Archive for September, 2008

You cannot paint a house green…

By , 30 September, 2008, 1 Comment

and then complain about the color.

But that’s exactly what conservative Republicans are doing on talking head shows this week. Over and over again, when asked to explain how the bailout bill self-imploded yesterday, they cite “partisan bickering.” Frankly, I’m with Gail Collins on partisanship: it’s just part of the process. But even if you think, as did George Washington, that parties are a great evil, the phrase just doesn’t apply here.

Let’s review:
Bailout proposed by REPUBLICANS Paulson and Bernanke.
Bailout revised via negotiations with top Senate DEMOCRATS.
Revised bill supported by REPUBLICAN President Bush.
Passed by Senate DEMOCRATS and REPUBLICANS.
Dies in the House, 40 DEMOCRATS, 130 REPUBLICANS vote “no.”

The tension here, between supporters and opponents of the bill, has less to do with party allegiance than it does with who’s up for reelection: CNN reported today than 2/3 of “no” votes came from members in contested races this November. Despite the frozen credit markets and concerns about jobs and home loans, the plan just hadn’t won over most voters.

And if there IS an ideological line to be drawn between those who were for and against this bill, it’s not between Democrats and Republicans, but between conservative Republicans in the House (who made up the lion’s share of naysayers) and moderates in the Senate/the Executive agencies (who proposed and drafted the bill). Having brought DOWN a bipartisan bill by breaking with their own party, Congressional Republicans are now blaming partisan differences for the collapse of the plan.

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Here’s what infuriates me most about this tactic. “Partisan bickering” is code for a belief that the governmental process is general is more of a problem than a solution to Main Street woes, and thus (as these conservatives belief) that we should reduce the size of government. To sabotage that process when it IS working, just so that you can claim on the talk show circuit that the process DOESN’T work is a cheap, base political ploy. In fact, it’s partisan politics.

“This is not a debate”

By , 27 September, 2008, 1 Comment

So said my mother, 9:56 pm ET last night, or 2/3 of the way through the first Presidential back-and-forth. Despite Jim Lehrer’s best efforts to force the candidates to talk to one another and really duke it out on the issues, they stuck to their canned stump speeches. McCain recycled his favorite gems (like that “Miss Congeniality” line) twice in the same evening.

To the candidates’ credit, the exchange last night was wonkish, policy-centered, which is how I like my politics. But McCain failed to make connections between details (pork spending) and his broader vision (anyone?) while Obama failed to bring any of the passion that marks his broad vision speeches to policy positions. Even the NYTimes called him a technocrat. It’s almost as though he CARES more about telling us what America should look like than grappling with how to get there. A president who CAN’T get excited about detail is just as bad as one who can’t see the forest for the trees. The best policy wonk leaders of the C20th–FDR, LBJ, Reagan and Clinton–could do both: they had vision, they had policies and they could explain in accessible detail how the two connected.

Plus ca change…

By , 26 September, 2008, No Comment

In my history of media course, we had a guest lecture by a young scholar of 18th century European print culture the other day. Dr. Will Slaughter is a protege of pioneering cultural historian Robert Darnton. Darnton basically maintains that there has always been a news media, because any spreading of information counts as news. The transitions from people gossiping in living rooms (c. 1700), to gossiping in streets (c. 1750), to writing down their gossip (c.1800), to videotaping that gossip (c. 1950) are technological superficialities. He denies that there’s any historical moment where mass media is born (and thus, denies any theories that link mass media to the rise of mass/democratic politics in the mid-19th century).

Slaugther applies Darnton’s theory to the present:

The End of Wall Street?

By , 23 September, 2008, 1 Comment

In a recent column, the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen makes the case that with the financial sector in turmoil, jobs at GoldmanSachs and JPMorgan might lose their appeal for bright young things coming off the Ivy League assembly line, fueling a renewed interest in public service. To Cohen, that “rediscovery of the public sphere” is an end in itself, since he associates periods in American history when the public sector had prestige with prosperity, international prowess and high morale. (I’m somewhat inclined to agree, but that’s beside my present point).

I believe a renewal of the public sector as a high prestige career for the nation’s brightest would go a long way to preventing future crises like this one. Unlike the recession after 9/11, or the oil crises of the 1970s, the current collapse is the direct result of human malfeasance, not the consequence of external forces. The nation’s brightest minds went to Wall Street, armed with the Michael Douglas belief that greed is good, and more than enough Ivy League education to find the legal and accounting loopholes that allowed them to make absurdly leveraged deals and endorse Swiss cheese loans. Meanwhile, regulators slept at the switch.

But even if they had tried, what could the regulators have done? John McCain may have spoken out of turn when he trashed Chris Cox, SEC Chairman, this week. But in principle, I sort of agree with him. The people who staff our regulatory agencies mean well, but they are just not as sharp as the people they are meant to regulate. And that’s because smart young people don’t want to take jobs in government.

I sent Cohen’s piece around to friends, and one set of comments from a U.Penn senior really hit home. He’s applying for those finance jobs, despite the current hiring freeze, because 1. it pays more and 2. working for the government is beneath his SAT score. Public service he says “isn’t something the smartest people need to do. It’s something most people can do.” So long as smart kids think that public service is for dummies, we’ll have dumb public policy.

What’s the solution? My mother, a nonprofit activist, had some good ideas. Sweeten the deal for government employees with better pay, subsidized housing or discounted college tuition for their kids. “Even if it meant higher taxes, it would surely be cheaper having smart regulators than a 700 billion dollar bailout later.”

I’m finally old enough to admit it: Mama knows best.

The Postfeminist Myth

By , 17 September, 2008, No Comment


Ever since Sex and the City first combined girl power with expensive shopping, women have been asking whether feminism is over. Does it, some 1970s types asked, undermine feminism to be so excited about feminine clothes and romantic ambitions? If so, responded young tween viewers, does it mean feminism is over because we no longer need it?

Yeah right. Gender inequity is shrinking, but it’s far from gone. Women make 78 cents on the dollar, as compared to 60 cents 4 decades ago. We are equal to men now when it comes to college degrees, but still behind if you’re looking at science and business education. We’re twice as likely as men to fall below the poverty line once we enter the workforce, and poor women are 30% poorer (further below the line) than men. And on the cultural front, just read a few articles about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin and you’ll see, sexism is alive and well.

As I’ve written before, shows like Sex and the City just reflect a new feminism that says equal opportunities should leave room for women’s individual choices about how feminine and how high powered we want to be. Aisha Sultan’s column seems to suggest that with the Palin candidacy, even the right wing has come around to a new choice feminism, somehow bypassing the possibility that her run is just a big political hoax.

Problematically, many women and men take the new feminism as a sign that feminism itself is irrelevant, that we’re in the “post-feminist” age. And institutions that define themselves as feminist–women’s rights groups, for example–suffer as a result. Today, I learned that Bitch magazine, a publication that along with Ms. was a leader in publicizing women’s lib, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Seems many women don’t want to read that stuff anymore, somehow ignoring all the real economic and cultural signs that we need such voices.

I can’t afford to bail Bitch out, but I can do my best to publicize their cause. If feminism is the belief in equality, then I never want to live in a post-feminist world.

Homework

By , 15 September, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been negligent lately about posting here. In part, that’s because I took a little vacation these past few days to Providence and Boston and left my laptop behind. In part, that’s because I’ve been swamped by my Columbia workload. But most of all, it’s because when I do find time to get online, I’m too busy enjoying several other sites to worry about this one.

So, let me pass on some gems to keep you all occupied and distracted:

1. The Big Money, a brand new business site that launched today, comes to us from the team that brought you Slate. Similar layout and a few common features (Today’s Papers–>Today’s Business Papers). I think the layout could be cleaner and less banner-ad ridden, but overall, I’m impressed with the content and excited to see something in the web journalism world that has a business focus and isn’t just a compendium of stock-tips or gossip. It’s a sign that this technology is really becoming a new establishment, not just some goofball accessory or insurgent hippie subculture.
2. The Conversation, an NYTimes feature where two of my favorite columnists–Gail Collins and David Brooks–do a joint podcast of them just bantering about current political news. Political opinions journalism, most of it on television appeals to its audience of die-hards (the people who read poll numbers all day for fun) as much because of the character eccentricities of the pundits as because of the content: think of everyone you know who has a crush on Anderson Cooper or remembers fondly the time Judy Woodruff cried on camera. Print pundits have a harder time getting that personality through unless you’ve been reading them consistently for years and years–this feature helps.

3. MSNBC Video. I don’t think any of the other major news networks has this good an archive of video spots from their top shows. Since I don’t believe in waking up before 2 pm on weekends, I miss out on all the juicy interviews on the morning talk shows. But I’ve been savoring the video clips from Meet the Press this week. In particular, I’m loving Joe Biden commenting on religion. Every Democrat makes this argument (I’m personally anti-abortion but politically pro-choice) and quickly gets pigeonholed as an out-of-touch impious elitist. Biden seems somehow more believable when he separates his Catholicism from his politics here than, say, Kerry did in 2004. Not sure why, but it makes me hopeful about his prospects in a debate against Sarah Palin, whose major credential includes her appeal for religious conservatives.

TV for your wallet

By , 10 September, 2008, No Comment

Had a fascinating “aha” moment the other day about my new favorite TV show, AMC’s Mad Men. It’s all about sleezy ad guys in the early ’60s, at the moment when the old black-and-white print ads are about to be turned inside out by edgier copy and the rise of TV. The characters on the show work for an old agency and as they struggle to say afloat in a changing media world, they resort to the dirty and the deceitful.

Wonder why I find it so relevant today…

Compare the show to the last generation of workplace dramas and you’ll notice one key difference. In the 1990s, on shows like ER or West Wing (both of which I loved), there was a ton of misbehavior, BUT the top dog (Drs Carter and Ross at different times, President Bartlet) were good guys we could look up to. Everyone clawed their way to get up there, but the ones who really make it in America, the shows suggested, deserve it.

On Mad Men, the most notable feature is that the guys on top are often the worst of the batch. The head creative, and the protagonist, Don Draper, is guilty of identity theft, cheats on his wife and sexually assaults his mistress, Bobbie. If Mad Men had been made in 1998 instead of 2008, I’m convinced Draper would have been a nicer guy. The key is the state of the American economy:

In the 1990s, when the economy was doing well, workplace shows made the boss look good because people wanted to absolve any guilt about their greed or their success. Go back to the late ‘70s/1980s, however, when the economy was in a crunch, and shows like Dallas were all about sleezy power players, because people in economic distress want to feel justified in resenting those at the top.

Media like television are entertainment and big business, but they are also about tapping into a broader emotional zeitgeist, about turning what we believe into something aspirational, allowing us to reaffirm the values we already have. Advertisers do the same thing, which means Mad Men’s content and storyline function as an interesting commentary on the role played by the show itself. That kind of meta-narrative, the rich opportunities for analysis and debate, are my favorite part of the show. For a taste, check out the opening episode of Season 2, here.

The Times, it is a-changing

By , 7 September, 2008, 2 Comments

Today’s NYTimes announces that as of next month, the paper will eliminate some sections to cut production costs. The Times presses print four sections at a time, so the new model will fold New York regional news into the front National/International section and (from Tuesday to Friday), sports news into the Business section.

Such cost-cutting is hardly a strategy to revive a business, and the Times–like all newspapers in the digital age–is a struggling entity. Cutting costs creates short term advantages, sure, but it doesn’t protect those advantages: imagine if tomorrow, the Wall Street Journal found a way to go down from four to three sections? (Hint: split the Personal Finance content between the Investing and Marketplace departments).

Still the Times’ decision is a smart way to reduce costs. After all, the New York Times is a global paper of record, and the favorite of elites: its core expertise and brand power are in international and national coverage, and high-cultural commentary, not in folksy local news or sports coverage (which is most enjoyable when it’s written for a local audience anyway). With three regular sections (the front political/breaking news, Business and Arts) and some daily specials (like Science on Tuesdays and Dining on Wednesdays), the new New York Times feels about right.

As a reader who often chucks everything except the front, Business and Arts sections, I want the Times to take this policy a bit further. Other cuts I recommend:

The Reader Column

By , 2 September, 2008, 1 Comment


Today was my first day of school in a nifty new(ish) program at Columbia, a Journalism MA that is as much about training journalists in a particular field (business, politics, arts or science coverage) as it is about training them to think about journalism as an entity.

In our first class discussion, we tried to map out the journalistic method–dividing up the tricks of the trade into two columns, “research” and “presentation.” Then we shared stories about times where we have compromised that method to make a flashier story: by taking an atypical example and building it up to signify a broader trend or subsuming factual accuracy to the flow of a narrative. One professor, Nick Lemann, added as an aside that this model won’t fully apply in the future, since the Internet has a journalistic model all its own.

I disagree. One of the problems the news media faces in making the transition to the Internet age is this sense that somehow all the core principles of the field no longer apply, that the blogosphere and the e-zine are some wilderness where only tribal natives can survive. Instead, we need to start treating the web as a way to solve the ethical dilemmas of old media journalism, and seek other scapegoats besides technology for the dilemmas that remain.

First, amend the model by adding a third column: the readers. To most old media hands, that means a group of tech savvy consumers apathetic about serious news and a voracious appetite for junk. The recent squabbles between sportswriter Buzz Bissinger and sportsblogger Will Leitch are a good example: Leitch says he deals in sports gossip because it’s what readers want.

And in digital reporting, it’s even more tempting to write the story that sells. In an old newspaper, reporters wrote and only the guys in the subscription office knew how their words sold. Today, every reporter sees the number of comments or diggs a story gets.

But, it’s silly to blame the technology. It is not that Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are choosing to use Google in stupid ways. Technological advances and a vapid news media, are symptoms, as another professor (Evan Cornog) reminded me, of a much broader social unraveling, the collapse of our sense of civic duty and communal ties. Fix our social fabric, and I assure you, media will return to its role as a component of what Cornog calls “responsible citizenship.”

Moreover, the Internet, when used correctly, can be a boon for the journalistic method on the ethics front. Web journalism, as Jeff Jarvis reminds us daily, is a conversation where readers have a say in shaping content. That means readers wind up checking reporters when we stretch an example or overdo the storytelling. And because we can upload our sources along with our analysis, even an overblown story can be brought into context.

Finally, and this is what heartens me most, making readers part of our model of journalistic practice can encourage reporters to be more, not less, responsible. In the best case scenario, that focus on readers reminds us that we write for society, that we are businesspeople and creative minds, but public servants, the ‘fourth estate,’ too. Once we’re done marveling at the flashy gadgets of today’s newsroom, I hope we’ll see that our mission is unchanged.

You Can’t Beat the System

By , 1 September, 2008, No Comment

My dad collects coffee mugs. Everywhere we go on a vacation, while the rest of us hunt eagerly for T-shirts and keychains, he shops the international Crate and Barrels for dishes. From London, we have a mug with the Underground map and the tagline “You Can’t Beat the System.” I like to drink from it while I read the financial section of the New York Times…

Thought about the “system” today when I read this story about a McCain aide who thought to juice up Sarah Palin’s Wiki entry before she was unveiled as a Veep choice on Friday. The article takes up the question of whether tampering with Wikipedia is immoral or just smart politics.

That reminds me of the controversy that errupted last year, when viral marketer Dan Greenberg unveiled some of the tactics he uses, or recommends others use, to sell brands online in a tell-all post on TechCrunch. Some of the conversation was about the ethics of individual tactics (paying bloggers to write favorable posts, for example), but much of the dialogue was about the ethics of using the Web to sell things at all.

There’s a lot of hippie culture among techheads, so much so that some of them talk as if making money from online activities is itself sacriligious. As someone who sees free culture as akin to free markets (not free lunch), I’m inclined to respond, “You can’t beat the system.” And you can’t blame Ackerman or the McCain campaign for working it.