Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

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Also from Crossen

May 26, 2011

Well, really Benjamin Barber via Crossen.

Contrast these two questions:

1. Do you want a drug rehabilitation center in your neighborhood?

2. Do you think that the community needs drug rehabilitation centers, and if so, would you accept one in your neighborhood if you were persuaded that the policy process by which the locations were chosen was participatory and fair?

Pollsters assume that people can only answer questions of private preference.  If people are constantly asked to evaluate public polices in terms of their prejudices, they unlearn the art of civic judgment.

I don’t really blame polls for the questionable quality of our collective civic judgment, but I do find it persuasive that our questions are probably incorrectly oriented, that we would be better of if we’d explicitly require people to separate out what they believe to be best for society from what they believe to be best for themselves.

Jonas

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The real “other side”

May 26, 2011

Every now and then, there are rumblings about passing a law that would prohibit unions from using member dues to make political contributions without the written permission of the member.  For those of us who’ve been exposed to the portrayal of unions as corrupt special interests (think The Wire, Season Three), this makes some sense.  I admit to thinking that I could see where the impulse for such legislation might come from when I first heard of it.  For me, the two sides were: constrain political contributions or don’t.

Flying Whale, not surprisingly, was able to put it in context much more quickly, responding, “Are we going to require shareholders to sign something before corporations can make political contributions too?”  For Flying Whale, the two sides were: constrain both opposing powers or neither.

Initially, I was confined to a narrower scope, that of limiting union corruption, when imagining the other side of the argument.  Flying Whale was working from a broader and, I think, more robust understanding–that the other side was really about keeping opposing powers balanced.

The conversation reminded me that I really do think it’s a skill to be able to see the real “other side,” not the one embedded in the frame someone else is using.

Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, of which I’ve admittedly only read a few chapters, really made this point for me.  In her discussion of polling, she explores how poll results are affected by question wording.  Old news, right?  But I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to spot the less egregious slants.  For example, in Chapter Five, Crossen explores the public opinion polling that surrounded the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal/accusation.  Regarding a question from a New York Times/CBS News poll:

“Some people say Anita Hill’s charges should not be taken seriously because she did not make them years ago at the time she said the incidents happened.” (So far, so good.  That, indeed, was a popular argument against Anita Hill’s case.) The question continues: “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously even though they were made for the first time just recently.”  This second sentence is supposed to be the other side of the coin–the reason Anita Hill should be taken seriously.  Instead, it simply restates the negative point–she took a long time to complain.  But what would the results have been if the second part of the question had read, “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously because women sometimes have reasons to delay reporting such behavior?”

Once Crossen points it out, it’s so clear.  But just the “Some people say…other people say” structure had me fooled into taking it as an even-handed question.

Knowing that you’re susceptible to being duped certainly helps, but I’m finding this to be a slow skill to acquire.

Jonas

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Firdos and Tahrir

February 8, 2011

Tumblr_lfyhanYdob1qdxs88o1_500I’m very taken with this photo comparison, as are many folks.  I’ve poked around enough to know that the zoomed out shot of the square in Baghdad was available from Reuters all along.  Why, then, were there news reports comparing this event to the fall of the Berlin Wall?  Why was only the cropped shot published or streamed on TV?  At what level did the deception take place?

Lucky for me, the New Yorker decided to take on the myth of Firdos Square last week.  The article pretty decisively dismisses the circulating stories about the entire event being staged by US psychological operations teams. Rather than the government, it was the media that created the lie.

Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.

We’re all relatively accustomed to the myth-making that happens when history is reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight.  In the article, Wilson Surratt, senior executive producer in charge of CNN’s control room in Atlanta that day, says that “at some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”  But should the viewer really have to ask whether they’re being shown a deliberately cropped frame that hides a dissonant context?  The article’s author, Peter Maass, writes:

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development.

And I would add, one that we’re not well equipped to protect ourselves from.

There is another question embedded in the article–about whether the event itself–as it really happened, not as it was falsely reported back home–was impacted by the presence of the media.  Any of us who have ever smiled for a camera or cheered when the video swung our way know that the answer is yes.  But the implications for responsible journalism are less obvious to me.

Thoughts?

Jonas

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

January 17, 2011

I just finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

As you can see, the front cover says, “A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures,” which is a rough but fair summary.

The Hmong child is Lia Lee, born with severe epilepsy; the book’s title is the literal translation of the Hmong phrase for the condition.  Since it was published in 1997, the book has been well-received (and rightly so); no excuses for why I’m so late getting to it.

I’ll start out by saying that it’s a well-written, well-researched, insightful, and compelling book.  But there is a lot that makes it exceptional.  There are a multitude of angles at work: Lia’s parents’ interactions with her doctors in the 1980’s; the subsequent efforts of the author to gain the trust of both the Lee family and the medical community to research the book; an ethnography of the Hmong belief system; a history lesson of how the Hmong came to migrate to the US in such large numbers (more on that later);  and a complex look at the process of assimilation–for both immigrant communities and the communities that receive them.

Unfortunately, discussions of Lia’s story often describe what happened over the course of her medical treatment as a series of tragic miscommunications and misunderstandings.  And, in part, that’s true.  Yes, miscommunications happened when an interpreter wasn’t present (or even when an interpreter was present as the Hmong language lacks vocabulary for even the most basic organs).  And minsunderstandings based on false information abounded on both sides.  But Fadiman’s writing reveals another layer beneath language and facts–what are often fuzzily called “cultural barriers.”

I can think of several instances when I was living abroad or working with immigrant or refugee communities here in the States when despite what I thought was a crystal clear explanation, followed by another crystal clear explanation, preceded and followed by lots of questions on my part and that of the other party to ensure comprehension, the other person then went and did the exact opposite of what I expected (or I did the exact opposite of what they expected).  Every now and then, I managed to unravel what happened.  But usually, I just walked away frustrated and confused.

Fadiman takes years of these interactions, after which both parents and doctors are so confused and frustrated that  their willingness to share their story at all is a miracle, and pieces together what happened in the spaces between expectation and disappointment.

Lia’s parent’s “non-compliance” with her medications serves as an example.  Fundamentally, Lia’s parents believed that her epilepsy was the result of soul loss that occurred when Lia’s sister slammed the door too loudly and Lia’s soul was frightened out of her body.  While they didn’t want their daughter to suffer unduly, epilepsy also confers status in the Hmong culture as it increases the likelihood of the child becoming a shaman.  So while they wanted medical attention for Lia when aspirating a food particle during a seizure lead to pneumonia, they didn’t actually want the epilepsy completely cured and thought that medicines with negative side effects were unnecessary and, well, almost cruel.  The parent’s worst fear (that Lia’s soul would never return) and the doctor’s worst fear (that Lia would enter into a continuous unstoppable seizure) were so far apart that the pursuit of each worked at cross-purposes with the other.  Even absent Lia’s parent’s suspicion of the American medical system (which the side effects helped to fuel), they simply didn’t believe the doctors knew what was best for their child.  In return, the doctors’ lack of faith in the competence and care of Lia’s parents eventually escalates into her temporary removal from their care by Social Services.

With Fadiman’s careful unpacking, it all makes so much damn sense.  And, as the reader, you find yourself deeply empathizing with almost everyone.  But the narrative is long and complex, and Fadiman is unfailingly evenhanded–throughout the book, you can see her choosing phrases and frames with the utmost care.  I don’t think I could have made sense of the story without such a skilled guide, and that admission reminds me of how far I have to go.  I–and so many others who work across cultures–need to read more and more of these accounts, until the two-way decoding becomes an in-the-midst-of-chaos instinct.

I’ll be deep into migration over the next four months.  Next up on the reading list are The Warmth of Other Suns and Arrival City.

Jonas

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A Step-by-Step of Hayes’ letter

October 22, 2010

Flying Whale has asked me to explain my take on Hayes’ letter in a bit more depth–both what makes it great and what keeps it from being even better.  So here goes:

On the good side:

The unqualified apology in the first sentence.  She doesn’t apologize if the cartoon offended anyone, she apologizes for publishing it.  Period.  And then at the end, she writes:

We erred and we’re sorry – not because of your response, but because we were wrong and would’ve been wrong even if nobody had said so.

She rehashes what the cartoon depicted without spin and writes that the problematic interpretation of the comic is an “easy” one, about as far away from accusing those who complained of “reading too much into things” as you can get.

She doesn’t offer those defending the comic a blank check of gratitude.  Rather, she challenges them to learn from this experience alongside the paper they were defending, writing:

And to those defending us: While we appreciate some of your arguments on our behalf, ladies and gentlemen, suggesting that someone was “asking for” rape is misguided and precisely the problem here.

And, best of all, this segment:

Women are so often told vicious little cautionary tales: “Don’t go walking alone in the dark, or you’ll get raped.” “Don’t wear short skirts, or you’ll get raped.” “Don’t get drunk, or you’ll get raped.” None of the women I know were raped because of something they did or didn’t do; they were raped because someone they trusted betrayed that trust.  Now, I’m angry with myself because [it’s] as if I’ve betrayed them and every other survivor of sexual assault.

First, an Amen to calling out those “vicious cautionary tales.”  But beyond that, the act of rape isn’t what creates a culture of rape.  It’s all the other seemingly less extreme things that–to use Bruininks’ words–condone or encourage sexual violence.  Here, Hayes’ makes that rhetorical connection, using the exact same vocabulary to describe men who rape and her actions in publishing the comic.  Rhetorically, she acknowledges that they’re connected to one another.

So let me emphasize one more time how great I thought the letter was.  But since you asked, there are a few things I didn’t like quite so much.

Hayes’ writes:

I am particularly angry with myself …While I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted, one of my close friends was raped about two years ago.

The implication here is that she should have seen why the comic was problem because her good friend was raped.  There are a lot of reasons why that comic should never have been published.  Whether or not the editor personally knew someone who had been raped is not one of them.

In continuing to talk about her friend’s experience:

She never ended up reporting the incident to the police. I will never be persuaded that not reporting it wasn’t a mistake.

Hayes knows the details  the situation and I don’t.  But I don’t think its helpful to imply that a survivor should always go to the police.  There are lots of really really good reasons not to that don’t have anything to do with being in denial about whether or not you were raped.

And saving the worst for last, Hayes writes:

I’ve always been fortunate in that my male friends, coworkers and acquaintances are and have always been decent people. None of them would consider forcing themselves on another person.

I doubt that’s true.  Statistically, it’s unlikely.  And besides, it’s foolish to think that Hayes would even know whether a friend or coworker–never mind acquaintance–had ever perpetrated a sexual assault.  But more importantly, she’s saying that sexual assault doesn’t happen in her community.  But we know sexual assault happens in every community.  To say it doesn’t is to commit the same act of denial she accused her friend of in the paragraphs prior.

So.  That was a quick and incomplete run through, but I hope it makes my thinking a little more transparent.  Additions or challenges welcome.

Jonas

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What happened in Ecuador?

October 4, 2010

Was it an attempted coup? Was it just a protest gone horribly wrong? Does it leave Correa empowered (especially given the support he received from unlikely governments like Colombia, Peru and… the United States), or does it leave him more vulnerable to future possible coup attempts? Is the United States to blame for this given its late, weak condemnation of the coup in Honduras last year?

Fun things to read, organized by… well, it should be obvious:

I like Weisbrot and he says all signs point to attempted coup. I find Keating’s article mostly solid, asserting that democracy is alive and well in Latin America, although he has a bizarre paragraph in which he claims that U.S. opposition to the Honduran coup and a “quick return to democracy” there is a big reason “coups happen a lot less often than they used to” in Latin America. Huh?

When your only source of news is various media outlets, without any contacts on the ground, it’s hard to know what to believe. The only things I’m willing to concretely take away are: Correa seems firmly in power; the U.S. response was much more encouraging this time around than last year with Honduras, although I remain very skeptical of Obama administration policy towards Latin America; and there was a freaking gun battle to evacuate Correa from a hospital, and I doubt it even cracked the awareness of the vast majority of Americans, which is pretty amazing.

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Julian Assange and the information war

June 1, 2010

The 2007 video from an Apache helicopter of American soldiers killing at least eighteen people, including two Reuters journalist, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, had a huge effect on me.  It was my first real introduction to the site.  I’d heard rumblings before; had never bothered to go see for myself.

The video haunted me.  WikiLeaks itself baffled me.  So when I wrote before, I focused on the video.

But I’ve been thinking about the site ever since.  So it’s no surprise that this piece in the New Yorker about its founder, Julian Assange, caught my attention.  Eleven pages later, I’m still uneasy.  And not just because of the personal oddities of Assange.

The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

The analysis has merit (as does the whole piece), but I still don’t know where to land.

I don’t believe, as Assange does, that humanity’s primary struggle is individual versus institution.  I don’t believe that total transparency is the key to either justice or equity.  I don’t even know that I believe transparency is particularly normative.

I do believe some institutional secret-keeping is legitimate.  And yet, I struggle to articulate the boundaries within which it is permissible.

And at the end of it all, I really appreciated that WikiLeaks published the video.

I’m still baffled.

I imagine WikiLeaks will get another post out of me before I’m done.

Jonas