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.

End of Days for the Bubble-Saurii.

NEW SLAUGHTERAlong with the strategies, tactics and rhetoric, this whole shutdown/default crisis is a fascinating moral drama, at least for President Obama.

His level of exasperation with Republican malfeasance and ineptitude was pretty evident in his press conference yesterday, and mirrors what the public is saying in polls. You saw today’s? Where Congressional approval has hit … 5%? Scrape away a bit and you’ll find that number is an overwhelming condemnation of the Tea Party factor.

Obama certainly knows — and said — that we can’t go on like this, with the same bunch of “neo-confederates” (TM former Republican staffer Mike Lofgren) ginning up a national crisis every three months. I suspect he is factoring that into his thinking talk of a “deal” that kicks this can a month down the road. Why do that? What does that really serve? At some point enough has to be enough, and the public at large is clearly on board with that line of thought.

Continue reading “End of Days for the Bubble-Saurii.”

No problem? Sez who?

A few weeks ago, on one of my favorite TV programs, CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” the commentator Bill Flanagan deliciously lamented and skewered the younger generation’s annoying habit of answering reasonable requests with the expression, “No problem.”

He said that in almost every instance, there is no problem to begin with, so that an answer of “no problem” is inappropriate. What’s called for, he said, is an answer such as, “I’ll be happy to do that for you,” or, “Certainly.”

Well, I do have a problem, and it also has to do with choice in language.

I can best illustrate it by pointing to a Minnesota Public Radio program in its series of Q&A sessions with noted broadcast journalists. The featured guest was the NPR reporter Kelly McEvers, who has been covering the civil war in Syria.

I have no reason to doubt the courage or skill she has brought to that assignment. But I do recoil at the way she speaks: almost every sentence contains the word “like’,” as in the popular misusage regularly heard among high schoolers: “I was, like, surprised,” or, “I’m, like, what are you talking about?”

Further, she larded her sentences with “you know” –a crutch phrase that equates with “um.” And she used the qualifiers “sort of” and “kind of” as hedges, when no hedges were needed. If something is a fact, it’s not “kind of” a fact. Just state the fact.

For these lapses I blame not her, but rather her supervisors, who are failing to hold her (and, I presume, other on-air staffers) to a standard worthy of the pre-eminent American radio news operation. Her editors would never allow her written stories to contain these blemishes, nor can I imagine her ever writing THE stories in that way. But when it comes to speaking without a script, she suddenly morphs from professional journalist to Valley Girl.

People who speak in that way are creatures of a culture that has produced language slackers. Of course some people in every generation do master fundamentals and niceties.

I wrote to the NPR ombudsman, who replied that his office considers only concerns about ethics, but would forward my message to the NPR training officer. I thanked him for that, but urged him to send it first to the editors and producers who directly control the output of their first-line reporters.

If NPR’s news managers do not enforce strict standards for speech, they will undermine the network’s substance and image.

To my mind there’s no difference between hearing language slackers on NPR and seeing Jeff Daniels (lead actor in “The Newsroom”) accept his Emmy Award while chomping on chewing gum on camera.

It’s a problem — not “no problem.”

Shutdown and Default: Let Their Will be Done!

NEW SLAUGHTERI gave some thought to whipping up a super-clever comparison of Walter White, “Breaking Bad’s” abused-ego-driven meth king and Ted Cruz, he of the guffaw-inducing narcissism and putative leader of the Republican nihilist caucus. But the concept fell apart so damned fast.

Walter White, trail of bodies, ruined lives and psychic mayhem aside, was at least intelligent enough to remain respectful of science, the inflexible boundaries of hard mathematics and in the end … the very end … even managed to achieve the self-realization that he did it all “for me”. Because he was good at it and it made him feel “alive”.

Ted Cruz, by comparison, doesn’t appear to have respect for anything, other than himself, while still posing as a guy who like the early-Heisenberg, believes himself immune to the consequences of his nefarious actions.

Continue reading “Shutdown and Default: Let Their Will be Done!”

Building a Better American Male

NEW SLAUGHTERDuring Sen. Ted Cruz’ 21-hour fili-fake-buster against … health insurance, I fell down the rabbit hole of a(nother) conversation about what a godawful mess men are today.

Frankly, it is still tough to figure where exactly this one started. But somehow the news that Esquire magazine is launching a TV channel collided with news that Maxim magazine has lost its mojo and ran into Hanna Rosin’s year-old piece titled, “The End of Men” before ricocheting off news that Popular Science magazine (large guy readership) is axing its comment section because of witless brawling by (likely male) trolls determined to shout down liberal believers in mushy-headed ideas like … evolution and human-caused climate change. It was a tornadic tumble.

Continue reading “Building a Better American Male”

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]


Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

NEW SLAUGHTERI don’t know Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who kinda stepped in it by saying that the University of Minnesota should, at the very least, keep epileptic seizure-prone football coach Jerry Kill out of public view. But I have some idea how he got himself into a predicament that unleashed a hailstorm of blowback.

But first, let’s be clear, risking and then taking a hammering in the court of public opinion is not always a bad thing. Often enough it is quite the opposite. If no one ever cares enough to complain about you or argue against your point of view you’re really just writing Chamber of Commerce ad copy … which, unfortunately, is what a lot of today’s news managers regard as responsible journalism. The irony with this incident is that Souhan, filing from the sports/entertainment department, over-exercised one of the last remaining licenses left to push an informed, personal point of view in regional newspapers. He over-played a license the Star Tribune and other papers have steadily hobbled in their metro and opinion pages.

Boiled to its essence, the criticism of Souhan is that his tone was cloddish, an affront to both epileptics and common decency. And it’s easy to see how readers got that impression.

Here are some of the problematic lines and why:

” … where the University of Minnesota’s football program, and by extension the entire school, became the subject of pity and ridicule.” (Is “ridicule” really the word you’re looking for here? “Ridiculed” by who? What sort of thoughtless yob sees any level of humor in an epileptic seizure? What percentage of even our local, get-a-life football fandom engages in that kind of “ridicule”?)

“Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium exactly as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4-for-16 in both categories.” (Souhan’s working a context where Kill’s health issues are bad for the football program. But by elevating Kill’s winning percentage to the same level of concern as his health diminishes the appearance of concern for the latter. It’s what you call “playing too cute for your own good.”)

“No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.” (College sports’ money issues are legendary and scandalous, even in a football wasteland like Minnesota. But again, mashing the two together — money and a man’s health — is callous, at best, and asking for trouble. Besides, as at least one commenter noted, fans pay top dollar every weekend with some expectation that they’ll see a 20 year-old kid carted off the field with shredded knee or worse.)

“Kill is unable to fulfill his duties.” (Really? I don’t think Souhan came close to proving that point. Or even trying.)

What I mean by the special license sports columnists have is this. They are writing for a heavily male audience that enjoys provocative writing reflective of a “man’s world”, i.e. a place where you call ’em as you see ’em, where lousy performance and incompetence are ridiculing offenses and where everyone’s tough enough to play again tomorrow after getting their feelings hurt. Look around the sportswriting landscape today. It’s one of the more talent-rich and compelling landscapes in the mainstream press because writers aren’t pulling punches, slathering their copy with consensus-conscious euphemisms and turning a blind eye to hypocrisy and incompetence. The contrast, as I say, with most papers’ metro and opinion columns is pretty damned stark.

But every provocateur risks going steps too far. It’s very much the nature of the broader media world today, outside stodgy daily newspapers. There’s career traction in upping the ante on “calling ’em, as you see ’em.” Hell, push it further and there might even be another paycheck in it, from sports radio, which is far less concerned with hurting feelings and sounding cloddish than mom and dad’s morning paper.

Souhan, who is still living in the shadow of Dan Barreiro, a guy who flexed a dagger with the best of them and has been well rewarded for it, simply “over-exploited” his provocateur license. It happens when you try to push itr “to the next level” to borrow a tired sports cliche. But there was no need to flex tough with an epileptic.

But my larger point here is the irony that Souhan style calling-out of sacred cows is now entirely the province of the sports department … where adults write about games.

The Star Tribune, which memorably prohibited its columnists from writing about the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2008, has taken a route much like every other regional, second-tier paper, avoiding partisan controversy by focusing on stories and themes with much higher levels of consensus. This, as I’ve said before, despite the presence of Michele Bachmann, and to a (slightly) lesser degree, Tim Pawlenty, people who should have been to any healthy “call ’em, as you see ’em” newspaper columnist what Les Steckel, Norm Green, Mike Lynn, Ron Davis and J. R. Rider have been to the sports department.

The fair question has always been, “Are you exercising journalistic responsibility by ignoring or grossly under-playing flagrant, unprecedented dysfunction and dishonesty by the highest-profile characters on your beat?”

It’s hard to get too upset over an outburst from the toy department, when the adults are hamstrung by their unwillingness to get seriously tough with people who actually matter.