Opinion

Jack Shafer

Beware the old nostalgic journalist

Jack Shafer
Mar 3, 2014 23:29 UTC

No sadder sack exists than the journalist in the twilight of his career. After decades of scrutinizing other individuals and their institutions, the soon-to-be-retired journo predictably looks inward and, if his editor indulges him, pens a heartfelt goodbye essay to his readers.

Robert G. Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, contributed such a note to his paper yesterday. To his credit, Kaiser doesn’t bawl with nostalgia for his paper’s salad days, like so many other recent writers of goodbye notes to their publications. Nor does he take aim at penny-pinching publishers and greedy chief executive officers, the standard suspect in the who-killed-the-newspaper-and-put-me-out-to-pasture sage. Nor does he slag the Web on his way out. Kaiser is too smart for that. In 1992, he wrote a persuasive memo (pdf) about the coming triumph of digital news and advertising, a memo that the Post tried and failed to translate into a business model.

Instead of giving his publication and readers a nostalgic goodbye with his final contribution — as is usually the case when a journalist departs — Kaiser opens the choke to spray a melancholic farewell to the federal city of Washington, which he’s called home for most of his 70 years. “[T]he political circus that enthralled me for so long,” he writes, has lost its spell on him. Having recently relocated to New York, Kaiser adds, “I don’t miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”

Rather than paraphrasing Kaiser, let’s capture his yearning with several quotations, which detail how and why he has wearied of Washington:

Because for me, the fun has drained out of the game. So has the substance. I used to get excited about the big issues we covered — civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War. I loved the politicians who brought those issues to life, from Everett McKinley Dirksen and Howard Baker (Dirksen’s son-in-law, curiously) to Russell B. Long and Edmund Muskie, from Bob Dole to George Mitchell — all people who knew and cared a great deal about governing. Watching them at work was exhilarating. Watching their successors, today’s senators and representatives, is just depressing.…

Who deserves a hatchet job?

Jack Shafer
Feb 27, 2014 23:36 UTC

The New York Times dinged the New York Observer today in an absolute fair and responsible fashion, documenting the weekly’s great efforts to pillory Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, the results of which the Observer published on Tuesday (“The Politics and Power of A.G. Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or Will Reckless Eric come undone?”).

Both the Times piece and a BuzzFeed article, published earlier in the week, build the circumstantial case that the Observer story was a hatchet job designed to retaliate against Schneiderman. Why should the Observer want to hurt the attorney general? Well, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald J. Trump last year. Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, who owns the Observer, and Kushner bosses the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. Kurson originally assigned the Schneiderman story to an inexperienced writer and allegedly encouraged him with comments (Schneiderman is a “bad guy” and a “phony”) as well as plying him with negative articles about Schneiderman. How hard did Kurson push? The young writer bailed because he believed Kurson was prodding him into writing a “smear piece,” and a new writer was enlisted.

Obviously, the Trump-Kushner-Kurson axis has motives to scuttle Schneiderman with a newspaper article. But neither the Times nor BuzzFeed cite any inaccuracies in the Observer piece. The Times calls it a “searing, 7,000-word indictment of Mr. Schneiderman, portraying him as vindictive and politically opportunistic” and as a “robust defense” of Trump. In an editorial note, the Observer offers some transparency about its conflicts of interest, and presents a genesis of the article.

Supermarket tabloid gets hoodwinked by imposter!!!

Jack Shafer
Feb 26, 2014 23:51 UTC

The National Enquirer got its nosey-parker proboscis bloodied this month after its big Philip Seymour Hoffman “scoop” was promptly revealed to be a hoax.

Only three days after Hoffman died, the tabloid reported that playwright David Bar Katz — the friend who discovered Hoffman’s dead body — and Hoffman were lovers. It also alleged that Katz watched Hoffman freebase cocaine the evening before his death and had repeatedly witnessed his friend’s use of heroin.

The source for the Enquirer‘s piece? Katz himself, according to the tabloid. But when Katz immediately stepped forward, denied any such interview took place, denied being Hoffman’s lover, denied having watched him do cocaine or heroin, and sued the Enquirer for $50 million, the newspaper retracted the story and apologized. It has now settled with Katz and will fund a foundation that will make annual grants of $45,000 to unproduced playwrights to honor Hoffman. The Enquirer also took out a full-page ad in today’s New York Times to state that it had been fooled by an imposter who “falsely and convincingly claimed to be Mr. Katz.” The tabloid apologized and has pledged continued support of the playwright prize.

Who’s afraid of Comcast?

Jack Shafer
Feb 19, 2014 23:35 UTC

Set aside for a moment everything you’ve read about the $45 billion bid Comcast made for Time Warner Cable last week. Blank from your mind Paul Krugman‘s prediction that the deal will result in a Comcast monopoly. Pretend you didn’t read the New York Times piece about the acquisition presaging further consolidation in the cable market, with Charter Communications picking off Cox Communications. Thump yourself with a neuralyzer, if you can, and remove from your memory the protest against the transaction by Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Finally, purge from your bile ducts the seething hatred you hold for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, those hurtful memories of rising bills, rotten service, and phone-tree purgatory and allow me to persuade you that we’re having the wrong telecom argument when we quarrel about mergers and acquisitions. Instead of blocking mergers or beating concessions out of the telecom giants, let’s give them the treatment they really fear: Policies that encourage the entry of competitors, which are the bane of every monopolist.

If you hate your cable television company — to simplify a half-century of history — blame it on the government. In the founding days of the industry, local municipalities mistakenly insisted that cable TV was a “natural monopoly” that must be regulated like telephone service. In nearly every case, the selection of a cable operator was a political one, with the most flattering supplicant winning the right from city councils to string wire on utility poles and cross right-of-ways to sell cable service. The municipalities collected franchise fees from the cable companies, shook them down for sweeteners like municipal channels and public access studios, regulated their rates, and required the operators to wire all if not most of their jurisdiction.

The new Medicis funding journalism

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2014 23:39 UTC

 

Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat. Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.

If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren’t making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you’d factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.

The 20-year-old Microsoft memo that came true

Jack Shafer
Feb 6, 2014 23:00 UTC

About 20 years ago, Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, composed a 20,000-word piece of prophesy titled “Road Kill on the Information Highway” that reads as fresh today as it did then.

One of many memos the polymath was churning out for Microsoft bossman Bill Gates at the time, “Road Kill” deserves our renewed attention for at least three reasons: 1) many of the market, media and tech dislocations Myhrvold predicted have come true, so he’s owed credit for his sharpness; 2) the tech forces Myhrvold identified have continued their romp, making some of his come-true predictions even truer as time has passed; and 3) though Microsoft embraced much of his futurology at the time, it still missed the market in many places where companies like Google, Apple and Amazon hit.

Rereading the memo, you feel a pang of sympathy for outgoing Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, who has been criticized for not overtaking Google, for not inventing the iPhone, not creating Facebook, and other transgressions. You also feel 10 tons of trepidation for incoming CEO Satya Nadella, who faces the same tech market realities that blunted Ballmer. Myhrvold’s memo, dated Sept. 8, 1993, repeatedly warns that computer speed and computer storage were to grow exponentially for decades, making the computers of the near future a million times fast and then a trillion times faster.

Dear Obama, spare us the press-freedom lecturing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2014 22:52 UTC

Wearing his best straight face, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lectured China on press freedom yesterday. In a redundant official statement, he accused Beijing of restricting “the ability of journalists to do their work” and “imped[ing] their ability to do their jobs.”

If the Chinese cared about public opinion, they would have called a news conference of their own and read aloud from former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s comprehensive October report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which cataloged the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press. Downie found that although President Barack Obama promised a more open government, his administration has prosecuted sources under the Espionage Act, imposed delays on and denials of FOIA requests, and closed its doors on reporters, systematically blunting the press. And recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and the secret subpoena of reporters’ phone logs and emails have contributed to a climate of fear in some newsrooms.

Carney’s jawboning, in which he also called for the unblocking of Western news sites, was precipitated by the slowdown game China’s visa offices have been playing with U.S. foreign correspondents. Two New York Times reporters have had to leave the country in the past 13 months because their visa applications went unprocessed, and Bloomberg News’s China-based reporters “have also experienced visa delays,” the Times reports today. Nearly all observers agree that the slowdowns and denials directed at the Times can be attributed to its aggressive coverage of crony capitalism in China.

The limits of Ezra Klein’s star power

Jack Shafer
Jan 27, 2014 23:19 UTC

No greater act of press criticism exists than to launch your own publication. Starting anew allows a journalist to leave the cracked glass, dents and rust of the old behind, to reject the past and all its mistakes and compromises, and to show by example how the work should be done. To command a blank slate into existence and drop your pen on to it makes a critical statement like no other.

If I’m right about all of this, then Ezra “Wonkblog” Klein deserves acclamation as the press critic of the day, the week, and maybe even the month for leaving the Washington Post and joining with the blog consortium Vox Media (The Verge, SB Nation, Eater, Curbed, et al.) to start his own Web publication. In a Sunday evening post announcing the deal, Klein promised in a glancing blow at the Post — which rejected his creative vision — that his as-yet-unnamed site would jettison the “workflow built around the old medium” of print to re-imagine “the way we explain the news.”

No news consumer — even his fellow press critics — can wish Klein and his team anything but well. But the future is a dangerous place where past results do not reliably predict performance. Klein’s Wonkblog mélange of charts, policy explainers, economics reporting, and political opinion earned him the sort of canonization at a young age previously enjoyed by fellow liberal journalists Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, and Michael Kinsley, as Matt Welch wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. Klein’s audience grew and grew, Wonkblog became its own sort of publication tucked inside the Washington Post, and he disseminated his wisdom on new venues, including The New Yorker, Bloomberg View, and MSNBC.

Soft-focus time for celebrity offspring

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2014 21:14 UTC

You didn’t have to be the son or daughter of somebody famous to be written about in the New York Times Magazine during 2013, but it helped. Last year the Times Magazine published stories about the offspring of David Mamet, Ted Kennedy, Mel Brooks, Stephen King, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (and perhaps Frank Sinatra?), and Johnny Cash. Expanding the kinship circle to include blood relatives of famous people, we discover additional Times Magazine articles about Ernest Hemingway‘s granddaughter and Ben Affleck‘s brother, and a Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg‘s sister. All of these pieces spring from journalism’s gentler provinces, that expanse of lavender and honeybees where tough questions might be asked, but the writer stands ready to catch the subject — “trust game style” — should the question ruffle.

The soft feature has a place in journalism, of course. Not every article need be an interrogation, a prosecution, or an execution to earn our attention. But the uniform generosity exhibited in these Times Magazine pieces poses the question of how many marshmallows a reader should be asked to swallow  before he can ask for a barf bag. Kindness has its place: Children, animals, our colleagues and even prisoners of war deserve a default setting of kindness from us. But, as a former boss of mine loved to say, journalism isn’t a Montessori school. Conflict husks the seed to its germ faster and better than the investigative device of kindness. But few celebrities or their kin will submit to the grinder when they know they can get a journalistic massage for the asking. The average value of features produced via celebrity ego-massage might be low, but kindness will deliver future returns, encouraging other celebrities to agree to sit for their own soft-focus portraits.

I single out the Times Magazine for abuse not because it created nepotism. Nor is it the Times Magazine‘s fault that a certain percentage of famous people owe all or a smidgen of their fame to their ancestry. Nor do I believe the Times Magazine has any exclusive on the easy-does-it-on-the-famous-relatives beat. The style section of your local newspaper, your city magazine and any number of popular titles on the newsstand are likely to contain similar featherweight features and Q&As. It’s just because I expect more bites and fewer licks from the alpha dog of journalism. The sogginess of these stories probably has as much to do with the choice of subjects as it does the editorial tip-toeing. It might be possible to write a two-fisted profile of a junior member of the Mamet, Kennedy, Brooks, King, Hemingway, Affleck, Zuckerberg, Farrow, or Cash clans, but I wouldn’t want that assignment. Only columnists can reliably make something out of nothing.

All lanes close in on Christie

Jack Shafer
Jan 14, 2014 21:56 UTC

This much we know for sure about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal: In early September mid-August, one of his staffers sent an email instructing an official, appointed by the governor, that it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded, “Got it.” Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects the New Jersey city to Manhattan, were closed and days of vehicular mayhem ensued. When confronted about the closures, Christie’s people lied and lied about the reason for the closure, citing a non-existent “traffic study.”

What Christie knew and when he knew it, and the precise reason his office ordered disorder for the bridge remain unknown, although the affair reeks of perfidy on Christie’s part: Three Christie people connected to the closures have been sacked or have resigned as facts have emerged.

As the many tick-tocks written about the affair have noted, traffic jams are a way of life in the New York City metro area, making low the likelihood that one would rise to the level of a national news story. So what has lent this story such strong legs, which continue their march across the front pages of America’s newspapers?

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