Media criticism

2009 11 12

For several years now I’ve been reading articles by Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, and scratching my head at the mini-bio that accompanies the pieces. I knew that he had a consulting gig, and that that consulting gig took him to Northern Iraq, and that he was an advisor to the Kurds, and pretty damn tight with them. And it struck me as odd that the mini-bios didn’t really tip you off much about possible conflicts of interest. Here’s an example, from the NYRB:

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia, is Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and a principal at the Windham Resources Group, which has worked in Iraq. His new book, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies, has just been released. (October 2008)

Doesn’t tell you much, does it?

Anyway, this irritated me just enough that I almost wrote a post about it a while back, going so far as to actually research the issue extensively (googled for 20 seconds). But I couldn’t figure out what his consulting group did, actually, and I thought it would be irresponsible to insinuate anything on a blog as widely read and respected as Explananda. (So much for citizen journalism.)

So it was with considerable interest that I just noticed this piece in the NYT about Galbraith. The NYT seems to be following the lead here of some Norwegian journalists (so much for NYT journalism). Anyway, here’s the lede:

Peter W. Galbraith, an influential former American ambassador, is a powerful voice on Iraq who helped shape the views of policy makers like Joseph R. Biden Jr. and John Kerry. In the summer of 2005, he was also an adviser to the Kurdish regional government as Iraq wrote its Constitution — tough and sensitive talks not least because of issues like how Iraq would divide its vast oil wealth.

Now Mr. Galbraith, 58, son of the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith, stands to earn perhaps a hundred million or more dollars as a result of his closeness to the Kurds, his relations with a Norwegian oil company and constitutional provisions he helped the Kurds extract.

In the constitutional negotiations, he helped the Kurds ram through provisions that gave their region — rather than the central Baghdad government — sole authority over many of their internal affairs, including clauses that he maintains will give the Kurds virtually complete control over all new oil finds on their territory.

Dude, that is one seriously sweet consulting gig. I was so distracted by the minor concern that Galbraith’s writing might be influenced by his consulting work for the Kurds, and was at least worth noting so that readers could make up their own minds, that I never even imagined a multi-multi-million dollar Norwegian oil angle.

Wowsers. Anyway, the article raises a whole bunch of ethical issues. I’m curious to see how the NYRB and other publications deal with this. Galbraith had an enormous financial interest in Northern Iraq as early as 2004. His readers should have been told this. The publications who published his writing should explicitly address this issue, and update their online archives to reflect those interests clearly.

UPDATE: The NYRB has this displayed prominently on their website now. Which is as it should be, I think.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 08 05
The time Gawker put the Washington Post out of business

“A less cumbersome way for newspapers to head off the threat of blogs would be to beat us to the punchline.”

I don’t want to get all chin-strokey about blogs and the media and all that, so I’ll just say that one thing that (good) blogs have repeatedly reminded me is that news and commentary can be delivered with more humour and good sense than the norms of journalism and commentary typically seem to permit.

Update: See this too.

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2009 07 28
Ev Psych in the mainstream media

It’s really refreshing to read a piece so sceptical of evolutionary psychology in the mainstream media.

(My own take on the subject from a few years ago is here.)

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2009 05 16
“A hard line on terrorism”

I figure writing the Today’s Papers feature for Slate must be a tough gig. You’ve got to get up well before the sun, read a ton, and summarize it all very quickly. So I don’t want to pick on this too much:

In another disappointment for left-leaning Washington watchers, Obama’s expected announcement that he would continue to try terrorism suspects through the military commissions—which exclude certain types of evidence from consideration by the defense—drew cries of outrage from civil rights groups. Of course, there’s also a considerable political upside for the president as well from conservatives who would rather see him take a hard line on terrorism.

But just notice how loaded that last sentence is. The suggestion is not that conservatives would rather see him take what they regard as a hard line on terrorism. Rather, as stated, the point is that there is a hard line on terrorism (and, by contrast, a soft line), and support for military commissions is part of a hard line position on terrorism (and, by contrast, opposition to them indicates a certain softness on the issue of terrorism).

I really don’t think that support for military commissions implies a hard line on terrorism. It probably has more to do with your attitude to the justice system, and your comfort with a system that is more likely to produce bogus convictions (the inevitable result of the loosening of defendants’ rights, which seems to be the point of military commissions, though it isn’t clear yet exactly how loose Obama wants to be). If anything, trying suspects in the military commissions favoured by most Republicans (and many Democratics) seems to me to indicate a real lack of seriousness about terrorism.

Another problem with the offending sentence above is that it takes the often stated Republican motivation for military commissions at face value. I’m sure that many Republicans sincerely support military commissions on what they see as the merits of the policy, and would have supported them even if a Democratic president had instituted them as part of a response to 9/11. But Republicans are humans, and there are surely other considerations at work here as well: They’re publicly committed to the commissions. Vindication of the policy is vindication of their policy, and will make a difference to the way the legacy of the Bush years will be understood. And of course, Obama’s decision upsets many Democrats, and therefore can be expected to be treasured by Republicans for that very reason. Lydia DePillis, the author of today’s Today’s Papers, isn’t in a position to know the extent to which different considerations are really driving the Republican position, so it’s a shame she chooses the official (flattering) one and presents it in a way that implies that understanding the motivation in this way is natural and uncontroversial.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 03 13
Cramer versus Stewart

Posted by in: Media criticism

I have very little patience for radio or television, so I don’t get to hear a lot of interviews. Even so, I don’t live under a rock, and like everyone else I’ve seen and heard my share. And I think this is probably the most remarkable interview I’ve ever watched. Almost every other interview I’ve seen has left me frustrated at all the tough questions that went unasked, and the follow ups that might have clarified matters—frustrated even though I can well imagine how difficult it is to conduct an interview in even a half-assed way. But Stewart, Stewart, sweet jumping jelly beans that man is smart. He’s helped by the fact that Cramer knows he’s been caught and essentially rolls on his back and whimpers most of the time. Still, the interview is like the perfect fantasy of an interview, with every question, every comeback hitting in exactly the right place. I sometimes find Stewart’s attitude to his guests too fawning, but not this time.

Why can’t the real world be like this? Are there journalists out there who do this and I just haven’t heard of them?

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 11 25

I let my subscription to the New Yorker lapse a little while back, but my friend and occasional commenter here, Alif Sikkiin, lent me a recent edition with a profile of Thomas Friedman by Ian Parker. Alif and I had pretty much the same reaction to the piece: that Parker cuts him down a bit, but ends up according Friedman far more respect than he deserves.

I just wanted to make a quick note on this bit of the piece (on p. 62):

Friedman understood the political and cultural context of Iraq well, but the prospect of war required him to make a choice—yes or no—and this did not come naturally. He knew that the judgment, once made, would become separated from its analytical roots. (In the event, that process was assisted by a clumsy comment Friedman made to Charlie Rose in May, 2003: he said, approvingly, that the American presence in Iraq was akin to saying “Suck on this” to Islamic terrorists.)

Apart from this talk of “analytical roots,” which gives the wholly misleading impression that Friedman has ideas, this seems to me an implausible reading of Friedman’s comments on Charlie Rose’s show. Go watch the video. Friedman is speaking passionately, but he’s also being very deliberate, and you can see that he’s choosing his words carefully. It would be bad enough if he had expressed the view that Parker attributes to him, since that view approves of actions that hurt innocents in order to annoy and depress adversaries (much in the way that terrorists do). But I don’t think that’s what Friedman is actually saying. Rather, the target of the “Suck on this” seems to be the broader Middle East, and an entire culture he finds fault with. It wasn’t terrorists that Friedman wanted the Iraq war to send a message to, it was everybody in the region.

Whatever. The final word on Friedman is always going to be Matt Taibbi’s review of “The Earth is Flat,” which has to be one of the best reviews ever written.*

* This review—same publication, different author—is another old favourite.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 06
Burke on conservatives

Timothy Burke writes:

It’s schadenfreudey fun to read the ongoing psychotic meltdowns at various far-right sites like the Corner, I agree. But there’s little need to take the really bad-faith conservatives seriously now. For the last eight years, we’ve had to take them somewhat seriously because they had access to political power. You had to listen to the hack complaints about academia from endlessly manipulative writers because it was perfectly plausible that whatever axe they were grinding was going to end up as a priority agenda item coming out of Margaret Spelling’s office or get incorporated into legislation by right-wing state legislators. You had to listen to and reply to even the most laughably incoherent, goalpost-moving, anti-reality-based neoconservative writer talking about Iraq or terrorism because there was an even-money chance that you were hearing actual sentiments going back and forth between Dick Cheney’s office and the Pentagon. You had to answer back to Jonah Goldberg not just because making that answer was arguably our responsibility as academics, but also because left alone, some of the aggressively bad-faith caricatures he and others served up had a reasonable chance to gain even further strength through incorporation into federal policy.

There are plenty of thoughtful, good-faith conservatives who need to be taken seriously. And the actual conservatism of many communities and constituencies (in Appalachia and elsewhere) remains, as always, a social fact that it would be perilous to ignore or dismiss.

There are plenty of criticisms of academia which retain their importance and gravity, or which will continue to inform policy-makers in an Obama Administration. Don’t expect pressure for accountability and assessment to go away, for example. It doesn’t matter that Chuck Grassley is a Republican: a lot of the muck he’s raking up deserves to be raked.

But I think we can all make things just ever so slightly better, make the air less poisonous, by pushing to the margins of our consciousness the crazy, bad, gutter-dwelling, two-faced, tendentious high-school debator kinds of voices out there in the public sphere, including and especially in blogs. Let them stew in their own juices, without the dignity of a reply, now that their pipelines to people with real political power have been significantly cut.

Making fun of or arguing with crazy ideologues is sort of the intellectual equivalent of junk food: bad for you and addictive at the same time. But as Burke points out it was at the same time often necessary during the Bush years because so many of the crazy ideas floating around the right were popular with extremely powerful leaders and opinion makers. Part of the excitement I wrote about the other day with politics now comes from the hope of moving to a more intelligent and substantive political discourse. And of course I agree with Burke that we would do well to include disagreements with good-faith conservatives as part of that conversation.

But the more I think about it, the more I think sensible, decent people are going to have to brace themselves for a serious storm of resentment-driven insanity, especially on cable television, but also in the print media. Ignoring this is simply not going to be an option. Even though the crazy talk will not be, for the moment, coming from the mouths of the powerful or their proxies, it will be aimed squarely at destroying anything constructive that the Democrats attempt to accomplish. Its electoral setbacks mean that for the next two years at least, the right’s principal focus is going to have to be on shaping, as much as possible, the media’s presentation of the Obama administration.

This is important: Right now, aiming at the media and shaping public discourse as much as possible is all they’ve got. And we already know the basic strategy. You work hard to create an alternative reality on the fringes. You then present a slightly more moderate version of this, call it “moderate,” and then howl that it doesn’t get equal play in the media. When it does get play, you win. When it doesn’t, you strengthen your narrative of resentment. The degree of success in this venture is going to make an enormous difference to how much Obama is able to accomplish.

I do believe that the recent election opened an incredibly exciting space for substantive debate about political issues, but I also think that the most prominent part of American political discourse is about to get much, much uglier and stupider than it has been in my lifetime. I don’t have the time, the temperament, or the inclination for this kind of garbage clean up, but I’m very glad that other folks do.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 09 28
A stupid question

Everybody has been so busy recently marveling at the stupidity of Sarah Palin’s statements in her interview with Katie Couric that I think they haven’t stopped to savour the stupidity of some of the questions Palin was asked. How about this:

Couric: When President Bush ran for office, he opposed nation-building. But he has spent, as you know, much of his presidency promoting democracy around the world. What lessons have you learned from Iraq? And how specifically will you try to spread democracy throughout the world?

Bush, of course, has not been “promoting democracy around the world.” Changing this to “attempting to promote democracy around the world” would be almost as bad, implying that Bush’s efforts have at least been sincere, which I doubt, and which in any case Couric is in no better position to judge than I. The question accepts a highly partisan, and totally idiotic, way of framing the entire debate about Bush’s foreign policy.

Palin has no excuse for being so uninformed and unprepared, but at least she can point to the fact that she’s attempting to compose answers on the fly. But that’s Couric’s prepared question. She and her staff had time to think about it. And that’s what she asked.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 08 10
“less to geostrategic calculations than to . . . Putin’s cold war mentality”

James Traub has an interesting piece in the NYT about the current conflict between Russia and Georgia. But what’s up with this:

Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. And this challenge is immensely compounded by Georgia’s fervent aspiration to join NATO, one of Russia’s red lines. Russian officials frequently recall that President Bill Clinton promised Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe. Of course NATO is no longer an anti-Soviet alliance, and the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.

And then later on this:

People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”

Is a Russian leader being paranoid and stuck in the past if he fears the eastward expansion of a powerful rival military alliance, after a promise that it won’t happen? It is not at all clear to me that Russia should be sanguine about NATO’s expansion. Does Traub suppose that member nations of NATO will always have the purest intentions when they deal with Russia? Even with the purest intentions, NATO countries are bound to have conflicts with Russia over a number of issues. Is he sure that the fact that they belong to a powerful military alliance will have no influence over their policies? I have a very healthy loathing of Putin and everything he stands for, but I can’t take much pleasure about seeing his concern on this point so arrogantly dismissed.

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2008 03 21

Posted by in: Media criticism

I don’t get it. Why aren’t they talking more about Wallace’s drug problem (at 2:53 and 5:10)?

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2008 02 14
And entirely by coincidence, parts of my brain associated with annoyance are currently showing heightened activity

I share a pet peeve with this dude:

As of this entry, I’m starting my own watch-dog column: newspapers which write inane articles espousing mind/brain duality. The latest offender is, coincidentally, The New York Times, which ran a disappointing article a few days ago called “My Cortex Made Me Buy It.” It describes a recent study in which people sampled “cheap” and “expensive” wines (actually the exact same wines, just marked with different prices).
When they sampled the wines with lower prices, however, the subjects not only liked them less, their brains registered less pleasure from the experience.

It’s important to consider what the alternative was: that subjects reported liking the cheaper wines less, but their brains reported the same amount of pleasure. What would that mean? One possibility is that the participants were lying: they liked both wines the same, but said they liked the more expensive ones more in order to look cultured.

There’s another possibility. Dan Gilbert, who studies happiness, usually does so by simply asking people if they are happy. He doesn’t worry much about people lying. He could use a physiological measure (like a brain scan, as was done in the above study), but he points out that the reason we think a particular part of the brain is related to happiness is because it correlates with people’s self-reports of being happy. Using the brain scan is completely circular. Under this logic, if the brain scans fail to show more pleasure when drinking the expensive wine, it could be because the relevant areas of the brain have been misidentified.

A final alternative possibility is that the participants’ immaterial souls liked the expensive wine better, but their brains didn’t register a difference.

The Times piece discussed none of this.

(See original for links).

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2007 09 13
Deeply unpopular proposed law mysteriously fails to generate support

This piece by James Glanz in the NYT on the attempt to get the proposed Oil Law through Iraqi Parliament has a rather striking omission: In 26 paragraphs I don’t see a single mention of Iraqi opinion on the subject, which was trending toward a very negative view of the proposed law the last time I checked. It seems to me that anyone trying to arrive at a sensible view of the proposed law, and a sensible view of the significance of the possible failure of the proposed law, would want to know that the proposed law is widely unpopular. I understand that Glanz is trying to write about political developments in the Iraqi Parliament. But to some extent perhaps Iraqi politicians are responsive to public opinion, in which case we won’t be able to chalk up the failure to get the law passed entirely to a refusal to “compromise” (which is good, right?) or a tendency to be “glacial” (which is bad, right?).

Indeed, if I recall correctly, when a draft of the law first appeared it was criticized as the product of secret negotiations dominated by foreign oil companies, yada yada. Is there any substance to these criticisms? Of course, I am a widely recognized authority on the subject of complex, Arabic-language foreign investment laws. But, sadly, today is a Thursday, and I make it a firm rule not to comment on such matters on a Thursday, so you’ll just have to look elsewhere for enlightenment.

Anyway, I suspect that here Glanz has succumbed to the temptation to squeeze the story into the “stasis narrative” that is obligatory when writing about Iraqi politics. And no wonder it is obligatory: It’s hard to look at Iraqi politics these days and not think “Arrrr. That thar be stasis.” And of course the failure to pass such an important law, for all its imperfections and unpopularity, would obviously be a real setback at this point for someone hoping for a bit of momentum in the political process and the sort of stability that might allow for new development. But the situation is more complicated than that: there are actual people with actual opinions on the matter; they might need to be consulted on the matter; they might even have actual reasons for their opinions. And breaking the political stalemate will mean thwarting them, for better or worse. All this matters too.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 09 04
Journalism and (an)onymous sources

Posted by in: Media criticism

This bit from a piece in the Washington Post, quoted in a recent post of Matthew Yglesias’, sort of jumped out at me:

“This is General Petraeus’s baby,” said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August. […]

Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus’s showcase remain skeptical. “Personally, I think it’s a false representation,” Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge’s success. “But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”

No, no. It was his job. I imagine he’s peeling potatoes or something now, if he’s lucky.

Over the last few years, newspapers have responded to criticism of their use of anonymous sources by adding a little note explaining why the person quoted isn’t named (not authorized to speak, etc. etc.). The practice was originally introduced to curtail the unethical use of anonymous sources, but it’s pretty clear from the reasons that are typically given that journalists are making exactly the same decisions they always have. I have no idea how to sort through the various ethical issues involved here.

I’m interested in a different issue, which is that a lot of journalists seem to think that if someone agrees to be quoted on the record then there is nothing unethical about quoting them on the record. I’m not so sure about that. Mr. Campbell is surely in trouble now. At 24 years old, he ought to know that talking to a journalist on the record will get him in trouble. But he didn’t, and now he’ll pay.

Was it worth it? Well, on the one hand you’ve got a piece of journalism with an extra piece of supporting documentation, an actual name to go with the quote. On the other hand, some poor guy is fucked. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me. If I was a journalist I think I would essentially end up coaching less media savvy people to make their quotations anonymous when going on the record would hurt them and add very little to the story. As it is now, it seems to be standard journalistic practice to let a lot of dubious sourcing hide under the cover of anonymity while at the same time fucking over less media savvy people by attaching their names to quotations that will get them in trouble.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 07 31
On the call to round them up

Here’s a letter in a Brooklyn newspaper calling for Islam to be officially declared a cult, and for Muslims to be rounded up into “intern camps.”

Since you can always find bigots here, there, and everywhere, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that some of my neighbours in Brooklyn feel this way. It does, however, surprise me to see it printed in a Brooklyn newspaper, even a small, second rate one. It’s the most offensive and alarming of a few letters I’ve read in that newspaper recently, but certainly not the only one that displays open anti-Muslim bigotry.

I’ve written a letter to the editor already. Even if you don’t live in Brooklyn, you might consider dropping the editor a quick note to say that you’re surprised that such a cosmopolitan place has a newspaper willing to provide space for this kind of view.

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2007 07 13
Most Inane/misleading WaPo headline/article EVER!!

Anyone else see this crap:

Obama Echoes Clinton on Iraq War, to a Different End

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007; A05

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has long said she will not apologize for her vote to authorize the war in Iraq because there are no “do-overs” in life.

Now she and her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, agree on that truism.

“When I opposed this war before it began in 2002, I was about to run for the United States Senate, and I knew it wasn’t the politically popular position,” Obama said during a town hall meeting in Des Moines on Tuesday.

Tune in next week, when the WaPo online reveals, at 11:59:59pm, that Iraq War to End, for the Day.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)