Smiling Through the Apocalypse

Smiling Through the Apocalypse

Alterman reviews the Beach Boys and Reed pokes holes in media ethics.


My new Think Again column is called “Dowd, Not Coulter, "Falters" and it’s here.

My Forward column of last week was called “Pernicious Attempt To Brand Protest as Anti-Semitic,” and it’s here.

Three short noticings:
1) The New York Times editorial board attacks Democrats for doing what Tom Friedman insists they must or else he’s going to join some imaginary third party, here.
2) More reasons T-Mobile is the worst customer service company in history, here.
3) More reasons this Tim Groseclose fellow is apparently among the biggest crybabies academia has ever produced, and among the least accurate, at least as when it pertains the problems with his work discussed in this excellent post.

The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions Box Set
Once again, the folks responsible have gone a little crazy, in a good way, with a box set that does justice to an important, albeit incredibly frustrating moment in rock history. With the full participation of original Beach Boys Al Jardine, Mike Love and Brian Wilson—who are said to be planning a reunion tour around it–Capitol/EMI has, for the first time, collected and compiled all of the 1966/67 Smile sessions. The first cd is what everybody apparently decided is what the album actually is (following on the Brian Wilson version of a few years ago). That’s actually pretty great and everybody should have it. The rest of the cds are outtakes and rehearsals, and more versions of “Heroes and Villians” than anybody could listen to in a lifetime. And the extras never stop coming. They include:
-6 panel folder holding 5 CDs and singles.
-60 page case bound book features liner notes by Brian, Mike and a ton of other people
-Features photos of original session tape boxes.
– 7" vinyl singles
– "Heroes and Villains" in sleeve art
– "Vega-Tables" in sleeve art
– Gatefold 2 LPs
– Features full tracklisting of proposed unfinished album +
– Stereo mixes and session highlights (not available on CDs)
– 12" x 12" booklet created for original release features:
– Photos by Guy Webster
– Drawings by Frank Holmes
– 24" x 36" poster of Frank Holmes cover art

The box itself is something else, c
reated with and inspired by Beat-Pop artist Frank Holmes’ original 1967 LP sleeve art and booklet designs intended for the SMiLE album.

Really it’s just kind of wonderfully crazy, as Brian apparently was at the time of its creation. It’s just kind of a great toy and if you’ve got the time and money, you play with it till your daddy takes your T-Bird away….But for historians of the period, especially amateur ones, it’s another (expensive) must. Here
are some places you can buy it.

Greg Trooper: Make It Through, by Ryan Scott.
Greg Trooper sings about people for whom love is an illusion but an essential one.  Beaten down by life, they have dreams that are pretty small and maybe because they’re so small, maybe, just maybe, not totally unrealistic.  Yet the magic in his songs is that even when his songs are about people who are sad and lonely, they convincingly hope for something like happiness, even when they’re self-aware enough to know it’s an illusion, and that hope is redemptive and infectious.

This is true on his latest album, Upside-Down Town.  My favorite song on the album is about a man waiting for his second wind, who holds out hope it’ll show up eventually, and is still somewhat mystified by the loss of his first one.  The man at the center of “Everything Will Be Just Fine” has dreams that are so small, it makes them seem that much farther away. All of Trooper’s skills are on display:  the great storytelling, the lovely melodies, an enviable supply of wit and charm but most of all his compassion for the vulnerable and heartbroken.

I rank Trooper’s album Make It Through This Work his best, and I’d put it up there with Loudon Wainwright’s Last Man On Earth.  Upside-Down Town falls a little short, I think, because there’s nothing that reaches the sublime brilliance of “I Love It When She Lies” or “No Higher Ground.” But this album is still full of great, great stuff.

Now here’s Reed. The fellow has a real point today.

Journalism’s Ethical Double Standard: Investing over Protesting
By Reed Richardson
This past week, after yet another NPR freelancer lost her job for publicly participating in the Occupy movement, I was heartened to see someone else in the media rise to her defense. Conor Friedersdorf’s fine essay over at The Atlantic, I’m happy to say, not only highlights the ridiculous and contradictory elements of NPR’s behavior, of which there are many parts, it also pokes numerous logical holes in the broader newsroom ethics policies that inform this kind of misguided, hidebound thinking. (Although, I’d like to point out, that I’ve been making many of the same arguments for years, whether it was in this 2009 Nieman Reports essay or many times on this blog, here and here, to cite but a couple of examples.)

Indeed, I was all ready to simply post the above paragraph and call it a week, so to speak, having trod this ground so many times before. But then I spent a few minutes re-acquainting myself with NPR’s Ethics Code and realized that no one, including Friedersdorf, has explored the singular, uneven nature of newsroom disdain for political advocacy. See if you can figure out what kind of mixed signals NPR is sending to its reporters, producers, and editors from the following two ethics policy excerpts.

From section VIII, paragraphs 1 & 2:

1. NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality.

2. NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”

From section IV, paragraph 3:

3. […] NPR journalists must, at the time they are first assigned to cover or work on a matter, disclose to their immediate supervisor any business, commercial, financial or personal interests where such interests might reasonably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with their duties. This would include situations in which a spouse, family member or companion is an active participant in a subject area that the NPR journalists covers. In the financial category, this does not include an investment by an NPR journalist or their spouse, family member or companion in mutual funds or pension funds that are invested by fund managers in a broad range of companies.(italics mine)

If I were an NPR journalist, damned if I wouldn’t read all that ethical boilerplate to say that, when it comes to my private life:

Investing in, say, Goldman Sachs mutual funds = not a conflict of interest

Protesting Goldman Sachs’ corporate malfeasance = conflict of interest

In fact, as NPR’s most recent, draconian personnel move demonstrates, the latter has now been established as unforgiveable offense, whereas the former is, I guess, a harmless consumer choice? That any profits a Wall Street bank or investment house gleans off of the mutual funds/pensions it administers for an NPR employee might end up being fed back into the political process—through, I don’t know, the voracious lobbying of lawmakers in Washington—doesn’t really compute, it seems.

Still, simply piling on NPR is unfair, despite its rather unfortunate habit of summarily cutting loose any of its employees at even the slightest hint of political controversy. That’s because it certainly isn’t alone in having an obvious double standard when it comes to the policing of its editorial staff’s personal ethical behavior. The New York Times’ Ethical Journalism handbook, for example, takes pretty much the same unbalanced approach to restricting political versus financial behavior for its editorial staff.

To wit, the section of the Times ethics code on “Participation in Public Life” ominously warns that though they are entitled to vote, “journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics” (¶. 62). It goes on to specifically ban pretty much everything else except exercising one’s franchise (¶ 63-65) and then subtly encouragesTimes employees to roll up their spouses under the paper’s strict political behavioral umbrella for good measure (¶. 67). But compare that uncompromising position to the tone of the Times policy regarding private financial activity (¶ 113):

Though staff members must necessarily accept certain limits on their freedom to invest, this policy leaves a broad range of investments open to them. Any staff member, regardless of assignment, is free to own diversified mutual funds, money market funds and other diversified investments that the reporter or editor cannot control. Any member also may own treasury bills, investment-grade municipal bonds, debt securities other than speculative bonds, and securities issued by the New York Times Company. And staff members are of course free to own stocks entirely unrelated to their Times assignment. (Italics mine.)

On the one hand, the Times has basically issued a blanket ultimatum to its entire staff—not just the journalists—that they cannot be trusted to separate their personal partisan activity from their work for the Times. Full stop. End of story. But on the other, the paper’s policy generously adopts (I love that precious use of "of course") a strategy of accommodation, one offering “a broad range” of choices. It’s an upside-down ordering of principles that places more value on participating in our economy than in our democracy.

Indeed, if I didn’t know a lick about the American constitution, reading the ethics policies of major news organizations like NPR and the Times would lead me to believe that things like freedom of expression and the right to peaceably assemble were some kind of recent phenomenon cooked up by a craven political industry, while shareholder participation and the inalienable right to invest in impenetrable and under-regulated financial instruments were fundamental tenets codified into our country’s founding documents.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that one’s personal investment portfolio should automatically limit or disqualify someone from working as a journalist. On the contrary, I think places like NPR and the Times pretty much get it right when it comes to policing the investment behavior of their employees. (Of course, in narrow instances and specific beats, divestment from certain markets and/or products is necessary to avoid reportorial conflicts of interest.) I just wish these news organizations took the same uniform approach to both and erred on the side of inclusion when it came to setting reasonable ethics policies on partisan political activity.

So, what’s really behind this uneven, mismatched ethical framework? In a word, transparency. Or, to be more accurate, a lack of transparency. Since so much of political behavior is, by its nature, public, the conventional wisdom goes that any participation—on or off-duty—by a journalist or editor gives readers, listeners, or viewers a readily available partisan label to hang upon that individual’s byline. Mainstream media organizations, fearful of being likewise tarred, have therefore chosen to retreat into a tightly constructed shell in order to pre-emptively stave off any claims of bias. The one notable exception to this retrenchment is voting, which happens to be the one political act routinely conducted in secret, and perhaps not coincidentally, the one political act still universally allowed by news organizations (although even that act has been pompously disavowed by some well-known figures in the news profession).

By contrast, personal investing is a relatively private endeavor with far fewer built-in requirements for individual public disclosure. As a result, news organizations can take a more lenient approach to their editorial staff’s private behavior simply because they know fewer conflicts of interest will arise in the eyes of the public. But financial conflicts of interest among journalists aren’t inherently any less problematic than political ones (in fact, I’d argue the former are probably more of a legitimate threat to fair coverage), yet they’re treated quite differently in newsrooms simply because of a quirk of how our society chooses to regulate and disclose the two. This selective ethical approach, then, severely undermines the idea that these policies are about taking principled stands to prevent and root out actual bias in news reportage; instead they reveal that there’s a strong, self-serving element of expedience to them, where newsrooms are more concerned with covering their ass from perceptions of bias.

Ironcially, this ethical double standard could actually be inadvertently injecting bias into news coverage. Consider the initially uninterested and often dismissive mainstream news coverage of the Occupy movement. It’s fair to assume that many, if not all, of the reporters and producers that major news organizations have sent down to Zuccotti Park would never consider publicly joining such a political protest out of fear of being accused of professional malpractice. Yet at the same time, how many of those same media professionals likely have financial relationships with the banks and/or investment houses being targeted? Is it just me that sees a risk in the overwhelming imbalance existing here?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t think that any of the individual Times reporters or NPR producers who have gone down to Zuccotti Park ever intentionally slanted their reporting against the protestors out of some personal financial motivation or fear of eroding their own retirement savings. (As to the cable TV networks, however, all bets are off.) But at the same time, is it realistic to expect even the most professional of newsrooms to implicitly condone one type of behavior—while condemning another—amongst their editorial staff and then expect those same employees to never unconsciously reprise those same societal frames in their reporting? Isn’t it quite likely that the “look-at-the-incoherent-dirty-hippies,” establishment bias coloring much of the early reporting on the Occupy movement sprung from exactly that kind of insidious groupthink? Mainstream journalism may claim to be objective, in other words, but, in reality, achieving fair coverage of issues like income disparity and economic justice will remain difficult as long as the press perpetuates a skewed ethical infrastructure that values investing over protesting.

The mail: 
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dr. A., you hit a couple of my weak spots today.  Here goes.

First, the NPR story, as you described it, was even worse than I had read.  But when I linked to the original report on Facebook, I ALMOST quoted Abe Rosenthal’s classic comment on political involvement by Times staffers:  it’s fine to fuck the elephant as long as you don’t cover the circus.  That’s a good rule, actually, and NPR should be ashamed.  What NPR unfortunately doesn’t understand is that it could replace Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and the far right would still claim the network is left-wing.  Which it isn’t.

Second, I sent a letter to The New Yorker about Auletta’s profile of Abramson.  I caught an error in Times history in it (we’ll see if The New Yorker corrects it), but I made the point that he lumps Abramson’s co-authored book on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill with the issue of liberal bias.  I am surprised that The New Yorker, by publishing the line, took the position that truth has a liberal bias.

Finally, Hank Williams (the truly great Hank Williams, not to be confused with his talented grandson or his not-very-talented, hateful son, who apparently forgot that his daddy learned a lot of his singing from Rufus Payne, since Jr. doesn’t think much of that guy in the White Man’s House).  Minnie Pearl was close to Hank, and told the story that one night, he sang her a song he had written:  "Heart of a Devil, Face of a Saint."  She said it was typical Hank:  brilliant, powerful, moving.  He died shortly thereafter.  She checked around.  No sign of it ever found.  Here’s hoping there are more lost notebooks.

Kenn Space

Corporate Occupation of the United States
We are at war. Our corporate controlled government (through corporate lobbying  and election funding ) is out of the peoples control. People want government control back. Makes sense to me… I feel US corporate capitalism (corporatism) is based on an economic fascism: To have a corporate being where the chain of command eventually muddles all responsibility to any human being. These corporate beings are running your life and controlling your government. (Enough to really make an individual mad and protest.) The corporate being does not exist, and when it comes to face it’s corporate responsibility, it is a piece of paper. That is plain and simply wrong. Restore capitalism to individual responsible chains of command, or this war will be lost.

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