My New Think Again column is called "Why Do the Mainstream Media Like the Tea Party More Than Occupy Wall Street?" and it’s here.
So the Grammys are out, and not that I care, but I would just like to point out on behalf of my argument that the Allman Brothers Band are the best collection of musicians playing togther regularly, anywhere, that in the blues category, three of the five nominees are in the band. I’ll bet that never happened before. I would also like to say that while I love Derek Trucks, he is crazily overrated in the new Rolling Stone poll of the 100 best guitarists, while it is criminal that Warren Haynes would be left off all together. Also, being dead is not a good idea if you want to be high on this list (unless your name is “Hendrix, of course.”) My guess is that if Jann had to worry about getting hassled by Jerry Garcia, he would have been in the top fifteen, rather than way down, I can’t even remember where he is. There’s a bunch more about which to complain: (Lou Reed? Are you serious?) But I agree with the top five.
Chick Corea celebrated his 70th birthday with a month of shows at the Blue Note in Manhattan where he was joined by more musicians echoing more styles than I care to enumerate here. I’m not sure there has ever been a more eclectic composer and performer than Corea. And the weird thing about him is that he is not a jack-of-all trades, but actually a master of them. Part of the secret, apart from obviously, talent and longevity, appear to be egolessness. Corea throws himself into combinations with different kinds of musicians and then becomes just a member of the band. This works better with different combinations depending both on the combination in question as well as the taste of the listener.
The night I went was a flamenco night (and I believe it was Corea’s actual birthday). Since “My Spanish Heart” is perhaps my favorite of Corea’s albums, I was pretty excited about this. So too were a lot of other people as I’ve never been in a more tightly packed room in my life. I got to see some of the most renowned flamenco musicians in the world, many of whom could fill large halls elsewhere in the world (and one of whom, Concha Buika can apparently fill Carnegie Hall on her own today). It was a quite exciting night for all concerned, though alas, perhaps overly authentic for your relatively philistine blogger (in matters flamenco) than for many others in the audience, who acted as if they were witnessing their own private little miracle. I’m sure I would have felt the same way had I gone on the nights he played with the Miles alumni, or with Herbie Hancock, or Gary Burton, or the acoustic RTF, etc. In any case, if you are new to Chick’s incredible legacy, there’s a fine two-cd collection out on Concord to get you started, called the The Definitive Chick Corea on Stretch and Concord, but only as long as you promise not to stop there.
Continuing in the jazz vein, and just in time for holiday gift-giving, is the fifth collection in the “Jazz Icons” DVD series, from Mosaic Records and produced by Reelin’ In The Years Productions. This one is six discs and filmed in France from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, features performances from John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The highlights in this one, if you ask me, are:
John Coltrane—Live In France 1965, filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival that summer. It’s the great quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones and they performed “A Love Supreme” at the show. I believe it’s the only time they ever did. I also really like the solo Monk show, which is from 1965 and filmed in a studio without an audience and the show by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1959 in which we get to see a young Wayne Shorter on tenor, Walter Davis Jr. and the great Lee Morgan on trumpet. The Johnny Griffin—Live In France 1971 has two songs with Dizzy Gillespie and the Freddie Hubbard—Live In France 1973 and the Rahsaan Roland Kirk—Live In France 1972 will no doubt excite their fans more than they did me. The series also deserves kudos for the fine, informative uniform booklets that come with the DVDS. You can fine more info here.
I’ll be spending a great deal of my winter months watching dvds and blurays, alas, beginning with the newly released versions of the terrific Le Carre/BBC miniseries, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which some people think is the best miniseries ever, and its sequel, "Smiley’s People." Both are Cold War masterpieces, both in print (where you should really start, people) and on screen. Alex Guinness plays George Smiley to perfection. These new, improved transfers include a few extras, like an interview with the author and production notes and so forth but it is the dramas that are the, um, star.
More elaborate, expensive and worth it, is the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s”Three Colors: Blue, White, Red.” The transfers are beautiful and the movies all justify repeated viewings. A better match between director, actor, and cinematic moment would be hard to find. (This is true of all of them, but particularly so of “Blue” which stars Juliette Binoche.) This being a Criterion Collection, it has an insane amount of extras including three cinema lessons with director, interviews with composer Zbigniew Preisner; writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz; and actors Julie Delpy, Zbigniew Zamachowski, and Irène Jacob. Selected-scene commentary for Blue with Ms. Binoche.
Three new video essays, by film writers Annette Insdorf, Tony Rayns, and Dennis Lim as well as Kieślowski’s student short The Tram (1966) and his fellow student’s short from the same year The Face, which features Kieślowski in a solo performance, two short documentaries by Kieślowski: Seven Women of Different Ages (1978) and Talking Heads (1980), Krzysztof Kieślowski: I’m So-So . . . (1995), a feature-length documentary in which the filmmaker discusses his life and work, and two multi-interview programs, Reflections on “Blue” and Kieślowski: The Early Years, with film critic Geoff Andrew, Binoche, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, Insdorf, Jacob, and editor Jacques Witta. The booklet has essays by Colin MacCabe, Nick James, Stuart Klawans, and Georgina Evans, an excerpt from Kieślowski on Kieślowski, and believe me, more than that.
For classicists, there’s a fancy-new bluray of “West Side Story” 50th Anniversary Edition which comes with hundreds of hours of restoration, new 7.1 digital audio, and a collection of bonus features It will be available in a Limited Edition 4-Disc Boxed Set featuring 2 disc Blu-ray, newly-restored DVD, Tribute CD and collectible memorabilia, as well as a 2-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray with extras to numerous to list, but you can find them here. See if you can keep from tearing up during “There’s a Place for Us.”
On the music front, there’s a fine new Stones DVD from their 1978 “Some Girls” tour. It was the last time they had really great new material to tour behind and you can tell they were excited to play it. It’s a show in a stadium in Fort Worth and it’s well shot. Since I have the DVD, I can’t tell you how great the sound on the Bluray is, but I’m sure it’s way better. The extras include the Stones’ absolutely awful performance on SNL that year, which I remember watching and thinking that they should have rehearsed instead of doing all those drugs with John Belushi. There’s also a few interviews.
Speaking of those days when I was young and adventurous, my backpack and I made it to the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of 1980 and I got to see, among other things, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile do a show with Elvis Costello. Thanks to the magic of cd release, that show is available and you can relive my life. The rest of the evening was spent in the train station with, as I recall, a Swiss fellow who like to pretend he was a Hollywood-style cowboy. I thought I remembered Nick’s then-wife, Carlene Carter, singing with the band that night but I remember a lot of things from those days that never happened. Great band, though. Lowe and Edmunds could have been a mini-Lennon/McCartney if they could have gotten along better. You can read about it here.
On the book-giving front, I can get behind The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, published by Yale, which is based on the exhibition now at the Jewish Museum and features photos 1936 to 1951, designed to stimulate a Communist revolution. It features photos by Margaret Bourke-White, Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee, among many others. Also from Yale, I am loving Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. This is not hard to do, when you a) love Vermeer, and b) love women. Since Vermeer is my favorite artist, no contest, and women, my favorite sex, also no contest, this would be a great gift for me if I didn’t already have it. Perhaps you know someone for whom it might be. More here.
And if you’re buying a graduation gift for someone you don’t know that well, well, then, lucky you, you’ve got three perfect choices, depending on price points.
If you’re feeling really generous, for $200 there’s the new deluxe, boxed, break-your-back eighteenth edition of the Oxford ATLAS OF THE WORLD, which comes in a non-deluxe edition for a great deal less. (I see Amazon has it for just about fifty bucks) and you know, they’re great things to have, especially since the world is what it is. (Need a map of South Sudan, for instance?) And if you like words better than pictures, there’s a new, fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which is my favorite dictionary, in part, ironically, because of the pictures, and in part because I’m on the usage panel and I get to help decide what’s kosher and what’s not. This being 2011, it comes with a passkey code for a free download of a smartphone app that works with the iPad/iPhone/iPod or Android platform. Look up “punditocracy.”
Finally, for Hannukah gift-giving only, I just discovered “Songs of the Jewish-American Jet Set” a collection from the catalog of Tikva Records, which apparently was “the flagship independent Jewish record label of 20th century America.” Founded in 1947, it ranged from Israeli folk songs to Jewish-American swing, from klezmer pop to cantorial singing, from Catskills comedy to key political speeches of Jewish leaders. I would not go so far as the PR material, which calls it “something of a Jewish Motown” but it’s pretty great and this collection is really well done with an informative, well-produced booklet and nice packaging and some really good music. Seriously, I bought a bunch of them. More here.
Now here (finally) is Reed:
by Reed Richardson
Renowned Greek statesmen and philosopher Demosthenes once famously said: “The facts speak for themselves.” But in our modern political media environment, one saturated by vacuous cable news punditry, minutiae-obsessed media Tweets, and quick-reaction campaign spin, it’s not unreasonable to worry that whatever the facts are really saying increasingly gets drowned out.
The antidote to this incessant bloviating and partisan background noise, some now believe, is to unleash roving bands of rhetorical truth squads. With this new legion of fact checkers at its command, journalism might once again command respect from a skeptical public, now that it is so nobly documenting every prevarication, exaggeration, and outright fabrication on the campaign trail and op-ed page. Also, there will be cake for (almost) everyone.
OK, maybe that last bit wouldn’t pass for the truth. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the fact-checking fervor—dare I say, bubble?—sweeping through journalism today. (And with unrepentant know-nothing presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to follow around every day, it’s no wonder.) Beyond the big three—Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker”—there are now a number of state and local fact-check media initiatives underway as well as several non-profit/private citizen hybrids partnering to vet political speech. Even Craig Newmark, perhaps fearful that, as the founder of craigslist, he will go down in history as the man most responsible for the economic demise of newspapers, has enthusiastically jumped on board what he calls “Bigtime Fact-checking” as one way to revive a financially moribund industry.
Forgive me, however, for not having as much faith as folks like Newmark and media guru Jeff Jarvis in the idea that a fact-checking renaissance would rehabilitate journalism and reinvigorate our democracy. More accurate reporting, I’m all for, of course, and any effort at actually holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words and deeds has my deepest sympathies. But I see several problems with all this fact-checking evangelism, the first of which is a subtle, structural dilemma.
Listen to Jarvis and other fact-checking evangelists for a little while and you’ll start to notice a sort of backwards mission creep. They say they want to “restore fact-checking to the news business” but then they invariably discuss fact-checking as if it was more than just a different angle on a topic or an intrinsic part of a journalist’s daily routine. More and more, it’s clear that they envision it as a separate, standalone form of journalism, if not civic activity, one that necessitates creating a whole separate network of independent entities and/or databases. But this outsourcing of a critical function of journalism sets up a potential moral hazard within the profession.
Here’s a thought experiment:
Say the media scrum covering a Republican presidential debate hears a candidate make an obviously untrue statement, something like, oh, I don’t know, the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation. That’s certainly newsworthy and worth covering in the recap. But if those same reporters implicitly know that someone else is charged with assessing the truth (or, in this case, the total lack thereof) of that candidate’s comment, how much effort should we really expect them to put into debunking such a claim? Probably not much if this kind of journalistic abdication is already happening now.
Isn’t it plausible that the existence of an even more comprehensive and compartmentalized network of fact-checkers could push regular beat reporters to be even less discerning when it comes to including dubious or false claims by politicians or pundits in their reporting? In other words, aren’t we at risk of fostering a feckless media mentality of, to paraphrase an old Army T-shirt: Print it all, let the fact-checkers sort it out?
This question is especially germane since, as recent research on the Obamacare “death panels” lie clearly demonstrated, publishing factually untrue statements in news reports without including an immediate and adjacent debunking each and every time is how myths are born and propagated among the public. So, institutionalizing a kind of bifurcated media coverage—with one group focused mainly on verifying facts and the other obsessed with "he said, she said," horserace coverage—could actually provide more rather than less fertile ground for future false memes to arise.
Perhaps sensitive to this troubling contradiction, one grad student at the MIT Media Lab is working on a technological solution that would more easily combine the two. . As detailed in a Nieman Journalism Lab story from last week, his idea is to create a kind of journalism X-ray specs, which would provide instantaneous, real-time fact-checking of individual assertions in any media story.
Schultz is building what he calls truth goggles—not actual magical eyewear, alas, but software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness…If you had the truth goggles installed and came across Bachmann’s debate claim [about the HPV vaccine], the suspicious sentence might be highlighted.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is, because as any high school-level programmer can tell you, software is only as good as its source code.
His software is not designed to determine lies from truth on its own. That remains primarily the province of real humans…“It’s not just deciding what’s bullshit. It’s deciding what has been judged,” [creator Dan Schultz] said. “In other words, it’s picking out things that somebody identified as being potentially dubious.”
The somebody in this case being PolitiFact, the news project of the St. Petersburg Times that notably won a Pulitzer for its 2008 presidential campaign coverage. Linking with Schultz’s venture may be a natural next step for the site, since it has already debuted the inevitable mobile app, where for two bucks you can track PolitiFact’s true/false rating of prominent politicians just in time for the heat of the 2012 presidential race.
But since we are also talking about real humans here, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that the PolitiFact occasionally propagates some ‘potentially dubious’ reasoning of its own. Like, for example, this past Tuesday, when the site trotted out not one but two disingenuous verdicts on Mitt Romney’s political contortions over mandated-coverage health careand the federal assault weapons ban. Regarding the latter issue, I offer up PolitiFact’s alternately incoherent and conflicted conclusion as testimony to the type of fact assessment that Schultz’s ‘truth goggles’ might one day rely upon:
The difficulty of analyzing this charge is that Romney’s position on an assault-weapons ban in the 2008 debate was so muddled that it’s hard to pin down whether he actually flip-flopped. It’s more an example of an internal inconsistency than a flip-flop per se.
Sure, and the horrific act of executing someone in an electric chair might likewise be more delicately described as an example of internal inconsistency—thanks to 2,000 volts burning one’s vital organs—than getting fried, but I think the larger point is taken. This semantic parsing on the part of PolitiFact leaves the reader just as muddled as the candidate they’re trying to learn about.
Surely the proliferation of other fact-check sites would naturally correct for these occasional oversights or skewed interpretations, you might argue. That’s a fair point, but it also begs the question: Which one should the public listen to on which issue? Precisely because sussing out the truth of complex policy issues is and probably always should be a task for the human mind and not a computer algorithm, the notion that all these fact-check sites will consistently and objectively agree on the truthiness of a pundit’s statement or a politician’s policy is chimerical. And if one can easily go fact-check shopping, as it were, to find an independent stamp of approval for most arguments, then what’s the real, lasting value of all this vetting and verifying?
Even if, in some grand, future moment, we could somehow resolve all these structural, technological, and philosophical impediments, the value of all this fact-checking would still have to overcome its biggest obstacle—the irrational human psyche.
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. (italics original)
The above comes from this thoroughly engaging Boston Globe essay, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety even though it’s from last year. In it, you’ll learn about the critical importance played by the first few facts (or non-facts) the public learns about a topic or story. Once these points become internalized, like concrete, they quickly set, to the point where they become stubbornly impervious to cracking, even under the likes of PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating.
But before ye abandon all hope for the fact-checkers of the world, there might yet be a worthwhile, albeit difficult, role for them to play. Instead of an after-the-fact palliative remedy, why not employ them as preventive medicine?
Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, [researcher Brendan Nyhan] suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”
This more hierarchical fact-checking approach would no doubt prove harder to implement in today’s personality-obsessed media. Indeed, some pundits and politicians appear to have been inoculated against ever having to answer for their specious claims and intellectually dishonest arguments (especially, for some, when it comes to ‘Meet the Press’). But imagine a world in which an op-ed columnist’s continued worth to a media organization wasn’t just measured in clicks or books written but in lies told as well, or if a cable news talk show made it a policy to only invite guests whose past arguments went beyond mere bombast and withstood factual scrutiny.
Yes, these pundits and politicians would also be at the mercy of the same systemic complications and biases of fact checking that I mention above. But, unlike the public at large, they are professionals in their field, and should presumably know better. Overall, this use of fact checking to better price out the ideas in the marketplace and hold accountable the news organizations that allow them to propagate in the marketplace, I believe, would not only heighten our political discourse but help to broaden it as well. Likewise, it would rightly place more of the onus of news judgment back on those whose job it is to produce it, rather than just swamp an already inundated public with more data to slog through.
“Keeping atop the news takes time and effort,” one of the Michigan researchers pointed out. “And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting.” Demosthenes certainly understood this, since more than 2,300 years ago he offered up an observation that the fact checkers of today would be wise to heed: "The easiest thing of all is to deceive one’s self; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true."
Thanks for reinforcing my determination, not yet acted upon, to see John Fogerty as soon as I can. If I had been deserving of a soundtrack for my formative years, it was all the songs that he wrote. I especially love the fact that he never saw the Bayou until years after he wrote the Credence classics, although he has said that he spent summers as a kid ‘up in Cody’s camp’ in a swampy region of California that undoubtedly provided the inspiration for those amazing songs. Meanwhile, this depressing story: my brother in law asked his sister, who had attended a Fogerty show in Florida, if during "Bad Moon" he sang the line "There’s a Bathroom on the Right" [sic], which he has been doing in recent years, to which she replied, "It looked more like a Depends crowd."
So glad you mentioned "Keith and Donna". How many brilliant versions of "Playin’ in the Band" were ruined by her insufferable caterwauling? I saw them in the early 70s when she was much more restrained.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.