More canaries in the media coalmine

Two big journalism stories broke today that seem to have nothing to do with each other, but are actually the same chicken coming home to roost and coming home to roost. Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia fraternity rape story in Rolling Stone is falling apart, and as it happens, so is The New Republic.  Why are these chapters of the same book?  Because both are what happens when text, in a digital world, has no viable economic framework.  Magazines used to pay fact checkers and editors to ride herd on reporters and skeptically demand backup, sources, confirmation, and evidence: Rolling Stone can’t afford that stuff any more and left its reporter out on a limb without an essential support system.  The New Republic is a whole enterprise, a paper magazine, that can’t support itself the old fashioned way, so a tech millionaire who knows about journalism from Facebook is going to take the name and use it for something completely different.  How different? His new CEO admits he can’t read more than 500 words of anything at a time, and the staff has all hit the street.  I predict with confidence that the new New Republic will cost Hughes so much money to keep afloat that he will euthanize it within two years, unless he just want to pay for a hobby mouthpiece.

These are not the first nor the last times we will see the reality that content is a non-rival public good will make itself known.

Photographing Politicians: What is Fair?

MICHELE-BACHMANN-NEWSWEEKDo you remember this controversial Newsweek cover of a crazy-looking Michelle Bachmann? Although it is generally agreed that media photos of real people should not be doctored (e.g., Time magazine’s darkened O.J. Simpson cover) or staged outright (e.g., The Falling Soldier), views differ on whether it is ethical to choose to publish a photo that is genuine but also makes the person look like a weirdo, clod or crook.

The photo below, first published I believe in The Independent, brought those debates to mind. Labour leader Ed Miliband looks like Godzilla, towering over humanity as he rages within sight of a strangely quiescent group of people. Like the Bachmann shot, the effect is unsettling.


I asked a professional photojournalist and a professional filmmaker why this shot looks as it does, and they came up with the same answer: shooting at a really wide angle. This stretches the central figure, Miliband, at the top and bottom into his somewhat distorted, elongated shape. The picture being taken at an upward angle furthers the illusion of enormous height — his right elbow looks farther off the ground than the odd red and white curled backing, which is clearly taller than the standing figures. The wide angle is again deceptive here in making the people and backing appear farther behind him than they really are.

The photojournalist told me that you take the shots you can get, and if there is a crowd in the room and you have to shoot from the front with them pressing in behind you, a wide angle is what lets you get the shot. Fair enough. Also, the decision to take a photograph often must be made quickly, so I would not put the responsibility there anyway. The editor had time to sort through what shot would work best, and chose this one.

I suppose one could say “So what?”. Miliband really was there and he really did make the gesture and facial expression shown in the shot, so if it looks weird that is his problem just as it was Bachmann’s problem that she looked weird on the cover of Newsweek. But I wonder if the same shot would have been chosen by an editor for a politician who engaged in exactly the same behavior but who had a reputation for being suave and measured. Miliband already was mightily mocked for maladroit bacon sandwich eating, and this photo fits that narrative, as does this more recent one of his awkward interaction with a mendicant.

What I can’t know and would like to know is what photo array was available to the editors of all these Miliband stories and why did they pick the ones they did? Maybe they all looked pretty similar and the editor’s choice was not therefore consequential. Degree of awkwardness does not seem to be among the 10 most important things for the public to know about someone who wants to lead their country, so I hope it’s not being prioritized as a criterion in photo selection by editors, particularly if the technical demands of the shot artificially accentuate it.

Obama in China

Obama’s epoch-making and still inadequate carbon deal with China.

The CW on Obama’s climate deal with China has it about right: it is
(a) a huge diplomatic breakthrough, removing the main roadblock to an agreement in Paris to cut carbon emissions and get the world on a path to sustainability in a liveable climate;
(b) completely inadequate, as the actual emissions targets for 2030 to which the two committed – peaking by then “or earlier” for China, a 26% reduction from 2005 for the USA – fall far short of what is required. The EU has signed up to 40% cuts, and even that is too low for safety.

Obama has neatly snookered the GOP. They have been using the “what about China?” talking-point as an excuse for inaction. A dangerous one, as it concedes the principle that action is needed. Now they will have to switch to “China isn’t doing enough”. Which implies that there is some Chinese policy which would trigger US action, and we are in negotiation mode on overflight rights for the black helicopters. The target looks achievable on current policy, defined to include the coal regulations, so the cost argument doesn’t hold up either. It remains true that the next legislative heave will have to await 2016, and depends on a very unlikely Democratic sweep or (dream on) Damascene conversion by the GOP.

The Chinese side is more interesting. Continue reading “Obama in China”

Shame on you, Comedy Central!

Note to Comedy Central: Mocking Redskins fans who defend the team name is fine. Deception, not so much.

1. I don’t think there should be a sports team called the “Redskins” anymore than there should be one called the “Kikes” or the “Micks” or the “Dagos.” This isn’t rocket science.

2. I think Jon Stewart is not only a very funny man but the most incisive political analyst currently on the scene, except when Stephen Colbert is really on his game.

3. Making fun of Redskins fans who don’t want to give up the name, and who pretend or actually believe that it’s not racially offensive, is entirely justified, and if some of them were foolish enough to agree to appear on the show, it’s their lookout if Stewart & Co. make them look silly as long as there’s no deceptive editing involved.

4. But - you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? - if the producers promised the guests that they would not be confronted with Native American activists when in fact they had such a confrontation planned - as the guests assert, and the producers don’t deny - then they, especially producer Jason Jones, behaved shamefully: not quite at the O’Keefe level, but in that direction. Apparently some of the Redskins fans were reduced to tears by the verbal abuse they took from the activists. Promises are to be kept, and people are not to be wantonly damaged just for laughs.

5. If the guests’ consent to appear based on the assurance of non-confrontation, then I wonder whether consent based on a false pretense is legally binding. I hope the Comedy Central team gets to find out the hard way.

Legalizing pot carries risks. So does prohibition.

My letter to the WSJ about Bill Bennett’s “16.2 million marijuana addicts.”

As predicted, the Wall Street Journal refused to correct the Bennett/White op-ed that strongly implied (without quite stating explicitly) that I believe cannabis legalization would sextuple the rate of cannabis dependence to 16.2 million. (My previous whining about that here.) However, the Journal did publish my letter, with only helpful edits and an accurate headline that’s a pretty good haiku-length statement of the case.

Like the original article, the letter is behind a paywall, so - on the off chance that some RBC readers don’t pay tribute to the Murdoch empire - I’ve pasted it in below.


Legalizing Pot Carries Risks, but So Does Prohibition

To the Editor:

William Bennett and Robert White (“Legal Pot Is a Public Health Menace,” op-ed, Aug. 14) cite my research as support for their claim that the legalization of cannabis would mean creating 16.2 million “marijuana addicts.”

Not only is the attribution false; the claim it purports to buttress is absurd. I made no such prediction, and the idea that legal cannabis could create more addicts than legal alcohol doesn’t pass the giggle test. It would be astounding if the actual number were one-third as high as Messrs. Bennett and White project

Cannabis legalization on the current alcohol model—low taxes and loose regulations—would indeed risk a large increase in the extent of cannabis abuse. That is why some of us are working hard for high taxes and sensible regulations on cannabis, as well as stronger controls on alcohol, which is after all a much more personally and socially dangerous drug.

Cannabis legalization in any form will create some harm; every drug policy has disadvantages. But against that must be set the enormous harms from cannabis prohibition: $40 billion a year in illicit revenue, some of it going to violent criminal organizations in Mexico; tens of thousands of people in prison; and more than half a million users arrested each year.

Our goal should be to eliminate as much as possible of the damage from prohibition while minimizing the harms that would result from a badly designed legalization.

Mark Kleiman

Los Angeles

Rush to judgment on the Rick Perry indictment

Yes, Rick Perry was exercising his lawful powers. So was Richard Nixon in ordering the Saturday Night Massacre.

I don’t know whether Gov. Rick Perry is guilty of anything, or - assuming he is - whether the special prosecutor has the goods to prove it, let alone whether the right-leaning Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would sustain such a conviction. (Since Perry isn’t an innocent person on Death Row, the court will tend to give him all the breaks.)

I do know that most of what has been written about the case since the indictment has been nonsense, with Blue and Red pundits competing to see who can say the nastiest things about the prosecutor.  See Simon Maloy and Kevin Drum on the Hack Gap.)

Worse, everyone seems to be ignoring the obvious fact that, even if Perry can’t be convicted of a crime, his conduct in this case ought to disqualify him for the Presidency.  Continue reading “Rush to judgment on the Rick Perry indictment”

16.2 million cannabis addicts? No, of course I didn’t say that. Bill Bennett just made it up.

No, I didn’t estimate that legalization would lead to 16 million cannabis addicts. Bill Bennett could teach sliminess to a slug.

In his latest anti-cannabis-legalization screed, (behind the Wall Street Journal paywall), written with a former federal prosecutor named Robert White, William Bennett writes:

Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the  the university of California, Los Angeles, has estimated that legalization can be expected to increase marijuana consumption by four to six times. Today’s 2.7 million marijuana dependents (addicts) would thus expand to as many as 16.2 million with nationwide legalization.

Now, if Bennett wants to make silly predictions, and if Rupert Murdoch wants to publish them, all I can say is, “It’s a free country.” But I think I’m entitled to protest when he attributes that silliness to me. It’s hard to count how many ways that short paragraph is wrong, but the central points are simple:

1. An estimate of the possible change in quantity consumed is not an estimate of the change in the number of dependent users. Consumption can also grow because the amount consumed per dependent user increases.

2. Even most dependent users are not, by any reasonable definition, “addicts.”

3. The large estimated impact on consumption depends the  factor-of-ten price decrease (to about $1-2/gm. for moderately potent product) that would result if cannabis were treated like an ordinary commodity. If taxation or production limits prevent such a drastic decrease, the effect of legalization on consumption would be much smaller.

Continue reading “16.2 million cannabis addicts? No, of course I didn’t say that. Bill Bennett just made it up.”

Having-a-column-in-the-Times-means-never-having-to-say-you’re-sorry Dep’t

Note to Maureen Dowd: if you hadn’t made up lies about Al Gore, there would have been no Iraq War to vote on.

Do you think that someone might remind Maureen Dowd that neither Hillary Clinton nor anyone else would have needed to decide about backing President G.W. Bush’s insane plan for war with Iraq had Maureen Dowd not helped him get elected by making up the nonsense about Al Gore’s earth-tones in order to question Gore’s masculinity?

Or would that be mean?

The really scary thing isn’t the possibility that Dowd is being paid by the Koch Brothers to sabotage each Democratic Presidential nominee as that person comes along. The really scary thing is that, like Donald Trump, she keeps doing the same tired shtick simply to get attention.


Perlstein and the NY Times

You might think, from this article, that there is a real issue about Rick Perlstein’s scholarship.  But you would be wrong, and what a pity that Alter, just hired, would debut so awkwardly.

Alexandra, reporting is not collecting quotes from both “sides” of a story, especially when one side is a historian with a reputation and a long record and the other “side” is a hack and a flack.  See, you can actually use your Columbia J-School training about what plagiarism is, not to mention your special expertise covering the publishing industry, to discern the facts,  and tell us what they are, and you should, and you didn’t.

You can also figure out that someone like Craig Shirley is not the real goods with fairly rudimentary research skills.  Even I could figure that out, and from the second sentence on his Wikipedia page:

He is best known as “one of the most esteemed Ronald Reagan biographers“.[1]

See the little [1]? it points, in support of the assertion, to a piece of Reagan hagiography, by someone I never heard of, on Breitbart.  Breitbart. The Wikipedia page sounds as though it was written by Shirley or his intern, but it doesn’t matter: Wikipedia is open source, and if Shirley is allowing that to remain on his page, he has a concept of esteemed, and of evidence therefor, that waves red flags all over the place.  Having a keyboard and a fax machine doesn’t make someone a “side”.

Please go down the hall to the climate change desk and get a quick hit of why “he said, she said” is not journalism, and also get the phone number of the advertising department to pass on to people who try to use you as a free mouthpiece.


Nation building on the Internet: Why I am grateful to join the RBC

A few years back, while I was teaching a psychiatry short course in Iraq to about 80 mental health professionals from around the country, an Iraqi physician took me aside one day to caution me: “Don’t be fooled by those of us who have gathered here, we are not the real Iraq. This country is like Russia under Peter the Great. Our educated middle class is a thin veneer of civilization spread over a teeming mass of people who are misinformed, angry and radicalized. You can’t build a nation here: We have nothing to build on.”

The relational structure of many political websites recalls this comment about Iraq to my mind. One of the website’s authors will write an intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced post on some controversial topic and beneath the post in the comments section will issue forth a sea of bile, misunderstanding and misinformation Continue reading “Nation building on the Internet: Why I am grateful to join the RBC”