Opinion

Jack Shafer

The enduring cliches of North Korea coverage

Jack Shafer
Apr 2, 2013 21:30 UTC

If the family of nations has ever known a more recalcitrant son than North Korea, journalists have neglected to include it in their pages. No treaty, armistice, agreement, compact, or covenant signed by North Korea can ever be considered a done deal. A North Korean signature marks only a prelude to renegotiation or default on the part of that nation. It’s the sort of country that would phone in an immense take-out order and then, as the delivery man pedaled the bags of food through the Panmunjom checkpoint, would call back to demand a volume discount, stipulate that the meals be placed on a running tab, and then cancel the order before reordering, this time insisting on going off-menu. Upon receiving the check, North Korea would likely torch it.

North Korea doesn’t change its views very often. Why should it, when it can hold two opposing points of view in its mind at the same time, campaigning simultaneously for war and peace, capitalism and communism, diplomacy and confrontation? Oscillating inside the moment has given a spiral quality to the country’s voyage since its establishment in the late 1940s. Like riding a corkscrew through history, North Korea does everything it does over and over again. When an old Kim dies, the country finds a new Kim to lead the state. It makes nuclear pacts and then breaks them. It freezes and then thaws its nuke program. It talks peaceful unification with South Korea while engaging in unprovoked military assaults on South Korea’s citizens, attempting and sometimes carrying out  assassination plots against its neighbor’s leaders, and on one occasion even detonating a bomb on a South Korean airliner.

On rare occasion, North Korea apologizes for its transgression, but it’s usually the one who is demanding the apologies. When the U.S. and South Korea stage joint-military exercises, North Korea frequently claims that renewed American aggression has forced it to assume a war-footing (1983, 1988, 1993, 2003, et al.), something it did again last week, promising the Armageddon of  ”all-out war, a nuclear war” in response to the current joint exercise, Foal Eagle 2013.

All this yo-yoing by North Korea has made the correspondents covering it a tad dizzy. The beat reporters know that Pyongyang tries to make every day Groundhog Day, that the country’s meaningful oscillations never stray outside the hash marks between regime survival and southern conquest. They know that North Korea has dreamed of military overthrow of the South for decades. They understand perfectly that the world’s sole Communist hereditary dynasty (as one scholar describes it) will do anything for Western concessions of food and financial assistance or deletion from the state-sponsors-of-terror list, as long as it can later reverse those qualifying deeds.

Yet dismounting from this perpetual news wheel to provide this context proves tough for most foreign correspondents. Like sportswriters, political reporters, financial news staffers, reporters on the police beat, and other breaking-news artists, foreign correspondents must tell their story with economy and describe what has happened as opposed to why something happened. “Typical Mindbending $#*! By the North Koreans” may accurately describe the latest provocation or retreat by Pyongyang, but it’s not the way breaking news generally gets framed.

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2013 22:58 UTC

Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.

If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a  news-condensing app developed by  London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder  is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.

The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.

Hey! You! Get off of Google’s cloud!

Jack Shafer
Mar 21, 2013 22:11 UTC

I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the  last eight years. I consult its aggregations on my desktop the first thing in the morning, even before retrieving my four daily newspapers from the curb. Later, like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, I nibble  on my iPhone feed as I walk to the subway. At work, I keep Reader open to follow blogs and news and , to the neglect of my children, it has  been my steady bedtime companion for some time.

So when Google announced last week that it was sending Reader to the software slaughterhouse on July 1, I took to Twitter to object. Knowing that Google was unlikely to give the service a reprieve, the next thing I did was export my Reader settings and shop the alternatives.

One thing I didn’t do was to write a column accusing Google of betraying my trust, as Om Malik, James Fallows, Ezra Klein, Alex Hern of the New Statesman, The Week, and others did. Nor did I vow not to use Google’s new product, an Evernote substitute called Google Keep, ‘lest the company yank the rug out from under me again. I never trusted Google in the first place. I never thought it would support its products forever. As Slate’s Google graveyard attests, the company has routinely created and abruptly killed off software services, often tossing out the minimum viable product and watching to see if it caught on before putting any further effort into developing it.

Beat sweetener: The Benjamin J. Rhodes edition

Jack Shafer
Mar 18, 2013 21:23 UTC

If you’ve ever wanted to see a White House staffer dressed in frosting and candy sprinkles like a gourmet cupcake, pull your Saturday, March 16, New York Times out of the recycling pile and read Mark Landler’s adulating “beat sweetener” about Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice.”

A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.

As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies

Jack Shafer
Mar 15, 2013 23:41 UTC

Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

And now, a word against our sponsor

Jack Shafer
Mar 8, 2013 21:36 UTC

The Washington Post‘s website joined the sponsored-content stampede early this week with the introduction of its BrandConnect Web product, making it the first major U.S. newspaper to embrace sponsored content, according to Digiday. Other high-profile Web publishers selling sponsored content include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Fortune magazine is creating Fortune-branded content “for marketers to distribute on their own platforms,” AdWeek reports.

Also known as native advertising, the current wave of sponsored content on the Web can resemble the advertorial sections you’re familiar with — the ponderous Russia Beyond the Headlines Today and China Daily pages in the print editions of the Post and the New York Times, which nobody reads, and those sections in glossy magazines you automatically skip. Or, it can look remarkably like the content the site already produces. BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last October. BuzzFeed sponsored content costs about $20,000 for five or six “articles,” reports Digiday.

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?

Jack Shafer
Mar 4, 2013 23:54 UTC

Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.

This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.

On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.

Goodbye Globe, hello global New York Times

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2013 01:13 UTC

The New York Times Co. has been shedding its non-core assets, smoothing its cost structure, strengthening its balance sheet and rebalancing its portfolio with such haste over the past two years that only a cruel and unusual press critic would urge it to quadruple those efforts.

I am that cruel and unusual press critic.

The company was a diversified media outfit 10 years ago, owning eight television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers in addition to the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune; and a slew of websites. It had a market cap of about $7 billion. Today, the emaciated operation is worth a notch over $1 billion on a good day.

The television stations were liquidated in 2006, but the most aggressive dismantling began 20 months ago, as piece by piece the Times Co. steadily broke off chunks of itself and put them up for sale. To Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp went the About Group for $300 million and to Halifax Media Holdings its Regional Media group of newspapers for about $145 million. The company shed its stake in the Fenway Sport Group (Boston Red Sox) in two installments for a total of $180 million and sold off its share in the job-search engine Indeed.com for $164 million. The stripping of the old media conglomerate to its Times-ian essence—the Times itself and the rebranded International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times—will be complete when it finds a buyer for the Boston Globe and its allied properties. One research analyst predicts the Globe could go for $175 million provided the Times Co. covers the pension liabilities.

Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new boss

Jack Shafer
Feb 22, 2013 22:53 UTC

After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.

As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.

CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.

Infrastructure rhetoric is a bridge to nowhere

Jack Shafer
Feb 15, 2013 19:08 UTC
Whenever the phrase “our crumbling infrastructure” passes the lips of a politician or appears in the pages of a newspaper, I change the password on my checking account and move my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans. So when President Barack Obama invoked our “aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria used his perch yesterday to complain that Obama wasn’t proposing near enough for infrastructure, I closed my bank accounts, canceled my credit cards, converted my liquid investments into gold bullion, dumped them into 55-gallon drums, rolled the drums into a backyard pit and poured a load of cement over the heap.

It’s not that infrastructure doesn’t crumble — everything turns to dust eventually. Obviously, useful bridges, ports, airports and highways need to be maintained, and as a country grows it needs new ones. It’s just that the press allows members of the civil engineering-industrial complex to bamboozle them into believing that all calls for building infrastructure are equal.

The bamboozling usually begins with a sweeping declaration about America’s shoddy highway bridges and the urgent need to repair them. Obama hit his mark in his State of the Union speech where he plugged his “Fix-It-First” program, which would mend the “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” Zakaria finds Fix-It-First insufficient, calling it a mere “Band-Aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure.” Citing the 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” and estimated the cost of repairing it at $2.2 trillion, Zakaria demands the dramatic expansion of American infrastructure. The ASCE recently upped its estimate of how much should be spend on infrastructure by 2020 to $2.7 trillion (pdf), which is two-thirds greater than the feds, the states and local governments are expected to spend on it by then. Zakaria expressed even greater enthusiasm for spending infrastructure trillions in a November piece for Time.

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