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

Archive for the ‘Times-watch’ Category

The inconvenient truth about the war on terrorism

Posted by metaphorical on 19 June 2008

We’re living in a time of inconvenience
Compassion fails me with this
meanness in the air
Our city streets are filled with violence
So we close our doors to the city
And pretend that it’s not there
Here I go again
Back out on these mean streets
The evil seems to cling to the soles of my feet
Cuz’ I’m living in a time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

— “Time of Inconvenience,” by Nanci Griffith

How many times must the NY Times be rebuked for misstating the facts about 9/11 and adopting the administration’s lies and misrepresentations? Well, how long are they going to keep doing it? If, after the Times’s endorsement of the war on Iraq, the equation of Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Judith Miller affair, aluminum tubes and all, if the reporters at the NY Times are going to rewrite history yet again, say, last Sunday in a news article about a Supreme Court decision, then they’re going to have to be taken to task yet again.

So it is extraordinary that during the Bush administration’s seven years, nearly all of them a time of war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, the court has been prompted to push back four times. Last week’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have a right to challenge their detentions in the federal courts, marks only the most recent rebuke.


Um, no. The war did not begin on September 11. The war didn’t begin on September 12th. Nor did it last anything like seven years.

The war on Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001 with aerial bombardments. By December 17th, the U.S. had declared victory at Tora Bora and the Afghan war was considered over.

On March 19, 2003, Bush declared war on Iraq. By May 1st, he announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

The war on terrorism, on the other hand, is a war without beginning and without end. It is a war that can justify everything and therefore, as the Supreme Court seems bent on pointing out, nothing.

Certainly, the war on civil liberties has lasted for virtually the entire length of Bush’s rule, a war so cynical in intent and bleak in its view of human nature that even the most conservative court in living memory has rebuked the Administration four times, most recently last week. The Times finds it remarkable that the court keeps standing up to the President in a time of war, and surely it is remarkable. But perhaps one factor is that we’re not exactly at war.

We’re living in the age of communication
Where the only voices heard
have money in their hands
Where greed has become a sophistication
And if you ain’t got money
You ain’t got nothin’ in this land
An’ here I am one lonely woman
On these mean streets
Where the right to life man has become my enemy
Cuz’ I’m living in his time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens


Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Meat the enemy

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2008

The United States produces “nearly 10 billion farm animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.”

“An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production”

“livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation”

Now imagine if global meat production doubles between now and 2050. That’s the scary scenario posed by an article in last Sunday’s NY Times, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” by Mark Bittman.

The title comes from the idea that “Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.”

Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Environmental, political, health, and moral concerns have all been the main reasons I gave up meat 18 years ago. Bittman hits all cylinders:

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.

About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption

Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams

Administration of antibiotics [in farm animals] is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes

There’s some faint — and in my opinion false — hope at the article’s end (One academic is quoted as saying, “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned”). More convincing are these depressing comments. One expert is quoted,

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption. There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some.”

Bittman says, if price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Perhaps, but it’s been going one for a long time with few people caring at all. John Robbins’s Diet For A New America, the foundational book to which Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma all owe an acknowledged debt, was published 21 years ago. In that same time, meat consumption in the developing world has doubled. What will the planet look like when it doubles again?

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture, Times-watch | Leave a Comment »

Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, philosophy, politics, pop culture, religion, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really). Part II

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

[This post is a continuation of the previous one. Longtime reader K.G.S.’s comment made me appreciate that some of the sordid details would be useful here.]

As a grad student at the University of Iowa in 1980, a presidential election year, I seized the chance to go to the nation’s first contest. It was my first and only time at a party caucus, and it gave me an appreciation for all the things that the news media don’t tell you about it — stuff that’s needed to understand the results. Almost 30 years later, the reporting is, if possible, worse.

For example, in Iowa, at that time, you could vote in either party’s caucus, regardless of registration. The media never reports this. In fact, you didn’t even have to be 18 at the time, so long as you would be 18 at the time of the general election. The media never reports this.

Because, that year, Carter’s renomination was pretty much assured (despite a challenge by Ted Kennedy), I went to where the action was, the Johnson County courthouse, where the Republicans were caucusing. There, along with a bunch of other people, some of whom were surely registered Democrats like me, John Anderson picked up a bunch of delegates. As he did elsewhere; his second-place finish in the state was a shock to the media, who didn’t understand who was voting.

In Nevada today, you have to be registered to the party you’re going to vote for (17-year-olds who will be 18 on Election Day can make a party registration in advance), but otherwise the rules seem to be a lot like Iowa’s. There’s one in particular that’s very important. Here’s the rule, for the Democratic caucus, from a web page at the office of the Nevada Secretary of State:

Basic Caucus Process: Caucus participants will indicate which candidate they support. The precinct caucus chair will then announce which candidates have the most support and which candidates do not have enough support to meet the “viability” threshold. Caucus participants who support a candidate who is not viable and has not met the threshold of support to continue will then realign themselves with their second choice candidate. Based on the size of the presidential preference groups in support of one candidate or another, the delegates to the county convention are apportioned.

Here’s how it worked in Iowa in 1980. Say there were 80 attendees at the caucus, 10 delegates to be chosen, and 8 candidates. We voted by standing in one part of the room or another. It basically took 8 votes to get a delegate. Let’s say candidates A, D, and F got only 5, 3, and 2 votes respectively. Everyone else got at least close to 10, say 8 or 9 at a minimum. Then A, D, and F, were dropped out, and those people chose their favorite candidate among the remaining ones, and moved to that part of the room. Now we counted again, and tried to apportion delegates fairly. You can see there are times when you might get 2 delegates with only, say, 14 votes, or only get 2 delegates with, say, 19 votes. That’s a 5-vote swing. Similarly, in round 1, candidate A got 5 votes, but by the end, ended up with 0, also a 5-vote swing.

The Nevada Republicans, by the way, hold a beauty contest by secret-ballot, where you really do just straight-up vote for the candidate you want. For them, at least, the “popular vote” has some meaning. But you can see why, as the Democrats do things, the popular vote is meaningless. As the Secretary of State website explicitly says,

Caucus systems are not set up to be a one person one vote system. Rather, they are designed to allocate delegates to only those candidates with a threshold of support that is based on the number of people participating in a caucus.

In other words, as my previous post said in its title, the point of a caucus is to win delegates. And “popular vote” total is meaningless, because it’s fungible, because it’s messed around with to get a fair awarding of delegates. Because (everyone, say it with me this time): The point of a caucus is to win delegates. No. Really.

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | Leave a Comment »

The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really)

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

It seems obvious, but it apparently needs to be said: The point of a caucus is to win delegates. Primaries where winning the popular vote doesn’t result in getting the most delegates are called “beauty contests,” and the term is a pejorative.

I only mention this because Reuters, the New York Times, NPR, and who knows how many other news outlets reported the results of Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada wrong.

The Times headline was

McCain and Clinton Capture Tough Wins

yet the subhead said:

Obama 2nd, but Takes 1 More Delegate

And you thought the statements that started this post were so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. The winner, according to the Times, is the candidate who wins the beauty contest aspect; the person who wins the most delegates is said to have come in 2nd.

Here’s Reuters:

McCain and Clinton look to next battle

By John Whitesides, Sun Jan 20, 8:06 AM ET

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) – Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton looked on Sunday toward the next battles in a chaotic White House race after scoring tough wins in the first presidential voting in the U.S. South and West.


In Nevada’s Democratic race, Clinton beat Barack Obama in a close struggle…

Caucuses are funny things, and big national publications based in states that don’t do them seem to be missing vital clues about how they work and what they mean. They don’t report whether you have to be a member of the party to vote in the party’s caucus, which frankly is the most important fact there is to know. They don’t report whether delegates are locked to a candidate, or free to vote as they choose in the later rounds of delegate selection (yes, there are later rounds, in some states).

They sometimes don’t report, in fact, how many delegates a candidate won at all — we should count ourselves lucky that we even got told enough that we could suss out that Obama won. Maybe they thought that having one candidate win one thing, but another candidate win another, was too complicated. And it would upset their later tallies of how many primaries and caucuses each candidate won. Roger Maris-like asterisks are messy.

How did the news media come to decide, en masse, that the popular vote was the important one in Nevada? I have no idea. Had they made a similar determination in November 2000, perhaps we’d have had a different president for the past 7 years. Would that they had. Or, better, would that they just report the news fairly, evenly, and without stripping it of its complexity and nuance.

[This post has a Part II, here]

Posted in journalism, language, politics, Times-watch | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

What a difference a comma makes

Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2008

My favorite example of punctuation placement is a sentence that, as far as I know, was invented by Mitch Wagner to prove the need for the serial comma: “This novel is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Another favorite example is a sign I used to see in Iowa City when I was a grad student there.


“Look,” I used to tell my Intro to Logic students. “Not only will parking violators not be prosecuted, but they’re nice enough to post a sign saying so.”

I thought of each of these yesterday when I read “Interest Fades in the Once-Mighty V-8,” by Bill Vlasic, in the NY Times.

Ford executives said they had at times wrestled with the decision to give up V-8s in some models, including a new sedan from the Lincoln luxury division, because they worried about customer reaction.

“I worked on the Lincoln Continental program 20 years ago, and people were vehement that it had to have a V-8,” said Mark Fields, Ford’s president for the Americas. “But now people don’t really care if the performance is there.”

Whoa, that’s a full 180 degree u-turn of ambiguity.

Which is it, Bill? People don’t care about the performance anymore? Or that’s all they care about?

Posted in journalism, language, pop culture, Times-watch, writing | 3 Comments »

When is sex politics?

Posted by metaphorical on 30 August 2007

Craig allegedly peeked through a crack in the door and then took the adjoining stall, where he “tapped his right foot” and then moved his foot to touch the officer’s shoe.

Combined with other moves by Craig, Karsnia said, “I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.”

 — Star news services report on 27 August 2007

I talked yesterday to my friend Pam, an ex-girlfriend who relocated to Idaho two decades ago. Apropos of nothing, she asked, “Is the gay Craig fiasco news in New York?” I had to ask her what she was talking about. At first I just assumed she meant one of the many fundamentalist anti-gay gay minister scandals. It turns out she was talking about her U.S. Senator.

Today, though, there’s at least four stories at nytimes.com, including one that’s blurbed on the front page of the print paper. Interestingly, it’s what we call a second-day story….. that is, it’s all about aftermath, and mostly assumes the reader knows the basic facts of the scandal.

I didn’t, not really. (It’s not entirely my fault. An Aug. 28th Editor & Publisher article takes up the question of “How Did News Outlets Miss Senator’s Arrest for Nearly Three Months?”)

Anyway, here’s what happened. On 11 June, Craig entered a stall in a restroom at the Minneapolis airport and checked out his stallmate for a sexual encounter. He was arrested, and, earlier this month, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. A USA Today story notes that that charge requires conduct that “will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace” and questions whether any of his behaviors meets that standard.

The Seattle Times gives more of the mating ritual details than the Star news service:

According to the report, an undercover officer entered an airport restroom stall on June 11 and saw Craig standing outside for about two minutes. “Craig would look down at his hands, fidget with his fingers and then look through the crack into my stall again,” wrote the officer, Sgt. Dave Karsnia.

The officer said Craig entered the next stall and placed his roller bag against the door. “My experience has shown that individuals engaging in lewd conduct use their bags to block the view from the front of their stall,” the officer wrote.

The officer said Craig tapped his right foot, “a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct. … [Craig] moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area.”

Craig then passed his left hand under the stall divider into Karsnia’s stall with his palm up and guided it along the divider toward the front of the stall three times, the complaint said.

[UPDATE: Pam sent a link to some audio of Craig’s arrest interview, made available by KTVB in Boise.]

The second-day developments are these: Mitt Romney has distanced himself from Craig with the same speed he would presumably use to get away from someone making restroom advances toward him. Craig was co-chair of the U.S. Senate Mitt Romney for President campaign. Craig has already given up his position on one Senate committee, and some senators, including Republican ones, are calling for Craig to step down. They may or may not be influenced by the coincidence that this summer, the head of McCain’s Florida campaign was charged with soliciting gay sex in the restroom of a public park. (Oh, and Guiliani’s Southern regional campaign chair’s name was one of the many on the D.C. Madame’s rolodex, and his campaign’s South Carolina chair has been indicted on drug charges.)

Craig is regretting his guilty plea and, absurdly, blaming the Idaho Stateman for its “witch hunt.” (As it turns out, the paper didn’t print anything until the senator pleaded guilty.)

The Editor & Publisher’s question about how this went unreported for three months is just the tip of the iceberg.

Detailed accusations against Craig had been available since last year through an Internet-based activist who had a hand in outing several Republican politicians, including former Rep. Mark Foley, the focus of a House page scandal.

The activist, Mike Rogers, went public last October with allegations that Craig engaged in sexual encounters with at least three men, including one who said he had sex with Craig twice at Washington’s Union Station.

The Idaho Statesman went even further back into Craig’s life, talking to other men who claimed they were solicited by him.

It also mentioned a scandal in 1982, in which a male page reported having sex with three congressmen, and Craig — although not named by the youth — issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

Rogers noted that some politicians, when confronted with evidence about same-sex encounters, have acknowledged their homosexuality — such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.).

Others persist in denial, and Rogers contends they are fair game for exposure if they vote against gay-rights causes.

That is, then, the question. Are those of us who, say, argued that Clinton’s sexual proclivities weren’t proper fodder for a independent prosecutor’s investigation, in a position to turn around and go after Craig for his? The obvious answer is that Craig is the one who has, for decades, argued for making the details of someone’s sexual interests a matter of concern for the body politic. Clinton did not.

Slate’s John Dickerson picked up on that theme effectively in an article yesterday:

Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason, seized on the Craig affair to make a version of this argument in the Los Angeles Times, where he said that the GOP should get back to its fundamental principles as articulated by Barry Goldwater. Republicans should stop trying to tell people what to do in their bedrooms and bathrooms, either by stinging a Singing Senator or passing an amendment banning gay marriage. This drew criticism from the National Review’s John Hood, who argued that Gillespie had misappropriated the memory of Barry Goldwater. “I’m going to go out on a not-very-long limb here and suggest that if Sen. Goldwater was still around,” wrote Hood, “he’d be urging Craig to take personal responsibility for the disrepute he has brought upon himself and the Senate.”

We don’t have to guess about what Goldwater would do. During the 1964 presidential campaign, he faced almost precisely the same issue. In October, the Goldwater campaign learned that Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest aide, had been arrested on a “morals charge” in the YMCA bathroom. According to J. William Middendorf’s account of that campaign, A Glorious Disaster, Goldwater’s aides wanted to use the scandal against Johnson, who was well ahead in the polls. Jenkins was not only a security risk—open to blackmail— but long before he was arrested, there were allegations he’d used his influence with then-Vice President Johnson to get an Air Force general who had been busted on a morals charge reinstated. The Goldwater aides even tried out slogans: “Either way with LBJ.” Goldwater insisted that they make no use of it. The story never came up during the campaign.

This may say more about Goldwater’s personal decency than it does about his governing philosophy. Jenkins had served in Goldwater’s Air Force Reserve Unit, and as Goldwater later wrote, “It was a sad time for Jenkins’ wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow. Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important.” Mitt, you’re no Barry Goldwater.

Neither is Larry Craig. Oh, and by the way Pam, yes, the Craig story has hit New York. Finally.

Posted in journalism, language, politics, religion, Times-watch | 3 Comments »

What’s humane about hunger, disease and cannibalism?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 August 2007

[Cage-free] eggs can cost an extra 60 cents a dozen on the wholesale market. But most chicken farmers are not ripping out cages and retrofitting their barns. They question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens in tight quarters on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism.
 —  “Suddenly, the Hunt Is On for Cage-Free Eggs, NY Times, 12 August 2007

The NY Times, of all publications, had an article yesterday on the fad of cage-free eggs, but really, all it takes is the one accompanying picture to tell the story.


The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains like Omni and cafeterias at companies like Google. The Whole Foods supermarket chain sells nothing else, and even Burger King is getting in on the trend.

All that demand has meant a rush on cage-free eggs and headaches in corporate kitchens as big buyers learn there may not be enough to go around.

Burger King is switching to cage-free eggs but expects only 5 percent to be by the end of this year. Ben & Jerry’s announced their switch earlier this year but said it will take 4 years. Then there’s Wolfgang Puck, operator of a large and growing chain of high-profile restaurants.

This year, the Humane Society convinced the chef Wolfgang Puck that cage-free chickens make better-tasting eggs. Although the look and taste of an egg are most affected by its age and the chicken’s diet, many chefs believe that cage-free eggs are of higher quality. But not all cage-free eggs are equal.

But the Times sang a very different tune in a 26 March editorial.

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.

I accused them of “gullibility or extreme guile” in a blog entry at the time, and I’m still uncertain which of those faults they’re guilty of here. The meat and dairy industries, either directly or, particularly though supermarket advertising, indirectly, are essential to the Times’s profitability. Yet they want to come off as hip and humane. The current article lets them have it both ways, seeming to be supportive and yet skeptical of increased consumer awareness of the appalling conditions in which animals are manufactured for food.

Instead, the newspaper of record could simply support genuinely humane treatment of animals and accept nothing less in its editorials and advertisements. But that would be taking the bread out of its own corporate maw.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, politics, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

The humble interview

Posted by metaphorical on 21 May 2007

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

So wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on Monday. (Thanks to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for the link.)

Kurtz noted that

in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

“The balance of power has shifted,” says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University. “Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. . . . Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers.”

There’s nothing humble about a journalistic interview, and the possibility of being misquoted is real. Back in te summer of 2000, I was interviewed by a NY Times reporter, as an ordinary citizen, about Al Gore. The idea was that many voters who might be expected to support a fiscally-conservative liberal Democrat like Gore weren’t, or were supporting Gore only with much reluctance. I described what it would take for me to support Gore ethusiastically. The Times quoted me as simply ready to vote for Gore with my nose held.

The reporter, or his editor, got it almost 180 degrees wrong. What I do for a living was misstated and I was called a “die-hard progressive,” which isn’t even true, let alone descriptive of my politics. There was no fact- or quote-checking. The reporter’s stated premise was that he was writing a series of articles and would check back periodically and see if my feelings about Gore changed. There were no follow-up calls or articles. I’ll know I’ll never talk to the NY Times again.

A few years ago, I did a story about the Slammer worm, one of the first big Internet viruses. It had taken out a number of Bank of America ATMs. A number of articles about it implied that the ATMs were on the net and the worm had infected the bank’s ATM network, which seemed to me obvious yet highly unlikely.

I got a Bank of America press representative on the phone and asked point-blank. She said yes, and so I had my money quote, on the record and everything. It still seemed very unlikely that the ATMs were directly on the Internet, though, and the spokesperson didn’t seem knowledgeable at all. So I asked her to please check with the people running the network. Instead of filing my story (on-line), I waited a day. Sure enough, the virus had overloaded a network that the ATMs relied on, making them unable to complete transactions. The ATM network itself, however, was unconnected to the Internet and uninfected.

Newspapers aren’t the only publications to practice Gotcha Journalism, as it might be called, but they’re the main players of that game. If sources have new policies against being interviewed live or over the phone, it wouldn’t suprise me to see newspapers the principal objects of it. Other journalists I know, both at my magazine, in the technology trade press, and elsewhere, don’t seem to be to be feeling the wrath of our sources.

I tell my interviewees that I will check any direct quotes I use, that I will provide them the context, and that even if they said what I quoted them as saying, they can ask me to change the quote to better represent what they actually mean. (If they can’t explain what was misleading in the original quote, I’ll feel free to use it and stand by it.) I’ve lost a few money quotes along the way with this policy. But I think readers can tell the difference, and in any event they are better served when journalists are fair—and accurate—with sources.

If newspapers like the Post are concerned about sources having new interview policies, they should think about changing their own.

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

White men can’t jump, but maybe they don’t have to

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The New York times reports on a paper written by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and a Cornell graduate student, respectively. The paper has yet to be published or peer reviewed. It claims that, in the NBA, white referees call fouls on black players at a higher rate than they do against white players. It also notes a reciprocal but weaker relationship between black officials and white players. The study covers thirteen seasons worth of data and attempts to control for an inordinate amount of variables, including just about all of the ones that first popped into my head when thinking about potential problems with such a study.

The idea of implicit racial associations playing a role in how we view sports and athletes is not only not new to me, I’ve been arguing on this behalf for years. I was recently involved in not one, but two, on-line discussions started by fellows who believe that modern baseball players who wear baggy uniform pants and/or slightly tilted caps disrespect the game with their “sloppiness” and “unprofessional” appearance. Beyond the notion that “professionalism” is a social construct, I was struck by the historical ignorance these statements. (This was a forum for baseball junkies, after all.)

See, baseball heroes of yesteryear wore baggy pants and tilted hats. The Hall of Fame is full of them. Many of the actual plaques of old-time Hall of Famers even depict the player wearing a crooked hat. Oh yeah, old time ballplayers were white.

One of the members dryly noted, after a series of photos of old time players in baggy pants and cocked caps:

“You also have to remember that the players back then were white so it was okay. Nowadays minority athletes are doing it so it is bad.”

The concept of implicit racial association is simple; you are subconsciously conditioned to associate positive characteristics with light skin and negative characteristics with dark skin. This is not an indictment of the person who makes such an association as a racist; but simply a statement of race’s place in how we are conditioned to think. Still, in knee-jerk fashion, people categorically deny that race informs their decisions and opinions.

The NBA’s reaction to these allegations didn’t really surprise me. It claims no racial bias in its officiating, and it claims it has done its own studies to support their claim. Maybe the NBA is right, but their officials are social beings like the rest of us. To be sure, more than a few league officials and players deny the phenomenon, but a conscious denial of a subconscious relationship is just what you’d expect. Notably, two black coaches declined to comment.

A racial bias could have real implications in terms of game outcomes. Wolfers notes:
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, language, sports, Times-watch | 13 Comments »

By whose rules are we playing?

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY is an entity unto itself. It is certainly not affiliated with any legal system within the United States. It is not even operated by Major League Baseball. It governs itself and sets its own standards.

Barry Bonds is now a dozen or so homers from becoming the all-time leader. At his current pace, sometime around the All-Star break, he will overtake what is allegedly the most hallowed record in all of professional sports.

Bonds is a surly figure and his ongoing feud with the media has included tactics just as low as those of his chemically-induced assault on the record books. His antics have included bringing his son to the podium of a press conference to show the media “what they are doing to his family” and telling sports reporters they should be writing about cigarettes when they questioned the effect his steroid use might have on the health of our children. The media, for its part, has played dirty too, neglecting the omnipresence of cheating in baseball’s history, releasing confidential testimony, and painting Bonds as a racist super villain.

An article in today’s New York Times that initially seems to be about the upcoming investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball, lead by Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) , quickly turns to the subject of Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Aaron’s record. This is where the media perpetuates the witch hunt. The act of deceit is in the intent, not in the outcome. I don’t doubt that Bonds has taken myriad performance enhancing drugs, but he, unlike others, has never failed a test. Those who have actually failed tests face nowhere near the scrutiny that Bonds does. And why? Because on their best days they aren’t remotely similar to Bonds on a baseball diamond. It is predictable, but categorically unfair, that Bonds is at the center of this whole issue, not because he is the only player involved, but because he is the most successful player involved. For all the labeling of the media as “liberal,” they are primarily concerned about the bottom line when it comes to steroids and baseball being launched into orbit, giving dishonesty a pass if it doesn’t translate into performance.

The grand irony is that Barry Bonds is an immortal of the game, while many of those who failed tests in the past were fringe Major Leaguers. There’s a place in the game for Bonds regardless. It is some borderline middle reliever’s use of performance enhancing drugs that is keeping him in the bigs, and in turn keeping a talented, young kid in the minor leagues living a pedestrian lifestyle in comparison those in “the show.” Funny how the morality crusaders never bring that one up…

The unproven, but credible, allegations of cheating, combined with Bonds’ self-entitled, tempermental and diva-like attitudes have inspired a substantial base of fans who lobby to keep Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame. I offer no opinion on that vital question here. But the two common arguments of those who rally for his exclusion seem to be lacking, confused, and even paradoxical.

The first argument against his inclusion is offered in response to the idea that that Bonds has not been convicted of anything and that he is afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The anti-Bonds crowd are fond of noting the Hall of Fame’s independent standing, and that, as such, no conviction in a court of law is needed to exclude him. The Hall-of-Fame voters are well within their rights to not vote for Bonds simply because of their suspicion and presumption of guilt.

Got it. No argument from me there.

Another point of contention is that steroids were not deemed illegal by Major League Baseball until 2003 (The authoritative book, Game of Shadows alleges Bonds began using in 1999). Some people argue that even if we assume that he was taking steroids, they weren’t illegal and Bonds has not failed a drug test since they began testing for them. Those who would like to see a Bonds-less Hall are quick to point out that the rules of the United States trump that of Major League Baseball and that steroids are illegal in the country. This argument usually takes the form of ridiculous hyperbole like “murder isn’t specifically against the rules of baseball either, but you can’t kill your opponent.” Well, that is true. The problem with that argument is that the two cases are no different in the sense that MLB doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute either.

What does the legal status of any substance Bonds may have taken have to do with his Hall of Fame candidacy? Even if Bonds were convicted of a crime, say, using a criminal substance, and thrown in jail, the Hall is not obliged to keep him off the ballot.

The anti-Bondsians can’t have it both ways! They can’t say that what Bonds did was implicitly against the rules of baseball because it was against the rules of the United States and then turn around and say that the Hall of Fame voters aren’t required to adopt the legal standards of the same body that is solely responsible for the contention that he was cheating (meaning, breaking the rules) in the first place.

At face value, Bonds is at least the fourth-best player of all time. To vote against him you have to determine he cheated, which means you have to adopt the legal system’s definitions of legitimacy over Major League Baseball’s. In turn, you have to adopt their standards of proof, which means Bonds has to either fail a drug test or be convicted in a court of law. If the legal system trumps Major League Baseball, it trumps the Hall of Fame too.

So, you can get wrapped up in the complicated semantics of overlapping standards of proof and legality and fact and conjecture. Or you can keep it simple and realize that even before 1999, for a period of ten years Barry Bonds was far and away the best player in the game. You can notice he would have deserved first-ballot induction if he had been hit by a bus the day before he first touched anything more powerful than a greenie, and vote for him on the basis of that.

Okay, I lied, I did give my opinion.

Posted in digglahhh, sports, Times-watch | 8 Comments »

Happy birthday, Thomas Huxley. You won your debate, just not here, not yet

Posted by metaphorical on 4 May 2007

I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Today is Thomas Huxley’s birthday and I’m sure he’s been spinning in his grave from the moment last night when three hands went up in what passed for a debate among 10 Republican candidates for president.

The YouTube link is here. Even though seeing’s believing, here’s the NY Times transcript of this new low in American politics.

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?


MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree — believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I — may I just add to that?


SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

By the way, an interesting thing seems to have happened at the NY Times, when it comes to the three names.

As best I can reconstruct after the fact, Katharine Q. Seelye at the Times blogged the event while it was happening.

In her original version, the three weren’t named, though they’re there now. And so at 9:13 a commenter asked, “who were the idiots to raise their hands for not believing in evolution?” At 9:19 came the question, “Who are the ones that raised their hands they don’t believe in evolution? There were several.” And at 9:26 another said, “I hope the NYT or someone puts up a list of who exactly put up their hands to indicate they didn’t believe in evolution.”

The names, as I say, are in the text now, in square brackets, and appear as a note in the transcript, as above. They also appear in the Times’s main article on the debate, which got an opening-page photo, but the text begins on page 20 (it also has a different name in print and on the Web): ” ’08 Republicans Differ on Defining Party’s Future.”

Thomas Huxley, you’re remember, was Charles Darwin’s stand-in and pit-bull during the debate with Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce that, for England at least, settled the issue of evolution almost 150 years ago. (Samuel is the son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, subject of the play Amazing Grace, currently on Broadway. Huxley was the grandfather of Aldous of Brave New World fame.) That it could still be alive today is shameful.

After reading The Origin of the Species, Huxley wrote to Darwin:

And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead — I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.

In their debate, Wilberforce famously “ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s side or his grandfather’s.” Huxley’s answer is recorded by posterity in the quote above, but, as a very nice Huxley biography notes, “Huxley’s own retelling of the tale was a little different, and quite a bit less dramatic:”

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Where was Huxley on the stage last night as three simians posing as candidates raised their paws? Where was the outrage from seven other candidates as a mockery was being made of 2000 years of scientific progress? What was wrong with them that they are afraid to face the truth, afraid to face lunacy and call it what it is.

Some say the three candidates have rendered themselves ineligible to lead the nation; I say all 10 have. I can see where the phrase “presidential timber” comes from—the lot of them are all dumb as wood.

Posted in education, Orwell, politics, religion, technology, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Mistakes were made

Posted by metaphorical on 14 March 2007

At first, the headline really annoyed me.

‘Mistakes’ Made on Prosecutors, Gonzales Says

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Under criticism from lawmakers of both parties for the dismissals of federal prosecutors, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales insisted Tuesday that he would not resign but said, “I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.”

The mea culpa came as Congressional Democrats, who are investigating whether the White House was meddling in Justice Department affairs for political reasons, demanded that President Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, explain their roles in the dismissals.

Why, I angrily wondered, was the Times once again taking the White House’s spin as its starting point? When I looked at the graphic accompanying the story, I got even more frustrated. Apparently, Harriet Miers, Bush’s White House Counsel and wholly incompetent appointee to the Supreme Court, had originally floated the idea of replacing all 93 U.S. Attorneys at the start of Bush’s second term.

E-mail from Kyle Simpson, a Deputy Attorney General the Department of Justice and Gonzales’s point person on the firing of U.S. Attorneys, pointed out some practical difficulties in doing that and wrote “I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys.”

It was quickly clear that Attorneygate is even worse than we thought. We now know many of the details of how individual Attorneys were singled out, in large part because of insufficient loyalty to the Bush administration and its more egregiously partisan projects, or to individual home-state Senators and their petty partisan concerns, whether it was not aggressively pursuing minor illegal immigrant cases, small-time marijuana wholesalers, or unprovable allegations of voter fraud.

As it turns out, though, in its headline, the Times was engaged in a rare flexing of its largely atrophied irony muscles. On the jump page the paper of record ran a brilliant sidebar that explicated the headline and poked fun at Bush officials for their wording:

Familiar Fallback for Officials: ‘Mistakes Were Made’

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.

The sidebar then cited some of the classics of the genre, including Justin Timberlake’s “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance” and John Sunnunu’s 1991 “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”

The key to these non-apologies is the passive construction, combined with noun and verb constructions designed to obscure any details of the “mistakes” in question. Orwell would have recognized these, even as I think even he would have been impressed by the novel phrase, “wardrobe malfunction.” In “Politics and the English Language” he wrote (emphasis added),

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, having the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).

In a spirit of bipartisanship, as they say in the Beltway, the Times sidebar included Bill Clinton’s 1997 acknowedgement

that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.”

I think Orwell would have especially liked the “it” in that sentence, so thoroughly indeterminate as to be ungrammatical.

The sidebar closed with one of the great coinages of our day, occasioned by Clinton’s non-apology.

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 10 Comments »

Quis custodit ipsos custodis?

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2007

After going after the NY Times a second time in one week, it occurred to me that it’s not the first occasion I’ve chided my hometown newspaper, and it’s surely not going to be the last.

The Times shows up on my doormat every morning (on the weekends not early enough); I read a fistful of stories on an average day. I’m going to have some issues when the newspaper of record has a big scratch on either its logic side or its accuracy side.

Wikipedia notes that the title question to tonight’s post was first asked by the Roman satirist Juvenal not in reference to tyrannies but “to the impossibility of enforcing moral behavior on women when the enforcers (custodes) are corruptible.” I suppose that’s appropriate when we’re talking about the morals of the Grey Lady.But more seriously, if don’t want government to restrict the press, we have to help it restrict itself—to all and only the news that’s fit to print, reported accurately and fairly.

So to help the Times guard itself against itself, and in case any of my readers are similarly interested when the paper blows it, I’ve created a new tag, Times-watch and gone through the archive. As it turns out, five stories get the tag (not counting this self-referential one), and, to introduce it, I’ve listed them here.

  • Newspaper, heal thyself

    In which a Times editorial decries the basic skills of U.S. high school students as insufficient for our glorious information age, without noticing its own contribution to that decline.
  • The enemy within

    In which the Times falls for what’s by now virtually an urban legend, that the Bush administration back in October “passed yet another of its laws ‘in the dead of night’ that ‘strike to the heart of American democracy,’ this one making it ‘easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law’.”
  • Where are the journalist reorientation therapies?

    In which the Times somehow overlooks the fact that sexual orientation therapies deserves no more respect than intelligent design theories – even though it quotes an expert who makes that very point.

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Newspaper, heal thyself

Posted by metaphorical on 27 February 2007

The new scores, based on tests given in 2005, show that only about 35 percent of 12th graders are proficient in reading. Simply put, this means that a majority of the country’s 12th graders have trouble understanding what they read fully enough to make inferences, draw conclusions and see connections between what they read and their own experiences. The math scores were even worse, with only 23 percent of 12th graders performing at or above the proficient level.

An editorial in today’s NY Times decries the basic skills of U.S. high school students as insufficient for our glorious information age.

Marginal literacy and minimal math skills might have been adequate for the industrial age. But these scores mean that many of today’s high school seniors will be locked out of the information economy, where a college degree is the basic price of admission and the ability to read, write and reason is essential for success.

Let’s leave aside sad fact that the Times’s chief concern is that we may not have a sufficiently educated workforce—that, for example, $69 million energy company CEOs might not have enough $106,000 petroleum engineers to do the real work at a place like Exxon-Mobil—you know, of stuff like actually finding oil and gas and getting it out of the ground.

Let’s also leave aside the Times’s condescending omission of the idea that even back in the coal-dusty days of the industrial era students might have been reading Twain, Cather, Steinbeck and Salinger because they wanted what my friend Lizzie just last night called “a lifelong relationship with literature for its own sake.”

I’ll have more to say in a few days about basic K-12 skills, especially math, because it’s a subject that’s come up repeatedly for me lately.

What I was struck by today in reading the Times’s editorial Read the rest of this entry »

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