Perlstein and the NY Times

You might think, from this article, that there is a real issue about Rick Perlstein’s scholarship.  But you would be wrong, and what a pity that Alter, just hired, would debut so awkwardly.

Alexandra, reporting is not collecting quotes from both “sides” of a story, especially when one side is a historian with a reputation and a long record and the other “side” is a hack and a flack.  See, you can actually use your Columbia J-School training about what plagiarism is, not to mention your special expertise covering the publishing industry, to discern the facts,  and tell us what they are, and you should, and you didn’t.

You can also figure out that someone like Craig Shirley is not the real goods with fairly rudimentary research skills.  Even I could figure that out, and from the second sentence on his Wikipedia page:

He is best known as “one of the most esteemed Ronald Reagan biographers“.[1]

See the little [1]? it points, in support of the assertion, to a piece of Reagan hagiography, by someone I never heard of, on Breitbart.  Breitbart. The Wikipedia page sounds as though it was written by Shirley or his intern, but it doesn’t matter: Wikipedia is open source, and if Shirley is allowing that to remain on his page, he has a concept of esteemed, and of evidence therefor, that waves red flags all over the place.  Having a keyboard and a fax machine doesn’t make someone a “side”.

Please go down the hall to the climate change desk and get a quick hit of why “he said, she said” is not journalism, and also get the phone number of the advertising department to pass on to people who try to use you as a free mouthpiece.


Wherein the Nonprofiteer Does a Literature Review and Endorses an Increased Minimum Wage

Over on The Nonprofiteer, I demonstrate my recovery from the Chicago School of economics by reviewing arguments for (and even one against) an increase in the minimum wage. Not sophisticated but (I hope) clear.

Normalizing the Abnormal

Ashely Parker and Jeremy W. Peters write in NYT today:

A major source of Mr. Boehner’s limitations as speaker is simple math. Republicans control 232 seats, and 218 are required for a majority when there are no vacancies, meaning that in most instances, he can afford to lose only 14 Republican votes.

I am disturbed at this bland equation of being a Speaker of the House of Representatives with being the leader of only one’s own party within it. Boehner isn’t trapped by “simple math”, he is trapped by his decision not to function as a true Speaker of the House, which would involve drawing votes from both parties at least some of the time. By failing to point this out, the NYT story is normalizing Congressional behavior that is in fact well outside the historical norm.

When Le Carré Met Murdoch

John Le Carre had a memorable encounter with Rupert Murdoch

The plane ride back from Zurich was made more pleasant by the FT magazine. It includes a must-read interview of John Le Carré by his neighbor and friend Philippe Sands. Among the stories therein:

Le Carré explains that some years ago The Times had published an “ungrateful” photo of him, alongside a story that he’d clobbered a small Polish theatre company by asking for an exorbitant royalty. He wrote to the then editor to seek a correction, which brought a dismissive reply to the effect that he was big enough to take the rough with the smooth. So he wrote directly to Murdoch, requesting “a big apology, a contribution to the theatre, and lunch”. He was amazed to receive an instant and simple reply: “Your terms accepted, Rupert.” This put him in a funk, like a naughty schoolboy whose bluff had been called.

The interview is ungated online, which is unusual for the FT, so read it here while you can.

Tabloid Newspapers: Mocked but Mighty

To encourage riders to remove and recycle their newspapers rather than leave them on the train, the London Underground has posted signs proclaiming in bolded capital letters that “The newspaper you’re reading is rubbish”. On my train this morning, a wag had scribbled in below this pronouncement “That’s the Mail for you”.

That was the second laugh I got at the expense of the UK tabloid newspapers this week. The first was when I was digging through a pile of newspapers and read the screaming headline of the Daily Express “PLAN CRAP PENSIONS”. When I removed the FT from on top of that rag, I saw that when no longer partially obscured, the headline was “NEW PLAN TO SCRAP PENSIONS”. But the headline as I misread it would not have been out of character for the paper.

Despite the disdain the tabloids draw from many people, including me, they remain enormously popular and influential. The Daily Mail operates one of the most widely visited news websites in the world and the whispered rumour that “The Sun is strongly opposed to your policy proposal and is planning a cover story” is enough to freeze the blood of even the most senior politicians.

But back to mockery. My friend Kevin Grant, a delightful British wit, penned this memorable summary of British newspapers for the television series “Yes, Prime Minister”.

Does Being a Journalist on the Internet Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?

Since the NSA surveillance story broke, a number of journalists (e.g., at Mother Jones and Nation) have noted that the original reporting by Glenn Greenwald/The Guardian and Barton Gellman/Washington Post was flawed, perhaps profoundly so. Greenwald and Gelman have been sort-of backpedaling from some of their original claims, although neither to my knowledge has given a full and clear accounting of what they got wrong and why.

In the entirely dead tree publishing era of newspapers, journalists who made mistakes in reporting and subsequently walked a story back had no choice but to make a clean breast of things: The hard evidence of their errors was right there on every subscriber’s kitchen table. But in the online era, journalists can revise their stories without being specific about what details they have changed and why.

As I do not have the technical skill to evaluate how much the authors of the original NSA stories revised their articles in light of emerging evidence uncovered by other journalists, I am grateful to Ed Bott for having saved Gellman’s original and revised NSA stories and then posting this file with both articles compared side-by-side.

Bott’s work allows everyone to make their own judgement about whether the Post’s revisions reflect merely the correction of small errors or are a symptom of seriously sloppy journalism the first time around (If it hasn’t happened yet, I hope someone does the same with the Greenwald/Guardian stories). But should the provision of this valuable service be left to energetic volunteers outside of a newspaper’s operations? I believe it would be better practice for all newspapers to include a link to the original versions of subsequently edited breaking stories (e.g., “Click here to see how we have changed our reporting since this story broke”). It might keep Internet-era journalists more honest and careful to know that their breaking stories will be as available to future readers as were those of journalists in the dead tree publishing era.

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”

Fan Mail


Although I sometimes disagree with Jonathan Chait (as in this RBC post), I’ve been a big fan since his days at The New Republic.  He now writes for New York Magazine, which published his remarkably prescient mid-October essay about the fiscal cliff. Directly or indirectly, that essay shaped much of the subsequent public debate on the subject (and inspired one of my own recent NYT columns).

If you don’t know Chait’s work, a good place to start is yesterday’s post about Republican rage at the trillion-dollar platinum coin proposal. If I were the business owner whose argument Chait deconstructs, I’d go immediately into hiding.

If you don’t like this piece—well, there’s no accounting for taste.  But if, like me, you can’t think of anyone whose writings about the recent fiscal wrangling have been more reliably informative and readable, you’ll want to bookmark his NY Magazine archive and read him first thing each morning.


Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries

Two significant pieces of news today:  Google’s earnings (and stock price) are down, and Newsweek has given up on a paper edition.The Newsweek story is only the latest step down a path to oblivion, as the digital edition cannot survive financially either and will close down in turn.

This is happening because the business models for  providing content have collapsed.  Newsweek is one dying gasp of a hybrid system whereby content could be  denied to anyone who didn’t pay for a physical object, and the attention of readers therefore sold to advertisers who could be assured that (i) anyone reading the story on left-hand page 32 would see the nice big ad on page 33 and (ii) cared enough to plunk down  50c or so for the magazine.  Google is a different animal, that sells ads with the promise that people seeing the ad had shown some interest in the type of product on offer.   What made Newsweek worth buying was the expensive expertise of its authors and editors and the expense accounts on which the former could get stories; what makes Google run is the utility of its search engine, maps, and other cool stuff, that we pay for by tolerating the crappy little ads that appear on tiny patches of a screen about the size of  a two-page Newsweek spread, but cluttered with a bunch of other stuff. Or the infuriating big ads that pop up all over what you’re trying to read, infinitely more intrusive than advertising in old print media. That these ads aren’t a substitute for what print ads used to do is evidenced by how long ago it was that you clicked on one, and that the whole deal manifestly isn’t working out for Google. Continue reading “Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries”