Opinion

Jack Shafer

Manti Te’o and the press get blitzed

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2013 21:53 UTC

Deadspin’s exposé of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend — which does double duty as an exposé of the dozens of news outlets that accepted his word that she had been injured in a car wreck and then died of leukemia — doesn’t conclude that Te’o was simply the victim of a hoax or that he became a willing accomplice in the deception.

But the ultimate subject of the investigation, written by Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, is not the collegian at the center of it but the press corps, which swallowed the girlfriend story whole. Just a little more early pushing by reporters and a few skeptical questions by editors would have separated the bogus from the true, as the piece amply illustrates.

Of course, few reporters have the time or energy to contest every statement of fact from their subjects. Date of birth, place born, schools attended, honors won, jobs worked, countries visited, political and religious views and other aspects of personal history too numerous to catalog usually originate from the mouths of news subjects when they’re first interviewed. Because part of journalism is the business of discovering lies — and because the human soul is a deceitful thing — reporters know that everybody tends to fudge their pasts. Actors might make themselves a little younger in an interview. Law school attendees might encourage you to believe they graduated when they did not. Someone who climbed one major mountain peak might suggest he had climbed several.

Over time, a newsworthy person tends to magnify his accomplishments and minimize his defeats, and by a certain age most have so polished their personal and professional resumes that when looking at them they think they’re peering into a mirror. So when interviewing a subject for a story, reporters know instinctively that they’re collecting some lies, if not directly from the subject then from whoever gave him his stack of facts. Then, it’s the reporter’s job to figure out to the best of his ability what is true and what is not by deadline.

Journalists tend not to fact-check mundane personal histories unless the subject is powerful or important. The powerful and important, after all, make a louder noise when knocked to the ground for their deceptions. Another trigger for deeper investigation of a subject comes when the facts he tenders fail to conform with previously published facts. But the Te’o love story appears to have remained consistent over time, and the cumulative force of repetition blunted suspicions. I’m not making excuses for the press corps here; every nose on every reporter covering Te’o should have been twitching. I just want to emphasize that reporters tend to believe ‑but shouldn’t ‑ things that get retold.

When advertorial bites back

Jack Shafer
Jan 15, 2013 22:01 UTC

At about noon today, the Atlantic put on a very snug hair shirt, issuing a statement of apology and regret for having posted on its website Church of Scientology “Sponsor Content” yesterday.

The Scientology advertisement, composed by tone-deaf propagandists unable to write a sentence about the church’s alleged worldwide expansion without including a superlative – “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” (twice) – was taken down just before midnight after being up for about 11 hours. (See Erik Wemple’s tick-tock.)

A cached version of the Scientology advertorial is preserved on freiz.it, but be forewarned that there isn’t much there to interest you unless you’re an admirer of the church and love to read nice but bland things about it, or you detest Scientology and enjoy nothing better than to have a good laugh at the church’s expense and that of its “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. It’s really that lame.

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 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.”

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