In January, the always-excellent “This American Life” had a really stunning episode turned over almost entirely to an excerpt of a monologue by Mike Daisey, about working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese company that manufactures products for Apple, among other companies. Daisey actually went to China, to the factory, and interviewed people about what it was like to work for Foxconn. What he learned was really bad—it made both Apple and Foxconn look just awful. Marketplace’s China correspondent found that the story just didn’t jibe with his own knowledge, so he investigated Daisey’s reporting, tracking down Daisey’s interpreter. It turns out Daisey lied. A lot. About crucial facts. Daisey’s defense? “It’s not journalism, it’s theater.” Lame. →
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.
- NPR: Florida Bill Could Muzzle Doctors On Gun Safety
An NRA-written bill has passed the Florida legislature, and is likely to be signed by the governor, that will make it illegal for doctors to advise patients on gun safety. (Pediatricians frequently advise new parents on how to store firearms safely, and doctors concerned about teenagers' mental health want to make sure they're not a danger to themselves or others.) Every time I think about joining the NRA, they remind me that they are wretched human beings.
- Boing Boing: Portable Pepper Mill
I like Boing Boing a lot, I really do. I tire of Cory Doctorow writing about Cory Doctorow—nearly everything he writes—and I even subscribe via a Yahoo Pipe that removes anything containing the word "steampunk," but easily 10% of the posts are pure gold. But their "Cool Tools" section has gotten totally ridiculous. Exhibit A is this post, where the unnamed author says that she would "never go anywhere without [her] portable pepper mill," and then pimps the Vic Firth Pump and Grind Pepper Mill, complete with Amazon referral link. Which raises such questions as a) She really doesn't go to many places, does she? b) Aren't all pepper mills portable? and c) When did she become such an asshole?
- The Guardian: Osama bin Laden death—The conspiracy theories
Here's what the crazies think. A Fox News anchor says that Obama is lying about Bin Laden's death to get reelected. Glenn Beck says Bin Laden is alive, as a captive, being interrogated about where he's hiding his secret nuclear bomb. Conservative radio host Alex Jones says that Bin Laden was killed nine years ago, but was kept frozen until such as time as it would be convenient to claim that he'd just been killed.
- Bacon’s Rebellion: Why, Bob, Why?
Peter Galuszka contrasts Bob McDonnell's cutting $0.4M in funding for public broadcasting from the state budget and giving $3.5M to Steven Spielberg to make a movie. Not only is cutting funding for public broadcasting an economically unsound decision (that's how schools get some of their educational materials, which they'll now have to pay for to get from elsewhere), but giving 775% more to a private film production company a few days later is deeply hypocritical.
- 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.
Gov. McDonnell is again proposing cutting all funding for public broadcasting, though this time he wants to eliminate all funding—$2M/year—that the state spends on this public/private partnership. State funding provides about 15% of the budget for most public broadcasters, with that state contribution serving as the kernel from which the stations raise money. Clearly this is not about the money—the return on that investment is enormous, and it’s precisely the sort of government outsourcing that McDonnell adores. No, this is ideological, and his base is going to eat this up. (Some conservatives labor under the impression that NPR has a liberal bias. Anybody who thinks this has either never actually listened to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, or is so far to the right that they don’t know balanced coverage when they see it.) McDonnell’s intentions are made all the more clear by nonsense like this:
McDonnell said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that public broadcasting is a “wonderful resource. … However, in our modern media world there are thousands upon thousands of content providers operating in the free market.”
McDonnell was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1991. He was there for fourteen years, in which time he witnessed the withering of of the capitol press corps. Perhaps he hasn’t visited often since his 2005 election to attorney general, but it’s gotten much worse since then. The place is a ghost town. Everybody is pulling back their coverage…except public broadcasting. They’re actually increasing their coverage of the legislature this year, compensating for the evacuation of the place by commercial media. This contraction is the case throughout the industry, of course—every media outlet is in rough shape, with no sign that things are going to get better. One of the possible outcomes, about which I talked to a bunch of journalists when attending last year’s Society of Professional Journalists’ conference, is that media outlets convert to a non-profit model—actually convert to the public broadcasting model. Point being, McDonnell is either lying or deluding himself if he thinks that the private, free-market approach to media is really working out in the public’s interest on this front.
(On a related note, I’ve been trying to secure a press pass for this year’s General Assembly session, to report on behalf of Richmond Sunlight, but it looks like I’m simply not allowed to. They only give press passes to members of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association or, more specifically, those who qualify to be VCCA members. And their requirements specify that one must be a “full-time, paid correspondent…whose primary responsibility is coverage of the Virginia state government and the Virginia General Assembly…employed by a news organization…whose principal business is the daily dissemination of original news of interest to a broad segment of the public, and which has broadcast or published…continuously for 52 weeks.” What business of theirs it is from where I draw my salary, I cannot imagine. For whatever reason, the General Assembly is going along with this. I’m tempted to make a big fuss about this, but I don’t think I have the time or the energy for that just now. The VCCA has established a club with such high requirements that they’re fast running out of members. Ditto, incidentally, for the Virginia Press Association—I’ve been trying to join that for a couple of years now. They won’t have me, either.)
If McDonnell really wants to get public broadcasting to stand on its own, he should insist that they provide most of their budgets themselves. Say, about 85% of their budget. If it’s so great, they ought to be able to get people to just give them money by, say, running pledge drives or something. Yeah, that’d show ’em.