Archive for October, 2009


Some thoughts on just how we’ll manage

October 13, 2009

As I alluded to in my last post, the NYT article on E. Coli in ground beef got me thinking about investigative journalism.  I find it tempting to join in the panicked chorus asking who will do the kind of investigative journalism we need to be well-informed and make socially-responsible decisions when print newspapers die.

Luckily, there are a handful of folks out there rolling their eyes at the panic (and scheming about innovative ways to turn the death of print newspapers into opportunity).

Last week, Kate and Amanda over at Wronging Rights started a ruckus by questioning whether “The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Reuters have all published quotes misleadingly attributed to a Darfuri “refugee representative,” who is in fact (a) fictional, and (b) part of the PR operation of the rebel leader Abdel Wahid Al Nur?”

The back and forth has been illuminating and raises some important questions about the authenticity of the quotations that fill out the narrative of so many international news stories.  More importantly, it has gotten a whole lot of people stirred up.  And there isn’t a single print media institution on the light-shining side of this investigative journalism series.

It reminds of this Huffington Post piece and its good-sense ending:

When papers say, “if we’re gone, who will keep government honest?”, the answer is, every other media outlet that covers city, state and the federal government. There is nothing inherently inky about investigative journalism.

Sounds about right to me.  Consistently good investigative journalism seems to require a good number of elements: relationships with folks inside systems and institutions who are willing to pass along information and tips, the ability to ask hard and insightful questions, persistence.  Then there are the skills that help one sort through lots of information, find the relevant pieces and put them together into a big picture story.  Some kind of God-given instinct, I’d imagine.  And access to email and a phone.  I’m sure a travel budget would make things easier.  But the point is, as far as I can see, none of those elements are outside the reach of emerging media forms.

I’ll end this post by saying: I don’t know anything about this subject, but several of you readers do.  And I’m very open to being completely wrong.  Comment away.



From “Eww” to Action

October 9, 2009

By now, I think everyone has read the NYT article about E. Coli in ground beef.  And it seems that anyone who either is a vegetarian, isn’t a vegetarian, or is trying to convert someone else one way or the other is talking about it (that covers everyone at least once, right?)

One of my first thoughts–once I finished unproductively fuming–was that we really, really need investigative journalism like this.  And I started to worry, along with lots and lots of other folks, that the information age is on the edge of becoming less informative (more on that next).

But, interestingly, that hasn’t remained my strongest takeaway from the story.  My strongest takeaway is that the majority of the folks around me seemed to miss the point.  Conversation in the office was about bleaching cutting board and kitchen counters.  Phone conversations were about whether or not someone should eat at Five Guys.  But almost no one was talking about food safety standards.  

Everyone was asking: how can I keep myself safe from this?  No one seemed to be demanding: why aren’t our regulatory agencies keeping us safe from this?

No one seemed appalled that Tyson refuses to sell to Costco lest they be caught supplying contaminated meat.  No one seemed astonished that someone within the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA would say “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.” 

It’s a case in which we have the information.  We just can’t seem to find our way to using it very well.  



Faking It

October 8, 2009

In what reads more like a Stuff White People Like post than the usual commentary on humanitarian aid, Michael Bear tells us how to sound like a expert on the “poverty-stricken, war-torn country of your choice.”

1. Memorize the names of various tribes and semi-obscure towns. Ask questions like: “But what do the [insert name of random tribal group] think?” Or “What about the situation in [semi-obscure town]?”

Both of which are best said with a thoughtful expression, verging on concerned. There’s nothing like seeming to agree with your interlocutor while subtly pointing out that his or her analysis is rather facile for ignoring said tribe or district.

2. Memorize the date of one significant or semi-significant event in the country’s history. Tie all current political and / or military developments back to that date: “You make an interesting point about Liberian politics, but it’s all really just an outgrowth of what happened on September 9th, 1990.”

Don’t deign to explain further; instead, act as tho of course everyone should know what happened in Liberia on September 9th, 1990.

3. Acronyms, acronyms, acronyms. Saying you dislike the Sudanese Government is one thing, but doesn’t really separate you from the crowd. Saying you dislike the NCP is better. Extra points if you can work NCP, SPLM, GNU and HAC into one semi-coherent sentence.

First, I’m nearly positive I had a conversation with someone last night who somehow managed to read this post before it was written.  We were talking about the most recent ethnic group from Burma to be granted refugee status (both of us having some organizational contact with refugees more broadly) and I swear he was following this formula (and Tip #1 quite well).  Suddenly that whole conversation makes more sense.  I feel enlightened.

But more substantively, it strikes me that this would more or less work for lots and lots of topics.

Nothing says “I know school reform” like talking about the synergistic momentum that NLNS, KIPP and TFA are creating (Tip #3).

And how many times, in talking to folks younger than forty about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina did someone say, “Gosh, this is just like 1965.”  Good grief folks, call it Hurricane Betsy and actually know a little something.  Yes, the levees failed both times, but there is a hell of a difference between 76 deaths and 1,836 (Tip #2).

Anyway.  My plan moving forward: follow up conversations like the one last night with a “Great to talk with you” email.  And a link.



Two takes on the Olympics

October 2, 2009

Why didn’t Chicago get the 2016 Olympics?

Chris Bowers: Because we’re corrupt, power-hungry, carbon-spewing, torturing, evil bastards and the IOC was right to spurn us.

Moe Lane: Because we’re not loud, obnoxious and vulgar enough and we failed make it clear that we couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks of us.


Flying Whale