My new Think Again column is called “The Terrible Power of Purposeful Ignorance.” It deals with the decision to invade Iraq together with arguments over the sequester and it’s here
I wrote (what is for me, an oddly) confessional piece about my career of being made to feel like an idiot by William F. Buckley Jr. for the Columbia Journalism Review. They called it “Aspiring Line,” and it’s here.
Also, I gave a talk on liberalism at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side this past Sunday. They videotaped it and it’s here.
Whose reputation will this hurt the most? Victor Navasky and I had dinner with William Kristol last week after the latter’s Delacorte lecture at the Columbia Journalism School. It was pleasant, insofar as I could tell, for everyone concerned. I sense this would be impossible with anyone with the last name (or married to anyone with the last name) “Podhoretz,” but that has always been the Kristols’ secret, I think: self-confidence, which breeds good manners.
But speaking of Neocons, remember when that Josh Block fellow told Politico that what I had written was “borderline anti-Semitic” because I insisted that AIPAC and its allies were hoping for a US attack on Iran. This actually caused me a lot of trouble and led, ultimately, to my resigning my column from the Forward.
Well, as Ali Gharib noticed, Neocon pundit and newly minted anti-Semit, Max Boot just said the same thing regarding the approval vote for Chuck Hagel. Look here.
Boot writes: "This is a far cry from what Israel—and for that matter America’s Gulf Arab allies—would like to see, which is American air strikes to cripple the Iranian nuclear program." He then keeps digging, adding that "if the 'Zionist Lobby' actually ran American foreign policy—as so many seem to imagine—it is puzzling why such strikes have not yet been undertaken." I'm old enough to remember when saying that pro-Israel groups (and indeed Israel itself) want war with Iran was enough to get right-wingers to accuse you of anti-Semitism. Of course, AIPAC is busy itself pushing (non-binding) hawkish resolutions on Iran, but it's always helpful to have Max Boot clarifying the pro-Israel lobby's goals for us
The next stop on this train will be the attack on that anti-Semite Dick Cheney for using the term “Jewish lobby.”
In between Allman shows, I got out to the Iridium last weekend to see Nicholas Payton joined by Vicente Archer on bass and Lenny White on drums. I was happy to see White, who I first caught as a teenager in the Corea/Clarke iteration of “Return to Forever,” among my first jazz shows at the old Palladium. It was around that time that Miles Davis could be spotted playing trumpet and keyboards simultaneously, something that Payton is now doing on his Fender Rhodes. It was a pretty interesting evening with what felt to me like a decidedly “Bitches Brew” kind of vibe. Anyway, if you live in the city, Sunday nights are a great night to see jazz in the clubs because the bands are held over from the weekend but only the serious fans are out there seeing them. A place like the Irridium when it’s not crowded is almost ideal.
At the other end of this spectrum of course is Rose Hall, Jazz@LC’s “house of swing.” This weekend, I’m excited to be going to see the great Jon Faddis pay tribute to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, with special guests Ignacio Berroa, drums; NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone; Pedrito Martinez, congas; and Steve Turre, trombone and conch shells (3/8 only). You can look it up.
And speaking of Miles, I think Eagle Rock has issued the first bluray of a live performance by the man. ]. This concert from July 8, 1991 was his last many appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival and took place only a few months before his death Happily, while it’s quite late in his career, its not “late Miles” funk etc. Instead, persuaded by Quincy Jones and Claude Nobs to take part in this tribute to his great friend Gil Evans, who had passed away in 1988 and with whom he made such wonderful and beautiful music. Not many pyrotechnics—save sartorily, but we get Miles plus Kenny Garrett (saxophone) & Wallace Rooney(trumpet, flugelhorn). Quincy Jones conducting the Gil Evans Orchestra and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band with the addition of Benny Bailey (trumpet, flugelhorn), Carles Benavent (bass) and Grady Tate (drums).
Here’s a video of Summertime.
Speaking of Europe, we are also in the middle of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Rendezvous with French Cinema. I saw a bunch of movies while the rest of you were working and stuff. What did I think was great? The Girl From Nowhere/La fille de nulle part was great. Here’s a description: “Lost in a maze of his philosophizing while trying to write a book, a retired math teacher is forced to deal with the real world when he must rescue a young woman from the clutches of a thug outside his Paris apartment. What the teacher doesn’t know is that this woman may be his muse, a mystical agent or an angel of death."
Granny’s Funeral/Adieu Berthe: L’enterrement de meme was pretty fun, as was You Will Be My Son/Tu Seras Mon Fils. Meanwhile, Renoir, about the final years of the painter’s life, was beautiful.
I think these will all see releases in the coming year
OK, back to music, People who only know me through the blog think I go out an awful lot. I don’t actually agree and, and in my defense, I will point out that I would have been really happy to see Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale at the Bowery Ballroom, Corb Lund at Joe’s Pub, James Hunter somewhere hipsters go in Williamsburg and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, together with Richard Thompson at the Beacon. With regard to all of the above, I stayed home and listened to the new albums. And I liked each one of them. They are all kind of comfortable–Hunter rocks a little more, Emmylou and Rodney are a bit more earnest, Lund is pretty damn funny and Miler and Lauderdale just have a good time together. You can look up the details but if you are familiar with any of the above, this is good stuff compared to their other stuff and so you have my permission to go ahead and press “buy.”
As for reading material while you’re listening to your new music, I came across this new nearly 900 page Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop by a fellow named Dylan Jones and it’s really smart and funny. It’s almost crazily personalistic but the voice is an engaging and knowledgable one, despite the inevitable disagreements his taste will inspire. Apparently he’s the editor in chief of British GQ, and so he’s wants to get all this useless knowledge off his chest and into your head. You can guess in which room it belongs. It’s also pretty funny, and not only because he devotes 12 full pages to Ringo.
Over at the Library of America site, they are offering free (!) downloadable audio versions of ten selections by Sherwood Anderson stories, read by acclaimed storywriters Charles Baxter, Robert Boswell, Deborah Eisenberg, Patricia Hampl, Siri Hustvedt, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Antonya Nelson, and Benjamin Taylor. (I actually spent quite a bit of time downloading them, but they never found their way into my iTunes file, for some reason. Anyway, they have just published a volume of Anderson—surprising how long it took—as the former Mad Man and small businessman wrote some of the best and most influential work of his era and beyond. This volume collects for the first time all the books of stories he published in his lifetime—Winesburg, Ohio (1919), The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Woods (1933)—along with a generous selection of stories left uncollected or unpublished at his death.
The Library has also finished up its Philip Roth collection, with two books. One is called Nemeses and features Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis. The other is Novels 2001-2007 and features The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America, and Exit Ghost. To be honest, this is some of Roth’s weakest work. I liked, though many hated, The Dying Animal. I did not love, though many did, The Plot Against America. As for the rest all have especially strong moments, but also some painful to read, weaknesses. And none can be compared to the Roth masterpieces that began with Goodbye Columbus over a half century ago. (That book reads as if brand new by the way.) Anyway, completists will want these two books. Otherwise, I would suggest you begin much, much earlier.
Finally, there is also an LOA book of writings about the War of 1812. This strikes me as an odd notion, but I’m sure will reward further study….
You can start with Sherwood Anderson, here.
Inspired by last weeks listapalooza, I decided to add a regular feature of one list of things about which I care, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else does.
Today's List: Songs that if I'm at the Beacon, and the Allman Brothers start playing them, I’m in a good mood, in order:
"One Way Out"
"You Don't Love Me"
"Ain't Wastin' Time No More"
"Into the Mystic"
"Move to the Outskirts of Town"
"Trouble No More"
"Nobody left to Run With Anymore"
And if they're stretching;
"Dazed and Confused"
Looking Back, Moving Forward
by Reed Richardson
We in the media like to think of ourselves as hardy souls, out there lustily exercising our First Amendment rights in search of truth and in defense of democracy. In reality, we tend to be a tetchy, moody, thin-skinned lot. Whoever first said “nobody likes a critic” left off the other, more precise half of the adage: “least of all a journalist.” Indeed, asking a reporter to run a correction on an article of theirs typically ranks right up there with inquiries as to how much money they make and questions about the frequency of their spouse’s libidinal gratification in terms of thoroughly unwelcome newsroom solicitations. But if we’re all in the business of producing the first draft of history, why is there so little interest in reviewing and revising the draft?
Human nature is the short answer. We all build psychological constructs to help make sense of the world around us. But journalists, who must compile facts and contact sources and conceive narratives for every story, perform this kind of how-it-all-fits-together thinking every day. No surprise then, that we get pretty good at it. Or, more accurately, we think we’re pretty good at it—much better than the public. That confidence, though, becomes its own insidious trap, one that can easily propagate through a news organization. Gather all these individual cases of self-regard together, add on top of them another set from folks even more stubborn and self-assured—let’s call these people, I don’t know, editors—and then top it all off with thin layers of institutional rigidity and executive arrogance from the masthead; when you do, it’s a wonder the press even runs corrections at all.
Sadly, this is only a slight exaggeration. In 2007, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism examined 3,600 metro newspaper articles and contacted one source for each, looking for errors. Not only did the study find these articles riddled with inaccuracies, they went nearly untouched by admissions that this was so. As Jack Shafer of Slate wrote at the time: “[A]bout half of the stories for which a survey was completed [69 percent of the 3,600] contained one or more errors. Just 23 of the flawed stories—less than 2 percent—generated newspaper corrections. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles.” (italics mine)
Getting these facts right obviously matters, even if it’s just spelling someone’s first name properly, as the New York Times repeatedly failed to do while Madeleine Albright was the then Secretary of State (49 errors produced 3 corrections). The press’s woeful track record here should set off warning bells, though. Consistently fumbling the little, easily verifiable stuff suggests big, tough-to-confirm points are even more susceptible to laziness and willful disregard for the truth.
All of which brings me to the topic of media ombudsmen. I know, I know. Listening to a media critic opine about ombudsmen, whose job also involves critiquing news organizations, has all the trappings of some kind of meta-navel-gazing experiment gone awry. Akin to trying to understand those impenetrable collateralized debt obligations—a bet on a bet on a bet—that sent our economy spiraling into crisis four years ago. But if you care about the state of the press in our country, you should care about the perilous state of ombudsmen too.
Don’t get me wrong, theirs mostly is a rarefied existence, of which I understand. Due to the exigencies of an increasingly cutthroat news business, regional metro newspapers and local TV news channels can’t and, honestly, shouldn’t be expected to dedicate a full-time salary to the luxury of having an independent critic poring over their coverage. On the other hand, if yours is a newspaper or TV network with a national or international reach and especially if you have aspirations of charting the nation’s policymaking and political process, then the cost of employing one person who can offer honest, real-time feedback on your reportage is an investment in your reputation that, if done right, more than pays for itself.
That is not how Washington Post published Katharine Weymouth sees it, clearly. Her recent announcement this past week that she was not replacing outgoing ombudsman Patrick Pexton was telling, not just the decision itself, but in how she justified it.
Those duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.
We will appoint a reader representative shortly to address our readers’ concerns and questions. Unlike ombudsmen in the past, the reader representative will be a Post employee. The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.
The logic on display here is blurry, to say the least. What would have prevented Weymouth from hiring another ombudsman, who mainly writes for the web? Well, nothing, of course. She tries to couch this as an evolution of the position, a move toward greater transparency, when it fact it is anything but. Instead, she’s gutting the two fundamental pillars of any ombudsman position’s authority, its freedom from editorial influence and its finite working relationship.
Even more disingenuous, Weymouth, probably for the first and last time ever, notes all the outside media writers who “will continue to hold us accountable for what we write.” I’d love to take that as an endorsement of my work, but no doubt she and her editorial leadership will judge my and any other external critiques as worthy of as much attention as what the Post paid to get them. Cleverly, Washington City Paper has called her bluff, starting a new “Washington Post Ombudsman” column of its own. But its initial foray is so small-bore and provincial, it seems as if it’s more about tweaking the Post’s nose than engaging in broader analysis.
To be sure, the Post’s newly named reader’s rep, Doug Feaver, has a wealth of newsroom experience, having worked on several different beats. But again, how motivated will he be to publicly upbraid a coworker’s performance if there stands a chance he might one day be working above, beside, or beneath that same person? Certainly not much, which seems to be what prompted NPR ombudsmen Edward Schumacher-Matos to author a thorough evisceration of what is little more than a penny-pinching, micro-managing move on the part of Weymouth and the Post. “Little more than a customer relations person,” is what Schumacher-Matos rightly labels Feaver’s new position. It’s a recipe destined to turn the reader’s rep into the go-to-guy for that subscriber in Prince George County whose morning copy of the Post consistently fails to show up in the driveway. But if you’re looking for someone who will boldly wade into a deconstruction of the newspaper’s insistence on false balance when, say, reporting on the sequestration deal, you’re likely barking up the wrong tree.
Even more noteworthy, Schumacher-Matos compares the divergent path that our national press has taken toward autonomous in-house criticism versus that of the rest of the world [sic]:
Curiously, while the American news media cowers and pulls back, unable to believe in itself, the increasingly free press in so many other parts of the word are adding ombudsmen and improving standards. Even in some places without a long tradition of free press, there is a growing recognition of the link between good public information, on the one hand, and economic development and democracy…
I am on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsman and have watched with delight as the number of ombudsmen has taken off in countries such as India, Bangladesh and South Africa. According to Stephen Pritchard, the president of ONO, Colombia now has 14 ombudsmen working just in television — each with a weekly half-hour show—and Mexican television has five. When Lord Justice Leveson issued his report last November on the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, he cited having an independent ombudsman as a "best practice" to respond to public complaints.
So what happened? Why have ombudsmen turned in an increasingly endangered species? In an insightful post, Jack Shafer, now at Reuters, points out that the position has sort of fallen through the cracks because it lacks a dedicated constituency invested in its success. Newsrooms, the target of their ire, tolerate ombudsmen as occupational hazards if they don’t despise them outright as unctuous practitioners of 20/20 hindsight. The public, whom they purport to serve, barely notice them partly because they rarely see the ombudsmen making a difference or taking their side. This leads Shafer to larger and more uncomfortable question—Have US media ombudsman sealed their own fate by repeatedly pulling their punches?
Candidly, the answer is yes. But neither irrelevance nor extinction need be the only fates for ombudsmen. Case in point: the New York Times. Margaret Sullivan, its “public editor,” as the Times calls it, since last summer has thankfully chosen to take a more worldly rather than parochial approach to her job. As such, she’s confronted a number of big-picture problems of journalism that transcend just her employer, like false equivalency, transparency, the too cozy relationship with our country’s national security apparati, and—lookee here!—corrections, with a refreshing open-mindedness. While I don’t always agree with where she comes down on an issue, I’m almost always encouraged by the trajectory of her thoughts getting there. But most impressive is the turnaround she engendered from her predecessor, Arthur Brisbane.
Brisbane’s tenure was marked by a kind of overly cautious, hidebound thinking that draws legitimate questions about any news organization’s real commitment to this kind of oversight. (After all, the hiring process for these few ombuds positions typically involves so much back-and-forth with prospective candidates that any publisher already knows much of what they can expect before the first column’s ever written.) The nadir of Brisbane’s reign no doubt occurred last January when he inexplicably titled a column “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” only to essentially conclude ‘maybe.’ Roundly and rightly mocked, Brisbane’s take endorsed a feeble journalistic posture that prioritizes deference over diligence, balance over candor.
This time ten years ago, we all experienced this same kind of fundamental negligence on the part of the press when our nation entered a disastrous mistake of a war in Iraq. Now, I’m not about to declare that a small cadre of muscular ombudsmen pointing out the rightfully skeptical contemporaneous reporting of the time could have stopped that war. A more haunting question, though, is: Would the Bush administration have invaded if every newspaper and TV news network in America had fully laid bare its false pretenses? Probably so is my answer, but sadly, we never got to find out, since the press’s credulous reporting, including, notably the Times’,invariably marched in lockstep with the White House’s war-making effort.
As far as errors go, you can’t get bigger. But here again, the reluctance of major news organizations to reexamine their flawed coverage and account for it was both widespread and deep-seated. The Times’ effort, its May 2004 editor’s note—not an apology—was perfunctory and supercilious at best. It took pains, up top, to point out “the enormous amount of journalism we are proud of,” which lent the whole thing a “But other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” air to it. What’s more, it completely omitted the most notorious culprit of bias, Judith Miler. At a mere 1,145 words, it also ran 6,087 words shorter than the Times’ five-bylined, magnum opus of self-flagellation about fabulist Jayson Blair from one year earlier. As Greg Mitchell notes in this blog post from this past Tuesday, then Times executive editor Bill Keller only agreed to publish it to rid himself and the paper of “distractions.” Coincidentally, one of these thorns in Keller’s side was the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, who did a much better job, on his own, of exposing the paper’s many mistakes in the run-up to war. In his insightful conclusion, though, he went further, wisely tying the purpose of learning from the past to making those lessons the focus of the future:
The editors' note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round of examination and investigation. I don't mean further acts of contrition or garment-rending, but a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.
This is journalism’s day-in, day-out burden. We get almost as many things wrong as we do right. Often, it helps to have someone else there to remind us that in those mistakes is yet another important story to tell. Only by looking back, though, will we ever be able to tell it and, this time, get it right.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
For more Alterman best-of lists, see last week's post, "My Favorite Things: God Bless America Edition."