Sunday, November 29, 2009

From the mouths of babes

My six-year-old son Colin has this friend who, for reasons that will become obvious, I will call Jack.

See, "Friend" would be an overstatement. Jack has a massive man-crush on Colin, hugs him, follows him around, hangs on his every word, generally moons over him. This has been going on since Pre-K and they are now in First Grade. Colin was at first puzzled, then annoyed by this attention. I keep trying to point out that Jack is a nice kid and Colin should put up with him since we all need all the friends we can get in life.

So at lunch today, Colin comes out with this:

"Jack is an idiot."

No, Colin, I say, Jack is a nice little boy.

"Jack is an idiot," Colin insists. "Jack is the king of idiots. If there was one idiot in the world, it would be Jack."

By which point, of course, I am struggling to keep a straight face.

Be nice, I say.

"When I tell Jack he's not my friend, he laughs - like this," says Colin, making donkey sounds.

I am laughing too hard to respond, causing people in the restaurant to turn and look at me.

"I learned in French that they have a special fancy word for idiot," Colin says. "It's Jack."

By which point I was forced to clear the tears from my eye.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Everyone's a critic

I once heard some old editor - maybe it was Ben Bradlee, but maybe it was some other crusty old cuss - say that, based on the letters he received over his career, he had concluded that there were three things that every man believes he is able to do better than every other man: Build a fire, make love to woman, and edit a newspaper.

And in this spirit, I must say this guy really got under my skin:

The News Behind the Story Between the Lines of the Meta-Narrative Surrounding the Nonevent

In fact, if this idiot thinks he can run my blog better than me, I say give it a try, Buddy. I quit. You run the place for a while.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


I got a number of interesting responses to my post of yesterday about meta-narratives.

The most interesting comes from Geode, AKA Joe, who brilliantly raised the argument to the next logical level:

It seems, though, that the media itself is caught in its own meta-narrative, which you rightfully capitalize: the narrative of Left Wing Bias. The most insidious thing about a meta-narrative is that once it gets rolling, any shred or tidbit that seems to support the 'story' is picked up and carried around, but anything that would tend to undercut it is 'not particularly newsworthy.' Ignoring the fact that the supporting snippets, taken on their own, aren't particularly newsworthy! They only get picked up for how they tie into the existing, ongoing serial."

And of course, he is correct, both about the mechanics of the phenomenon and the particulars about the "mainstream media." The entire argument that there is a Left Wing Bias in the media is a meta-narrative in itself, and not one confined entirely to conservatives. Every blip, every inconsistency, and every human failing on the part of journalists is now examined at length and held up as proof that there is in fact such a bias, despite the fact that decisions in journalism rarely get made is such an organized fashion.

This points to an interesting aspect of the phenomenon, which is that meta-narratives, at least the ones that last, are not based on nothing, which is to say that they are not entirely fantasy. In every case I cited yesterday, there is at least a kernel of truth, or something that the victim of the meta-narrative did to provoke the story. Al Gore really did have a bad habit of making statements that sounded self-absorbed and boastful; George W. Bush really is incurious and sometimes says or things that make him appear shallow or ignorant; Sarah Palin really has made some statements that are jaw-droppingly vapid; Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy really did have unhealthy tastes for skirt-chasing, and in Teddy's case at least, alcohol.

And of course, the media really does have an occasional leftward bias for a lot of complicated reasons.

But in every case, the kernel of truth gets inflated and exaggerated to the point where it clings to reality by only the most tenuous thread. Unrelated stories about the person become colored inappropriately by that one aspect of his or her personality or past.

Why is this? In part, I think, it is a form of group-think. If someone is saying something that seems to run counter to the collective wisdom, it is usually easier to conclude that the one is wrong while the majority is right rather than the other way around. It is not an unreasonable presumption, but is also not always right - and it is sometimes dangerously wrong.

Another part, which is probably easy for outsiders to miss, is a technical aspect of journalism, and that is the need to frame a story, to add context and perspective. A story that only says who, what, when, and where is dull. The clincher to the story is usually "why." And, unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to fall back on an easy shorthand - Gore exaggerates, Clinton is a cad, Palin is a lightweight, Kennedy is a drunk - than dig deeper and look for the actual why. Sometimes the actual why is simply less interesting than the stereotype.

So what do we do about it? I am afraid that much of it is embedded in human nature, so it would be difficult to stamp out, particularly in highly competitive stories where lots of news organizations are focusing on a single person or issue. A few pitifully news organizations, particularly McClatchy, have a good record of resisting the herd's take on a big story (McClatchy's coverage in the run up to the Iraq war was superb). Underdog papers in the shadow of bigger competitors, like The Washington Times (where I worked for five years), do it sometimes since they are trying to define themselves in opposition to a larger paper that may be following the current meta-narrative, but that can be hit-or-miss. And certain individual reporters, such as Peter Baker of the New York Times and, formerly, the Washington Post and the Washington Times, seem to have a good instinct for spying the real story behind the clutter. Unfortunately, however, I am not sure how to institutionalize it across the media.

But as readers, there is always something we can do about it, and the answer is not revolutionary: question the common wisdom and, dare I say it, don't believe everything you read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Media bias

My old schoolmate Michael had an interesting observation on my "Letting the Story Obscure the Facts" post when it showed up over on Facebook.

Michael writes:
I have to disagree with your argument in the second to last paragraph. A McCain staffer sent a memo saying that McCain and a female lobbyist were spending a lot of one-on-one time together and it could be portrayed as him having an affair. Basically a "Heads-up" memo. The NY Times used that memo to run front-page stories for at least a week trying to imply McCain had had an affair. When John Edwards HAD A BABY with Ms Hunter (the story was broken by the National Enquirer?!) the NYTimes and most other mainstream media outlets ignored it for WEEKS until they just couldn't ignore it anymore, then they ran low-key puff-piece stories and buried it. They WILL bury a good story to advance a liberal agenda.

It is worth addressing because it is an argument I encounter often on this topic and it contains some elements of truth, or at least that could reasonably be construed to support the Left Wing Bias theory (which is not untrue precisely, just wildly exaggerated).

First, it is important to understand that the McCain story in the Times was a lousy bit of work, but I don't think it was a partisan question - it was just a garden variety stretch for a lead that failed miserably. As a journalist, I read that and understood what the authors were aiming for, but I also saw immediately that that they had completely blown any chance of making their point - which was that McCain was excessively cozy with a lobbyist despite the fact that he had spent years decrying the corrupting influenced of lobbyists - by allowing themselves to be seduced into playing up the unsubstantiated romantic angle. Obviously we can't tell what was in the minds of the authors and editors, but almost certainly it was an ill-advised structural decision rather than a partisan one.

But more importantly, the McCain-Edwards comparison falls apart because of the relative importance of the two characters - McCain was a serving senator, a presidential nominee, and the effective head of one of the two major political parties. And he has made a major issue of attacking the corrupting influence of money and lobbyists in Washington, so any entanglement with a lobbyist, whether romantic or not, is a matter of legitimate analysis (and that was actually the thrust of the Times piece, though they totally obscured the point with their stupid insistence of hinting at a romantic liaison). Edwards, by contrast, was a two-time failed political candidate who was out of public office for the foreseeable future. He was still a figure of interest to the public, of course, but his importance was far less, not even remotely comparable to McCain's. Couple that with the mistaken, but understandable, reluctance of major media to follow the National Enquirer and the picture becomes much more clear. Had Edwards been the nominee, or were he headed in that direction, when the story broke, I guarantee that the media play would have been entirely different (and this is why Democrats were so hurt and angry, probably, since Edwards' recklessness could have ruined the party had he been the nominee).

Unfortunately, the notion that the media has a sharp and deliberate leftward tilt is now so entrenched than a human failings and poor decisions, such as the one that afflicted the Times on their terrible McCain story, or the one that left mainstream news organizations trailing a supermarket tabloid, do begin to look like evidence of some dark conspiracy.

But that is reading far to much into the way the media works. The real answer is much more mundane, and that is that Edwards just wasn't as interesting a story, politically speaking, even if the tale had a bit of sex and hypocrisy in it. In 20 years in newsrooms of both a leftward and rightward orientation, I have never seen a decision made in the manner conservatives suggest. It just doesn't work that way, fortunately.

Letting the story obscure the facts

One of the several discussion groups I prowl has a lively debate over the intensive fact checking by the Associated Press on Sarah Palin's new book. Many of the more conservative posters seem to see this as yet another example of the media's clear Left Wing Bias.

It seems to me that there IS a clear bias in the media, but it is not particularly partisan. Instead, it is content related - the media is always biased toward a good story. And there is a little-understood dynamic in the press, particularly the national press corps, known as the "Meta-narrative." That is when a person or issue gets caught in some larger story, wherein every incremental development or any individual news piece becomes emblematic of some larger truth (whether that truth is strictly speaking true or not). For example, the notion that George H.W. Bush was out so out of touch that he didn't know what a grocery scanner was. Not true at all - it was a distortion of a rather geeky "Gee Whiz" comment he made once when trying to make small talk with a store clerk on a mishandled press event - but it became a dominant theme of the 1992 election.

Or that Al Gore exaggerated so much that he even claimed to have invented the Internet or have discovered Love Canal. Again, not true - an exaggeration of some ill-advised (but not entirely untrue) boasts he made at various events. But that becomes the overriding theme of the 2000 campaign. And George W. was struggling against his own meta-narrative that he was a dim bulb. Not true, of course, and based on the fact that he tends to mangle his words, particularly when he is fatigued (on the campaign trail he got worse as the day wore on to the point where his evening events were nearly unintelligible in parts).

Palin stumbled into the "serial liar" and "shallow" bits through the horrendous Katie Couric interviews and now she is stuck in her own awful meta-narrative. Every tiny blip becomes emblematic of the larger story that she is a clueless hick, a deer caught in the headlights. The closest analogy I can think of is the Gore campaign - by the end, reporters were fact-checking virtually every word he breathed, so we got idiotic story cycles about things like how much his mother REALLY spent on prescriptions for her dog. Had he published a book during the 2000 campaign, I have little doubt that it would have received a similarly thorough scrubbing as Palin's book, and every little irregularity would have been more fodder for the Serial Exaggerator label.

It is very difficult to break that kind of meta-narrative, as George W. can testify. Or Bill Clinton, who still gets smirking coverage from some publications any time he is within sneezing distance of a pretty woman. Or Ted Kennedy, who was portrayed as a womanizing drunk almost to the end of his days, although he had changed his ways years before. Gore is an interesting case, however. He managed to seize control of the story by dropping out of sight for a couple of years, changing his appearance (remember the beard? I doubt that was an accident, and if it was, it was a fortuitous one), and then reinventing himself as an environmental crusader. Whatever the weaknesses of his books and movies, he has created his own meta-narrative as a visionary environmentalist. It is one of the cleverest bits of media reinvention I have ever seen. There is a book in there somewhere for some enterprising media critic.

So I think criticisms of the media based purely on partisan politics largely miss the point of what's actually going on. It's indisputable that media organizations tend to skew left of center, but not even remotely as far as some conservatives would suggest. And reporters and editors will merrily abandon any shred of partisan bias for a crack at a good story, as the Gore campaign in 2000 shows. If partisanship were the dominant factor in the mainstream media, then Gore should have been the critical darling of the media in 2000, as he is today. But he wasn't at the time - the coverage he received was punishing and largely hostile.

Whether Palin can break her own meta-narrative - or whether she even wants to - will be an interesting thing to watch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For gamer geeks of a certain age

You know who you are...

Music to buy food by

To the extent I ever thought about it, I always supposed that music in stores was intended to emphasize the mood to shop, to make you more willing to part with your cash.

But now I am forced to reevaluate this notion.

I was in my friendly neighborhood Superfresh the other day ("Your Supermarket of Choice!" Whatever the Hell that means) when I began tuning into to the music droning on over my head. Some inoffensive Billy Joel - "Captain Jack" specifically. Oh, sure, the content is a little heavy (an anti-heroin song, or whatever), but it is perfect, hypnotically bland music by which to buy groceries.

But then something weird happened. The next song featured a familiar buzz-saw guitar intro and the unmistakable mad howling laugh of the singer. I listened more closely.

Yes. "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne.

I wonder what retail consultant looked at the playlist and said "Yes, Sir,Ozzy Osbourne. THAT will make people in South Philly buy more bread and milk."

Hungry yet?