Anthony Weiner and the Politics of Boredom
June 9, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06:   Rep. Anthony Weiner ...

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Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir has a lengthy rumination on film criticism’s complicated relationship with boredom. The gist seems to be that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with films that aim solely to entertain (and in fact a lot of these films are pretty great), this is not and should not be the aim of the entire medium. Great films often have other goals in mind, and sometimes achieving these goals means asking the audience to put a little work in and/or allow themselves to become a little bored.

That’s all basically unobjectionable to me. I like Die Hard as much as the next guy. What bothers me about entertainment for its own sake isn’t its dispensability so much as its ubiquity. Our thirst for entertainment and the market’s willingness to provide have together completely co-opted and debased forum where entertainment should be, if anything, a tertiary concern. I’m thinking, of course, of politics.

The giant school of press-credentialed piranhas gnawing at Rep. Anthony Weiner’s exposed parts illustrates my point perfectly. Here is a massive story which is massive solely because of its capacity to titillate. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, virtually no one covering this story is even trying to explain its importance or relevance to the public interest. That’s because they know there is none, and they don’t care. The story’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.

What propels feeding frenzies like this is simple economics. Reporters and commentators could put extra work into producing research and original reporting on stories which more directly affect the public. If they’ve got any talent at all, they could even present these stories in a compelling and entertaining fashion. But making a story entertaining isn’t as easy as just regurgitating an already widely disseminated story with an entertaining premise. Of course, because this is still ostensibly journalism, you’ve got to add something new: a slightly skewed context, a new fact (no matter how tangential or arbitrary), or just a new quip about Weiner’s peener. The point being that the more content about the story you aggregate (regardless of the quality), the more likely that you’ll be considered a worthwhile source for people looking to be tickled by another yet another politician’s ritual humiliation.

You could fairly point out that this is a two-way street, and the reason why this sort of lazy tabloid journalism works is because the public is eager to consume it. To which I’d say, sure it’s a two-way street, but one lane is narrower than the other. The public consumes political media as entertainment in part because they’ve been trained to do so by the political media — entertainment being both an easier product to deliver and friendlier to various corporate and governmental interests. If reform is going to begin anywhere, we can’t realistically expect it to begin with mass boycotts by a spontaneously fed-up audience. It must instead begin within the press itself.

On Monday, Paul Waldman wrote: “If I were Dictator of All Media, I would force every reporter to include a sentence in each of their stories that begins, ‘This is important because…’” That’s not what I would do (it sounds like it would cramp a lot of otherwise eloquent writers’ styles), but clearly every reporter and commentator should be able to write that sentence if asked. This week it seems like barely anyone — including a lot of journalists I like and admire — has even tried to come up with an answer.

Hell, why should they? There’s no immediate profit in having an answer. But journalists used to aspire to something higher than immediate profit. And if that required them to demand a little more of their audience, or even risk boring that audience, then so be it.

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Nick Denton and the New Old Media
October 11, 2010

Image representing Gawker Media as depicted in...
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Reading this lengthy New Yorker profile of Gawker creator Nick Denton, I’m struck by how little the rise of New York’s new blogging kool kidz really changed anything of substance. Sure, they have a 24-hour news cycle now, and new page-tracker tools to better estimate each others’ monetary worth, but there’s more overlap than they might want to admit between their guiding principles and those of the much-reviled, stodgy, decrepit old media.

What Gawker shares with the more regrettable elements of the Washington press corps is a certain contempt for their subject, along with a thinly-veiled reverence for the power and influence which accumulates around that subject. It’s this tension that allows old media journalists to deride political and ideological commitments that stray so much as an inch from their studious posture of non-ideological apoliticism, while simultaneously obsessing over which team is winning as if federal politics were just one massive fantasy football league.

Gawker gives voice to these same impulses without the squeaky-clean veneer of respectability. They make no bones about ponying up cash for sources. They’ve discarded any attempts at this mythical art we know as journalistic objectivity—a positive development, except it’s been replaced with a curdled, irony-laden drone that’s become just as boring, uniform and insubstantial as its predecessor. (Not to mention ubiquitous in the New York new media scene, as the article hints.) Whereas the ethical code for old media journalism was ossified and arbitrary, the new code is this: be hip, but don’t let on how hard you’re trying.

Is that an improvement? Of sorts. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s more honest. But as kool kidz journalism takes its place in the new status quo, the old rationalizations and evasions start coming back. Take this quote, for instance:

This past summer, Gawker published a big “exclusive,” titled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Age of Privacy Is Over.” It featured two dozen paparazzi images of the young Facebook C.E.O., his Mandarin tutor, his sister, and his “comely” girlfriend. They were unremarkable images, and the accompanying text said as much: “His car is nothing you’d blink at on a Bay Area freeway… . Zuckerberg’s house is modest, even humdrum… . He wears nearly identical faded gray t-shirts day after day.” Its winking conceit was that Zuckerberg had become a billionaire by encouraging people to share more of their private lives with one another.

“Zuckerberg is the Angelina Jolie of the Internet,” Denton explained, in response to a critic who charged him with aspiring to “no higher principles whatsoever,” noting with particular disapproval the exposure of the girlfriend. “His lovers, friends, and acquaintances—like those of any other celebrity—are caught up in the vortex,” Denton went on. “He has to make a choice; and they have to make a choice. And none of the choices—retreat from the public eye, abandonment of friendship—are palatable.”

See what Denton’s doing there? He’s removing himself and Gawker from the story as conscious actors. Zuckerberg is the one who “made the choice” the be stalked by paparazzi when he become rich and famous. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the people ding the stalking make a choice as well. Denton’s trying to edit himself out of the story here, because that way he can ignore the dimension of personal responsibility that comes along with having a soapbox. It’s the same thing the Washington Post does when they want to cover a juicy scandal: they say it’s “created a media firestorm,” as if they’re some observer from outside the media, objectively observing its goings-on.

This isn’t to say that Gawker isn’t remarkable in some ways. Its formal and technical elements serve as a decent model for how to distribute journalism in the modern age. But it’s not enough to just be faster and flashier. For the new journalism to be a success in anything but economic terms, it needs to be better. More self-aware, more rigorous, honest, compassionate, and courageous. If I thought formal innovations were all the new era of journalism had to offer, then I’d drop out of the enterprise entirely.

“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a news sati...
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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

#CPNC and “Partisan” Journalism
July 8, 2010

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 5:   Democratic strategis...
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Yesterday at the conference, I attended a journalism talk featuring some great panelists* that I nonetheless found sort of troublesome. The real problem was that all of the panelists tacitly accepted a rather odd premise: that there exists this dichotomy between objective journalism and partisan journalism. If you’re not doing one, you’re doing the other.

But it seems to me that partisan journalism would be just as bad as objective journalism, because “partisan” implies that the journalist in question is playing for a team. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it suggests the journalistic project involves catering to the prefabricated ideological leanings of your audience and professional community.

If you want to see what’s wrong with partisan journalism, look no further than the final speaker of CPNC Day 1: Paul Begala (pictured, right). Begala might be a perfectly good guy, but he’s a professional who has some pretty perverse incentives. He used to be a Democratic strategist, but now his job is to sell books and boost ratings, which he does by filling a niche as The Democrat on CNN talk shows. The way to fill that niche, and do it well, isn’t to offer honest, original insight—it’s to regurgitate DNC talking points in a reasonably entertaining fashion. And that’s pretty much what he did at CPNC, rocking us young liberals gently to sleep with some soothing lullabies about how FOX News is the Great Satan and we’re all so smart and awesome.

Ironically** a journalism ecosphere that blended that form of commentary with straight reporting as a matter of course would produce a lot of the same problems as the current model. We would continue to get “both sides” of a story, and any take on current events that did not lie somewhere in that continuum of acceptable discourse would be neglected. (If you want to see why that’s a problem, think back to 2003, when the bipartisan consensus was that a vote against the Iraq War was a vote for Islamocommunazism.) Even if major media outlets were more closely identified with movements instead of parties (sort of like how The Nation is liberal but not capital-D Democratic, while FOX is very much capital-R Republican), you would wind up in an environment where they catered to those movements without offering a whole lot of challenging or useful internecine criticism.

Now to be fair, all the panelists were pretty good journalists, and I don’t think they were intentionally advocating that style of reporting. But I think the subtext of the conversation, to a certain extent, was that they were all batting for a team. And sure, that’s always going to be true, to an extent—I mean, I do it too—but I think we need to be very conscious of the fact that this will always be in tension with one of the fundamental responsibilities of a journalist: constant, vigilant skepticism. I may be a liberal in a liberal community with a primarily liberal audience, but I also need to recognize that the best way to serve that audience is by always making the effort to stand a little bit outside of it.

In other words, the hardest thing about being a journalist isn’t the aloneness. But it might very well be the struggle to achieve and sustain that aloneness when every fiber of your being resists.

*Ann Friedman, Chris Hayes, Amanda Terkel, Kai Wright, Richard Kim.

**Or maybe not ironically? I don’t know. Shut up.

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Objectivity and Credibility in Journalism
July 1, 2010

In general I was pretty disappointed by the response in the comments to my recent column criticizing the concept of “objective” journalism (a lot of it came down to either ad hominem attacks or grievous misreadings of my argument). But one response from commenter watsonho got me thinking. He (she?) writes:

Journalists and commentators are supposed to be authoritative – they are supposed to know what they are talking about. If they admit they are wrong, they become undependable, untrustworthy and therefore useless. So there is a strong psychological bias against ever admitting you are wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

However, when you take the position that you are “objective” you can easily change your position as facts change or your viewpoint evolves. In the early days of the Iraq war, for example, many media outlets presented a very positive view of the war. When it became clear that the war wasn’t going well, they started running stories that presented a more critical look. They were able to do this without coming under attack or appearing contradictory because in both cases, they were being “objective.”

[snip]

If we moved to a system where we discarded “objectivity” and let all our opinions hang out, we would quickly move into a state of journalistic trench warfare, where everyone digs in and refuses to budge out of fear of losing their credibility.

It’s an interesting defense, but it seems ethically untenable to me; it requires the journalist to assume a position of authority which I argued—and note that watsonho did not dispute this particular claim—no one has any right to. What watsonho is suggesting is that journalists must claim false credibility for the greater public good.

My argument is for a more meritocratic system: repeatedly making outlandish, indefensible claims should cost you credibility, as should digging into the proverbial trenches and defending your claims against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If that sounds utopian or overly idealistic, it’s no more so than this belief that journalists can effectively distance their own subjectivity from their reporting.

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New Salon Column
June 29, 2010

When I said I wouldn’t comment on Weigelgate, I guess that was a lie. But this is actually more about a broader point:

Weigelgate has instigated a long-overdue fight within the bowels of a major newspaper over the relative merits of traditional, self-consciously impartial reporting and opinionated coverage. It’s an old skirmish, but not one that has ever been fought with this level of intensity, before such a wide audience. And perhaps now that it’s out in the open, we can expose the misguided, antiquated ideology its supporters have dubbed “objective journalism” for what it really is.

Because what better time than right after graduation to render myself unemployable by several major news outlets?*

Anyway, take a look. And it being Tumblr Tuesday and all, maybe if you like the piece you could shoot me a recommendation.

*Hahahahahah! Just kidding, Mom and Dad! I think!

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