Jack Shafer

Who deserves a hatchet job?

Jack Shafer
Feb 27, 2014 23:36 UTC

The New York Times dinged the New York Observer today in an absolute fair and responsible fashion, documenting the weekly’s great efforts to pillory Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, the results of which the Observer published on Tuesday (“The Politics and Power of A.G. Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or Will Reckless Eric come undone?”).

Both the Times piece and a BuzzFeed article, published earlier in the week, build the circumstantial case that the Observer story was a hatchet job designed to retaliate against Schneiderman. Why should the Observer want to hurt the attorney general? Well, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald J. Trump last year. Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, who owns the Observer, and Kushner bosses the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. Kurson originally assigned the Schneiderman story to an inexperienced writer and allegedly encouraged him with comments (Schneiderman is a “bad guy” and a “phony”) as well as plying him with negative articles about Schneiderman. How hard did Kurson push? The young writer bailed because he believed Kurson was prodding him into writing a “smear piece,” and a new writer was enlisted.

Obviously, the Trump-Kushner-Kurson axis has motives to scuttle Schneiderman with a newspaper article. But neither the Times nor BuzzFeed cite any inaccuracies in the Observer piece. The Times calls it a “searing, 7,000-word indictment of Mr. Schneiderman, portraying him as vindictive and politically opportunistic” and as a “robust defense” of Trump. In an editorial note, the Observer offers some transparency about its conflicts of interest, and presents a genesis of the article.

The unstated subtext of the Times and BuzzFeed pieces seems to be that there is something wrong about commissioning a hatchet job. But don’t editors do that all the time? If an editor can’t commission a hatchet job, or at the very least encourage a reporter to take a preferred direction, what’s the point of being an editor?

Excessive fairness provides only one path to truth, and one man’s smear is often another man’s exuberant truth-telling. The fact that an inexperienced writer did not grasp Kurson’s concept for the piece, and thought he was being directed to “smear” the subject doesn’t mean Kurson was shopping for a smear. It could be that the writer, being inexperienced and new to the Schneiderman topic, and Kurson, being certain of the story he was chasing, miscommunicated at a basic level that the writer perceived as an attempt to smear. Whatever the case, the motives and skullduggery behind a story usually matter less to me than does the story’s substance. In the case of the Observer story, I’ll sit tight until somebody knocks it down as inaccurate, a piece I’ve yet to see.

Supermarket tabloid gets hoodwinked by imposter!!!

Jack Shafer
Feb 26, 2014 23:51 UTC

The National Enquirer got its nosey-parker proboscis bloodied this month after its big Philip Seymour Hoffman “scoop” was promptly revealed to be a hoax.

Only three days after Hoffman died, the tabloid reported that playwright David Bar Katz — the friend who discovered Hoffman’s dead body — and Hoffman were lovers. It also alleged that Katz watched Hoffman freebase cocaine the evening before his death and had repeatedly witnessed his friend’s use of heroin.

The source for the Enquirer‘s piece? Katz himself, according to the tabloid. But when Katz immediately stepped forward, denied any such interview took place, denied being Hoffman’s lover, denied having watched him do cocaine or heroin, and sued the Enquirer for $50 million, the newspaper retracted the story and apologized. It has now settled with Katz and will fund a foundation that will make annual grants of $45,000 to unproduced playwrights to honor Hoffman. The Enquirer also took out a full-page ad in today’s New York Times to state that it had been fooled by an imposter who “falsely and convincingly claimed to be Mr. Katz.” The tabloid apologized and has pledged continued support of the playwright prize.

Who’s afraid of Comcast?

Jack Shafer
Feb 19, 2014 23:35 UTC

Set aside for a moment everything you’ve read about the $45 billion bid Comcast made for Time Warner Cable last week. Blank from your mind Paul Krugman‘s prediction that the deal will result in a Comcast monopoly. Pretend you didn’t read the New York Times piece about the acquisition presaging further consolidation in the cable market, with Charter Communications picking off Cox Communications. Thump yourself with a neuralyzer, if you can, and remove from your memory the protest against the transaction by Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Finally, purge from your bile ducts the seething hatred you hold for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, those hurtful memories of rising bills, rotten service, and phone-tree purgatory and allow me to persuade you that we’re having the wrong telecom argument when we quarrel about mergers and acquisitions. Instead of blocking mergers or beating concessions out of the telecom giants, let’s give them the treatment they really fear: Policies that encourage the entry of competitors, which are the bane of every monopolist.

If you hate your cable television company — to simplify a half-century of history — blame it on the government. In the founding days of the industry, local municipalities mistakenly insisted that cable TV was a “natural monopoly” that must be regulated like telephone service. In nearly every case, the selection of a cable operator was a political one, with the most flattering supplicant winning the right from city councils to string wire on utility poles and cross right-of-ways to sell cable service. The municipalities collected franchise fees from the cable companies, shook them down for sweeteners like municipal channels and public access studios, regulated their rates, and required the operators to wire all if not most of their jurisdiction.

The new Medicis funding journalism

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2014 23:39 UTC


Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat. Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.

If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren’t making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you’d factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.

The 20-year-old Microsoft memo that came true

Jack Shafer
Feb 6, 2014 23:00 UTC

About 20 years ago, Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, composed a 20,000-word piece of prophesy titled “Road Kill on the Information Highway” that reads as fresh today as it did then.

One of many memos the polymath was churning out for Microsoft bossman Bill Gates at the time, “Road Kill” deserves our renewed attention for at least three reasons: 1) many of the market, media and tech dislocations Myhrvold predicted have come true, so he’s owed credit for his sharpness; 2) the tech forces Myhrvold identified have continued their romp, making some of his come-true predictions even truer as time has passed; and 3) though Microsoft embraced much of his futurology at the time, it still missed the market in many places where companies like Google, Apple and Amazon hit.

Rereading the memo, you feel a pang of sympathy for outgoing Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, who has been criticized for not overtaking Google, for not inventing the iPhone, not creating Facebook, and other transgressions. You also feel 10 tons of trepidation for incoming CEO Satya Nadella, who faces the same tech market realities that blunted Ballmer. Myhrvold’s memo, dated Sept. 8, 1993, repeatedly warns that computer speed and computer storage were to grow exponentially for decades, making the computers of the near future a million times fast and then a trillion times faster.