Opinion

Jack Shafer

The dumb war on political intelligence

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2013 22:01 UTC

For as long as legislative and regulatory acts have moved financial markets, investors and their operatives have scrummed like Komodo dragons for first bites of the fresh laws and orders dispensed by government. The stampede for the timeliest legal and regulatory information has given rise to the “political intelligence” business, which converts Capitol Hill whispers into stock market gains, and which has now attracted the full scrutiny of Congress and the regulatory apparatus.

Although legislators and regulators previously sought to hobble political-intelligence operatives, their efforts were stoked by a Capitol Hill leak about Medicare policy on April 1 that reached Height Securities — a political intelligence outfit — which in turned relayed the information to its clients in a 75-word note about 35 minutes prior to the official announcement. Clients acted on the tip, goosing skyward the price of such health insurance company stocks as Aetna, Health Net and Humana.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued subpoenas about the Height Securities leak, the Government Accountability Office has white-papered the political-intelligence topic, and Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — a legislator who puts the grand into grandstanding — has started his own investigation of Height Securities and aims to introduce a bill to police the political intelligencers. (Grassley’s interest must be amplified by the fact that a former staffer turned lobbyist appears to have ferried the controversial leak to Height Securities. It’s like that horror movie cliché, in which the call is coming from inside your house. Or something like that.)

The press corps has pursued the political intelligence story with zeal. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, is still on it, the Washington Post series has put it on page one and Bloomberg NewsReutersRoll Call, Legal Times and others have contributed coverage, as well.

But as is the case with other Washington “scandals,” no laws appear to have been broken by the Capitol Hill leaker, the individuals who forwarded the leak, Height Securities or its clients who placed stock market bets based on the alert. This incident is miles removed from insider trading, in which material, non-public information is used for profit and which is strictly prohibited by U.S. law.

Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?

Jack Shafer
May 1, 2013 22:44 UTC

The thought of the Koch brothers purchasing the Los Angeles Times so distressed staffers attending a recent in-house award ceremony that half of them raised their hands when asked if they would quit their jobs should the paper — which has come out of bankruptcy court and is very much for sale — fall into the two oil billionaires’ portfolio, the Huffington Post reported recently.

The unscientific show of hands indicated greater newsroom hostility for the Kochs, who have never owned a daily newspaper, than for Rupert Murdoch, journalism’s usual whipping boy, who has owned dozens of papers and rarely shied from using them to advance his business interests: Only a “few people” promised to throw themselves out the window if Murdoch wins the Los Angeles Times.

Murdoch!? The guy whose London tabloids excelled at phone-hacking? The owner of Fox News Channel and the New York Post? The kowtower to the Chinese? Whose newspapers have brought readers such headlines as “Nympho Gets Life for Killing Hubby With Paraquat Gravy,” “Maniac Who Cut Off Mom’s Head to Go Free,” “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” “Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth to Monster Baby,” and “Green-Eyed Sex Fiend Is Hunted.”

ChartGirl boxes the news

Jack Shafer
Apr 24, 2013 19:47 UTC

If you’re the nautical sort, you probably interpret the news as a flow. If you hunt and peck on the typewriter, your news feed might resemble a pointillistic painting. But if you love to break ideas down into their sequential components, keep your socks folded and sorted by color in a dresser, compose everything you write with an outliner and consider a pair of tweezers a blunt instrument, then you probably view the news through the schematic eyes of Hilary Sargent, the creative force behind the ChartGirl website.

Since November, Sargent has been sorting and reordering the chaotic sewer of breaking news into lucid and logical text-and-graphics charts. When the top story was General David Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell, Sargent straighten the “endless story angles” with an annotated chart depicting the major players in the scandal ‑ from Jill Kelley to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), fromHarvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa ‑ and plotting the salient interconnections. Better than a New York Times write-through of all known facts about the scandal, ChartGirl collected the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns in concise and puckish fashion. (Connecting Broadwell with Michelle Obama with a line, Sargent asked, “Who has better arms?”)

In early December, with John McAfee on the lam, Sargent extracted from the event the three dozen most important institutions, individuals and plot elements (e.g., a tampon, four poisoned dogs, Vice magazine, “bath salts”) and arranged them like wheel spokes around a McAfee head shot to bring coherence to the tumult. Later that month, Sargent applied her news-mapping skills to the awfulness of the Westboro Baptist Church and to Donald Trump‘s feuds with such celebrities as Rihanna, Carrie Prejean, Rosie O’Donnell, Al Neuharth and Stephen Colbert. Since then, she’s diagrammed the news behind the Bill Ackman vs. Carl Icahn battle, the highlights of the Gardner Museum heist, and, last week, press corps Boston Marathon bombings hits and misses.

In defense of journalistic error

Jack Shafer
Apr 22, 2013 22:23 UTC

Hilary Sargent, who does business on the Web as Chart Girl, compiled the best early guide to the journalistic mistakes made on the afternoon of April 17, as broadcasters and wire services moved their conflicting and error-studded reports about the status of the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet. At least eight news organizations — including the Boston Herald, the Associated Press, CNN and local station WCVB-TV — reported that either an arrest had either been made or was imminent.

These bulletins were, of course, proved wrong quickly. By the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan was crowing about the home team’s errorless Boston performance in her column. With uncharacteristic swagger, Sullivan wrote that the paper’s performance upheld its “reputation as journalism’s gold standard,” a comment likely to be shoved back in her face several times before her public editorship ends.

Without question, the Times deserves credit for avoiding rank errors in its Boston coverage, as do the scores of other outlets that fielded the story without booting the ball. But as anybody who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, reportorial diligence is never sufficient to prevent a news organization from misreporting stories. News, especially breaking news, has always been a difficult thing to report accurately. If you examine the news product closely, you’ll discover a vein of feldspar running through even the shiniest gold standard.

Shameless paper in mindless fog

Jack Shafer
Apr 18, 2013 23:02 UTC

If our culture allowed diseased newspapers to be quarantined, I’d have the New York Post kenneled right now.

I express that sentiment after reading the Post‘s Boston Marathon bombing coverage, in which it erroneously reported that 12 were dead, mistakenly stated that a Saudi national was “a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing” and, this morning identified two Boston Marathon bystanders in a Page One photo as “Bag Men.”

Of course, every news outlet botches a breaking news story from time to time, and many have erred in their Boston reporting, as BuzzFeedChart GirlPoynterSalon and others have tabulated. But what distinguishes the New York Post from other stumbling outlets is the cavalier manner about its errors. When other outlets make monumental mistakes, they may take their time printing corrections. They may avoid acknowledging their errors if they can get away with it. Or if they acknowledge their errors promptly — as CNN’s John King did this week — they may blame “confusion” or “misinformation” rather than accept the blame directly. But by and large, the press takes its lumps.

Terror and the template of disaster journalism

Jack Shafer
Apr 16, 2013 22:58 UTC

Natural disasters, airline crashes — and yes, terrorist bombs — undercut the normalcy of everyday life by bringing death’s whammy to an unexpected place at an unforeseen time. In the hours and days following such catastrophes, journalists work to restore normalcy to the panicked population by explaining how and why the bad thing happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Reporters have been normalizing the abnormal for so long that they’ve created well-worn catastrophe templates to convey their stories. Yesterday, while covering the Boston Marathon bombing, journalists leaned hard again on those templates.

First came the sputtering dispatches over radio and television about the calamity. Next up were the on-the-scene broadcast reports, frequently marred by confusion and contradiction, as the press held out hope for survivors but prepared audiences for the worst. Video of the catastrophe was converted by the cable news networks into a perpetual loop, giving the talking heads a wallpaper background to talk over  (and giving new viewers just tuning in something graphic to watch).

Then came the eyewitness accounts, telling of a big bang and the second big bang, testimony that transported more emotion than data. Not that that’s a bad thing: Since the first storytellers competed around the fire, emotion has coexisted with data in the service of narrative. Nobody wants a story composed exclusively of numbers or of feelings. Then came additional video and photos, early body count estimates, speculation and the refinement of facts mined and edited through the early evening and into the night.

Our national pastime: Press criticism

Jack Shafer
Apr 10, 2013 22:17 UTC

In early 1946, Albert Camus emptied into New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling’s ear his plan for a new newspaper.

“It would be a critical newspaper, to be published one hour after the first editions of the other papers, twice a day, morning and evening,” said Camus, who knew a thing or two about journalism, having recently resigned his editorship of the Paris daily Combat.

“It would evaluate the probable element of truth in the other papers’ main stories, with due regard to editorial policies and the past performances of the correspondents. Once equipped with card-indexed dossiers on the correspondents, a critical newspaper could work very fast. After a few weeks the whole tone of the press would conform more closely to reality. An international service,” Camus told Liebling.

The enduring cliches of North Korea coverage

Jack Shafer
Apr 2, 2013 21:30 UTC

If the family of nations has ever known a more recalcitrant son than North Korea, journalists have neglected to include it in their pages. No treaty, armistice, agreement, compact, or covenant signed by North Korea can ever be considered a done deal. A North Korean signature marks only a prelude to renegotiation or default on the part of that nation. It’s the sort of country that would phone in an immense take-out order and then, as the delivery man pedaled the bags of food through the Panmunjom checkpoint, would call back to demand a volume discount, stipulate that the meals be placed on a running tab, and then cancel the order before reordering, this time insisting on going off-menu. Upon receiving the check, North Korea would likely torch it.

North Korea doesn’t change its views very often. Why should it, when it can hold two opposing points of view in its mind at the same time, campaigning simultaneously for war and peace, capitalism and communism, diplomacy and confrontation? Oscillating inside the moment has given a spiral quality to the country’s voyage since its establishment in the late 1940s. Like riding a corkscrew through history, North Korea does everything it does over and over again. When an old Kim dies, the country finds a new Kim to lead the state. It makes nuclear pacts and then breaks them. It freezes and then thaws its nuke program. It talks peaceful unification with South Korea while engaging in unprovoked military assaults on South Korea’s citizens, attempting and sometimes carrying out  assassination plots against its neighbor’s leaders, and on one occasion even detonating a bomb on a South Korean airliner.

On rare occasion, North Korea apologizes for its transgression, but it’s usually the one who is demanding the apologies. When the U.S. and South Korea stage joint-military exercises, North Korea frequently claims that renewed American aggression has forced it to assume a war-footing (1983, 1988, 1993, 2003, et al.), something it did again last week, promising the Armageddon of  ”all-out war, a nuclear war” in response to the current joint exercise, Foal Eagle 2013.

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2013 22:58 UTC

Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.

If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a  news-condensing app developed by  London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder  is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.

The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.

Hey! You! Get off of Google’s cloud!

Jack Shafer
Mar 21, 2013 22:11 UTC

I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the  last eight years. I consult its aggregations on my desktop the first thing in the morning, even before retrieving my four daily newspapers from the curb. Later, like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, I nibble  on my iPhone feed as I walk to the subway. At work, I keep Reader open to follow blogs and news and , to the neglect of my children, it has  been my steady bedtime companion for some time.

So when Google announced last week that it was sending Reader to the software slaughterhouse on July 1, I took to Twitter to object. Knowing that Google was unlikely to give the service a reprieve, the next thing I did was export my Reader settings and shop the alternatives.

One thing I didn’t do was to write a column accusing Google of betraying my trust, as Om Malik, James Fallows, Ezra Klein, Alex Hern of the New Statesman, The Week, and others did. Nor did I vow not to use Google’s new product, an Evernote substitute called Google Keep, ‘lest the company yank the rug out from under me again. I never trusted Google in the first place. I never thought it would support its products forever. As Slate’s Google graveyard attests, the company has routinely created and abruptly killed off software services, often tossing out the minimum viable product and watching to see if it caught on before putting any further effort into developing it.

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