My new Think Again column is a follow-up to my previous one focusing on journalism at the Washington Post and its problem with right-wing bloggers. It’s called “Conservatives vs. Good Journalism: The Continued Contamination of The Washington Post” and is described as follows: “’Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton’s lame and self-indicting defense of conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin’s prejudice-laden post on the Norway attacks provides yet another sign of the demise of the paper’s journalistic standards,’ writes Eric Alterman.” You can find it here.

Following up on my column is a post by Ron Kampeas at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency who has a reader who notes that the situation was actually worse than I described. Rubin posted that Friday night at 9:07 about the debt deal and thus could easily have corrected her false one. The same friend has scoured Rubin’s archives and found other Sabbath postings, which means she appears to have lied to Pexton, who failed to do his homework here as well. Kampeas concludes: “making Jewish observance an excuse when it clearly is not—well, it rankles. There’s way too long a history of Jews having to take risks to observe Shabbat for it to be used as a bad faith out.” Let’s hope (but not expect) that the Post takes some action and both Pexton and Rubin apologize to readers.

Mr. Pexton, the Post Ombudsman, can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com for those with additional questions. For more on this, see “The Mail” below.

Now here’s Reed:
Washington’s Shark Week

Summer TV programming is a notorious wasteland, one routinely populated by crappy reality TV, primetime reruns, and movies that you didn’t want to see when they came out four years ago. OK, it’s not all bad, there’s usually plenty of baseball and, in recent years, some cable TV channels have notably bucked the trend by intentionally running the occasional high-quality original series during the summer. But to do that requires a lot of time and investment, two valuable commodities that most networks can’t often command. So, an alternative way for them to break through the summer’s media miasma involves settling on a larger programming theme and then generating a cultural buzz around it. Get the public to buy into the “event,” in other words, and you’ve got a better shot at a ratings winner.

For a perfect example of this strategy, look no further than Discovery Channel’s annual steel-cage-and-teeth-gnashing extravaganza known as “Shark Week,” which is currently chewing up primetime this week for the 23rd consecutive summer. That this branded block programming has become something of a highly anticipated summer TV tradition—replete with boffo ratingsmerchandising tie-ins, and viral audience participation—is not so much a mystery as it is a marvel of consistent marketing. Shark Week is all about being fun and kitschy and, literally, splashy. But, if you’re tuning in to watch in-depth and insightful documentary filmmaking about these creatures, you’re likely to be disappointed. I mean, to give you a sense of the intellectual and scientific heft of these shows, consider that, this year, they designated a member of the cast of Saturday Night Live, well known for this (NSFW) song, as “Chief Shark Officer.” The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, this ain’t.

As it happens, Washington D.C. is also known for becoming something of a media wilderness every summer, with the typical legislative summer recess leaving the Beltway press scrounging for any kind of a story. So, when the debt ceiling deadline presented itself smack dab in the middle of an otherwise sleepy news period (thanks to a certain political party’s dogmatic recklessness) it was a media opportunity that was not to be wasted.

Sadly, a lot of what the traditional media churned out while covering the debt crisis bore more than a passing resemblance to shallow, “Shark Week” style programming. There was wall-to-wall story saturationspecially themed blocks of coverageprogramming gimmicks to heighten the sense of impending doom, and even some interactive platforms to let the public weigh in on the debate. And, similar to what you get with “Shark Week,” TV news consumers rarely saw insightful discussions of the competing debt reduction plans and their potential impacts. (Alas, I could find no evidence of debt crisis drinking game either, which might have been the only thing capable of making the past few weeks of political coverage tolerable.)

Of course, the overall tone of the debt ceiling coverage was far more straightforward and serious than the tongue-in-cheek tone of “Shark Week,” but it was of roughly the same level of depth. Instead of fun and kitsch, the press simply served up equal measures of scorn and dysfunction at both parties, often with as little insight into the real, underlying issues as possible (cf. the New York Daily News’ dismissive bipartisan front page: “Grow Up!”). Indeed, while reading through this Newsweek review of last year’s “Shark Week” programming, I couldn’t help but notice eerie parallels with the ponderous debt crisis coverage from last week:

[I]t’s also a little boring, considering how formulaic and repetitive the actual programming is….frankly, if you’ve watched five minutes of the ballyhooed event, you’ve seen the whole thing.

Of course, there is one distinct difference between these two media phenomenon. Come Sunday, “Shark Week” will disappear from our TVs not to be seen again until next summer, whereas the debt deal President Obama signed this past Tuesday requires another $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts to be agreed upon by a “Super Congress” committee before Thanksgiving. Which means the Washington press corps and cable TV pundits get a chance to do this all again come fall. Just in time for the November sweeps.   

The Mail:
Michael Clark
Eric,

Although three Atlantic writers were quick to denounce Rubin (rightly), they’ve ignored or defended the similar offense of their colleague Jeffrey Goldberg. This even though Goldberg, far from recanting, has dug in his heels and even tried to cover his tracks. He amended his post “Mumbai Comes to Norway” to make it appear more circumspect and balanced, without noting for readers that he’d made additions. Then when he learned he’d been busted for unacknowledged editing, he updated with a truly preposterous explanation…a contrived ‘dog ate my homework’ story he has failed to document. Here’s a summary of what we knew a week ago.

Since then two bits of info have turned up that show conclusively that Goldberg’s contrived story is not accurate and that he definitely did more than once add material to “Mumbai” without marking it as a revision.

So it is a rush to judgment/grinding of axes like Rubin, but Goldberg is even more insistent that he did nothing wrong. And to burnish his image, Goldberg quietly revised what he’d written and later, when confronted with evidence of his deception, lied about it. To top it all off, Goldberg has now reversed himself and said that Rubin has been rightly criticized (but only narrowly for an offense that he cannot be accused of).

Throughout, nobody at The Atlantic has criticized him for it. James Fallows even posted a (feeble) defense of Goldberg saying in essence ‘I believe my friend has more integrity than to deceive readers.’

Debi Riggs Shaw
Wyndmoor, PA

RE: Reed’s piece, "Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong?"

If someone put a gun to my head and demanded a simplistic, one-word answer to why the political press is so damned stupid about covering what is happening right in front of their eyes, I would have to say: "Access".  They have become dependent for their material on the cocktail parties, barbecues, anonymous sources, press releases, and hail-fellow-well-met of the Washington frat houses to grease the rails to information.  Thus, reporting truthfully and clearly in a way that would inevitably put one of their patrons’ noses out joint is not in their best professional interest. And worst of all, if they lose access to the Big Boys, they lose access to the meth rush that comes from being part of the power club, and who is going to have them on TV then? Now, you can say "It was ever thus", but I don’t think so.  Once upon a time there was Watergate.  There was My Lai.  There was Edward R. Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy.  The press today is a kept press, and even cynics like H.L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce, if God tormented them with resurrection, would be shocked by the level of collusion it now exhibits.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV

Dr. A., in baseball terms, your Daily Beast piece is a five-run homer–meaning too good to be true.  But it’s good and true.  I have argued for years that the Republican party is not merely different, not merely crazy, but treasonous.  My fellow lefties love that, but they refuse to see that does not mean that people want to vote THEIR way.  They should push Obama, no question, but here’s what they miss.  In 2009, Obama pushed for health care reform.  What did the left–including, sad to say, the publication where I first encountered you, The Nation–do?  They attacked Obama and any Democrat who didn’t agree completely with what they wanted ("they" include even faux lefties like Howard Dean, who was, lest we forget, still in a snit over not getting a Cabinet post).  They are the same people, by the way, who keep demanding that Obama and Harry Reid order people to vote a certain way.  Don’t they remember that liberals are supposed to think for themselves, and it’s the far right that marches in lockstep?

What happened while they attacked?  The GOP attacked, too, and the Tea Party got rolling.  I blame Obama in part for this, David Axelrod in part, but, especially, the Democratic left who worried more about the details than about the implications, which we now see:  the Tea Party controlling the House of Representatives and John Boehner, a Tom DeLay appartchik, being considered the SANE Republican.  Thanks, lefties.  Now shut up and get Obama reelected so that when the next opening comes on the Supreme Court, it isn’t Mitt Romney or worse making the appointment.

Linda Whitener
Charlotte, NC

Regarding that screed from Greg Springer of Forney, TX, who identifies himself as "an educator like yourself": I pity his "innter" city students not for any family history of government "dependancey" but because they are saddled with an illiterate teacher whose philosophy has a "cornernstone"; who labors under the misapprehension that the rich pay "almsost" all of the income tax in America, and thinks criticizing them is akin to "bitting" the hand that feeds you; who admires them as risk takers responsible for many "technologial" advances; who refers to our most "imprtant" freedom; and who intends to keep up his "idealogical" fight.

Good God. No wonder Texas is so ****** up.

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