This is a piece I wrote about the importance of media outlets sharing the raw data on which their articles are based, as they do with prose (e.g., FOIAed documents) with increasing frequency. →
Pete Stark, a twenty (!) term Democrat from San Francisco, accused a San Francisco Chronicle reporter of contributing to one of his opponents. This took place while he was being videotaped, in the Chronicle’s offices. The reporter, who was in the room, said that wasn’t true. Then he said that he’d gotten the name wrong, and provided another name, the name of somebody who doesn’t work for the paper. This shortly after he accused his primary challenger of taking enormous bribes, another charge that he couldn’t prove, and wound up apologizing for. Watching the video, I think that a reasonable person would have to conclude that the 80-year-old Stark is experiencing the symptoms of dementia. His family and staff would do well to encourage him to retire from politics. →
Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” the PRI show carried by NPR affiliates across the country, has long struck me as a bit of a parody of NPR. The name, for starters. I can’t remember the names of any of the faux NPR stations in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” but they’re all names exactly like “To the Point,” created by some sort of random NPR show name generator. But the problem is more how Olney hosts the show. He regards himself as a referee, rather than a host.* He’ll get a pair of guests, one on each side of an issue, and have them take turns talking. So if the topic is global climate change, he’ll have a climate scientist and an Exxon-funded lobbyist debate its reality. The lobbyist will say “climate change doesn’t exist, and there’s no evidence that it does,” and the scientist will say “actually, there’s really no question about it at this point,” and Olney simply has them take turns talking. No common ground is found between the guests; or, if it is, Olney really can’t take any credit. (Olney got in trouble for doing this in particularly awful form a couple of months ago, when he let an anti-gay bigot make hateful, outlandish claims and never once called him on it.)
Compare this to Diane Rehm. When she’s being bullshitted by a guest, she doesn’t just turn to another guest and say “John, what’s your take?” She says “Sara, what you’re saying isn’t true, you have to know it’s not true, don’t you?”
Olney had a pair of guests on a couple of years ago, and the exchange that they had was so extraordinary that I’ve been telling people about it ever since. One of the guests looked like an idiot, but Olney was the worst for the exchange—he came off looking like a buffoon for his unwillingness to acknowledge that his guest was a huckster.
On the January 1, 2010 episode of the show, the featured topic was Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I’m a fan of Ehrenreich’s work, and she used to live in Charlottesville, so I tuned in while I was driving somewhere or another. Ehrenreich’s thesis was that a lack of critical thinking was part of what led to the collapse of Countrywide and companies like it, touching off the recession. That the people who advance and do well in those businesses were the people saying “nothing can go wrong with bundling sub-prime mortgages,” not the people saying “I think this is a bad idea, because it could end disastrously.” Olney had a few different guests on the show alongside Ehrenreich, and one of them was John Assaraf.
I’d never heard of John Assaraf before, but a mere glance at his website makes obvious that he’s a shyster. He’s in the business of taking money from suckers by selling them the message that they simply need to imagine themselves rich, and then they will be rich. Of course, somebody listening to the show wouldn’t know this about the guy. They’d only know that he’s a “business growth expert and motivational speaker,” as Olney introduced him.
What Assaraf says is stunning enough, but it’s Ehrenreich’s surprising reveal in her response that led me to exclaim “oh damn!” to my radio while listening. I’ve trimmed this interview down to the illustrative bits, 2:18 in length:
For those who want to hear the entire, unedited portion of the show that includes Assaraf, here it is, 7:05 in length:
So Assaraf spends a minute making outlandish, utterly unsupportable medical claims, with absolutely no education or experience that would allow him to evaluate them—sheer bullshit—all about how disease can be stopped on a cellular level by thinking happy thoughts, and that’s when we discover that Ehrenreich has a doctorate in cellular immunology. Who saw that coming? Nobody! Nobody could have! It’s astounding! But you know who doesn’t care? Olney. Not in the least. He continues his “so what’s your response?” back-and-forth between the two, never acknowledging that Assaraf has been hopelessly owned by Ehrenreich, or that Olney or his producer have erred enormously in matching up a motivational speaker with a cellular immunologist to debate cellular immunology. Olney, presumably not having just fallen off the turnip truck, surely knew he was being bullshitted by Assaraf and that, by extension, his listeners were being bullshitted by Assaraf. But instead he followed his lousy script where he just has two people say their piece, and lets the listeners sort out who they agree with. But that requires honest actors, it requires evenly matched debaters, and it requires that the topic be something on which intelligent minds may disagree. This was not such a topic.
This is what’s wrong with journalism. Right here. Earlier this month, the New York Times‘ public editor publicly pondered whether the paper should point out when interview subjects are lying. The response was swift and vocal that, yes, that’s precisely the purpose of journalism.
It’s not just Olney, of course. This approach is standard, on NPR and elsewhere. I’m not holding him to a higher standard, I just found this incident to be so laughable, so egregious, that I’ve been telling people about it for the past couple of years. Incidents like this highlight why this approach isn’t just bad, but fundamentally dishonest. It allows dopes like Assaraf to stay in business, and surely makes people like Ehrenreich wonder what the point of a doctorate is if it doesn’t make her more of an expert in the field than some random person and why she should bother to be a guest on such shows again. Impartiality is great, but when a journalist is providing a forum for a liar to peddle his wares, it’s time for him to do his job and start ferreting out some truth.
* On reflection, this is not entirely fair to referees. Imagine if, in a game of tennis, Player A called a foul on Player B and, in response, the referee simply asked Player B if he thought he was guilty? My wife suggests that, in this tennis analogy, Olney’s self-assigned role is simply to act as the net. ↩
- Ars Technica: Patent trolls have cost innovators half a trillion dollars
A study by some Boston University researchers have found that, from publicly traded companies alone, $500B has been spent on paying off patent extortionists. That's a quarter of all U.S. R&D expenses, wasted. If we want to get serious about reducing the cost of doing business in this country, let's start with software patent reform.
- Google Webmaster Central: View-all in search results
When articles can be viewed paginated or all on one page, Google is now preferring the all-in-one approach in displaying search results. Because, of course, people don't want to read articles broken up into ten pages.
- Pressthink: We Have No Idea Who’s Right—Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR
Jay Rosen provides this thoughtful piece about the media-wide habit of presenting two sides of a disagreement and pretending that's good journalism. (The exception to this rule is, of course, Fox News, which makes only the thinnest of pretenses at presenting both sides equally.) Opponents of abortion say that tighter regulations on clinics are necessary. Supporters say that regulations are tight enough. So, go farther—compare abortion clinics to other, similar medical facilities, compare the requirements and the actual health data, and tell us who's right.
- WordPress Publisher Blog: A complete publishing system on WordPress
The Bangor Daily News managed to turn WordPress and Google Docs into an entire newspaper publishing system, by using a bunch of plugins to create an editorial workflow. Having written a lot of code to perform this very task, I'm really impressed by this. Better still, it all integrates with InDesign, and all of the plugins are open sourced. Bravo!
- Joel Stein: How Jewish is Hollywood?
- Washington Post: Congressional Budget Office warns of debt explosion
The CBO reports that threre's a simple solution to our budget problem: let the Bush tax cuts expire.
- New Scientist: Lab yeast make evolutionary leap to multicellularity
In just 60 days, yeast cells became multicellular, dividing labor between cells. Apparently this isn't nearly as complicated or unlikely as some evolutionary theorists believed.
- Texas Tribune: Counting Confusion Keeps Texas Cowboy Confined
I've become a real fan of the Texas Tribune, the new nonprofit news outfit in Austin, and this story is a good example of why. It's a pleasure to read, with some nice turns of phrase, and some great quotes from the subject of the article. I came across this in the New York Times, which has started to syndicate the Tribune's stories.
- Jim Loy: Converse, Inverse, Contrapositive
I never know when to use "converse" versus "interverse." (And I'm not smart enough—and possibly not pretentious enough—to ever use "contrapositive.") Turns out it's pretty straightforward.
- Philip Greenspun’s Weblog: How did the New York Times manage to spend $40 million on its pay wall?
Forty million dollars? That's just stupid. I really cannot envision what $39.5M of that was spent on.
- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: Master Publication List
Hundreds of free publications, available online, about sustainable, small-scale farming, written and edited by experts.
- Data Science Toolkit
A self-contained virtual machine with a toolkit of brilliant data analysis utilities. Geolocation for IPs, street address to coordinates, coordinates to political divisions—that stuff you'd expect. But it can also pull country, city, and region names out of unstructured text. It can render HTML and return the text that would be displayed in the browser. It can pull people's names out of unstructured text and even take a guess at their sex. I'm drooling a little. I can put half of these tools to use immediately.
I had no idea.
- Daring Fireball: A Rule of Thumb—Pricing Should Be Simple
John Gruber explains the bizarreness of the New York Times’ electronic pricing scheme. I am somebody who is happy, in theory, to pay to read the New York Times online. But their price structure makes no sense to me. I don't understand why it's more expensive to get an electronic subscription than to get both an electronic subscription and a print subscription. I don't understand why they charge more to view the paper on my iPad than on my iPhone—what do they care how big my screen is? There's no way I'd pay $420/year to read the New York Times. The whole thing just makes no sense.
- The Blaze: Does Raw Video of NPR Expose Reveal Questionable Editing & Tactics?
This undercover video of an NPR exec is such a hack job that even Glenn Beck is calling foul. Comparing the edited version to the raw video makes obvious that unrelated bits of audio were edited together to make it appear that the guy was saying things that he never said. How embarrassing.
- Nieman Journalism Lab: Knight gives Bay Citizen, Texas Tribune $975,000 for open-source CMS
Brilliant, brilliant use of a million bucks by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Having spent a half-decade managing online content for a media outlet, I feel comfortable saying that the existing options are terrible, either because they're too complex for most media outlets (Bricolage), they're not the right tools for the job (WordPress, ExpressionEngine) or because they're just plain awful (nearly everything else). Let's hope that the grant recipients are up to the task. Codenamed "Armstrong," the Django-based CMS is scheduled for a June launch.
- New York Times: Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives
An unregulated free market wouldn't construct buildings designed to withstand once-in-a-generation earthquakes. ("Greed is good.") Capitalism is great, but sometimes the things that make it great make it dangerous. That's why we have regulation.
Three months ago, the Virginian Pilot started an interesting experiment. In the face of the same crappy reader comments that virtually every media outlet gets on their site, they decided to do something different. They started requiring proof of identity in order to comment on the editorial section of the site—verified in the form of a $0 credit card charge—and displaying people’s full names and locations above each of their comments. This week, the 300th person signed up through this new system. Editorial page editor Don Luzzatto describes how successful it’s been:
We were likewise worried that we were overestimating the pernicious effect of anonymity. That requiring people to identify themselves wouldn’t have any effect on some of the nastier behavior.
That also proved to be wrong. Not just wrong, though. It proved to be wildly wrong.
Before the switch to verified commenting, we would regularly find it necessary to delete trollish or racist or otherwise inappropriate comments. Since the switch, we’ve had to do almost none of that. That’s all the more impressive because comments at the Opinion channel are posted automatically and are longer than on the rest of PilotOnline.com.
The content of the comments on letters, editorials and columns has been so uniformly better, in fact, that we’ve been running them regularly in our letters column. That’s the highest praise I know.
Although some may well complain that significantly more than 300 people were participating before, I think that misses the point. In writing, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.
Anonymous commenting is sometimes a good and necessary thing—I think its availability is societally important, going back to the Federalist Papers. But publishers are under no obligation to serve as a venue for such commentary. I’m increasingly convinced that media outlets generally should make stronger attempts to improve the quality of the discourse on their sites. (If I can even use the word “discourse” to describe the shallow pseudonymous spats that are appended to so many articles.) I’m not aware of any publication taking the approach that the Virginian Pilot is—good for them for forging a new path.
- Washington Post: Ex-rep. Perriello might run for U.S. Senate in Va. if Kaine doesn’t
Good. Kaine is my first choice, for practical reasons, but Perriello is my second.
- Library of Congress: Chronicling America
The LoC has the complete contents of long-ago newspapers from all around Virginia, mostly from around the turn of the last century. The Richmond Planet, the Tazewell Republican, the Highland Recorder, The [Fredericksburg] Free Lance, the Clarke Courier—they've got it all.
- Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO
One of my favorite musicians, country artist Hayes Carll, has a new album that does not disappoint. His prior release, "Trouble in Mind," was just brilliant, and I figured that his follow-up probably couldn't reach that bar. After listening to it a few times through, I think "KMAG YOYO" is every bit as good. (The title is a military acronym: "kiss my ass, guys—you're on your own.") Standouts include the title track, one of the few songs about the war in Afghanistan, and the very funny "Another Like You." If you're a fan of Todd Snider—who performs on this album—you'll like Hayes Carll. If you like country, but not the crap that's passed for country for the past twenty years, then you'll love him.