Opinion

Jack Shafer

Chuck Hagel and the nomination pageant

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2013 23:33 UTC

I can feign as much excitement as anybody in the press corps when the president nominates someone to a vacancy in the Cabinet or the Supreme Court. But when deadline time comes, I really don’t care who gets nominated; unless there are outstanding warrants for the arrests of the nominees, the president should be allowed to hire and fire, as long as we can fire him.

The rest of the press pack, alas, does not have that luxury. They must tackle every nomination with the same fervor they gave to their previous nomination stories, which isn’t as difficult as it may seem. All they need to do is update and rearrange their old copy to confirm with Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics, which states, “Copy can be cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.”

A full three months before President Barack Obama got around to nominating former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department yesterday, the trial balloons had been lofted to test Hagel’s suitability to the position, and the press corps busied itself dusting off its nomination-coverage templates and completing the blanks. Hagel’s nomination did not catch anyone by surprise; few such nominations do, since the White House and others maintain comprehensive short lists for the day a Washington appointee dies or resigns. By virtue of her age (79) and her announced intention to serve on the Supreme Court as long as her hero, Justice Louis Brandeis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has encouraged White House short-listers to prepare for her departure and the arrival of a new justice by 2014.

The nomination pageant commences, then, long before the nomination is made, with both proponents and foes of the prospective nominees mapping the short-listers’ pasts, assembling preemptive offensive and defensive strategies, right down to pre-prepared speeches. For example, in 1987, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) took to the Senate floor a mere 45-minutes after President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court to give a speech in which he declared that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids.”

Short- listers can be drafted into service, but usually they make themselves known to presidents, as Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been jockeying for the position of secretary of state ever since Hillary Clinton made known her intent to sit out the second Obama administration. A short-lister lines up support wherever he can find it, especially in the Senate, which is assigned to pass judgment on his nomination. (If at all possible, a nominee should have the good sense to have title of “Senator” somewhere in his resume because the Senate is reluctant — John Tower’s experience notwithstanding — to vote against one of its own.)

The Andrew Sullivan traveling blog show

Jack Shafer
Jan 4, 2013 21:44 UTC

Why is Andrew Sullivan selling? And what are his readers buying?

Sullivan, maestro of the popular blog The Dish, pulled off the impossible this week. After announcing that he was breaking free from his bosses at the Daily Beast and would henceforth finance the site with $19.99 annual subscriptions from readers, he collected about $400,000 in two days from nearly 12,000 Dish enthusiasts, some volunteering more than the suggested amount. Published since April 2011 by the Daily Beast, and before that by the Atlantic, and before that by Time, The Dish now returns to its 2000 origins as Sullivan’s indie project.

If you admire journalism and entrepreneurism, you’ve got to be pulling for Sullivan and his five employees and two interns to pull down the $900,000 he says he needs to operate The Dish for a year. As Sullivan states in his declaration of independence, the rewards of his success won’t fall just on The Dish: “The point of doing this as simply and as purely as possible is precisely to forge a path other smaller blogs and sites can follow.”

But the questions remain: what is Sullivan selling and what are his paying readers (he calls them “members”) actually buying? More nudge than paywall, The Dish “freemium” subscription system will give non-members a limited number of free “Read On” clicks for longer posts each month, after which they’ll be reminded that they really should consider paying $19.99. “Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter — so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall,” Sullivan writes. But cheapskates who want to avoid paying and evade The Dish’s nagging can just use their RSS readers to consume the complete site.

Let’s not go crazy over publishing gun lists

Jack Shafer
Jan 2, 2013 23:15 UTC

Once they get started, gun debates take but a few minutes to mutate into rhetorical riots in which responsible gun owners accuse their critics of wanting to confiscate their guns and anti-gun activists damn all gun owners as accomplices to murder. The debate-to-riot progression was replayed once again following the Dec. 14 Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, when into this volatile atmosphere stepped the nearby Gannett-owned Westchester Journal News, publishing a Dec. 23 story and a map detailing the names and home addresses of every pistol permit-holder in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties.

Undeterred by the fact that the handgun data was, by state law, a matter of the public record, aggrieved gun owners retaliated. A crowdsourced map of the home addresses of Journal News employees — including their home and work phone numbers when found — went up. The site also listed the names and addresses of the paper’s local and national advertisers, suggesting Journal News readers write letters threatening to boycott their goods and services unless the Journal News took its map down. The New York State & Pistol Association urged a boycott of all Gannett enterprises, asserting that the map had “put in harm’s way tens of thousands of lawful license holders.”

Neighboring Putnam County has rejected the Journal News‘ request for its pistol permit-holder list. “[T]he egghead editors at the Journal News can kiss my white, Irish behind,” said State Senator Greg Ball, backing the county’s resistance.

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.

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.

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