Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April, 2007

The glass dugout

Posted by digglahhh on 28 April 2007

So, Alyssa Milano who played Samantha on “Who’s the Boss” and provided masturbatory fodder for teenage boys on “Charmed” has a baseball related blog. For purposes of this discussion, let’s us set aside the fact that she launched a clothing line that is being sold on mlb.com and that the blog itself is at least partially a form of cross promotion. Perhaps that calls into question Ms. Millano’s passion for the game. But, I figured, why not read what she has to say about baseball and her favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Her first post was a little cheesy and promoted her clothing line, but how many bloggers don’t do a little self-promotion? She didn’t make any references to players’ physical attractiveness; nor did she come off like a ditz in any other way. It was a non-descript light-hearted post that romanticized the game. A nice antidote to my post from two weeks ago in fact. As a person quite familiar with the world of Internet baseball talk, from the brilliant to the banal, and as a person who lives with someone equally knowledgeable—a woman, as it happens—take my word; there’s stuff written everyday that makes this look like the revolutionary statistical analysis of a young Bill James.

Here is an excerpt from Milano’s first post:

Honestly, this is what I love about baseball. It’s just like life. The ride. The journey. Every year when the season starts, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the season is going to go. Oh, I think I’m such an expert — I read every magazine, I read MLB.com everyday (OK, maybe four or five times a day), I watch the Spring Training games. And yet despite all the preparation, I realize I simply have no idea what twists or turns the season will take. As much as I try to peer into the future, the future is unpredictable. A ball bounces under a player’s legs, and the Red Sox lose their lead and the World Series. A fan interferes with a ball, and the Cubs lose their lead, and the playoff series. A-Rod finally silences the boo’s and steps up to the plate. That’s baseball. In life, we have our own rhythms, our own ups and downs, our own teammates, and all we can do is hold on and prepare for the challenges along the journey.

You see this kind of writing everywhere; nonetheless, that first post’s comment section was filled with accusations that she didn’t write the blog herself, questions about whether she really likes baseball, and thinly veiled pick-up lines.

I’m sure Alyssa Milano is flattered that through the power of baseball she can still be the same fantasy fodder she was in the days of Charmed. I’m equally sure these sexually frustrated dorks would have swam the English Channel to scrub her toilet regardless of whether she knew which season Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young (1981, in case you were wondering).

The most common comment reaction was surprise. Wow, Alyssa, it’s real cool you’re a baseball fan… Some other things about Alyssa that these commenters may find cool are that she can own property, vote, and correctly identify a screwdriver. What they might not find so cool is that she quite probably has no desire to sleep with them. Seriously, the comment section was like the worst parody of “The Aristocrats” one could imagine, countless pinheads reiterating slightly different versions of the same hopelessly pathetic jokes and amorous proposals.

See for yourself:

You are absolutely the most gorgeous woman on the planet and a baseball fan as well. {Sigh}

…I first saw you in Commando with our governator. After that, I didn’t miss an episode of Who’s the Boss cause I had a crush on you, but who can blame me? Anyway, now that I find out you are almost as big a Dodger fan as I am, you once again reclaim the title of the perfect woman, and my crush may come back, regardless of your marital status..lol

I have followed your career for many, many years. You are truly a PRINCESS!
I am a die-hard Yankee fan but I am sure that if we were to meet that all I had to do is look once into your eyes and I would switch to the Dodgers forever!!!

Girl, what do you know about baseball?

Much like the in the Kathy Sierra episode, Milano’s sex is placed at the forefront of the commenters’ remarks.

In 2007 we still have not evolved, as a society, to the point at which it is not shocking that an attractive woman could possibly enjoy and follow baseball. Worse, we still have a double-standard about sports “expertise” and gender. I heard Mets fan and actor Tim Robbins as a guest in the announcer’s booth during last season’s NLDS. He commented that he was looking forward to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez getting a shot to face the Dodgers. Hernandez was injured and not even on the roster at the time! Yet, for some reason the Internet firing squad didn’t really take aim at Nuke Laloosh.

My girlfriend works for Major League Baseball; she oversees official scoring decisions and corrects the mistakes of official scorers who have spent their lives watching baseball. Still, when we go out to a bar or a game, she is often given the backhanded compliment of being very knowledgeable for a girl. Excuse me? For a girl? She can recite entire sections of the rulebook and has a better grasp or the history, strategy and rules of the game than 99% of those of either sex. But that doesn’t make her immune from being stereotyped.

In one particularly egregious instance an official from one of the teams called the office seeking clarification on a ruling that was made in the previous night’s game. When she asked him to elaborate, he asked to be connected to a male. Frustrated, but politely, she made clear that there was no confusion; she was not the office secretary but one of the department managers. He still asked to speak to a man.

This attitude in sports places an unfair onus on women who proudly show their interest in sports. My girlfriend sometimes feels like she is speaking for all women and that if she errs in her job it very well might reinforce somebody’s pre-existing stereotype. A similar mistake by a male co-worker carries none of that sociological baggage. A woman I know is trying to start women’s baseball leagues in Detroit. In Internet discussions about the best ways to build and market the leagues, she and her cause are routinely mocked amid flagrant, non-sequiturs that assert male athletic superiority.

Many male fans are eager to point out a female fan’s ignorance in order to dismiss them or to label them groupies. Yet often these same men babble on freely and incessantly about sports with all the acumen and rhetorical skill of George Bush at a science fair.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 3 Comments »

They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Kinky Anymore

Posted by metaphorical on 25 April 2007

Somehow I missed Kinky Friedman’s stand-up defense of his friend Don Imus in the NY Post last week. For those who aren’t acquainted with the finer points of New York’s prowess as a world-leader in producing detritus, the Post is the city’s attempt to make visiting Londoners feel at home should they need something with which to wrap a fish.

Now, I like Kinky Friedman and have ever since I heard “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (this
freely listenable version is actually introduced by Imus, which is a bit freaky). I liked him even more when I read The New Yorker’s quirky profile of him a couple of years ago.

But you know you’re in for an awkward piece of wordsmithing when an article starts out with a pairing of metaphors that equips a ship predating the Argos with the latest missle technologies.

COWARDS KICK AWAY ANOTHER PIECE OF AMERICA’S SOUL

I met Imus on the gangplank of Noah’s Ark. He was then and remains today a truth-seeking missile with the best bull-meter in the business.

Kinky starts his defense with the big but: There’s no excuse for what Imus said, BUT ….

There’s no excusing Imus’ recent ridiculous remark, but there’s something not kosher in America when one guy gets a Grammy and one gets fired for the same line.

Yes, Kinky, that is puzzling, about as puzzling as how one person’s work could win a Pulitzer Prize and another person get expelled for plagiarizing it—the words are the same, so what’s the problem?—or how James Frey was headed for trouble the moment he took the “Fiction” label off his manuscript and slapped on one that said “Memoir.”

At least we’ve left the anachronistic Biblical metaphors behind. The heart of Kinky’s defense of his friend is quite a different one:

The Matt Lauers and Al Rokers of this world live by the cue-card and die by the cue-card; Imus is a rare bird, indeed – he works without a net. When you work without a net as long as Imus has, sometimes you make mistakes.

Unfortunately, we’ve gone from bad to worse, metaphor-wise. In fact, we’ve entered the realm of what Orwell called the dying metaphor: “worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

The salient fact about actually working without a net is that you can hurt yourself. A circus high wire act takes place 20 meters or more above the ground the big top is pitched upon. People have walked wires strung across Niagra Falls. When you fall from great heights, you can die.

Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the most famous family aerialist act in history, died when he fell from “a wind-whipped wire 123 ft (37 m) above a street in San Juan,” according to Answers.com.

Eight years ago I saw what happens when a rock climber falls from 25 meters up. Two friends of mine and I were coming back to our packs after completing a route in New York’s Shawangunks. A climber, Scott Ruit, had just fallen from the top of the first pitch of the same route. He lay on the ground, unconscious, breathing laboriously. His chest rose and fell only on one side. A small amount of blood trickled from his face, which was a ghostly white. His legs were splayed out in a jumble.

It took a quickly-assembled group of over a dozen climbers 45 minutes to carry him a few hundred yards down a rocky trail that twisted through the woods, out to the highway. From there, an ambulance took him to a waiting helicopter. He was dead before he arrived at a hospital just across the Hudson River.

Kinky, that’s what happens when you fall without a net. I’m sorry your best friend’s career plunged to a sudden death, but he was paid millions of dollars partly because what he was doing was risky. It’s not a real risk if you can just go on someone else’s radio show and say “I’m sorry.”

Real risks have consequences, and it’s not as if Imus paid the ultimate price of working without a net. You can still visit with your best friend, smoke Montecristo cigars with him, sing wacky sarcastic songs to him. Scott Ruit’s friends can’t. Karl Wallenda’s family can’t. In fact, Kinky, why don’t you put the keyboard down and give your friend a big hug right now. And when you pick it up again, think before you start typing. You’re a better writer than this.

Posted in language, Orwell, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

Political correctness and Virginia Tech

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2007

The other day, Digglahhh closed a comment by saying

I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.

Now comes news, via Inside Higher Ed, of such an overreaction. As it happens, Digglahhh couldn’t have been more wrong in the details: it was a college, not a junior high school; it was the administration that overreacted, not a teacher; a teacher was the victim of the overreaction, not a student. Yet Digglahhh’s point is made, though it has to be said that many of the facts of the case are somewhat murky.

First let me point out that at least one regular visitor found Digglahhh’s point confusing, not without justification, so let me first say what I understand it to be saying. It’s that the first impuse for many junior high school English teachers is going to be to report to the authorities or otherwise quash any student whose writing was at all weird or different. In this way, a future Poe or Bukowski would have his or her wings clipped, one way or another, say with Prozac, public humiliation, or expulsion.

With that understanding, let’s take a look at what happened at Emmanuel College last week.

Emmanuel College last week urged all professors to talk to students about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. One adjunct who did so for about 10 minutes — but not in the way Emmanuel envisioned — was promptly fired and barred from the campus.

The teacher was Nicholas Winset and it was an accounting class, of all things.

Winset’s course was in financial accounting and he brought up Virginia Tech Wednesday because the Boston-based college was urging instructors to discuss the situation to reassure students. Winset, who is in a transition from a business career to one in academe, said that he tells students on the first day of class that he’s not the most formal of professors and may swear in class from time to time, and that if they aren’t comfortable with that, other sections of the course may be better. On Wednesday, he said that he started class by saying that there would be an exercise related to Virginia Tech.

Here’s the rest of Winset’s version of his story.

During a period of about 10 minutes of discussion about Virginia Tech, Winset said he picked up a marker and made a “bang bang bang” noise, and that a student made a “bang bang” noise back at him. During the discussion, Winset said he told students that “his heart goes out” to the victims’ families, but that he didn’t agree with the idea that this is a national crisis for students.

He said that students do not face a real danger of being killed by a mass murderer any more than they are in danger of being hit by lightning. He said his students were scared by the Virginia Tech killings, and that’s because people who run places like Emmanuel and the national press like to focus on tragedies like the one last week, rather than talking about issues like rape or AIDS, which pose real dangers to many college students but don’t tend to make CNN much. Further, he said that he suggested that press accounts of the victims have focused on those viewed as most photogenic and tragic (which he said has a strong correlation with being white in American society). He told his students, he said, that if all of the victims had been poor, minority individuals, press interest would have been lessened.

The risks of a Virginia Tech event probably is an appropriate topic for an accounting class, though maybe not financial accounting. It sounded a bit crazy to me, until I remembered my own days of college teaching. It’s hard not to discuss, at least briefly, the events of the day, if they’re big enough news. I remember talking about the Iranian hostage crisis in a introductory ethics class in 1980. Of course, you can discuss almost anything in an ethics class.

Anyway, here’s the important thing.

Winset said that the college never asked him what had happened in class, but that he suspects that the reports the college received about it came from a student who is failing. (A college spokeswoman said that Emmanuel tried to call him on Thursday and Winset, who was away from his home number on Thursday, said that when he arrived Friday, he had messages from late Thursday afternoon and his dismissal notice.)

The college, for its part, has this to say.

Emmanuel first released a statement saying that it responded to “an inappropriate incident” in which “an adjunct faculty member made statements regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech University which prompted students and parents to contact the administration with complaints.”

It’s astonishing that a school would dismiss a professor without any kind of hearing, or due process, or at least getting the professor’s version of the facts. I can remember serving in the Student Senate of my undergraduate school; the rules of the school, which heavily favored the faculty and the administration in administrative matters, still required a hearing before a student was expelled. Can it really be a member of the faculty —even if merely an adjunct member of the faculty—does not receive the same right, or at least courtesy?

There was more to this statement, but I want to get to two other things first. The school issued a second statement:

This statement said that Winset “was dismissed because he was reported by several witnesses to have violated the standards of conduct and civility we require of all members of the college community. According to students in his class, Mr. Winset staged a dramatization during a financial accounting class, mimicking the shootings at Virginia Tech and disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students. His insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech expressed during class time, but far afield from the subject matter of his course, and his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty or staff at this institution, led to his dismissal from his adjunct position.”

The school has turned the spin machine to its highest setting, if it were a blender the dial would be pointed to “Puree.” Of course there’s another side to it:

Winset’s students are angry — not about his lecture, but about his removal. Peter Muto, a sophomore business management major, said he wasn’t at all offended by the discussion, and wonders why more students weren’t asked for their views on what happened that day. “I have numerous friends in the class, and none of them took offense to this, nor were any of them scared or freaked out,” he said.

Who’s right, the administration or Muto? Who knows?—and that’s precisely the point: in a classroom situation with ambiguity—and most classrooms are rife with ambiguity, both good and bad—each side can put its best face on when describing what happened. That’s why we have quasi-judicial processes.

Emmanuel also released a statement from the head of the Faculty Senate, who, sad to say, is in the department of philosophy.

“This is not an issue of academic freedom. In my 38 years at Emmanuel College there has never been a case in which academic freedom has been violated. In fact, Emmanuel has a broader sense of academic freedom than many institutions since we encourage the discussion of controversial issues in all of our disciplines — as long as the discussion is carried out in a fair and civil manner. This was decidedly not the case in Mr. Winset’s class. Creating fear and anger in his students with outrageous and disrespectful behavior and language is clearly about power. In no work place would such behavior be tolerated.”

Winset “objected to the language in Wall’s quote,” saying

Wall’s reference to Emmanuel as a work place was telling. “They think it’s a business and if you offend the clients, you’ve done something wrong,” Winset said. “Well it’s not just a work place. It’s a university, and universities are different.”

Let’s turn back, finally, to the continuation of the very first statement by the college.

The statement went on as follows: “Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language by any member of the college community. Emmanuel College, like other colleges in the country, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. At Emmanuel College, the well-being of our student body is a primary concern, and the action taken, which was to dismiss the adjunct faculty member, reflects this belief.”

It’s a pretty revealing thing to say, and the heart of it is the idea that Emmanuel College, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of what happened at Virginia Tech.

If that’s true, it’s arguably a position that the school is entitled to take. But it’s also a position that others are entitled to judge the school on, making it a place that Winset is likely to never want to teaching at again. (According to the article, he’s already taken an adjunct position at another college.) It also makes it a place that students ought to think twice about attending. Students already there might be best off staying there. But high school students considering Emmanuel ought to take this into account; if they’re comfortable with this kind of—it really seems to be the right term for it—political correctness, so be it. Many, hopefully, will not be.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, philosophy, politics | 6 Comments »

Confessions of a brand whore

Posted by digglahhh on 22 April 2007

The New York City Subway system is a graduate school in conceit and humility, though not everyone signs up for its workshops. Earlier this week, I overheard a conversation between two women who appeared to be in their late twenties to early thirties. One of them complimented the other on her new designer handbag and a conversation ensued. Eventually, the question was asked. “How much?”

“500,” replied the woman. “But, if you want quality, you have to pay for it.”

What does that mean?… Nothing of course! It is a meaningless platitude.

When a piece of merchandise doubles as a status symbol, all forms of insincerity and misrepresentation occurs. Ask a woman about her Jimmy Choos and you’ll hear remarks about how she just needed a pair of black heels or how her feet are an irregular shape and only a few (outrageously expensive) types of shoes really feel comfortable. Sometimes you’ll hear her reference the amazing craftsmanship – all of a sudden she’s a cobbler from Lynn, Massachusetts. I’m sorry, m’am, from the pristine French-tip manicure you are sporting, I wasn’t aware that you were such the student of the craftsmanship of leather goods.

I should know. When I was in high school, the style was oversized rugby and polo shirts by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and other upscale white designers. I was fully on the bandwagon. Predictably, taste and price were rationalized as quality, not the brand. There was only one problem, the blaring contradiction that the most sought-after articles were those that most prominently displayed the brand name.

Our behavior was understandable. It was high school. We were pimply-faced, insecure kids who were deathly afraid of rejection and yearned for anything that could potentially give us the confidence to make a move on our crushes.

We are not in high school anymore but many of us, like the woman on the train still purchase luxury items for the status they confer. Why are they so ashamed to say so? Do they feel guilty about being shallow?

I have some respect for the woman who says with quiet confidence, “500, it’s Chanel.” There is honesty in that statement. Perhaps she is shallow and rich, but maybe she is not. Somebody actually in the fashion industry would likely give an assured response. It’s the sort of “it is what it is” response that implies security in the notion that to some people spending that kind of money makes sense and to most it does not. It is unapologetic.

Of course, the incendiary version of this response is when somebody will tell you how “nice” or “cute” something is. Now, perhaps Burberry did extensive research involving psychological color and pattern association and concluded that this plaid is the most appealing possible arrangement to women with self esteem issues, ages 18-65. I tend to doubt, though. Monograms that can’t confine themselves to a corner of a garment or handbag are even worse. Is there an inherent beauty to interlocking “C”s or “LV”s that simply escapes my aesthetic sensitivities and is not shared by other letter combinations? Perhaps. But, I’ve been appreciating the art of graffiti since I was in junior high school, so once again, I have my doubts.

And yet, I too have my indulgences, such as a rather large rotation of sneakers and fitted baseball hats. Personally, I feel that my two indulgences are carefully chosen as they both relate to two loves of my life; hip-hop and sports. My mother, with whom I’ve had many political arguments, has called me a hypocrite. She would say that our conversations end with me lecturing her about Marx, but almost always in a different pair of sneakers.

Even as I condemn excess consumption I wrestle with my own purchasing patterns. Am I allowed to buy another pair of Air Maxes? Can my footwear invalidate my professed political sensibilities? It can’t, can it? It doesn’t seem fair but, at least to some, it does. We preach moderation, but think in absolutes – we are socially conditioned to do so.

Thus the hypocrisy is to unilaterally condemn people for their consumerist indulgences. Not all consumerism is mindless. We should, however, indulge moderately and choose our indulgences carefully. This is how I’ve come to think about things– make sense of, or rationalize my own behavior in other words, depending on how guilty you think I should feel about it.

The way we talk about our purchases is a reflection of our personal relationship with consumer goods. A reference to “quality,” “style,” “means of expression,” “craftsmanship” and so forth is almost always irrelevant in the context of consumer culture. Sure there is a relationship between price and quality/craftsmanship, but the cost-benefit ratio is usually closer to the median price point than to the high end. Expressing yourself through your clothing is more about style than cost, unless of course you just want to express your wealth. And style, well, style is in the eye of the beholder. Just ask Christine what she thought of Theo’s Gordon Gartelle, um, I mean Ichy Amorada…

I don’t apologize for what I own. I do realize though, that back in high school, while I was a rather independent thinker in social studies, I was a sheep fashion-wise. I won several “best dressed” polls in high school, which ironically proves the point. Also ironic is that as I become nostalgic about the culture of that era, I really wish I still had a lot of things that I got rid of because they temporarily fell out of popularity. I can’t believe that I find myself purchasing the re-released versions of sneakers I owned and got rid of, or that I could have sold the originals for a small fortune if I had kept them. My junior high school sneakers are my father’s Mickey Mantle rookie cards shred by the spokes of his first bicycle.

I am ashamed to admit that I made fun of my peers who couldn’t afford the newer styles. I shoplifted items I couldn’t afford in order to keep myself looking fresh. With a little bit of revisionist history, though, voila! I can reframe shoplifting as a latent political act. But there’s no excusing making fun of somebody because they are poor. If it’s not the height of insensitivity, it’s pretty near it. I’m ashamed that I judged people on such a shallow basis, especially the outcasts who were wise beyond their years for not caring about such trivial matters. But, I am also proud that I grew up, and out of such a childish mind state. I am proud that I’m secure enough to no longer define myself by what I purchase, but not feel the need to defend my purchases either.

What I am sad about is that so many have not, that consumer society is still one big high school cafeteria where the cool table makes fun of everyone else. Where most of those not at the cool table yearn to be, thinking that they are only one designer handbag away from ruling the school.

That woman on the train is proud to flaunt her new designer bag, but embarrassed of what it says about her. She knows it too, and she makes it most evident when she tries to pretend otherwise.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture | 13 Comments »

Heckuva job, Alberto!

Posted by metaphorical on 21 April 2007

“Your characterization of your participation is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts.”
— Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), ranking minority member, Senate Judiciary Committee

“It’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them.”
— Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina


The thing about Gonzales is, this has all happened before. The cursory memos, the dissembling, the false justifications provided for doing what he, or his boss, wanted to do in the first place, independent of facts, rationality, or any vestige of a faculty that might be called conscience.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s slipshod handling of the U.S. Attorney firings is disturbingly reminiscent of Texas Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s slipshod handling of dealth penalty clemency decisions a decade ago.

A close examination of the Gonzales memoranda suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute. In fact, in these documents Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.

Back in July 2003, Alan Berlow wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Texas Clemency Memos,” that was based on memorandums Gonzales wrote for George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas. The documents were obtained under a Texas state version of the freedom of information act. It’s one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism in recent memory.

Between 1995 and 1997, Gonzales “prepared fifty-seven confidential death-penalty memoranda for Bush’s review. Never before discussed publicly, the memoranda suggest that Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise Bush of some of the most salient issues in the cases at hand.”

Each is only three to seven pages long and generally consists of little more than a brief description of the crime, a paragraph or two on the defendant’s personal background, and a condensed legal history. Although the summaries rarely make a recommendation for or against execution, many have a clear prosecutorial bias, and all seem to assume that if an appeals court rejected one or another of a defendant’s claims, there is no conceivable rationale for the governor to revisit that claim. This assumption ignores one of the most basic reasons for clemency: the fact that the justice system makes mistakes.

Here’s Gonzales at his slipshod worst:

The Gonzales memoranda suggest that Gonzales was rarely, if ever, prompted to delve deeply into the cases he was reviewing for Bush. In his summary of the case of Carl Johnson, for example, dated September 18, 1995, the day before Johnson’s execution, Gonzales failed to mention that Johnson’s trial lawyer had literally slept through major portions of the jury selection. His memo on Irineo Tristan Montoya, dated June 18, 1997, the day of Montoya’s execution, omits the single most important issue in the case: an alleged violation of international law, which had been brought to Bush’s attention by, among others, the U.S. Department of State. His memo on Bruce Edwin Callins, dated May 21, 1997, the day of Callins’s execution, fails to note that Callins’s appeal to the Supreme Court generated the most famous death-penalty dissent in the past quarter century, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a longtime death-penalty supporter.

If Gonzales’s memos were paeans to simplicity—little more than summaries of the prosecution’s argument—then so too were the memos prepared by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, about the U.S. Attorneys. Here’s a CNN report from March describing them.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — An e-mail from the Justice Department’s Kyle Sampson in March 2005 laid out a simple formula for evaluating whether the 93 U.S. attorneys should stay or go.

On a chart given to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Sampson — chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — listed attorneys in three categories:

“Bold = Recommend retaining; strong U.S. attorneys who have managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.

“Strikeout = Recommend removing; weak U.S. attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.

“Nothing = No recommendation; have not distinguished themselves either positively or negatively.”

In other words, Governor Bush wanted simplicity in his clemency reviews and Texas Attorney General Gonzales gave it to him. And as U.S. Attorney General, Gonzales wanted the same simplicity when he was the boss.

Gonzales knew his boss wouldn’t look any deeper:

Alberto Gonzales told me in 2000 that in his execution briefings he always presented Governor Bush with a “detailed factual background of what happened,” along with “other outstanding facts or unusual issues.” Yet a close examination of the written execution summaries he prepared for Bush certainly raises questions about the thoroughness of Gonzales’s approach—and, ultimately, given the brevity of the summaries and the timing of their arrival at the governor’s office, about the level of attention Bush could possibly have devoted to the clemency process. In his summaries of the cases of Terry Washington, David Stoker, and Billy Gardner, Gonzales did not make Governor Bush aware of concerns about ineffective counsel, essential mitigating evidence, and even compelling claims of innocence. These were all matters of life or death, requiring in-depth explanation and discussion, that no attorney in Gonzales’s position should leave out of a written case summary or save for a thirty-minute oral briefing—especially if both are to be delivered on the very day of a scheduled execution.

And when he was the boss, Gonzales was similarly uncurious and uninformed. Here’s CBS News’s description of him in Thursday’s hearing.

As the day dragged on, it became clear – painfully clear to anyone who supports Gonzales – that the attorney general didn’t know the answers. Much of the time, he explained, he didn’t really know much at all – he was just doing what his senior staff recommended he do.

Under examination from Republican Sens. Sam Brownback, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and others, Gonzales maintained, in essence, that he did not know why he fired at least some of the eight dismissed U.S. Attorneys. While Gonzales was able to give a reason for each firing, it appeared that in a number of cases, he had reconstructed the reason after the fact; he didn’t know why he fired the U.S. Attorneys at the time, other than the dismissals were recommended by senior Justice Department staff.

The Daily Texan noticed similarities between Attorneygate and the death penalty clemency memos back on April 10th.

Two years ago, as Alberto Gonzales faced confirmation hearings to be the next U.S. attorney general, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty stressed that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “must demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

We based our opposition to Gonzales’ confirmation on our belief that his track record on death penalty cases in Texas failed to meet this challenge. Time and again, the legal analysis he provided to then-Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of executions failed to include any discussion of the most salient issues, including severe mental retardation and mental illness, abysmally poor legal representation and, in more than a handful of cases, credible claims of innocence.

Sadly, our fears have been justified with the recent revelations that differences regarding the death penalty played a role in the dismissal of at least three U.S. attorneys.

Then and now, Gonzales placed Bush’s political agenda above honesty, integrity and commitment to fairness. In Texas, this took the form of cursory review – and then denial in every single case but one – of clemency applications as Bush parlayed his “tough-on-crime” persona into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.

More than similarities, though, back in March the LA Times reported that some of the Attorneygate firings were about the death penalty.

Three fired U.S. attorneys balked at seeking death penalty

Prosecutors in California, Michigan and Arizona share a reluctance to pursue the ultimate punishment.
By Richard A. Serrano, Tom Hamburger and Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writers
March 26, 2007

WASHINGTON — As a U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., Margaret Chiara, who once studied to become a nun, appealed several times to the Justice Department against having to seek the death penalty. In hindsight, for her it was a risky business.

No prisoner has been executed in a Michigan case since 1938, but the Bush administration seemed determined to change that. Under Attys. Gen. John Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales, far more federal defendants have been dispatched to death row than under the Clinton administration. And any prosecutors wishing to seek other punishment often find themselves overruled.

Chiara was not the only one to run afoul of the administration’s death penalty stance.

In San Francisco, U.S. Atty. Kevin Ryan was ordered by Ashcroft to conduct a capital trial for a Californian charged with killing a man with a booby-trapped mail bomb. Ryan persuaded Ashcroft’s successor, Gonzales, to drop the death charge; last month the defendant, David Lin, was acquitted in San Jose.

In Phoenix, prosecutor Paul Charlton was told repeatedly, despite his resistance, to file capital murder charges in a case where the victim’s body has not been recovered. The woman’s remains are believed buried deep in an Arizona landfill, but the Justice Department refused Charlton’s request to shoulder the cost — up to $1 million — to retrieve the corpse.

The three prosecutors are among eight U.S. attorneys terminated last year in a housecleaning by the Justice Department. Their hesitation over the death penalty was not cited as a reason for their dismissals, but Washington officials have made it clear they have little patience for prosecutors who are not with the program.

This administration is rife with poor management, poor leadership, and poor lawyering. The litany of greatest hits is so lengthy and well-known it barely bears summarizing:

Gonzales as Texas AG; Gonzales as orchestrator of the Guantanamo legal frameworks for torture and violating the Geneva Conventions; Gonzales as boss of both Kyle Sampson and the 93 U.S. Attorneys; Bush as chief operating officer of the Texas Rangers; Bush on 9/11; Bush and Katrina; Bush as boss of Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Brown.

Heckuva job, Georgie. Gonzales needs to go, and so does his boss.

Posted in Orwell, politics | Leave a Comment »

The tragedy of TV journalism

Posted by metaphorical on 18 April 2007

With all due respect to the victims, the victims friends and families, the friends and families of the victims friends and families, the fellow students, and students everywhere, and with apologies in advance for all I’m going to offend here, I’m already sick of this story and I haven’t even been watching any of it.

It’s a symptom of the problem, by the way, that I didn’t have to name the tragedy. It was also a practical choice. I can roll out that paragraph again for the next one: the next Va Tech, the next Columbine, the next Oklahoma City bombing, the next World Trade Center; heck, even the next OJ trial.

It’s a commonplace that people playing casino slot machines hour after hour are performing a repetitive motion akin to those on an assembly line, and that they’re paying for the privilege to do work that they wouldn’t hire out for. So too, if the average person were to be forced to watch any 12 consecutive hours of CNN yesterday, it would probably qualify under (pre-2001) definitions of torture.

Not to single out CNN. There was apparently plenty of coverage; by 1:00 p.m. you could probably press the TV remote at random and be assured of seeing Virginia Tech. Tom Shales of the Washington Post did a good job of describing the largess, though without any thought of condemning it. Indeed, he did a far better job that he intended, by inadvertently instantiating some of the many things wrong with the media today, as we’ll see. But first, let’s go to the videotape.

CNN was the first of the cable news networks to break the story, reporting it to viewers at 10:07 a.m., according to an industry insider. Fox News Channel was next at 10:12, followed by the NBC-owned MSNBC at 10:13. An anonymous troublemaker e-mailed a media blog to say that MSNBC was half an hour late in getting the story on the air, but a network source said that was simply not so.

Do we care? I don’t mean that Shales shouldn’t report it; as a media critic that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. (Though it’s really interesting that his byline reads, “Style Columnist”; the kind of media-watching he’s doing is, truly, just one step up from telling us who was wearing an Herrera dress or that Silver Peony and Hollyhock are the colors to be seen in this season.)

No, I mean, do we really care that CNN was first by five whole minutes or even that MSNBC might have been a half hour late? The actual tragedy was complete by 9:55 a.m., complete, that is, except for the 48-hour non-stop gnashing of teeth and renting of clothes to follow.

Of course, if one of the networks had been on to the story at the first shooting, and been on the scene after the first shootings at 7:15, that would have been significant. That is, after all, what the network executives must have wet dreams about. The next-best thing was the student cellphone video, which was broadcast by CNN and viewed on CNN.com 900,000 times by 1:00 p.m. (and who knows how many times from YouTube).

As Shales points out, “What made it unique and valuable was the soundtrack: Gunshots could be heard coming from one of the buildings.” CNN framed the video, with an anchor talking with the student cellphone videographer, Jamal Albarghouti. Albarghouti was asked which building was which, but wasn’t asked about some puzzling tapping noises, which seemed to come from near the cellphone and could have been anything from a computer keyboard to someone running on pavement.

Both Gibson and NBC anchor Brian Williams were on the air with special reports shortly past noon, but Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, was on her way to Blacksburg. From there, she anchored an expanded one-hour edition of “CBS Evening News,” turning a borrowed campus office into a kind of salon and turning the program into a talk show, with various guests — including students who witnessed some of the violence — dropping by to be interviewed.

In light of this week’s rant about Couric, maybe returning to the talk show format is a good choice for her. (And maybe that’s what her viewers really want the NBC Evening News to be.)

The guests included Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who went from his talk with Couric to a chat with Williams, by then anchoring “NBC Nightly News” from another location on or near the campus. At least Williams was outdoors with the campus buildings behind him, chilly wind messing up his hair, which gave his appearance an aura of authenticity. Couric was in a nondescript room that could have been anywhere; the only evidence it was in Blacksburg was that she told us it was.

Of course it could have been anywhere. As Shales also noted,

Networks, strapped for visual material, were forced to repeat static shots of parked police cars over and over.

This is the hallmark of stories that the cable networks are giving a disproportionate amount of attention to, relative to their importance. If there’s no actual news, drone endlessly on about the tragedy du jour, instead of moving on and talking about something that is news. It’s inconceivable that had the shootings in Blacksburg no occurred, CNN, Fox, et al. would have had dead air for 12 hours. Other stuff was happening in the world.

Yet even the relatively sober NY Times wallowed in Blacksburgania. A story I was interested in, because it contained answers to some questions raised in a rant here last week (“Buckle up”), barely made it to the top of the front page, with a single column running down to the fold, and a total, mostly on the inside, of 39 column inches. (That story concerned the fact that N.J. Gov. Corzine’s SUV was doing 91 mph at the time of the accident with its emergency lights flashing and was, the Times reported, at fault for the accident, at least to the extent that all the other maneuvering on the highway was to avoid Corzine and his simulation of an emergency-responding vehicle.)

Two VaTech stories started on the Times’s front page, taking up 54% of some of the most valuable media real estate in the world. They continued, and another three stories ran, inside, for three and a quarter pages, for a grand total of 442 column inches. That’s an 11:1 disparity between the two stories.

And yet, the Times still comes off as a paragon of moderation. Indeed, Shales is so immersed in media overload that he doesn’t see it as the wasteland of non-news that it is.

The details and pictures were very slow in coming throughout the day, even though the tragedy began to unfold shortly after 7 a.m., when the first of the day’s killings by an unidentified shooter took place in a campus dormitory. Blacksburg is remote as TV locations go, a college town served by relatively small network affiliates and independent stations, so networks had no easy time moving in and setting up camp.

Slow in coming! By 1:00 p.m. there wasn’t a person in the U.S. who wasn’t aware of the story and over a million of them had watched a grainy video of some small part of it.

This impatience to have all the details is the same reason we are giving up the democratic process of elections. By opting for uncountable electronic voting machines we have traded free and fair elections for mysterious hackable ones, all so that we can know who the winner is—by fair means or foul—in time for Letterman. So too, if we waited a bit, we could have had the Virginia Tech story once, accurately, and moved on to Corzine, Moktada al-Sadr’s peaceful overthrow of the Iraqi government, and the latest news about Darfur.

And yet, Shales is so immersed in the wasteland of non-news TV news journalism that he can say

by personalizing mass tragedy through the words and pictures of those who lived through it, television democratized the sorrow, outrage and alarm — just as it had done, in much larger scale and scope, on 9/11/2001.

There’s a difference between democracy and pap, or at least there used to be. Three decades ago Virginia Tech would have been a 5-minute story on the evening news, with essentially no visuals except the campus itself, and then a story—a single story—in the newspaper the next morning. I have yet to see an argument that the more “modern” style of TV news journalism has improved our understanding of world affairs since then.

A very great friend of mine, Madeleine Page, once wrote, about the death penalty as it happens, “To my view, the state should stand between me and my primitive responses, not as a proxy for them.”

So too, is it too much to ask that our television news reporting stand between us and our quite natural desire to wallow in any tragedy, great or small?

Madeleine also once said, during an unexpectedly light (for the Mid-Atlantic states) snowstorm in March 2001, “Any minute now the teevee newsfolks are going to disappear right up their own arseholes.”

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture, technology, Times-watch | 28 Comments »

Katie Couric needs to think for herself—literally

Posted by metaphorical on 17 April 2007

Katie Couric was “horrified” to learn last week that the thoughts in her head were written by someone else.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s hard to know what else to make of the Couric plagiarism fiasco. As the LA Times noted yesterday, the story was overshadowed last week by the Imus fiasco, but the blogverse won’t let the story go, and rightly so. Revealingly, both are CBS fiascos, and the question some bloggers and pundits are raising now is what the hell is going on at the third-rate network. There are also some deeper, second-day questions being raised about Couric herself and her “Notebook” commentaries.

In case you, like I, overlooked the Couric scandal in favor of the Imus one, let’s get up to speed.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post was first on the story. On 11 April he reported that

Katie Couric did a one-minute commentary last week on the joys of getting her first library card, but the thoughts were less than original. The piece was substantially lifted from a Wall Street Journal column.

CBS News apologized for the plagiarized passages yesterday and said the commentary had been written by a network producer who has since been fired.

The CBS anchor “was horrified,” spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said. “We all were.”

By the time Kurtz reported it, CBS had already withdrawn the material and apologized. In a remarkable bit of spin, though, rather than apologize that the material had been plagiarized, it apologized for omitting to cite Zaslow and the WSJ.

In an Editor’s Note posted online and distributed to CBS stations, the network said “much of the material” in the library commentary came from Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, “and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission.”

It’s hard to picture how that would work. “Most of Katie’s personal reflections to follow are actually the ruminations of Jeffrey Zaslow, as already published by the Wall Street Journal” is something that her fans would probably find a bit puzzling.

Crediting Zaslow for giving Couric an idea for a commentary is something that one can do, and crediting him for researching some facts is as well. Plagiaristic copying isn’t. Kurtz cited three exact or nearly-exact rip-off quotes. Here’s the first one.

Much of the rest of the script was stolen from the Journal. Couric said: “For kids today, the library is more removed from their lives. It’s a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out.”

Zaslow wrote in March: “The library is more removed from their lives. It’s a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out.”

Digital Journal pointed out a total of five. That’s an awful lot of plagiarism for one minute of audio.

Of course, besides the plagiarism, there’s the intellectual dishonesty of someone else writing Couric’s first-person commentary. In principle, that’s not a big deal. But in this case, the first person involves an actual reminiscence.

What made the ripoff especially striking was the personal flavor of a video — now removed from the CBS Web site — that began, “I still remember when I got my first library card, browsing through the stacks for my favorite books.”

Timothy Noah did a terrific job of analyzing what’s wrong with that last week in Slate.

I’m hardly the first to point out the risible irony in CBS News firing Web producer Melissa McNamara for passing off as her own work a commentary she ghosted for Katie Couric that borrowed extensively from a March 15 Wall Street Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow. From a strictly narrow perspective, of course, CBS was justified in firing McNamara. The network paid her to write original essays for Katie Couric to read in video and audio clips made available on its Web site and to CBS-owned radio stations. McNamara deceived CBS by plagiarizing the Journal. But CBS News wronged visitors to its Web site by inviting them to think that the opinions Couric expressed in these commentaries were her own. It’s no special knock on Couric; before Couric, Dan Rather regularly recited commentaries on the radio that were written by others, and Walter Cronkite did the same before him.

The deception was a little more conspicuous in this instance, at least retrospectively, because it began with a personal memory: “I still remember when I first got my library card.” That sentence was not lifted from the Zaslow column, but it’s actually more fake than anything else in the commentary because it purports to be a personal recollection. In fact, however, it is McNamara remembering on Couric’s behalf the time she toddled up to the library, filled out a form, and was handed her very own library card. It’s a safe counterfeit because every kid gets a library card. Getting one is a rite of passage, and therefore everybody ends up remembering it.

What offends Noah is essentially the banality of Couric’s commentaries, an element inherent to the process of having them ghost-written.

But the banality doesn’t end with inplanted memories. There’s the banality of underreported stories. On 12 April, presumably after McNamara was fired, “Couric’s ‘Notebook’ rehashed debunked Obama rumors,” reported the watchdogs at Media Matters (who also have the full video on that page).

In the April 12 edition of her “Notebook” video blog, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric asked, “Is America ready to elect a president who grew up praying in a mosque?” and proceeded to repeat debunked rumors surrounding Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) childhood years in Indonesia.

Couric claimed that Obama’s “background sparked rumors that he had studied at a radical madrassa, or Quranic school — rumors his campaign denied, declaring that Obama is now a practicing Christian.” However, in noting simply that Obama’s campaign “denied” the rumors that he attended a madrassa, Couric ignored the fact that these allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

As if being part of the media echo-chamber weren’t banal enough, Couric and her thought-production machine were late to the story and missed the fact that it was fabricated to begin with.

There’s no question that these rumors, which date back to mid-March, are false, and were found very quickly to be false. by 20 March, Media Matters was able to report that “The story was quickly debunked by CNN and later by the Associated Press and ABC.” And on 25 March, it cited a Chicago Tribune story that advanced the debunking even further.

In an April 12th column in the NY Sun, David Blum connects the scandal up with the 2004 Dan Rather scandal, which also involved poor research reported by an anchor personality who couldn’t be bothered to make sure of the facts that he was reading to a few million listeners.

As Blum notes,

CBS doesn’t pay Ms. Couric $15 million for her writing skills; she was hired last spring to be the appealing and highly promotable public face of CBS News. Alas, so far the show has remained where it had been with Dan Rather at the helm — in third place, behind NBC and ABC. Her ratings struggles have been endlessly chronicled elsewhere and need not be rehashed. But it does seem ironic that Ms. Couric may have been too busy with her promotional duties to keep track of her own blog. Let’s hope the public relations fallout from this plagiarism episode reminds Ms. Couric that foremost among her duties as anchor should be to maintain the integrity and standards of CBS News. Ms. Couric needs to take charge of her show, her blog, and her reputation before it’s too late.

Or, we could just we could just say “no” to the Katie Couric’s of the world, and get our news from people who have an understanding of it, and can articulate it, instead of merely read it.

Posted in journalism, language, pop culture, technology, the arts, writing | 20 Comments »

Keeping faith with the truth

Posted by metaphorical on 15 April 2007

I remember the first time I ever watched a daytime talk show. I was in the University of Iowa student union of my college, killing a few minutes before my next class. So it had to be before 1981.

Right near the communal newspapers and some couches was a large television. It was playing the Phil Donahue show, at the time perhaps the only widely syndicated talk show; this was long before Oprah, Jerry Springer, and all the rest. Wikipedia suggests that the genre got its big push in 1976 when Donahue moved his show to Chicago. I gather at some point Donahue’s shows got more sensationalistic as the genre did, but at the time, he was a fairly sober, liberal guy who was exploring nooks and crannies of American culture that didn’t usually show up on tv.
(For example, Wikipedia says, “In 1984, Donahue introduced many viewers to hip-hop culture for the first time, as a program featured breakdancing for the first time on national television, accompanied by a performance from the rap group UTFO.”)

On the day I first saw his show, Phil’s guest was a religious opthamologist who claimed that she had patients who could see through a glass eye. Donahue was incredulous. He asked her several times about it and she stood her ground. Finally, he asked, do you mean to say, you, a board-certified opthamologist, who went through college, then medical school, an internship, special training in opthamology, a residency, you’ve been educated in colleges and hospitals for 12, 15 years, and you’re saying that someone can see without an eyeball, that they can see out of an empty eye socket?

The opthamologist looked straight at Phil and said, “With the Lord, all things are possible.”

It was quite a moment for me, a third-generation atheist from New York City.

In discussions of religion, the Maginot line between believers and atheism is the question of whether God intervenes, or may intervene, in the world in a way outside the natural causal chain of events. The atheistic belief is that, by definition (of “nature” and “cause,” among other things), that can’t happen.

Some people believe there are no deathbed atheists, so it should come as a surprise that if there’s a Belgium through which religious belief is evading that Maginot line, it lies in the medical profession. But as it turns out, the doctors are doing at least as much of the marching as the patients.

Doctors and faith
U. OF C. HEALTH STUDY | Physicians believe God can help patients get healthy

April 10, 2007
BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter

A majority of American doctors believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health, a study has found.

And nearly two in five doctors believe religion and spirituality can help prevent bad outcomes such as heart attacks, infections and even death, according to the University of Chicago nationwide survey of 2,000 physicians.

54% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health.

I would like to ask those 54 doctors whether people can see out of eye sockets if it’s the will of the Lord. After all, once you let the door in for God to do his good deeds, what’s the difference between that and a surprising heart attack recovery? Is one any harder than the other for God? Is God less motivated to let people see?

What I would like, in other words, is for religious people to have the courage of their convictions, whatever they are. There are plenty of religous people who don’t believe that “God intervenes in patients’ health” or in anything else in the world. But, it’s my experience, they tend to hide that belief, perhaps because Occam’s Razor and common sense suggest a further step of omitting God from any cosmological understanding of the world.

Then there are the religous people who do believe that God intervenes in the world. They are the ones I most would like to see have the courage of their convictions, the courage to say that people can see through eye sockets.

At least the current Pope has the courage of his convictions.

Hell makes a comeback

This news item got remarkably little coverage in the U.S.: Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated hell as a real place where the heat is always on. This seems to contradict his predecessor, John Paul II, who said that hell is not a place but the state of those who separate themselves from God.

The Pope’s views are expressed in a new book, Jesus of Nazareth. As such, the Pope is speaking personally, not ex cathedra. The AP reports,

Benedict stresses that the book, which he began writing in 2003 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an expression of his “personal search for the face of the Lord” and is by no means an official part of Roman Catholic Church doctrine.

“Everyone is free, then, to contradict me,” he says.

Still, contradicting your predecessor, who, after all, was infallible, can make for some complications, so the Vatican is pedaling backwards as fast as they can. The Australian reports that

Vatican officials said the Pope – who is also the Bishop of Rome – had been speaking in “straightforward” language “like a parish priest”.

He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically”.

Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a church historian, said the Pope was “right to remind us that hell is not something to be put on one side” as an inconvenient or embarrassing aspect of belief.

I can’t speak to the doctrinaire correctness of either Pope’s views, but I think he’s right to insist on the reality of hell from a practical point of view. Without the fear of hell to keep people in line, mainstream Christianity starts to fall apart. At least, that was the experience of Carlton Pearson, a 54-year-old evangelical minister who, as a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher once had one of the largest churches in Tulsa, as he described in an August 2006 interview with Keith Morrison of Dateline.

Pearson: I know that we had about 5,000 – 6,000 people come through there every week. And every seat would be filled.

Collection income was up to $60,000 a week. And during the nineties, Carlton put on huge revival meetings. He called them Azusa conferences, “Azusa” after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago.

At Carlton’s Azusa, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.

Oral Roberts personally baptized one of his children and in 2000 he was invited to the White House. He was made a Bishop by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.

But then he started questioning the Christian concept of hell.

And then one day, it happened. Bishop Carlton Pearson was sitting in the living room of his big house in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set.

There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.

Pearson: And you saw these African people—mostly women and children walking slowly back trying to come home. There was no light or life in their eyes. It was a horrible thing for me to see. Swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated… and then the babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. It was sad. And I’m sitting there with my little fat-cheeked baby and my plateful of food, watching my big screen TV. A man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, and I’m looking at those people assuming that they’re probably Muslim and going to Hell. “’Cause God wouldn’t do that to Christians,” I’m thinking…

Pearson: They deserved hell.

And then, right at that moment, Carlton had his revelation.

Pearson: And I said, “God I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.” And I believe it was the Spirit of God in me saying, “Is that what you think we’re doing?”

Morrison: You heard this voice.

Pearson: Yes, sir. And I said, “That’s what I’ve been taught”

He talked back, he says, at that voice in his head.

Pearson: “God, I can’t I can’t save the whole world.” And that’s when I heard that voice say, “Precisely. That’s what we did. And if you’d tell them that they are redeemed, you wouldn’t create those kinds of problems. Can’t you see they’re already in Hell?”

Clear as a bell, says Carlton, he heard god telling him to preach this new message that hell is a place in life, and that after death. Everybody is redeemed. Everybody.

Pearson started to preach that there was no hell. But if you’re already redeemed, maybe you don’t need to go to church. So Christian leaders, including his mentor, Oral Roberts, denounced him.

And it was more in sorrow than in anger that the old evangelist sent his favorite student a long letter of rebuttal.

“This doctrine is as dangerous as any I’ve come in contact with in 66 years of ministry,” wrote Roberts. “Give it up, I pray, I beseech, I plead.”

And so did worshippers. The couldn’t handle what he called the Gospel of Inclusion.

And then, it was an avalanche. His great army of friends and colleagues departed.

The massive congregations melted away. Within a few months, the 6,000 who had crowded the pews on a Sunday had shrunk to a cold and lonely few hundred. Of course, collections dried up, too.

He couldn’t meet the payroll. The Azusa conference dwindled away too. The big Gospel singers, who’d once clamored to perform on Carlton’s stage, now shunned it. In 2004, the conference sputtered its last and died.

This American Life devoted an entire episode to Pearson back in 2005, which it called “Heretics.” You can download it for 95 cents at that link or stream it for free. It’s an hour of your life you’ll never want back.

In 2004, the Pentecostal bishops declared Pearson a heretic. But Pearson is back on the mend, sort of. He lost his big church, but a new one, formed with the few remaining parishioners who stuck with him, seems to be viable, albeit much, much smaller. He has a book out, God is Not a Christian.

But his life is dramatic evidence that in practical terms, the current Pope knows how to keep the people in the seats and the money coming in. You can bet that Jesus of Nazareth will sell a lot more copies than God is Not a Christian. And I guess a daunting number of them will be bought by doctors.

Posted in language, religion | 12 Comments »

Our national pastime

Posted by digglahhh on 15 April 2007

It’s no accident that the canonical dismissal of George Bush (the first, as it happens) was a baseball metaphor—that he “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” As baseball is a metaphor for life, life is a metaphor for baseball. Professional sports, for better and for worse, are reflections of the societies in which they are played.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson walked past baseball’s color line onto the infield of Ebbet’s Field. As another season of major league baseball hits its stride, it’s time to look at the dark truth lurking inside our sunny conception of baseball as “the national pastime.”

1.Disparity of resources

It seems obvious that richer teams will do better, but the question of whether dollars-spent translates linearly to success in the Major Leauges has been the subject of much debate. Within the mid-range payrolls, there is plenty of room for savvy general managerial skills to make a bigger difference than finances, but at the top and bottom of the distribution there’s not much argument. The teams with the very highest payroll are often the best and the teams with the lowest payrolls are almost always the worst.

The NFL, which has created an unparalleled following with it “any given Sunday” excitement, has a pay structure in which the gap between the sport’s highest and lowest payroll is smaller than the gap between baseball’s highest and second highest payrolls. How égalité!—perhaps a little too much so. Baseball’s notion that certain teams have inherent market advantages, and deeper pockets, independent of quality of play is more in keeping with the ideological underpinnings of American society. As is the reluctance to institute salary caps (à la the NFL) or meaningful revenue sharing systems. The supporters of the free market are almost always those with the most bountiful resources and in baseball, not surprisingly, more often times, the invisible hand dons the World Series ring.

2.Better living through chemistry

Is it surprising that performance-enhancing drugs have run rampant throughout the sport? The hankering for home runs over pitching duels is a poignant metaphor for contemporary cultural values. America has chosen, as its pastime, the most individualistic of team sports. It is the one that is most closely tied to numbers and the one in which you can most precisely measure an individual’s performance. Unlike basketball, hockey or soccer, a play begins as an individual showdown between batter and pitcher. The switches from offense to defense are deliberate and orderly, not instantaneous and unpredictable. Baseball’s individual nature and reliance on precise statistical would make it capitalism if it had to be portrayed as an economic system. Soccer’s low scoring, team-oriented style that produces many unsung heroes has a socialist feel to it. Americans are not interested in soccer, though it is the most popular sport in the world.

If the biochemical hybrids that are assaulting some of the sport’s most esteemed records are objects of public scorn, they still exemplify our love affair with simulacra, and our reactions to the subsequent scandals exemplify a national cognitive dissonance. In this country, images of success and health are a greater priority than the real thing, hence eating disorders, stomach stapling, personal “deficit spending” and myriad other behaviors endemic to and reflective of the U.S. value system.

As consumers of sport, culture, or product we Americans revere outcome more than process. So, we destroy our health, minds and integrity to show the uncritical and awestruck observer how pretty, wealthy or strong we are. Those who raise suspicion are dismissed as bitter, jealous or Luddites. It is in just as much bad taste to question the achievements of a player who comes out of nowhere to put up forty plus homerun seasons, as it is to disparage corporations using “creative accounting” practices to create an inaccurate picture of their wealth. Then when the inevitable scandal ensues, we tar and feather the perpetrators for taking advantage of our trust and innocence. The public was simply mislead by Mark McGwire, and Kenneth Lay on Enron’s “success” too… To an astute observer, only the naive could have been genuinely shocked to find that baseball players were using disingenuous means to succeed, all the while getting praised for their conditioning regimens or that our government was manufacturing a war on an innocent country all the while proclaiming to be the defenders of all that is moral.

3. From green card to line-up card

For decades, America has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world. When we provide laboratories and tenured chairs for scientists who go on to earn Nobel Prizes, everybody wins. When we strip-mine India and the Philippines of most of their trained nurses, only we win.

Baseball exhibits more than a little of each of these models. Should we be surprised to learn the dirty truth hidden beneath the veneer of successful Latin American ballplayers? The decrepit ball fields of Latin America are pillaged for any semblance of athletic talent. Players are harvested in bulk and coerced to sign English contracts without translation. Once property of professional teams, these players are exploited just like any other natural resource indigenous to Central and South America. The Vladimir Guerreros are then paraded as the Horatio Algiers of professional sports. The truth is that Latin American scouts fish not with rods, but nets, insuring that the success of a statistically insignificant minority will define the situation of a wretchedly under-served majority. It is far simpler and cheaper to harvest Latin players in bulk hoping to find some diamonds in the ruff than to invest time, money and risk into domestic prospects who have legal and financial counsel and command market value for their potential.

Many are quick to dismiss these concerns by saying the game provides Latinos with opportunities beyond those available in their homelands, yet that destitution exists largely because of American foreign policy in the first place. Latino youth are herded by droves into MLB organizations, completely unaware that they are entirely expendable. Even those who prove themselves must contend with the pride of front offices, eager to justify the investments in domestic blue-chippers that they choose to make.

4. “All men are created equal”

Some champion baseball’s history as a bastion of progress and equality, noting that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier seven years prior to Brown v. Board of Ed. However, from first team to last, it took another 15 years for, the Boston Red Sox to finally sign a black player. Front office racism resulted in several teams passing on Robinson himself, as well as Willie Mays and other legends of the game. The first black coach wasn’t until 1962, the first black manager, 1975. Thirty-seven years after integration, Hank Aaron received death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s career homerun record. Today, black players comprise a mere eight percent of players on Major League rosters and six percent of players on Division I collegiate baseball teams.

Avenues that open the game up to women are limited, girls are encouraged to pursue softball at a young age (that’s where the scholarships are) and MLB has not taken much initiative to develop a women’s professional league, like the NBA did.

Baseball’s identity as a national pastime goes beyond the innumerable youngsters who pound their mitts on Little League diamonds and sandlots. It speaks to who those children are and what they are willing to sacrifice on the path to the Big Leagues. It speaks to the American Dream, and the way most of us watch it speed by, like a 98 mile per hour fastball, without a realistic chance of us catching up to it.

Posted in digglahhh, language, politics, sports | Leave a Comment »

Imust ask…

Posted by digglahhh on 14 April 2007

Little noticed in the Don Imus “nappy headed hos” fiasco was producer Bernard McGuirk’s follow-up of “the Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes,” a reference to Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze.”

Spike Lee gets to make off-color, borderline offensive references to black people, in fact, he gets to make off-color, borderline offensive references to white people, as he does when Mookie and Pino trade insults in “Do The Right Thing.” But can a white person ever get to a point where he or she can make off-color, borderline offensive jokes about the black race and not get flamed for it?

Imus, needless to say, didn’t achieve such a coveted position, and he has paid a steep price for mistakingly acting as if he had. And it’s worth pointing out that that he crossed two lines, and the sin that isn’t being talked about much, the remark’s extreme sexism, was in my opinion more egregious and direct than its racism. I’m going to address the latter issue though, in part because it’s center stage in the public debate (in other words, because everyone else is), and because the Spike Lee reference is the perfect entrance point to the question that everyone isn’t talking about: are there any circumstances in which an Imus-style remark could be made?

Let’s look a little more closely at the Imus show exchange, going beyond the point at which the CNN’s cut off the tape. Here’s a clip of the whole thing.

The exchange went like this ( I did my best to label who said each, though I am not perfectly sure) :

Imus: Ah, some rough girls from Rutgers, man. They got tattoos, and…

McGuirk: Some hard-core hos.

Imus: (Chuckle) That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m gonna tell you that (laughter)… man, that’s some, whew… and uh, the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, y’know. Kinda like, uh, I dunno

McGuirk: Like a Spike Lee thing

Imus: Yeah

McGuirk: The Jigaboos vs the Wannabes, wha—was that movie that he had

Imus: That was a tough one,

McCord: Do the Right Thing

Imus: Yeah

As I say, when you look at the whole exchange, the sexism leaps out as far worse than the racism. It’s not just that “ho” is arguably worse than “nappy-headed.” The reference to the Tennessee women reduces the entire NCAA championship to a beauty contest between the cute girls vs the ugly ones. It’s literally impossible to imagine the men’s championship game being talked about the same way. But I digress.

As we can see, Imus’s cohost, Charles McCord responded by acknowledging the reference to “the Jigaboos vs the Wannabes,” but applied it to Do the Right Thing (The entire script can be found here; a simple search shows the absence of “Jigaboo” and “Wannabe.”) Imus affirmed McCord’s reply.

Now, if I’m a black guy listening to Imus and haven’t fully decided whether what I’m hearing is blatantly racist or just an attempt at off-color humor that didn’t work well, this is something of a litmus test. If, Imus gets the correct Spike Lee reference, at least that might indicate that he has an understanding and appreciation of black culture and perhaps earn himself some leeway.

This is a pretty basic concept, whether we are talking economics, politics, art or culture, you have to prove an understanding of the topic at hand before you can joke about it and not be perceived as simply ignorant. Especially when entering the no-man’s-land of race, sophisticated understanding of the experiences and culture of the group you are joking about is a prerequisite if you want your remarks to be understood as jokes and not insults.

Today, the hardest such line to cross is for a white comedian to make fun of black culture. In addition to the ugly history of slavery, we have its legacy in entertainment: minstrel shows, blackface, Amos & Andy. There are plenty of reasons why this joke telling privilege is rarely, if ever, granted. Many white people, too ignorant of the depths of our culture’s intact inner core of racism, chalk this up to simple and unfair double standard. Well, there is a double standard – and rightfully so. There have been different standards for whites and non-whites regarding civil rights, education, zoning laws, lending practices, etc. throughout the history of our country. Complaining about the few social double standards that are not advantageous to you is evidence of a substantial lack of historical and sociological perspective.

How may one arrive at this sought-after repercussionless comedic utopia where, even if they bomb, all jokes are taken as jokes? Jerry Seinfled even joked about this sought-after “joke telling immunity.” In the Yada Yada Episode, Jerry becomes suspicious that his dentist, Tim Whatley, has converted to Judaism just to gain the ability to make Jewish jokes. Seinfeld quips, “Don’t you see what Whatley is after? Total joke telling immunity. He’s already got the two big religions covered, if he ever gets Polish citizenship there’ll be no stopping him.”

The question remains, is there any white person out there who could make remarks like that with impunity? As far as I can guess, there are three potential routes to the promised land, some may have gotten there, but rarely are the most sacred boundaries tested, so it is hard to be sure.

The first possible route is to establish yourself as a very intelligent and extremely witty comic who is critical of all and well studied on the history of racism. Basically, you have to define yourself as somebody who is respected for their talent and understood as not harboring racism. In this land, George Carlin is the unquestioned ruler, but others who may reside there are the Bill Mahers and Jon Stewarts of the world. If I had to guess, Maher couldn’t do it; he supports racial profiling, at least in airports. Stewart has Jewish jokes in his repertoire, but it seems out of place for him to make a comment like Imus’s and that alone makes him unlikely to be bulletproof. Carlin is probably the best bet here, and of any of the groups, to be able to get away with a comment like that. But a joke that simple and flat wouldn’t even be found in Carlin’s trash can.

The other possible route is to be one of two types that both lead to the same outcome. Either you have just be plain crazy (obviously crazier than Michael Richards though) or you can be an over-the-top shtick driven personality whose basic act is to be crude, and offensive. The shtick based comedy is basically a caricature of a one-dimensional stereotype. For the former, maybe we can nominate Andy Dick, for the latter you have your Andrew Dice Clays. Imus is in a particularly precarious position because he is shtick heavy, but comes off genuine. It is hard to tell where his radio personality ends and his actual views and character begin. Howard Stern can probably be described most accurately as a shtick and non-racist hybrid. I’d say that he might have a chance at getting away with this comment, but he is disliked (and misunderstood) by too many women. Stern might be able to make the male-targeted equivalent of this remark though. This route of the “crazy” comic is unique because it is not that these types could potentially earn the right to say such things, but that nobody takes seriously what they say and the repercussions of one’s word can probably be only as strong as the speaker of them is credible. Perhaps, Al Sharpton (and he really is a comedian, albeit an unintentional one) is an exception to this rule, as the serious reactions to many of his comments and antics belie his almost non-existent credibility.

The third route is to be widely accepted as a white stepchild of the black community. I can’t think of any comics who have achieved this. Michael Rapaport comes close, but he’s more of a comedic actor than a comedian. (I’m really at a loss as to why Rapaport, specifically, seems to be embraced so much by black culture, but he clearly is, since he pops up in Jay-Z videos, in movies with nearly all-black casts. And so on.) This scenario is perhaps the most interesting to me. I remain undecided as to whether I believe that Eminem could get away with using the word “nigga” on a record, but he seems to think he can’t, or at least is not interested in taking the risk.

I’m not confident that any of these individuals have reached this immunity, but if I had to guess, I’d say Carlin has the best chances. Since I’ve raised a question I can’t answer, let’s close with some more questions.

How strict is the line Imus crossed and does it ever move, depending on who is walking it? Could Howard Stern, Bill Maher, Andy Dick, Eminem, George Carlin or any other white person make that comment and get away with it, and why? If you are a minority, who, if anyone, outside that group, have you granted permission to joke at the expense of the group, and why? How well does all this carry over to gender? Do gay comedians automatically get some kind of Rapaport/Eminem free ride?

Posted in digglahhh, language, politics, pop culture, the arts | 6 Comments »

Buckle up

Posted by metaphorical on 13 April 2007

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
—Margo Channing (Bette Davis), All About Eve

In an odd and tragic sidelight to the Imus fiasco, N.J. Gov. Jon Corzine is in critical condition after a near-fatal car accident last night.

Corzine was being driven to the governor’s mansion by a state trooper, in a state police vehicle, to chaparone the meeting between Imus and the Rutger’s women’s basketball team. Rutgers is, of course, the state university of N.J., and it’s located not far from the mansion, which is Princeton, which in turn is not too far from the state capital in Trenton. According to the NY Times account,

In a 9 p.m. news conference at the hospital here, Col. Joseph R. Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said that a red pickup truck entered the highway “erratically from the shoulder,” causing a white Dodge Ram pickup truck to swerve left. The governor’s driver, State Trooper Robert Rasinski, swerved to avoid the white truck, but hit it, and then slid into the guardrail, with the impact on the passenger side.

The red truck, which apparently caused the chaos on the highway that resulted in Corzine and Rasinski’s injuries, didn’t stop, and is being sought.

Governor Corzine was traveling, as he normally does, in a two-car caravan. Officials said the two troopers in the car following Mr. Corzine stopped to care for him rather than chase the red truck.

Let me first say that I like Corzine, and wish him nothing except a full recovery. Before moving to Manhattan last summer I was a N.J. resident for over a decade. I voted for Corzine for the Senate and then for Governor.

And I certainly wish the best for state trooper Robert Rasinski, who apparently did a hell of a job avoiding the white truck.

That said, I want to focus in on one sentence in the Times story. The Times doesn’t seem to consider it to be very important; it’s more than half-way down the article’s 1100+ word length; it’s a one-paragraph sentence that isn’t discussed further at all. (The emphasis is added.)

Mr. Fuentes said he was unsure whether Mr. Corzine was wearing a seatbelt; he often does not.

Corzine often does not wear a seatbelt–even when riding in a N.J. state vehicle, with a N.J. state police driver, in a two-car N.J. state police caravan. N.J., as I well know from having lived there when it was enacted, has a state-wide mandatory seat-belt law.

I understand it’s hard to order your boss around, but surely we have enough images of telling, when it comes to security and safety, truth to power —the West Wing, where the Secret Service puts President Bartlett through all manner of indignities whenever it needs to, comes to mind —is it really hard for a state trooper to say, “Governor, I can’t put this car in gear until you have your seatbelt on”? Is it really hard for three different N.J. state troopers to enforce the law when adherence is trivial and the violation is literally within spitting distance?

We have a reason for seat-belt laws; it’s that people are too stupid to be counted on to put them on by themselves. It may not be a great law (it may in fact be a paternalistic intrusion of state power and an instance of the losses of personal freedom, major and minor, that are all too common these days), but it’s the law. Corzine and Rasinski have already been punished for their transgressions, but it seems to be the two troopers in the trail-car, and the state police department itself, have some penance to do. And does the Times not plan to look into the illegality of it further?

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | 31 Comments »

Kilgore Trout, 1922 – 2007

Posted by metaphorical on 12 April 2007

Hippo Dignity has a charming story about literally tripping over Kurt Vonnegut in midtown Manhattan one day.

What strikes me now, mumblety-odd years on and not having thought of that story in years, is not just the sweetly New York oddity of authors being so thick on the ground that one is tripping over them, but how nice he was about the whole thing

When I worked at 45th and Broadway, it was actors who were thick on the ground. One day, I was taking to lunch a woman who had just started at the firm I worked at. Just outside our building, we walked past Glenn Close, who was in Sunset Boulevard at the time. We were still talking about the topic of seeing celebrities when we sat down at the counter at Zen Palatte. “It’s pretty common by our building,” I said, “but wouldn’t expect to see a celebrity over here”–meaning on 9th Avenue. “You mean someone like Rosie Perez,” my companion said. I said yes, and then after a minute asked, “but why did you pick Rosie Perez?” “Because she’s sitting right behind you,” was her answer.

I’m just old enough to have read Kurt Vonnegut’s works at the time they had the greatest impact. They and “Catch-22″ nominally discussed one war while really discussing another, and made possible other works, like “Oh What a Lovely War” and “M*A*S*H.” And not just discuss. Slaughterhouse 5 probably did more for the cause of pacificism than any one other piece of writing. His were pacificist works that veterans couldn’t or wouldn’t dismiss.

Vonnegut smooshed and transcended genres as if they were fruit going into a blender. He didn’t have plots that entirely made sense, his science fiction was all fiction and no science, he didn’t have characters you fell in love with, he didn’t write beautiful sentences that you lingered over. What he did was write with voice and humor and a quiet confidence that avoided authority. And he could make you cry for all humanity.

Posted in the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Romney raises funds and questions

Posted by metaphorical on 11 April 2007

Mitt Romney’s religion may be even more puzzling to the average American than we think, and it may be even more frightening than we know.

That’s not exactly the message Kenneth Woodward was trying to convey in an op-ed piece in Monday’s NY Times, but it’s one of the big take-aways. Mitt Romney may also be prone to exaggerate, to such an extent that he wanders near the prevarication border. My guess is that also wasn’t supposed to be one of Woodward’s main messages.

The blurb on Woodward describes him as “a contributing editor at Newsweek” who “is writing a book about American religion since 1950.” As such, his piece, “The Presidency’s Mormon Moment,” describes some “popular reservations” and confusions on the part of the public about Mormonism. It compares Romney’s run to JFK’s 1960 presidential run, in which his Catholicism was raised as a campaign issue. Woodward’s message is “relax:”

none of these popular reservations about the Mormon Church are reasons to vote for or against Mitt Romney. History was bound to have its Mormon moment in presidential politics, just as it had its Catholic moment when Kennedy ran. Now that the moment has arrived, much depends on Mr. Romney.

What depends on Romney, Woodward believes, is the educating the public and dispelling false stereotypes and notions about Mormonism. “57 percent of respondents to a recent CBS poll said they know little or nothing about Mormon beliefs and practices. Mr. Romney needs to be their teacher, whether he likes that role or not.”

Among the reasons Americans distrust the Mormon church is Mormon clannishness. Because every worthy Mormon male is expected to be a lay priest in voluntary service to the church, the demands on his time often leave little opportunity to cultivate close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors. A good Mormon is a busy Mormon. Those — like Mr. Romney — who serve as bishops (pastors of congregations) often find it difficult to schedule evenings at home with their own families.

“Families?” Plural? Oh, wait, that’s another false notion.

That some voters still confuse the Latter-day Saints with fundamentalist Mormon sects that continue to practice polygamy and child marriage is another reason the candidate should take the time to set the record straight.

Yet if conventional Christians think there’s something unconventional about Mormonism, they may not be far off the mark, despite the attempts of Mormons to minimize—the phrase “paper over” comes to mind—the differences.

Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.

For example, Mormons speak of God, but they refer to a being who was once a man of “flesh and bone,” like us. They speak of salvation, but to them that means admittance to a “celestial kingdom” where a worthy couple can eventually become “gods” themselves. The Heavenly Father of whom they speak is married to a Heavenly Mother. And when they emphasize the importance of the family, they may be referring to their belief that marriage in a Mormon temple binds families together for all eternity.

And not just Mormons in general, but Romney in particular.

Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his “personal savior,” he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, “personal savior” implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.) This is not a winning strategy for Mr. Romney, whose handlers should be aware that Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals know Mormon doctrine better than most other Americans do — if only because they study Mormonism in order to rebut its claims.

Romney’s inclination to minimize —somehow the phrase “paper over” comes to mind again—differences between himself and the voters he’s pursuing, came up again just the other day. The Times headline does such a good job of stating the problem you almost don’t have to read the article: “Is Romney a Hunter? Depends on What Hunt Is.” (Even better would have been, “That All Depends on What the Definition of Hunt Is.”)

Here’s what Romney says:

When asked on Tuesday about his stance on guns, Mr. Romney, as he has more than once, portrayed himself as a sportsman, a “hunter pretty much all my life,” who strongly supported a right to bear arms.

He even trotted out some remembrances, recalling that in hunting with his cousins as a teenager, he struggled to kill rabbits with a single-shot .22-caliber rifle. When they lent him a semiautomatic, it got a lot easier, he said, drawing laughs from an appreciative crowd in Keene, N.H. The last time he went hunting, he said, was last year, when he shot quail in Georgia and “knocked down quite a few birds.”

“So I’ve been pretty much hunting all my life,” he said again.

And here are the facts:

But on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Romney had in fact been hunting only twice: once during that summer when he was 15 and spending time at a relative’s ranch in Idaho, and again on the occasion last year, a quail shoot at a fenced-in game preserve in Georgia with major donors to the Republican Governors Association.

Romney’s got a serious problem with the truth, in other words. And maybe he’s just stupid—hasn’t he noticed that the American public has lost its patience withpresidents who pathologically lie about matters great and small?

How hard is it to say, “You know, I’ve only hunted a couple of times in my life, but I enjoyed it immensely. And the way I read the Bill of Rights, immense enjoyment of it is a cherished right, protected by the Constitution itself, just like the freedoms of speech and religion.”

But if Romney doesn’t seem to greatly value the truth, he also just doesn’t seem to get the message of voter fatigue from the current administration. The Times reported just today that

Mitt Romney made his most extensive remarks on military and foreign policy on Tuesday, saying that if elected president he would push to add at least 100,000 troops to the armed forces and significantly increase military spending.

Mr. Romney restated his support for President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq, saying the alternative would bring chaos to the region and “present grave risks to America.”

Mr. Romney devoted the bulk of his proposals to beyond the Iraq war. This year, Mr. Bush requested a military budget for 2008 of $481.4 billion, excluding money for military operations, an 11 percent increase over last year. If approved, it would elevate military spending to levels unseen since at least the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.

Mr. Romney said an additional $30 billion to $40 billion a year over the next few years was needed to “modernize our military, address gaps in our troop levels, ease the strain on our National Guard and Reserves and support our wounded soldiers.”

If it seems that the Times is taking Romney’s candidacy very seriously, that’s because it is, and not without good reason. As it reported in yet another story, this one from last Friday, “Mr. Romney had brought in more than $20 million, vaulting ahead of his better-known rivals for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor.”

At the start of the first quarter of this year, for example, Mr. Romney lent his campaign $2.35 million to pay for an elaborate demonstration of just how fast he could raise money from others. He rented the Boston convention center, furnished it with more than 400 laptop computers, loaded each with custom software and had more than 400 telephone lines installed.

He invited 400 wealthy supporters, including dozens of chief executives he knew through business connections, to a reception at an adjacent hotel. The next day each sat down before a personal-contact list loaded into an assigned laptop, with dozens of technical support staff and campaign finance advisers standing by to assist. Reporters watched from the sidelines for hours as Mr. Romney’s supporters raised $6.5 million.

The Times doesn’t make a separate point of it, but it’s interesting that Romney did only a little more than money-launder $2.35 million, turning it into dollars that came from a source other than his own personal wealth, which is considerable. After all, while $6.5 million is a lot more than $2.35 million, a fundraising overhead of 36% is neither healthy nor scalable. As is appropriate for such a religous candidate, though, it was more than a little awe-inspiring, in both the sense of great fear and reverence.

“It was a great show,” said Ron Kaufman, a White House political director under the first President Bush.

Mr. Kaufman said he walked out thinking, “That was the most impressive thing I have ever seen.”

Posted in politics, religion | 3 Comments »

Money? Prestige? Bring it on. Responsibility? Oh.

Posted by metaphorical on 10 April 2007

The world is starting to take blogging seriously. Maybe it’s time bloggers did too.

The upside of seriousness is having influence and getting paid, two recent for what is, after all, almost a new form of journalism that’s less than a decade old. The downside is that journalism is a serious business that requires, you know, ethics and shit.

Eric Alterman sums up the influence part on the current issue of The Nation.

Back in the pre-Internet days of yore, political punditry was the best job in journalism and one of the best anywhere. You could spout off on anything you wanted, and almost nobody would call you on it, much less find a place to publish and prove you wrong. And once you had established yourself as “credible,” it required little work, save coming up with a few semi-memorable phrases. (George Will’s chef-d’oeuvre was opining that the Reagan Administration “loved commerce more than it loathed Communism.”) With the advent of television talk shows, riches arrived in the form of corporate speaking gigs that paid tens of thousands of dollars an hour just to say the same damn thing you said on television. When Fred Barnes famously pronounced on The McLaughlin Group, “I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority,” he was right, at least to the degree that he was really saying, “I can speak to almost anything without anyone pointing out how full of shit I usually am.”

The advent of the Internet–particularly the blogosphere–has changed all that. Now, not only are the things pundits say and write preserved for posterity; there are legions of folks who track pundit pronouncements, fact-check their statements and compare them with previous utterances on the same and similar topics. They also demand a degree of transparency about methods of inquiry and the reasoning behind conclusions drawn. While proving pundits wrong–over and over and over–has not yet cost anyone a job, it has contributed to a precipitous decline in pundit prestige.

It’s a short article, well worth reading in full.

There’s starting to be real money in talking up tech, talking down pundits, and all the other things we bloggers love to do. Last week, Business 2.0 handed it out its first blogging bonuses. As reported in Talking Biz News (a blog of course)

Writers at entrepreneur-oriented biz magazine Business 2.0 who started blogging earlier this year recently received their first checks based on how many hits their blogs received in the first three months of the year, said editor Josh Quittner.

Josh QuittnerQuittner, who was in Chapel Hill, N.C., moderating one of the magazine’s panels called “The Next Disrupters,” told Talking Biz News at a reception afterward that the biggest checks were for several thousand dollars. The writers were paid $2.50 for every 1,000 page views their blogs received.

All of Business 2.0’s blogs received 1.3 million page views in March. That’s up from 1 million page views in January, said Quittner.

If you remember, Quittner raised eyebrows in the business journalism community last year when he stated that he was going to require all of his writers to blog on a regular basis — and that he would pay them in addition to their regular salaries based on how many hits their blogs received.

The story is a little unclear about the payments. Quittner said “there were a handful of reporters at the magazine who received checks in the area of $2,000 to $2,500.” But if you do the math, it looks like the magazine handed out about $8,750. The article lists four blogs that “ranked high in page views.”

Four checks in the $2,000 to $2,500 would account for all of the page views, but then were told,

The second tier of bloggers, which includes Quittner, received checks in the “hundreds of dollars,” he said. Further down were bloggers who received checks for less than $100. Each of the writers was allowed to pick the topic of their blog, but those who received small checks also got the suggestion that maybe they needed to pick a new topic, said Quittner.

Anyway, an extra ten grand a year is real money to a full-time journalist. But with real money comes real responsibilities.

Amanda Congdon, a video blogger for ABC News, is one of a number of new media journalists to get paid from each side of the blood-brain barrier that is supposed to separate reporters from the companies they report on. As News.com reported,

there’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on right now in light of revelations that even as she has been producing stories for ABCNews.com, she has also been performing in infomercials for DuPont, one of the largest companies in the world.

Congdon went on to write that ABC had given her approval to do the DuPont spots–in which she touts products like the chemicals that protect firemen from raging heat–but that it didn’t matter anyway because she’s a blogger and “I am not subject to the ‘rules’ traditional journalists have to follow.”

Well, that’s the issue, isn’t it? And Congdon isn’t the only new media journalist to believe that. As Greg Sandoval at News.com reported, at the same time Business 2.0 was handing out checks, we learned that

financial news site MarketWatch, owned by The Wall Street Journal parent company Dow Jones, has acknowledged bending the rules for veteran columnist Bambi Francisco.

Last September, Francisco was allowed by her bosses to accept a stake in Vator.tv, a start-up that intends to play matchmaker for other start-ups and venture capitalists by showcasing Web videos of those newcomers.

It’s unclear how large a stake Francisco received in Vator, which is backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In an interview with CNET News.com, she wouldn’t disclose the size but acknowledged that she didn’t pay anything for her share of the company.

Rather than tell Francisco to play by the same rules as everyone else at The Wall Street Journal,

MarketWatch Editor In Chief David Callaway said he gave Francisco his blessing before she accepted the offer.

Callaway acknowledged that Francisco’s business relationship with Vator is unprecedented at MarketWatch. But when it comes to “solutions,” Callaway said some of the practices adhered to for decades by traditional newspapers, magazines and television newsrooms may not be relevant in the Internet Age.

But why should the rules for blog journalism be different from those that govern traditional newspapers and magazines? We’ve had blog-like opinion and reporting for years. Walter Mossberg’s WSJ column reads like a blog. So do David Pogue’s and David Carr’s in the Times, as do the weekly and semiweekly columns of Friedman, Herbert, Dowd, Rich, and Krugman.

Blogs differ from mainstream journalism mainly because they do more quoting, have links, and take comments. Indeed, comments are the biggest difference—blogs are interactive conversations. Those conversations don’t always go well, and the lastest fiasco, surrounding Kathy Sierra, has led some to propose a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct.”

Item one, Tim O’Reilly recently wrote on his blog, was

1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

Having talked to both Sierra and and her unwilling poster-boy protagonist Chris Locke, O’Reilly wrote:

we now have one more clear object-lesson on what you get when you start a site that not only tolerates but encourages mean comments: there’s a quick race to the bottom. It seems to me that there’s a big difference between censorship and encouraging and tolerating abuse.

O’Reilly plans to stop “tolerating abuse” on his own blog:

We don’t usually get inflammatory comments on Radar, but in the past, when they’ve occurred, we’ve tended not to delete them, lest we be accused of censorship. But in future, we’re going to adopt a policy of deleting comments that are ad-hominem, insulting, or threatening to any individual. I’d like to see other bloggers do the same. Obviously, there’s a responsibility on the other side for bloggers not to delete comments solely because they express opinions the poster doesn’t agree with.

It’s important to be transparent. If a comment is deleted, it’s likely good practice to say so, and to explain why. (It would be nice to have mechanisms in blogging platforms to show markers for deleted comments, with the reason shown.)

I’ve already done exactly that in one instance on this blog, so I suppose I’ve already voted with my feet. But the issue still seems unsettled to me, and so I’ll return to it in a future post. The interactivity of the Net, and particularly blogs, really is something new, and I suspect the blogverse is going to be discussing how to handle it for some time to come.

Posted in journalism, politics, technology | 3 Comments »

Random acts of kindness

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine. — L. J. Taylor, Wall’s Meat Company, Ltd., 2002

There’s been some good news on the animal front. What’s not clear is just how good the news is.

For example, what are we to make of the news that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant empire has decided to reduce its contribution to the gross cruelty quotient of animal husbandry? That’s an awkward way of putting things, but I don’t know how else to represent the nebulous commitment that Puck is making.

The NY Times thinks it knows, but it’s wrong. Either through gullibility or extreme guile, did its best to misrepresent the commitment at every turn in an editorial on 26 March.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food – a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.  

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

Let’s look at that phrase again: Puck’s culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards. It’s hard to assign a truth-value to that statement other than “false” when you learn, in looking at the fine print, that Puck’s commitment is only to meat, and not dairy, even though in point of fact the treatment of dairy cattle is abysmal, often worse than that of animals raised strictly for their meat. And if you go to one of Puck’s typical restaurants, such as the one outside American Airline’s enormous H and K wings of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, as I did back in January, it’s a lot easier to avoid meat than dairy. Not a single salad, for example, didn’t have cheese as its focal point.

Then there’s the question of what Puck actually is doing. Not only does the Times’s first paragraph make you think the commitment involves dairy, which it doesn’t, it uses the word “organic,” though the actual commitment does not. Worse, the phrase used to represent the actual commitment, “forgo factory-farmed meat and eggs,” might be essentially meaningless. For example, free-range meat and eggs seem to be by definition not factory-farmed, yet “free-range” is a phrase without any real meaning, legal or otherwise, let alone a term that ensures an absence of cruelty.

As “Compassion Over Cruelty” reports,

In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once. 

Both battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.

The Times concluded its editorial by saying, “Mr. Puck’s gift for showmanship will help advance Americans’ knowledge that they can eat well and do right all at the same time.” Actually, Mr Puck’s gift for showmanship will help the gullible Times and its readers feel good about what they do, and there’s a downside to that. While the changes being made are probably meaningful, the danger is that Puck’s diners will think that all the needed changes have now been made, making it even harder to insist on the big changes that are still needed.

Still, there’s no question that animal confinement is a big issue, maybe the biggest, and lately there’s been a lot more good news, however nebulous, along those lines.

Back in 2002, PETA went after Burger King, and Farm Sanctuary took on the big pork producers. In both cases, the issue was animal confinement. As Farm Sanctuary wrote back then,

It is not only breeding pigs that are confined. Their piglets, in a system that fattens them for meat, are crammed into small pens on hard, slatted floors, and this is where they spend their six months of life before slaughter. As with their mothers, the lack of movement ensures the calories from the pigs’ feed will not be used up during exercise, but converted into weight gain. The intensive confinement and unsuitable flooring of pig farms often leads to crippling deformities of these intelligent animals. This didn’t bother the editors of Farmer and Stockbreeder who stated, “The slatted floor of the hog factory farm seems to have more merit than disadvantage. The animal will usually be slaughtered before serious deformity sets in.”

So it was a big deal recently when both organizations were able to claim some success.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in animal-rights, food, journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

Vote for a girl like me

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

Back in January I mentioned the movie short “A Girl Like Me.” The filmmaker, Kiri Davis, is one of three finalists for a $10,000 scholarship sponsored by CosmoGirl.

If you haven’t watched the movie, you can see it on YouTube, here, or you can view it before voting on the Cosmo site, here.

Thanks to Susan at ReadingWritingLiving for blogging about the vote, and I’m pretty sure her wonderful site is where I first heard about the film. As Susan writes, “It’s a sad, powerful and moving piece of work.” It’ll break your heart, in fact, and then mend it again when you realize that we live in an age when an extraordinary 16-year-old girl could make a movie like this, and that we can help her keep making them for a long time to come.

Posted in education, politics, screenwriting | 1 Comment »

Reading, writing, and recruiting

Posted by digglahhh on 7 April 2007

No discussion of higher education, graduation rates and the dumbing-down of universities would be complete without consideration of the oxymoronic euphemism, “student athlete.” This is not to say that all student athletes are students by label alone, but a substantial number of the most visible, successful and revenue-producing ones are. It turns out this should come as no surprise. Many up and coming NBA stars probably went to a Potemkin Village high school where only the basketball court was real. First, let’s look at those graduation rates.

The most recent episode of HBO’s Costas Now featured a story about the loose academic requirements and special treatment afforded to athletes who play for major collegiate teams (mainly basketball and football) and the pressure, economic and otherwise, put on professors to pass those athletes, in effect, on the basis of their athletic instead of academic performance.

A roundtable discussion on the poor graduation rates of student athletes followed, in which we saw Costas exhibit an increasingly rare journalistic acumen. When NCAA President, Myles Brand crowed that student athletes had higher graduation rates than students overall, Costas called out the apples to oranges analogy, noting that students frequently leave school for non-academic reasons that range from career opportunities (as was the case with Costas himself during his senior year at Syracuse) to financial burdens.

Brand continued to talk about student athletes on the whole. Once again, Costas admonished him for quoting the statistics in a manner that groups Ivy League fencing teams with Big East basketball teams. The bottom line is that several perennial college basketball and football powerhouses graduate fewer than half of their players. The roster of the UNLV’s 1990-91 undefeated basketball team can boast more Final Four appearances than degrees. Not surprisingly, UNLV soon found themselves in some pretty hot water ranging from gambling to booster scandals. (I self-nominate that sentence for pun of the month; take a look at this photo of three of the members of that UNLV basketball team in a jacuzzi with Gambino Family member Richie “The Fixer” Perry.)

These student athletes arrive at college able to solve the half court trap. But do they come qualified to solve a quadratic equation? As it turns out, more and more of them never see one in high school, coming, as they do, from fly-by-night, storefront prep schools.

Yes, prep schools, though not those stiflingly proper institutions where seersucker-clad young Republicans are sent to hobnob with other future subjects of Michael Moore documentaries, where Oliver was taught not to fall in love with girls like Jenny, where Gene and Phineas made their separate peace. After all, I doubt, even, if Finny were able to dunk from the free throw line, he probably would have considered it unsporting…

The baskeball prep-school mill was the focus recently of HBO’s other sports journalism show, the phenomenal Real Sports. It recently featured a story that will be disturbing to anyone except, well, the strictest caveat-emptor libertarian subject of a Michael Moore documentary. In many states, the process of starting up a private school is incredibly simple. So, spirited entrepreneurs assemble high school Dream Teams and then create a school for them to attend. These schools are often nothing more than warehouses with a few chairs and a chalkboard (probably used primarily for diagramming defensive schemes, not equations). Academics barely exist, if at all. But, there’s more.

The NCAA’s academic requirements are based on a sliding scale of G.P.A. and S.A.T scores. The higher a student’s G.P.A., the lower he needs to score on his SATs to be granted academic eligibility. At a 3.55, a student literally does not need to answer a single SAT question correctly to meet the NCAA’s academic standards. So, the stupider your power forward, the more you have to inflate his grades.

NCAA review boards eventually investigate these schools, but by that time the adroit founders have packed up and moved to a different location, with a different name and a new set of 6’5” fifteen year olds who for whom it is easier to reverse dunk than calculate the hoop’s circumference. For one school that Real Sports looked into, the NCAA announced that it completed an investigation and would no longer be honoring its transcripts. The school had been closed down for over a year.

Meanwhile, the morally bankrupt venture capitalists who organize these schools profit from their next nationally known high school basketball team,are playing the role of mentor to young men in fractured living situations with the athletic talent to become multi-millionaires.

Both episodes of these shows are currently available on HBO On-Demand, for those who have it.

A lot of times we find ourselves asking questions unprepared for their disturbing answers. For many of these “student” athletes, how they got into college in the first place is one of them.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 5 Comments »

Maximum sales, circus maximus

Posted by metaphorical on 5 April 2007

What do the movies “Rhinestone” and “Turk 182″ have in common with “A Christmas Story”? Not much. They were all directed by Bob Clark, who died in a car accident yesterday. Other than that, not much. The one became a classic while the other two bombed.

Yet the two that bombed, Rhinestone and Turk 182, are of a movie category I call Surprisingly Not Bad.

SNB movies are ones that turn out to be watchable, at least for “free” (broadcast or cable), but are passed over by the vast majority of people for one reason or other, almost always having to do with some impression formed in a single moment. “Rhinestone” never got past the improbability of pairing Dolly Parton and Silvester Stallone in a buddy-movie/romantic comedy, an (accurate) perception that was probably formed by taking one look at the movie’s poster:

_rhinestone_vhs.jpg

(and even more so, the album cover:)

_rhinestone.jpg

Turk 182 was a highly forgettable drama-farce staring Timothy Hutton as a graffiti-painting prank-playing younger brother of a fireman who was unfairly deprived of disability benefits after saving the life of a little girl in a fire. Check out it’s mixed-signals cover:

_turk_one_eighty_two.jpg

It’s hard to imagine who this movie was trying to appeal to—middle America, which by and large was happy to let the other 12,780 buildings in the city burn down, or New Yorkers who couldn’t associate the pretty-boy goody-two-shoes star of Ordinary People and Taps with a logo obviously designed to remind us of one of New York’s most daring and best-known graffiti artists.

_taki_183.jpeg

A Christmas Story, on the other hand, has become a major holiday classic, which it was almost guaranteed to do. Any movie script that successfully weaves together bits and pieces from a dozen or so radio monologues from the greatest monologist ever, Jean Shepherd, was going to work. Clark’s main virtue as director was to not get in the way of the story.

But as the NY Times noted in its obituary of Clark today, A Christmas Story became a classic on television.

A bully named Scut Farkus, a leg lamp, a freezing-flagpole mishap and some four-letter defiance helped the movie become a seasonal fixture with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” Each holiday season, the TBS cable network runs a marathon that starts on Christmas Eve: in 24 hours the film is shown a dozen times in a row.

In the movies, it didn’t do nearly as well, and I have to wonder if it wasn’t because of the movie poster.

_christmas_story.jpg

According to the rather amazing site Box Office Mojo, it ranked 39th in grosses among movies released in 1983 at $19,294,144. (Just slight below a confusing group of movies ranked in the low 30s and grossing about $21 million that includes the classic, The Right Stuff (#33) sandwiched between the execrable Cujo (#34) and Class (#32).Perhaps box offices grosses don’t tell us as much as I thought.)

We judge these movies, initially, in a heartbeat—a movie poster, a commercial on tv, a promo in the theatre while still settling into our seats to see something else entirely. We turn to the person we’re with and nod, or smile, or grimace, a silent thumbs-up or thumb-down that represents the only take-away. “Oh, I saw a preview for that,” we say, a week later, at the luncheon table at work. “It looked pretty good/pretty stupid.”

And that’s with a promotional budget in the millions. On Tuesday, the Times reported on an increasing phenomenon: the pre-publication book tour, in which an author travels to meet bookstore managers and employees before the book is published.

The article leads with a description of a first-time author, Steven Hall, being sent out by his publisher, Canongate U.S., an imprint of the venerable Grove Press (nowadays, Grove/Atlantic), which is putting its full weight behind the book (which is titled “The Raw Shark Texts.”) What counts as full weight here?

It goes on sale in the United States today, and the publisher has already printed 100,000 copies, a huge run for a relatively small independent publisher. Canongate has vowed to spend $150,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the book.

The pre-publication tour is described as

a ritual an increasing number of authors are enduring so that their books can have a fighting chance in an industry that issues, by some estimates, more than 175,000 titles a year.

Movie promotional budgets today often represent about half the total up-front costs a studio spends. If the movie’s total budget is $60 million, $30 million might be spent to create our one-second thumbs-up. When you compare that to a $150,000 book promotion to break out of a pack of 174,999 other books, it’s a more-than-minor miracle that any book ever captures our attention and dollars.

I happened to have found out that Rhinestone was SNB when I was cruising through the cable dial one night. I like Stallone, for all his faults, and I really like Dolly Parton, both as an actress and a singer, and I was bored enough with nothing else to do to give the movie a full five-minute trial.

Susan Cheever, who was my workshop instructor the first semester of my M.F.A. writing program, told us to picture our potential reader in the following way. This isn’t a profile of the reader, it should be said, just our challenge as writers.

She’s a soccer mom who double-parks the mini-van to run inside a 7-11 to get some soda for the kids, who are still waiting in the car. While on line to pay, the cover of your book grabs her eye. She opens it and reads the first sentence. Is it good enough to get her to read the second one? If you can get her to read the whole first paragraph, she’ll probably buy the book.

That’s life in the thumbs-up, thumbs-down Media Maximus.

Posted in screenwriting, the arts, writing | 3 Comments »

To rebuke or not to rebuke

Posted by metaphorical on 4 April 2007

It was a tough headline to write. The NY Times went with “Justices Say E.P.A. Has Power to Act on Harmful Gases,” which got the story right. The Baltimore Sun went with “Justices rebuke Bush on climate,” which also got it right, but quite differently.

The basic story is simple enough. To quote the always-great (and in this case aptly-named), Linda Greenhouse in the Times,

In one of its most important environmental decisions in years, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions. The court further ruled that the agency could not sidestep its authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change unless it could provide a scientific basis for its refusal.

The complication was this:

The 5-to-4 decision was a strong rebuke to the Bush administration, which has maintained that it does not have the right to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act, and that even if it did, it would not use the authority. The ruling does not force the environmental agency to regulate auto emissions, but it would almost certainly face further legal action if it failed to do so.

Unsurprisingly, this nuance was lost on FOX News, which went with “Split Supreme Court Orders EPA to Act on Greenhouse Gases.” The word “split” is a nice touch, reminding us that Fox, like Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t exactly have clear grasp on reality. (In an editorial yesterday, the Times noted that “The decision was unnervingly close, and some of the arguments in the dissent, written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., were cause for concern — especially his comments about the “complexities” of the science of climate change, which is too close for comfort to the administration’s party line.”)

(Note that it didn’t take long for even Greenhouse to hit the “rebuke” button—para#2. The AP also went that way on the headline: “High court rebukes Bush on car pollution.”)

NPR highlighted conflict while avoiding “rebuke”: “Justices Thwart Bush Team on Environmental Policy”

Many simply ignored the complexity and presumed the EPA will eventually take action. For example, Nature magazine had “Car emissions are EPA’s problem.” Red Herring went with the completely neutral “US Environmental Agency Can Limit CO2.”

Finally, there were the usual plays on words, such as BusinessWeek, which wrote “Court Turns Up the Heat on Global Warming” and Washington Post, with a fairly lame “The Supreme Court Trawl on Global Warming.” (That’s just not a verb I’d use in a headline.)

Me, I’m looking forward to the stories that frame this as a victory for the sane EPA long-term staffers against the political appointee nutjobs, a conflict we’ve seen in any number of other agencies, including, of course, the recent Attorneygate. But that is, as they say in the newspaper game, a second-day story.



As a footnote, I just want to note that the estimable Greenhouse might be the last reporter at the Times to know that “none” is a singular pronoun. In a separate story, “Supreme Court Denies Guantánamo Appeal,” she wrote:

The men have all been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than five years, and none has been charged with a crime.

On the editorial page, on the other hand, on the very same day,, “Finding Doomsday Asteroids” had:

The space agency estimates that there are some 1,100 near-Earth objects whose diameters exceed six-tenths of a mile, big enough to destroy a medium-sized state and kick up enough dust to affect global climate and crop production. The survey has already identified more than 700 of them. None are on a path to collide with Earth.

Shame on the the op-ed editors, double-shame on the Times. If you’re going to be wrong, at least be consistently wrong. Oh, but wait: a quick check of the bookshelf shows their own published style manual advocates inconsistency. From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, p.142:

Construe as a plural unless it is desired to emphasize the idea of not one or no one—and then it is often better to use not one or no one instead of none.

Bleh. Inconsistency and a passive construction. It’s like getting a bonus bleh.

Posted in journalism, politics, technology, Times-watch | 1 Comment »

There are 9990 roads to heaven

Posted by metaphorical on 4 April 2007

Calvin: Yesterday dad went out to buy a hardcover novel. He said he wanted to read something long, rich, and thought-provoking for a change… Then he said he was going to buy the book with cash, so nobody could trace the purchase to him and exploit his interests for commercial purposes.

Hobbes: Your dad’s going into the future kicking and screaming, isn’t he?

Calvin: What if he’s turning into some kind of subversive?

Exponential change means everything up to now doesn’t count.
  
— Rick Rashid

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.
   — Vice President Dan Quayle, 5/22/89

Sometime today, this blog will have been viewed for the 10,000 time, according to the limited statistics that WordPress maintains. That’s not a lot in blog terms, but it’s only been around for five months (and with its current frequency of posting, four). That’s still not a lot in terms of being one of the big kids, but the big kids aren’t entirely distinguishable from the knee-jerk polarized opinion-machines that were the reason some people leave the cable news channels and enter the blogverse to escape. (Chris over at Creek Running North had a very nice post earlier this week that explored the idea that when it comes to blogging, “If you’re a thoughtful writer who tends to write longer essays then you’re at a disadvantage.”)

This blog’s best days are also its high-comment days; there’s no escaping the conclusion that, like all written work, it’s a cooperative venture between writers and readers.

In that spirit, I’m going to try something new. My nephew, who has been commenting under the name digglahhh (he needs to figure out if he’s keeping that name for the long haul, and if so, at some point he has to explain it to me and the other old fogies) and wrote one post (“Hip hop just died this morning”) will become a contributing editor, as we would say in publishing, blogging once a week on the weekend. Among other things, he can make up for some serious deficiencies I have on the sports and entertainment front, looking that them through the lenses of politics, technology, and, especially, language.

As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change
and to preserve change amid order.” (The quote that heads this post, by the way, is from the movie Red Sorghum.)

So, once again, thanks in advance for the 10,000th birthday, especially Claire, Mambo/Swanny, Athena, Hannah, Kevin, Andrew, Tigtog, CMD, David, and other regular readers in places like Shanghai; Palo Alto; Piscataway, N.J.; Nashua, N.H.; and Kbenhavn, Staden Kobenhavn, Denmark; who I don’t know except as locations in SiteMeter.

Posted in language | 7 Comments »

 
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