Opinion

Jack Shafer

The sex scandal as civic lesson

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2012 00:32 UTC

The saturation coverage of the Petraeus sex scandal has yet to annoy many people besides policy wonks, but it won’t be long before a full-throated essay attacking the endless column inches and hours of airtime devoted to the salacious story arrives. (Inching close to that stand but not quite occupying it today are Tom McGeveran of Capital New York, Howard Kurtz, and The Week, which is upset about the “sexist” coverage of the scandal.) As was the case with the Clinton-Lewinsky* sex scandal, the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal, the Eric Massa “tickle” scandal, the John Edwards sex scandal, and many others, some columnist or talking head will grumble about how the Petraeus story has distracted the populace from the real issues of the day — the fiscal cliff, climate change, job creation, the deficit, Hurricane Sandy recovery, Sudan and Somalia, immigration policy, the Middle East…

Tell these people to go pound sand.

Political sex scandals have a way of engaging an otherwise apathetic public in substantive coverage about the workings of the criminal justice system, the misuse of political power, and American prudery. Already the Petraeus scandal has schooled a naïve nation about proper email hygiene, the internal workings of the FBI, lax military discipline, computer privacy issues, and the loose handling of classified information. And this scandal has been in the wild for less than a week.

Reading about the Cain, Clinton, Weiner, and Edwards scandals may have sickened you. I can remember squeamish moments while reading the Starr Report. But the reporting on the Clinton scandal, the Cain episode, the Weiner sleaze, and Edwards’ adventures in lying and cheating right-sized the public’s estimation of political figures. Where the accused were forced to defend themselves before a court (Edwards) or the House of Representatives (Clinton), citizens were given direct windows on the workings of justice. In the Cain business, readers everywhere were given a course on ethical and legal conduct in the workplace that could not be equaled by any commercial refresher course. And as dopey as the Weiner incident was, it demonstrated convincingly how small-screen fantasies can expand to big-screen embarrassments better than any fear-mongering cover story in Time or Newsweek. Who doesn’t recall intense (and informed!) watercooler arguments over evidentiary standards during the Clinton impeachment hearings? Such scandals have the potential to make walking Wikipedia entries of us all.

Readers find scandals—sexual or otherwise—more appealing than “crisis” coverage about the fiscal cliff or immigration policy because as complicated as the cliff and immigration may be, the essence of these topics can be gleaned with 15 or 20 minutes of study. Scandal stories, on the other hand, bleed out like a stomach wound, slowly, steadily, painfully. Like the Bible, they educate us about our sordid, sinful world by wrapping it up inside intelligible narratives. Every day, every hour brings a new revelation, a new cast of characters, some new wrinkle, as this dandy chronology of the Petraeus scandal in The Guardian by Heidi Moore, demonstrates.

Now I won’t pretend that the coverage of the Petraeus scandal has been one long, exciting civics lesson. Obviously, prurient interest drives reader and viewer interest in such a story, just as prurient interest drives viewer interest in soap operas, mysteries, pornography, reality TV, and plenty of disaster coverage. But well before the audience sates itself on visions of David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell engaged in marathon boinking sessions, the press has served a useful info-banquet on the peripheral topics raised in the scandal. Today’s Page One of The New York Times, for example, asks what privacy implications of “policing the Web for crime, espionage and sabotage” the scandal raises. Yesterday’s Times collected a slew of officers-behaving-poorly and reported on what motivated the FBI to inquire into the Petraeus emails. Why exactly would General John R. Allen email 20,000 to 30,000 of pages of documents to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley—if he even did? (Having trouble following the story? See this Washington Post “who’s who” graphic.)

Marcus Brauchli, one-term editor

Jack Shafer
Nov 14, 2012 00:42 UTC

As the daily newspaper winds down after a century of dominating the news business, so does the job of editing one. Editorships of the top papers were once comparable to lifetime appointments to the federal bench, with all the perks and prestige that came with a judgeship. A.M Rosenthal led the New York Times for 17 years. Benjamin C. Bradlee served as executive editor of the Washington Post for 13 23* years, and after him came Leonard Downie Jr., who had the job for 17 years.

Today, the top editor can rely on no more longevity than your average NBA coach, who fully expects to be dribbled out the door (or take the initiative to make a fast break for it) after a few seasons. The latest editor given his walking papers is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who after four years at the job has been given the new title Washington Post Company vice president and assigned to evaluating new-media opportunities. His replacement, announced today, is Martin Baron, currently the editor of the Boston Globe. By comparison with other newspapers, the Post is a safe harbor for editors: The Los Angeles Times has cycled five journalists through its top job since 2005. Prior to editing the Globe, the itinerant Baron held the top job at the Miami Herald from 1999 to 2001.

Baron arrives at a paper much diminished from its salad days under Bradlee and Downie, when the Post was the leading mass-advertising vehicle in Washington and corpulent with profit. Under Bradlee’s and much of Downie’s tenures, the paper’s biggest problem was finding something to spend all that money on. It established domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Miami. It expanded its business pages into a freestanding section in the early 1990s. * It created local bureaus to serve the suburbs that circle Washington, filled them with reporters and produced zoned editions. It experimented with new weekly sections covering consumer tech and lifestyle.

Hurricane Sandy by the numbers

Jack Shafer
Nov 9, 2012 00:33 UTC

People in high places are competing to put a dollar number to the deadly ruination visited upon the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy.

Today at a press conference, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated the damage done to his state by Hurricane Sandy at $33 billion and to the region at $50 billion. The governor’s estimate exceeded that of disaster modeler EQECAT, which put total insured losses at $10 billion to $20 billion and economic losses at $30 billion to $50 billion on Nov. 1. The EQECAT numbers dueled with the projections of AIR Worldwide, another risk modeler, which pegged insured losses at $7 billion to $15 billion at about the same time.

Given the densely populated area it struck, Hurricane Sandy may end up being the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. Of course, Sandy’s precise ranking isn’t likely to matter to those who directly experienced it, losing property, livelihoods — and in some cases loved ones. Upwards of 72 people died from the storm in New York and New Jersey. But as elected officials, risk modelers, the media, and others continue to quantify the storm, don’t be afraid to question the validity of the numbers—and to ask what purpose they serve.

The battle over Benghazi

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2012 22:35 UTC

When Washington bureaucracies rumble, they often avoid directly savaging one another by using the press as proxies. By leaking selectively to news outlets they believe will give them the most sympathetic hearing, they hope to shape the news by making it. The strategy doesn’t always work. Sock puppetry revolts good reporters and some bad ones, too, because they know carrying tainted water for a source today may stain their reputations tomorrow.

The Benghazi story hasn’t turned any reporters into absolute dummies—yet—but as the tag-team match of blame being played by the White House, the State Department, a congressional committee, and the CIA escalates–and with the Romney campaign eager to pounce on anything that makes the administration look bad–don’t be surprised if unnamed sources start spinning the facts in a self-serving manner.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re confused about Benghazi and have no idea who should be sacked for not doing his job: Press accounts and comments from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all congealed into one murky, confusing stew. Now, clarity has arrived in a new ultra-narrative given yesterday to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, sourced to a “senior administration official,” “senior intelligence officials,” “a senior American intelligence official,” “a senior U.S. intelligence official,” and “U.S. intelligence officials,” respectively.

Is it ever okay for journalists to lie?

Jack Shafer
Nov 1, 2012 16:13 UTC

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover to test Washington lobbyists’ taste for sleaze. Using an alias, Silverstein created a fictitious energy firm that ostensibly did business in Turkmenistan and approached professional lobbyists to see if they could help cleanse the regime’s neo-Stalinist reputation. The bill for services rendered—newspaper op-eds bylined by established think-tankers and academics, visits to Turkmenistan by congressional delegations, and other exercises in public relations—would have been about $1.5 million. (Disclosure: I consider Silverstein a friend.)

But when Silverstein’s piece, “Their Men in Washington: Undercover With DC’s Lobbyists for Hire,” was published in the July issue of Harper’s, the resulting uproar had less to do with craven lobbyists than with journalistic impropriety. Various critics assailed Silverstein for his charade: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a CBS News blogger, an American Journalism Review writer, and other notables. Journalists shall not lie, the critics mainly agreed. Doing so diminishes their credibility and that of the entire profession.

The strange allure of disaster porn

Jack Shafer
Oct 30, 2012 21:52 UTC

Like me, you’ve probably been flipping from the Weather Channel to CNN with one hand and raking the Web with the other, searching for scenes of maximum destruction from Hurricane Sandy. Long after satisfying your basic news needs about the horrific body counts, power outages, travel advisories, school closings, and surges of tidal and river water to come, you’ve likely been loitering around your screens for more. Somebody tweets about a live video feed of a construction crane gone limp in midtown Manhattan, and we go there. Emails from friends direct us to videos of vehicles floating through lower Manhattan like derelict bumper cars and the shattering of the Atlantic City boardwalk into toothpicks. Next up, toppled trees, washed-out rails, flooded streets, subways, and tunnels, and the sinking of HMS Bounty.

Oh, the horror! Pass the popcorn.

Advanced voyeurs (you know who you are) understand that shame, rather than being a deterrent, actually works to reinforce both the urge to look and to share what we’ve seen. I’d have continued watching TV and scanning the Web until the early a.m., messaging to my friends and family what I’d seen, had not the pop and flash of a nearby transformer killed my electric power at 9:30 p.m. on Monday.

What impels us to watch, to hunger for more disaster and mayhem, and to keep on watching long after we’ve learned all there is to know? Wake Forest University English Professor Eric C. Wilson gathers some clues in his new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. We never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger, and calamity, Wilson writes, whether we experience it directly or at a televised remove, watch it dramatized in a movie, or read it in a novel. He cites a psychologist to theorize that our morbid curiosity has an evolutionary function: Being well-informed about dangers and potential dangers helps us survive; finding points of empathy through which we can connect with those who have suffered allows us to build lasting bonds. Wilson discusses the cultural appeal of fairy tales, horror films, and “documentaries” like Faces of Death; he recycles the now-standard view that gruesome and graphic stories prepare the young for adulthood; and he reminds us of how Aristotle schooled us in the value of catharsis to explain our fascinations with the perverse.

Mergers alone won’t save book industry

Jack Shafer
Oct 26, 2012 21:55 UTC

News of merger talks between book publishers Random House and Penguin has shaken loose alarmist responses from the book industry: howls from agents and authors that they’ll have fewer publishers to pitch to, and hence their incomes will fall; warnings that editors and marketers face huge layoffs; fears that reducing the number of big publishers from six to five will bestow upon the survivors unprecedented cultural hegemony.

Somewhere somebody must be describing the impending merger and the increased concentration of book power in fewer New York hands as an assault on democracy.

If the admonitions seem familiar, it’s because they’ve been sounded for a half century. The book industry has been consolidating steadily since the early 1960s, when independent publishers–many of them run by families–swarmed. A July 31, 1960, New York Times article (subscription required) chronicled that era’s merger-mania, as independent publishers Holt, Rinehart, and Winston had hooked up to create a new company—Holt, Rinehart, and Winston—that sounded like a law firm. In other transactions, Random House had acquired Knopf and Crowell-Collier had taken Macmillan, presaging the coming days when conglomerates would eventually swallow the industry’s major players.

The New York Times, the BBC and the Savile sex scandal

Jack Shafer
Oct 25, 2012 23:02 UTC

Before he has even had time to measure his office windows for draperies, incoming New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson is in the media crosshairs. No less a figure than Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, implored the paper this week to investigate what role, if any, Thompson had in a burgeoning scandal at the BBC, which he headed for eight years until late this summer.

The BBC scandal is so long-running, so multifaceted and so sordid that it could potentially injure everyone who has worked at the organization over the past 40 years—up to Thompson but including the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms—even if they’re guilty of nothing.

The scandal’s center is Jimmy Savile, the longtime host of a variety of BBC radio and TV programs for kids and young people (including the Top of the Pops), a celebrity fundraiser and friend to politicians and royalty. Late last year, shortly after Savile died, the BBC’s Newsnight program readied an investigative piece about Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls. But just as the findings were about to be broadcast, Newsnight‘s top editor gave it the spike.

Why we vote for liars

Jack Shafer
Oct 9, 2012 20:43 UTC

The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.

Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

The 0.3 percent hysteria

Jack Shafer
Oct 5, 2012 23:17 UTC

When was the last time the inhabitants of wonkville got so hot over a federal statistic dropping three-tenths of a percent?

This morning – after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report stating that the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September – everybody started shouting about the numbers. President Barack Obama used them as evidence of economic progress, challenger Mitt Romney swatted them aside and scoffed that this “is not what a real recovery looks like,” and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (and current Reuters Opinion contributor) tweeted that Obama’s “Chicago guys” had fudged the encouraging numbers to make up for the poor performance of their boss in the Oct. 3 debate. This prompted the proprietors at @PuckBuddys to tweet, “Truthers, Birthers and now Welchers.”

Ezra Klein, the mayor of wonkville, rushed to defend the integrity of the numbers in his Washington Post blog, pointing to a Mar. 9, 2012, Post story about the secret-agent measures taken by the BLS statisticians to prevent tampering with the data or the results. Computers: encrypted and locked. Office windows: papered over. Confidentiality agreements: signed each morning. Emails and phone calls from unknowns: unanswered during the eight days of lockdown preceding the job report release. Visitors: none permitted without security clearance. Trash cans: not emptied by custodians during the period.

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