Monthly Archives: October 2013

Three small rules for living

roosevelt

I have three rules.

They are not by any means big, complicated, morally definitive rules. They’re more like guidelines, really. But as many times as I’ve tried to define some of life’s fundamentals over the past three decades, these have been abiding and I have returned to them time and time again. In the interests of the pursuit of DudeDaddery skills, they are worth sharing.

  1. Cover your ass.
  2. Don’t let the bastards see you bleed.
  3. Don’t shit where you eat.

These are worth some explanation. I freely admit these are somewhat “manly” axioms, but they have non-gender-specific application. I guess their language appeals to me. But anyhow.

Cover your ass” doesn’t just mean protecting yourself after you’ve done something wrong. I take it as something more positive than blame shifting or damage control. The best way to cover your ass is by making sure you’ve taken care of your slate of responsibilities adequately, preferably excellently, so you’re above question. It’s also about anticipating problems and how other personalities respond to problems — e.g., by attributing blame rather than owning it. And when you make a mistake, owning up to it. Prepare well, execute well.

Don’t let the bastards see you bleed” is my reminder to myself not just to be tough, but also not to whine or complain when things get hard. Trust me, it doesn’t do any good. Yet modern culture, powered by the accessibility of social media, is churning out a population of whiners-in-240-characters-or-less. I, for one, am sick of self-entitled people bitching about their First World Problems all the time.

Sure, bitch and get it out of your system, but don’t make it a constant in your life. Constant complaining will infect you and destroy your optimism, as well as infect and destroy the optimism of those you inflict yourself on. Bite the leather and push through the tough times.

This is also, to a degree, about not showing weakness inappropriately, staying positive and committing to fix your problems.

Sometimes you have to show weakness and it’s good and right to do so in a supportive environment within the empathy and compassion of your family and friends — but at work, in the politics of the office, I don’t believe it’s of any benefit. Well, unless it’s calculated, which is a dangerous strategy. But in general, I’m not in favor of talking about all my problems because seeming weak makes you weak, because it casts you in the role of a victim. This is seductive, because it sometimes wins you sympathy. But indulge too much, and your bosses will start casting about for someone who can handle the workload without constantly bitching. Sure, they act all PC and shit to your face, letting you know your problems have been noted and listened to, but inside they’re labeling you as a giant pussy.

Not being seen bleeding is also about sucking it up during the tough times. So you’ve made a mistake, you’ve owned it. Maybe your boss is pissed. Keep going. Keep doing your work. Make up for the error. Push ahead and put it behind you. Don’t complain about it. Don’t make yourself the problem. So you’re not feeling great. Suck it up. Take some pills. Think of Theodore Roosevelt. He got shot and still delivered a stump speech. He even called the guy over who pulled the trigger and asked him why he did it. Balls of steel.

The charmingly phrased “don’t shit where you eat” reminds us that it is unwise to make trouble in the areas of life most critical to you: work, family, friends. Sometimes your workplace will piss you off, and like Milton Waddams in Office Space, you’re gonna wanna burn the motherfucker to the ground. Take a breath. Walk the perimeter. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.

Part of this axiom warns us not to act in anger, to pause, to think about the consequences of our actions. This is peripherally related to not letting the bastards see you bleed in that you may be tempted to bring your personal problems into the workplace. The reverse is also true. Don’t take your work problems home.

Most importantly, true to the original meaning of the saying, don’t fuck your coworkers. Seriously. Even if you’re single. It won’t end well. (And a lot of organizations have policies prohibiting workplace relationships.)

Stay professional.

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Los Angeles Times fosters controversy with ‘no climate-change denial’ letters

Having a letters section under my purview, I read with some fascination Paul Thornton’s declaration that as letters editor for the Los Angeles Times, he would no longer print letters denying climate change is caused by humans. Specifically, the LA Times will no longer print letters denying global warming, nor those claiming it is a liberal hoax.

Thornton — thanks a bunch, buddy — has sparked off a grassroots fire of sorts among climate change supporters and their opponents; more than that, readers are questioning why newspapers run letters that — supposedly — contain non-factual claims. I’ve had at least four people contact me to question the letters policy of the newspaper I work for, and why we allow certain letters to run. As well as climate change, Obamacare was raised as a topic about which much falsehood is written — in  particular the claim that members of Congress and their employees are exempt from the Affordable Care Act.

Unlike Mr. Thornton, I’m not entirely comfortable being as hard-edged an arbiter of the sometimes factually impure area of the page that holds readers’ thoughts.

For one thing, fact checking every claim made in every letter would be a full-time job in itself. Add in a topic as globally complex as Obamacare or climate change, and ensuring verity is all but impossible. That’s not something I or my part-time assistant have time for. The best we can do is weed out those letters that contain clear and easily identifiable false claims.

So, for example, if we get a letter claiming President Obama is actually Osama bin Laden, yeah, that’s not going to get printed. Don’t laugh. There are people out there who believe that.

But ensuring every letter we publish is absolutely factually correct and that each fact has been verified, and to do that for the thousands of letters we publish during a year? You’re asking the impossible, friend.

Besides, say we do cut a letter that cites an incorrect fact. Do we learn anything by that? Does the letter writer learn anything from that? Certainly, you could charge us with allowing a small avenue that misinforms by putting the letter in print.

But there’s a greater good that can come out of it — other readers, more informed readers, will engage the sophistry, writing in and correcting the misinformation. They are engaging in the debate. And if there’s two hallmarks of an opinion page, it’s engagement and debate. The debate comes about in that smoky area between fact and opinion. And part of the debate is establishing what, exactly, constitutes a fact and how we move from a fact to a belief. (I won’t get into the philosophical discussion of how we get ought from is. Study on your own time.)

In doing so, letter writers police themselves and the reading public win by getting to see a robust discussion that rolls through numerous angles of the arguments. They also can see the numerous voices and beliefs that make up their community — and the value of that can’t be underestimated.

 

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Balls-less in Oklahoma

Well, it seems the neutering of the press is not just confined to D.C. The Oklahoman’s publisher printed a retraction of what seems like a legit story on tax exemptions in use by two prominent public officials. The tax breaks aren’t illegal, as the story clearly spells out, nor are the officials doing anything wrong.
But apparently the newspaper is happy to muzzle itself to keep some good ol’ boys happy. Whatever happened to caring about the reader first and foremost?
Here’s The Lost Ogle’s report on it (it’s a blog out of Oklahoma City), and Romanesko’s take.

Gawker’s truth problem

I like Gawker. I read it a lot. And I hate Gawker, because it likes to pick on people (some who deserve it, and some who don’t).

But I have to question the ethical sensibility of not following up on news stories because the result could be tanking your number of hits. I’d also question a business model that rewards reporters — if that’s the right word for what Gawker writers do — for the page views they draw.

As I’ve noted in other posts, and will continue to note, journalism’s business model relies in large part on creating trust. The question is whether Gawker wants to step outside its entertainment model and do serious journalism (and it has no qualms about picking on journalists for their failings).

If it does, it has to have some ethical standards about verifying the stuff it reports on. Otherwise, it may easily be exploited — as NOH8 appears to have done in the case outlined in the link below, if you read between the lines.

http://paidcontent.org/2013/10/04/the-soul-of-a-new-machine-gawker-struggles-with-the-slippery-slope-between-viral-and-true/

Hersh goes off, slams today’s journalists

Seymour Hersh is pretty worked up about the state of American journalism, and to be fair, the leathery, dogged investigative journalist has a point.

 

In an interview in the Guardian — yes, those guys who brought us the revelations of Edward Snowden — Hersh lambastes his colleagues[i], The New York Times and TV news as patsies of the administration and government. “Obsequious,” is how he terms their approach.

“Our job is to find out ourselves, our job is not just to say – ‘here’s a debate’ our job is to go beyond the debate and find out who’s right and who’s wrong about issues. That doesn’t happen enough. It costs money, it costs time, it jeopardises, it raises risks. There are some people – the New York Times still has investigative journalists but they do much more of carrying water for the president than I ever thought they would … it’s like you don’t dare be an outsider any more.”

 

Ba-zing. Naturally, the Guardian kicks off with some of his more sensational claims, that the stories around bin Laden’s death are fabricated, that Hersh would sack 90% of editors and close down NBC and ABC’s news bureaus. All fairly specious rants that we know won’t fix anything, so let’s lay them aside.

For the rest, and in the main, Hersh is right. Somewhere along the way, American journalism — and here I only single out Americanjournalism, as it’s what I’m most familiar with — lost its balls. And this is most clearly seen when one turns to Washington, D.C.[ii]

What Hersh gives vent to – the back-scratching insidership — is corroborated in Mark Leibovich’s damning, brilliant portrait of Washington, D.C., power mongers, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital, a book that is by turns hilarious, enraging, and sickening. I highly recommend it.

In the fawning world of “The Club” that Leibovich presents, lobbyists, lawyers, politicians and, yes, members of the press, compete for who can fawn their way up the ladder to wealth and fame (or infamy). The aggressiveness with which journalists once pursued those in power now drives a pursuit of celebrity a clamoring to get close to those in power. Leibovich exposes a political class more worried about their standing invitations to the rarefied salons of Georgetown than providing American readers and viewers with truth in a time of national crisis.[iii]

The book is so detailed in its outline of each personality and the extent of their corrosion, I can only imagine Leibovich hopes the book will cash his check out of the place, because surely he’s persona non grata there now. Either that, or he’s secured his own place in The Club’s hierarchy by becoming notorious. Either way, his party invites have probably dried up.

I would be hypocritical if I were to say that the ladder-climbing never happens at the local level, which is to say, among those who cover the state, county and municipalities. It does. But from what I’ve been able to glean from Leibovich, the difference between what happens down here and what they do is exponential in scale.

But anyhow, back to Hersh. To quote the Guardian:

“[Hersh] says investigative journalism in the US is being killed by the crisis of confidence, lack of resources and a misguided notion of what the job entails.”

This is, I think, a more central point to his thesis, and a more critical one.

Where the crisis began was back in the ’70s, in particular with Watergate. Suddenly, every cub reporter wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Reporting became sexy. It had cache.

And that led to reporters’ perspectives becoming skewed; the notion of what journalism is, what it’s supposed to do, gradually shifted. It became, as Hersh notes, misguided. Even one of the Watergate duo could see it:

“What happens is you lose context so that if you’re covering city hall and what you’re really looking for most of the time is to catch the mayor saying something that’s a little untrue and turning it into a big story when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can’t get their water and they’re getting poisoned, you’re missing the news.”

Carl Bernstein, in Watergate Revisited, American Journalism Review

This view was echoed by Katherine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History. We haven’t fully sloughed off the impacts, and I believe the audience of readers and viewers has come to expect this approach first and foremost from its media – we have, is some cases willingly and others by happenstance – miseducated them.

That kind of sensational, gotcha journalism is hard to sustain. The more it’s done, the more inured the audience becomes to it, and the greater must be the sensationalism in order to get them to sit up and listen. The busier their lives have become, the harder that has become to do. Same thing with junkies. Nothing will ever be as good as that first high.

And when that kind of sensational news is not continually delivered on a consistent basis, as it hasn’t been with the complex, long-term and expensive nature of such journalism (the “lack of resources”), readers got bored. Rather than withdrawal, they turn away. They don’t feel compelled to commit their limited time to non-sensational daily news.

The downside to Watergate was that it created a competition for readers’ attention through scandal. That demand has grown, yet the resources for the press has shrunk in the intervening decades. And we wonder why we’re losing readers. Hence, the crisis of confidence.

This is a vast oversimplification and would need considerably more space to adequately trace the full historical implications for the craft and industry of journalism.[iv]Continuing that oversimplification, though, we can hypothesize that with avenues of time, money and other resources for investigative journalism closing off as the industry shrinks and politicians and government agencies become increasingly sophisticated and bullish, this has led reporters inside the beltway  to seek other avenues for their careers. For those who choose to remain, there’s an easier path than the muddy one of reporting the news. [v]

And so we come back around to Leibovich, and the fertile ground where punditry and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful — importance through association — is such a powerful draw. After all, gathering talking points while sipping an expensive cocktail is so much easier than actual journalism. And punditry – with its collateral rewards for your personal brand – even easier than that.

So, there we have it – the new chattering classes. The Punditocracy.

Back to the actual art and craft of reporting for a second. I want to make a brief comment on a side branch that’s related to how our balls have diminished.

What’s shocking in pack journalism is how easily even the megaliths of the industry have been willing to give ground. Take, for instance, the 2012 presidential campaign where the biggies like the Washington Post and The New York Times (the Times, for Christ sakes!) was willing to turn a blind eye to some of journalism’s most basic tenets, even hand over the reporting reins to the candidates’ organizations. I mean seriously, if the big boys are just giving away the only authority we as an industry have got, the trust of our readers, what’s the point? We should all just call it a day, fold the paper in half, throw it under our arms and go home. It was pack journalism – pack groupthink– at its most Orwellian.

Even though the Post and Times revised their policies in light of this revelation with a sort of, ahem, yeah, maybe we should have given that some thought, the damage was done, the foot thoroughly shot through.

Again, what happened to their balls? While we’ve been bleeding printers ink on the floor of history, we’ve remained to slack and too passive while we’ve been politically targeted and outmaneuvered and undermined by political messengers[vi]set on branding the industry as The Enemy Who is Not to be Trusted. And we agreed, let them do it and thanked them for it. Lamestream media indeed.

OK, rant over. Back to the main trunk of the tree. Hersh is a respected purveyor of what journalism should be, and despite coming off as a cranky old man waving his cane and complaining that things ain’t what they used to be in his day, we can respect his argument; he’s done what he advocates. He’s not in it to make friends. He wants to tell the truth, plain and simple, without fear or favor, and his whole career is a demonstration of that work ethic.

Journalism is nothing if it isn’t pursued aggressively and doesn’t seek to hold the powerful to account. And the industry’s problems with resources and the changing milieu and velocity required by the Internet may make the pursuit of deep, multi-layered investigations too impractical to do on any kind of a consistent basis. We still have only a slim grasp of what this new digital technology means for the industry.

Right now, there are some insiders tittering and pointing fingers, and laughing at what I wrote like it was some ideological teenage manifesto, devoid of reality. Yeah, it bears some criticism, and it’s undeniably pie in the sky. I live in the real world, which is motivated in its turning by cold, hard cash. I too want to get paid.

But we’re facing a massive trust deficit from readers right now. And when they see the churning corrosion of Washington, it only illustrates for them some kind of modern Sodom and Gomorrah morality tale. No one, they think, can be trusted because they’re all in it together. And when the giants like the Times and Post are willingly gorging at the trough with all the other pigs, only adds to the narrative spun by the people with bigger, more sophisticated and well-funded PR messaging operations than we have.

What we can do is what we should have been doing all along, and what has always been essential to our audience – gathering, arbitrating and presenting information.  News organizations can hold people accountable, can refuse to capitulate on some basic values, can recreate a firewall between those who gather the news and those who make it. We can re-embrace ethics, and not just as a Poynter-led navel-gazing exercise. Believe it or not, if we come together as an industry, we can push back, we can effect some change. Really.

 

 


[i] Perhaps that should be “colleagues.”

[ii] The most visible of this, the annual snog-fest of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, about which I’ve always had my doubts, is only the tip of the monumental capitol circular reach-around.

[iii]To a degree, the balls have gone out of state reporting, as well. Just look at the now-tepid attempts of The Washington Post’s Maryland coverage, which is more an arm of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s communications department than a news-gathering operation. (Sigh to the breathless reporting that O’Malley’s March is once again playing a gig!)

 [iv] Something I may reserve for a Ph.D in retirement.

[v] On a broader scale, most reporters have been driven out of the industry because of the economic impact on the media business. In regard to Washington, it’s fertile ground to switch careers, or, to put it more accurately, trade in on your “brand.”

[vi] The news industry has an agenda? Seriously? The industry’s in a shambles. We can’t even agree on a plan to dig ourselves out of this crisis, let alone pull ourselves together for long enough to organize a liberal cabal. Good grief.