Archive for the 'Journalism' Category


if you know something, do what now?

August 1, 2014

Even the New York subway ads get it: “If you see something, say something.” Of course, it’s implicitly clear what you are supposed to say (and to whom). You’re supposed to find MTA personnel or someone in uniform and inform them a suspicious package was left behind. And that simple ad works because of these two steps: 1. Stay informed and alert; 2. Take appropriate action. Clear enough.

And therein lies the problem with our relationship to international news.

Even as we realize, especially over the last two decades, that what happens abroad can bring back consequences, and even as information sources become more mobile and more diffuse, we are actually doing less to resolve these problems. As Lauren Wolfe points out in an excellent new Foreign Policy article, we seem to have an attention deficit disorder with important events abroad. We tune in for a bit, we get all riled up, wave our phones like lighters at a concert or a candlelight vigil – in solidarity – and then, nothing. Wolfe, taking a collective psychosocial perspective, suggests that we lose steam because we do not fully identify with the parties involved. She quotes Gloria Steinem:

“’If we knew even one of these girls,’ she says, ‘empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more.’”

But that view sort of contradicts what is happening, because we are already empathetic – that’s how we know about the Nigerian girls in the first place. It may be that more empathy is needed to sustain momentum longer, but I think the problem is that empathy is not enough.

Take this quotation from a Time Lightbox article talking about two photographers one covering Israel’s view of the ongoing conflict and the other Palestine’s.

If the media “cover this story long enough, there will be a solution,” said Andrew Burton, the photog covering Israeli soldiers. But there is that disconnect – “long enough” suggests we build up great reserves of goodwill and empathy, but then magically a solution will reveal itself?

We do not hear what exactly is that solution, and by corollary, no one actually knows how to get there (or we might be making some progress by now). Alongside the information overload at moments of crisis, we have fewer signposts for concrete steps to make a meaningful difference. So we pick up our phones. It is no surprise then that hashtags and manipulative videos resonate – that’s what we would do. That’s all we know to do.

Another example: a week ago, there was an article about why “All You Need to Know” is the worst cliché in journalism. Not just bad, but harmful, because it sets a low common denominator for understanding a given topic and creates the illusion that we can stop learning more at a certain point.

That article hits at the same problem from the other direction: because we don’t really know what to do anyway, because it is unlikely we will actually change the way things are, here’s all that you need to know to satisfy your curiosity.

To get back to Wolfe’s article, complexity is a major stumbling block. As soon as we learn more, information comes pouring in, passion, opinions, propaganda – all of that leaves us not sure where to go next or what to do with our hard-earned information. Take Syria, already a distant reality. Now add on that the U.S.’ interests in that conflict might align on some level with Iran’s, and there is instant cognitive dissonance. And that’s just one potential relationship. Or the Israel-Palestine saga: we feel for the Palestinian people and their mistreatment by the IDF, but Hamas is also part of the problem, and didn’t the Palestinian people vote them in? And Israel – how to square its policies and ongoing atrocities with its own history, its own perception of itself as an oppressed people fighting for its survival, when it is Gazans’ survival at stake? In other words, if I did want to empathize in this situation, it’s not easy to pick whom.

But above all, once I figure out where my principles should place me, I have no idea to whom I should reach out with my desire for action. Domestic issues have that advantage – maybe I take to the streets, or organize, or write some letters. But where international affairs are concerned, it is leaders and multilateral agencies that pull the strings. Even if we wanted to help the girls in Nigeria, ultimately, we have to count on the Nigerian government to take that action – and how is that working out?

I will bring up one other article that has been circulating recently: “We’re Missing the Story” in the New York Times. It is actually a preview for an upcoming book (which in itself is a strong statement about the market dynamics underpinning journalistic articles). The author Anjan Sundaram makes the point that international news reporting is declining. He laments that foreign correspondents keep their distance in cushy hotels and rarely get the real story. He says he really tried to get real story by living as the Congolese did. Yet, that doesn’t add up – if the content was of local interest and required living amongst the Congolese, then why not just hire a Congolese reporter? And if the information is meant for an international audience, are we surprised that audience would focus on topics that pull them in for their own reasons?

Sundaram switches to an economic argument: there is money for international reporting, he says, it’s just allocated elsewhere. But if you make that kind of argument, then you have to acknowledge that these news outlets are businesses, and if the audience does not see a need or use for Congolese electoral politics, then naturally, the supply will be squeezed. Because what can an American citizen really do about Congolese politics? (Nothing, I hope.) Nor will they see the aftermath, because they won’t have to live under the elected official.

And that’s what it comes back to. Empower people with the news, we say. Inform and engage, we say. But to do what? We need to be clearer about pathways toward solutions so people can use the information we throw at them.

At the end of the day, it’s like learning a foreign language, if I don’t see the need for me to actually use it, there’s little chance I will retain what I learn, so why would I bother sticking with it?


nobody wants to pay me for sound arguments

October 28, 2013

Every once in a while, an article really bothers me. Here’s one, an op-ed in the New York Times, about why journalists should get paid: “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

I agree that good journalism has value and people should generally get paid for their work but Kreider gets it all wrong, showing once again that you use extremely problematic reasoning and still arrive at the right conclusion. Poor logic (ha). This article is symptomatic of the problem. If you make crap arguments and deploy conventional devices, then you cheapen your value. It starts with the headline, where you make a promise to the reader about your article’s content. This one references Marx (“Unite!”) but he’s not making a Marxist argument, he’s making a capitalist one. And to win his argument, he beats on a straw bogey (“The Man,” “they,” whoever they are) that denies payment – except inconveniently, he never acknowledges that it’s editors, many of whom are former reporters, who often seek free labor. Why? Because in a capitalist system, that’s what they do: maximize their profit, lower costs – and journalism participates fully in that system. And by posting substance-less declarations like this (“get paid!”), you’re actually making things worse. The notion that money is the only true value we should attach to journalistic endeavors should strike many journalists as offensive. Kreider tries to backtrack into a distinction about valueless art and the market economy, but journalism has always toed the line as a consumable commodity. The Internet pushed the demand into overdrive, and journalism responded with outlets like Buzzfeed. Our most popular news shows are comedy shows. Don’t blame the Internet for a collective failure of imagination. These might be entertaining, but they are not art. Are we surprised the market wants to pay less?

The example of his sister is really unfortunate and sloppy but if you do want to go in that direction and apply market logic, then you would draw parallels between our broken healthcare system including unnecessary procedures and medications and news outlets trying to manufacture news.

And don’t forget how we have all made information less valuable by giving away so much of it. We blog and we tweet and we post our lives on Facebook. If you retreat from serious journalism, as the industry has done, then you-are- saying more people are capable of this work. If you really want to improve journalists’ condition, it would be more useful to redefine value or you reshape the market. The kind of journalism that is prevailing struggles to argue it is providing a public service or strengthening civil society. On the other hand, did Edward Snowden ask for payment for his revelations? What is being done to encourage that kind of journalism? Unpaid labor is a systemic issue and getting a few bucks is hardly a sufficient remedy, as Kreider suggests; the question he should have asked is how much should different kinds of articles bring in? Or, why are social workers not paid well for helping people? Frankly, I think he’s making a plea to get paid because he’s making arguments for an industry that is losing its identity.

Also, he’s kind of a conceited pig – hard to make an argument about fairness when you’re self-absorbed and sexist.


a bay full of pigs?

August 4, 2013

I posted this article on my Facebook wall the other day about Guantanamo Bay prisoners reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It sounded incredulous to me, and I recalled remarks about straitjacket-tight security at Guantanamo Bay from a friend who had represented several prisoners there. In a word, he said, “Bullshit.” (See below for excerpts of the Protective Order governing procedure at the facility.)

Here’s what he said in his second comment: “They always blame the attorneys. We give our clients books. The military screens them. Things that are not approved get tossed. The mil is very clear about what’s not allowed. Erotica, books with racy pix on the cover, plainly not allowed. And we can’t simply hand this stuff to our clients – all of it gets submitted to a mil screener. So if copies of these books are in the GTMO library, they are there because the government put them there.”

The irony in the Reuters report is remarkable. We have a suggestion that men, who are often subjected to vise-like restraints, are reading trashy novels about women who are liberated through bondage. Supposedly, these men believe the Koran is the only sacred text – but they’re happy to add “Fifty Shades of Grey” to the list?

My astute friend Anna pointed out that it’s not just weird to suggest the prisoners are reading these books, it’s emasculating. Popular perception suggests middle-aged women are the main readers of the series. So this might be another tactic to break down these men through sexual humiliation. Or maybe we should add middle-aged women to the terror watch list for sharing sympathies with alleged terrorists (hence “The War on Women?”). Or maybe the prisoners find true redemption in realizing (mild erotic) torture can lead to some benefit after all.

Maybe the real story in all this is that there is no story at all, but through an act of reporting, Reuters managed to conjure one up and fool everyone – almost. In the comments section below the story, there is a strong hint from a reader named “BriannaReuters”. There is no suggestion this person works for Reuters, but he or she does seem to have some knowledge of the situation, and it appears the comments attributed to Representative Moran might have been based on a joke by the commander at Guantanamo – and Reuters just didn’t bother to check on that.


Which is to say, that is a mind-blowing revelation! Maybe Congress is partly mired in internecine warfare because the press gives a platform to any legislator willing to hurl incendiary remarks regardless of their factual basis. That in turn riles up all sides to dig a little deeper into their trenches and resist cooperation.

Maybe it’s time someone called “bullshit” on all of this. Surely, our satirists-in-chief will cut right to the ridiculousness of the Reuters’ article…but no! Even the Colbert Report did a segment on this story!


It’s a sad day. When purveyors of fake news report on actual fake news, the astonishing outcome is that the news might just become real.


*** UPDATE *** – August 5, 2013:

Some follow-up details from the Habeas attorney quoted above:

“First, I don’t have any independent knowledge of these specific books except to say that there are only two sources of library materials at GTMO that I am aware of: Habeas counsel and the US government. I bring books to my client all the time. I have to fill out a detailed form, submit the book to both my Habeas escort (a minder) and the DoD “privilege review team” for screening. I never see it again.  If the book is rejected, we presume it gets tossed. We are warned that books containing sexually explicit subject matter or covers are not allowed, as are books about politics, certain current events, violence, etc. I once submitted an Arabic translation of a classic academic book on the French Mandate for my Syrian client; it was rejected.

We are not allowed to leave anything with our clients when we see them. We are screened and wanded before going in to the camps. Guards search all of our papers, page by page. 

And we are aware that in the few instances where prisoners were found with contraband reading material, the likely source was their CIA or DoD interrogators, using the material as an incentive to talk.

I think they may be in the protective order. I will look when I get into the office.

Of course, the military makes a lot of it up as they go along….

One last thing:  I believe stories like this get reported to denigrate the men down there, make them look pathetic, vane, weak.  Not that they’re all bastions of high character, but there has for some time been this narrative to portray them as stone cold killers and simultaneously as immature kids.”

*** Excerpts from the GTMO Protective Order about visitation procedures:

(Full version here: 09-11-08 Protective Order)

“Upon receiving legal mail from counsel for delivery to the detainee, the privilege team shall open the envelope or mailer to search the contents for prohibited physical contraband. Within two business days of receipt of legal mail, and assuming no physical contraband is present, the privilege team shall forward the mail to military personnel at GTMO in a sealed envelope marked “Legal Mail Approved by Privilege Team” and clearly indicating the identity of the detainee to whom the legal mail is to be delivered. The privilege team shall return to the sender any incoming mail that does not comply with the terms of paragraphs 12.a and 12.b of these Procedures.

*          *          *

Contraband is not permitted in JTF-Guantanamo, and all visitors are subject to search upon arrival and departure. Examples of contraband include, but are not limited to, weapons, chemicals, drugs, and materials that may be used in an escape attempt. Contraband also includes, but is not limited to, money, stamps, cigarettes, and writing instruments. No items of any kind may be provided to a detainee without the advance approval of the Commander, JTF-Guantanamo.

*          *          *

Upon arrival at JTF-Guantanamo, security personnel will perform a contraband inspection of counsel using metal detectors, as well as a physical inspection of counsel’s bags and briefcases and, if determined necessary, a physical inspection of counsel’s persons.

*          *          *

Counsel will meet with detainees in conference facilities provided by GTMO. These facilities are subject to visual monitoring by  closed circuit TV for safety and security reasons. The only other method of visual observation available is for the door to remain open with military police sitting outside the door. No oral communications between counsel and the detainees will be heard.”

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