Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Decline of the NY Times

Relevant Links:

from the Editors' Note:
Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.

In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

See what happens when you don't take the time to RESEARCH your stories and sources, but simply accept word-of-mouth or word-of-administration as the next major scoop?

You serve yourself a piping hot plate of crow.

Since the Jayson Blair scandal broke and Howell Raines departed from the New York Times, the paper's reputation has hung in the balance. If you take the time to read the Raines article, you will see that underperformance in the newsroom was something he aimed to abolish. Unfortunately, his mission was thwarted by one particular journalist whose offenses went beyond innaccuracy and reached new levels of dishonesty through plagiarism. Plagiarism, in the pages of the New York Times.

And now this. The recent admission of lazy journalism does not do much to help the paper's cause. While all major media outlets are guilty of drinking the WMD Kool-Aid, the Times should have known better. A paper that was once considered the greatest America has to offer has been disintegrating because it's stopped reporting the news and started regurgitating information. Creating stories based on information from sources who are clearly less than reliable is not JOURNALISM. It's like writing a story on the pit bulls and talking only to people who hear you're writing this story and want to have their sagas of being been bitten by them put in the paper. It's not JOURNALISM, it's taking only what comes to you.

Journalism would have been looking closely enough at the facts, and at the histories of the people surrounding the facts, to figure out that the scoops were possibly part of an Iranian plot to infiltrate the US media and bolster support for war in Iraq. THAT is journalism.

As an aspiring journalist, or whatever I happen to be on any given day, the fact that anyone in the Times newsroom would reach any level below "brilliant" is obscene to me. While they may not be living out their own ultimate dream, think of all the people who spend their life trying to get a desk at the NY Times. It's like a 9 year old Little League player watching his favorite Major League team sit down on the diamond and let the visiting team run up the scoreboard hit after hit. I once thought the NY Times was as good as newspapers can get, and that to be a reporter for the Times was the greatest honor I could achieve. And only genius writing and reporting could get me there.

Apparently, all it takes is being able to incorporate "information" from "sources" into paragraphs of conjecture.

It's sort of like Rolling Stone, which went from the cutting edge writing and actual reporting of the 70s, to the mediocre writing and dumbed down subject matter of the last 10 years. And that was Jann Wenner's doing, in order to make it more marketable to the younger generations, which, judging by quality, Wenner must have assumed were also dumber.

If the Times wants to keep itself from becoming just another media outlet, as it is quickly devolving into, the Editors and leadership at the paper need to take hold of the reins and remember what the New York Times is supposed to be about: ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT TO PRINT.


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

On Secession

From is orchestrating the move of 50,000 or more Christians to one of three States for the express purpose of dissolving that State’s bond with the union. The three States under consideration are Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The exact destination will be chosen by vote of our membership. Our move will commence when the federal government forces sodomite marriages on our local communities or once we reach the 50,000-member mark, whichever comes first.

Contrarily, from the Free State Project:
The Free State Project is a plan in which 20,000 or more liberty-oriented people will move to New Hampshire, where they may work within the political system to reduce the size and scope of government. The success of the Free State Project would likely entail reductions in burdensome taxation and regulation, reforms in state and local law, an end to federal mandates, and a restoration of constitutional federalism, demonstrating the benefits of liberty to the rest of the nation and the world.

What we have here are two organized groups of people wanting to split the nation up and claim states as their own for completely different reasons. One group, the Christian Exodus folk, for purely religious reasons; the other group, the Free State Project folk, for purely secular reasons. I'm starting to think this is what it may come to -- "ethnic" territories, if you will, based on religious inclination. They could have their Christian state, and we could run around and be as pagan and unholy as we like without infringing on their moral crusade.

If this gains steam, if people start to join the respective movements and they grow to the point where they are impossible to pass off as lunatics, perhaps we really should sit down at the negotiating table and start trading states. I don't see why not. The "Moral Majority" does not seem satisfied with a nation united under a secular Constitution, and the secular portion of the population is getting damn tired of being force-fed someone else's moral edict. You don't want gays to get married? Fine. Have a few states, and live under God's Law, but leave those of us Constitution-lovers out of it.

We are a very young nation, but at the same time no Democracy has been around as long nearly as long as the United States, and so no one knows what the average lifespan is on something like this. Perhaps at some point within my lifetime it will be necessary to make serious changes to the infrastructure. Perhaps we will see the end of the "United" States, whether it be peaceful or violent. Hopefully we will all have the foresight to sit down and figure it out before it turns violent, but I don't have that much faith in the American people.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Evangelical Pulp Fiction

This week's Newsweek cover story, The Pop Prophets is about America's best-selling literary duo: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. They are out-selling all of America's favorite pop novelists, from Stephen King to John Grisham. But their subject matter is neither the legal system nor valiant returns from the dead. They are fervent Evangelical Christians, and their stories revolve around evangelical ideology. From the rapture (not the 80s electroclash band, either), to the judgment, these authors have successfully molded the tenets of evangelical Christianity into a series of pop culture novels.

Once something is made accessible on a pop culture level, it is more likely to catch on and gain widespread popularity. The interesting thing here is where it's catching on. You won't see it tucked under the arm of your average New Yorker on the downtown 6 train. According to Tyndale, the publisher, 71% of readers are from the South and Midwest, and only 6% are from the Northeast. Their "core buyer," Newsweek reports, is a "44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South. This isn't the 'Sex and the City' crowd--which helps explain why it took so long to notice that one in eight Americans was reading all these strange books about the end of the world." The people who you would stereotypically expect to love this books are the ones who love these books. However, it is important to note that, "After September 11, 2001, there was such a run on the latest "Left Behind" volume, "Desecration," that it became the best-selling novel of the year. And it's no coincidence that the books are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq."

I don't mean to be depressing, or conspiratorial, but I believe that there is a definite threat somewhere in this. While the majority of readers come from the particular people noted above, the novels are popular outside of the usual Christian southern demographic. When a nation falls into a time of strife and tragedy, and when no end seems to be in sight, and when there is just no rational explanation for the kind of suffering and war that we have seen over the last few years, it's only natural for the people of that nation to look for a reprieve, answers, or hope of an end. This kind of Revelation-driven Christianity offers just that: a guaranteed reprieve, unequivocal answers, and a definite end. And, as Newsweek reports, times of tragedy equaled a boost in sales for the authorial team. This subscription of the masses to a particular ideology, or even the entertainment of it by the masses, allows the ideology to establish legitimacy.

The people who need to be watching things like the "Jesus Factor" episode of PBS' Frontline are not. They instead devour a series of books disseminating Evangelical Christianity, the Christian equivalent of Fundamental Islam, via the popular novel. And they feed the machine, which has essentially engulfed the far right end of the political spectrum. With a president in office whose religious beliefs are no secret, and who has made it known where he stands on the moral scale, and whose faith may, in fact, offer hope for some (particularly those who believe God has chosen him to be president) that a vote for him is a vote for their faith, it's no wonder why Bush is still popular. I absolutely believe that the popularity of these novels sheds light in the age old question: "Why do people still support Bush?"

Our Founding Fathers were certainly not amoral atheists. Quite the contrary. They were all God-fearing Christians, but they recognized that maintaining a separation between church (religion) and state (government) is fundamental to the survival of their experiment (democracy). While government has always historically legislated morality, right now we are in a time when progress and morality are clashing. For instance, instead of gay marriage being a "Constitutional" issue, which it ought to be, it is a "moral" issue, with a push against it coming from the Christianized far right. If church and state truly were separate, there would be no debate over whether or not homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual ones. In fact, there would be no such thing as "gay marriage" or "straight marriage" in the eyes of the law. There would be civil unions, and only in the eyes of the couples' chosen deity would there be marriage. That is true, honest separation of church and state. But that's getting a little far from reality, so we have to work with what we can, and "gay marriage" is very clearly the Constitutionally-sound answer. And let's not forget that our President and many of his followers think that gay marriage is not only wrong and must be banned, but that this ought to be done through a Constitutional Amendment. Regardless of how viable it is, a president's contention that Constitutional discrimination is the way to go shows just how incredibly misinterpreted American Ideals have become.

Thus, we come full circle. The mass marketing of ideas through pop culture doesn't debase them anymore, it validates them. A testament to the herd theory? Perhaps. But more than that, it demonstrates how fragile our Constitutional ideals really are in the face of society vulnerable to ideological maniuplation.

At any rate, I'd also like to add that Dennis Hastert's questioning of McCain's service to the nation should clinch a loss for him in his next run for re-election.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Secret Art of Media Manipulation

from National Journal's Hotline, 5/19/04

"Here are the latest presidential ad spending estimates from TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group (TNSMI/CMAG), CNN's consultant on ad spending. TNSMI/CMAG estimates ad spending in the nation's top 100 media markets. The actual spending amounts nationwide are likely higher."

"Estimated ad spending, 5/10-5/16"
"Kerry: at least $6.7 million"
"Bush: at least $4.0 million"
"Kerry + Dem Groups: at least $8.3 million"
"Bush + GOP Groups: at least $4.1 million"
"Democratic Groups running ads: AFL-CIO,, New Democratic Network"
"GOP groups running ads: Citizens United, Club for Growth"

"Estimated ad spending, 3/3 - 5/16 (general election-to-date)"
Kerry: at least $33.2 million"
"Bush: at least $60.6 million"
"Kerry + Dem Groups: at least $71.6 million"
"Bush + GOP Groups: at least $60.7 million"
("Morning Grind," CNN, 5/19).

Why did Kerry outspend Bush by at least $2.7 million in one particular week? Isn't the negative PR from the Abu Ghraib scandal doing enough damage on its own? Or is it not doing *enough* damage, and Kerry's camp feels it needs to deliver some kind of extra right hook to get the job done?

Problem is, I think a lot of Americans believe that the abuse is either 1) the result of a few perverted soldiers who have been driven insane while serving their country, or 2) not abuse at all, but effective means of eliciting information from prisoners. The media has not been quick to explore the possibility of the abuse as an order from somewhere either within the Pentagon or very very close to it, which leads a lot of people to look at such a possibility merely as conspiratorial conjecture cranked out of the liberal propaganda machine.

When will the media reinstate the principle of Objectivity?

According to every wind-blowing pundit, on both sides of political center, in the American media, this is to be the dirtiest race in the history of American politics. While that could be hyperbole, it could also be an on-target assessment of the way the campaign strategy has evolved. While during the 70s it was detrimental to one's campaign to stage a fiercely negative attack on one's opponent, today the spinsters have figured out a way to bypass public negativity by going through the backdoor: leaks to the media.

It goes beyond a roomful of interns digging up strange votes and legislative faux pas. These are teams of research experts, adept at tearing through public records to find any piece of information that could be spun as purely negative and leaked to the AP.

This underhanded but brilliant strategy has had two main effects on the media's role in politics. First, and most obviously, it is a way to run a negative campaign without having to endure backlash from the public. Second, and most dangerously, it is haphazard manipulation of the media, and the scariest part is that the media accepts these leaks without checking the facts to ensure that they aren't accepting something angled to mislead. These nuggets of information planted by the campaigns should be researched and could be developed into real news stories. For instance, is Kerry a waffler or is that the image the media has accepted? A careful objective examination of his voting and speech records could clear this up in a short series of articles. But only the left is willing to set the record straight, and because they are biased, their opinion is invalidated by the mainstream. It's a cycle of disbelief and distrust enabled by the easy "yeah we'll take your word for it!" attitude of the mainstream media. Instead of acting as the watchdog of the government, the media is acting as its lapdog.

For more on this opposition research strategy, check out Playing Dirty by Joshua Green from the May issue of The Atlantic

Interestingly, Green's article mentions opposition research employed by the Clark campaign against Howard Dean. The Progressive's editor, Matthew Rothschild, sat down with the defeated frontrunner to talk about what went wrong. Dean doesn't mention the secretive negative strategy at play, but he does discuss with Rothschild the press and its general corporate leash and the effect of public negativity (in the form of TV ads slamming candidates, as in the Dean-Gephardt exchange).

Q: Is going negative a response that doesn't work anymore?
Dean: It always works, but never in a multicandidate race. The ones who aren't going negative get the benefit.

Q: There is some speculation, perhaps idle in the press, that you were self-sabotaging, that you really didn't want to win, and the closer you came to getting the nomination, the more gaffes you committed.
Dean: That was pretty silly. That's one of the problems with the media. There's a lot of opinion pieces under the guise of news, and once one person comes up with it, it gets repeated. Most of that started out in gossip columns in The Washington Post. The idea that someone is going to spend two years and $50 million and doesn't really care is pretty silly.

Q: What do you make of the way the press treated you?
Dean: I think the press in general is a failed institution in this country. For two reasons. This has nothing to do with the race. I'm not sure it would have made any difference. But the biggest problem with the media is first that 90 percent of Americans get their news from eleven corporations so that the loyalty in the editorial staff and higher up is principally to the shareholders rather than to the public. And the second problem is that entertainment has supplanted news value.

Q: A lot of your supporters feel the press had it in for you, or did you in. Do you agree?
Dean: You know, I don't know. I think the older supporters may feel that way. The younger supporters tend to ignore the press. The pitfall of what's happening in the media is if you're under thirty, you get your news from the Internet and The Daily Show, and there's not much discrimination between what they find on the front page of The New York Times and what they find on the Internet. That's not a bad thing, in the sense that people don't get spoon-fed anymore.

Q: The Daily Show may be savvier than some of that other stuff.
Dean: Oh, I don't know, I don't get to watch The Daily Show.

Q: You should. It's funny. Some of us thought the media didn't like you not because you were bristly but because you were too far left. Many in the mainstream media believe the conventional wisdom that the Democrats need a centrist candidate, so the closer you came to getting the nomination, the more panicked they became. Do you think there's any legitimacy in that?
Dean: I don't think there's much legitimacy to that. I'm sure there were personal factors involved, but I'm not one who buys the notion of a media conspiracy. I think there are different views in the media, from Fox News to The New York Times, from The Weekly Standard to The Nation. But I don't think there's an ideological conspiracy in the media to keep certain candidates out. I really don't.

Yes, a large part of me is still brooding over Dean's defeat, although it makes perfect sense. It's just sad that it had to happen. In my fantasy world, Howard Dean would be the ideal people's candidate, not just a hothead who can't hold his temper, and whose opponents go underground into the AP to destroy.

Friday, May 14, 2004

George W. Bush: Compassion

I have had a blog on Live Journal for about 2 years now. I like it, but I wanted to create something that I would have to take a bit more seriously than that. So I thought I'd start one here, in an attempt to keep it focused on fairly serious things, like getting Bush out of office politics, literature, and the like.

An op ed in yesterday's LA Times, NYU's Lawrence Weschler calls attention to a particular section of George Bush's website. It is a warm and fuzzy section, offering a heartwarming message and pictures of the Commander in Chief posing mainly with black people. It's very weird. Why? Because the heartwarming message is one of compassion. In fact, the section of the site is titled Compassion. Of all the hypocritical, self-aggrandizing PR stunts...