Opinion

Jack Shafer

Sadly, human trophies are as old as war itself

Jack Shafer
Apr 18, 2012 23:00 UTC

If you talk very long with soldiers who’ve seen combat, they’ll offer that death is a joke. Not a very funny joke, but one that never gets old. With every new war, with every new brigade of recruits, soldiers rediscover the death joke and retell it by taking battlefield trophies of enemy equipment, enemy personal effects and even staged photos with enemy body parts, as the Los Angeles Times reports today.

The Times obtained a series of 18 photos of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan posing with enemy corpses and published two of them in a story that began on page one. The living posers are all grins and chuckles, indicating the high mirth that battlefield death brings. In one of the published photos, amused U.S. soldiers hoist two severed legs of a suicide bomber and mug for the camera.

The Times describes other photos it did not run:

Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture.

The publication of the photos elicited the standard response from the Pentagon. Marine General John R. Allen, commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, called the photos “entirely inconsistent” with U.S. values and promised a full investigation. The Pentagon also asked the Times not to publish the two-year-old images because, as its spokesman put it, they do not “represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan” and they have “the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.” The Times correctly waved away those objections, stating its duty to report “vigorously and impartially” on the U.S. intervention, “including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

The outrage the military is expressing over these ghoulish images ignores the fact that the taking of battlefield trophies, photographic or otherwise, is as old as war itself, as are military commanders’ bans on the collection of such ghoulish souvenirs, as Simon Harrison explains in his 2006 paper, “Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of Remembrance” (abstract). Harrison differentiates between “near enemies” and “distant enemies,” with near enemies remaining safe from mutilation and scalp-taking but distant enemies being fair game. During World War Two, he observes, the Japanese were the distant enemy, and their body parts, including ears, teeth and especially skulls, were routinely gathered as keepsakes. Germans and Italians, the near enemy, remained largely safe from mutilation and desecration.

Fox mole hunting

Jack Shafer
Apr 11, 2012 22:18 UTC

A Fox News Channel employee has turned mole at the behest of Gawker and has now filed two dispatches from the House that Roger Ailes Built.

In the first, published on Monday, the Fox Mole describes the misery of working for the channel: He (we don’t know for certain it’s a man, but it seems a reasonable assumption) hoped that his Fox gig would help him find “a new job that didn’t make me cringe every morning when I looked in the mirror.” He also leaked a moderately amusing pre-broadcast chat between Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity.

The second, published today, portrays the “soul-crushing” material conditions of working at Fox News. “The basement newsroom is dreary, with no windows, fluorescent lighting, and constant worrying about an infestation from bedbugs, mice or some other vermin,” the Mole writes. He also complains about having to work on ancient computers, about the poor reception that desktop TVs receive, about malfunctioning printers and other office injustices.

Instagrammatical man

Jack Shafer
Apr 9, 2012 23:55 UTC

Today, Facebook purchased Instagram – maker of the wildly popular iPhone and Android photo-sharing app of the same name – for $1 billion. That’s a lot of money for a company that’s less than two years old and has no real revenues. But viewed historically the deal is a smart one. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is onto something. The human desire for self-expression – to say something as simple as “I’m here” – is insatiable, and Instagram exploits it superbly.

Sometimes the simpler the message, the more urgent the need to share it. Example: The first thing most people do upon landing at an airport and being told by the captain they can now use their mobile phones is to whip it out and tell someone – anyone! – where they are and where they’re going.

In buying Instagram, Zuckerberg acknowledges that his company’s own mobile app is an inconvenient, ineffective way to say “I’m here.” Using Instagram to transmit pictures of San Francisco, shots of the ballpark or plates full of food to other smartphones lets users convey their here-ness in greater detail and precision than the overcooked stew that the Facebook platform allows. And there is no learning curve: All you need to make an Instagrammatic statement is 1) a mobile device with a camera, 2) an itchy trigger finger and 3) an Instagram account.

Poynter chat: Should journalists support Trayvon Martin, Gov. Walker recall?

Mar 28, 2012 16:07 UTC

Reuters columnist Jack Shafer will discuss Gannett’s response to journalists who supported the Gov. Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin, as well as how ESPN handled the Trayvon Martin situation, specifically by dropping the ban that prevented its staff from publishing photos of themselves wearing hoodies.

The chat, hosted by Poynter, will feature feedback from Twitter users who submit their analysis and commentary by using the hashtag #poynterchats.

The chat begins at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Click here for more on this chat from Poynter.org

Free the Gannett 25!

Jack Shafer
Mar 27, 2012 21:59 UTC

Last week, the hall monitors who run Gannett’s 11 newspapers in Wisconsin brought the mean end of the ruler down on the wrists of 25 journalists for signing petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker.

Kevin Corrado, publisher of the chain’s Green Bay Press-Gazette, spoke the company line in a Mar. 24 column in which he stated that signing the petition constituted a “breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.” Promising “disciplinary measures” and additional “ethics training” for the signatories, Corrado continued:

A number of the journalists told their editors that they did not consider signing the petition a political act. They equated it to casting a ballot in an election. But we do not make that distinction.

Malia malarkey

Jack Shafer
Mar 21, 2012 22:44 UTC

Almost every professional American journalist accepts the convention that the private lives of the president’s pre-adult children — their participation in school and extracurricular events; their private trips; their personal lives — shall not be covered except, as was the case with the Bush twins, when they’re charged with breaking the law.

The cone of silence that usually shields the president’s children temporarily lifted early this week as a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and Yahoo News, and the websites of the London Telegraph and the Australian, ran stories about Malia Obama’s vacation in school trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, with classmates and 25 Secret Service agents. The White House contacted the outlets and asked that the Web pages be tossed into the memory hole. Most complied, but not before the Blaze captured screenshots of them. The administration even persuaded Politico to redact its original report about the excised pages because it contained information that raised “security” concerns at the White House.

The acceptance of the White House kids’ convention is so universal that even the supermarket tabloids tend to drop their snooping cameras and gossip-pouring pens when it comes to presidential offspring, although Weekly World News columnist Ed Anger played the dissident when he asked: “Why Are Democrats’ Daughters So Ugly?” in the paper’s Aug. 25, 1992, issue, just before Bill Clinton won the presidential election. Anger concluded that if Clinton reached the White House, Chelsea would be the “prettiest” daughter of a Democratic president in 40 years, “but she’s no Tricia Nixon,” he added.

Mike Daisey’s brief guide to answering difficult questions

Jack Shafer
Mar 20, 2012 20:18 UTC

Thanks to the “Retraction” episode of This American Life and his appearance at Georgetown University last night, we now know more than we ever wanted to about Mike Daisey’s damage control theories.

On the radio, Daisey tendered the non-apology apology. Yes, for his retracted episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Daisey confessed that he had lied in the original broadcast about what he saw in China, whom he talked to there, when he talked to them, how many factories he visited, and so on. He also admitted that he lied to This American Life‘s editors in the fact-checking process. For a complete run.

Daisey has now acknowledged his lies, but has also attempted several defenses and obfuscations of them. On his blog last Friday, the day the scandal was broken, he stated that: “I stand by my work,” and “What I do is not journalism.” I leave it to the reader to figure what “I stand by my work” means when the work under discussion has been discredited. But the “not journalism” comment is very peculiar to make at this late stage because, as Craig Silverman points out, This American Life producer Brian Reed put Daisey on notice before the episode ran that they wanted it to be “totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.”

Busting Mr. Daisey

Jack Shafer
Mar 16, 2012 22:04 UTC

This week, the highly regarded public radio show This American Life learned a lesson that many journalists, including me, have learned the hard way: It’s almost impossible for an editor to fact-check a contributor who lies.

The show, hosted by Ira Glass, just retracted its Jan. 6, 2012, episode, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” adapted from Mike Daisey’s popular one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which is about working conditions in a Chinese factory that makes Apple products.

Daisey’s deceptions were uncovered by Rob Schmitz, a China-based reporter for Marketplace. This American Life will air an hourlong explanation and re-examination this weekend, featuring both Glass and Daisey, about the circumstances behind the retraction. Glass and the show are to be commended for their quick response, and everybody who cares about real journalism owes a debt of gratitude to Schmitz.

Dismantling the Capote myth

Jack Shafer
Mar 14, 2012 21:14 UTC

Long before literary provocateur John D’Agata was rankling the journalistic establishment with his unorthodox reporting “techniques” — changing dates, merging quotations, altering statistics, constructing composite characters — to “seek a truth … but not necessarily accuracy,” writer Truman Capote was doing the same in his most famous work, 1966′s In Cold Blood.

Capote always insisted his “non-fiction novel,” his new literary form, was “immaculately factual.” But almost immediately after the book was published by Random House after being serialized in the New Yorker, he was accused of getting the story wrong by Esquire magazine writer Philip K. Tompkins in a June 1966 piece titled “In Cold Fact.”

Over the years, the accusations have continued from many corners, including friendly ones. In his sympathetic 1988 book, Capote: A Biography, Gerald Clarke acknowledges that the final scene in the book, which takes place at a graveyard, is fiction. That scene, which is filled with dialogue, has the investigator in the murder case meeting with a friend of one of the slain girls in the cemetery where the murdered Clutter family is buried. Clarke writes that Capote constructed it: “Since events had not provided him with a happy scene, he was forced to make one up.”

Chris Hughes friends the New Republic

Jack Shafer
Mar 9, 2012 23:43 UTC

Chris Hughes joins the pantheon of vanity press moguls with the announcement today of his purchase of a majority interest in the New Republic. The 28-year-old Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, commands a net worth that Forbes put “in the $700 million range” last year. Based on this portfolio, Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine’s annual losses — which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death.

Of course, vanity press moguls rarely commit to their publications for life, and few sustain the relationship after death. Learning nothing from the vanity moguls who have gone before them, they recycle all of their errors. As their publisher’s promises to cut deficits and turn a small profit go unmet; as the editor he inherited from the previous regime turns out to be a dolt; as the staff gets caught giggling about the stupid things the vanity mogul said in story meetings; as the mag ends up making the vanity mogul enemies instead of the new, powerful friends he wished for, he begins to understand that publishing isn’t the creative paradise he sought.

Despite the heartache of owning marginal publications, millionaire after billionaire has lined up in the last generation to buy in or launch a publication of his own. The vanity moguls’ contemporary ranks include Mortimer Zuckerman (the Atlantic, Fast Company, the Daily News), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Harvey Weinstein (Talk), Martin Peretz (New Republic), Arthur L. Carter (The Nation, New York Observer), Jared Kushner (New York Observer), John Warnock and William Hambrecht (Salon), convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Washington Times, Insight, World & I, UPI), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), David Bradley (National Journal, the Atlantic), Warren Hellman (Bay Citizen), and Bill Gates (Slate). But they’ve been with us since the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst used his family fortune to spread his newspaper ego across the nation.

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