Opinion

Jack Shafer

The press reveals its crushes — once the crushes are dead

Jack Shafer
Jun 30, 2014 22:37 UTC

U.S. flag flies at half-staff on the Capitol dome in memory of former Senator Howard Baker in Washington

When prospecting the media for signs of bias, don’t forget to read the obituary pages, where reputations go to get taxidermied.

Because most deaths follow the actuarial tables, newspapers bake and freeze ahead of time the obituaries of the famous and aging, defrosting and garnishing them with final details for serving when death finally claims the subject. Last week, the aged obituaries of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who died at 88, were published. Though they might not teem with bias, they illustrate the media crush on Republicans who make deals with Democrats.

If Baker’s obits were theater reviews, you’d have to say he earned raves for being, as the New York Times Page One headline put it, the “‘Great Conciliator’ of the Senate.” The bias on display in the premeditated Times obituary, as well as obits in the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is not for left or right. Instead, it swings prejudicial in favor of a politician who kept legislation moving.

The press disdains inaction because of the difficulty of writing about nothing. Without overtly editorializing, the Baker obituaries smile on his traffic cop-like skills at preventing Washington gridlock, his ability to use his personal skills to sluice bills through committee, build compromises, collect and trade votes and get bills passed. As long as Baker was around, there was something to write about.

To his list of legislative wins, the obits cite Baker’s support of environmental legislation, civil rights and fair-housing bills, and the relinquishing of the Panama Canal. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, another liberal initiative. Yet Baker was no Democratic Party flunky: He opposed school busing and, as Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985, backed cuts in food stamps and other entitlements, as well as President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and military build-up.

Jungle fever clouds chimp obituary

Jack Shafer
Dec 28, 2011 22:22 UTC

There are no slower slow-news days than the ones that fall between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Washington depopulates, Wall Street evacuates, and corporate America vanishes, creating a massive news drought that not even bad college football bowl games can fill. Journalists respond not by digging deeper for news but by imitating the hot-shot vacationers: Newsroom bosses and their hot-shot reporters escape if they can, leaving their newspapers, wire services, and broadcasters short-staffed and snow drifts of wire-service copy fill newspapers everywhere.

So, if Cheetah (the spelling varies, with some outlets using “Cheeta”), an elderly chimpanzee who died at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., on Dec. 24, wanted a Viking send-off from the press, he couldn’t have picked a better time to expire. The Tampa Bay Tribune appears to have been the first to break the story of his death yesterday in a short story. According to the Tribune, this wasn’t just any dead chimpanzee, this was Johnny Weissmuller’s co-star in a couple of Tarzan films from the early 1930s. Sanctuary spokesman Debbie Cobb told the Tribune that Cheetah, roughly 80 years-old, had been acquired from the Weissmuller estate in Ocala, Fla., sometime near 1960. Hundreds of news organizations repeated the Tribune‘s claims, either by republishing the Associated Press rewrite or by creating their own derivative accounts, including ReutersCNNMSNBC.com, the Washington Post, and the London Telegraph. Even the New York Times published a credulous Cheetah story on its Arts Beat blog today at 9:53 a.m., mostly based on the Tribune piece.

The death of Tarzan’s Cheetah at a Florida roadside zoo was “too good to check,” as journalists like to put it—especially during a holiday week. Had anyone bothered to make a few phone calls, plumbed a few news databases, or relied on common sense, they would have instantly discovered how improbable it was that the chimp had worked in the movies with Weissmuller.

The apotheosis of Steve Jobs

Jack Shafer
Oct 6, 2011 22:36 UTC

If BMW had an auteur—the kind of auteur Apple had until last night—would his fans gather at local BMW dealerships when he died to light candles and toss flowers in front of showroom windows the way Steve Jobs fans are now at Apple Stores around the world? Would they storm Twitter to post recollections of the first and second BMWs they owned and thank Mr. BMW for having made their ordinary trips to the store for milk and eggs more like cosmic adventures in motoring?

Obviously not. No other gadgets have wormed themselves into the global psyche the way Steve Jobs’s have. Like most of Jobs’s coups, the takeover was a matter of design. Although he had been synonymous with Apple since the late 1970s by virtue of the computer he developed and marketed with Steve Wozniak, and the cult of Apple was already in full bloom at the time of the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs didn’t fashion himself the maximum leader of the cult until he returned to the company in 1996.

Jobs’s restoration was read by his followers as a resurrection, and he encouraged this interpretation by using his regained powers as Apple’s guru to further mesh his identity with that of the company’s products. Jobs became his Macs and iPods and they became him. By and large, they were pretty good products, if not a little pricey. (Ask me, I’ve owned a few.)

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