Opinion

Jack Shafer

The fractured brilliance of Alexander Cockburn

Jack Shafer
Jul 24, 2012 00:07 UTC

“He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club,” Richard Wright wrote of H.L. Mencken in Black Boy, his autobiography. “Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were.”

Thoughts like these visited me when I first read Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice in the early 1970s. Like Mencken, Cockburn excelled at offense – both playing it and giving it. Long before the acid reporting and splenetic commentary of Spy magazine, decades before the predictable venom of blogs, Cockburn had mastered the art of vituperation. Dipping his pen into the sewer of news, he savaged all comers. He went after Nelson Rockefeller after his “coronation” as vice-president, he attacked Commentary Editor Norman “The Frother” Podhoretz whenever the mood moved him (which was often), and returned again and again to the villains he kept in his pillory: New Republic owner Martin Peretz, New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, or the owner of the Village Voice, and others.

When the targets shot back – Podhoretz famously described Cockburn’s pieces as setting “a new standard of gutter journalism in this country” – he loved nothing better than to hammer the trash talk into a medal and wear it proudly. He recycled Podhoretz’s line endlessly in his column, and printed it as a dust jacket blurb for his collection Corruptions of Empires: Life Studies & the Reagan Era.

“He is a talented, despicable writer who enjoys vicious teasing as a kind of journalistic blood sport,” film critic David Denby wrote in 1983, which I think shrinks the Cockburn method to its essence. Cockburn delighted in extracting pain from his adversaries, in searching the horizon for new enemies to attack, and in routinely converting friends into foes. But when I interviewed him in 1995, he disavowed the presence of bile in his work.

“Bile is something eating at you all the time,” Cockburn said. “Bilious people hate. I don’t hate.”

What the Colorado shooting says about us

Jack Shafer
Jul 20, 2012 23:17 UTC

The Colorado movie massacre imposes on us once again the temptation to extrapolate lessons from a demented act of violence. Depending on the lens through which the massacre is viewed, it has encouraged some to restate their case for gun control or to argue for comprehensive mental healthcare. Others have named Hollywood an accessory to the murders while savoring the irony that the ultraviolence was meted out by a killer who delighted in executing Aurora, Colorado, fans of violent films. Hollywood has already mulled its culpability. An otherwise intelligent film critic has blamed the rampage on midnight screenings! Politicians are wagging their fingers about how nobody should extract immediate political advantage from the killings while plotting means to reap later benefit.

As I write, the accused killer’s high school yearbook is being pillaged for clues to his motives. People who knew him well or hardly at all are being interviewed for psychological evidence. And the media does fMRI scans of the accused’s skull, in search of evidence of his brain “lighting up” at the idea of murder.

Such attempts at pattern recognition are as inevitable as they are necessary. Philosophers may be capable of throwing the null set at a suburban bloodbath. For the rest of us, attempts at finding causation – however tenuous – help settle the mind. The shooter did it because he was crazy, we say. He did it because he was evil. He did it because we (or somebody else) made him that way. He did it because guns make it possible. Any explanation that will help us cope will do.

How Bloomberg can still run Washington

Jack Shafer
Jul 19, 2012 00:14 UTC

At the age of 70, Michael R. Bloomberg nears an actuarial end that not even his $22 billion net worth can reverse. By giving him a measly 13 years of life expectancy, the law of averages has made the New York mayor acutely aware of time. In 2006, he installed a countdown clock in his mayoral headquarters that marked time until the end of his second term. As his third term commenced in 2009, Bloomberg escalated his war on time, putting a stopwatch to meetings. Was he racing the clock, or, as the co-inventor of the Bloomberg Terminal, did he think that a firmer grasp on life’s raw data would prolong his life?

Before he’s ushered to his reward, Bloomberg – whose current term as mayor ends at the close of 2013 – yearns to do something as grand as revolutionizing Wall Street, making billions, and running New York City government. Ordinary billionaires find this sort of psychic remuneration in philanthropy, but Bloomberg, a generous donor, is no ordinary billionaire. Philanthropy gives him a kick, but not the kick he craves. Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s special something looked to be a presidential campaign. He took foreign policy lessons from a centrist, priced the cost of the race at an affordable $500 million, and played the big-town flirt as he explained to one news organization after another how he didn’t really want to run for president – while reminding them what a splendid president he would make.

He didn’t run because he came to understand that he couldn’t win as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. It’s for the best that he didn’t become president: His idea of governance is giving orders, as if he’s the people’s CEO. It’s also for the best that when the Obama administration shopped him to fill the vacancy at the World Bank, as its president, he declined the position because he didn’t want a boss, as New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported.

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

How the byline beast was born

Jack Shafer
Jul 6, 2012 21:36 UTC

The church of journalism threw a minor fit last week after This American Life exposed the inner workings of local-news company Journatic. Based in Chicago, Journatic contracts with newspapers around the country to provide them with local news stories. Some of the heavy lifting it outsources to freelancers, who work hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from the publications in which their “hyperlocal” news pieces appear. Journatic pays piece-work rates equivalent to about $10 to $12 an hour to the freelancers who collect and assemble information about school lunch menus, real estate transfers, local deaths, marriage licenses, bowling scores, garbage pickup schedules, and the like. The final copy, which is massaged by Journatic hands elsewhere, some of them full-timers, has run in the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, GateHouse newspapers, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

The outrage over Journatic was, in part, protectionist in nature: No well-paid staff reporter wants to be replaced by one of Journatic’s $10-an-hour wage slaves living in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics, Brazil or Africa. Others found in the byline scandal new evidence of the crisis of newspapers, which has them cutting costs everywhere just to survive. But most of the coverage has concentrated on the unseemly ethics of the fake bylines, at least some of which were generated by a “select alias” button used by Filipino writers. Those fake bylines included “Ginny Cox,” “Jimmy Finkel,” “Carrie Reed,” “Jay Brownstone” and “Amy Anderson.” The San Francisco Chronicle has determined that Journatic contributor Jeremy Schnitker published 32 articles as “Jake Barnes” in its pages, presumably an homage to the character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sun-Times and GateHouse are ending their relationship with the content farm, and Journatic has announced that it has “banished” fake bylines from its stories. The Houston Chronicle apologized, and Journatic’s CEO claimed the ginned-up bylines were designed to optimize search-engine discovery and to protect his writers from reader complaints.

Where does the sanctity of the byline come from?

Obviously, every news story should brim with the truth. But does an accurate story become unclean if the byline does not match the name of the writer (or writers) who produced it? In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions. Even so, I’ve never heard anybody claim that the readers of these pieces were in any way hoodwinked.

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