The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Articles filed under The Media

Serious Christians Should Abstain From Theology-Via-Media-Quotes

Remember when Pope Francis gave that interview? And he said something heretical-sounding? And all orthodox Christians blew a fuse? And it turned out the interview wasn’t proofread and Francis never said that?

Good times.

One of the people who blew a gasket was the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, calling the Pope’s interview a “theological wreck.” (Ecumenical best practice?)

And remember how, just a few days later, Moore was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and described as calling for a “pull back” of Evangelicals from politics, causing conservative Evangelicals to blow their own gaskets? And then he had to issue a clarification and say no no no, that’s not what I said at all? He who lives by the media-misquote…

By the way, I don’t think I’ve seen Dr. Moore apologize to the Pope.

Lest you think I am calling out motes without noticing the beam in my own eye, I am writing this because I fell for this too. In appraising Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber I critiqued a statement of hers I found unorthodox. My source for this was a Washington Post article. And of course it turns out that the quote was wrong.

Of course religious people are accustomed by now to the idea that the media covers religious topics absurdly. But it is a statement of our dark, pharisaical hearts that we still treat media accounts of religious people as authoritative when it gives us ammo to denounce someone.

From this succession of fiascos we should draw a simple rule: serious Christians should never, ever, EVER rely on media (at least mainstream media) accounts of a person’s theology to get an impression of that person’s theology. Please. Are y’all with me?

And of course I apologize to Ms Bolz-Weber.

Cutbacks or Hostile Media Effect?

Pew just came out with a State of the Media report. The main interpretation (which seems to originate with the authors) has been that the media are stuck in a death spiral as cost-cutting decreases coverage which in turn diminishes the audience (eg, see here and here). I have a lot of sympathy for the death spiral model and it’s certainly a relatively appealing model for journalists and j-school types (as it implies a switch to a subsidized and/or NPO model will solve all their problems) but as a reading of the survey results it is simply wrong.

The fundamental misunderstanding is to presume that consumers evaluate news coverage the same way the CJR does. They don’t. As argued by Gentzkow and Shapiro, consumers evaluate news with regards to their ideological priors. That is, almost nobody reads the newspaper and says “I am offended that this story seems to have allowed the journalist inadequate time to report the story exhaustively” but lots of people read the paper and say “I am offended that this story takes the point of view that I disagree with.”

So when consumers answer “yes” to the question “Have you stopped turning to a particular news outlet because you felt they were no longer providing you with the news and information you were accustomed to getting?,” they probably aren’t thinking “I miss the in-depth reporting and investigative work I used to see” but rather “I no longer trust the media as reflecting my values.”

There are three key pieces of evidence in the report itself for the Gentzkow and Shapiro model:

  1. When asked to elaborate problems with content, far more respondents said “The stories are less complete” than “there are fewer stories.” I strongly suspect by “less complete” many respondents are choosing the closest available option from the forced choice set to map onto “bias” allegations.
  2. Dissatisfaction and abandonment is concentrated among men and Republicans. Although there are “hostile media” allegations from the left (eg, Herman and Chomsky, Media Matters, etc), in recent years conservatives have been the most vociferous in alleging media bias and providing an alternative “fair and balanced” media ecosystem. As such, conservatives are exactly among whom you’d expect to see the Gentzkow and Shapiro effect concentrated. (I’m bracketing the issue of whether it is justified for conservatives to feel this way since for our purposes only their subjective views are relevant).
  3. 57% of respondents who are aware of media financial problems think they’re immaterial to coverage about national and international issues. I’m not one to believe that survey responses have to be logically consistent, but this only makes sense if you think the issue is bias, not man-hours.

The upshot is that my reading of the survey in light of the Gentzkow and Shapiro model is that the way for media outlets to survive and thrive is to engage in what traditionally trained journalists would regard as lower quality, by forsaking the objectivity genre and pandering to their readership’s beliefs. To a large extent that’s what we’ve been seeing already over the last generation as a process of creative destruction.

(Cross-posted at Code and Culture)

Atlantic Roundup

My wonderful (for me at least) stint as a guest blogger for Megan is over. I’m glad to find out that one of the new bloggers is TAS alum Noah Millman.

In case you haven’t been following, here’s a rundown of some of my posts over there:

How we can fix the revolving door by paying officials vast sums of money. This seems to me to be a no-brainer. Singapore, which is widely understood to have the most efficiently-run government in the world, also has some of the highest-paid officials.

Some thoughts about the French parenting meme. I may write more as time goes on as this topic really exercises me.

How to fix the banking system through a return of the partnership model and massive deregulation. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and sharpening it through Twitter arguments and I’m increasingly convinced that this is the right approach. We badly need deregulation of the financial system. We also badly need a framework that solves the agency and scale problems that have plagued the system. I’m looking for a good critique of my plan because I’m afraid I’ve missed something.

French and US healthcare: Twins separated at birth? I am again and again struck by the similarities between French and US healthcare, which are always held up as opposites. My then co-blogger Avik Roy has a great response here. I’ve been consistently awe-struck by Avik’s writing on healthcare and I outsource my thinking on this topic on which I know very little to him.

What Star Wars teaches us about innovation Innovation is not a lone-inventor process. It’s a collaborative process. This has many policy implications.

Sorry if you already read Megan’s blog and are already aware of these posts. And if you’re not—you should really start now. Megan’s assembling some amazing bloggers while she’s on book leave, and I love that she’s poaching from the TAS stable (#TASMafia). I’m a fan of all the new bloggers, not just Noah but also Julian Sanchez and Tim Lee.

Atlantic blogging

For the next two weeks I’ll be guest blogging for Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic. My first post is on how innovation happens. I’ll try to post once a day but make no promises as I also have one of them jorbs. I’ll post links here from time to time.

Thus, the longstanding project of Atlantic infiltration by TAS drones continues. MUAHAHAHA!

New Ventures

A bit of home news: I’ve just signed on as a regular blogger at The American Conservative. My current page is here. I still expect to post here now and again, but that’s going to be the main outlet for most of my blogging, for the time being anyway.

Millman’s Shakesblog is going to continue for a little while longer where it currently lives, and then it’s also going to migrate over to TAC, after they revamp their site, which should be done in about a month. I’m particularly excited about doing more cultural coverage – writing about books, movies and the arts generally, not just about theatre – which is an area where they are keen to expand (so they say now).

I’ve very much enjoyed the comraderie of TAS, but, to be frank, that comraderie has been thin on the ground of late, what with everyone moving on to bigger venues. TAC is a place where – they say – I can think and say what I like. That matters a great deal to me, and it’s surprisingly rare in the opinion journalism space.

It’s a venture I’m quite excited about, and I look forward to hearing from you all there.

In other home news, I’m mapping out my fourth screenplay, as well as doing another round of revisions on my second (working title, “Goshen United”) and a number of other promising developments on that front. Needless to say, if there’s any really exceptional news, I’ll be sure to let folks know here about that as well.

That Rotting Smell is College Sports

I’m a little disappointed that Ross Douthat, a sophisticated moralist, could look at the monstrous fiasco at Penn State and think that the compelling independent variable in all this is Joe Paterno. Douthat compares Paterno to Father Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the Colombian priest who went from humble service to the poor of Medellin to flakking for pedophile priests in Rome. You can read what Ross says about Father Castrillón, but I just want to ask: Why should we start out from the assumption that Joe Paterno and his program are exceptional in their dishonesty, their bland bureaucratic evasions of basic moral responsibilities?

What happened around the Sandusky allegations, after all, is what big-time athletic programs do – they lie; they cover up; they fudge; they condone cheating; the require cheating; they scapegoat to avoid accountability; they force crude double standards of assessment and behavior on their universities (which put up little fight); they claim flagrant zones of exemption in admissions requirements, which they often get their universities to basically waive altogether; they minimize misbehavior, often criminal, when they cannot describe it out of existence; they secure their talent in a mortifying pageant of “recruiting” in which grown men, like clumsy Casanovas, wheedle and lie to high school juniors via endless text messages; and, while these men make piles of money from their recruits, the recruits don’t actually get what you’d call “paid,” because they’re amateurs, or as their coaches sometimes say, into cameras, for national audiences, with straight faces, “student-athletes” (that the people on the receiving end of these reassurances don’t burst out in derisive laughter is grist for another rant about the funny idea of sports journalism).

Actually, this isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are. It’s how they exist, at all. The compost smell from this steaming pile of sordid practices is their smell. That smell is their steaming-compost essence. It might have been an interesting hypothetical, a month ago, even for someone with as jaded a view of college sports as I possess, whether a program defined by such a compost smell would cover up something as heinous as a coach raping boys in its own showers, thus freeing him to rape boys hand-picked from his foundation-for-boys for as long as he cared to. It’s not a hypothetical anymore. Now we know the answer.

So, when people wonder what it was about Joe Paterno, personally, that made this disaster possible, I can only shake my head and ask: Where’s your materialism, people? Joe Paterno was the nice, avuncular, highly successful, stunningly old boss of such an organization. He did what his organization wanted him to do. Proof of this is that, given the chance, his organization – from the “graduate assistant” (let’s linger over this exquisite term for just a moment: graduate assistant; it almost sounds as if his function as an “assistant” is tied in some way to his academic standing as a “graduate,” that is, a graduate in some subject in the learning of which he is now “assisting” other aspirants to this august status as a “graduate”) to his nominal superiors in the Penn State athletic department and university administration – did the exact same thing he did. They did what the organization wanted them to do.

Surely these men are not as great as Joe Paterno, and thus subject to the same great-man blindnesses that brought him low, and yet they did just as he did. They fudged, they covered up, they did the minimum necessary so as to avoid bringing a powerful man to account, they redescribed the rape of a 10-year-old boy as “horsing around in the showers,” and like college coaches everywhere when they talk to recruits and reporters about what their programs are really about, and like administrators when they describe these programs as having a legitimate or even comprehensible place in their universities, they lied. What happened at Penn State was the scheme of big-money college sports working as it was designed to work. The act of looking away, repeated by so many in State College, is the perfect emblem for the cognitive politics of the NCAA. It should be on their flag.

Focusing on Joe Paterno, and puzzling how this could happen in idyllic State College, Pennsylvania, or, conversely, snarking about the unique evil that must lurk below the surface in State College, Pennsylvania (I mean, the students rioted for their coach; students wouldn’t have done that anywhere else) are ways for everyone to advance the state of cognitive dissonance that made this disaster possible in the first place.

Let me ask a sobering question: How do we know this isn’t happening at other big-time programs, or things just as bad, or worse, or almost as bad? Just for the most easily imagined category of malefaction: How many coeds do you think have been raped by athletes over the years, at the countries’ other athletic powerhouses, and then shamed by administrators into covering it up, or just stonewalled and ignored by campus officials, or just convinced by such prospects to shut up on their own, preemptively? What number do you think that is? Or does that just happen at Penn State, because of Joe Paterno’s unique blindness as a great man? Why shouldn’t the conceit of Joe-Pa’s integrity make us wonder how much worse it is in those many college towns where the king of the dung-heap is more of a manifest scumbag? Jerry Sandusky just happened to get caught, or caught up with, thirteen years after the first sick-making suspicions arose. Clearly, these are people with stronger stomachs than you and I have. You might say they have “iron stomachs.” They can, after all, stand their own smells. So perhaps we should start widening our imaginations, to ponder how many other disgusting things they can stand downwind of, and for how long.

An open letter to Freddie

What happened to us, man?

I remember having vigorous but always good-humored arguments with you on Twitter and in TAS comments. I remember being able to speak to you in good faith.

But now, apparently, arguing for a country to increase its government spending by 10% to provide Keynesian stimulus is evidence of fascistic right-wing extremism.

And now, apparently, it’s impossible for you to disagree without impugning my motives. For the record, no, I don’t make arguments based on whether I think they can get “plaudits from the professional punditocracy.” As evidence of my lack of interest in professional punditry, I would note that I’ve actually stopped being a professional journalist and moved to an industry research role which will have me experience less limelight. I assume conventional wisdom would dictate that if I wanted a show on Fox News that would be the exact opposite of the astute move.

I can understand why you might have missed this: after all, my professional bio is only the first result when you type my name into Google.

(Though, hey, I like money and fame as much as the next venal guy, so I do reserve the right to become a professional pundit again at some point in the future.)

Also, the Roman Catholic Church does not believe what you think it believes about the death penalty.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think you’re a pretty smart guy, a good writer, and I enjoy exchanging ideas or even “sparring” in good faith with smart people who are good writers.

I am not, however, interested in being the subject of mean-spirited attacks, especially considering the fact that it’s not actually my job, and that I write my opinions on the internet mostly because I enjoy doing so and hope that, perhaps, some of my ideas can seem interesting to some people. It’s tedious. It’s just a bummer, man.

What happened? Why can’t we all get along?

Yours truly,


My Life As A Blockhead

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” – Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell’s Life

A few quick thoughts about yesterday’s exchange between Jonathan Rauch and Alex Massie on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (see here then here then here):

1. The Great Bloggers (in the sense of having a huge audience) are aggregators. Most of what appears on their blogs isn’t their own writing; it’s stuff that other folks – bloggers, journalists, whatever – have written and that the Great Blogger’s blog has excerpted and linked to. As such, these blogs are performing the “filtering” function that Rauch (correctly) identifies as essential in a world of limited time and attention. In that sense, the blogosphere is much less open than it was – there are now established gates that help people determine what is worth reading and what isn’t, and it’s very, very hard to become one of those gates. But in another sense, it’s just as open – those gates are constantly, actively looking for new voices and new material to promote, so if your stuff is good there’s no reason to think it won’t be found. Apart from the nobody-gets-paid part, I would think this is exactly what Rauch would have hoped would happen.

2. Relatedly, Rauch says: “Life, like swimming pools, is too messy to manage without filters; cognition itself is a filter.” Indeed – but how does cognition work? The “Darwinian” model of how decision-making happens in the brain suggests that at any instant a variety of signals are competing within the brain to be the ones that actually get transmitted, and that what appears to “us” (whatever “us” actually refers to) as syllogistic reasoning leading to action is something far more chaotic once you look under the hood. The same model applies for perceptual systems as well – cognition separates signal from noise, but that “separation” is (in this model) the result of a contest among lots of different inputs competing to be interpreted as signal rather than noise. Whether or not the brain actually works this way, that seems to me to be the way the internet works as a journalistic medium: a vast, chaotic sea of offered information and opinions competing for attention. The question isn’t whether that sea of material is mostly good or mostly bad, or even how the ratio of good to bad writing (or true or false information) compares with any given other medium – the question is whether the existence of the sea results in a better-informed electorate and better decisions by the government (that’s the question for the existence of the political blogosphere, anyway). I’m not sure how you’d measure that, but you definitely wouldn’t measure it by reading a cross-section of blogs and comparing that cross-section with a cross-section of newspaper articles.

3. “I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else.” Is that true? Really? Because both fame and fortune seem like very distant prospects in any corner of the journalistic universe – and always, always have been. It seems to me that the motive for doing this sort of writing isn’t to get famous – much less to get rich, which is downright laughable – but to be influential. Which is quite a different thing. Compare, say, Jonathan Rauch with Kim Kardashian. Kim Kardashian is vastly more famous. But Jonathan Rauch is surely more influential – unless you consider mere multiplication of images of oneself to be a kind of influence (which I suppose it is in a very superficial way). There are, of course, people who write specifically because they can’t figure out any more sensible way to make a living – poor fellows – but most people write because they want their writing to have an effect on people – to influence them in some way, whether we’re talking about an opinion journalist trying to get people to vote a certain way or a screenwriter hoping to make the audience laugh or cry. If that’s the case – if that’s why you write – then you don’t write in order to get paid; you get paid in order to be able to write. Right? In which case, Rauch isn’t guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because then maybe Tina Brown will hire him and he’ll get paid – he’s guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because that’s a way to reach more people (and more of the right sort of people) and influence them through his writing (and it might also get Tina Brown to hire him, so he can afford to reach even more people, and influence them). Now, maybe Rauch specifically hates blogging as a format so much that he wouldn’t consider doing this gig except for what else it might lead to. But even if this is the equivalent of going on a talk show to promote the book, the reason you do that is because you want people to read the book so it will influence them. That’s why you wrote it. So if the standard isn’t “does the internet help writers get paid” but “does the internet help writers find their audience”, then it’s very clear that the emergence of the internet has been a huge win. If you’re someone who writes and thinks decently well, and has that urge to communicate, to have an influence, but you haven’t set out to make a career as a journalist or essayist, well, what are the odds, pre-internet, that you would ever achieve your dream? Pretty low, right? But in the internet age, you write something for the Huffington Post, they go ahead and publish it, and . . . voila: you’re in the conversation. Maybe someone reads it and is impressed, and forwards it to Andrew Sullivan – and he links to it. Suddenly, thousands of people come and read your piece. You never got paid for it. You may never write anything again that gets noticed. But for that very reason, the internet has made something possible that would have been impossible otherwise: for you to be heard – and by a decent-sized audience if one of the various gates (like Sullivan) think you’re worth hearing.

4. Of course, nothing comes from nothing, and there does need to be some way of sustaining journalism/writing/blogging/whatever if you want it to continue. The difference between the internet and other media is that the payment mechanism on the internet is decoupled from content creation. But this is an accident of history, not a necessary feature. With a physical newspaper, the production and much of the distribution is vertically integrated with the producers of content. The same company pays the writers and editors and photographers and layout people, and pays for paper pulp and ink and printing presses, and pays for trucks to deliver the papers so you can read them. With broadcast media, there’s less vertical integration – Disney doesn’t make television sets, for example. But there’s still a considerable amount. With the internet, there’s virtually none. The cable and phone companies that provide internet access do not produce content. The primary filters – search engines – that enable you to find content do not produce content. The internet access providers capture all the value of access, and downstream none of it to filters or content producers; the biggest chunk of change in advertising revenue is captured by the filters (Google being the largest) and virtually none of this is downstreamed to content producers. And there’s no good mechanism for most content producers to impose a toll at the gate for access to their content. But the regulatory “fix” for this is trivial. Broadcast television has to run news programming as a condition of their licenses, which come from the government. That’s why there is broadcast news. You could trivially mandate Comcast and TimeWarner to spend 2% of revenue on news and educational “content.” Then they’d go out and buy the New York Times and the Washington Post and journalism would be saved. And the blogosphere would still be a roiling, seething mass of mostly uncompensated . . . stuff. Fighting to be heard. And we could debate whether as a whole that mass was improving discourse or not without getting sidetracked into discussions of revenue models, as if the emergence of blogs had anything at all to do with the financial troubles of legacy journalistic enterprises (which they didn’t).

5. Finally, why are we comparing internet-based news dissemination with print-based news dissemination? After all, newspapers started getting into trouble decades before the arrival of the internet: because of competition from radio and television. And there’s just no question in my mind that if you get your information from the internet you should be vastly better informed than if you get your information from television. That goes for straight news – but it goes double for any kind of “discourse” format. You think the internet selects for noisiness and insult-hurling and short attention spans? Have you seen what passes for debate on television? Bloggers are, of course, thrilled whenever they get the opportunity to go on one of those shows, but I dare you to find one who thinks an appearance as a talking head on television is a better way of communicating with his or her audience than writing on a blog. So before we blame the internet for ruining everything, remember that “everything” includes a lot more than just the New York Review of Books.

I am an extremely atypical blogger. Look at how infrequently I write; look at the length of my typical post. But I am thrilled that the medium exists, because I can’t imagine how else I’d be able to do . . . this. Whatever it is I’m doing. And I think I do it reasonably well. And, in my on and off way, I intend to continue doing it. Hopefully, I’ll continue to have at least a modest audience, so I’m not just talking to myself.

sentiment and sentimentality

James Lundberg complains — and with good reason — about the vast influence of Ken Burns’s Civil War series on students, and on the general American understanding of what in Alabama we call the Late Unpleasantness. I sympathize with the grumpiness sufficiently not to question too much of this piece, but . . . there’s this, among his list of annoyances: “Union Major Sullivan Ballou’s never-delivered letter to his wife Jenny demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.”

Do we really want to be that belittling towards Ballou’s now famous and much-reposted letter? I don’t think I do, at any rate. True, it’s unlikely that a soldier today, facing imminent death, would write in so elevated, so elaborate a style to his beloved. Almost certainly he would not write at such length. But is that wholly to our credit? Do we want to look at a culture that had a strong sense of rhetorical occasion, and embraced a far greater range of linguistic registers than we now can handle, and dismiss its products as mere “sentimentality”?

Yes, people get all gooey about Ballou’s letter, but there are far worse things to get all gooey about. And you could make the argument that the situation actually called for a higher style than most of us, in our linguistically narrow age, can muster. Maybe we could learn something from Major Ballou.

The Best of Journalism 2010

I’ve curated a list of nearly 100 exceptional newspaper, magazine and radio pieces published last year.

I hope you’ll enjoy it – and spread it around.

I’ll leave you with a photograph of a Lutheran church in Texas.

Do you know what I’d do if I ran a Lutheran church? Install a metal door, just in case.

These American Head-Bloggers

Conor and myself, that is. Here we are talking about how to help the poor by making America less of a meritocracy . . . except for the 2012 race. Enjoy!

A (Very Qualified) Defense of Some Corporate Jargon

There is a cottage industry of writers moaning about the stupidity of corporate jargon, and there certainly are some egregious examples of it to be found. But most paint with far too broad a brush (to use some jargon).

Andrew Sullivan excerpts a New Yorker article about a “Corporate-Jargon-to-English Dictionary”:

You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—“incentivize,” say—and “Unsuck It” spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context. (“Incentivize” means “encourage” or “persuade,” as in “In order to meet our phase 1 deliverable, we must incentivize the workforce with monetary rewards.”) One feels a certain cathartic glee as well-worn meeting-room clichés are dismantled one by one: an “action item” is a “goal”; “on the same page” means “in agreement”; to “circle the wagons” is to “defend an idea or decision as a group”.

At least two of these three examples are misleading translations.

“Action item” is much more specific than ”goal.” It is much closer to “a specific task that will be assigned to one person or one identified organizational unit before the conclusion of the meeting”. “Incentivize” also has a much more specific meaning than “encourage” or “persuade”. As per the contextual sentence, it normally refers to setting up comp schedules, feedback forms, promotion guidelines and the other economically-linked HR details that are required to, well, incentivize people. If you substitute “persuade” for “incentivize” in a meeting, you will lose this meaning.

Plain speaking is in short supply everywhere, but too often, people who don’t seem to have ever had the experience of trying to accomplish a series of tasks at scale in a large for-profit corporation expose their inexperience in making these kinds of criticisms. Jargon develops inside organizations, in part, to help coordinate activities efficiently. It should lead the author of the criticisms to question her premises when at least some of these terms are widely used not only in unsuccessful, but also highly successful, corporations.

(Cross-posted at The Corner)

What Heads Have Blogged

Specifically, mine and Matt Yglesias’, and the answer is: education reform (where we are pretty well in concord) and monetary policy (where we are more at odds).

Check it out.

What Would My Mother Say?

I don’t think it’s on-line, but I’ve got a review of Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of selected essays, The Neoconservative Persuasion in the latest print issue of The American Conservative.

Other takes on the man and his work: by Damon Linker on the occasion of his passing, and by Paul Berman reviewing the same collection I reviewed.

I was rather disappointed by the book. After reading it, I found myself less interested in Kristol than I was before. Which wasn’t at all what I expected.

Anyway, go kill some trees if you have an interest.

Poking Malcolm Gladwell on social media in Egypt

Relevant for this audience: I have a post in The Wire, Business Insider’s media vertical, responding to a pretty silly post Malcolm Gladwell wrote on social media and Egypt.

The Numeracy The Journalistic Class

For some reason, I happened upon this old WSJ piece on John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who profited most from the financial crisis.

Explaining how Paulson and his portfolio manager Paolo Pellegrini crafted the “best trade ever”, we have this gem:

Late at night, in his cubicle, Mr. Pellegrini tracked home prices across the country since 1975. Interest rates seemed to have no bearing on real estate. Grasping for new ideas, Mr. Pellegrini added a “trend line” that clearly illustrated how much prices had surged lately. He then performed a “regression analysis” to smooth the ups and downs.

Why, yes, we need scare quotes to describe dark, arcane wizardry like “trend lines” and “regression.” Clearly, these guys are rocket scientists!

Le sigh.

In Which I Dare The Corner To Publish Quotes From Popular Conservatives

Arguments that the liberal community is less prone to reckless speech, or has far less tolerance for those within it who use violent imagery and language than does the Right, are unconvincing. I don’t remember a Krugman column or a Sen. Patrick Leahy speech on the toxic Nicholson Baker novel, the Gabriel Range Bush assassination docudrama, the Chris Matthews CO2-pellet-in-the-face/blowing-up-of-the-“blimp” comments about Rush Limbaugh, the “I hate George Bush” embarrassment at The New Republic, Michael Moore’s preference for a red-state target on 9/11, or the Hitlerian/brownshirt accusations voiced by the likes of Al Gore, John Glenn, Robert Byrd, George Soros, and so on. So why the disconnect? Politics for sure, but I think also the double standard has something to do with style, venue, and perceived class.
If a progressive imagines killing George Bush in a tony Knopf novel or a Toronto film festival documentary, or rambles on about why he finds his president an object of hatred in a New Republic essay, or muses in the Guardian (cf. Charles Brooker: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”), then we must certainly contextualize that hatred in a way that we do not in the crasser genres of commercial-laden talk radio, or an open-air demonstration placard. The novelist, the film-maker, the high-brow columnist, the professor can all dabble in haute couture calumny (cf. Garrison Keeler’s “brownshirts in pinstripes”); the degree-less, up-from-the-bootstraps Beck, Hannity, or Limbaugh behind a mike cannot. What is at the most atypical, out of character, or in slightly bad taste for the former must be a window into the dark soul of the latter.
— Victor Davis Hanson

There is something to this – many of the people VDH name-checks have uttered indefensible remarks, and maybe the veneer of respectability has helped some of them to obscure how flawed their words were. But I wonder if he would wager with me in the interest of testing his larger claim about who is more prone to rhetorical excess, the mainstream right or the mainstream left.

Rush Limbaugh began broadcasting to a large national audience in the early 1990s. So let’s go back 20 years to 1991 for the sake of simplicity. In the bet, Victor Davis Hanson can draw on every word spoken or written by all the people above that he mentions unfavorably: Paul Krugman, Nicholas Baker, Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, Al Gore, John Glenn, Garrison Keeler, Robert Byrd, Jonathan Chait and George Soros. In return, I will draw only on the words of Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative entertainer in America for much of the last two decades, recent national phenom Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin, the bestselling author, popular radio host, and sometimes colleague of VDH at National Review. (Even I can’t bear listening to Sean Hannity. Sorry.)

That’s ten people for him and three people for me – and mine are all very popular among the rank-and-file of movement conservatism. We’ll try to match one another, example of rhetorical excess for example of rhetorical excess. And the loser – the one who runs out of examples first – can donate $500 to the charity of the winner’s choice.

(Does anyone think I would lose?)

I’ll explain to you why this bet appeals to me, and why VDH will never agree to it. In truth, I don’t care whether the right or the left is more culpable on this issue: the point is that the guilty parties on both sides of the ideological divide should stop it, unilaterally if need be, even if the other side is worse. And as I explained in my last post, I wish everyone would start focusing on substance more than tone. But I can’t possibly lose this bet, even if VDH improbably finds more examples, because I have no problem acknowledging indefensible rhetoric on the left when I see it, or asserting that Paul Krugman (or his wife?) is sometimes a blowhard who makes claims un-befitting a person of intelligence, or affirming that Michael Moore’s documentary work is riddled with mean-spirited errors, etc.

Whereas Victor Davis Hanson has never forthrightly acknowledged the rhetorical excesses and inaccuracies of Limbaugh, Beck, or Levin. And if by some miracle he fully confronted what they’ve said over the years –– or even affirmed the disgusting words they’ve uttered by publishing a blog post at The Corner filled with nothing but direct quotations of their words! –– it would be a powerful moment on the right, because no one of his stature has ever so much as acknowledged the full extent of what is said on the conservative movement’s most popular talk radio programs.

So do we have a bet, VDH? I’m game. And if you’re not –– if you’re pressed for time, or if you’ve an objection to dealing with me for some reason –– here’s an alternative idea. Folks on the right think leftists don’t confront the indefensible speech uttered by their side. And vice-versa.

So why don’t the folks at The Corner enter into a bargain with a prominent blogger on the left. What do you say, Matt Yglesias or Kevin Drum or Jonathan Chait? Here’s how it would work. Every day for a week, Monday through Friday, The Corner’s designated blogger could draft one post for publication on the left-leaning blog. The catch? They’d be limited to offering five direct quotations per day of lefties engaged in indefensible rhetoric, however they define it (in context, of course).

In return, the liberal interlocutor could publish the equivalent post at The Corner. And every day for a week, the participants would have to read one another’s five examples for that day, and decide whether to acknowledge that they’re indefensible and assert that the source should apologize if he or she hasn’t done so… or else defend the remark(s).

Maybe I’m wrong. But I suspect that Yglesias, Drum, and Chait would all be game for this sort of exchange. And that it wouldn’t be approved at The Corner in a million years.

Why do you think that is?

(Or am I wrong?)

The Advertising Platform To Save Content Providers?

Okay, I’m probably missing something. But here ‘goes.

The great challenge for content-generators (writers, particularly) in an age of free digital reproduction is: how does anybody get paid?

The answer, typically, is: by attracting eyeballs that can be delivered advertising content along with the desired content.

This gives all power to the content aggregators – small fry like Andrew Sullivan, who have an audience that they feed content that is mostly produced by others (and mostly not paid for), but much more so great white sharks like Google’s search engine, which is the mother of all aggregators.

Content-generation becomes organized around feeding these aggregators, in the hopes of attracting eyeballs. But unless a regular stream of eyeballs is attracted this way, there’s still no way to generate income for the downstream content generator.

What you need is a micropayment mechanism, whereby downstream content generators get a tiny amount of money per eyeball for the eyeballs directed their way, in recognition of the fact that their content was the plankton, if you will, on which the great white sharks at the top of the food chain ultimately depend. But even if you had such a mechanism, why would the great white sharks agree? How do the downstream content generators get the leverage to force some kind of sharing agreement?

One sometimes-suggested solution would be to create an advertising platform that is content-independent. Ads would be delivered based on personal profile information that would be augmented by knowledge of browsing and search history. But there are two problems with this: first, how many people would consent to create such a profile (what’s in it for them?); second, how does this browser-based ad platform give any greater leverage to downstream content providers? Wouldn’t it, in fact, reduce their leverage?

Well, here’s one thought. Advertisers don’t like to compete with each other. A browser-based, profile-based ad platform would be more successful if it were an exclusive platform – if it made arrangements with websites to share revenue in exchange for disabling any other ad-delivery mechanisms that they had going when their “viewers” tuned in.

Instead of serving up whatever ad content Hulu or Salon or whatever want to serve up, the browser-based ad platform would take over and serve up something more tailored to your specific profile. And, in exchange for no longer competing with these other ad platforms, the browser-based ad platform would share revenue with the content site.

That creates an incentive for people to sign up with the platform – yes, you’re getting ads when sometimes in other circumstances you wouldn’t – but you’re also obliterating ads that, in other circumstances, you’d be stuck getting. And, all things being equal, you’re getting “better” ads – ads that fit your profile better.

Sure, lots of people still won’t sign up for privacy reasons. But probably most people won’t be deterred by privacy concerns. They rarely are when there is actually something in it for them. Which, in this case, there is. (You could even imagine a revenue-share of some kind for the recipient of the ads – something dependent on click-through purchases, presumably, but whatever.)

The heavy negotiation would be between content-providers with substantial ad revenue and the browser-based ad platform. But once that structure was in place, it would be logically extensible to content-providers generally. Not necessarily on identical terms, but the browser-based ad platform would have a reason to sign a contract with even marginal content-providers: they would need access to their code to assure their ads were disabled when browser-based-ad-platform-subscribers visited. Which would give even marginal content providers some marginal leverage to get the bargain-basement contract for downstreaming revenue.

The main people who would appear to be threatened, if such a mechanism really got off the ground, would be the content-aggregators themselves, particularly the search engines, who would for that reason be unlikely to sign any agreement with the browser-based ad platform. But Google ads are (a) relatively unobtrusive; (b) not designed to “distract” from content – rather, they are intended to be a form of content, to be relevant “answers” to search queries. As such, they aren’t really a competing platform. People don’t “hang out” at search engines distracted by the ads. So it’s not actually obvious that there’s any competition there. The competition would be with platforms that sell ads directly on websites. But what the existence of such a platform would do is free content-providers from their dependence on search engines for audience. They would be free to pursue an audience by more traditional means – directly, and via aggregators who are “taste-makers” (like Andrew Sullivan) rather than automated search functions – and would now have some basis for generating revenue from such activities. I suspect such revenue would continue to be very, very small for nearly all websites. But there is an enormous difference between small and zero. Add a lot of small numbers together and you just might get something. Zero never adds up to anything.

Ultimately, nobody gets paid unless somebody visits, to view or read. Content has to attract eyeballs, or there’s nothing to monetize. The question is first, how to capture whatever value is associated with that viewing/reading time, and, second, how to create a mechanism that would justify downstreaming some of that value-capture to the actual content provider. I think the mechanism I’ve outlined could do both things.

Anybody out there know if this idea is even technically feasible?

Why Do Music Critics Love Kanye West?

Slate‘s Jonah Weiner dares to use the B-word — “best” — in declaring that Kanye West’s new record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is not just the best album of the year, but the best of West’s career. Serious critics tend not to use the word easily, but West’s album seems to be inspiring similar accolades all over; Pitchfork blessed it with a rare 10.0, and its current Metacritic score is an impressive 98. It’s as close as pop records come to a universal critical hit.

I tend to agree with those singing the album’s praises, and if I were still reviewing records regularly, I’d have issued a big fat rave. Fantasy is as rich and grand and satisfying as pop music gets these days, or ever really, and the primal, heart-wrenching melancholy that’s built into its foundation only makes it more compelling. As far as I’m concerned, after a dozen-odd listens, it’s an instant classic and a work of near-perfect pop art.

But I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of pop music criticism, which seems to have far fewer clear and recognizable standards than, say, movie criticism, or lit crit. Thanks in part to the walls between genres, it’s far more subjective. And thanks to a variety of incentives and cultural norms, music criticism tends to issue a lot of “pretty goods” and relatively few ratings of “this completely sucks,” at least in comparison with movies or novels or plays.

When you read pop music criticism, you’re not really seeing a record or a song measured on some roughly understood and agreed upon set of critical criteria. You’re finding out whether or not a certain critic or publication liked it. There’s just nothing like a universal scale, or even a handful of competing aesthetics. Sure, pop songs often rely on formulas. But pop criticism is much less standardized. The closest you get are different schools of criticism based around different publications — Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or Stereogum*. But even those aesthetic schools typically reflect the choices of some founder or editor or other influential figure.

So it’s strange, then, to come upon an album like Fantasy that pretty much every critic who writes about pop music regularly agrees is not just pretty good but stand-up-and-cheer great. And that brings me to what I’m really interested in with this post: speculating as to why Fantasy pleases so many music critics and music-critic-types (this is where I note that my first writing gig was reviewing a dozen or so records every quarter for the now-defunct indie-rock journal Skyscraper). Obviously it’s impossible to know for sure — this won’t be a data-driven post — but my guess is that most critics start with a genuine love for the form. Not just for innovation and experimentation, but for pop songcraft, in a strictly formulaic sense.

But of course, over the years, as a critic or music geek, you tend to hear thousands and thousands of variations upon that form. Most of them are pretty unmemorable at best. A lot of them are just okay, no more no less, which makes sense given that there’s a time-tested formula involved. And even the stuff that’s just fine is less exciting given that you hear so much of it, day in and day out. Which is why there’s a good chance that you end up turning to a lot of experimental acts that really push the boundaries of the form, and probably break them pretty frequently. But there’s a limited amount of satisfaction in breaking the form, because, when it comes down to it, what you want is the classic form delivered in some wholly new, artful, and unexpected way. And when it comes to pop music, that’s pretty much what Kanye West specializes in. He’s mixing hip-hop and indie-rock irony and lush pop and any number of other influences into something that’s both highly original and highly accessible. The only other current act that comes to mind that does this as well is Radiohead (though you can see elements of this in acts as varied as Nine Inch Nails, Dismemberment Plan, Jay-Z, and Sufan Stevens). And what both acts end up doing is fulfilling that innate desire of just about every cynical, cranky, jaded critic who’s heard it all — every variation, every innovation, every hook and every production trick and every effort to make something old seem fresh — to somehow fall in love with the form again.

*I thought about adding Spin to the list, but I’m not sure the magazine has ever developed a recognizable musical aesthetic. And no, something-other-than-Rolling-Stone doesn’t count.

Taking Her Seriously

In light of Matthew Continetti’s latest blog post about Sarah Palin, her presidential aspirations, and the media’s treatment of those subjects, I’d like to reiterate a question I posed but that he never answered: Do you, Matthew Continetti, think that Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States?

And why not add a few more specific inquiries while we’re at it. Would you be comfortable with Sarah Palin as Commander In Chief of the United States Armed Forces? What do you regard as the most insightful direct quotation she has ever uttered? In the whole of her time in public life what is her most impressive policy achievement? During a foreign policy crisis, is she the Republican you’d most trust to lead the country? Is she in the top five? The top ten? The top twenty? If you were the owner of five Applebee’s restaurants in California’s Inland Empire, would you trust the managerial capacity of Sarah Palin enough to put them in her care while you took an extended vacation abroad? We know how seriously you take Sarah Palin as a candidate. How seriously do you take her as a policymaker? A diplomat? A responsible steward of civil liberties? An interviewee in foreign media outlets where she is the face of America? Pending a response, I’ll continue to find it telling that Sarah Palin’s most prolific defender in the American media has no answer for these questions.

Older articles ↓