Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category


Apparently, humans are idiots sometimes

April 7, 2010

I woke up this morning to discover Ezra Klein making a similar point to one in my last post about the classified US military video from WikiLeaks.  He’s writing about financial regulation, not war.  And he’s willing to call people idiots which I’m not.   But there is a conceptual link:

Larry Summers famously wrote — but sadly, did not publish — a paper that began with a timeless bit of wisdom: “THERE ARE IDIOTS,” Summers said. “Look around.” That paper was written decades ago. Maybe it’s time to finally publish it. Particularly that second line.

Like the poor, idiots will always be with us. In fact, we’ll frequently be among them. The seductions of group-think, the tendency to trust experts, the incentives for employees to go along with their bosses rather than contradict them and the need to deliver short-term profits even at the cost of long-term risk are more powerful than any regulation and will exist long after the visceral lessons of the subprime meltdown are gone.

So we’re left where Summers started: There are idiots. And if you look around, it turns out that they’re everywhere: In the banks, at the Federal Reserve, running the rating agencies, and selling mortgages. You can’t idiot-proof a system run by idiots.  But you can limit the damage they’re able to do.

And I think that’s part of what I was trying to articulate.  You can’t human-proof a system run by humans.  Rather than expecting our soldiers to be perfect super-humans, we should focus on minimizing how out-of-control their mistakes can become.

In this particular case, there was an opportunity to stop the massacre half-way by not firing on the evacuation van. Why didn’t that happen?

Ezra goes on to offer some thoughts on how we might limit the damage caused by failures in the financial sector.  I don’t know enough to propose parallel regulations and constraints for war.  But it still seems like a more productive response than some of my knee-jerk alternatives.



We have to talk about this.

April 6, 2010

By this point, most of you have already seen the classified US military video over at WikiLeaks.  If you haven’t, you probably should (Go do that and come back.  I know it’s long.  Watch it anyway).

I watched it first thing this morning and have been stewing over it all day.  It leaves me thinking about the ethics of the war in Iraq, about the consequences of modern warfare technology, about the differences between policy and implementation with fidelity, about the future of investigative journalism, and on and on.

I’ll start out with a handful of qualifiers and then tackle the differences between policy and implementation.

Qualifiers:  First, the US military hasn’t confirmed or denied the authenticity of this video.  Second, the video doesn’t show any of the context preceding the shooting (if, for example, the military had legitimate reason to believe that this particular group of people was dangerous).  Third, I know almost nothing about the rules of engagement.  Fourth, war is horrible.  And for the most part, people on all sides do their best to survive and cope with what they have to.  They’re real people, just like all of us, with real limitations.  I don’t expect perfection.  But I do ask–as I believe all of us are obligated to–how we can minimize the consequences of those imperfections.

And now: policy versus implementation with fidelity.

We have pretty clear rules of engagement in Iraq.  They’ve been (perhaps rightly; again, I don’t know) criticized as being so restrictive that soldiers are unable to defend themselves.  But they exist.  And as far as I can tell, they were violated in this instance.

Which either means that 1) Command has encouraged soldiers to ignore them by looking the other way when they do or 2) Soldiers on the ground aren’t following the policies they’ve been given.

If it’s the first, then we should broaden the discussion of what the cover-up was covering up.

But let’s assume for a second that it’s the latter.  Implementation fidelity is never going to be 100%.  Add the stress of constant danger, the emotional impact of “The Enemy” rhetoric, the low value placed on Iraqi civilian life,  the emotional distance of long distance weaponry…and implementation fidelity plummets.

The problem with war is that infidelity often results in civilian deaths.

It’s not that we should be particularly surprised that soldiers don’t always follow the rules of engagement.  It’s that, rather than just wishing they would, we should be prepared to deal with it when they don’t.

Right now, it looks like our strategy is to cross out fingers and hope that no one finds out.  Which means that when a solider, inevitably, doesn’t follow the rules of engagement and kills a dozen civilians and a couple of journalists by bad coincidence, the competence of the military and the morality of the entire war is called into question.

I’m the last person to tell pro-war folks how to improve their position, but this seems like incredibly harmful framing for them.

At any rate, this is the hard position to hold.  To acknowledge that some of the horrors of war are because individual servicewomen and servicemen act outside the constraints they’ve been given.  And yet to avoid the temptation to demonize them and paint them as particularly evil people–people somehow different than us; we who would, of course, always implement with full fidelity.



One thing that hasn’t changed

November 1, 2009

Crappy major newspaper editorial boards!

Courtesy Paul Adler, from the book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men by Eric Foner: “As the New York Times put it in 1859, the best thing to do about slavery ‘would be for the North to stop talking about it.'”


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.



Two things to read

September 3, 2009

One short, one long.

Short: Ezra Klein on how the media covered only the health-care town hall meetings that turned into shouting matches. This goes hand-in-hand with the things we’ve posted here critiquing journalism strategies in general. Here’s one of the money quotes:

Ohio Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy said, “I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you’d think experienced media hands wouldn’t fall for: allowing loud voices to distort the debate.”

On the contrary, Rep. Kilroy… doesn’t the media do that all the time?

Long: A Chicago Magazine article in which the author, a white victim of a violent crime committed by black juveniles, discusses with heartfelt nuance how race colored his thoughts and actions after the assault. Really think we live in a “post-racial” society? Read this.

I’ve wondered what argument I’d be making if the situation were reversed, if a group of white kids had done the same to a black man without uttering a word. I doubt I’d be stepping into the public melee to say, “Wait a minute—maybe these kids were race neutral and they just happened to choose a black guy today.” And that’s clearly racism on my part, an unwillingness to see everyone as equal.

And what if I’d been attacked by whites? I think I’d have been more outraged, more quick to judge, less likely to look for some meaning in the act. I’d have desired stiffer punishment than Larry got, assuming, perhaps wrongly, that my assailants had had more advantages to start with and so had traveled a greater distance across the moral scale. Is that fair? No.

Flying Whale


How to argue

August 25, 2009

debateSince the launch of this blog, I’ve been thinking more than usual about opinions and beliefs—how we develop them, how we articulate them and how we persuade others of them.  Having suffered through some abysmal PowerPoint presentations lately, I’ve also been thinking about the way in which I expect information, especially inthe form of persuasive arguments, to be communicated to me.

As uncreative as it may be, I strongly prefer that “the point” be stated very early on.  The earlier the better.  It gives me a structure within which to store everything else and I’ve discovered that I’m virtually incapable of retaining any evidence if I don’t know what it’s supposedly supporting.

But a soon to be published article in Psychological Science begs to differ.  Research shows that “the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way…the rest of the thought is interpreted.”  From this finding, folks over at Miller-McCune go on to argue that when presenting a persuasive argument to a disagreeing audience, one should present the evidence first and the conclusion last, so as to delay the “instantaneous neural response” as long as possible.

I have to say that I find this ridiculous.  It extends from an understanding of persuasive argumentation in which the evidence is neutral and only the conclusion is opinionated.  But most of the time, that separation is only an illusion; the selection of evidence and the way in which it is communicated are just as opinion-based as the conclusion itself.  Furthermore, a media-literate audience knows this.  And roundabout persuasion feels disingenuous.

I’m not arguing with the findings in the article, but reading the summary did remind me that I dearly wish we’d drop the notion of objective evidence presentations.



Semantics that matter

August 21, 2009

The BBC posted an article a couple of days ago about the Hilltop Youth, a group of teenagers who “flout both Israeli and international law and build shacks they hope will eventually become established settlements in the West Bank.”

There is a lot to be unpacked here.  It’s a strange article with bizarrely portrayed characters that legitimizes voices I’d rather not have legitimized.  But for now, I’ll zero in on this:

While the article mentions that these makeshift structures are illegal, the author also calls the activities of the Hilltop Youth activism, not crimes.

Rather than arguing that a Palestinian teenager acting similarly would be characterized as a criminal, I’ll just assert it.  (Stick disagreements in the comments and I’ll respond.)  But the Palestinian comparison aside, I’m left wondering why some illegal, non-violent acts are portrayed as activism and others as crimes.

From most of Greenpeace’s actions to spontaneous protests to political graffiti to makeshift structures, I’m struggling to articulate criteria that could clearly separate crime and activism (again,  I’m only talking about non-violent actions here) other than the decider’s ideology.  Thoughts?