Opinion

Jack Shafer

Willard Milhous Romney

Jack Shafer
Sep 19, 2012 21:06 UTC

Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

The camera hated Nixon, and it showed. In 1968, Roger Ailes, now head of Fox News Channel, worked on the Nixon campaign as a consultant and improved the candidate’s stagecraft. Yet the camera still magnified Nixon’s internal discontent. Romney, a more handsome version of Nixon, doesn’t sweat or glower when facing the lens, but press encounters tend to give him the yips, jamming his efforts to pave a communications groove with voters. Like Nixon, Romney reflexively despises the press, which he blamed for the disaster that was his July foreign policy trip.

Had either Nixon or Romney grounded himself in ideology — conservative or otherwise — realness wouldn’t be as conspicuous a problem. They’d be dull politicians, reciting from their catechisms like Rick Santorum, if you seek a flesh-and-blood example. But say what you will, nobody ever doubted whether Santorum had an anchor, and nobody will ever write a book titled The Real Santorum. Pragmatists like Nixon and Romney, who have few core beliefs beyond the personal, require staff pollsters and strategists to tell them where they should be on issues.

USA Today’s new suit doesn’t fit

Jack Shafer
Sep 14, 2012 23:29 UTC

USA Today in 1982

I have a theory – one that I’m certain I’ve stolen – that it was Al Neuharth and not Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web – with the creation of USA Today. Page One of the paper’s first issue, Sept. 15, 1982, contains so many of the visual motifs that would become common on homepages a decade later when the Web really got rolling that you’ve got to suppress the urge to click and scroll when looking at it today. And swipe! USA Today founder Neuharth may have simultaneously anticipated the tablet, too.

Gannett’s ballyhooed redesigned USA Today, which hit newsstands today, 30 years after that first issue, still looks to my eyes like a proto-Web page. Breaking news (keyed to pages inside) still runs down the left rail like an RSS feed; a simple grid still serves a populist mix of news and entertainment that not even the Huffington Post has improved on; and the infographic “USA Snapshot,” which spawned a billion imitators in both print and online, still anchors the bottom left corner. The only casualty from the original Page One design appears to be the colorful weather “ear,” although it’s been dead for many years.

Early Web designers probably didn’t look directly at USA Today‘s front page for homepage inspiration. It’s more likely that squeezed by the technological limitations of the early Web era – a limited selection of fonts, narrow bandwidth, slow graphics cards and small displays – Web designers responded by reducing homepages to grids that were easily downloadable and easily digestible. Form followed function in both the case of USA Today and the early Web, with no room for gratuitous design.

Reinventing video news for your smartphone

Jack Shafer
Sep 12, 2012 16:39 UTC

Sooner or later, every expensive thing finds itself supplanted by some technology-driven thing that’s cheaper: Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic, silk by nylon, mainframes by desktops, your local recording studio by GarageBand, and so on. Ivory, silk, mainframes, prestigious recording studios, and other luxury-class goods survive, but cost-cutting technological advances have steered them into niches.

That’s precisely where Web video news producers intend to steer broadcast and cable news – into niches. And they’ve got a shot at it. In 1980, CNN began exploiting the falling costs of broadcast gear and satellite time. By decade’s end the upstart network had not only equaled the traditional broadcasters but exceeded them, becoming the vital source for breaking news. Fox News Channel and MSNBC provided the next lesson by adapting talk-radio culture to cable news. Now, falling bandwidth prices, incredibly cheap video gear and ubiquitous smartphones  – 45 percent of American adults own one – lend similar economic advantages to those looking to displace cable.

One new news-and-information prospector is Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, who this week bestowed a name on the cable-news slayer he has been assembling in his skunk works since last spring: NowThisNews, shooting for a late-October launch. As AllThingsD reporter Peter Kafka reports, NowThisNews will chart a different path than its fellow video pioneers at HuffPost Live, namely 12-hour blocks of talk-show chat. Lerer promises “short video pieces that will hopefully be very viral and very social, one at a time.” His general manager, Eason Jordan, a CNN veteran, told Kafka: “There’s an abundance of talk. We intend to report the news.” As distribution partner, Lerer and company have enlisted click-whores (and I use that term with complete admiration) at BuzzFeed, which will also assist in the creation of NowThisNews’s clips.

Looking for truth in all the wrong places

Jack Shafer
Aug 31, 2012 21:37 UTC

If you’ve kept your shirt dry while canoeing the rivers of our current presidential campaign, it’s likely that you’ve been skilled enough to avoid the logjams and snags of “dishonesty” and “lies” that the parties and press have flung into the water. While it’s true that politicians and their campaigns and their ads routinely lie — I hear no disagreement on that point, so I’ll continue — never have politicians and the press expressed such indignation at campaign exaggerations, fibs and falsehoods.

For example, after Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his acceptance speech this week at the Republican National Convention, the press corps fact-checkers instantly took hammers and tweezers to his address. “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” asked Jonathan Cohn in the liberal New Republic, but the non-partisan press accused Ryan of having misled listeners and taken “factual shortcuts,” too. The Week counted up the 15 euphemisms for “lying” the press (partisan and non-partisan) used to describe the speech.

I suspect the growing sensitivity to political lies has less to do with more lying by more politicians than it does with the growth of the fact-checking industry over the last decade or so. Every campaign speech, big or small, every campaign ad, local or national, every fund-raising letter is fodder for the modern fact-checkers, who have multiplied in the pages of our newspapers like termites in breeding season: FactCheck.org (the granddaddy of these sites, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which got started in the mid-2000s) and the later arrivals PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), AP Fact Check (Associated Press) and CNN Fact Check, all of which run regular fact checks. Other news organizations muster ad hoc journalistic militias to grade the truth-value of political speech. Today’s New York Times piece, “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches,” does that for the Republican National Convention.

Why the Yahoos at Yahoo were wrong to fire David Chalian

Jack Shafer
Aug 30, 2012 16:33 UTC

If you’re a journalist and you’ve ever said anything “inappropriate,” as David Chalian got caught doing yesterday — and you know you have — please step forward to be fired now.

Chalian, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News, ridiculed Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, during a Monday webcast from the Republican National Convention. It’s not uncommon for bureau chiefs, beat reporters or copy editors to verbally eviscerate politicians, corporate leaders, slumping sluggers or any other notable not in the room at the time, but they usually have the good sense to first check to see if a microphone is on. Chalian did not.

His topic was Hurricane Isaac, which was then bound for New Orleans, and he coached an unidentified guest on how to typify the Romneys:

Political conventions are useful. Really!

Jack Shafer
Aug 27, 2012 15:37 UTC

Nobody will think less of you if you grunt and punt on this week’s Republican National Convention. Go ahead and scan the newspaper and Web accounts of the event if you must, but feel free to watch something else on TV. The same advice goes for the companion production by the Democratic Party in Charlotte next week. But whatever you do, don’t bemoan the attendance of 15,000 reporters trampling one another in their frenzied attempts to get a slice of the thin story, or complain about the wasted money sending them there.

The conventions are much better at generating newsworthy moments than you might think, as reporter Richard Wolf points out in this morning’s edition of USA Today. A defeated Ronald Reagan wowed the 1976 convention with a six-minute stemwinder that commenced his victorious 1980 campaign. State Senator Barack Obama “became the star of the 2004 Democratic convention” with his speech. Bill Clinton flopped in 1988 with his 33-minute Michael Dukakis nomination. To that list of notable convention addresses one must add Sarah Palin’s televangelist tour de force at the Republicans 2008 show, which in retrospect marked her political high point.

One way to reject the pseudo-eventness of the conventions is to pout, as ABC News veteran Ted Koppel did in 1996 after setting up at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. (That convention also attracted 15,000 from the press corps.) Koppel, who had broadcast his Nightline program from every convention since 1980, cried uncle on the second night. “There was a time when the national political conventions were news events of such complexity that they required the presence of thousands of journalists,” Koppel said on the air. “But not this year.” So he loaded up his Nightline TelePrompTer and went home, complaining that the convention had turned into an infomercial. “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” he added.

Barry Diller’s deal of the day

Jack Shafer
Aug 23, 2012 15:47 UTC

Barry Diller runs his company, IAC, like a used-car dealership. That comparison is meant to disparage neither Diller nor used-car lots but to capture the shark-toothed, high-velocity, unsentimental manner in which Diller conducts business. How many photos of Diller have him wearing the fake grin of the car salesman, the one that says “I’m your friend until the deal is done or abandoned, and then you’re just another future mark to me”?

The vehicle on the market eliciting Diller’s deal lust this week is About.com, the content farm owned by the New York Times Co. After word leaked that the Times Co was about to sell the site to Answers.com for around $270 million, my Reuters colleague Peter Lauria reported that Diller was bidding “in excess of $300 million” to nab it for his Internet portfolio. Given Diller’s wheeler-dealer instincts, that was probably a soft offer. Lauria promptly tweeted a pair of qualifiers to his piece, noting that if Answers.com dropped out of the deal, IAC might cut its bid. “That’s dealmaking 101,” Lauria tweeted. “Diller knows this better than anyone.”

Lest you think I belabor the used-car-dealer metaphor, give a gander at the array of properties populating the IAC lot. Some, like Match.com, look like real businesses the way a BMW looks like a real car. Others, like Vimeo and Ask remind you of YouTube and Google the way Infiniti and Acura are supposed to remind you of Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Properties like ShoeBuy.com are the “beaters” on the lot, unglamorous Toyotas that should trundle on forever, while SportsPickle.com, Excite, and Newsweek/Daily Beast resemble rusty Suzukis, Kias and Mitsubishis, resting on concrete blocks.

President Obama loses his sense of balance

Jack Shafer
Aug 9, 2012 23:03 UTC

President Barack Obama, like many of us, dislikes much of what he drinks from the news spigot. As the New York Times reported this week:

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Before I continue, I’ll give you just a moment to guess which of the two opposing sides the president thinks is being given “equal weight” but does not deserve it. Need a little more time? Just another second? O.K.…time’s up! The president thinks the press is allowing his unworthy, mendacious Republican opponents to nullify the truths he speaks from the Oval Office. Obama has expressed these views in meetings with columnists on both the left and the right, according to the Times. It peeves him when reporters give equal weight to both sides when one side is factually incorrect and when they blame both parties when one party is to blame. Obama’s specific beef, it seems, is coverage of health insurance legislation and the stimulus package.

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.

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.

  •