the site’s home page. OTUS threatens to dice, grind, sieve, and aerosol the complex business of campaigns and the affairs of the state into inhalable powder.

As Tapper says in this promo, OTUS (short for of the United States as in, POTUS, president of the United States, or SCOTUS, supreme court of the United States) is all about the “power moves, the mini-dramas, the scheming” in politics. Tapper promises that OTUS will flag both the “urgent and the ridiculous,” offer games, display correspondents’ Twitter feeds, and create a stock market-style ticker that assesses the rising and falling worth of candidates with social media.

ABC News has expanded its Web efforts at what is obviously a late date. SalonSlateTalking Points MemoYahoo PoliticsPoliticoRealClearPoliticsRed StateHuffington Post PoliticsFiveThirtyEightMother JonesNational Review OnlineDaily BeastDaily CallerRoll CallThe HillCNN Politics, NBC’s First Read, Time ‘s SwamplandNational Journal, specialty sections at the Washington Post, the New York TimesNew York magazine, the Associated PressBloomberg News, and Reuters, as well as numerous other sites already cover the beat, and cover it well.

Why are we censoring bird flu science?

Jack Shafer
Dec 22, 2011 01:32 UTC

Scientists working in the Netherlands and Wisconsin have engineered a version of the highly lethal H5N1 “bird flu” that easily transmits in ferrets, the best animal model for human spread. This news has so alarmed a federal advisory panel that it has now asked the two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, to censor the papers each lab has submitted for publication lest the information fall into the hands of terrorists. (Here’s the Page One coverage of the story from the New York Times and Washington Post.)

The request has roiled the scientific community, with some researchers backing the panel’s request, which is not binding, others lamenting the fact that the research was ever done, and others defending the bird flu work as essential research.

The panel—the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—was established in 2004 as a response to the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. The scientific community resisted the direct controls the Bush administration wanted on biological research, the Times reports, and eventually agreed to the advisory panel that could be called upon to review potentially dangerous research. “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” NSABB chair Paul Keim, an experienced anthrax researcher, told Science Insider Reporter Martin Enserink in November. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

Hollywood’s pirate cure is worse than the disease

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2011 22:19 UTC

The American entertainment complex—Hollywood, the networks, the stations, cable,  the record labels—has placed before Congress a simple request: Give us a law to punish Google, PayPal, the Web ad industry, and anybody else doing business on the Internet who may play some intermediary role in connecting foreign “pirates” to consumers seeking illegal access to copyrighted content.

The House of Representatives and Senate have bowed to the entertainment complex’s request. The House bill is called the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s genuflection goes by the name of the PROTECT IP Act. Rather than just punishing copyright violators, these bills would give the U.S. government new powers to black out Web sites, impose new monitoring rules on search engines and other Web services, rejig the architecture of the Internet, short-circuit the usual due process for Web sites, and authorize new surveillance for a government that just can’t seem to get enough. (See Alex Howard’s learned delineation of the bills from late November.)

So grand is the entertainment complex’s umbrage that I half expect its next move will be to petition the Department of Justice for the authority to shut down the electric utilities that provide power to any and all computers it suspects are pinching its intellectual property.

Are you reading the best magazine in America?

Jack Shafer
Dec 14, 2011 23:06 UTC

My original commitment to Bloomberg BusinessWeek was so small it was almost negative.

About this time last year, US Airways, Delta, or some other crappy airline notified me that my soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles could be exchanged for magazine subscriptions, which is how I ended up spending something like 600 miles to add a year’s subscription to Bloomberg BusinessWeek to my Towering Reading Pile.

My Towering Reading Pile is governed by neo-Darwinian, survival-of-the-smartest-copy laws. With all the good stuff to read directly on the Web, stored on my RSS reader, and stockpiled by my Instapaper account, a mere book, magazine, or newspaper must be exceptional. Some publications (the New York Times) I read thoroughly because everybody I work with (and many of the people I write for) reads it. Other publications I first fillet for their prime morsels, like National Review for Mark Steyn’s ongoing chronicle of a planet gone retrograde and Vanity Fair for James Wolcott’s recombinant experiments with the American language. On Sundays, I make the weekend editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times play gladiator by tossing them into a 55-gallon drum and letting them fight it out. Upon returning a half-hour later, I collect the articles that were strong enough to defend themselves and consume them.

BuzzFeed gets serious

Jack Shafer
Dec 12, 2011 23:21 UTC

BuzzFeed, the aggregation/social-media site, has thrown itself into the content creation business with some big hires. Today, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti crowed about picking up Politico’s Ben Smith as its editor-in-chief. Smith, as Politico readers know, breaks news the way rioters break glass: Frequently and with glee. Last week, BuzzFeed added Whitney Jefferson and Matt Cherette from the Gawker enterprise, and a dozen new editorial hires are promised.

The addition of original content (also known as “journalism”) to the aggregator model isn’t without precedent. There are plenty of large Web sites that devote themselves to both, such as Huffington Post, Mediaite, Business Insider, Atlantic Wire, and Gawker, to name a few. But for an established aggregator like BuzzFeed to enter the original content sweepstakes at this point is a little like a slaughterhouse attaching a storefront to its entrance and opening a steakhouse in hopes of selling even more meat.

Actually, the BuzzFeed transition will be even bigger than from slaughterhouse to steakhouse. Today, it’s essentially an entertainment site, a place best known for its goofy distractions and silly videos. Smith tells Nieman Journalism Lab that his goal is to “hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have” with phone calls, “trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives.”

The trial of Stephen Glass

Jack Shafer
Dec 7, 2011 21:06 UTC

Is serial fabulist Stephen Glass fit to practice law?

That question—first posed in 2002 when Glass applied for admittance to the New York State Bar Association—moved to California in 2007, when Glass applied to join its bar. Glass’s California application has now traveled to the top of the legal food chain, where the state Supreme Court agreed in November to hear arguments on Glass’s moral fitness to become a member of the State Bar of California.

If Stephen Glass were an ordinary applicant, the California Committee of Bar Examiners would have readily approved the graduate of Georgetown University law school (magna cum laude, 2000) after he passed the California bar exam and applied for admittance. But Glass was an exceptional case: He gained worldwide notoriety in 1998 after dozens of stories he wrote while working as a Washington journalist in the mid-to-late 1990s were discovered to be fabricated. These pieces described incidents that never took place and attributed quotations to made-up people. Most of these tainted stories appeared in The New Republic, where he worked, but others were published in Policy Review, Harper’s, George, and Rolling Stone. (According to court documents, Glass settled a lawsuit filed against him by D.A.R.E., the subject of his Rolling Stone piece, for $25,000.) The scam ended in May 1998 after reporting and inquires from Forbes Digital Tool editor Adam L. Penenberg tipped the New Republic off about the fishiness of Glass’s piece about “Jukt Micronics,” and all of his journalistic work was scrutinized for lies.

The legal argument under debate in California isn’t whether Glass made stuff up willy-nilly in his journalism. That verdict was delivered long ago; you can read the eye-popping details in Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fair feature. The question before the California Supreme Court is the 39-year-old Glass’s current moral state, and whether he has sufficiently rehabilitated himself to practice law today.