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 Inside.com, 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 WSJ.com 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

And now for something completely…summarizing

January 29th, 2007 → 11:30 am @

In other news:

* Schilling wants to see how many up-and-down years he can tack on to the end of his career, declaring he’ll play in 2008. He also says, “”It wouldn’t be in New York. No. I could not make that move.” I love when Red Sox folk heroes lay it on the line and say they’ll never play for the Yankees.

* Phildaelphia Inquirer columnist Jim Salisbury makes the point that revenue sharing is having some not-so-great effects on player salaries and small-market spending. Weird. I feel like I’ve heard something like that before.

* The world of baseball writers can be a pretty clubby place; it’s why I love guys like Keith Law, who think nothing of spanking colleagues for voting for Justin Morneau for MVP: “The reality of baseball is that a great offensive player at an up-the-middle position is substantially more valuable than a slightly better hitter at a corner position. And when that up-the-middle player is one of the best fielders at his position in baseball, there’s absolutely no comparison. Joe Mauer was more valuable than Justin Morneau this past season. … I have a hard time fathoming why any voter would put Morneau at the top of his ballot with so many obviously better candidates — Mauer, Jeter, Ortiz, Jermaine Dye, unanimous Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana or the criminally neglected Carlos Guillen (the best player on the AL pennant winner) — and in reality, more than half the voters did just that.”

Along those same lines, Sunday provided me with a reminder of why I love Bob Ryan. His column about the boneheads who left Ripken and Gwynn off their Hall of Fame ballots is a true classic; it’s not every day a sportswriter calls out his brethren for being, well, retarded. Some choice quotes:

“What if someone actually thought I were one of the eight who didn’t deem Cal a legit Hall of Famer or the 13 who didn’t think Gwynn had done enough to get in? I may not leave the house without a bag over my head.”

“Can you honestly look me in the eye and say that this man should not be in the Hall of Fame? Yes or no?”

“The primary reason, we are often told, is that some members of the voting body have a personal policy not to vote for someone the first year he is eligible. I cannot begin to comprehend the depths of such idiocy.”

“But please don’t think I’m one of them. I did the right thing. I swear.”

Awesome: the man is actually embarrassed that someone might confuse him for someone else from his profession.

Post Categories: Bob Ryan & Curt Schilling & Keith Law & Slate & Sports Reporters

Stupid GMs, the most overpaid $9 million player in history, and so much more…

December 5th, 2006 → 6:49 pm @

Every now and then, I start to wonder why I write about baseball on my blog when I could get paid (at least a little) by writing about it for one of those legitimate-type publications. Then I write for one of those legitimate type publications and remember that they’re interested in things like “facts” and “lucid arguments” and “coherent sentences.”

Which is to say, I wrote a piece for one of those legitmate-type publications (Slate, actually)…so if you’re curious about what I sound like when I’m forced to be lucid and coherent, here’s a piece about why I think GMs are making so many stupid deals this offseason.

Post Categories: 2006 Hot Stove Season & Slate

First in an occasional series: Slate’s “Scott Pilgrim‘s Progress”

October 11th, 2006 → 10:36 am @

This is the first in an occasional series of pieces in which published articles are examined to see how closely they align with reality. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this occasional series has already been launched, with a recent piece on a New York Times story on whether baseball teams’ success in September leads to success in October.

Today we’ll be looking at a piece in Slate titled “Scott Pilgrim‘s Progress: A Brilliant Indie-Rock Cartoon.” The artfully crafted article/slideshow by Dan Kois unpacks Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “indie-rock romantic comedy.” I appreciated the story; as a one-time aficionado of graphic novels who’s fallen a bit behind the times, I’m was glad to be told about a new(ish) entry into the genre that’s apparently worth checking out.

But Kois’s story, while seemingly on point when it details Scott Pilgrim itself (especially in regards to its relationship with manga, a genre about which my knowledge pretty much begins and ends with 1988’s Akira ), makes a number of blunders in a relatively short article. To wit:

* (Comparing O’Malley’s latest release, Scott Pilgrim and the Infitite Sadness, to the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) “Each is an artful, ambitious third release by an artist who flourished on the fringe and whose work is suddenly being recognized by the mainstream. And like Mellon Collie, the third volume of O’Malley’s series is a disappointing—and uncharacteristic—misfire.”

Mellon Collie came out in 1995, two years after the Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, the band’s four million (plus)-selling, quadruple platinum-breakout hit; it reached #10 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. To me, that counts as being recognized by the mainstream.

* “The genius of the first two volumes [of the Scott Pilgrim series] was that they rejected the dead-serious tropes found in most American graphic novels.”

I’m not sure what graphic novels Kois has been reading, but many of the country’s best-known graphic novelists rely on humor. There are the old standbys like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb. There are newer artists, like Jessica Abel (Kois cites her La Perdida but ignores her Artbabe series, which included classics like “Too Punk To Funk”). Joe Sacco achieved renown after publishing Palestine, but he began his career with works like But I Like It, a chronicling of his European tour with the now-defunct punk band the Miracle Workers, . No one will ever accuse Peter Bagge of being overly serious, and even Optic Nerve author Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes, best known for Ghost World and David Boring, use humor to address their characters’ alienation and frustration.

* “Another link between Scott Pilgrim and manga lies in O’Malley’s subject matter: romance. With a few exceptions—Alex Robinson and Tom Beland among them—literary graphic novelists have spurned romance as a subject.”

Virtually all of the examples cited above deal with romance. Harvey Pekar famously chronicled his courtship and marriage; R. Crumb’s entire oeuvre focuses on his relationship to women; Tomine and Clowes almost always use romance as a jumping off point.

I enjoyed Kois’s story, and I’ve already ordered the Scott Pilgrim books. I would have enjoyed his story even more (and still would have ordered the Pilgrim books) had Kois not overreached in trying to prove how unique O’Malley is as an artist.

Post Categories: Media reporting & Slate & The Factchecking Series

Sex, blood, violence, Scarlet Johansson and a naked, bisexual Hillary Swank made boring at a theater near you

September 15th, 2006 → 10:33 am @

Yesterday, I published a piece on Slate about the decades-long, morbid fascination with the murder of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a the Black Dahlia. You should check it out: it’s not everyday you can write about masturbation, incest, serial killers, and pornographic fantasies for an outlet owned by the Washington Post Company. I didn’t talk much about Brian De Palma’s new Dahlia movie, so here are some thoughts about that…

In 1997, Curtis Hansen turned James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential into the best L.A.-based noir since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and perhaps the best movie of the 1990’s. Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, and Kim Basinger turned in some the best performances of their careers; Russell Crowe and (to a lesser extent) Guy Pearce announced their arrival as major talents; and even role players like Danny DeVito used their skills to further a wonderful, and wonderfully complex, storyline.

Brian DePalma, who hasn’t had a hit since ’96’s Mission: Impossible, has spent his entire career in the shadows of Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg — Speilberg’s Jaws came out in ’75; DePalma’s Carrie and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in ’76, and it’s been downhill for DePalma almost ever since. He likely thought he could do as well as Hansen with Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia — starring Scarlet Johansson, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Mia Kirshner, and Hillary Swank — which was released yesterday. Boy, was he wrong.

At his best, Ellroy combines William Burroughs’s hallucinatory vision, Hunter Thompson’s evocation of a runaway freight train, Raymond Chandler’s preoccupation with private morality (and his staccato prose), and Jim Thompson’s nihilistic obsession with pointless and bloody violence to create a deliciously affected orgy of lowbrow, high-gloss brain-twisting thrillers. Dahlia, the most personal of Ellroy’s novels, combines these aspects to create a shockingly raw final product. (Ellroy’s Black Dahlia is a stand-in for his murdered mother; I talk all about that in the Slate piece. There’s plenty of biography mixed in even beyond the Geneva Ellroy-Elizabeth Short angle. To wit: Ellroy’s first sexual contact was when he and a friend began “jacking each other off” with Playboys spread out in front of them. Worried that he was a “fruit,” Ellroy eventually challenged the boy to a boxing match. One of the opening scenes in Dahlia is a boxing match between the two main protagonists, men who become partners and spar over the affection of the same tainted woman.)

DePalma’s Dahlia almost completely eviscerates the tortured struggles and soul-killing obsessions that fuel Ellroy’s novel. All of the novel’s nuance and complexity has been chopped out of the script, ineptly adapted by War of the Worlds screenwriter Josh Friedman (but beautifully rendered by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). Johansson and Hartnett are actors capable of disaffected inscrutability; they’re not so good at portraying the evolution of people slowly hardened by a rising tide of senseless destruction. Eckhart, perfectly enjoyable in comedic roles, looks silly trying to play a Benzedrine-addled, coldly calculating cop. The film’s depiction of the Dahlia’s murder, which features Fiona Shaw channeling Gloria Swanson channeling Norma Desmond, is pure camp. Most crucially, De Palma’s movie alters the book’s ambiguous denouement, opting for cinematic neatness rather than a more open-ended, and more challenging, conclusion. In Ellroy’s Dahlia, the book’s narrator ends up entering into a conspiracy with his lover, who also happens to be Short’s killer and doppelganger. In De Palma’s screen version, he blows her away at point blank range.

I’ve been looking forward to De Palma’s Dahlia for over six months; with the absence of Teamocil in my life, I need to find some pop culture distractions besides the stilted Pam and Jim love affair. Alas; it looks like it’s back to Behind the Music for me.

Post Categories: James Ellroy & Oblique references to Arrested Development & Oblique references to the Office & Slate & The Black Dahlia