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The Journalist and the Murderer (Modern Library Nonfiction #97)

(This is the fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Taming of Chance.)

mlnf97One of the mistakes often made by those who immerse themselves in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is believing that MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is what matters most. But Malcolm is really exploring how journalistic opportunity and impetuous judgment can lead any figure to be roundly condemned in the court of public opinion. Malcolm’s book was written before the Internet blew apart much of the edifice separating advertising and editorial with native advertising and sponsored articles, but this ongoing ethical dilemma matters ever more in our age of social media and citizen journalism, especially when Spike Lee impulsively tweets the wrong address of George Zimmerman (and gets sued because of the resultant harassment) and The New York Post publishes a front page cover of two innocent men (also resulting in a lawsuit) because Reddit happened to believe they were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Yet it is important to approach anything concerning the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case with caution. It has caused at least one documentary filmmaker to go slightly mad. It is an evidential involution that can ensnare even the most disciplined mind, a permanently gravid geyser gushing out books and arguments and arguments about books, with more holes within the relentlessly regenerating mass than the finest mound of Jarlsberg. But here are the underlying facts:

On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald reported a stabbing to the military police. Four officers found MacDonald’s wife Colette, and their two children, Kimberley and Kristen, all dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald went to trial and was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences. Only two months before this conviction, MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss — the author of The Selling of a President 1968, then looking for a comeback — to write a book about the case, under the theory that any money generated by MacDonald’s percentage could be used to sprout a defense fund. MacDonald placed total trust in McGinniss, opening the locks to all his papers and letting him stay in his condominium. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, was published in the spring of 1983. It was a bestseller and spawned a popular television miniseries, largely because MacDonald was portrayed as a narcissist and a sociopath, fitting the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty public. MacDonald didn’t know the full extent of this depiction. Indeed, as he was sitting in jail, McGinniss refused to send him a galley or an advance copy. (“At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advance look at the book six months prior to publication,” wrote McGinniss to MacDonald on February 16, 1983. “As Joe Wambuagh told you in 1975, with him you would not even see a copy before it was published. Same with me. Same with any principled and responsible author.” Malcolm copiously chronicles the “principled and responsible” conduct of McGinniss quite well, which includes speaking with MacDonald in misleading and ingratiating tones, often pretending to be a friend — anything to get MacDonald to talk.)

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On 60 Minutes, roughly around the book’s publication, Mike Wallace revealed to MacDonald what McGinniss was up to:

Mike Wallace (narrating): Even government prosecutors couldn’t come up with a motive or an explanation of how a man like MacDonald could have committed so brutal a crime. But Joe McGinniss thinks he’s found the key. New evidence he discovered after the trial. Evidence he has never discussed with MacDonald. A hitherto unrevealed account by the doctor himself of his activities in the period just before the murders.

Joe McGinniss: In his own handwriting, in notes prepared for his own attorneys, he goes into great detail about his consumption of a drug called Eskatrol, which is no longer on the market. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 1980 because of dangerous side effects. Among the side effects of this drug are, when taken to excess by susceptible individuals, temporary psychosis, often manifested as a rage reaction. Here we have somebody under enormous pressure and he’s taking enough of this Eskatrol, enough amphetamines, so that by his own account, he’s lost 15 pounds in the three weeks leading up to the murders.

eskatrolnoteWallace: Now wait. According to the note which I’ve seen, three to five Eskatrol he has taken. We don’t know if he’s taken it over a period of several weeks or if he’s taken three to five Eskatrol a day or a week or a month.

McGinniss: We do know that if you take three to five Eskatrol over a month, you’re not going to lose 15 pounds in doing so.

Jeffrey MacDonald: I never stated that to anyone and I did not in fact lose fifteen pounds. I also wasn’t taking Eskatrol.

Wallace (reading MacDonald’s note): “We ate dinner together at 5:45 PM. It is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember and do not think I had one. But it is possible. I had lost 12 to 15 pounds in the prior three to four weeks in the process, using three to five capsules of Eskatrol Spansule. I was also…”

MacDonald: Three to five capsules for the three weeks.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: Right.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: And that’s a possibility.

Wallace: Then why would you put down here that…that there was even a possibility?

MacDonald: These are notes given to an attorney, who has told me to bare my soul as to any possibility so we could always be prepared. So I…

Wallace: Mhm. But you’ve already told me that you didn’t lose 15 pounds in the three weeks prior…

MacDonald: I don’t think that I did.

Wallace: It’s in your notes. “I had lost 12-15 lbs. in the prior 3-4 weeks, in the process using 3-5 capsules of Eskatrol Spansules.” That’s speed. And compazine. To counteract the excitability of speed. “I was losing weight because I was working out with a boxing team and the coach told me to lose weight.” — 60 Minutes

One of McGinniss’s exclusive contentions was that MacDonald had murdered his family because he was high on Eskatrol. Or, as he wrote in Fatal Vision:

It is also fact that if Jeffrey MacDonald were taking three to five Eskatrol Spansules daily, he would have been consuming 75 mg. of dextroamphetamine — more than enough to precipitate an amphetamine psychosis.

Note the phrasing. Even though McGinniss does not know for a fact whether or not MacDonald took three to five Eskatrol (and MacDonald himself is also uncertain: both MacDonald and McGinniss prevaricate enough to summon the justifiably hot and bothered mesh of Mike Wallace’s grilling), he establishes the possibility as factual — even though it is pure speculation. The prognostication becomes a varnished truth, one that wishes to prop up McGinniss’s melodramatic thesis.

* * *

Malcolm was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson over her depiction of him in her book, In the Freud Archives. In The Journalist and the Murderer, she has called upon all journalists to feel “some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship,” yet claims that her own separate lawsuit was not the driving force in the book’s afterword. Yet even Malcolm, a patient and painstaking practitioner, could not get every detail of MacDonald’s appearance on 60 Minutes right:

As Mike Wallace — who had received an advance copy of Fatal Vision without difficulty or a lecture — read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer, the camera recorded his look of shock and utter discomposure.

Wallace was reading MacDonald’s own notes to his attorney back to him, not McGinniss’s book. These were not McGinniss’s passages in which MacDonald was “portrayed as a psychopathic killer,” but passages from MacDonald’s own words that attempted to establish his Eskatrol use. Did Malcolm have a transcript of the 60 Minutes segment now readily available online in 1990? Or is it possible that MacDonald’s notes to his attorney had fused so perfectly with McGinnis’s book that the two became indistinguishable?

This raises important questions over whether any journalist can ever get the facts entirely right, no matter how fair-minded the intentions. It is one thing to be the hero of one’s own story, but it is quite another to know that, even if she believes herself to be morally or factually in the clear, the journalist is doomed to twist the truth to serve her purposes.

It obviously helps to be transparent about one’s bias. At one point in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm is forthright enough to confess that she is struck by MacDonald’s physical grace as he breaks off pieces of tiny powdered sugar doughnuts. This is the kind of observational detail often inserted in lengthy celebrity profiles to “humanize” a Hollywood actor uttering the same calcified boilerplate rattled off to every roundtable junketeer. But if such a flourish is fluid enough to apply to MacDonald, we are left to wonder how Malcolm’s personal connection interferes with her purported journalistic objectivity. In the same paragraph, Malcolm neatly notes the casual abuse MacDonald received in his mailbox after McGinniss’s book was published — in particular a married couple who read Fatal Vision while on vacation who took the time to write a hateful letter while sunbathing at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. This casual cruelty illustrates how the reader can be just as complicit as the opportunistic journo in perpetuating an incomplete or slanted portrait.

The important conundrum that Malcolm imparts in her short and magnificently complicated volume is why we bother to read or write journalism at all if we know the game is rigged. The thorny morality can extend to biography (Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is another excellent book which sets forth the inherent and surprisingly cyclical bias in writing about Sylvia Plath). And even when the seasoned journalist is aware of ethical discrepancies, the judgmental pangs will still crop up. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (contained in the marvelous collection, Forty-One False Starts), Malcolm confessed her own disappointment in how Ingrid Sischy failed to live up to her preconceptions as a bold and modern woman. Malcolm’s tendentiousness may very well be as incorrigible as McGinnis’s, but is it more forgivable because she’s open about it?

* * *

It can be difficult for Janet Malcolm’s most arduous advocates to detect the fine grains of empathy carefully lining the crisp and meticulous forms of her svelte and careful arguments, which are almost always sanded against venal opportunists. Malcolm’s responsive opponents, which have recently included Esquire‘s Tom Junod, Errol Morris, and other middling men who are inexplicably intimidated by women who are smarter, have attempted to paint Malcolm as a hypocrite, an opportunist, and a self-loathing harpy of the first order. Junod wrote that “it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are animated by malice than Janet Malcolm” and described her work as “a self-hater whose work has managed to speak for the self-hatred” of journalism. Yet Junod cannot cite any examples of this self-hate and malice, save for the purported Henry Youngman-like sting of her one liners (Malcolm is not James Wolcott; she is considerably more thoughtful and interesting) and for pointing out, in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, how trials “offer unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness,” failing to observe how Malcolm pointed out how words or evidence lifted out of context could be used to condemn or besmirch the innocent until proven guilty (and owning up to her own biases and her desire to interfere).

Malcolm is not as relentless as her generational peer Renata Adler, but she is just as refreshingly formidable. She is as thorough with her positions and almost as misunderstood. She has made many prominent enemies for her controversial positions — even fighting a ten year trial against Jeffrey Masson over the authenticity of his quotations (dismissed initially by a federal judge in California on the grounds that there was an absence of malice). Adler was ousted from The New Yorker, but Malcolm was not. In the last few years, both have rightfully found renewed attention for their years among a new generation.

One origin for the anti-Malcolm assault is John Taylor’s 1989 New York Magazine article, “Holier than Thou,” which is perhaps singularly responsible for making it mandatory for any mention of The Journalist and the Murderer to include its infamous opening line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Taylor excoriated Malcolm for betraying McGinniss as a subject, dredged up the Masson claims, and claimed that Malcolm used Masson much as McGinniss had used MacDonald. It does not occur to Taylor that Malcolm herself may be thoroughly familiar with what went down and that the two lengthy articles which became The Journalist and the Murderer might indeed be an attempt to reckon with the events that caused the fracas:

Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert said of his famous character. The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.

Similarly, Evan Hughes had difficulty grappling with this idea, caviling over the “bizarre stance” of Malcolm not wanting to be “oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.” He falsely infers that Malcolm has claimed that “it is pointless to learn the facts to try to get to the bottom of a crime,” not parsing Malcolm’s clear distinction between evidence and the journalist’s ineluctable need to realize characters on the page. No matter how faithfully the journalist sticks with the facts, a journalistic subject becomes a character because the narrative exigencies demand it. Errol Morris can find Malcolm’s stance “disturbing and problematic” as much as he likes, but he is the one who violated the journalistic taboo of paying subjects for his 2008 film, Standard Operating Procedure, without full disclosure. One of Morris’s documentary subjects, Joyce McKinney, claimed that she was tricked into giving an interview for what became Tabloid, alleging that one of Morris’s co-producers broke into her home with a release form. Years before Morris proved triumphant in an appellate court, he tweeted:

The notion of something “unvarnished” attached to a personal account may have originated with Shakespeare:

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic—
For such proceeding I am charged withal—
I won his daughter.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Othello hoped that in telling “a round unvarnished tale,” he would be able to come clean with Brabantio over why he had eloped with the senator’s daughter Desdemona. He wishes to be straightforward. It’s an extremely honorable and heartfelt gesture that has us very much believing in Othello’s eloquence. Othello was very lucky not to be speaking with a journalist, who surely would have used his words against him.

Next Up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood!

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The Bat Segundo Show: Annalena McAfee

Annalena McAfee appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #453. Ms. McAfee is most recently the author of The Spoiler.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In the first few minutes of the conversation, one of the microphones decided to blow out. And while Our Correspondent was equipped with two microphones, the microphone that blew out wasn’t the one on Our Correspondent’s voice, but the one that was on the author’s voice. Ms. McAffee’s words can be detected during this program, but if her voice sounds like it’s coming out of a small radiator, well, you now know why. Many apologies for the low quality to Ms. McAfee and to our listeners. We have done our best in post-production to preserve this conversation despite this setback.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Selling his scandalous tales to the highest bidder.

Author: Annalena McAfee

Subjects Discussed: The journalism novel’s long tradition, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, Guy de Maupassant, the number of women working as journalists, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, the lack of women journalists in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Nellie Bly, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, using phrases as “nasal plainchant,” how style and language allows one to escape tropes, plucky newsboys, formality, balancing characters, botching an interview, Tamara Sim’s entitlement, finding redeeming value in characters who don’t comprehend basic journalism, how to counter your own biases when writing fiction, providing what the newspapers want, narcissistic protagonists, 1997 as a cusp moment in journalism, journalistic ethics, the desperate scramble to be first with a story, cash for stories, single-source Fleet Street exposés, prostitutes and TV presenters, Tory MPs and tabloid scandals, the impulse to tear people down as a journalist, including a virtuous side character, the Conservative Monday Club vs. a fictitious Monday Club, Sherman Duffy’s idea of a journalist being “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” the differences between US and UK journalism, whether or not cultural journalism is a slightly higher form of tabloid journalism, David Simon’s Q&A comments being needlessly dissected by short-sighted journalists, the problems with celebrity journalism, Ian McEwan as in-house editor, Amsterdam, Enduring Love, being grilled on television through personal connection, Marguerite Higgins, women war journalists, the infamous hostile showdown between Gloria Emerson and John Lennon, how Higgins inspired two novels, what journalism has lost because of the Internet, needless length caps applied to present-day journalism, Kindle Singles, the influence of Maxim in the early noughts, aggregate sites, The Browser, Twitter and the move to individual curators, obsession, and internal pressure for journalists.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

McAfee: In terms of tearing people down, I did not work in that world really. I worked on The Financial Times. It’s a fantastic paper and the probity is unimpeachable. I worked on The Guardian on the culture. I founded and edited The Guardian Review. Again, that’s a paper that’s on the side of angels. I was very, very lucky. I had a spell on the Evening Standard. But I was arts editor and theater critic. And I suppose in my capacity as theater critic, sometimes I might have been less than kind. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of sustained bullying. Or I didn’t have that opportunity. And I hope that if I did, I would be able to resist it.

Correspondent: So you were really perhaps comparable to the Monitor‘s books editor the morning after the party.

McAfee: Yes.

Correspondent: Where everybody else was completely trashed and their heads were throbbing and they were incapable of any conversation. And meanwhile, those who chose not to imbibe in this debauchery, they were able to seize the reins here, so to speak. (laughs)

McAfee: Well, books editor do debauchery too.

Correspondent: Of course. Most people do. We all know this.

McAfee: There’s no character assassinations or kiss-and-tells on my particular beat, thankfully.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to go back to the question of character balance. Because you have this confident young woman named Tania. She’s dutifully reading books. She’s researching her subjects.

McAfee: She’s called Tamara. But the old woman gets her name wrong and calls her Tania sometimes.

Correspondent: I’m sorry. I’m talking about — anyway, she even is very nice to respond to the quip.

McAfee: Oh, Tania.

Correspondent: Tania. That’s who I’m saying. Tania.

McAfee: You know my book better than I do.

Correspondent: I know that Honor, in a joke, actually calls her Tania. And that’s the clue that there is actually something askew because she completely insists on Tania. You have that email joke. Okay. Now that we’re on the same page, so you’ve got Tania.

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: She’s this erudite person who’s incredibly capable and she’s even kind enough to offer this tinselly chime that you describe when Tamara says, “Oh, well, the future is unisex jumpsuits and time travel.” But this does not exactly help us in warming to Tamara. I was reading this book and I’m saying to myself, “You know, Tania, this woman’s got her stuff together.” But I’m wondering how you worked out your method of parceling out Tania’s appearances throughout the book. Because they tend to be somewhat sparse near the beginning. And I almost got the sense that, as you were working on this, you wanted to have not so much of Tania. Because then all of a sudden, we’ll really not like Tamara. I’m wondering how you balanced the Ts here.

McAfee: Well, I did kind of concede Tania as the future. The only capable young woman journalist. Brilliant and completely ahead of the game as far as technology. And, of course, as I say, that was a time — 1997 — it was still possible to believe that the Internet was a passing fad. And indeed some of our great commentators said so. “It will be over soon. It’s like Citizens Band radio. It’s like Esperanto. It’s a craze. It will pass.” I use a quote from one of our great commentators saying exactly that in January 1997. So that’s what Tamara and all her colleagues are thinking. But gradually I hope that as a young woman who runs a website, as the future makes itself plain, as we see what direction it’s going in, that was the aim. That ultimately the future belongs to Tania and she claims it.

Correspondent: But did you worry that she might, in fact, be too virtuous? I mean, you’ve got two characters who have issues with Tamara and Honor. You’ve got Tania, who has not a single bad bone as far as I know. So how do you deal with this balance? Because if you have too much of Tania, then it gets away from the two central characters here. And so I’m wondering if there was more of Tania in an earlier draft perhaps or you had to say to yourself, “Well, I have to wait twenty or thirty pages before she appears again.”

McAfee: Well, no, there wasn’t more of Tania. And actually, again, I’m trying for complexity. And to be perfectly honest, I find Tania’s virtuousness and her capabilities slightly irritating. She’s the person who does one’s own job better than one can ever do and is always the last to leave the office. And she doesn’t laugh much. Her tinselly chimes are part of a game rather than a sense of humor.

Correspondent: No, it’s more of a polite gesture, I thought. I mean, here, she has been just totally insulted and instead of actually allowing herself to be steamrolled, she decides to respond with some grace. The tinselly chimes.

McAfee: Grace? Well, the tear of the victor.

Correspondent: Here’s the other thing about Tania. I mean, I know people like this. They go ahead and they work very hard, but they have a dark side. So I was reading this book thinking, “You know, Tania’s probably doing something we don’t know.” But we never actually get there. So I’m wondering: why? (laughs)

McAfee: Well, that’s true. That is probably true. And, in fact, she does move in on people.

Correspondent: That’s true.

McAfee: She’s incredibly attractive. That’s another of her irritating virtues.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: But she uses it and is jockeying for position and is not afraid to use her sexuality.

Correspondent: Nevertheless, you find her irritating.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: The successful woman is irritating. Wait a minute here. (laughs)

McAfee: She doesn’t have warmth, I suppose. And that’s really it. She’s hard to read and she doesn’t seem generous to her colleagues.

Correspondent: I see.

McAfee: She lacks generosity.

Correspondent: She moves in on the territory and she does so without really seeing what the pecking order is.

McAFee: As I say, she’s got the ambition of a young person.

Correspondent: That’s an annoying quality. I’ll give you that. So it’s interesting that you have the Monday Club in this book. Because it’s far more liberal than the conservative Monday Club. Because you have the Twisk Foundation fighting child exploitation wherever it is to be found. You have the war correspondent. And I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is almost a Bizarro World Monday Club.” And so I’m wondering why you decided to go for a more progressive form of something that is a conservative institution in the UK.

McAFee: Well, they meet on a Monday. But I chose…

Correspondent: It could have been the Tuesday Club. (laughs)

McAfee: But I quite liked it. And I think I do say an ironic reference to the conservative, right-wing thinktank of the same name. Or whatever. So I quite liked playing with that. I mean, these are bien-pensant liberals and they’ve taken the name of the arch factory of Thatcherism.

Correspondent: Do you have any personal experience with the real Monday Club at all?

McAfee: No.

Correspondent: Any efforts to peek in there?

McAfee: No. Not at all. I can’t think of any.

Correspondent: So Sherman Duffy — he was a reporter friend of Ben Hecht’s — and he has this very famous maxim. He said, “Socially a journalist fits somewhere between a whore and a bartender.” Wonderful, wonderful line. Now in the Monday Club chapter, you not only have Tamara serving canapes to these affluent types. But you also have Ruth, Honor’s publisher — she’s actually engaged in this service sector activity as well. She’s unpacking the pastries on the plate and so forth. So I’m wondering if you were thinking of the Duffy maxim when you were considering this. This is a natural extension. Is there any way that fiction can help us and assist us in rehabilitating a journalist’s social status from somewhere between the whore and the bartender?

McAfee: Well, I mean, journalists are happy to see themselves as mavericks. Aren’t they? Certainly British journalists. I know that American journalism is a more honorable tradition.

Correspondent: Really? (laughs)

McAfee: I was talking to a friend about this the other night. And she said that there’s more of a public service attitude. And it can make for more solemn journalism. But in the UK, it’s well, you know, anything can go.

Correspondent: So you would say that journalism in the UK has declined considerably in the last ten years.

McAFee: Oh no.

Correspondent: Or twenty years.

McAfee: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I mean, I think there’s marvelous stuff going on. Absolutely marvelous. In fact, all that’s changed is the medium really. My war correspondent is not — she’s a bit of a dragon. And she resents the fact that the world has turned and she is not the top of the pile anymore. In fact, if she’d looked around, she would have much to celebrate. Particularly women in journalism. Women like Marie Colvin, the late Marie Colvin. In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, as she died in the cause of her work. There’s marvelous reporting going on. But there’s also a lot of dross. That’s all mainstream. I don’t get celebrity journalism. I just can’t understand the appeal.

Correspondent: But some would argue that cultural journalism is, I suppose, a classier version of celebrity journalism. What do you think?

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: I ask myself this question too. I mean, look, I’ve read the book and I’m trying to tie it into a culture here. And I don’t want it to be about gossip. But at the same time, is this conversation also part of the problem? Even though it’s slightly higher on the brow? (laughs)

McAfee: Somebody said that novels were higher gossip.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

McAfee: That’s the level of celebrity journalism that appeals to me. But yeah, TV stars. Reality TV shows. I mean, I don’t want to go on to that. But that seems to be cheap television and cheap journalism. And I don’t think there’s anything edifying that one gets from it.

Correspondent: Well, the problem we have here too — and this is really frustrating. David Simon, for example, recently said some things in an interview. He didn’t quite express himself very well. But he basically implied that people who didn’t watch The Wire from beginning to middle to end were not watching it according to his vision. And I can totally understand his sentiment. But from my standpoint, I was saying, “Well, this is really nothing to get all that worked up about.” But, of course, television journalists completely flipped out over this and said, “David Simon is being an ass.” And Simon then has to spend an hour of his life talking to this TV critic named Sepinwall, basically clarifying what he was saying, where he was coming from. And this, to my mind, is the epitome. This says nothing about The Wire. It says absolutely nothing about the actual relationship to art. And there were several people — including a New Yorker TV critic on Twitter — who were going off about this. And I was saying to myself, “You know, why are you devoting so much of your energy to try and systematically dismantle and deconstruct a quote that really has no bearing on what David Simon is doing as an artist?” The suggestion I’m making here — and I’m going off on a total tangent and we will get back to your book — is that, well, do you think that cultural journalism might be suffering from the same problems that reality TV, this sensationalistic journalism, is?

McAfee: Oh yes. I do. I find that a lot of interviews — and I know we’re having an interview.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. It’s very meta here. (laughs)

McAfee: They concentrate on rehashing old stuff. Rehashing cuttings basically. Inquiring, as Tamara does, about affairs, about the personal life and not about the work. And when I was on the Guardian, we started a profile which was an essential interview about a writer or an artist. And the one rule was it was about the work. We don’t care about the personal life. If anyone cares about the personal life, they can read it. They can look it up. They can read it elsewhere. But what’s really interesting is the work. And I find that so much more enriching.

Correspondent: There is one question I have about your husband [Ian McEwan] and you, and it has nothing to do really with the personal. Although it may have something to do with the personal. But we’re talking about purely artistic terms. Okay. One, you’ve got an in-house editor. I’m really curious about how you two work as in-house editors. And, two, I noticed that this book had quite a bit in common with Amsterdam. You have a photo that is released. You have editors who are sacked. And so I wondered first of all if Amsterdam was hovering over you as you were writing this and, second, how do you guys edit each other’s work? That’s all I care about.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: Or do you? Or do you leave each other alone?

McAfee: Yes. We do read. I read his work. I’m his first reader with a pencil. And he returned the compliment. In terms of Amsterdam, which I love — it’s a great newspaper novel actually, though it’s guys again. I hadn’t reread it for a while. But I guess any newspaper novel about modern journalism is going to have this scandal element to it. And, in fact, what you ask me is a fairer question, less compromising. When I was on the FT, I was editing the arts and books page. I was invited to the BBC. And it was around the time of the Booker Prize, when the Booker Prize was just going to be announced. The shortlist was going to be announced. And I was asked to come on as a literary editor of the Financial Times. So I turned up. And I’m very nervous on television. And I’m in absolute agony. And I turn up in this bright lit studio. And the guy turns to me and says, “So did you help hubby write the book?” Oh, what do you say? I said, “He’s perfectly capable of writing it himself. Thanks very much. But, nope, he wrote Amsterdam by himself. Unassisted.” As I wrote The Spoiler.

Correspondent: I would have said, “Did your wife help you with that question?”

McAfee: You know, that’s good.

Correspondent: So you guys edit each other’s work. Is there a point where you say, “Hey, hands off, Ian, I’ve got this”? I mean, does he become too vigorous with the pen? Or do you become in turn too vigorous with the pen? How do you keep each other’s hands off? What’s the deal with you guys?

McAfee: Well, it’s very companionable and decent. We both make suggestions and we both know that we’re at liberty to ignore them. Which is what happens. But when I read his first — the first book when we were together was Enduring Love. And I read that. And he asked me. “Be as free as you like and put pencil marks wherever there’s any kind of doubt.” And I was very tentative about it. I mean, I was used to editing for a living. But I was very tentative about hurting things. And I’ve written children’s books.

Correspondent: Yes, I know.

McAfee: I had a children’s book that was just coming out. And so he said, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” And he went through it. And there were pencil marks and suggestions.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: I thought, “Right. That’s how it’s done. No holds barred.” I went back to Enduring Love and pulled no punches.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow. Did you pull no punches on the opening scene? I’m curious. No one can…

McAfee: There was no work required. Absolutely. It’s superb.

(Photo: Richard Saker)

The Bat Segundo Show #453: Annalena McAfee (Download MP3)

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Jason Allardyce: How a Sunday Times Journalist Ripped Off Ian Rankin, Bat Segundo, the Observer, and an Australian Producer

On April 24, 2011, the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times published “Rankin admits Twitter addiction” on page 21. It was written by Jason Allardyce, a 40-year-old who was named “Scottish Journalist of the Year” in 2003. His MySpace page states that he likes to go by the name “wolfspider” and that he is based out of Callander. But “wolfspider” is a lonely man. He only has two friends on MySpace: the ever-popular Tom and MySpace UK.

On Easter morning, I knew nothing about Allardyce. A friend had forwarded me this Deadline News report by Peter Laing, in which I recognized quotes identical to my conversation with Ian Rankin on The Bat Segundo Show. The conversation was not accredited. As someone who had investigated the Cooks Source scandal and who remembered the online tarring and feathering, I was appalled that anybody would still consider that ripping off other people’s journalism — even from behind a paywall — would still be okay. But this time, I was on the receiving end for a project that I make little to no money on. For the Rankin show, I had devoted perhaps 25 to 30 hours of my life to reading Rankin’s books, conducting research, interviewing the man for an hour, and mastering the audio. My labor was being exploited. I immediately contacted Laing by email. And on an Easter Sunday, a little less than an hour after I contacted him, he replied back on Twitter:

The Sunday Times? Murdoch’s newspaper? I told people on Twitter about what had happened and asked if anybody could send along the article. And a very friendly pescatarian vegetarian in Scotland going by the name of @SeymourSunshine located the article and photographed it for me.

I transcribed the article. I was stunned to learn that 215 of the 758 words in Jason Allardyce’s article were taken directly and without attribution from my Bat Segundo interview with Ian Rankin. I emailed Alladyce and his editors. And then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one getting played by the wolfspider. An additional 126 words in Allardyce’s article were lifted wholesale and without attribution from two whole paragraphs that Rankin contributed to this Gaby Hinsliff compilation in The Observer from February 13, 2011. To add insult to injury, Allardyce plagiarized a third source, pilfering a good 74 words from this Lisa Zilberpriver piece from World News Australia (January 18, 2010). For all three original pieces that Allardyce has used, a copyright notice was clearly listed on each of the pages.

In other words, Allardyce did not obtain a single original word from his subject for his article.

Ian Rankin was kind enough to confirm with me that nobody from The Times had contacted him. So if we add up the tally, 415 of Allardyce’s 758 words, or 54% of his article, were taken from three separate sources. That’s considerably more words than a famous fair use case here in the States, where The Nation published 300 to 400 words of verbatim quotes from a 500 page Gerald Ford memoir without obtaining permission, was sued, and lost. So that it can all be made clear, here is a breakdown of Allardyce’s liberties (with the unattributed quotes indicated in bold and, for Bat Segundo, the specific times in the program where the words are mentioned):

The writer admitted that Twitter was “taking up more of my life than it should.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:08-27:09]

He added: “I’ve a kind of addictive personality so I’m always very careful to try to avoid things that can become addictive. [Bat Segundo interview, 27:01-27:06] It’s like a diary. I used to keep a page-a-day diary when I was a kid from the age of 12 till I was 29 and I had to fill up every single page. I couldn’t leave any blank space.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:49-28:00]

He conquered the diary addiction after moving to America with his wife for six months. [This part is paraphrased from Bat Segundo interview, 28:00-28:30]

But I use Twitter like it, as a kind of memento mori of everything I have done. [Bat Segundo interview, 28:33-28:37] When I started writing a new book, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t go near Twitter until the end of the working day and I kept that up for about three weeks. Then, if I stopped for a cup of coffee, I would check Twitter; stop for lunch, check Twitter. I have to be careful about how many people I follow because, having an addictive personality, I feel the need to read every single tweet on the timeline so if I’m following 300 people that’s potentially 300 people’s tweets I’m reading in any one day…. [Bat Segundo interview, 30:24-30:49]

I’ve got to go back and read them all. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll go back to the night before and scroll through the night to find out what people were up to.” [Bat Segundo interview, 30:51-31:00]

Rankin said he went through a stage of having a similar addiction to viewing bids on eBay, and that he cannot play computer games because he believes he would be unable to stop, having gone without sleep as a student in order to play them. “It’s insane,” he said. [Bat Segundo interview, plagiarized paraphrase, “I went through a stage of buying vinyl on eBay, buying records…,” 31:02-31:09; “…if I finished browsing eBay…,” 31:10-31:12; direct “It’s insane,” 31:21-31:22]

He recently wrote: “I work from home and work on my own. Twitter connects me to the outside world, and makes it feel as though I’m in a huge, airy office full of funny, well-informed people.

“It gives me instant news, clever jokes, views, and reactions. Fans of my books can contact me, and I can let them know what I’m up to.

“Twitter is also my diary. I can scroll back through my tweets and recall what I was up to on any particular day. I keep in touch with friends make new ones, renew old acquaintances, and sometimes am even gifted ideas for stories. All from my office chair, in 140 characters – which also makes it a fantastic daily exercise in editing and concision.” (The last three paragraphs taken entirely from this Guardian article.)

Internet addiction is well recognised, and has even led to the residential treatment programmes in America to help people wean themselves from obsessive use of Twitter, eBay, Facebook, texting and video games. Research published last year suggested that the speed and unpredictability offered by social media stimulates dopamine, which can create an addiction to seeking, rather than finding, contact through them. It added that as more people join in, the scope for overuse grows. (Taken from World News Australia article.)

While it is true that Section 30 of the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988 specifies a fair dealing exception “for the purpose of criticism or review,” the attribution must contain “a sufficient acknowledgment.” Furthermore, according to English law, there’s very little I can do to stop Allardyce or any other person “reporting current events” from infringing upon copyright provided that “it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgment.”

What is a sufficient acknowledgement? Well, unlike much of the American tax codes, you can always count on English law to be concise and thorough. Here’s Section 178 of the CDPA:

“sufficient acknowledgment” mean an acknowledgment identifying the work in question by its title or other description, and identifying the author unless—

(a) in the case of a published work, it is published anonymously;

(b) in the case of an unpublished work, it is not possible for a person to ascertain the identity of the author by reasonable inquiry;

It may very well be a common practice for some UK journalists not to provide attribution. But when they don’t, they are clearly breaking the law. And they are exposing the newspapers and outlets that they write for to considerable legal liability. But more important than such legal propriety, it’s just plain rude and antithetical to the spirit of human togetherness.

But Allardyce’s failure to credit any of his original sources extends far beyond the prospect of fair dealing and fair use. His disingenuous usage could be interpreted as an intent to deceive.

Let’s approach the question form a practical position. Why is attribution important? Well, take this UPI report from September 5, 2010. The UPI quotes Cardinal Keith O’Brien: “Our detailed research into BBC news coverage of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, together with a systematic analysis of output from the Catholic church, has revealed a consistent anti-Christian institutional bias.” That’s an extraordinary statement. If you’re at all interested in the many opinions, you’ll want to know where it comes from. And the UPI, because it is a responsible service, notes in its article that The Sunday Telegraph first reported the Cardinal O’Brien quote.

Jason Allardyce, on the other hand, doesn’t make such a distinction when he produces the same quote in his article, and he doesn’t attribute The Telegraph. This causes the Richard Dawkins Foundation (where I found Allardyce’s article, now conveniently hiding behind a paywall) to believe that Allardyce is conducting original reporting. This also causes confusion for the BBC, which erroneously reports that Cardinal O’Brien said these words “in an interview with the Sunday Times.” So Allardyce and The Sunday Times gets credit for a quote that they cut and pasted from another newspaper.

Now let’s say that, several years from now, a historian is looking into biases against religion (or the mythical claims of biases) during the early 21st century. The historian will want to go straight to the original source so that she can ensure that the quote and the context is accurate. But if she has to wade through Allardyce’s misleading attribution, this is going to cause needless work for the historian. Allardyce’s misleading attribution also creates the false impression that the Sunday Times was the central place for that news story.

And because Allardyce has published his “article” in a prominent newspaper, with anyone who reads the article believing that the interview comes from him, there’s very little that I can do to get proper credit or compensation.

I have emailed Allardyce the following terms for resolution:

(a) a public apology, both prominently in print and online, for taking my quotes without asking or attributing;

(b) the issuance of a correction, both prominently in print and online, indicating that the Sunday Times and Jason Allardyce lifted quotes from my radio program, along with a URL directed to my site,

(c) a donation of £500 (as compensation for using my quotes and others without permission or attribution) to Reporters Without Borders.

It’s impossible for me to be entirely objective in this report. I am doing the best that I can to keep a level head. Still, in an age where Arianna Huffington insists that it’s “wrong and offensive to insist that HuffPost is exploiting journalists,” the time has come to stand up against anyone who believes that they can get away from stealing anybody’s labor. If ostensible professionals feel that they are above the law and above the decency of community, then what’s the purpose of their collective existence?

[4/26/11 UPDATE: As of Tuesday afternoon (UK time), Jason Allardyce has not returned my telephone calls and emails.]

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Why Devin Faraci is Unfit to Practice Journalism

I am generally quite supportive of fledgling cultural sites, both high and low. And it was with this spirit in mind that I took a quick peek at Badass Digest, a new venture run by the Alamo Drafthouse (a venue I wholeheartedly appreciate) and edited by a man named Devin Faraci, whom I now understand to be in the habit of berating people when he can’t get his way. I was unaware of Faraci’s history when I stumbled upon this erroneous report, claiming that director John Carpenter had “suffered a seizure at Florida’s Spooky Empire convention on Saturday October the 8th.” As someone who hopes that John Carpenter lives long enough to turn out a few more films, I was greatly concerned by this apparent “news.”

The problem was that Dread Central, the site that had initially reported this false rumor, got its news wrong. After someone named “Uncle Creepy” has posted the item, Carpenter’s wife had contacted Dread Central, informing the site that Carpenter did not have a seizure in Orlando and that he had collapsed from exhaustion. Dread Central had the decency to include this update (even if it did not change its misleading headline).

Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci didn’t change his headline either. Indeed, even at the onset, Faraci preferred reveling in the news with his tasteless headline, “Okay, Who Showed John Carpenter Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN?” (Never mind that, as interviews with both Rob Zombie and John Carpenter demonstrate, Carpenter urged Rob Zombie to make the film his own. One commenter in the thread would later point this out.)

I left this perfectly reasonable comment:

John Carpenter did not suffer a seizure. According to his wife, Carpenter had a flu and was exhausted. Dread Central updated its post. Please try doing some actual reporting (what real badasses do) rather than spreading misinformation like a common amateur.

Faraci responded in the comments:

Hi Ed. Rather than commenting like a common moron, maybe you could have noticed that this article was published on October 11th, before Dread Central updated its post. Yes, Ed, I was publishing content here before it was public. How embarrassing for you to be calling someone else out on an error when you’re in fact completely wrong. Or do you pick up copies of the New York Times from 2007 and become enraged that they refer to President Bush?

Ed, I hope you deal with the personal problems that would lead you to comb through a newly launched blog in an effort to deliver a correction. Or you can get fucked, whichever suits you best.

Never mind that I had observed in my comment that Dread Central had updated its post. I was aware that this was an October 11, 2010 item. But, on October 22, 2010, the item had not corrected the misinformation.

Indeed, as of today, the post still falsely states that Carpenter was “suffering a seizure.”

Why is this important? Well, let’s frame this as a crass thought experiment. Let us suppose that I am the “common moron” that Faraci suggests me to be. As a common moron, I am too busy to look up from my laptop to see that Faraci’s father is being raped with a night stick. Dread Central has reported that Faraci’s father is merely being kissed by another man. There is tangible experience before me that will help me to get a better handle on the story, if not aid the victim — namely, that Faraci’s father is screaming for help. But under the Faraci School, I must not believe anything else but a single source on my computer.

Just as there is a difference between “seizure” and “flu,” there is also a pivotal distinction between “raped” and “kissed.” Faraci’s father, in addition to recovering from a vicious rape that the insensitive “common moron” has failed to report properly (let alone assist in stopping), now has to spend a good deal of time attempting to clear up the misinformation that the alleged journalist has helped to promulgate.

Yet this is precisely the line of reasoning that Faraci promulgated in relation to John Carpenter. Had Faraci been an actual journalist, he would have picked up the phone. He would have called Carpenter’s people. He would have called the Spooky Empire convention. He would have contacted the hotel. He would have enlisted social networks to fish for eyewitness confirmation. He would have called the hospital. He would have talked to a doctor. In short, Faraci would have conducted actual reporting. Confirmation of rumors before reporting them.

All this would have made Faraci a journalist instead of some amateurish hack junketeer who screams at publicists like a petulant infant when isn’t given his rattle and who tells anybody calling out his slipshod standards to get fucked.

Rather than tell Faraci to get fucked, I have attempted to frame his incompetence through a crude patois he might understand. Let me attempt a more dignified approach.

Getting the details right are important. If you don’t believe this to be the case, then your blog — whether newly launched or well established — simply has no right to exist. You have no right to call yourself a news site. You have no right to be taken seriously by anyone.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t comb through Faraci’s site to find the Carpenter error. I stumbled upon it after devoting perhaps 30 seconds of my time to the site. But I think I will take up Faraci’s suggestion in an effort to demonstrate why he is unfit to practice journalism and why Badass Digest is deserving of either death or serious improvement (perhaps through a more capable employee than the incompetent Faraci).

Beyond the ignoble Carpenter gaffe, the real question here is just how much misinformation Devin Faraci can spread in one day. The unsurprising answer — based on going through a random day at Badass Digest (October 22) — is a quite considerable tally.

Adam Green post: Faraci erroneously refers to Hatchet II (Roman numeral) as Hatchet 2.

Green Lantern report: Faraci describes the forthcoming Green Lantern as “the most cosmic superhero movie ever,” proceeding to note that its “scope is so big it spans from the West Coast of the US to a planet at the center of the galaxy.” Aside from the needless hyperbole (which comes, apparently bought and purchased by studios, after Faraci had “visit[ed] the New Orleans set of the film”), if Faraci actually knew what the word “cosmic” meant, he’d understand that its extraterrestrial definition stands in sharp contrast to the earth itself, and that his vapid praise extends to misunderstanding the very modifier in question. But then Faraci is a guy so naive and unquestioning that he sees “life-sized cardboard cut outs of Tomar-Re and Kilowogg, the alien GLs who help train Hal Jordan,” and it never occurs to this incompetent that these cutouts might be red herrings to throw junketeers off. Has Faraci read the script? Has he talked with the director about this issue to get confirmation of Tomar-Re and Kilowogg’s appearances? He has not. But he has talked with the director, although not about any of the information he purports to be true (whether any of his hunches will prove to be the basis for the later report Faraci tends to file is a mystery, but his unwillingness to impart even one quote in support of his assertion should demonstrate his unquestionable indolence). Yet he is more happy to impart that “there was a Sinestro-themed cake for [Mark Strong] at lunch.” Journalism’s just desserts!

It also doesn’t occur to this profoundly naive man that he might have been invited to attend the set precisely because he had expressed his disappointment with footage at Comic Con 2010.

Faraci states that he got “the impression that Johns – the guy who has been writing Green Lantern’s comic book adventures for the past couple of years – was incredibly influential on the tone and direction of the movie.” But he never actually interviews Johns, who is standing right there, or anybody else to confirm that Johns’s Secret Origins storyline was part of the Green Lantern movie. In other words, Faraci is your typical rube taken in by flash and filigree. The writing equivalent of a baby elephant who jumps on his forelegs whenever he sees a bag of peanuts. The dog trained to salivate by Pavlov. One goes to Comic-Con to encounter dweebs like this. That they would believe themselves to be journalists merely by standing within five feet of a notable figure reveals the lax standards of present cultural journalism.

Of course, since “this isn’t the full report,” Faraci “can’t tell you too much.” Which begs the question of why he’s even bothered to file this piece in the first place. Journalism shouldn’t contain secrets. It should contain answers to questions. Quotes. Information that nobody else has. Confirmation of information. We get nothing even close to rudimentary journalism in Faraci’s blog post. But he’s happy to impart some “incredible concept art” that was given to him by the studio, urging his readership to “put this stuff on the side of a van” rather than parse it. Faraci, the used car salesman in action.

Over the Top toy story: Faraci’s lede: “Remember when Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling opus Over the Top changed the world for professional arm wrestlers everywhere? Probably not. In fact, if you think about cinematic arm wrestling at all you probably think about The Fly, which came out the year before, and had Jeff Goldblum snapping a fellow’s armbone [sic] through his skin during a heated bar match.” An “armbone,” eh? Is it the humerus? The forearm? Aside from the wretched prose, one is stunned that Faraci would be incapable of being more specific bout what is snapped — particularly since Brundlefly snaps his opponent’s wrist.

This lede offers some clues as to Faraci’s motivations. Here we have an aging man motivated by cinematic nostalgia, circa 1986 and 1987, that most adults have forgotten. (This pathetic nostalgia is also in place when Faraci appraises Black Francis as “one cool guy.”) Indeed, the nostalgia is so contagious that Faraci has only an approximate idea of what he’s seen rather than a working knowledge of it. Then again, this is the same misogynist who writes, “So what did you think of Paranormal Activity 2? Were Katie’s boobs as good as the first?” It is unclear whether Faraci is referring to the actress Katie Featherston or her character. One gets the discomfiting sense that this boob-hunting boob is probably referring to the former. As Joanne McNeil suggested back in September, “If you do something sexist, I think you are as dumb as the creationists. In some cases maybe even dumber.” (And Faraci says that I’m the one with personal problems.)

Faraci is indeed dumb as come. And that stupidity extends to more hypocrisy one post earlier when Faraci points to a double standard (indeed, the one that so many other journalists had brought up earlier in the day) between Mel Gibson being sacked from The Hangover 2 and Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, appearing in The Hangover without a problem. How can a man, whose primary reason for seeing a horror film is to see if “Katie’s boobs [were] as good as the first,” even attempt to comment on such a moral issue? Faraci even closes his “editorial” by writing, “We love art and entertainment, not gossip and bullshit.”

“Were Katie’s boobs as good as the first?” The Green Lantern report laden with gossip and bullshit? Faraci’s feeble statement couldn’t be anything further from the truth.

Rabbit Hole trailer: “What else is it about? I don’t really want to know; all I need to know is that my buddy Scott Weinberg is quoted on the trailer giving effusive praise. And he’s a horror guy!”

More worthless speculation. Not only does Faraci announce how incurious and lazy he is in finding out more about the movie (“I don’t really want to know”), but the man is relying on a blurb from a suspicious review, in which Weinberg claims Rabbit Hole to be “flawless” and “quite simply, one of the best films I’ve ever seen at a festival.” Such over-the-top praise, coming from either a friend or a stranger, should make any real journalist suspicious. But Faraci, as has been clear all along, isn’t even a real writer. His puny excuse for a mind can’t even perform the most basic investigative inquiry, even if you pushed a pistol into his temple. His writing appears to have been purchased, whether by blind loyalty to a friend or blind loyalty to a studio. He doesn’t have the courtesy to link to Weinberg’s review to provide his audience with context. He doesn’t link to other reviews that might cast the film in a different light. Devin Faraci is no different from a hypnotized conformist staring into the camera, saying, “I loved it. It was much better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.”

Faraci also incorrectly italicizes Pulitzer. He refers to the Toronto International Film Festival as the “Toronto Film Festival.”

Spielberg a badass? If Faraci is seriously claiming Steven Spielberg, one of the most mainstream directors, to be capable of delivering “badass sci-fi,” then he clearly has no taste — particularly if he’s holding up War of the Worlds — a movie as safe as a turkey dinner — as a “badass” film.” (He makes no mention of Minority Report, which would arguably be more closer film to “badass” territory. This may be because, while Faraci apparently longs for 1980s nostalgia, his memory is worthless for any film in between what is instantaneously released and the movies he barely remembers from his wasted youth.) With typical illiteracy, Faraci doesn’t even mention Daniel H. Wilson’s name. Wilson is merely “the dude who wrote How to Survive a Robot Uprising, one of those 150 page, double spaced impulse buy novelty books that make people rich while you still work in a cubicle.” On the contrary, Wilson was a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute when he wrote the book. I’m also curious how someone can be an “ex-Buffy alum.” To my knowledge, Drew Goodard hasn’t renounced the widely regarded program which helped to kickstart his writing career. An alumni is a former member of an association. So Drew Goodard is merely a Buffy alum. Devin Faraci again demonstrates how little he comprehends the words he uses. He throws words around like a sad drunk walking into the kitchen and claims to be a culinary expert simply by recklessly swinging a hatchet.

The Spider-Man WTC poster: Once again, Faraci lets sensationalism preside over the facts. This time, he gets several facts wrong about a Spider-Man poster recall. The poster, issued before 9/11, featuring the World Trade Center reflected in Spidey’s eyes. On September 12, 2001 (not September 13, as Faraci claims), Sony issued a letter to theaters, asking:

Due to the devastating events that took place yesterday and out of respect for those involved, Sony Pictures Entertainment is requesting that all Spider-Man teaser posters and trailers be taken down and returned to the studio.

There is nothing in this statement to indicate that Sony wanted these posters to be destroyed, as Faraci suggests. But then what else can you expect from a man who uses the phrase “expense trailer?”

* * *

All of the above occurred during a 24 hour period. I shudder to think how many additional embarrassments I could find, should I decide to waste my life poring through this sad excuse for a website any longer. In one day, Faraci managed to misinform his readers, mangle the English language, fudge the facts, express casual misogyny, wiggle his sycophantic tongue in response to information he didn’t bother to investigate, get movie titles wrong, encourage his readers to blindly consume concept art that a studio fed him, wallow in nostalgia, and epitomize conformist opportunism at nearly every moment.

On August 19, 1896, when Adolph S. Ochs began to manage the New York Times, he published this announcement:

It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is permissible in good society, and give it as early if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

It is clear by the evidence that Devin Faraci is not only unwilling, but incapable of living by anything close to this credo. Here is a man who does not have exclusives. He cannot deliver the news impartially. He laps up any half-truth from the studios, living in fear that he will be ejected from screenings and garnering favor so that he won’t (which gives him license to shriek at publicists). He is utterly incapable of considering questions of public importance and, most importantly, incapable of inviting intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

Should Mr. Faraci decide to respond to the claims contained in this 3,000 word essay, and I certainly invite him to do so, it is doubtful that he will have much to offer beyond “you can get fucked.” And how does that make him any different from a common thug? How does such erratic behavior, such steadfast sloppiness, and such laughable entitlement make him any more qualified than some random guy plucked from a bar?

The answer is simple: By any standard, Devin Faraci is unfit to practice journalism in any form.

[UPDATE: An earlier version of this post, apparently loaded up from WordPress through a previous draft and not the correct one, misspelled Scott Weinberg’s name at one point as “Feinberg.” That error, noted by a reader, has been corrected. Additionally, Devin Faraci, despite the fact that he told me to “get fucked” on Badass Digest, has decided to ban me from commenting further on Badass Digest. He seems to think that I have started a fight with him or that I’m trying to drum up traffic. He is wrong on both counts. I don’t hate Mr. Faraci. I merely wish for him to examine what he is doing. But any kind of examination along those lines is outside his purview. Mr. Faraci has refused to respond to this article, claiming that I have mental problems and that this post is merely “an epic accounting of my typos.” He is wrong on both counts (again), but, to paraphrase Voltaire, I will defend his right to spout forth what he wishes. Unlike Mr. Faraci, I will let the readers make up their own minds about this article. And unlike Mr. Faraci, I will certainly not tell any commenter responding to this article to get fucked.]

[UPDATE 2: So I step away from the Internet for six hours to live my life, and I return home to find that Devin Faraci is accusing me of spamming his site. When, in fact, I haven’t visited it since he banned me. Again, Mr. Faraci demonstrates that he’s more interested in false accusations than pursuing facts, which continues to support my thesis that he is unfit to practice journalism.]

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Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — Scientology’s Sleazy Bitches

In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports the alarming news that three “journalists” — Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — were paid money by the Church of Scientology to examine the St. Petersburg Times‘s “conduct.” This ad hoc “investigation” was commissioned because the newspaper has devoted considerable resources to examining the ostensible religious organization. But the new study is highly suspect. Weinberg reveals in the article that the final results may be withheld from public dissemination, should the Church not find the report to its liking. And in Weinberg’s case, this condition is especially duplicitous — given that his last book was a volume on the brave journalist Ida Tarbell.

Let’s clarify why this is a dark day for American journalism. A journalist is someone who typically goes out of his way to remain as impartial as he can. If he investigates a story, he is very careful not to accept remuneration from any of the parties involved. He remains ideally a third party. He must, if he is to remain ethical, investigate all sides of the story and remain as transparent as possible.

Numerous newspapers have established codes of ethics, which can be readily perused online.

The New York Times maintains a very solid ethics policy on neutrality, stating:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times also maintains rigid standards about conflicts of interest:

Staff members may not enter into business or financial relationships with their sources. Similarly, staff members may not cover individuals or institutions with which they have a financial relationship.

The Associated Press Managing Editors also maintain a Statement of Ethical Principles, noting:

Financial investments by staff members or other outside business interests that could create the impression of a conflict of interest should be avoided.

Thus, by nearly every professional standard, Weinberg, Carollo, and Szecheny have failed. Even if they consider what they do to be “objective,” they have accepted payment from one of the key parties. They have entered into a business relationship with one of their sources. They have willfully thrown away their integrity for these numerous conflicts of interest, taking the Church of Scientology’s money to give it the report that it wants. And the lack of transparency on the Church’s part leads any reasonable outsider to conclude that the motives here are far from noble.

Carollo and Szechenyi explained to Kurtz, “Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press.” And while fairness is certainly a laudable standard, this statement rings hollow when one considers the conditional nature of this pursuit. When Weinberg confesses, “I can certainly use the money these days,” he demonstrates unequivocally what his real motives are. And the whole exercise becomes a willful distortion of journalism, where news stories are sold to the highest bidder. The truly sad thing here is that Weinberg sold out his principles for a pittance — a mere $5,000.

Because of these disgraceful indiscretions, these three men have capitulated their right to be identified as journalists. They no longer have the right to be taken seriously by any major news organization. And if their bylines are to be found within newspapers again, then readers must reject these names as bona-fide upholders of the Fourth Estate.

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Paul Fischer: The Unpardonable Hack Who Charmed His Fellow Junketeers

There was once a time — before the Internet, or perhaps not at all — in which film critics conducted themselves with something approximating journalistic standards. It was never very much. These were, after all, film critics — often underpaid, most having lost the capacity to marvel at the frequent cinematic magic playing before their eyes and most lacking the dignity to recuse themselves from professional duties before they soured. But the nagging need to catch up with some perceived discrepancy between the fruitless remuneration from their cold analysis and the wanton luxury enjoyed by film stars, to matter in some arrogant and misguided manner, soon caught up with these desperate crayfish. If you have ever had the misfortune to attend a press screening populated with these types, you will encounter, for the most part, wan and humorless individuals with an insufferable sense of entitlement who announce, in all seriousness and with all the subtlety of a Wlliam Shatner line delivery, the big star that they’ll be talking to for ten minutes tomorrow (is that what they truly live for?) and who check their email in the dark instead of paying attention to the flick, the thing before them that they are, after all, paid to take in.

But no so long ago, fly-by-night pettifoggers who scarfed up every scandalous junket that arrived in their barren laps weren’t taken so seriously. Anyone who violated the vital covenant between journalist and reader was rightly left to rot. And while there remain some individuals devoted to upholding this trust, such as Erik Childress, a man who thankfully shows no reticence in exposing today’s frauds, these golden years, as the Vancouver Sun‘s Chris Parry has sufficiently demonstrated, are now over. The so-called “critics” — most of them now online — who pretend to stand before some shadow of journalistic truth are now defending the diabolical hacks. And they too wish to fatten their gastropathic bellies from the complimentary buffet.

The latest charlatan is Paul Fischer, a man who proved so amoral and so egotistical that he actually plagiarized whole sentences from the Sundance film guide blurb in his “reviews,” believing that he wouldn’t get caught. Parry offered countless examples. And Parry’s invaluable efforts have caused Dark Horizon’s Garth Franklin to take note. Fischer has rightly disappeared into a bottomless pit of his own making. His reviews have been removed.

But the story isn’t over. Because several of Fischer’s pals have lambasted Parry for daring to point out the obvious truth that this Little Lord Fauntleroy wore no clothes. As Parry points out, Edward Douglas, an amental “journalist” I have already taken to task, has declared, “…so what if he uses the OFFICIAL PLOT SYNOPSES from the notes or festival guide. That is what they’re there for, to inform… his actual opinion about the movie is completely his own.” In other words, Douglas is supporting the junket whore’s right to pilfer whole sentences, claiming the work as his own. Cutting and pasting a press release may win you many allies in the publicity department, but it cannot possibly constitute plausible journalism in any form.

But that wasn’t all. Douglas also wrote, again demonstrating his primitive panache for all caps, “but it’s INCREDIBLY UNPROFESSIONAL on the part of the Vancouver Sun to waste its readers’ time with what is essentially an attack on a colleague in the entertainment business.” Really? Is it “incredibly unprofessional” to reprimand Jayson Blair for fabricating a story? Is it “wasting the reader’s time” to steal the hard labor of others and claim it as your own, as Nada Behziz did?

But let us be clear and let us even be liberal. We are not talking about stealing the work of other journalists or even making up a story. It might be sufficiently argued — and it certainly it is within David Shields’s forthcoming book, Reality Hunger — that what writers pilfer isn’t nearly as original as what it seems. Even if you do manage to pull a James Frey and invent details, as odious as Frey’s antics may be, there remains some faulty independent effort to create a narrative. But Paul Fischer couldn’t even do that. He lacked the writer’s basic skill to change even more than a few words from the original source. He was essentially paid by Dark Horizons to do what anyone with a basic understanding of word processing could accomplish in seconds.

And that is why Fischer must be nailed to the wall by anyone who values the written word. He didn’t just betray the reader’s trust. He didn’t just whore himself out to the studios. He didn’t just shit in his own pants because he couldn’t even slap together a decent sentence. Fischer failed at the basic act of writing. He couldn’t even create something. And, as a reporter who couldn’t shoot straight, he failed at the basic act of journalism.

Yet improbably, among some gutless hacks lacking a shred of ethical compunction, Fischer has emerged as some strange dethroned hero. The Independent Eye‘s Vadim Rizov has seriously suggested that the only reason people care about Parry’s article is because of “complaints from filmmakers that negative reviews (since pulled from their host websites) were being propped up with blatant laziness.” Hardly. A film review may not live up to the journalistic value of Woodward and Bernstein, but it is still a piece of journalism, whether it appears in print or online. A reader trusts that the journalist has gone to see a film and has developed an independent opinion about it. If “normal people” didn’t care about such basic trust, then why then would they leave so many comments on Rotten Tomatoes about Armond White’s suspicious contrarianism? Why would Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert canvass his readers to understand? Why have so many regular Joes flocked to Red Letter Media’s brilliant takedowns of Avatar and The Phantom Menace? Because on some basic level, normal people, contrary to Rizov’s elitism, imbue commentary with a level of trust.

You can blame the system, as Rizov does, all that you want. But you can’t ignore the fact that, in less than a week, 417,215 people have viewed a video review of Avatar performed in a satirical style. That people are flocking in droves to some guy with a creepy voice who has creatively edited together some footage from The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, suggests that the crisis in American film criticism and that the need for trust has reached an unprecedented level. People want to understand why a film does or does not work. They want to have their assumptions challenged. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon film critics to not only explain these nuts and bolts, but to do so in a manner that is ethical and entertaining.

The minute that a film critic or a journalist steps on board a junket plane financed by a big studio, he abdicates his right to call himself a journalist. He surrenders his ability to take in the situation with anything approaching objectivity. And the minute that a figure like Paul Fischer is justified, well, the defender may as well spread his legs, lie back for the Big Five, and call himself a junket whore.

[UPDATE: In fairness to Fischer, it’s worth pointing out that Chris Parry wrote an article in 2004 lambasting Fischer and reporting on a shared history that was not sufficiently disclosed in Parry’s Vancouver Sun article.]

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Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland

This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an “endorsement” and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as “compensation.”

These guidelines, which will be effective as of December 1, 2009, require all bloggers to disclose any tangible connections. But as someone who reviews books for both print and online, I was struck by the inherent double standard. And I wasn’t the only one. As Michael Cader remarked in this morning’s Publishers Marketplace:

The main point of essence for book publishers (and book bloggers) is the determination that “bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media.” They state that “if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an ‘endorsement,'” due to either a relationship with the “advertiser” or the receipt of free merchandise in the seeking of a review, that connection must be disclosed.

ftcIn an attempt to better understand the what and the why of the FTC’s position, I contacted Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection by telephone, who was kind enough to devote thirty minutes of his time in a civil but heated conversation. (At one point, when I tried to get him to explicate further on the double standard, he declared, “You’re obviously astute enough to understand what I mean.”)

Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets.

But what about a situation like a film blogger going to a press screening? Or a theater blogger seeing a preview? After all, the blogger doesn’t actually hold onto a material good.

“The movie is not retainable,” answered Cleland. “Obviously it’s of some value. But I guess that my only answer is the extent that it is viewed as compensation as an individual who got to see a movie.”

But what’s the difference between an individual employed at a newspaper assigned to cover a beat and an individual blogger covering a beat of her own volition?

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

From Cleland’s standpoint, because the reviewer is an individual, the product becomes “compensation.”

“If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.”

But why shouldn’t a newspaper have to disclose about the many free books that it receives? According to Cleland, it was because a newspaper, as an institution, retains the ownership of a book. The newspaper then decides to assign the book to somebody on staff and therefore maintains the “ownership” of the book until the reviewer dispenses with it.

I presented many hypothetical scenarios in an effort to determine where Cleland stood. He didn’t see any particular problem with a book review appearing on a blog, but only if there wasn’t a corresponding Amazon Affiliates link or an advertisement for the book.

In cases where a publisher is advertising one book and the blogger is reviewing another book by the same publisher, Cleland replied, “I don’t know. I would reserve judgment on that. My initial reaction to it is that it doesn’t seem like a relationship.”

Wasn’t there a significant difference between a publisher sending a book for review and a publisher sending a book with a $50 check attached to it? Not according to Cleland. A book falls under “compensation” if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book.

“You simply don’t agree, which is your right,” responded Cleland.

Disagreement was one thing. But if I failed to disclose, would I be fined by the FTC? Not exactly.

Cleland did concede that the FTC was still in the process of working out the kinks as it began to implement the guidelines.

“These are very complex situations that are going to have to looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there is a sufficient nexus, a sufficient compensation between the seller and the blogger, and so what we have done is to provide some guidance in this area. And some examples in this area where there’s an endorsement.”

Cleland elaborated: “I think that as we get more specific examples, ultimately we hope to put out some business guidance on specific examples. From an enforcement standpoint, there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers. Our goal is to the extent that we can educate on these issues. Looking at individual bloggers is not going to be an effective enforcement model.”

Cleland indicated that he would be looking primarily at the advertisers to determine how the relationships exist.

[UPDATE: One unanswered concern that has emerged in the reactions to this interview is the degree of disclosure that the FTC would require with these guidelines. Would the FTC be happy with a blanket policy or would it require a separate disclosure for each individual post? I must stress again that Cleland informed me that enforcement wouldn’t make sense if individual bloggers were targeted. The FTC intends to direct its energies to advertisers. Nevertheless, I’ve emailed Cleland to determine precisely where he stands on disclosure. And when I hear back from him, I will update this post accordingly.]

[UPDATE 2: Cleland hasn’t returned my email. But his response in this article in relation to Twitter (“There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters”) suggest that bloggers will be required to disclose per post/tweet.]

[UPDATE 3: A commenter has suggested: Why not return or forward all the review copies that you receive directly to Mr. Cleland?]

[UPDATE 4: In an October 8, 2009 interview with Fast Company, Cleland has backpedaled somewhat, claiming that the $11,000 fine is not true and indicating that the FTC will be “focusing on the advertisers.” The problem is that page 61 of the proposed guidelines clearly states, “Endorsers also may be liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements.” And endorsers, as we have established in this interview, include bloggers. However, Cleland is right to point out that the guidelines do not point to a specific liability figure and that it would take a blogger openly defying a Cease & Desist Order to enact penalties. The Associated Press was the first to report the $11,000 fine per violation. Did somebody at the AP misreport the penalty information? Or was it misinterpreted?

Some investigation into FTC precedents would suggest that the AP reported these concerns correctly. Here are some precedents for the up to $11,000 fine per violation: non-compliance of wedding gown label disclosure, non-compliance of contact lens sellers, and an update to the federal register. On Monday, the FTC precedents establish heavy penalties for non-compliance, the the guidelines themselves specify penalties as endorsers, and Cleland insists that bloggers who review products are “endorsers.” On Wednesday, Cleland now claims that bloggers won’t be hit by penalties. The FTC needs to be extremely specific about this on paper, if it expects to allay these concerns. (Thanks to Sarah Weinman for reporting assistance on this update.)]

2009 is Boring By Comparison

At the bash at Jimmy’s that Warner Brothers records gave for Alan Price (he wrote the score for “O Lucky Man!” and performs in the film), Malcolm McDowell’s cock was the center of attraction. The wife of a rock writer couldn’t take her eyes off of his pants and she said she’d give a year of her life to be with Malcolm — in them. Malcolm posed for photos with Alice Cooper. Alice wore teeny hot pants which showed his inverted belly-button and little else. He said the last film he saw was “Sleuth” and he had to take it easy because a fan got him in the head with a tequila bottle in Texas.

Ed McCormack of Rolling Stone sat on the floor and showed off his Russ Tamblyn haircut. Fran Lebowitz of Inter/view sat on a barstool and showed off her new figure. Alan Price sloshed up to Jude Jade O’Brien and tried to convince her that ignorant people will understand “O Lucky Man!” and Jude said that everyone in the world is ignorant and Alan called her a snob and Jude yawned in his face. Jude, earlier, asked Malcolm McDowell if his bedroom had a mirror on the ceiling. Lindsay Anderson looked uncomfortable. An r&r man vomited while talking to Alice Cooper and Alice said it was cool and they continued as if nothing had happened. A stench filled the corner of the room. Lisa Robinson left the party. Everybody left the party, except six people, who talked about the sweetness of Malcolm. The joints came out.

From “Hype! Hype! Hooray!” by Arthur Bell, The Village Voice, June 21, 1973, p. 12.

Yes, you can now find the Village Voice inside Google News Archive Search results. 3,000 word columns devoted to science fiction, Andrew Sarris reporting from Cannes, Jill Johnston’s feminist columns. It’s certainly a lot more exciting than anything published in newspapers today. Or even anything published in Salon or the Huffington Post. We’re all pussies by comparison. Yes, people were actually paid to write this stuff. And here’s the thing. They were encouraged to take chances. Do you want to save newspapers? Do you want to save culture? Do you want to save the publishing industry? Well, take a trip down Memory Lane and see what used to be done. It would certainly be a start. Also, grow some balls.

RIP Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite died on Friday. He was great and irreplaceable. The last living newsman that America could trust, save perhaps Jimmy Breslin. One views the above clip in our present age of “journalists” relying on unconfirmed Twitter feeds and green-tinted avatars, and TMZ staffers shredding every form of privacy and decency to take cred for some haphazard scrap of dirty underwear, and it is almost inconceivable for any network television anchor to now state, as Cronkite once did, “This is a rumor. This we do not know for a fact.” As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald observed yesterday, one wonders why today’s “journalists” lack the basic ability to question the present government actions (the job now falls on guys like Matt Taibbi, venturing into onyx territory that those on the Goldman Sachs payroll will work very hard to keep unlighted). One ponders the paucity of courage among present newspaper editors — that failure to pursue a vital story that an executive might shoot down because an advertiser or another interest declares it “unprofitable.” Gutless men like David Bradley are now in the business of defending sick and sleazy occasions for egregious payola, which are canceled not because of inherent standards or basic decency, but because the publicists are tracking popular opinion.

Walter Cronkite’s death should not be a time for treacly tributes. It is a wake-up call. We must do better.

For Cronkite defied these Bernaysian impulses not because of pride, but because it was his duty. In Cronkite’s time, it was the journalist’s job to question everything, provide dependable veracity, and present vital information for the public to consider. But today’s anchormen and editors are more concerned about money. When there’s a mortgage and a college tuition to pay off, the “journalist” knows damn well where his bread is buttered. He knows precisely who to keep from the spotlight, and he knows precisely how to maintain those banalities that Jimmy Breslin once called felonious and that are now commonplace. Small wonder that the papers are dying. They can neither be read nor trusted.

So let’s forget all the speculative vapidity about who the Walter Cronkite of the blogosphere will be. Let’s forget all this trite talk of broadcast network news’s ostensible “golden age” during the 1960s and the 1970s. Cronkite’s gone. Why should we have to settle for halcyon pipe dreams when our many problems demand golden journalism today?

Three Producers Fired from American News Project?

I received a tip that three producers at the American News Project had been fired. The American News Project is directed by Nick Penniman, who also serves as the Executive Director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. The Investigative Fund was only just announced by Arianna Huffington back in April.

I managed to get associate producer Lagan Sebert on the phone, who sounded a bit nervous. He told me that he could neither confirm nor deny that there were firings, but indicated that there may possibly be an announcement. I then asked if there was anybody in authority there who I could speak of to clear up the news. He returned to the phone and told me, “I can’t say anything.” He suggested that I get in touch with Penniman directly. And I have sent an email to Mr. Penniman. I will update this post if I learn anything.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #288.

Arthur Phillips is most recently the author of The Song is You.

segundo288

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the playlists and those who play him.

Author: Arthur Phillips

Subjects Discussed: Characters who are enslaved to culture, partisan positions in relation to hoarding facts, being in denial about larger arguments within novels, Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, aesthetic concerns, muses and playing against reader expectations, the myth of an author’s personal connection, listening to headphones, ghosts and Jeopardy experiences gone awry, personal experience and lies within fiction, speculating on the specific conditions in which a man can be a muse, being a male model and a musician, the myth of writing what you know, getting excited about emotion, the distance required to contend with a fictive location, the wall between the personal and the artistic, the magic souffle, predicting 2009 weather in New York, reading time, the danger of boredom, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, outlines and improvisation, reinventing the wheel, the little changes within a manuscript vs. changing as a writer, the value of urgency, being a metaphorical roofer and upholsterer, Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing,” and the crazy amounts of money one must pay to republish lyrics.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

arthurphillipsCorrespondent: If we’re talking about time, there’s also the notion of reader’s time. And as a stylist, you have some control over how frequently or how long or how short the reader’s going to turn the page. When I read your book, I found numerous passages when I would slow down. And then when dialogue would bump up, particularly with the scenes with the cop, it then sped up.

Phillips: Right.

Correspondent: And so I’m curious. If time on a structural level was important, I’m curious if there was any importance you placed in terms of thinking of the reader and thinking of this notion of how fast the reader’s going to turn the page?

Phillips: That’s such a great question. And on one hand, I want to say, “Jeez, I wish I had more conscious — and I will vow in the future to have more conscious — understanding of those technical matters.” On the other hand, it seems a little impossible to control. Well, not just a little. It’s entirely impossible. I think any time you start getting into what does the reader or what does a reader expect, react to, experience, you’re doomed. I mean, you’re just — it can’t be. If you have one or ten or a hundred or ten thousand or a hundred million readers, they’re just different. And this is just so obvious that it’s just not saying anything. But it says everything. Because if everybody’s going to have a slightly different reaction, even taking a smaller subset of the people who “like” it, they’re going to all have a different reaction. You can’t plan for them. So the only reader that you can really have much planning for is yourself. At which point, I don’t really have to think very consciously about “I need to speed it up here, I need to slow it down here.” All I have is the feeling of “I’m bored.” And so when I’m writing and I go back and I read the draft, I say, “Oh this is just — I’m just bored.” Something has to happen here that is different from what’s happening. Because I don’t like it. And then at the end of it, when I’ve gone and I’ve done that twenty-five times, and I say, “I like the whole thing,” then it’s done.

Correspondent: Well, to deflate my own interlocutory souffle…

Phillips: (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that this may very well be the difference between having lots of dialogue and having lots of imagery. I guess the question here is how intuitive is it really. I mean, when you’re getting lost in a long sentence, whether as a writer or even as a reader, you’re going to be aware of the slowness. Or maybe you’re lost in such a fugue state that there really is no sense of time.

Phillips: Right. I’m reading The Recognitions right now and…

Correspondent: First time?

Phillips: First time.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Phillips: And I’m having all kinds of temporal feelings about that book as I work with it. There are times when I am lost in a fugue state, although not often enough for my taste. And often I’m feeling, “I think Gaddis was lost in a fugue state. And I just can’t join him for some reason.” I don’t know that it’s just images and dialogue. I think that you can have some very impenetrable, hard-to-wrestle-with dialogue. And actually that’s what brings The Recognitions to mind. Because there are passages. Long passages.

Correspondent: The party scenes, I know.

Phillips: You know, there’s a forty page party scene with almost nothing but dialogue. And you have to go, “Oh wait a minute. Is this the same person who four pages earlier was talking? And where is that in relation to the little girl asking for sleeping pills?” And all the rest of it. So it goes on and on. So you can have some very slow-moving dialogue. And actually I was thinking about Gaddis writing that in ’55, and Nabokov in some period around the same time doing one of his customary unappealing little digs at novels that are all dialogue, and thinking, “I wonder if he read this, looked at it, had any feeling about this, would have included or excluded it from that grouping.” Generally speaking, light dialogue goes faster than description or internal thought. But not necessarily, I guess is the short answer. I could have said “Not necessarily” about fifteen minutes ago.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s all right.

Phillips: There you go. Just cut it down to the dialogue.

BSS #288: Arthur Phillips (Download MP3)

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The Covenant

Some years ago, not long after Herb Caen’s death, I decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the San Francisco Public Library to dust my hands and wrangle microfilm. I had known Caen’s three dot columns for some time. Or, at least, I thought I had known. When Caen passed away, as others dwelt on his coinage of “beatnik” and “Baghdad by the bay,” I felt that it was my civic duty as a San Franciscan to begin at the beginning, which very few at the time had thought to do.

As it turned out, in the late 1930s, Caen had started off as a nightlife columnist, attending swank parties and banging out his observations. What’s rather amazing about this old school epoch is that the newspapers once hired about five or six guys to go around town like this. They’d drink a good deal at upscale hot spots and write columns about their social engagements late into the night as their heads crashed with the competing crassitude of too much gin. When scanning through the microfilm rolls for Caen’s words, I was stunned to see photographs of other dapper gentlemen next to other columns. And I suspect that, beyond the prohibitive cost of scanning and providing all this online, the newspapers may not want you to know that they once actually paid whole armies of columnists of this ilk. This was, in short, a newspaper in which plentiful voices were represented, even on a seemingly pedantic subject. Here was a cadre of niche-specific columnists gathered together under one umbrella. And with multiple newspapers in town, there was a healthy competitive spirit that encouraged the columnists to do better.

You might say that these columnists were the bloggers of their time. And Caen, with his little snippets, certainly reflected the compact summation that Izzy Stone would later offer by mail and bloggers would later present through the roundup format (which has subsequently gravitated to Twitter, where the act of reader engagement becomes more explicit). But these columnists were different because there was an odd journalistic quality attached to these activities. You’d think that columns about running into dilettantes and drinking martinis would be somewhat superficial. But despite this emphasis on swank social tableaux, Caen always had a good eye for observation. He noted odd conversations and paid attention to the details around him. And he did this without belittling what could easily be belittled. (To compare this with the present epoch, we’re now expected to see a report of a party or an event from some snarky Gawker type. Easy targets are eyed and assessed. But what do we really learn about how this world works? Does Gawker really have the longer view in mind? Would it not be better if it dared to detail or if it dared to establish an off-the-record trust with which to convey the scene?) Because Caen was able to establish a trust with the social scene he was documenting, he was able to acquire details and, decades later, his columns remain immensely helpful. For instance, I learned from these old columns that there had been a chain of stores called the Martha Washington Candy Shop. (This was essentially the See’s Candies of its day.) The chain had inexplicably folded and there simply wasn’t any information about it on the Internet. So I began jotting down all of these details, compressing them into months and putting them all into a short-lived blog that I called Raising Caen.

Herb Caen, as we all know, became indelibly associated with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a revered figure (and many attempted to cajole or influence him) because of his details, and because of his voice. There hasn’t really been a Chronicle columnist on that level since. Unless you count Mark Morford (Steve Outing draws the line), who provides an often frenetic metrosexual voice to the Chron. Hiring Violet Blue was a step in the right direction. The vanilla newspaper simply had to come to terms with the fact that they were circulating in a sex-friendly metropolis. But here’s the thing about Morford and Blue. Neither of them are particularly good at using their voices to get at those important details about a location or an event. Blue does interview people from time to time, but opts for a predictable Q&A format. What if her editors pushed her to give us multiple sources or a description of a scene? What if an editor demanded that Blue provided those vital details that made Caen a draw? As for Morford, his problem is that he is so caught up with wild conceptual approaches and stunts that we often don’t get a sense of Morford either (a) in the thick of things or (b) engaging directly with the community. (The alternatives to this, of course, are the dutiful Matier and Ross, the bland and voiceless Debra J. Saunders, and dependable cultural columnists like Tim Goodman. But what has caused this schism between voice and journalist? Why must it be an either-or proposition?) The newspaper columnist, who once served as a vital chronicler and detailer, is now viewed as an apparent draw only in so much as she can present a perspective. The columnist, in turn, deals with the public through letters and emails.

But perspective, as important as it is, simply isn’t enough. What made Caen such a local household name was his ability to include his readership within his columns. If he found a particular morsel, he would always attribute the reader who included it. His readers therefore felt a level of engagement.

One must therefore ask why Roger Ebert, aside from his television work and his Pulitzer Prize, remains such a household name with the Chicago Sun-Times. It is because he also engages directly with his readers. Consider his blog. Read through the comments and you will find Ebert personally responding to comments in bold. Ebert, like Caen, knows that a columnist’s responsibility involves engaging with his readers. What has changed, however, is the manner in which that engagement is presented to the public. What was once a series of private exchanges now becomes open to public scrutiny and dissection. But by including the readers in the manner that he does, Ebert offers his readership a place for their own ideas. His site remains a draw. Trolls are discouraged and a spirit of civil disagreement is maintained because the readers know that Ebert may respond to their comments.

In the past several days, many have fawned over Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” as if Shirky’s obvious and belabored points about newspapers failing to seize the possibilities of the Internet were new. What Shirky fails to observe in his section on micropayments is that Paul Krugman was, in fact, a big draw for the New York Times. When Krugman was behind a paywall, there were ways of obtaining his column. An informed perspective seemed to matter. And this wasn’t all that dissimilar to the rampant Dave Barry piracy with which Shirky initiates his essay. For that matter, we must ask whether those who clipped out columns (and there were many who did this in the pre-Internet days) were any less piratical than those who pass along a link to an article by email or Twitter. The information, I suspect, has always wanted to be free, even before this notion became a hip catchphrase. It’s wanted to be free whether a second-hand newspaper swiped from a cafe or a printout of a microfilm decades later. The real question is whether the columnist is fulfilling a public need. And by “public need,” I am not necessarily referring to a mass market. (A recent Minnesota Post article pointed to small local papers still doing well. The number of adults reading small community newspapers actually increased from 81% in 2005 to 86% in 2008.) The real question is why newspapers have failed to provide an atmosphere in which tomorrow’s Dave Barry or Herb Caen might be allowed a voice.

Small wonder then that readers have turned to blogs as a substitute for this. Indeed, since expanding the word count of these posts, I have seen readers refer to my posts as “columns,” as if I am fulfilling some journalistic duty that I did not anticipate. I leave the comments open to everyone and permit anyone to take me to task, if they must. But some of the more heavily trafficked blogs have not, contrary to Caen or Ebert, respected the readership like this. Love or hate Boing Boing, one of its key appeals involves massive strings of comments attached to each post. But Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s egregious disemvoweling strikes me as anti-communal and disrespectful of the readership. This autocratic arrogance is not advancing the case for trust between columnist and reader. And it’s just as bad on other sites. There was a time when, if you want to leave a comment at one of the Gawker sites, you were expected to “audition” for it. (Thankfully, this control has been relaxed.) There is, in these sites, a fundamentally antidemocratic act of disengagement. The commenter must humble herself to the blogger, and not vice versa. All of this fails to acknowledge the fundamental democratic ripple floating from from the undulations spawned by any newspaper columnist.

Shirky is right to point out how the exclusive informational terrain of newspapers has transformed. A specific journalistic item can be disseminated in a 140 character tweet, and it’s no longer new news. CNN’s scrolling news ticker has likewise suggested that audiences want their news in capsule form. But the successful journalism at Talking Points Memo works because the investigative process is now a part of the relationship between journalist and reader. This approach now permits a journalist to carry out his work and to obtain helpful tips with which to pursue a story. The reader, again, is engaged with the process. And instead of print people and bloggers seeing this dramatic shift in the presentation of information as an opportunity to do better and to attract a greater readership, they have instead declared war on each other. The Washington Post‘s Kathleen Parker writes a vitriolic column bemoaning the “drive-by pundits” who are pointing to the deficiencies of present journalism. A South by Southwest panel labeled “New Think for Old Publishers” sees publishers who aren’t providing new information to a paying crowd, but demanding this information from the audience. Instead of the print people listening to the criticisms and learning from these developments, they ignore them and refuse to listen. And the bloggers, in turn, don’t always consider that there are virtues in long-form journalism. In many cases, they wish to tap-dance on the hospital bed of the dead tree patient succumbing to a terminal cancer. (Jeff Jarvis is by far the worst offender in this regard.)

And when Shirky declares

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

the idea-slinging optimist in me wants to muzzle the man. Nothing will work? Really? Is it possible that the medium itself doesn’t matter? Will the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s investigative work be any lesser because the newspaper is now only available online? (Indeed, the big question is whether or not the Post-Intelligencer becomes self-sustaining if the costs of print production are reduced. As Nicholas Carlson recently suggested, it would cost the New York Times twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper in one year than it would to send every subscriber a Kindle.) If the local papers in Minnesota are attracting more readers, might it not have something to do with this broken covenant between the reader and the journalist? Might it not have to do with the information itself? Have newspapers seen their subscription base dropped because they have failed to respect the readers? And have bloggers been hindered from teaming up along the lines of the 1930s nightlife columnists because this has become a zero sum game predicated on one’s authority and rank on Technorati? Are bloggers and newspapers guilty in not respecting the old covenant?

The New York Times‘s dreadful practice of referring to a “well-known consumerist blog” without citing the URL that first established the connection runs counter to this spirit of connectivity, and the demands of the covenant. Technology chipped away at the verdigrised armor that we all begrudgingly accepted before the Internet spawned what Parker refers to as “drive-by pundits.” And I suppose this is the fruit of Shirky’s “unthinkable” proposition: the idea that print and online journalists might join forces and a more effective economic model will emerge. Because a fusion of voice, the journalist-reader covenant, and investigative journalism will become a must-read central point for all concerned parties.

When Maureen Dowd fixates on Michelle Obama’s biceps, she is breaking the covenant. When Lee Siegel impersonates a reader and leaves a comment in a desperate effort to feed his own hubris, he is breaking the covenant (indeed, so much so that he should not be invited to be part of the process). When Jeff Jarvis or a clueless publisher lets ego get in the way of listening to what somebody else has to say, they are breaking the covenant. The readers are intelligent and they want to be engaged. They want others to synthesize the information so that they, in turn, can synthesize it. They look to any columnist or journalist or blogger and they want to be engaged and challenged. They want voice and they want to be a part of the process.

The nice thing about the covenant is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the journalist has to capitulate to the readership. The journalist can be as subjective or as wild as she needs to be. The only part of the deal is this: The journalist must listen. Particularly to the points of view that seem unseemly.

NBCC Rumormongers About Washington Post

Late Friday, the National Book Critics Circle demonstrated its commitment to accuracy by reporting a rumor that The Washington Post Book World was closing up shop. Instead of picking up the phone or talking directly with the appropriate people at the Washington Post or committing any elementary act of journalism, Eric Banks saw fit to create a wave of panic through the online world by suggesting that “a reliable source” was reporting that Marcus Brauchli was recommending to the board that Book World be eliminated. The unconfirmed rumor was likewise disseminated by Scott McLemee, who claimed that “a prominent young American historian” had told him the same thing.

By the way, a dancing leprechaun has been tapping me on my shoulder all afternoon about this. I know he doesn’t work at the Post, but trust me, he’s right about all this, even if he still can’t find his Lucky Charms.

All this, of course, was erroneous. Because nothing has been announced and nothing has been confirmed directly with the appropriate people. And Brauchli was then forced to email Jane Ciabattari to set the record straight. He informed Ciabattari, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

And instead of Ciabattari, McLemee, and Banks offering an apology for reporting a false rumor, or even putting up a retraction so that readers would know that the news was phony, Ciabattari merely annotated her post with a doubting “Fingers crossed.” When, in fact, it has not been established by anyone that The Washington Post Book World will be closing up shop.

For what it’s worth, I have contacted individuals at the Washington Post in an effort to obtain correct information about what is going on. Rather than dealing with third-hand information or playing a game of telephone, I think it’s important for all “journalists” to stick with established facts. Should I learn anything hard and specific, I will certainly report it here. It’s worth pointing out that what Brauchli may have in mind is similar to what happened with the Los Angeles Times: folding the current material into the daily sections. But since I haven’t heard anything from anyone, all we have right now is speculation. I invite Mr. Brauchli to contact me directly, in an effort to confirm any short-term or long-term plans for what he has in store for his newspaper.

[UPDATE: Politico’s Michael Calderone is claiming that “[h]igh-level discussions about ending Book World have indeed taken place, according to a Post source with knowledge of the talks.”]

[UPDATE 2: Sources within The Washington Post indicate that some reorganization is now in effect and that all inquiries on this subject need to be directed to Marcus Brauchli.]

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The Bat Segundo Show: Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #258.

Norah Vincent is most recently the author of Voluntary Madness.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Challenging pseudonymous authorities about his voluntary commitment.

Author: Norah Vincent

Subjects Discussed: The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, homelessness and mental health care, the revolving door of mental institutions, Marvin Olasky and community responsibility, the bureaucratic process of mental health care, why Vincent didn’t break down the costs of staying in pseudonymous institutions, the unwillingness of Vincent’s health care provider to have Vincent pay for her stay in these institutions, experiential journalism vs. objective journalism, the trouble with corroborating stories within Vincent’s books, setting limits and journalistic ethics, quibbling with the term “diagnosis,” the distinction between psychotics and psychopathics, care for dangerous people, antipsychotic drugs, counseling vs. drugs, empirical solutions vs. medical expertise without arrogance, the moral question of whether or not doctors should inform psychopathics about the effects of drugs, the issue of consent in medicine and journalism, whether regular “reality checks” can help a psychotic improves her mental condition, and happiness vs. getting better.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

nvincentCorrespondent: You quibble with the term “diagnosis.” You write, “There are no diagnoses in psychiatry. Only umbrella terms for observed patterns of complaint, groupings of symptoms given names, and oversimplified, and assigned what are probably erroneous causes because these erroneous causes can be medicated. And then both the drug and the supposed disease are made legitimate, and thus the profession as well as the patient legitimized, too, by those magical words going hand in hand to the insurance company ‘Diagnosis’ and ‘It’s not your fault.’” But if there are no diagnoses in psychiatry, well, where is the starting point? I mean, obviously, you have to start somewhere and identify a particular problem — even on a simplistic level — in order to help another person. So what of this?

Vincent: Well, yeah, that’s the difficulty, I guess. Right now, we don’t have a test that can tell you, “You’ve got bipolar disorder” or you’ve got any number of all these so-called illnesses. Which I don’t doubt are real entities. Clearly, when you see enough of these patients, you see the patterns that they’re describing. And people who are schizophrenic tend to be paranoid. All these various things that — it’s not that the groupings are illegitimate in that way or the observations are wrong. It’s just that it does leave an enormous gray area. And it means that you can diagnose somebody as having this thing without any really concrete way of knowing that they do, in fact, have it. And I do think that can lead to a lot of problems. Such as, for example, people again have written a lot about the way that diagnoses of depression have, I don’t know, tripled in the last ten or fifteen years. And I think you have to ask yourself how many of those people have something that’s a pathological depression. Or is it a situational depression? Not being able to distinguish between those two things is, I think, problematic.

Correspondent: We’re talking then largely about the specific difference between someone who is psychotic, who is merely someone who cannot properly distinguish between their reality and their imagination and their dreams, and is not necessarily violent, versus someone who is psychopathic. Who is going to be prone to violent behavior and the like. Certainly there has to be some degree in which we have to prevent people from harming themselves or harming other particular people. I agree with you that “psychotic” does, in fact, get a bad rap. But nevertheless, there is this larger term of people who are, in fact, going to be committing violent behavior. So I’m wondering. Why quibble with the notion, as you do in one of the interim moments in the book, about this impression between so-called psychotics in movies and everything? When, in fact, there are dangerous people out there.

Vincent: Oh yeah. And there’s no question that, right now, medication and, in some cases, putting these people into an environment where they can’t hurt people is all that we have. It’s the best that we have right now. I would hope that someday we would have medications, for example, that can specifically address what’s going wrong in the brain of a schizophrenic person. And that’s just something we don’t have right now. We don’t know. We don’t understand the mechanisms of schizophrenia. Or what appears to be. There again is the question. Well, you may appear to be schizophrenic. But without a test that can tell us, we don’t actually know whether you are or not. Or whether you’re manifesting symptoms that may be entirely something else. An allergy. I mean, think about if you were to go to the hospital and say, “I’m having terrible chest pains.” And you were assuming you were having a heart attack. And there was no way to know whether it was that or indigestion. There are a lot of symptoms that can be caused by various different things. And I think that’s the part that’s missing for us right now.

BSS #258: Norah Vincent (Download MP3)

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What Everybody Can Learn from Anita Bruzzese

As a guy who writes unapologetically for both print and online outlets, I have a lot of fun reading smug and woefully out-of-touch posts from alleged “journalists” dictating precisely how to go about conducting this business. Thankfully, much of Anita Burzzese’s work is online, offering invaluable lessons for writers of all stripes on what not to do.

1. Don’t treat the reader like an idiot. In Ms. Bruzzese’s December 14th column, spends five needless paragraphs providing dumb buildup about why Kathy Caprino thought that losing her job was the best thing that happened to her. Instead of offering an uninterrupted paragraph of quotes, Ms. Bruzzese feels the need to interject this question to the reader, “So why does Caprino feel so great about what happened?” Actually, that’s what the journalist is there to tell us. Except that Ms. Bruzzese, who has both a focus and a worldview about as wide as a vise in a high school shop class that can’t be untightened, hasn’t considered that the average newspaper reader may not have Capirino’s expendable income, much less the remains of a “well-paying, high-powered position” to start a new life. Frankly, it’s insulting to the average newspaper reader to offer such a sheltered tale of redemption in a time of economic crisis. The more journalistic angle would involve Ms. Bruzzese asking Caprino why her life-relaunching strategy simply isn’t possible for a working mother who works two full-time jobs at minimum wage. Ms. Bruzzese doesn’t seem to understand that because you are published in a newspaper, this does not necessarily mean that you are a journalist. Journalism involves asking critical questions, not propping up gratuitous and self-serving figures for human interest stories. The reader wants to understand issues. And that means questioning everything and everybody, while likewise presenting many sides of the story.

2. Don’t rely on one source for a trend piece. In the same article noted above, it’s worth observing that Ms. Bruzzese has talked with only one person — Caprino — for a story that is ostensibly about how women can thrive in a tough economy. Now a real journalist would talk to some of the women who Caprino talked with, corroborating Caprino’s claims against those of others. Even if Ms. Bruzzese had juxtaposed even one additional subject against the others, it would be far more substantive than this puff piece. Furthermore, a real journalist would take the Caprino claim that “seven out of 10 working women report that they are facing a major turning point in their careers” and compare it against other sources. But Ms. Bruzzese is such a lazy journalist that she can’t be bothered to sift through the material in front of her. I’ve looked through Caprino’s book courtesy of Amazon’s Inside the Book feature and can find no trace in the text or the footnotes of “seven,” “7,” “ten,” or “10” that matches up to Ms. Bruzzese’s claim that Caprino notes in her book that “seven out of 10 working women report that they are facing a major turning point in their careers, especially middle-age women.” We are informed by Joyce Lain Kennedy that Caprino herself conducted this study with the Esteemed Women Foundation, an organization founded not by a scientist, but by a filmmaker. This is an organization that likewise features on its homepage an over-the-top, scantily clad image of Paris Hilton and an image of astronaut Eileen Collins standing in her flight suit, with the caption, “Which One Will Your Daughter Want to Become??” [sic]

What this tells us is that Ms. Bruzzese not only did not bother to read the book in question, but listened only to what Caprino told her. Never mind that the study is hardly objective, suggesting an inherently sexist and outdated dichotomy in which women are either pop stars or thoughtful astronauts. Since Caprino’s book is more of a motivational tome rather than a legitimate study, would it not have been journalistically responsible for Ms. Bruzzese to disclose the Esteemed Woman Foundation connection? (Oh, dear me. Such basic corroboration would require too much work!)

3. If your quote establishes a concept, there is no need to browbeat the reader with an additional paragraph. In Ms. Bruzzese’s November 30th column, we again see her troubling habit of offering a paragraph that explains what the source is going to say, only to have the source repeat what is essentially the same information.

Facella says the history of “elitism” by some workers — especially young employees — who believed they should be paid top dollar when they had little experience, may have been driven from the workplace scene by the current financial crisis.

“I think a lot of folks are going to be humbled by this experience,” he says. “I think they’re going to see that it’s OK to learn from the bottom and work your way up. They’re going to find that learning the ropes before taking over a business makes sense.”

If I were working the copy desk, I would demand this rewrite:

Some workers once believed that they could be paid top dollar for little experience, but Facella suggests that “a lot of folks are going to be humbled.” The current economic crisis may even cause a few workers to develop a new work ethic. “I think they’re going to see that it’s OK to learn from the bottom and work your way up. They’re going to find that learning the ropes before taking over a business makes sense.”

Not only have I cut thirteen words from Ms. Bruzzese’s two paragraphs, but I have improved the flow, captured the essence of what Facella told Ms. Bruzzese, and framed the quotes with topical thrust in mind.

Considering these severe missteps (only a handful of Ms. Bruzzese’s inefficiencies), I think it’s pretty safe to say that Ms. Bruzzese is ill-equipped to tell anyone how to practice journalism. Particularly when she remains mostly incapable of doing it herself. And that’s truly the appalling thing to consider here.

(Tip via Books, Inq.)

Why Can’t More Press Conferences End Up Like This?

From a press conference with Newcastle United interim manager Joe Kinnear:

JK Which one is Simon Bird [Daily Mirror’s north-east football writer]?

SB Me.

JK You’re a cunt.

SB Thank you.

JK Which one is Hickman [Niall, football writer for the Express]? You are out of order. Absolutely fucking out of order. If you do it again, I am telling you you can fuck off and go to another ground. I will not come and stand for that fucking crap. No fucking way, lies. Fuck, you’re saying I turned up and they [Newcastle’s players] fucked off.

A Brief Interlude

Some brief housekeeping between these longass NYFF reports: I had intended to write a report on Saturday afternoon’s panel, which I believe was called “Holy Shit! The End of Film Criticism is Nigh! It’s the End of the World!” But it appears my work has already been done for me. Details of what went down, not as hysterical as the title implied, can be found over at Mr. Hudson’s place. There are links to reports and even an MP3. Last I checked the thread at Mr. Hudson’s, there was some modest shit-talking of Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau. But Burdeau, despite being French, is okay in my book. Burdeau and Jonathan Rosenbaum, sitting on the left wing of the panel, offered thoughtful and progressive answers that made up for the out-of-touch blathering from Kent “I don’t watch TV but The Wire is okay” Jones on the right wing of the panel. (I am assured by a third party that Kent Jones is an okay bloke. But from what I observed of him on Saturday, Jones has the finest worldview that 1989 had to offer.)

Due to deadlines, I had to miss this morning’s screening of Changeling. But why bother with it? It’s coming out later down the pipeline. Well, Clint Eastwood was holding a press conference. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Eastwood’s talent, big whoop. Yesterday, I left midway through the press conference for The Wrestler because I was hopelessly bored. The questions dealt predominantly with the cliched “how difficult it must have been” line of inquiry that one sees too often in these silly affairs.

I bring this up not to impugn those who were questioned, but only to remark upon the media’s relentless concern with superficiality. Many media outlets, including Reuters, have only now begun offering some coverage of the New York Film Festival. But most of these bloated entities have concerned themselves only with Steven Soderbergh and Mickey Rourke. And isn’t the whole point about the NYFF to celebrate filmmaking talent from around the world?

I made a personal promise to myself that I wanted to give as many of the films that didn’t have distributors a chance, and, rest assured, more reports are coming. (Still to be reviewed here are Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, and The Wrestler. But these big-ticket items can wait a bit. Because they all have distributors.) Unfortunately, it appears that not even The New York Times is willing to devote its considerable resources to in-depth reviews of such unusual films as Tokyo Sonata. Don’t they have a whole team of reporters over there for this? I’ve conducted a New York Times search for “New York Film Festival” and all we’ve had since A.O. Scott’s jejune list of film summaries is Manohla Dargis on Che, which, again, has distribution.

Well, this cannot continue if film journalism is expected to survive in any decent form. As I have discovered in the past two weeks, it doesn’t take that much effort to turn out a few thoughtful paragraphs for every film. You can stay on top of the situation if you constantly keep on top of the films you watch, meaning sitting down at the end of the day and writing reviews for all the films you’ve seen that day. You can even set up radio interviews. And you can also work on other professional obligations at the same time.

That the New York Times is incapable of doing this, even through the Web, makes me conclude that the newspaper isn’t really that serious about film. Not even the major film festival that operates within its own metropolitan area. If this is the kind of cultural journalism the print mavens are championing, then I believe the time has come to replace it with something else.

Responding to Orwell: September 15

George: Seventy years from your epoch, the average person getting a gustatory rush from news and information enjoys considerably more than two newspapers. We now have RSS feeds propagating endless items of interest that stop us in our tracks, that we must learn to wrestle with and filter, and that make some of the distinctions between liberal, conservative, and centrist somewhat unnecessary. I say this is all fine, provided one steps away from the computer for long stretches and talks to souls in the waking world. This is not to suggest that pinpointing partisan journalism is impossible. (Christ, you should see FOX News, George. Winston Smith’s varicose ulcer would have expanded across his entire right leg, rather than keep its confinement to the ankle.) But I suspect this explains, on the writing front, why op-ed remains more in demand than good old-fashioned journalism, and why those who practice “journalism” often do so with a regrettable preference for decor over taut details. Since the tendentious timbre cannot be so easily cracked sometimes, and since the manner of viewing an article has transformed dramatically, it has come down to identifying these sorts of slipshod impulses within the writer himself. Accountability has dropped down to the byline level. A newspaper isn’t only as good as its last article. We expect even the best of newspapers to screw up. But the working journalist? Always judged from what she has just written. The free ride has ended. One would hope that today’s equivalent transfers of troops to Morocco would be more transparent because of these circumstances, but they won’t show coffins or carnage on television.

“Hard” Questions

The above interview, which involved Campbell Brown questioning McCain campaign manager Tucker Bounds, caused McCain to cancel a planned interview with Larry King. The reason cited by McCain’s camp? “A relentless refusal by certain on-air reporters to come to terms with John McCain’s selection of Alaska’s sitting governor as our party’s nominee for vice president.” But the interview sees Brown simply trying to find out about Sarah Palin, while Bounds repeatedly declares that she has as much experience as the competition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And here, questioned by Brown, Bounds cannot produce a single example to support his claim. And he’s their manager! The “relentless refusal” here doesn’t come from Bounds, but from McCain’s people. If they cannot be bothered to prove their argument, then they have no business presenting their impudent claims before the American people.

Barack Obama, by contrast, will be appearing this Thursday on FOX News’s The O’Reilly Factor.

So here we have one presidential candidate incapable of answering the most basic of questions and the other quite willing to appear on a talk show that is biased against him. While McCain certainly showed courage as a POW, it is quite evident that he is unwilling to evince one scintilla of this same valor in the present day. And if McCain truly believes that talking to Larry King, one of the most softball interviewers on television, represents a difficulty, then how can he be seriously expected to deal with the considerably greater challenges that may await him in the White House?

Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! Producers, AP Photographer Arrested

The Washington Post is reporting that Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman was arrested in St. Paul after inquiring with the police over the arrest of two Democracy Now! producers Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. Goodman and her producers were in St. Paul to report on the Republican National Convention. Goodman was held in custody for three hours, and Goodman has claimed the Secret Service ripped off her press credentials to get on the floor of the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, the two producers are still being held in custody. (An audio file of the arrest can be found here. In addition, The Uptake has a camera view from another angle.)

Also arrested (in a separate incident) was Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke. While the charges against Goodman, Kouddous, and Salazar are uncertain, Rourke was charged with a gross misdemeanor riot charge.

Glenn Greenwald has more, writing:

Beginning last night, St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city be, even more so than Manhattan in the week of 9/11 — with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations. Humvees and law enforcement officers with rifles were posted on various buildings and balconies. Numerous protesters and observers were tear gassed and injured.

Let us be clear on this. This goes well beyond Josh Wolf refusing to turn over evidence. Journalists who had the decency and the effrontery to ask hardball questions were prevented from conducting their work. None of these people were causing a riot. They were in St. Paul doing their jobs. They were there talking to people and reporting the news. Their collective right to be there, which was confirmed by their press credentials, is protected by the First Amendment. If the St. Paul Police Department does not come clean with details and specific allegations, then it is up to the American public to ensure that the police who arrested these journalists are levied with the appropriate penalties.

[UPDATE: Democracy Now has issued a press release indicating that Kouddous and Salazar have been released. Goodman was charged with obstruction. According to the press release, Kouddous and Salazar were charged with felony riot charges.]

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Bob Costas, The Only NBC Interviewer with Balls

COSTAS: But given China’s growing strength and America’s own problems, realistically how much leverage and influence does the U.S. have here?

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I don’t see America having problems. I see America as a nation that is a world leader, that has got great values. And leverage is — I don’t think you should look at the relationship as one of leverage. I think you ought to look at the relationship of one of constructive engagement where you can find common areas, like North Korea and Iran, but also be in a position where they respect you enough to listen to your views on religious freedom and political liberty.

COSTAS: If these Olympics are as successful as they are shaping up to be, most people believe this only further legitimizes the ruling party in the minds on most Chinese citizens. And even absent true liberty as we understand it, the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people are much better than they once were. Therefore, what’s the party’s incentive to reform?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, if you’re a religious person, you understand that once religion takes hold in a society it can’t be stopped. And secondly, I think the Olympics are going to serve as a chance for people to come and see China the way it is, and let the Chinese see the world and interface and have the opportunity to converse with people from around the world. This is a very positive development, in my view, for peace.

You can watch the first part of the interview here, and here’s the full transcript.

The Future of Newspapers and Litblogs: A Thought Experiment

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, publicist Lissa Warren expressed her dismay in “the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs.” She complained that blogs “don’t actually review books” (emphasis in original) and that bloggers are nothing more than helpful cherry pickers ferreting out the best content.

This, of course, is poppycock. Scott Esposito continues to turn out issues of The Quarterly Conversation and is now making efforts to pay his contributors. Aside from the almost two hundred hours of podcasts available at The Bat Segundo Show, this website has featured many lengthy roundtable discussions of books, running during the week of pub date, including T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. (Powers and Baker both joined in during the final installments of their respective roundtables.) The Human Smoke discussion alone generated some 20,000 words of commentary among fifteen people, with asides on second generation Holocaust historians, World War I history, and sundry topics. This week, Talking Points Memo is featuring a lengthy discussion on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Meanwhile, Mark Sarvas has been allowing his readers to see what goes into the writing of a review. This summer, Colleen Mondor helped to organize the Summer Blog Blast Tour (far from the first of this type), which featured a comprehensive series of helpful discussions about contemporary YA titles that even the purportedly best book review sections have not broached because of innate genre prejudices.

Do these efforts represent a replacement for book review sections? Well, if one hopes to find a facsimile of book review sections online, probably not. But it would take an exceptionally rigid and incurious mind to settle merely on a clone. If one wishes to discover forms of literary commentary that serve the same function as a book review section, it is extremely difficult not to find online exemplars in alternative forms.

Warren’s complaints about litblogs fall into the same tired explanations that have been bandied about by the likes of Sven Birkerts, Michael Dirda, and numerous other myopists who are incapable of accepting an alternative that has been carrying on for a good five years. The objections are less about function, or even the content (conveniently, examples of the litblogs’s inadequacies are never cited by the naysayers), and more about form and especially control. Impulsive thought cannot be accepted because it remains impulsive. Never mind that many newspaper book sections, because of the deadline-oriented nature of the business, remain somewhat impulsive and often fail to include numerous examples from the text when considering a book. (Consider, for example, Charles Taylor’s review of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We are afforded a summary of Akpan’s offerings. But despite having 1,200 words of space, Taylor only cites a few sentences from the novella, “Luxurious Hearses.” Taylor prefers generalized speculation about the book, rather than the kind of rigorous dissections of text that one expects of a critic.)

The print boosters remain hostile to the idea that an online medium can not only modify the manner in which critics and readers approach a book, but generate innovative methods of expanding one’s relationship to a text. So litblogs are deemed inferior not necessarily because the content is inferior, but because there are doubts about the methods and manner in which litblogs transmit information.

I will agree that if one is looking for the online equivalent of the New York Times Book Review, it’s simply not going to be found on litblogs. And that is because most litblogs, on the whole, aren’t interested in perpetuating a form of literary journalism that, while often quite valuable, has grown tiresome and often predictable. And it is the unpredictablity and spontaneity of litblogs that offer both a literary renaissance and a threat to those who wish to uphold print’s humorless and oft passionless status quo.

On Monday, I posted a lengthy lexicon of very specific Yorkshire dialect terms used in Ross Raisin’s novel, God’s Own Country (known in the States as Out Backward). It was an effort not only to aid my own understanding of Raisin’s book, but also to assist other readers in negotiating the fascinating linguistic terrain of a novel that, according to a recent Google News search, has only been reviewed in one American news outlet: a 200 word “verdict” and “background” in the Library Journal. The book was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. This failure on the part of American print outlets to include Raisin’s novel in a timely manner suggests considerable print deficiencies.

The Raisin example also suggests that litblogs are not only covering books that are ignored by the seemingly impeccable vanguard, but that litblogs are presenting new forms of coverage that are inconceivable to Sam Tanenhaus and, yes, even a dutiful reformer like David Ulin. Unprohibited by length and unhindered by house style or crazy billionaires who don’t know how to run a newspaper empire, litblogs are in a position to change the journalistic terrain, possibly usurping freelance reviewers if a comparable revenue model can be established.

While I disagree with Kassia Krozser’s assertions about gender imbalance at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for reasons similar to Carolyn Kellogg’s (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times), Ms. Krozser is correct to point out that the hand-wringing about book review cuts has indeed represented a sense of entitlement. Not a single books editor, litblogger, or freelance reviewer is entitled to the lives they lead. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of generating content that will ensure that the writer can carry on writing. But if one operates on a smaller scale, then the financial obligation is seriously reduced (assuming that one wishes to make this sort of life one’s center) and the writer’s freedom to write in any fashion is greatly augmented.

So perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a situation in which the leading online voices will carry on doing what they are doing, with the unusual and passionate voices prohibited by the constant scrutiny of newspaper executives, precisely because the financial demands of supporting one individual are lesser than the costs and overhead of running a large newspaper or magazine. As Howard Junker observed yesterday, ad sales for the Atlantic have declined 11% in the last month. For Vanity Fair, the sales were considerably more severe, dropping a whopping 49%. With print advertising starting to dip, the onus now falls upon newspapers and magazines to either (a) increase advertising to support current operating costs or (b) reduce operating costs to bring the outlet in line with the reduced advertising. But if newspapers and print boosters will remain obdurate about these apparent online yahoos, the onus also falls upon litbloggers to find sustainable revenue models that will permit them to operate independently.

I should observe that the cost of a full-page advertisement in People Magazine is $250,000. I cannot speak for other bloggers, but it is safe to say that I could live off of this sum for a good five years and be relatively happy. I think it’s also safe to say that the money could also be allocated to other writers to turn in high quality freelance reviews for this site. Now imagine if a People advertiser wised up to this idea and decided to sponsor me (or another blogger) for five years. The People full-page advertisement fades away from public consciousness in a week, but the advertisement would run here for five years to a more limited, but very specific niche audience. Because there is only one sponsor, my editorial integrity would be fairly well preserved and I wouldn’t have to fear upsetting many sponsors who keep a big newspaper operation afloat. I would not need to always pander to a mass audience by reviewing the latest by a big name author. Small press and genre authors tossed out with the galleys deemed extraneous could be included with the same rigor that a newspaper grants the celebrated big names. Gender imbalances, whether genuine or perceived, could be greatly remedied.

If enough bloggers were to initiate an advertising scenario along these lines, it is safe to say that blogs could adequately replace newspaper book review sections, adopting both the form of the well-considered essay featured in book review sections as well as many alternative forms now practiced and conjured up by current litbloggers. I don’t know if the newspapers have discussed this possibility, and I don’t know how many litbloggers have truly considered this ambition. But the time has come to set a precedent. If this does occur — and it just might — then it may very well be the print contributors who begin coming around to the online venues. Let us not respond with the same snobbery and entitlement.

Tony Snow Expires

One week after the death of Jesse Helms (and, alas, Thomas M. Disch), the universe illustrated once again that, despite its many abominations, it still maintains a self-correcting impulse. Tony Snow, the smug apologist for President Bush’s disgraces, finally expired after a bout with colon cancer. He was 53.

It was a particularly fitting way to go. For Tony Snow was far from a sweet man, and certainly neither a nice nor a reasonable one. On February 13, 2007, when CNN’s Ed Henry calmly asked the perfectly legitimate question about Iran’s purported influence in Iraq — a claim unfurled by Snow and company without a single shred of evidence — Henry was told by Snow to “calm down.” Snow, of course, could not provide a reasonable answer. It was a typical instance of Snow’s regular insults to reporters, something that also came to light when reporters asked Snow about Scooter Libby’s commuted sentence. (During this conference, one reporter declared, “You are insulting our intelligence.”)

Granted, one does not look to any White House Press Secretary as any particular upholder of the truth. But then Tony Snow was an innate liar even before he had taken the position. He claimed that evolutionary theory was comparable to intelligent design, that it “isn’t verifiable or testable. It’s pure hypothesis.” He defended the Swift Boat Veterans charges, despite tenuous evidence. And, of course, there were numerous other falsehoods. Snow’s inability to grasp the truth also made him perfectly qualified to serve as Bill O’Reilly’s permanent fill-in host. Swindling the public came natural to this confidence man, who took on the job of spinning implausible yarns to the public despite previous sullies against the Bush administration.

Snow demonstrated that if you served up enough hypocrisy and possessed nothing in the way of ethics, you too could live the spin doctor’s dream. You could even nestle your way into the baby arms of government itself. But even this utopia wasn’t good enough for Snow. He needed more than $168,000 a year to get by and was prepared to tell any lie to get more money.

But Snow’s lies weren’t those of the amicable “dog ate my homework” variety. They were deeply unsettling efforts to occlude a truth that has killed 4,000 American soldiers and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Snow was the last somewhat savvy guy who could take on the job of White House Press Secretary and live with his daily hypocrisies. And it’s a telling indicator that Snow’s porous replacement, Dana Perino, didn’t even know about the Cuban Missile Crisis when she signed on.

Los Angeles Times To Lay Off 150 Editorial Staffers

Radar is reporting that 150 staffers in the newsroom are to be laid off and that the number of pages published each week will be reduced by 15%. I have emails into the good people over at the Book Review to see what, if any, impact this has had upon them. If I learn anything that I can report on the record, I will. This is terrible. More at the LA Times. Nothing yet from LA Observed.

[UPDATE: My sources inside the L.A. Times indicate that there hasn’t yet been a list of names released. Only the number. Layoffs to come later. If I am able to determine any additional information that I can share, then I will keep folks posted.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Errol Morris

Errol Morris appeared on The Bat Segundo Show (#205). Morris is most recently the director of Standard Operating Procedure. (There is also an accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch.)

Guest: Errol Morris

Subjects Discussed: Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the American cycle of photographing physical abuse, finding out what we’re looking at before drawing conclusions, the differences between a still image and a moving image, reenactments, guiding the viewer’s ability to map reality, Comte de Lautréamont, misinterpreting Crimean War photographs, the milkshake toss in The Thin Blue Line, basing an illustrated montage on a line from an interview, Sabrina Harman’s thumbs-up gesture, Harman and the Cheshire cat, Paul Ekman, perceiving the bad apples, what makes Morris angry, little guys taking the blame, Morris’s fondness for pariahs, extending understanding, whether flying subjects into Cambridge creates truth, Shoah, and Werner Herzog.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I actually want to bring up your most recent article for the New York Times, in which you delineated the difference between a single image and a moving image, in the sense that a moving image involves trying to create a map of reality. Because you’re not paying consistent attention to the actual moving image. But here you are with a film that has reenactments as well as interviews. And so I’m wondering: to what degree do you guide the viewer’s sense of mapping reality? Or is this a kind of cinematic device that is similar to, say, for example, the writings of Lautréamont in which he has this narrator who guides the reader and this is your effort to help out the viewer through the reenactments and through the juxtaposition and through the editing?

Morris: I think it’s both. I’ve never been compared to Lautréamont before. Here’s what I would say. There’s a movie. A movie is a movie. But you can also ask what is behind the movie. Was my intention to investigate the story? Was it my intention to find out new things? It’s self-serving of me to say so, but I would say yes! I mean, what’s the idea here? The idea is there is this set of photographs. They’ve been shown all around the world. Hundreds of millions of people have seen these photographs. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But do we really know what we’re looking at? Has anyone talked to the people who took the photographs? What actually was going on in the photographs? I’ll give you an example. One picture that Susan Sontag remarks on is the picture of Sabrina Harman with her thumbs up. Smiling. The body of an Iraqi prisoner. Al-Jamadi. A lynching? I would say yes. But who is responsible? You look at the picture and you think, Ugh! It’s the woman in the picture. The smile! The thumbs up! She’s the culprit. She’s implicated. We come to find out. Wrong! Wrong! So this is an ongoing problem that I have with how photographs are interpreted in general.

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