Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why I’m ditching my Amazon account

Jack Shafer
May 27, 2014 18:51 UTC

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I’ve got an Amazon habit. Like many of my other habits — coffee drinking, newspaper reading, excessive profanity — it’s one that I’ve cultivated and refined over the years, ever since I made my first purchase on June 24, 1996, for a new copy of Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties.

In the beginning, I used Amazon primarily as a gift-delivery service. Later, I became the primary recipient of my purchases. Later still, I started “subscribing” to stuff my family regularly consumed, and after that I purchased an Amazon Prime membership, that amalgam of “free” movie streaming, speedy and cheap delivery of purchases, and more, including many purchases of audio books from the company’s Audible subsidiary. I purchased Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, which now anchors a drawer filled with orphaned devices and chargers. But I’ve resisted an Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card from Chase. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

One would think with that many hooks into me, I’d be more an Amazon slave than a customer. But that’s not so. Thanks to the company’s recent non-response to criticism that it’s abusing its market power — a silence that’s consistent with Amazon’s we’ll only-talk-if-we-want-to-promote-something media policy — I’ve made the easy decision to turn my back on the world’s biggest store.

The dispute appears to be over pricing, with big-five publisher Hachette refusing to accept Amazon’s terms on e-books, although nobody can be sure because Hachette has been evasive about the exact cause of the dispute, and Amazon has so far refused to discuss it with the press or anybody else. What’s transparent is that Amazon has slowed delivery of popular Hachette titles, including works by Malcolm Gladwell, Sherman Alexie, J.D. Salinger, and many others, and on a separate front is refusing pre-orders on many soon-to-be published Hachette books, such as J.K. Rowling’s next effort.

Ordinarily I’d ignore this scrimmage between two capitalist antagonists and go find something random on Amazon to buy while drinking a strong cup of joe, reading my newspaper, and swearing randomly. But Amazon’s silence has made me madder than an anaconda stuffed into a black garden hose and left to cook in the Arizona sun, to paraphrase Ed Anger of Weekly World News.

Heroin’s fictional comeback

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2014 22:24 UTC

 

heroinFor a drug that has never ever gone away, heroin sure has a talent for coming back every couple of years. On Tuesday, the New York Times advanced the belief that a “flood of heroin” is flowing into New York City in a Page One story titled “New York Is a Hub in a Surging Heroin Trade.”

One difference between a conventional flood and a heroin flood is that a conventional is easier to measure: Plant a tall pole next to the body of water you’re observing, mark the pole with hash-marks in feet or meters, and record the rising water levels. But no such simple technology exists to accurately measure the flow of heroin into or out of a city. To use rising seizure statistics to estimate a surge in the heroin trade is like drawing a bath, stepping into it, and declaring that a flood has ravaged your tub.

The government statistics the Times cites sound impressive. “The amount of heroin seized in investigations involving the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has already surpassed last year’s totals, and is higher than any year going back to 1991,” the paper declares. In the first four months of 2014, we’re told, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has recorded the seizure of 288 pounds of heroin, which does not include everyday seizures on the streets.

The (misguided) passion of Glenn Greenwald

Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014 22:30 UTC

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It’s not that journalists have thin skins — it’s that they have no skins.

This adage gets trotted out once a month or more in better newsrooms to provide context for the overreaction of a reporter or editor who has found himself on the receiving end of criticism for something they’ve published. This week, some journalists who have been critical of Glenn Greenwald are seeking skin grafts for their skin grafts after reading his denunciation of them in the final chapter of his new book about the Snowden files, No Place to Hide.

I would ordinarily write something like — “Greenwald settles scores with the New York Daily News, David Gregory of NBC News, Alan Dershowitz, CNN, Reuters reporters, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, Leslie Kaufman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jill Abramson, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, and others in the press corps for criticizing him, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange” — except Greenwald isn’t a score-settler. Once you earn a place in his scope, there you will stay, even after he runs out of ammunition.

In today’s news, one size fits all

Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014 14:39 UTC

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Whenever editors want to impose their will on a newsroom — be they editors at newspapers, magazines, news wires, websites, or TV programs — they dictate a memo for distribution to their journalists noting that stories have gotten too long and instructing everybody to write shorter. It’s a frequent request, as editors come to believe that their reporters aren’t listening to them or are openly defying their requests to file more succinct copy. In recent days, top editors at my outlet, Reuters, sent such a memo, asking writers in the Americas to diet their copy down to between 300 and 500 words. So did a top editor at the Associated Press, who set similar goals for his reporters and editors. Inspired by these bold moves, I’m sure that editors all over America have typed up their own shorter-is-better memos and are pressing send right now. (The Reuters memo says the call for short copy is nothing new — it’s in the Reuters Handbook. The AP says it’s responding to requests of its members, who don’t have time to edit copy down.)

The strong preference for short over long probably dates back to the invention of moveable type: The costs of printing make page-space scarce and hence very valuable. The shorter you make each story, the more stories you can pack into the available space, and theoretically this leads to an informed and satisfied reader. Some editors preach for shorter stories because they think that’s the way to get the boring stuff out of the way. In the contemporary era, the leading proponent of the short stuff was Al Neuharth, the auteur of Gannett Co.’s USA Today. “A maximum of facts in a minimum of words,” was Neuharth’s founding formula in 1982, and “making reporters out of essayists” was his method.

Although derided by the competition as a McPaper peddling McNuggets, USA Today‘s relentless brevity found many imitators in the industry. By 1992, USA Today was noting with satisfaction an industry-wide trend toward shorter stories. By 1995, the Los Angeles Times was documenting the contraction of the “news hole” at the Chicago Tribune, which required reporters to write their pieces into tighter spots. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser noted in their 2002 book, The News About the News, that by 2000 TV network stories were also getting shorter. Perhaps the most dramatic victim of shrinky-dinkage was the Wall Street Journal in 2007 after Rupert Murdoch took over, with the long, detailed, dripping-with-context Journal story becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2014 22:02 UTC

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Cass R. Sunstein emptied his digestive system of a steaming wad of press rancor Wednesday in his Bloomberg View column titled “Why Officials Don’t Tell the Media Everything.” Sunstein — a legal scholar who served as the Obama administration’s regulatory czar for three years and more recently sat on the panel that reviewed U.S. surveillance programs — phrases in his usual genial but condescending fashion his objections to journalism as practiced in Washington.

First, Sunstein chides reporters who are “disturbed” by government officials who stiff-arm them. Then he complains (from his own personal experience) about the four common requests journalists make of government officials. They ask 1) for information about policy decisions before they’re finalized or announced; 2) about internal conversations, including high-level conflicts; 3) to “say something spicy about the president”; and 4) to respond to recent allegations to help journalists determine who is right or telling the truth.

Oh, the effrontery, the chutzpah, the nerve of reporters who ask government officials pesky, premature questions to obtain news! But that’s not how Sunstein sees it, explaining that 1) it is generally not the place of an official to “make the announcement ahead of time”; 2) confidential remarks should remain confidential; 3) sharing sauciness is disloyal; and 4) if nobody in government is wrong or lying, a response will only garner the allegation more attention.

State Secrets in the Snowden Era

Jack Shafer
May 6, 2014 15:52 UTC
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This piece originally appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. government commands few capabilities more potent than its power to declare information secret. Even when the judiciary and Congress exercise their checks-and-balances powers over the executive branch, the American secrecy machine still finds a way to shunt aside substantive discussions about a host of programs and policies.

With little or no public input, the U.S. government has kidnapped suspected terrorists, established secret prisons, performed “enhanced” interrogations, tortured prisoners, and carried out targeted killings. After the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pilfered hundreds of thousands of documents from the NSA’s computers and released them to journalists last summer, the public learned of additional and potentially dodgy secret government programs: warrantless wiretaps, the weakening of public encryption software, the collection and warehousing of metadata from phones and e-mail accounts, and the interception of raw Internet communications.

The executioner’s choir

Jack Shafer
Apr 30, 2014 21:51 UTC

Oklahoma’s executioners accidentally killed Clayton D. Lockett last night while trying to put him to death.

If I’m certain of anything, I’m certain that dozens (hundreds?) of other journalists seized on the travesty, the tragedy, the ineptitude and the torture of Lockett to either commit similar words to print or compose a similar passage in their heads while taking a shower this morning and cursing themselves for not having been assigned to the spectacular death show.

Lockett, who earned his spot in the queue for shooting a 19-year-old woman and burying her alive in 1999, escaped death by lethal injection because the intravenous line that was supposed to feed the life-taking drugs to his system failed.

In defense of political lying

Jack Shafer
Apr 23, 2014 21:36 UTC

If you read closely, you can almost glean a laugh track from the transcripts (pdf) of the oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court on Tuesday in the political lying case, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The justices sprayed gentle ridicule and subtle sarcasm on Ohio State Solicitor Eric E. Murphy as he attempted to defend a state law that bans false statements during a political campaign.

Uniform enforcement of the Ohio law — and the dozen and a half other similar state laws — would reduce our political campaigns to what? Three or four months of observed silence before each Election Day?

Aside from money, nothing is more integral to a political campaign than lies. Campaigns lie about the other campaigns; they lie about their own positions, too. They lie about the consequences of the legislation and policies they propose. They lie in their speeches, they lie in their campaign literature, and they lie on TV, radio, on billboards, and over the Internet. Lies, integral as they are to campaigns, can’t be exterminated unless you snuff the campaigns themselves.

The top spook’s stupid gag order

Jack Shafer
Apr 21, 2014 22:30 UTC

The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press — and hence the public.

As Aftergood notes, Directive 119 does not merely bar intelligence community employees from sharing classified intelligence information with reporters. It also bars the discussion with the media of unclassified intelligence information “related” to intelligence. Under Directive 119, any and all conversations between spooks and reporters not explicitly authorized by top officials will be criminalized at the worst or potentially put intelligence employees out of a job at the least. The same discussion of unclassified matters between an intelligence community employee and a non-reporter would be allowed, Aftergood further notes.

Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment — no matter how innocuous — will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities.

Cell phone search case is easy call for Supreme Court

Jack Shafer
Apr 16, 2014 21:45 UTC

Now appearing in the Supreme Court docket: Your cell phone.

Later this month, the court will doff their robes and don their scuba gear to dive to the bottomless depths of the Fourth Amendment and determine whether police can search your mobile phone without a warrant, upon arresting you.

As my Reuters colleague Lawrence Hurley reports, the law has permitted police searches of wallets, calendars, address books and diaries at the time of arrest, “primarily to ensure the defendant is not armed and to secure evidence that could otherwise be destroyed.” But two defendants, David Riley in California and Brima Wurie in Massachusetts, maintain that police and prosecutors overstepped those powers when they searched the defendants’ cell phones, and used digital information gleaned, without warrant, to convict them.

The cases pose a question that would have never occurred to the Framers or to nearly all previous members of the Supreme Court, whose idea of evidence was analog. Consider, for example, the size of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, the most ardent bibliophile of the period in which the Bill of Rights were written. In 1815, the Library of Congress purchased his library of 6,487 volumes after the British torched its collection. That may sound like a lot of books, but it’s pitifully small by modern measures. The 64 gigabyte iPhone in my pocket could hold more than 60,000 text-only books (following Amazon’s rough rule of thumb of 1,500 books per 1.4 gigabytes).

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