Opinion

Jack Shafer

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.

If you see the world through the eyes of a press critic ‑ and I pity you if you do ‑ Sargent’s work sometimes reads like A.J. Liebling turned graphics freak. In this week’s “Covering the Coverage,” which provides further assessment of the media’s treatment of the Boston story, she pours a whole colony of fire ants on the press corps. But in an interview, Sargent cites artist Mark Lombardi, whose “Narrative Structures” gave visual form to conspiracies, political scandals and financial crimes, as primary inspiration. Sargent says she also admires Edward Tufte‘s work and recently took his seminar, but adds this disclaimer: “My charts break so many Ed Tufte rules that I think it would be unfair to him to say he’s an influence.”

Although Sargent dabbled in journalism at the turn of the century, working at the Boston Globe and completing an internship at the Wall Street Journal, she has worked for the past decade as a researcher and consultant in Washington and New York. In 2006, while working for the Senate Majority Project, a 527 group, she constructed her first chart to organize information about holdings in the portfolio of then-Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Later, while working for a private investigative firm in New York, she made numerous charts to describe money laundering operations and international asset tracing.

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.

Beat sweetener: The Benjamin J. Rhodes edition

Jack Shafer
Mar 18, 2013 21:23 UTC

If you’ve ever wanted to see a White House staffer dressed in frosting and candy sprinkles like a gourmet cupcake, pull your Saturday, March 16, New York Times out of the recycling pile and read Mark Landler’s adulating “beat sweetener” about Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice.”

A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.

As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies

Jack Shafer
Mar 15, 2013 23:41 UTC

Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

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