The Times-Andersen files: You need to at least consider the possibility that they’re making some kind of postmodern comment on the porousness of the self.

March 6th, 2007 → 11:17 am @

Last week I was talking with some media reporters, reminiscing about the days when I had to pay attention to which mid-level editors were moving to which magazines. Conversation turned, as it often does when I’m talking to non-civilians whom I don’t really know, to the Times and my little-read (but well received!) book, Hard News, and I said how incredibly happy I was that I no longer had to read the paper as a critic but could just enjoy it as my breakfast table companion. And in that capacity, I think it’s pretty fucking great — the front page is livelier and more engaging than it’s been in years; the arts and business sections are both erudite and interesting even to those not obsessed with the minutia of those industries; etc.

All of which is true. But man, can they be sloppy. Either that or they’re absolutely obsessed with misspelling Kurt Andersen’s name, which they seemingly do every single time they write about the man. The latest example is yesterday’s review of Heyday, Andersen’s new book (which, biased or not, I think is pretty amazing). They seem to get his name write in the text of the piece, but, at least online, misspell it twice as “Anderson” — in the caption and the info box.

If this is meant as a sly shout-out to me from those Times copy editors who secretly love my work, well, I’m touched! But for some odd reason, I doubt that. And in that case, as Gob would say…c’mon!

Post Categories: Hard News & Kurt Andersen & Media reporting & New York Times & Oblique references to Arrested Development

I speared some monkeys in my time too, you know

February 8th, 2007 → 12:24 pm @

Spring 2001: what an innocent time. First-wave Internet companies were still chugging along. Alex Kuczynski was writing about the media and not about her ass-lifts and lip-jobs. And self-styled gonzo journalists were spearing monkeys off an island in Florida.

Or so they (he, actually — Jay Forman) claimed. Forman’s “monkeyfishing” piece was the third of Forman’s “Vice” pieces for Slate. Close readers smelled bullshit right off the bat, but it wasn’t until Forman’s monkeyfishing column that Slate had a full-blown Stephen Glass-esque fiasco on its hands. It only took a couple of days for the media feeding frenzy to begin, and, Slate’s protestations to the contrary, it soon became abundantly clear that no such thing as monkeyfishing had ever taken place.

As media reporter for the sadly defunct, a new-media site started by two old-media stalwarts (Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn) that was dedicated to covering old media, I was a big part of that feeding frenzy. Inside was a great site and a great place to work; now, there’s not even a placeholder website out there that acknowledges it once existed.

And so, sadly, there’s no record of my contribution to the monkeyfishing clusterfuck. And when, earlier this week, Forman finally admitted he made the whole thing up, I didn’t even get a cursory pat on the back from Slate’s Jack Shafer. “In 2001, Jay Forman wrote an article about “monkeyfishing” that I edited and published in Slate,” Shafer wrote in this week’s Slate piece. “Almost immediately, bloggers, the Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto, and the New York Times ($) gouged huge holes in the piece.”

I don’t know if I counted as a “blogger” at the time — in fact, “blogging” (as opposed to keeping an online diary) was a relatively new concept — but dammit I was poking holes, too! Just check out Taranto’s coverage — I’m all over that like stink on shit. In fact, if I don’t say so myself, I was on the cutting edge of debunking Forman’s “I used a homemade silencer to shoot up a New Orleans house” piece. Here’s a surviving snippet from my piece: “On the subject of whether Forman could have manufactured a silencer (so he could shoot cocktail onions out of a bag in his living room, natch), Kinsley writes that Slate “described the device to the director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, Jack Atwater, who said that such a device could work.” (This is technically true; Atwater says he told a Slate editor that such a device could work. But, he adds: “When you fire a supersonic round, you hear a crack, like a bullwhip. So dampening down the noise of the round isn’t going to do a lot of good. It would be a hell of a noise. This sounds to me implausible, but not impossible.”)” (See: my love of parenthetical clauses goes back a long ways.)

I did manage to track down a wrap-up piece I wrote* at the time. I present it here, in it’s entirety. And Jack, next time, show me some love.
Slate’s Defense of ‘Monkeyfishing’ — One Only a Lawyer Could Love
Monday, June 25, 2001

Slate editor Michael Kinsley was trained as a lawyer and built his lofty journalistic reputation through Boiesian cross-examinations of poorly thought-out logic, eviscerating them with his parsing intellect. But his exquisitely tuned bullshit meter seems a bit off when he’s on the defensive. Take, for example, his increasing sophistry in defense of Slate’s piece on “monkeyfishing,” which, after weeks of attack, has finally, definitively been shown to be a classic tall tale in an article today in The New York Times. “Slate … now acknowledges that it published falsehoods and we apologize to our readers,” Kinsley wrote on Monday after The New York Times got a supposed participant in the fated monkeyfishing excursion to admit it never happened; prior to this, Kinsley had insisted that the burden of proof lay at the hands of the accusers. But instead of admitting he’d screwed up and leaving it at that, Kinsley is taking one last stand on behalf of author Jay Forman. “Despite suggestions by others that the entire episode was fiction, this excursion did take place,” Kinsley writes. “In fact the Times story, by Alex Kuczynski, quotes the fisherman who took Forman and his friend on the trip.” Reaching Clintonian levels of obfuscation, he continues: “Contrary to allegations that no such practice ever existed, Kuczynski also confirms that monkeyfishing occurred on other occasions before the one Forman describes. She quotes the fisherman saying he had gone on similar excursions once or ‘maybe twice.’ ”

What manifestly happened, if you read Kuczynski’s piece, is that one or more likely drunken expeditions did occur in which fishermen played at tossing lines in the direction of an island but that said island was so well protected that the likelihood of success was as high as, say, standing on Fifth Avenue and spearing a sightseer on the top of the Empire State Building. Kinsley on Slate and in response to questions from Inside, nonetheless is insisting something called “monkeyfishing” took place; this, despite the quoted opinions to the contrary of scientists, wildlife officials, area journalists and longtime fisherman. (The assorted experts punch holes in virtually every aspect of the tale, ranging from whether its possible to bait a fishing line with an apple to whether monkeys would ever approach humans.) But Kinsley has his position and he’s sticking to it: if there was a fisherman and he on at least one occasion maintains that he threw a line in the direction of some monkeys, whether or not said monkeys took the bait, and irrespective of whether it was even theoretically possible to fish thusly, “monkeyfishing” therefore exists. All depends on what you think the meaning of “is” is.

This may all be moot, of course. Asked about whether author Forman would still be welcome to contribute his tales of unusual elevation, Kinsley replied: “Of course he will not be writing for Slate.” — Seth Mnookin

* Re-reading this piece, I suspect it went through some heavy Hirschorn edits. He got an advanced degree in literature; I didn’t. I’m pretty sure I’ve never “manifestly happens” anything…

Post Categories: Media reporting & Slate

The chance to read this dreck in your daily paper? Um…priceless?

January 31st, 2007 → 10:25 am @

Murray Chass articles about the not-yetness of J.D. Drew’s contract with the Red Sox in the three weeks before January 25: five.

Articles in the week since the final details of the contract were announced: one.

Nonsensical, logically inconsistent suppositions (based, naturally, on anonymous sources) contained in said article by the only baseball beat writer on record who has compared himself to Woodward and Bernstein: one. (“Word out of the Drew camp was it agreed to the out clause to allow the Red Sox’ doctor to save face after a second opinion supposedly found nothing suspicious about Drew’s shoulder. But the final structure of the contract seems to enable Boras to save face because he recommended that Drew walk away from the Dodgers’ deal. Had the Red Sox contract extended the out clause to the final three years, Drew could have wound up with only $28 million.”)

Corrections attached to any of Chass’s Drew-Red Sox articles, despite the on-the-record insistence by the story’s main characters that Chass’s unnamed sources are completely incorrect: Zero.

Post Categories: Media reporting & Murray Chass & New York Times

Race! Sex! And, um, succession battles at The New York Times!

November 8th, 2006 → 11:04 am @

Proving that media companies know how to manipulate the news just as well as politicians or over-the-hill pop tarts, the news broke yesterday — a day in which all of the country was focused on a total re-alignment of political power in the country — that the Tribune Company has finally forced out Dean Baquet as the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Baquet fought valiantly against Tribune Co.-mandated staff cuts, but a year and a couple of months after John Carroll, Baquet’s former boss and mentor, quit in protest, Baquet is out as well.

There’ll be lots of hand wringing and debate over what this means for the state of journalism in America. But I want to focus on what’s really important: what this means for The New York Times.

Back in 2003, after Howell Raines was forced out as the Times‘s editor in the wake of a staff revolt against his autocratic ways, Baquet, who’d been the national editor in New York before heading out to L.A., was heavily recruited by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Baquet was all but offered the managing editor position by Sulzberger, with an implicit promise that he’d be in prime position to become the Times‘s first African-American editor in the not-distant future, but Baquet, out of loyalty to his troops in L.A. and a belief in what he and Carroll were trying to accomplish, decided to stay put. (So determined was Baquet that he used his decision to stay as an argument as to why his reporters should resist the urge to jump ship and head to New York.)

It’s hard to imagine Baquet hasn’t had some restless nights reliving this decision. Still, Baquet may be just as well positioned to take over the Times when Bill Keller steps down as he would have been had he taken Sulzberger up on his offer three years ago. Before Baquet became a free agent, there was really only one viable candidate to replace Keller: current managing editor Jill Abramson. After all, a century of white, male editors would have made it difficult for Sulzberger — and avowed and vocal proponent of increased gender and racial diversity in the newsroom — not to promote Abramson. Baquet offers what is likely the most politically acceptable alternative: it’ll be hard to criticize the Times for passing over a woman if the paper ends up promoting an African-American.

I doubt this angle will get much play; for all its coverage of and obsession over race and gender, the media isn’t that great at discussing difficult issues in its own house (just as it’s often a bit clumsy when it comes to increasing diversity in its reporting ranks — see Blair, Jayson). But a couple of years down the line, when Keller (who seems as if he’s always enjoyed reporting and writing more than managing) approaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 (Keller is 57; Abramson is 55 and Baquet is 50, which means in theory both Abramson and Baquet could both get the Times top post), this will likely be one of the major issues and intrigues facing the paper.

Post Categories: Dean Baquet & Los Angeles Times & Media reporting & New York Times & Race gender and diversity

Fiddling while Rome burns

October 31st, 2006 → 5:09 pm @

Yesterday, in a parenthetical at the end of a post about Ben Stein (someone who has admirably figured out how to monetize every ounce of himself), I posed this question: Why is Joe Nocera, one of the New York Times‘s most incisive, provocative, and lucid columnists, buried away in the Saturday paper?

Well, I got the answer (from many, many, many, many people), and it’s an obvious one (and one that, at some point, I actually knew). When Nocera was hired, the Times was in a tizzy about the Wall Street Journal‘s “Weekend Edition,” which was designed to offer soft-focus, lifestyle-y features (and which is delivered to empty offices around the country every Saturday). (I kid! It’s delivered to your home. As long as you go through customer service in order to get that one paper re-routed.)

I understand that rationale: while the Times‘s and the Journal‘s audience has less of an overlap than you might think, it isn’t insignificant, and it’s not like any newspaper can afford to lose readers or advertisers these days. (You may ask yourself, ‘Self, why did it made sense to combat an avowedly soft-news edition of an otherwise hard-core business paper with one of the country’s best business colimnists?’ And you may say to yourself, ‘I have no idea.’)

But now, a little over a year later, the Journal‘s “Weekend Edition” is…not exactly a failure, but certainly not a resounding success, either. (In the last reporting period, the Weekend Journal was among the leaders in circulation losses, falling 6.7 percent, compared to 2 percent for the Journal‘s daily paper and about 3.5 percent for the Times and the Washington Post.)

Putting Nocera in the Saturday paper doesn’t reek of the sort of desperate knee-jerkism that resulted in the Times launching a hurried “Escapes” section on April 5, 2002…which just happened to be four days before the Journal introduced its long-planned (and reasonably successful) “Personal Journal.” It does, however, touch on a persistent (and annoying) oddity of the media business: the extent to which newspapers (and magazines) often make decisions based on how their competitors will react as opposed to what best serves their readers. It happens time and time again: if the Post gets a big scoop, the Times will more than likely play it down (if they cover it at all). If Newsweek comes out with a big package on corporate welfare, you can sure as hell bet Time won’t be doing anything similar any time soon (regardless of whether or not they had something in the works). And to what end? How many of the Washington Post‘s readers also read the Times? And would any of that relatively miniscule number be that bothered by seeing a similar story in another paper? The answer, clearly, is no. But for some inane reason, mis-placed institutional pride — we will not follow someone else’s reporting, dammit! — is put ahead of what would best serve customers/readers. (This is the industry, after all, that says it needs to be protected because it’s acting as a public trust…and an industry that has a whole mess of sky-is-falling doomsayers these days.)

So I’ll amend my question: How many of the Times‘s advertisers or readers are currently trying to decide between the paper’s Saturday edition and the weekend edition of the Journal? And how many people are losing out by missing Nocera’s column each week? Anyone? Anyone?

(Oh, also: no, I don’t really think Ben Stein is the world’s best columnist. But gosh darn is he a big cutey.)

Post Categories: Joe Nocera & Media reporting & New York Times & Oblique references to Talking Heads songs & Wall Street Journal

Jack Shafer has a point. To a point.

October 26th, 2006 → 11:05 am @

On Monday, Slate’s Jack Shafer, (and here’s the standard caveat/suck-up included in the vast majority of stories press critics write about other press critics) — who’s somewhere between a friend and an acquaintance and is a reporter and writer I greatly admire — (now I can commence my criticism) took his trademark orneriness and applied it to the recent hand-wringing about media cutbacks.

Jack makes a couple of good points, such as:

* “[J]ournalists don’t want you to know this, but thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to hunt down a story, capture it, and bring it back to the presses for printing. A middle-school student sitting at a Web terminal has more raw reportorial power at his fingertips than the best reporter working at the New York Times had in, say, 1975. The teenager can’t command an undersecretary of defense to return his phone call as the Times guy can, but thanks to Google he can harvest news stories and background information that would take the 1975 model journalist days to collect.”


* “It’s hard to sympathize with the woe-is-us crowd of journalists when you learn that the number of full-timers employed by U.S. news-media organizations today has increased by almost 70 percent compared with 1971, according to The American Journalist in the 21st Century. The book doesn’t even include in its census the new jobs in online newsrooms or at the business-wire upstart Bloomberg News.”

(I’d be curious to know more about that study. Does it include staffers at the magazines that have sprouted since 1971? Because I’d be surprised if the Star (or Maxim) is the type of journalism the so-called hang-wringers are referring to.)

But Shafer completely misses the boat here:

* “The idea that a newsroom should employ X hundred staffers because it has traditionally employed X hundred staffers ignores the changes technology has made in the news market. For instance, Tribune critics denounce it for cutting the foreign bureaus at the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, which it owns. But should every metropolitan newspaper* keep its Moscow or Jerusalem bureaus when readers can click to Web coverage from the New York Times and the international press, especially when many of those papers are losing circulation? Something’s got to give.”

The (admittedly excessive) extension of that logic is that every story only needs to be covered by one outlet;** the past several years have shown the extent to which that’s not true. The best-known example of this is Knight-Ridder’s coverage of the WMD situation in Iraq (coverage which Shafer has praised). When the Times, among many other outlets, was accepting the Bush administration’s WMD rationale for war, Knight Ridder led the pack in uncovering the extent to which this wasn’t true. (Earlier this year, most of K-R was bought by McClatchy.) There are plenty of other stories the designated big-kid-on-the-block has missed over the years, from Watergate on; thank goodness other, redundent outlets have been there to pick up the slack. Foreign reporting is incredibly expensive; in fact, it’s essentially a subsidized part of any news operation. (Brief digression: the fact that the Times‘s public editor spent a column debating whether this was acceptable shows the extent to which the public editor position has become a joke.) But it’s also necessary (and will only become more so in an increasingly interconnected world); in fact, as Times editor Bill Keller has said (and I’m paraphrasing here), it’s this type of reporting that comprises news outlets core mission.

I’ve worked at a daily paper, and lord knows there’s lots of deadweight at virtually every daily in the country. (That’s just as true at many weeklies; I’ve oftentimes been confused by just what the hell people do all the time.) The fact that so many newspaper employees are guild members makes the shedding of this deadweight incredibly difficult, and it’s the guy who’s been collecting a steady paycheck while writing an occasional brief (or online column) that’s the least likely to accept a buyout. (Why take a lump sum when you can get paid for doing next to nothing?) Judiciously culling staffs — when judicial culling is possible — can only be a good thing. But foreign bureaus and investigative reporting is precisely where this culling shouldn’t occur. We need three U.S. reporters covering Moscow a lot more than we need three covering the local school board, but it’s the Moscow reporter who’s more likely to see his job disappear even if it’s those school board reporters who are more likely to be phoning it in.***

* This is a bit disingenuous. Neither Newsday nor the Sun is an example of the type of “every metropolitan newspaper” Shafer’s trying to evoke with this phrase, the argument here isn’t whether the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Kansas City Star should have a fully staffer contingent of international reporters.

** I fully realize Jack is not suggesting a national team of reporters with everyone covering one subject and sending those dispatches out to the rest of the country; I’m trying to make a point here.

*** Please: no hate mail from school board reporters. I’ve covered school boards. A lot of local reporters are great. Etc etc.

Post Categories: Jack Shafer & Media reporting & New York Times

As sure a sign as any that Barack Obama will be elected president

October 25th, 2006 → 12:50 pm @

Jon Friedman, self-proclaimed “hard-bitten” journalist (is that legal?) says he “gaped and gawked” at a recent Obama siting; nonetheless, Friedman says (in an article charmingly run through with exclamation points!), Obama “failed to wow” a conference of magazine editors and publishers.

So the self-hating and often confused Friedman says neither he nor the rest of the media world is impressed; meanwhile, Bloomberg News, Time, The Washington Post, and many others say he’s an electrifying and ascending star.

Really, I don’t even need to comment on this one.

Post Categories: Jon Friedman & Media reporting