Opinion

Jack Shafer

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.

“He is a talented, despicable writer who enjoys vicious teasing as a kind of journalistic blood sport,” film critic David Denby wrote in 1983, which I think shrinks the Cockburn method to its essence. Cockburn delighted in extracting pain from his adversaries, in searching the horizon for new enemies to attack, and in routinely converting friends into foes. But when I interviewed him in 1995, he disavowed the presence of bile in his work.

“Bile is something eating at you all the time,” Cockburn said. “Bilious people hate. I don’t hate.”

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.

How Bloomberg can still run Washington

Jack Shafer
Jul 19, 2012 00:14 UTC

At the age of 70, Michael R. Bloomberg nears an actuarial end that not even his $22 billion net worth can reverse. By giving him a measly 13 years of life expectancy, the law of averages has made the New York mayor acutely aware of time. In 2006, he installed a countdown clock in his mayoral headquarters that marked time until the end of his second term. As his third term commenced in 2009, Bloomberg escalated his war on time, putting a stopwatch to meetings. Was he racing the clock, or, as the co-inventor of the Bloomberg Terminal, did he think that a firmer grasp on life’s raw data would prolong his life?

Before he’s ushered to his reward, Bloomberg – whose current term as mayor ends at the close of 2013 – yearns to do something as grand as revolutionizing Wall Street, making billions, and running New York City government. Ordinary billionaires find this sort of psychic remuneration in philanthropy, but Bloomberg, a generous donor, is no ordinary billionaire. Philanthropy gives him a kick, but not the kick he craves. Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s special something looked to be a presidential campaign. He took foreign policy lessons from a centrist, priced the cost of the race at an affordable $500 million, and played the big-town flirt as he explained to one news organization after another how he didn’t really want to run for president – while reminding them what a splendid president he would make.

He didn’t run because he came to understand that he couldn’t win as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. It’s for the best that he didn’t become president: His idea of governance is giving orders, as if he’s the people’s CEO. It’s also for the best that when the Obama administration shopped him to fill the vacancy at the World Bank, as its president, he declined the position because he didn’t want a boss, as New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported.

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

How the byline beast was born

Jack Shafer
Jul 6, 2012 21:36 UTC

The church of journalism threw a minor fit last week after This American Life exposed the inner workings of local-news company Journatic. Based in Chicago, Journatic contracts with newspapers around the country to provide them with local news stories. Some of the heavy lifting it outsources to freelancers, who work hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from the publications in which their “hyperlocal” news pieces appear. Journatic pays piece-work rates equivalent to about $10 to $12 an hour to the freelancers who collect and assemble information about school lunch menus, real estate transfers, local deaths, marriage licenses, bowling scores, garbage pickup schedules, and the like. The final copy, which is massaged by Journatic hands elsewhere, some of them full-timers, has run in the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, GateHouse newspapers, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

The outrage over Journatic was, in part, protectionist in nature: No well-paid staff reporter wants to be replaced by one of Journatic’s $10-an-hour wage slaves living in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics, Brazil or Africa. Others found in the byline scandal new evidence of the crisis of newspapers, which has them cutting costs everywhere just to survive. But most of the coverage has concentrated on the unseemly ethics of the fake bylines, at least some of which were generated by a “select alias” button used by Filipino writers. Those fake bylines included “Ginny Cox,” “Jimmy Finkel,” “Carrie Reed,” “Jay Brownstone” and “Amy Anderson.” The San Francisco Chronicle has determined that Journatic contributor Jeremy Schnitker published 32 articles as “Jake Barnes” in its pages, presumably an homage to the character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sun-Times and GateHouse are ending their relationship with the content farm, and Journatic has announced that it has “banished” fake bylines from its stories. The Houston Chronicle apologized, and Journatic’s CEO claimed the ginned-up bylines were designed to optimize search-engine discovery and to protect his writers from reader complaints.

Where does the sanctity of the byline come from?

Obviously, every news story should brim with the truth. But does an accurate story become unclean if the byline does not match the name of the writer (or writers) who produced it? In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions. Even so, I’ve never heard anybody claim that the readers of these pieces were in any way hoodwinked.

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

Jack Shafer
Jun 28, 2012 21:07 UTC

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

Why leaks are good for you

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2012 22:16 UTC

Every leak of classified information benefits somebody. With maybe one exception, I’d say that the recent sluice of leaks that has opened up and been reported in the press benefits you.

Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.

But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.

The leadership lessons of Chairman Rupert

Jack Shafer
Jun 26, 2012 19:56 UTC

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Rupert Murdoch has endured more crises during his 80-plus years than Richard Nixon and Odysseus combined, so the CEO and chairman of News Corporation can be forgiven for seeming nonplussed by his current predicament. He took over the family newspaper business in Australia at 21, when his father died, and expanded it. He fought the British unions in 1986 and won. He repelled the bankers in 1990, when he was close to insolvency. He has survived two divorces, the purchase and sale of MySpace.com, a bunch of other digital disasters, and even the predations of John Malone, who threatens Murdoch family hegemony with his purchase of News Corp stock. And now, referencing his media empire’s latest fiasco, the British Parliament has deemed Murdoch “not a fit person” to run an international company.

If Murdoch were the sort of pompous captain of industry who collected leadership maxims, Look for Trouble would likely top his list. He craves competition, and has repeatedly bet his company on new ventures like 20th Century Fox, the Fox Network, NFL football and his satellite operations.

Most chief executives think rewarding stockholders is their primary job. Not Murdoch. The Murdoch family owns the controlling shares in the company, so the chairman can largely ignore Wall Street to pursue a strategy that stretches across decades, not quarters. Yes, he’s impulsive, but creatively so.

Turning the morning news into soap opera

Jack Shafer
Jun 21, 2012 21:50 UTC

Ann Curry, the second fiddle on NBC’s Today show, is apparently being shown the door. That news was broken yesterday afternoon by Brian Stelter, the prolific media reporter of the New York Times on the newspaper’s website, and that 1,100-word story earned prominent placement on Page One of the business section of this morning’s paper.

I’ll forgive you in advance if you don’t care whether Curry continues on Today or if you don’t care whether she finds a slot elsewhere in the NBC empire, just as long as you forgive me for not giving a fig either. It’s not that I dislike Ann Curry or Today‘s first fiddle, Matt Lauer, or even Today‘s morning-show competition. It’s just that I dislike the shows for being dulled-down messes of news, entertainment and talk. If I watch any of them, it’s by accident.

My lack of interest in the morning-show mix puts me in the majority. Today, which is usually the number-one-rated program, and ABC’s Good Morning America, which took that position a couple of times this spring, draw an average of fewer than 5 million viewers. The third-ranked show, CBS’s This Morning, pulls in a little more than 2 million viewers. In a country of 311 million, that’s minimal interest.

Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

Jack Shafer
Jun 20, 2012 23:38 UTC

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

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