Opinion

Jack Shafer

The unbearable nostalgia for bipartisanship

Jack Shafer
Dec 21, 2012 21:25 UTC

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) went out in a blaze of mush last week in her farewell speech from the Senate floor. Snowe, the last of Washington’s militant centrists, lamented the demise of bipartisanship in the Senate and the rise of divisiveness in the chamber. Although she didn’t blame anybody in particular for the erosion of comity — after all, naming names is uncivil — it wasn’t really necessary. Everybody knew she was talking about other, more doctrinaire Republicans.

Snowe sought to indemnify herself by saying she wasn’t looking back on “some kind of golden age of bipartisanship” and wasn’t “advocating bipartisanship as some kind of an end unto itself.” Then — like the Janus-faced centrist she is — Snowe looked back lovingly on the golden age of bipartisanship and compromise that passed Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and shook her pre-drenched hankie for the lost “art of legislating.”

In her misery, Snowe has ample company. Political scholars Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have written a whole book (excerpted here) documenting the “dysfunction” Republicans have visited upon Congress with their non-compromising, extremist, anti-bipartisanship, gridlocking ways. Acknowledging that the Democratic Party has abandoned the center, too, Mann and Ornstein offer that at least since Bill Clinton was in office, the party has “hewed to the center-left” on important issues.

“While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25,” Mann and Ornstein write, “the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.”

What a limiting notion for a pair of political scholars to hold — that the political spectrum is linear and extends only 50 yards in either direction from mid-field, not counting the end zones. Cannot politics be mapped onto a sphere? Flung onto a Möbius strip?

Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports

Jack Shafer
Dec 17, 2012 22:28 UTC

“It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.

Before the day was over, CBS had confirmed the Rather maxim by launching several very wrong reports into the ether. Rather and colleagues reported that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington; that a United Airlines flight had “crashed into the vicinity of or at Camp David”; and that the FBI had arrested two people in a truck with explosives near New York’s George Washington Bridge. “Enough explosives were in the truck to do great damage to the George Washington Bridge,” Rather would go on to say. It wasn’t just CBS muffing the story. NBC News repeated the George Washington Bridge story (before taking it back), and NPR and ABC News reported the nonexistent State Department bomb, with ABC News citing senior law enforcement officials and the Associated Press.

None of these doozies turned out to be true, of course, making a sage of sorts out of Rather. If only we had had him on the air to warn us last Friday, as the networks, newswires and newspapers reported on the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Among the firstest and the wrongest on the story was CNN. At 11:17 a.m. on Friday, @CNN tweeted, “CNN’s @SusanCandiotti reports the suspect is Ryan Lanza and is in his 20s,” and Candiotti repeated the finding on air shortly after 2 p.m. with a caveat that the information came from a source and that it had “not been confirmed by the state police.”

The best of the year in review!

Jack Shafer
Dec 13, 2012 21:52 UTC

From their lazy fingers to your scratchy eyeballs, journalists are now transmitting their “year in review” articles and “best of 2012″ lists if, unlike the New York Times Book Review, they haven’t already published their lists of 100 notable books or their 10 best round-up.

In the coming days, a torrent of best-of-year-in-review copy will crack, crumble, and flow like a calving glacier from the keyboard in business, sports, arts, and editorial sections across the land and plop into readers’ laps. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beat reporters, political columnists, gossip columnists, tech columnists, and art critics of every denomination will type out their arbitrary listicles about the best and worst of the year and otherwise describe the 11-and-one-half-months just past. Lined up, one-by-one, the best-of-year-in-review packages resemble the floats gliding down wide boulevards during a New Year’s Day parade: colorful, big, but pointless. My own news organization, Reuters, builds its own floats, as its “Year in Review 2011″ package proves.

Only a scold would insist that every best-of-year-in-review story is crap. I look forward to the top 10 list critic Mark Jenkins assembles each year for inclusion in the Village Voice‘s “Pazz and Jop” music poll, but mostly because he keeps a keener eye on the topic than I do. I’m sure that if I spent more time sifting through best-of-year-in-review articles I’d find more delicious copy to savor, but the same can be said for extruding all of Craigslist through a strainer in hopes of trapping a few edible morsels.

Thank the lord the Times isn’t the newspaper of record

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2012 23:50 UTC

The New York Times took a few lumps yesterday from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who seconded the protests of “many readers” who wrote to her complaining that the Times was not paying sufficient attention to the pretrial testimony of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is accused of the wholesale leaking of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. The New Republic has also taken the newspaper to task for its non-coverage of the hearings, during which Manning described inhuman treatment by his captors.

The Times has not subjected Manning to a news blackout, Sullivan acknowledges, writing that the paper ran an Associated Press story about the proceedings last week and repeating Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt’s pretty good excuses that 1) the paper does not ordinarily cover every proceeding in every newsworthy case and 2) the paper previously covered (in 2011!) the charges of Manning’s mistreatment.

Sullivan is not persuaded. She quotes at length from a comment by Times reader David Morf, who states that the Times “is the paper of record” and the place where the Pentagon Papers were published. “It’s unconscionable and sad if the Times sits quietly by saying nothing — even worse, simply running AP wire copy to let the story bury itself,” he writes. Sullivan nods in approval, concluding that the Manning hearings’ news value dictates that the “Times should be there.”

The deadliest image

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2012 00:10 UTC

If the photograph that R. Umar Abbasi shot and the New York Post ran on its cover Tuesday of a subway car bearing down on Ki-Suck Han doesn’t make you shudder, you’re probably a little dead inside. And if, after looking at the cover once or twice, you didn’t return for another quick glance, or replay the image in your mind’s eye, you might be a cyborg.

The subway photograph conveys a kind of terror that’s different from the terror produced by red-meat shots from the battlefield, photos of monks self-immolating, or even surveillance video of car bombs detonating and blasting people over like bowling pins. The subway photo doesn’t document human destruction, it documents the anticipation of destruction, and that rattles a separate part our psyche, explains media scholar Barbie Zelizer in her 2010 book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.

“About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and public response work,” Zelizer told me two years ago in an interview. “[I]mages of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict.”

The Daily didn’t fail–Rupert gave up

Jack Shafer
Dec 3, 2012 22:15 UTC

When you’re as wealthy as Rupert Murdoch ($9.4 billion) and you control a company as resource-rich as News Corp (market cap $58.1 billion), shuttering a 22-month-old business like The Daily doesn’t signify failure as much as it does surrender.

Murdoch knew what he was getting into when he launched the iPad-only (and then smartphone, Android tablet, and Kindle Fire) publication in February 2011. At a press conference, the mogul claimed to have invested $30 million pre-launch and assumed running costs of about $500,000 a week. According to a report in the New York Observer, attributed to a “source,” the operation was amassing annual losses of $30 million. But again, for someone like Murdoch, $30 million is chump change. His New York Post loses up to $70 million a year, according to some accounts, and you don’t see him closing it. Such losses are rounding errors in the company’s entertainment budget.

To place The Daily venture in scale, the last attempt to start a national, general-interest print newspaper from the ground up—USA Today—lost $600 million over the course of a decade before turning its first profit in 1994. (In today’s money, that’s more than $1 billion.) The National, the national sports daily, lost $150 million (about $250 million, corrected for inflation) in 18 months before closing in June 1991. In the late 1990s, when Murdoch was trying to crash the China satellite TV market, he had invested $2 billion and was losing $2 million a week according to his former right-hand man in that enterprise. So, please, let’s not obsess too much over Murdoch’s squandering of $30 million a year on a failed experiment. In the history of journalistic bets, this was a trivial gamble.

Britain’s press needs more freedom, not more regulation

Jack Shafer
Nov 30, 2012 00:20 UTC

The Leveson inquiry completed its 17-month official investigation into the filth and the fury of the British press today, pulling into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center opposite Westminster Abbey. There, its leader, Lord Justice (Brian) Leveson, delivered the inquiry’s 1,987-page report on the London newspaper phone-hacking scandals, wild invasions of privacy by the press and covert surveillance by newspapers, and recommended new regulations of the press.

The regime proposed by Leveson would replace the current — and toothless — self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission with a body that would possess investigatory powers and authority to levy fines of up to £1 million for transgressors. The new body would be “voluntary,” funded by newspaper membership fees, as the 56-page executive summary explains, and “independent” of the press and government, though governed by statute. The advantage of submitting to the invitation to volunteer would be an “arbitration” service that would reduce the legal awards newspapers would have to pay when complainants brought their libel and invasion of privacy charges to the new body rather than to the courts.

Anticipating that some publications — namely the tabloids that routinely hacked phones, harassed people, co-opted the police, and published damaging lies — would refuse to volunteer, the summary recommends that those outliers be conscripted by the government’s broadcast overseer, Ofcom, which would operate as a “backstop regulator.” So there’s nothing voluntary about the regulatory scheme Lord Justice Leveson proposes. It surveys the landscape that is the British press — an institution sufficiently demented that one of its organs, News of the World, hacked dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone in pursuit of lewd headlines — and proclaims that all publications, be they guilty or innocent of the numerous offenses catalogued by Leveson, be subject to a new government-mandated order. With that nose under the tent, it wouldn’t be long until the entire camel was calling the place home.

Fake press releases are a public service

Jack Shafer
Nov 28, 2012 00:50 UTC

Yesterday, an enterprising clown used PRWeb to publish a fake press release about the purported purchasing of WiFi provider ICOA by Google for $400 million. The Associated Press, Business Insider, Forbes, TechCrunch and other websites ran stories about the transaction — without gaining confirmation from Google — and shortly after AllThingsD unmasked the release as fraudulent, the hoodwinked news organizations donned hair shirts in penance for their journalistic malpractice.

The pranked news organizations were right to self-flagellate, and the apologies and self-recriminations appeared to be sincere. “We were wrong on this post, for not following up with Google and the other company involved but posting rather than getting waiting [sic] on a solid confirmation beforehand from either source. We apologize to our readers,” confessed TechCrunch.

You don’t even have to be a talented liar to fool the press into publishing one of your lies. You just have to have gumption. In February, the Madison Capital Times got taken in by a phony press release about Representative Paul Ryan pressuring the Smithsonian to delete posters from its archives. A bogus April press release about the Bank of America’s seeking advice from customers on how to run its operation fooled the Dow Jones Newswire, and in June, a fake press release about General Mills got play in the Dow Jones Newswire, WSJ Online, and Fox Business News before the ruse was uncovered. In August, the Los Angeles Times got doubly duped when it ran a story about a nonexistent San Diego pharmacy crackdown that relied on two prank press releases.

The sex scandal as civic lesson

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2012 00:32 UTC

The saturation coverage of the Petraeus sex scandal has yet to annoy many people besides policy wonks, but it won’t be long before a full-throated essay attacking the endless column inches and hours of airtime devoted to the salacious story arrives. (Inching close to that stand but not quite occupying it today are Tom McGeveran of Capital New York, Howard Kurtz, and The Week, which is upset about the “sexist” coverage of the scandal.) As was the case with the Clinton-Lewinsky* sex scandal, the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal, the Eric Massa “tickle” scandal, the John Edwards sex scandal, and many others, some columnist or talking head will grumble about how the Petraeus story has distracted the populace from the real issues of the day — the fiscal cliff, climate change, job creation, the deficit, Hurricane Sandy recovery, Sudan and Somalia, immigration policy, the Middle East…

Tell these people to go pound sand.

Political sex scandals have a way of engaging an otherwise apathetic public in substantive coverage about the workings of the criminal justice system, the misuse of political power, and American prudery. Already the Petraeus scandal has schooled a naïve nation about proper email hygiene, the internal workings of the FBI, lax military discipline, computer privacy issues, and the loose handling of classified information. And this scandal has been in the wild for less than a week.

Reading about the Cain, Clinton, Weiner, and Edwards scandals may have sickened you. I can remember squeamish moments while reading the Starr Report. But the reporting on the Clinton scandal, the Cain episode, the Weiner sleaze, and Edwards’ adventures in lying and cheating right-sized the public’s estimation of political figures. Where the accused were forced to defend themselves before a court (Edwards) or the House of Representatives (Clinton), citizens were given direct windows on the workings of justice. In the Cain business, readers everywhere were given a course on ethical and legal conduct in the workplace that could not be equaled by any commercial refresher course. And as dopey as the Weiner incident was, it demonstrated convincingly how small-screen fantasies can expand to big-screen embarrassments better than any fear-mongering cover story in Time or Newsweek. Who doesn’t recall intense (and informed!) watercooler arguments over evidentiary standards during the Clinton impeachment hearings? Such scandals have the potential to make walking Wikipedia entries of us all.

Marcus Brauchli, one-term editor

Jack Shafer
Nov 14, 2012 00:42 UTC

As the daily newspaper winds down after a century of dominating the news business, so does the job of editing one. Editorships of the top papers were once comparable to lifetime appointments to the federal bench, with all the perks and prestige that came with a judgeship. A.M Rosenthal led the New York Times for 17 years. Benjamin C. Bradlee served as executive editor of the Washington Post for 13 23* years, and after him came Leonard Downie Jr., who had the job for 17 years.

Today, the top editor can rely on no more longevity than your average NBA coach, who fully expects to be dribbled out the door (or take the initiative to make a fast break for it) after a few seasons. The latest editor given his walking papers is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who after four years at the job has been given the new title Washington Post Company vice president and assigned to evaluating new-media opportunities. His replacement, announced today, is Martin Baron, currently the editor of the Boston Globe. By comparison with other newspapers, the Post is a safe harbor for editors: The Los Angeles Times has cycled five journalists through its top job since 2005. Prior to editing the Globe, the itinerant Baron held the top job at the Miami Herald from 1999 to 2001.

Baron arrives at a paper much diminished from its salad days under Bradlee and Downie, when the Post was the leading mass-advertising vehicle in Washington and corpulent with profit. Under Bradlee’s and much of Downie’s tenures, the paper’s biggest problem was finding something to spend all that money on. It established domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Miami. It expanded its business pages into a freestanding section in the early 1990s. * It created local bureaus to serve the suburbs that circle Washington, filled them with reporters and produced zoned editions. It experimented with new weekly sections covering consumer tech and lifestyle.

  •