Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

What passes for a “news analyst” at NPR

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I’ve mentioned before that I try to avoid NPR as much as possible. It’s mostly the tone that bothers me, rather than anything about the content or political slant. If you want to hear someone peddling conventional wisdom in a self-congratulatory tone of voice, then NPR is for you. (Yes, I know that this is unfair to many thoughtful and decent reporters and interviewers at NPR — please remember that I see NPR the same way I see my beloved New York Times: indispensable and exasperating in about equal measure). No one embodies the things that bother me about NPR more than hosts such as Robert Siegel, and political analysts such as Juan Williams and Cokie Roberts.

I’m not very familiar with Williams’s early career. If people tell me that his reporting for the Washington Post and his work on “Eyes on the Prize” and his Thurgood Marshall biography were good, then I won’t argue. That doesn’t excuse his being a complete hack now, and it doesn’t excuse NPR for treating people like him and Cokie Roberts as if they are insightful analysts of the political scene. As background, here is something Juan Williams said to Bill O’Reilly and Mary Katharine Ham on Fox News on January 26th which has caused a fuss among some NPR listeners:

Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.

I won’t waste time explaining why this is insulting and moronic. It’s hardly a shock that this is what passes for punditry on Bill O’Reilly’s show, or that Williams is willing to feed cable news viewers and producers the garbage that they subsist on. What I will waste time explaining, however, is how Williams’s explanation exposes him as a hack even more than his dumb comments on Fox News did. When NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, questioned him about the remarks, Williams first dismissed the complaints as a “faux controversy.” After reviewing the video, he revised that, and explained that he could see how the “tone and tenor” of his comments might have distorted what he saw as “pure political analysis:”

I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view.

Ah, so when he compared Michelle Obama to Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress and shared his insights into what her “instinct” is, he was “explaining his informed point of view.” Apparently he knows Michelle Obama very well, to be able to explain what her instincts are with such confidence. How does he see into Michelle Obama’s psyche so perceptively? Well, let’s see what else he told the ombudsman:

When Williams was speaking of Mrs. Obama as a potential liability, he told me, he was referencing pieces in The Atlantic and Politico. A Politico article listed Mrs. Obama as one “Dem” her husband should watch out for. “She’s glamorous, she’s on message, she’s the nation’s favorite mom — and now she has nowhere to go but down,” said the article.

Never mind the fact that the Atlantic article that Williams cited in fact argued against the myth that Michelle Obama is a Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress whose “instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim.” What’s even more damning about Williams’s explanation is his admission that what he calls “explaining my informed point of view” is in fact just a recitation of some shallow caricatures that have become conventional wisdom among the Washington journalists who write for places like Politico.

In her column, NPR’s ombudsman implies that if he had cited the Atlantic and Politico in his comments on Fox News, then they might have been less problematic. In fact, citing those sources would have just undermined the pretense that he is offering anything more than recycled smears. By mentioning the Atlantic and Politico articles in his own defense, Williams is basically saying, “I present myself to Fox News viewers and NPR listeners as an independent-minded, thoughtful political analyst, but in fact the punditry I share is just warmed-over conventional wisdom that I have picked up from other Washington pundits.”

I’d love to hear Williams being introduced on “Weekend Edition” as an “NPR regurgitator of Washington conventional wisdom,” instead of as an “NPR news analyst.” It might sound less impressive, but at least it would be accurate.

Back to the Future of Online Newspapers

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Check out this 1981 report from a San Francisco TV station about reading newspapers on one’s home computer. I love the shot of the guy connecting his modem — probably 1200 baud at most — using his rotary dial phone. Ah, the good old days, when we worried about baud instead of broadband, and Digital VT100 terminals were the gold standard of network computing. Little did I know, as the 8 year old boy that I was in 1981, that I was witnessing a revolutionary change in our culture when I watched my father connect to “the network” (I don’t remember hearing the word “internet” for another decade, although it may have been in use) to check his email from home…

This recent article in Slate has more on newspapers’ early stabs at online editions.

Never Mind the NPR, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Today I woke up early and went out to walk the dog and get some coffee. When I’m out walking, I often listen to KALX, the Berkeley student radio station, but the first thing I heard when I turned it on this morning on was “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols. Don’t get me wrong: I like the Sex Pistols as much as the next guy, but it wasn’t what I was looking for at 8:30 on a lovely Sunday morning. So I switched over to NPR, something I try to avoid doing, especially on the weekends (I’ll save my full NPR rant for another time).

So what do I hear on NPR? A report from Linda Wertheimer about the personal side of George W. Bush. I have no objection to these sorts of stories in principle, but my God was this one awful. The NPR website claims that the report is “the third in a series examining President Bush’s legacy.” Sure, if by “examine” you mean quoting a total of three observers: two fawning Bush advisers, and one reporter who is extremely impressed with the rigor of Bush’s mountain bike rides.

It’s a short enough report that you can read it yourself if you like, but this assessment from former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a longtime friend and aide to Bush, pretty much captures the tone of the whole piece:

“I wasn’t a knee-walking drunk, but I was drinking. And alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections. So I quit. One night I had too much to drink in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I haven’t had a drink since,” Bush said.

That was in 1986. Don Evans, secretary of commerce in the president’s first term and a friend of 40 years, says that act demonstrated the president’s commitment to his family and to the Bush family’s belief in public service.

“He realized at that point in his life, not only for his children and his family but for all fellow man — he can’t honor that core belief like he wants to if he’s drinking,” Evans says. “So he quit. Pretty amazing, I might say.”

Did you catch that? Bush quit drinking “for all fellow man.” Really! And people say that Barack Obama is treated as the Messiah. For an alcoholic to quit drinking cold turkey is indeed a difficult and praiseworthy thing to do, but since Evans chose to describe this personal accomplishment as an act of global salvation, I can’t help but point out that “all fellow man” would been spared eight years of Bush’s disastrous “leadership” if he had never quit drinking.

NPR apparently thought that Evans was a particularly insightful observer of the President, because they chose to give him the last word:

“I promise you this,” Evans says. “Anybody that has a chance to sit down and visit with George Bush will come away saying, ‘You know what? I really like that guy. He is really a good man.’ “

In retrospect, I should have stuck with the Sex Pistols: despite containing lines like “I am an antichrist,” I think “Anarchy in the UK” is much less offensive than NPR at 8:30 on a lovely Sunday morning.

Speaking of journalism

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

To get a dramatic sense of how technological changes have affected journalism over the past 150 years, compare this amazing 1864 photograph showing a New York Herald encampment during the civil war, and this San Francisco Chronicle article about how several bystander videos have allowed anyone in the world to watch the fatal shooting of a young man by transit police at an Oakland BART station late on New Year’s Eve. (The prevailing speculation is that the young officer might have thought he was using his taser, not his gun; he does look baffled after he shoots the young man.)

Circle, Square, Triangle

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Every time I talk to someone who works in newspapers, or who used to work in newspapers, the conversation inevitably turns to the fate of the industry. Someone here in Oakland seems to be doing their best to keep newspapers alive:

Form and function

Or maybe no papers get delivered to this address at all. Those colorful boxes shaped like a child’s blocks could just be art, like the stone-filled fenceposts or the sculptures in the yard.