Tag Archives: journalistic turpitude

Felony Use of Metaphor

It was ironic that a movie about a man who could leap so high would land with such a thud with moviegoers.


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Journalism Has Genres Too

I reorganized my bookmarks today. Four years of promiscuous ctrl+d-ing has left me with an disheveled list of names and urls, most of which I seldom read anymore or don’t remember ever liking.

As I sorted them into categories, I found the experience a bit depressing. Every publication, website and blog is a source of information. When you’re deleting them, you’re essentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to hear what they want to tell me.’

Even more depressing is confronting what you actually use each of your bookmarks for. The internet has an essentially unlimited capacity to tell you the same thing over and over. News blogs recapitulate the same information. Entertainment blogs ‘analyse’ the same press releases.

Looking at your history and curating a list of your favorite information sources is essentially a blueprint for the kind of person you are. Do you want a brief, snarky take on American politics? Feminist analysis of celebrity gossip? Gay album reviews?

Lately I’ve been feeling like unlimited reading options has turned literature into music. If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I want to listen to Low Roar or Portishead. If I’m about to go out dancing, I want to listen to Rye Rye or The Avalanches.

In the same way, early in the morning I want to read a website that gives me sober, straightforward news, something Reutersy. At work I want something I can read, digest and forget in about 15 minutes. On weeknights I want a site that tells me something I didn’t know before or shows me something I knew in a new way.

This concept isn’t anything new, obviously. The written word, from newspapers to magazines to novels, have always set a particular tone, and we always choose to read something that reflect ourselves back at us.

What I’ve been struck by lately, though, is that I also have moods for content. I want to read an article about how stupid libertarians are. Or I want a minority to tell me that they’re empowered. Or I want to read a blog where someone tells me that my favorite TV shows are their favorites too.

The internet allows us to cultivate not only the facts we get and the conclusions we draw, but our emotional reactions too. What ever I feel like feeling–confirmation, outrage, optimism, apocalypse–I can access it instantly.

In the end, I just sorted my favorites into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. The sites contained in both of them give me information. But one group plays me something I haven’t heard before, and the other just repeats the same old melody.


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If I was a journalist I would have a calendar

that I would fill with the objectives and completion dates of various government programs. And then, as they neared expiration, I would write pieces like this.

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Underneath the journalist-ese

this is disturbing and hilarious.


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Why Journalism is Bad, In One URL


If the story doesn’t make you want to puke, the ‘UPDATE’ will

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Parenting, IQ and the culture of advice


Millions of young kids’ fates are decided by IQ tests administered by private schools and gifted programs. Yet those early IQ tests are also far from perfect at predicting which kids will actually excel on achievement tests down the road—whether it’s 3rd grade, 8th grade, or the SAT. In fact, they’re so far from perfect it’s laughable. The correlation is only 0.40.

According to the authors of Nurture Shock, pretty much all of our methods for predicting academic excellence in children are pretty poor. They point out that, for example, the correlation between body symmetry–i.e. are both your ears the same size–correlates with academic achievement at 0.39.

Primary schools work really hard to separate the Harvard wheat from the Penn State chaff with a series of 'predictive' tests:

Schools ask kids to hop on one foot and perform other tasks. These aren't a test of the children's motor skills, but a test of the child's willingness to follow instructions. Kids are asked to list the months of the year; it's a back-door assessment of kids' ability to complete a task without their minds wandering in the middle. Other activities that are considered telling include seeing how kids handle criticism when drawing a circle, and if they can resist playing with a cool, distracting toy that’s nearby when they’ve got an academic task in front of them, such as penning the alphabet.

The problem with these tests is that kids change. Their brains develop in unpredictable ways, and the kid who says 'fuck that marshmallow, I'ma write these letters!' at age 3 is just as likely to be a pants-sagging crip at 13 as anyone else.

On the whole, IQ tests confirmed the strength of correlations that had been seen in other research: Combining math and reading together, early IQ had at best a 0.40 correlation with achievement in 3rd and 5th grade.

Attention ratings didn’t beat that—not even close. They only showed a 0.20 correlation with later achievement. And the real surprise was how poorly the behavior ratings predicted school success—that correlation topped out at 0.08.

[..] What this means is that many kids who turned out to be very good students were still fidgety and misbehaving at age 5, while many of the kids who were well-behaved at age 5 didn’t turn into such good students.

This is really interesting stuff, and demonstrates how experts and administrators are just as susceptible to fads and insta-nalysis as the rest of us.


The worrying thing about this kind of article, and the book on which its based, though, is that we laypeople read them and make the mistake of thinking that they apply to us. 

There's a culture of advice built around parenting in America. Don't forget to test your kid's IQ! No wait, test his 'emotional intelligence'! No, his motor skills! Read out loud! Play tapes of foreign languages! Breastfeed til he's nine!

The problem is, information on these broader methodological trends isn't really meant for individual parents. It's meant for administrators and policymakers, people that have to think of large socioeconomic groups and make programs that are likely to provide the greatest benefit for the highest percentage at the lowest cost.

For individuals, however, you're much better off ignoring all this shit and focusing on the needs of your particular child. If your kid is really good at concentrating at age 3, then find a program that helps her use that to excel. If she's not, find a program that works better for her. As she changes, make sure her circumstances respond to her needs.

Parenting and health are probably the two most over-advised areas of American life. Hundreds of magazines and books are devoted to taking broad sociological data and turning it into advice and stock-photo'd listicles. While this might be good for identifying solutions to our individual problems, we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that all of this information applies to us. 

A study showing, for example, that 76 percent of students who played soccer at recess were better at concentrating all afternoon doesn't mean that you should be sending your kids to school with cleats on. Maybe he likes another sport, or he really values his social time with his classmates at lunch. You should be basing your solutions first on your actual children, then the broader sociological data.

I'm not saying we should ignore all information related to our children and our health, I'm just saying we should focus on the fundamentals and ignore the daily stock-ticker of sometimes contradictory particulars. Our children's intellectual and physical development should be supported. We should eat less and exercise more.

Beyond those principles, we don't need to keep changing our tack every six months. Do what works for you, and leave the pie charts and lab coats to the administrators.

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More asterisks, please

This is the best punctuation mark-related sonning ever:


The former attorney general tells Esquire:

All the internal investigations are over with, no finding of wrongdoing, no finding that I misled Congress.* So I'm gratified by that, but I'm certainly not surprised by it. But anyway, it creates impressions. And yeah, it takes some time to work through that. And that's what I'm trying to do now.

And that asterisk?

*Editor's note: A 2008 Department of Justice investigation was referred to a federal prosecutor and remains ongoing.


Can more journalists start putting little stars behind the bullshit quotes they get from their sources? Stories about Cheney are gonna start looking like the fucking Milky Way. 

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The best demonstration of why newspapers are dying

is articles like this.

Jon Stewart, the iconic media critic and political satirist from television’s “The Daily Show,” had a sold-out crowd howling Saturday night at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium — and mined Vermont’s marriage-rights debate for material.

True to form, he waded into an emotionally charged issue (and one sharply debated in the Legislature) with healthy doses of absurdist logic.

“I can understand being against gay marriage — if they decided to make it mandatory,” he said. “This isn’t a cultural divide: They’re wrong.”

Thanks, Detached Anchorman Tone, for robbing Stewart of all character and wit.

As expected, during the rest of Saturday’s performance, Stewart, 46, strayed from the edgy scripting style he forges for TV audiences and returned to his roots as an irreverent stand-up comic.

He talked about Burlington: "Could your town be any prettier?" Later, remarking: "I saw a guy with a 'gay pacificists for Nadar button. It's an usual place."

Stewart has hosted “The Daily Show” since 1999, and has received numerous Emmy awards as a writer and producer.

No stranger to controversy, Stewart has also earned renown as a candid and aggressive guest on politically conservative talk shows.

He has also written or co-written two books and acted in several films..

It's like they're writing about some obscure Romanian pop star who's touring New England.

My reporter-friend Derek says that the failure of newspapers isn't on the content side, it's on the business side. The papers are as good as they always were, it's just that the advertising base has rotted out from underneath them. I agree with this generally, and it's a ridiculous disaster how most American newsrooms have to fill the same-sized newspaper with half-sized staffs every morning.

But look at this article. Jon Stewart isn't some mysterious figure who has to be presented to us with phrases like 'he has earned renown'. Stewart is an extremely public figure, and anyone under 35 will be familiar with his show and some of the movies he's been in. Well, 'Half Baked', at least.

One of the ongoing failures of print journalism is this Current Events 101 tone, as if everything has to be written for the layest possible audience. If science publications don't explain how photosynthesis works every time a new plant is discovered, I don't see why newspaper culture pages have to present Jon Stewart to me like I just moved to Vermont from Malawi.

Newspapers are dying of specificity. Just as the diversity of content into sports, politics and technology publications killed Life Magazine in 1972, the diversity of voices into young and old, left and right, naive and snarky is wilting newspapers in 2009. Why should I read a Jon Stewart for Dummies review when I can hop online and find one written with a context and perspective I can relate to?

To my mind, it's this prisming of authority that threatens newspapers the most. Rather than read one weekly movie reviewer in my front-porch lump, I can choose from 500 online, and decide to follow the ones that reflect my sensibility. Plus, I can participate in discussions of movies, TV and comedy long beyond their airdates, and don't have to rely on the 'no spoilers' model that newspapers have been delivering the past five decades.

I'm not trying to engage in the Death of Newspapers cheerleading you often come across on the 'neener neener'-net. Less journalism (by which I mean reporting, not reviewing what's already out there) is always and necessarily a bad thing, and we're gonna have a decade or two of some serious Informed Democracy Fail before we come up with a new model.

But for now, newspapers should compete where they can add value.

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Jane Goody: High-trash class

I lived in Britain (well, London) for a year, and the one thing I couldn't get over was how the class system bled into everything. Anecdotes beginning with 'I was in Budgens the other day …' were greeted with a wince. Formerly connotation-free personal habits, such as brushing my teeth, were suddenly signifiers. I was told at one point that I ate my toast in a lower-class way (i.e. sliced rectangularly. Common, don't you know.)

I've been watching with some interest the saga of Jane Goody, a British reality show contestant cum celebrity cum cancer victim who died this week:

The first time she was mentioned in the press, in May 2002, Jade Goody was described as a "pretty dental nurse, 20, from London". But 24 hours later, as she began her gobby, ignorant trajectory in the Big Brother house [It's a British reality show, Mom — Mike], The People went on the attack under the headline: "Why we must lob the gob". Before long it was open season. The Sun called her a hippo, then a baboon, before launching its campaign to "vote out the pig". The Sunday Mirror rejected porcine comparisons on the ground that it was "insulting – to pigs".


As her performance on Big Brother made clear, her years of formal education had left Jade Goody with little knowledge. She thought that a ferret was a bird and abscess a green French drink; that Pistachio painted the Mona Lisa; that Sherlock Holmes invented the flush lavatory; that East Anglia ("East Angular" in Jade-speak) was abroad; and that Rio de Janeiro was "a bloke, innit?"


By 2007, when she made her second visit to the Big Brother house on Celebrity Big Brother (alongside her surgically-enhanced mother Jackie), Jade Goody had become, by her own account, "the most 25th inferlential person in the world" and a bona fide celebrity. She was said to be worth £2-4 million, was the proud owner of three "footballers' wives" style homes, a £60,000 turbo-charged Range Rover and was the "author" of a best-selling autobiography.


The unexpected fourth ring of this circus came last year, when Goody announced that she had terminal cancer, and had only a few months to live. Thus followed the quickie-marriage to the convict, various TV specials and, somewhere in London, a team of BBC editors cueing up a slow-motion montage set to The Four Seasons.

I was in London for the first few years of the Jane Goody tabloid judgmento-frenzy, and I remember being amazed at the vitriol being aimed at this woman (who I had never heard of), who was just a reality show contestant, not a head of state or a powerful CEO. I shouldn't be surprised that the Daily Mail and the Sun are writing sober, thoughtful obituaries now that the target of their exclamation-pointed normativizing has become un-famous in the only way they will allow.

Any obituary that wants to note the broader social implications of Jane Goody should at least mention the following point:

Nobody wanted to stop and ask: why doesn’t Jade know much? Here’s why. Her mother was a seriously disabled drug addict, so Jade didn’t go to school much because she stayed at home to look after her. From the age of five she was in charge of doing the cooking and ironing and cleaning.

Jade explained: “As early as I could remember I’d spent my whole life trying to protect my mum – frantically hiding the stolen chequebooks she used to have lying around the house when the police barged in on one of their raids; desperately denying to the teachers at school that she’d hit me for fear of being sent to social services.”

Her father treated her even worse. He stashed a gun under her cot, and her first memory was of him shooting heroin in her bedroom, his eyes rolling back and his body juddering. Eventually, after periods in and out of prison, he was found dead from an overdose in the toilet of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“He died without a single vein left in his body,” Jade explained. “In the end he’d injected every single part of it and all his veins had collapsed – even the ones in his penis.”


Go to any extremely unequal society – say, South Africa, or South America – and you will find a furiously suppressed sense of guilt. It’s hard not to ask, at the back of your mind: why am I here in this mansion, while they are in the slums? This guilt is resolved one way: by convincing yourself that the poor are sub-human, and don’t have feelings like you and me. Oh, the people in the barrios and townships? They’re animals! They stink! They’re stupid! Jade and Vicky and the labelling of the poor as “chavs” filled that role for us. They know nothing! They are repulsive!

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Just when you thought the standard for trend stories couldn’t get any lower…

I clicked on this New York Times article because I read the (awesome) headline

Mistrial by iPhone: Juries’ Web Research Upends Trials

The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country.

Nine paragraphs and three anecdotes later, just as I'm starting to think, 'OK, here comes the creamy statistical center', I get:

There appears to be no official tally of cases disrupted by Internet research, but with the increasing adoption of Web technology in cellphones, the numbers are sure to grow.

This is still an interesting issue (in that the jury-trial system is gently but firmly being revealed as kind of a joke), but that news hook is loser. The number is sure to grow?! This is journalism done backwards.

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