CJR asks: What is journalism for?

Ira Glass CMU 2006

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article that compiled an incredible array of responses to the question “What is journalism for?” The answers came from people like Peggy Noonan, Arianna Huffington, Ben Smith of BuzzFeed, Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic, Craig Newmark of Craigslist and so many more.

My favorite is Ira Glass, who said:

Journalism is to document and explain what’s going on in the world. The kind of journalism we do at our show also takes as its mission to entertain. On a weekly schedule, we don’t think you have to sacrifice the idealistic, mission-driven parts of the job in order to entertain.

Anyone who’s trying to get at the truth of a situation can be a journalist. It’s not fucking rocket science. Talk to people, write down or record what they say, use good judgment in picking quotes and evaluating the overall truth of what’s happening. Try to summarize it interestingly for others. A kid can do it.

Read the rest here. Then take your swing at answering the question below. Remember the specific wording: Not “what is journalism?” What is journalism for?

My answer, off the top of my head: Journalism is for making people smarter. Which means you assholes writing about Miley Cyrus have some god damned explaining to do.

California’s “eraser button” law: well-intentioned, short-sighted


According to Mashable, California has passed a law that puts into effect what’s being called an online “eraser button”:

“It’s hard to erase the stain of embarrassing social media posts once they’ve hit the web. For minors in California, however, the task just became a little bit easier. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law on Monday that requires websites to both remove content and provide notice of the removal when a requested by a minor (under age 18). This includes social media sites.”

That’s nice of you, Governor. I’m sure the kids appreciate it. You know, because they cared enough to not publish the stupidity in the first place.

I know. I know. The remorse sets in later. Great. The “eraser button” law to the rescue, right? Well, Mashable adds (emphasis mine):

“The law does not, however, protect against posts by third parties. This means that if someone else — a friend, enemy or other — posts a compromising picture of a California minor, that minor can’t force the site to remove the photo, even if the minor originally published the content. Since most popular social media sites allow users to delete their own content at will, the “eraser button” provision is little more than an official stamp on something already widely practiced.

So it’s a law that mandates Facebook and its ilk let me do what they already let me do. I have a better idea: How about we outlaw employers who think your unemployable because you did a beer bong during your senior year of high school?

In loosely related news, these kids and their dumbass parents are going to need a giant eraser after this shit-show. Short version: 300 kids break into someone’s uninhabited second home and throw a massive rager. They destroy everything, including a memorial to the homeowners’ stillborn grandchild. They post photos on the Interwebs. Who gets sued? The homeowner who invited the kids to the picnic-and-fixing-my-house party.

[photo courtesy of tonyamaker on sxc.hu]


You don’t know nothing about Affordable Care — unless you watch the Daily Show


Writing for MinnPost, my friend John Reinan declares the Affordable Care Act to have had “the worst new-product rollout in memory.” He writes:

[T]hree years after the passage of Obamacare — which itself took place after two years of heated, publicized debate — Americans understand very little about the program. In fact, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of all Americans (44 percent) don’t realize that Obamacare is actually the law of the land. Fewer than one in four Americans has gotten any information recently about the health care law from a doctor, a health care organization, a federal agency or a state agency.

That’s just nuts. With three years to inform the public about the new law, the federal government has failed miserably. If this were a new car, a new soft drink or a new movie, people would be getting fired.

Emphasis mine. Perhaps this is a bit different in Minnesota, where our state’s new health insurance exchange, MNsure, has launched a full-on marketing assault in the lead-up to Obamacare open season in October. According to WallStCheatSheet.com:

Minnesota’s marketing scheme was also designed to address another problem; Kaiser’s August survey also showed that a large proportion of respondents, 19 percent, said they got most of their information about the Affordable Care Act from comedy programs like The Daily Show, while just 14 percent said they got most of their information from state agencies.

The god damned Daily Show. With an un-American (literally) as its pinch-hitting host for the summer. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what your Daily Show can do for your country.

If we had something like Prime Minister’s Questions, Rand Paul wouldn’t have had to hold it for 13 hours

Rand Paul 2011

Matthew Feeney at Reason writes:

The recent filibustering of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was not only an entertaining and refreshing change to the usual proceedings on Capitol Hill, it also highlighted a deficiency in the American political system, namely that the president does not appear before legislators to take questions. While Rand Paul’s filibuster was an impressive physical and mental feat, I can’t help but think some time would have been saved if we somehow managed to introduce some parliamentary combativeness to the proceedings on Capitol Hill.

Every Wednesday at noon the British prime minister appears before the House of Commons to take questions from members of parliament. The leader of the opposition is granted a certain number of questions every session, and the speaker of the House of Commons calls on other members of parliament (who indicate they would like to ask a question by standing). The practice is part of British political culture and provides an element of theater to British politics that despite at times seeming childish does require that the prime minister be prepared to publically [sic] defend his government’s policies in front of hundreds of unsympathetic colleagues.

‘Tis a familiar refrain.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. (And they wrote that line of copy for us.)

I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the year that was. Onward!

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 100,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Blizzard of 2012: Please, just carry on

My backyard

We live in Minnesota. It snows. Madre Nature often drops copious quantities of snow on us just to remind us what’s what.

What does it all mean? It means snow blowers and snow shovels — or, at least, the arms, legs and backs of their operators — get a workout. It means snowball fights are imminent. It means pitchers and catcher report in 63 days.

But it does not mean we need every local TV news station to give us full-team coverage with a moderately sized army of unfortunate reporters and meteorologists standing in front of different piles of white stuff from across the greater Twin Cities. If anything, this blizzard just gives the meteorologists something relatively interesting to talk about for a change. Let ’em have it — within their regularly scheduled few-minute segment, of course.

Then return us, please, to our regularly scheduled newscast.

The culture war is bullshit

Summarizing Fiorina's lack of a culture war

On the eve of this election — I’m told it’s the most important one, like, ever — I’d like you all to consider one thing: The “culture war” is bullshit.

More specifically, the common conception of these “two Americas” with a vast chasm between them is bullshit. (Although we run the risk of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.) How do I know this? It’s just (social) science.

I recently read again a book from one of my wonderful political science classes at St. Thomas. Because I’m a geek like that. “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” by Morris P. Fiorina makes a pretty compelling case, and it’s certainly an interesting read. (I read the 2005 edition; there’s a 2010 update, as well.) The preface conveniently sums things up pretty well, so I’ll just let Fiorina do the talking:

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say that we all were entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. This book uses simple facts to confront a distorted political debate in this country. Increasingly, we hear politi­cians, interest group leaders, and assorted “activists” speak half-truths to the American people. They tell us that the United States is split right down the mid­dle, bitterly and deeply divided about national issues, when the truth is more nearly the opposite. Americans are closely divided, but we are not deeply divided, and we are closely divided because many of us are ambivalent and uncertain, and consequently reluctant to make firm commitments to parties, politicians, or poli­cies. We divide evenly in elections or sit them out entirely because we instinctively seek the center while the parties and candidates hang out on the extremes.

How can the prevailing view assert the direct opposite? Mainly for want of contradiction by those who know better. We should not expect political actors to speak truthfully to us. For them, words are weapons, and the standard of success is electoral and legislative victory, not education or enlightenment. We may regret that perspective, but it should not surprise us. What is more surprising, and more disappointing, is that inaccurate claims and charges made by members of the political class go uncorrected by those who have some occupational responsibil­ity to correct them, namely, members of the media and academic communities.

Increasingly, the media have abandoned their informational role in favor of an entertainment role. If colorful claims have news value, well then, why worry about their truth value? Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story line. As for those of us in academia, we roll our eyes at the television, shake our heads while reading the newspapers, and lecture our students on the fallacies reported in the media, but few of us go beyond that. Mostly we talk to and write for each other.

In the past few years there have been increasing indications (see chapter 1) that high-level political actors are beginning to believe in the distorted picture of American politics that they have helped to paint. This development threatens to make the distorted picture a self-fulfilling prophecy as a polarized political class abandons any effort to reach out toward the great middle of the country. That threat has motivated this ivory tower academic to attempt to provide his fellow citizens with a picture of American politics that is very different from the one they see portrayed on their televisions and described in their newspapers and maga­zines, a picture I think they will recognize as a more accurate reflection of their social surroundings.

Reality, as Fiorina describes it, isn’t two disconnected sets of culture warriors separated by a vast chasm; it’s a a bell curve with most of us in the middle and the few kooks on the poles buying ink by the barrel.

Put more simply: Chances are, your neighbor’s not (necessarily) an asshole. The spokesperson for your neighbor’s preferred candidate for senate, however, very well might be.

Vote in peace. Then lighten up.