Opinion

Jack Shafer

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 mergers have, in some cases, meant consolidation of clerical and shipping staffs,” the Times article reported.

Yet the number of big publishers has remained fixed at six since the mid-1980s suggesting that for all the shouting, the consolidation of the industry has been exaggerated.

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.

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

Jack Shafer
Sep 21, 2012 22:53 UTC

New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.

Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”

Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.

Willard Milhous Romney

Jack Shafer
Sep 19, 2012 21:06 UTC

Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

USA Today’s new suit doesn’t fit

Jack Shafer
Sep 14, 2012 23:29 UTC

USA Today in 1982

I have a theory – one that I’m certain I’ve stolen – that it was Al Neuharth and not Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web – with the creation of USA Today. Page One of the paper’s first issue, Sept. 15, 1982, contains so many of the visual motifs that would become common on homepages a decade later when the Web really got rolling that you’ve got to suppress the urge to click and scroll when looking at it today. And swipe! USA Today founder Neuharth may have simultaneously anticipated the tablet, too.

Gannett’s ballyhooed redesigned USA Today, which hit newsstands today, 30 years after that first issue, still looks to my eyes like a proto-Web page. Breaking news (keyed to pages inside) still runs down the left rail like an RSS feed; a simple grid still serves a populist mix of news and entertainment that not even the Huffington Post has improved on; and the infographic “USA Snapshot,” which spawned a billion imitators in both print and online, still anchors the bottom left corner. The only casualty from the original Page One design appears to be the colorful weather “ear,” although it’s been dead for many years.

Early Web designers probably didn’t look directly at USA Today‘s front page for homepage inspiration. It’s more likely that squeezed by the technological limitations of the early Web era – a limited selection of fonts, narrow bandwidth, slow graphics cards and small displays – Web designers responded by reducing homepages to grids that were easily downloadable and easily digestible. Form followed function in both the case of USA Today and the early Web, with no room for gratuitous design.

Reinventing video news for your smartphone

Jack Shafer
Sep 12, 2012 16:39 UTC

Sooner or later, every expensive thing finds itself supplanted by some technology-driven thing that’s cheaper: Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic, silk by nylon, mainframes by desktops, your local recording studio by GarageBand, and so on. Ivory, silk, mainframes, prestigious recording studios, and other luxury-class goods survive, but cost-cutting technological advances have steered them into niches.

That’s precisely where Web video news producers intend to steer broadcast and cable news – into niches. And they’ve got a shot at it. In 1980, CNN began exploiting the falling costs of broadcast gear and satellite time. By decade’s end the upstart network had not only equaled the traditional broadcasters but exceeded them, becoming the vital source for breaking news. Fox News Channel and MSNBC provided the next lesson by adapting talk-radio culture to cable news. Now, falling bandwidth prices, incredibly cheap video gear and ubiquitous smartphones  – 45 percent of American adults own one – lend similar economic advantages to those looking to displace cable.

One new news-and-information prospector is Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, who this week bestowed a name on the cable-news slayer he has been assembling in his skunk works since last spring: NowThisNews, shooting for a late-October launch. As AllThingsD reporter Peter Kafka reports, NowThisNews will chart a different path than its fellow video pioneers at HuffPost Live, namely 12-hour blocks of talk-show chat. Lerer promises “short video pieces that will hopefully be very viral and very social, one at a time.” His general manager, Eason Jordan, a CNN veteran, told Kafka: “There’s an abundance of talk. We intend to report the news.” As distribution partner, Lerer and company have enlisted click-whores (and I use that term with complete admiration) at BuzzFeed, which will also assist in the creation of NowThisNews’s clips.

Looking for truth in all the wrong places

Jack Shafer
Aug 31, 2012 21:37 UTC

If you’ve kept your shirt dry while canoeing the rivers of our current presidential campaign, it’s likely that you’ve been skilled enough to avoid the logjams and snags of “dishonesty” and “lies” that the parties and press have flung into the water. While it’s true that politicians and their campaigns and their ads routinely lie — I hear no disagreement on that point, so I’ll continue — never have politicians and the press expressed such indignation at campaign exaggerations, fibs and falsehoods.

For example, after Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his acceptance speech this week at the Republican National Convention, the press corps fact-checkers instantly took hammers and tweezers to his address. “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” asked Jonathan Cohn in the liberal New Republic, but the non-partisan press accused Ryan of having misled listeners and taken “factual shortcuts,” too. The Week counted up the 15 euphemisms for “lying” the press (partisan and non-partisan) used to describe the speech.

I suspect the growing sensitivity to political lies has less to do with more lying by more politicians than it does with the growth of the fact-checking industry over the last decade or so. Every campaign speech, big or small, every campaign ad, local or national, every fund-raising letter is fodder for the modern fact-checkers, who have multiplied in the pages of our newspapers like termites in breeding season: FactCheck.org (the granddaddy of these sites, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which got started in the mid-2000s) and the later arrivals PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), AP Fact Check (Associated Press) and CNN Fact Check, all of which run regular fact checks. Other news organizations muster ad hoc journalistic militias to grade the truth-value of political speech. Today’s New York Times piece, “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches,” does that for the Republican National Convention.

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