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Unhappy Anniversary | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Unhappy Anniversary

All I’ve got this weekend is my “Think Again” column about the anniversary of Ted Kennedy’s death (and of the 1963 march) here.

And, oh yeah, I continued my argument with Charles Blow over whether Jews think Obama is good for the Jews, here. My guess is that Mr. Blow will not be responding...

I have a lot of pet peeves regarding the mindless way journalism is practiced. Here are three.

1) Stories in which absolutely everything an interviewee says is largely true, mundane, largely unarguable and has been said a million, billion times.

2) Election stories about candidates who have no hope in hell of winning, no matter what.

3) Great writers who inspire so many awful imitators that you almost wish they hadn’t bothered. (Almost.) Nominees: Mike Kinsley, H.L. Mencken. (Separate even more annoying category, not-so-great writers who do the same: Maureen Dowd.)

Just a reminder. The incredibly inclusive Eric Rohmer festival ends tomorrow at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I was in the city last weekend and saw all or part of eight movies. My favorites are still Claire’s Knee and My Night at Maude’s, though I love the "seasons" ones as well and the comedies and proverbs are all sort of wonderful in their way tool. You can rent a bunch of them at Netflix if you live in the boonies. Also inspired by FSLC, I’ve been watching a bunch of early Clint Eastwood movies that came in the thirty-five DVD box set. Gotta say, a bunch of those Harry Callahan films really suck, particularly in the racist stereotypes they promote. Clint did not direct these, but it’s not like he could not have had any influence on them. I had an idea for a book about Clint once in which I was planning to argue that the second half of his career was an atonement for the first half; it’s all about the crippling effects on people’s lives of the violence that these early movies exploits and celebrates. FSLC is also showing lots of John Hughes films. The best of these, by far, in my view is Sixteen Candles, a nearly perfect little teen movie, though not exactly a great one. (For perfect see under: Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused. (Who are these morons at IMBD giving these movies such low ratings?)

Reed Richardson writes:

Ombudsmania

So the New York Times’ new public editor introduces himself this past week and at the tail end of a lengthy, somewhat turgid column, he gives the reader this ponderous, disjointed statement:

“I believe that journalists should leave their political views at the door when they report and edit the news. I’m a registered Democrat who voted for Barack Obama and then Scott Brown, so, as you can see, I have already left my views at the door!”

First of all, I’ll set aside the mysterious logic and startling lack of cognitive dissonance displayed by Mr. Brisbane in his choice of political candidates. After all, this voting history is mostly offered up as testimony to his even-handedness and independence; pre-emptive strikes, if you will, against those who would judge or dismiss him solely because of his publicly available party registration (which some online commenters still did anyway). Nevertheless, I applaud even this little bit of transparency, despite the fact that it doesn’t accomplish what Brisbane seems to think it does.

However, I will stipulate to Brisbane’s assertion early on in his column that the role of news organization ombudsman is a pretty thankless and lonely job. Being the designated receptacle for both reader anger and colleague resentment promises little day-to-day job satisfaction, which is probably why, within the journalistic taxonomy, ombudsmen are a rather recently evolved and relatively rare species. Of course, their mere existence at a newspaper or media organization, by no means, guarantees the fairness or accuracy of the reporting and, at times, they can be susceptible to taking positions that are too blindingly obvious or too frustratingly lazy. And even the presence of a judicious, well-meaning, and assertive ombudsman doesn’t necessarily mean that a major newspaper, like, say, the Washington Post, will change course when confronted with serious and legitimate questions about its credulous, flawed, and downright derelict coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. Though even the act of devoting a salary to an ombudsman does speak to a sincerity and earnestness, on some level, of trying to get it right and do things better. In an age where incessant, corporate-driven staff cutbacks are the order of the day, I say two cheers for the Times for sticking with the position, at least.

But sadly, at the end of his inaugural Times column, the new public editor’s reasoning falls into the same trap that increasingly waylays most media organizations when they try to address ethical issues involving potential political bias—a myopic obsession with appearing to be fair. Letting us in on a very small (and I suspect, unrepresentative) sample of his voting history does not really offer any evidence that Brisbane holds true to the principles he espouses. Indeed, readers can only “see” that he keeps his own political views out of his work, by, you know, actually reading his columns and watching him keep his political views out of his work. He has mistaken confession for absolution and by doing so he devalues his own reportage.

Nevertheless, if the Times’s public editor is willing to divulge—in even a brief, limited way—his personal political beliefs in the interest of fuller disclosure, I consider it a positive step forward. This kind of transparency arms readers with more information to assess if the news they’re receiving really is fair and unbiased. Most major news organizations, including the Times, have embraced the exact opposite conclusion, however, in their ethics policies. (In fact, a close reading of the Times ethical handbook, which forbids any employee or independent contractor, regardless of their editorial position or beat, from “display[ing] any form of political partisanship while on the job,” suggests that Brisbane’s admission may have run afoul of his new employer’s ethical guidelines.)  Rather, they would have their editors and reporters increasingly shrink their public political profile down to the point where it can be completely hidden from news consumers.

But in an era where profit-maximizing cutbacks have gutted many news organizations’ editorial staffs, these same policies, in effect, lull the media into a false sense of security, making us more at risk of publishing inaccurate and biased reporting. If a newspaper with the resources of the Washington Post can’t keep flagrant copy-editing errors from routinely appearing in its pages, what real chance is there that its editors will catch more nuanced and subtle cases of biased or unfair reporting occurring across all its many media platforms? What’s more, as news organizations increasingly absorb or partner with blogs, advocacy groups, and non-profits—many of whom carry pre-existing political agendas—to expand their coverage, these draconian “see no evil” policies will grow more and more untenable.

Of course, that’s exactly the space where an ombudsman can play a critical role. But if they believe as Brisbane does, then they’ve already revealed a blind spot that seriously calls their judgment into question. Fortunately, there is an interesting case study right under Brisbane’s nose for him to examine. It involves the newspaper’s hosting of the electoral blog fivethirtyeight.com on its online Politics news section. The blog’s proprietor, Nate Silver, is an avowed “rational progressive” who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the blog’s about or contributors pages on the Times website. (Though the paper did see fit to mention Silver’s political leanings when announcing the partnership three months ago.) Now, Silver, in my and many others’ estimation, offers real insight into the calculus of electoral politics and has likewise done an admirable job keeping his statistical prowess free from political spin. The acquisition of his blog was no doubt a savvy move by the Times.

If Brisbane really wants to walk the walk, he’ll address this lack of transparency by his employer (which, for the record, I think the Times should correct, just to be consistent) and then examine the blog over the next few months to see if Silver actually leaves “his political views at the door” in his analysis. If, by the end of the year, Brisbane finds that this more open arrangement didn’t “damage the Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government,” as the newspaper’s ethics guide somberly puts it, maybe, just maybe, the Times might start to think differently about how it can both treat its readers and editorial employees more fairly and better serve our democracy. That, to me, would be the kind of legacy that any ombudsman would want to leave behind.

The mail:

Paul Donahue
Niskayuna
Dear Professor,
I enjoy reading your song lists, and I further enjoy reading the revisions of your song lists. I can sit and relax letting the titles bring the music back to me, the good songs and the bad songs, and recall the times, places and people stored away in my memory that are bookmarked by them. Some bookmarks are just for people, some just for places, some hold years in them, but as I look back they are all good songs (perhaps we edit out the bad memories/songs). So I have no reason to contribute to the list because my memories are shared with but a few, who I hope still share them with me.  But this post deserves to be considered, perhaps not for the song, but it describes how very important a song can be for one person and unimportant for someone else.  Maybe that's why we like your lists.

Terry
Cheyenne
Okay. Put My Sweet Lord to 453. But please don't make me listen to it again. "Help! I need somebody, Help! Not just anybody, Help! You know I need someone...He e elp!"

Dave Zimny
Oakland, CA
Eric: Here's a belated but heartfelt nomination for another entry on your "Worst Songs" list: "The Windmills of Your Mind," in all its various remakes and cover versions. This is the American pop song with absolutely the most nonsensical and inane lyrics, ever.

Stephen Carver
Los Angeles
Regarding "The Terrorists Win," I have long believed that as of 9/11, our nation went insane. From the Orwellian-themed "Department of Homeland Security," to the Patriot Act, the waterboarding, to illegal wiretapping groups like the Quakers, to the rise of the Tea Bagg… er… Partiers, to the mosque (not-a-mosque) in Manhattan, etc., our nation has continuously made bad choices for the last nine years simply because we got incredibly scared by the images of 9/11. The day was literally and figuratively BURNED into our national consciousness by never-ending television coverage, and combined with the ever-increasing fear it could happen again (but thank god, hasn't), our government has, in the name of freedom, taken numerous freedoms away from us and loaded on additional measures of fear (I still can't take a roll of toothpaste on an airplane).

I fear for our country in the sense that it will take generations to heal the wounds opened on 9/11, and continually exacerbated by our government. We had the opportunity to become a healer and come out of this horrific event stronger (morally and spiritually, if not militarily).  We had the opportunity to take the fight directly to OBL and instead detoured it to Saddam (as you so rightly pointed out). We had the opportunity to learn from our past mistakes (Saddam, again) and to grow as a nation, using the healing power of over 6 billion people on 9/12 ("We are all Americans now"), and instead, we squandered that in a continuing downward spiral of national insanity.

I thought things would get better when Obama got elected; Hope and Change are good words, but that's evidently ALL they are: words. I sometimes despair at the cynical political tactics of those on the right (mostly) and the left (as well). We are all Americans: Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, straights, gays, whites, blacks, immigrants and native born… we must come together or we shall surely fall apart.

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