Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why are we censoring bird flu science?

Jack Shafer
Dec 22, 2011 01:32 UTC

Scientists working in the Netherlands and Wisconsin have engineered a version of the highly lethal H5N1 “bird flu” that easily transmits in ferrets, the best animal model for human spread. This news has so alarmed a federal advisory panel that it has now asked the two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, to censor the papers each lab has submitted for publication lest the information fall into the hands of terrorists. (Here’s the Page One coverage of the story from the New York Times and Washington Post.)

The request has roiled the scientific community, with some researchers backing the panel’s request, which is not binding, others lamenting the fact that the research was ever done, and others defending the bird flu work as essential research.

The panel—the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—was established in 2004 as a response to the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. The scientific community resisted the direct controls the Bush administration wanted on biological research, the Times reports, and eventually agreed to the advisory panel that could be called upon to review potentially dangerous research. “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” NSABB chair Paul Keim, an experienced anthrax researcher, told Science Insider Reporter Martin Enserink in November. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

That the H5N1 variant is scary deadly is conceded by one of its creators, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. In November, he told Enserink that it is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” Normally, H5N1 is only transmitted from chickens to farmers working in extremely close contact with infected birds. (Of 570 confirmed cases of H5N1 infection in humans, 335 died, writes science reporter Helen Branswell.) But the laboratory mutated H5N1 does not require close contact to infect: ferrets sickened by the virus transmitted it to other ferrets living in adjoining cages via coughs and sneezes.

Even an unenforceable request by the government to suppress the flow of information rankles free-speech radicals like me. We believe in open inquiry and unfettered communications, and battle the redaction machine whenever the censors start its engine.

Hollywood’s pirate cure is worse than the disease

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2011 22:19 UTC

The American entertainment complex—Hollywood, the networks, the stations, cable,  the record labels—has placed before Congress a simple request: Give us a law to punish Google, PayPal, the Web ad industry, and anybody else doing business on the Internet who may play some intermediary role in connecting foreign “pirates” to consumers seeking illegal access to copyrighted content.

The House of Representatives and Senate have bowed to the entertainment complex’s request. The House bill is called the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s genuflection goes by the name of the PROTECT IP Act. Rather than just punishing copyright violators, these bills would give the U.S. government new powers to black out Web sites, impose new monitoring rules on search engines and other Web services, rejig the architecture of the Internet, short-circuit the usual due process for Web sites, and authorize new surveillance for a government that just can’t seem to get enough. (See Alex Howard’s learned delineation of the bills from late November.)

So grand is the entertainment complex’s umbrage that I half expect its next move will be to petition the Department of Justice for the authority to shut down the electric utilities that provide power to any and all computers it suspects are pinching its intellectual property.

Are you reading the best magazine in America?

Jack Shafer
Dec 14, 2011 23:06 UTC

My original commitment to Bloomberg BusinessWeek was so small it was almost negative.

About this time last year, US Airways, Delta, or some other crappy airline notified me that my soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles could be exchanged for magazine subscriptions, which is how I ended up spending something like 600 miles to add a year’s subscription to Bloomberg BusinessWeek to my Towering Reading Pile.

My Towering Reading Pile is governed by neo-Darwinian, survival-of-the-smartest-copy laws. With all the good stuff to read directly on the Web, stored on my RSS reader, and stockpiled by my Instapaper account, a mere book, magazine, or newspaper must be exceptional. Some publications (the New York Times) I read thoroughly because everybody I work with (and many of the people I write for) reads it. Other publications I first fillet for their prime morsels, like National Review for Mark Steyn’s ongoing chronicle of a planet gone retrograde and Vanity Fair for James Wolcott’s recombinant experiments with the American language. On Sundays, I make the weekend editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times play gladiator by tossing them into a 55-gallon drum and letting them fight it out. Upon returning a half-hour later, I collect the articles that were strong enough to defend themselves and consume them.

BuzzFeed gets serious

Jack Shafer
Dec 12, 2011 23:21 UTC

BuzzFeed, the aggregation/social-media site, has thrown itself into the content creation business with some big hires. Today, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti crowed about picking up Politico’s Ben Smith as its editor-in-chief. Smith, as Politico readers know, breaks news the way rioters break glass: Frequently and with glee. Last week, BuzzFeed added Whitney Jefferson and Matt Cherette from the Gawker enterprise, and a dozen new editorial hires are promised.

The addition of original content (also known as “journalism”) to the aggregator model isn’t without precedent. There are plenty of large Web sites that devote themselves to both, such as Huffington Post, Mediaite, Business Insider, Atlantic Wire, and Gawker, to name a few. But for an established aggregator like BuzzFeed to enter the original content sweepstakes at this point is a little like a slaughterhouse attaching a storefront to its entrance and opening a steakhouse in hopes of selling even more meat.

Actually, the BuzzFeed transition will be even bigger than from slaughterhouse to steakhouse. Today, it’s essentially an entertainment site, a place best known for its goofy distractions and silly videos. Smith tells Nieman Journalism Lab that his goal is to “hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have” with phone calls, “trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives.”

The trial of Stephen Glass

Jack Shafer
Dec 7, 2011 21:06 UTC

Is serial fabulist Stephen Glass fit to practice law?

That question—first posed in 2002 when Glass applied for admittance to the New York State Bar Association—moved to California in 2007, when Glass applied to join its bar. Glass’s California application has now traveled to the top of the legal food chain, where the state Supreme Court agreed in November to hear arguments on Glass’s moral fitness to become a member of the State Bar of California.

If Stephen Glass were an ordinary applicant, the California Committee of Bar Examiners would have readily approved the graduate of Georgetown University law school (magna cum laude, 2000) after he passed the California bar exam and applied for admittance. But Glass was an exceptional case: He gained worldwide notoriety in 1998 after dozens of stories he wrote while working as a Washington journalist in the mid-to-late 1990s were discovered to be fabricated. These pieces described incidents that never took place and attributed quotations to made-up people. Most of these tainted stories appeared in The New Republic, where he worked, but others were published in Policy Review, Harper’s, George, and Rolling Stone. (According to court documents, Glass settled a lawsuit filed against him by D.A.R.E., the subject of his Rolling Stone piece, for $25,000.) The scam ended in May 1998 after reporting and inquires from Forbes Digital Tool editor Adam L. Penenberg tipped the New Republic off about the fishiness of Glass’s piece about “Jukt Micronics,” and all of his journalistic work was scrutinized for lies.

The legal argument under debate in California isn’t whether Glass made stuff up willy-nilly in his journalism. That verdict was delivered long ago; you can read the eye-popping details in Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fair feature. The question before the California Supreme Court is the 39-year-old Glass’s current moral state, and whether he has sufficiently rehabilitated himself to practice law today.

Two cheers for tabloid trash

Jack Shafer
Nov 30, 2011 23:28 UTC

Giving testimony yesterday at the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry (PDF) in London, former News of the World features editor Paul McMullan took the only position on the scandal not yet occupied: That of an unrepentant tabloid journalist.

Don’t blame tabloid excesses on tabloid journalists, McMullan held, as he blithely parried the panel’s questions about how he could justify the tabloid press’s phone-hacking practices, its surveillance of subjects, and other intrusions into people’s lives.

Blame tabloid readers, McMullan said.

“Circulation defines what is the public interest. I see no distinction between what the public is interested in and the public interest,” he said. “The reason why News of the World sold 5 million copies is that there were 5 million thinking people and that’s what they wanted to read.”

Morning prayer: CBS’s latest last-ditch attempt to beat GMA and Today

Jack Shafer
Nov 16, 2011 23:10 UTC

You could fill a graveyard with the bodies that CBS has posed in front of its morning show cameras over the decades in its ratings pursuit of NBC’s Today show and ABC’s Good Morning America. The latest dead-anchors walking, appointed yesterday by CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, are Charlie Rose and Gayle King.

Wikipedia stacks the names of former CBS morning show hosts like cordwood. In the 1950s, Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, John Henry Faulk, Dick Van Dyke, and Will Rogers Jr. helped chair the show. When Cronkite was anchor, a segment was devoted to a lion puppet named Charlemagne discussing the news with him, as this picture proves. Cronkite remembers his cotton colleague warmly, writing in his biography, A Reporters Life, “A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter. It was one of the highlights of our show, and I was, and am, proud of it.”

In the 1960s, hosts Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner were fed to the morning band-saw, and in the 1970s, John Hart, Hughes Rudd, Bernard Kalb, Bruce Morton, Faith Daniels, Lesley Stahl, Richard Threlkeld, and Washington Post Style section sensation Sally Quinn were similarly sacrificed. (Nora Ephron interviewed at the same time as Quinn for a co-anchor slot and luckily lost.)

Stop the Chelsea moaning; she’s “somebody”

Jack Shafer
Nov 14, 2011 23:11 UTC

Allow me to be among the first working journalists to welcome Chelsea Clinton to the Fourth Estate. Clinton, as you probably read in this morning’s New York Times, has taken a job with NBC News as a full-time special correspondent and will cover stories for the network’s do-gooder “Making a Difference” series.

Please read no snark into my Clinton welcome.

Yes, I know that many of you will deplore the fact that somebody like Clinton with no real journalistic experience but plenty of connections has won a high-ranking reporting position at a broadcast network. Your thought balloons about cronyism, already passing over my office, read, If Chelsea wanted to be a journalist she should have gone to journalism school or gotten an internship and parlayed that into a job covering crime for a paper in the boonies, and then over the years worked her way up.

But Clinton, who will turn 32 in February, isn’t the first high-profile political spawn to use the family name as a media-career springboard. The Times article notes that President George W. Bush daughter Jenna Bush Hager is an NBC Today correspondent, and presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain contributes to MSNBC. Caroline Kennedy has published nearly a dozen books about patriotism, the Bill of Rights, courage, and poetry and Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford, has published two volumes of mystery fiction. Ron Reagan, Michael Reagan, and Maureen Reagan all leveraged their father’s prominence into jobs behind the microphone. Maria Shriver, whose uncle was President John Kennedy and whose father, Sargent Shriver, ran for vice president, capitalized on her family connections to get a job as a reporter at a Philadelphia TV station in 1977 straight out of college at the age of 22. She moved to CBS News six years later. You know the rest.

My Romenesko verdict: no harm, no foul

Jack Shafer
Nov 12, 2011 00:10 UTC

Media columnist Jim Romenesko—who was scheduled to depart his full-time position at the Poynter Institute at the end of the year, anyway—vacated it abruptly yesterday after his boss, Julie Moos, publicly criticized his “incomplete” methods of attributing other journalists’ copy in his summaries of their work.

For those who haven’t followed the story—and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, because it’s so inside baseball it’s inside the laces of the ball—Romenesko has been writing a Web-based cheat sheet about the news business since 1999. The column, which the non-profit Poynter Institute picked up in 2000, has been an indispensable destination for journalists and civilians interested in the media. (Interests declared: Romenesko has cited my work many times since 1999. For the last 10 weeks, Poynter has been paying me to participate in weekly, hour-long Web chats with readers.)

In declaring a “pattern of incomplete attribution,” Moos pointed to a recent example from Romenesko’s work in which he ran whole sentences from a Chicago Tribune story in his summary of it without placing the words in quotation marks or block quotation to indicate its exact provenance.

Who gets to be anonymous?

Jack Shafer
Nov 9, 2011 23:32 UTC

Yesterday, The Daily was first to name Karen Kraushaar as one of the two women who worked with Herman Cain at the National Restaurant Association and accused him of sexual harassment. As the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride wrote, Business Insider and the Daily Caller repeated the Daily‘s report that Kraushaar had made the sexual harassment claim, and NPR got her to confirm her identity as “Woman A.” Shortly thereafter, Kraushaar was talking to the New York Times, and the whole world knew who she was.

For what good reason was Kraushaar’s identity concealed in the first place?

Politico, which broke the sexual harassment claims story on Oct. 31, didn’t really explain why it did not name the accusers in its scoop, reporting only that it had “confirmed the identities of the two female restaurant association employees who complained about Cain but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names.”

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