Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Face and the Power of Images

A lot of people are very, very angry over the fact that Rolling Stone put on their cover a selfie that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took (a photo that appeared in many newspapers) to accompany a long feature article about him. "The Bomber," the headline reads, with the subhed, "How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster." Nobody's mad about the article, which is pretty well described by that subhed, and isn't too different from many other articles written since the bombing. But the cover is getting people riled up; Boston Mayor Tom Menino wrote a letter to the magazine expressing his outrage, Boston's police commissioner says, "I'm disgusted by it," the news has been filled with person-on-the-street interviews with Bostonians expressing their displeasure, and stores like CVS have announced that they won't be stocking the issue.

The people I've seen aren't having an easy time articulating what it is about the cover they find problematic; some say it "glorifies" Tsarnaev or treats him like a celebrity, while others like Menino say that the magazine ought to be writing stories about the victims. Which of course is an absurd objection; it's not as though we can't have both, and there have been who knows how many thousands of stories written about the victims. So what's really going on here?

Tired Columnists and Lost Opportunities

Richard Cohen, opinion-shaper.

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post may not have written anything interesting in the last 20 years or so, but yesterday he found a way to achieve some momentary relevance, by writing an execrable column defending racial profiling. For the first time in forever, lots of people were talking about something Cohen wrote (read Ta-Nehisi Coates' incisive discussion of what makes Cohen's column so vile). But this leads to a question I'm sure more than a few people are asking: Why does this guy still have a column in one of the nation's most important newspapers?

After all, it's hard to imagine that Cohen has some kind of large and fervent fan base. There are other columnists who are awful in various ways, but you can understand why they're still around. For instance, Charles Krauthammer's work is a festering cauldron of venom and absurd hyperbole, but conservatives think he's a genius, so they'd be heartbroken if he lost his perch at the Post. In terms of prestige, the Post's opinion page is second only to that of the New York Times, and yet it carries an unusual number of columnists who have been writing for decades and never, ever have anything interesting to say. When was the last time you glanced at a Robert Samuelson column and said, "Oo, that looks fascinating!"?

The Temptation of Renown

Alas, there will be no Zimmerman juror book here; you'll have to content yourself with volumes about Duck Dynasty and people who go to heaven when they're unconscious. (Flickr/brewbooks)

It's sort of quaint that when the winds of national attention float past someone who never would have otherwise gotten the chance to receive something resembling fame, their first thought so often is, "I should write a book!" The publishing industry may be dying and 99 percent of authors may never get sales out of the four figures, but everyone, even people who haven't written anything longer than an email since they were in their teens, thinks the world would be eager to read 300 pages of their thoughts and feelings.

So it was that Juror B37—since she hasn't revealed her name, I'm going to call her Gladys—emerged into the bright light of a Florida morning and said to herself, "There's gotta be a way for me to cash in on this." And she decided to write a book, because like most Americans, Gladys isn't non-famous, she just isn't famous yet. She quickly retained a literary agent, who no doubt told her that this thing was going to be huge. After all, it's all over the news. Folks just can't get enough of this Zimmerman trial. How many millions of people would gladly plunk down twenty-five bucks to read the real inside story of what went on in those two days of deliberations? Maybe Hollywood would option the book, and then Gladys could be played by Anne Hathaway, who would want to learn all about the trial from her personally, and then they'd totally become best friends, and then...

Let's say this for Gladys: After running through all that in her head for a day or two, at some point she said to herself, "Who the hell am I kidding?"

All the News that's Fit to Reprint

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP

The opening scene of The Newsroom’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan.

“Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her.

How the Conservative Media Are Eating Up the Zimmerman Trial

George Zimmerman during his interview with no-nonsense journalist Sean Hannity.

George Zimmerman's trial in the shooting of Trayvon Martin is coming to a close. For what it's worth, I think he'll probably get acquitted, since 1) the lack of any eyewitnesses leaves room for doubt, and 2) my impression is that in Florida it's perfectly legal to pursue somebody, confront them, and then when the confrontation turns physical and you begin to lose the fight, shoot them in the chest. You know—self defense.

In any case, conservative media are feasting on the Zimmerman trial (as are some other media). Their basic storyline goes like this: Trayvon Martin was a thug. George Zimmerman's gated community was beset by roving gangs of vicious black teen criminals. Zimmerman was in the right. And most critically, this whole thing is being drummed up by racial provocateurs, most especially Barack Obama and Eric Holder, to continue their ongoing war on white people, who are the real victims of racism in America today.

Let's take, for instance, this little story...

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Egypt

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

The military coup that removed Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last week marks a significant setback for Islamist movements in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood—to which Morsi belonged—is the most prominent and important. But, the coup also returns the Brotherhood to a situation in which they are quite used to operating: Unfairly marginalized voice of the silent, oppressed majority.

The Song of the White House Spokesperson

White House spokesperson Jay Carney, seen here appreciating a reporter's question.

If you asked me who was the most appalling evader/distracter/dissembler among White House spokespeople over the time I've been politically aware, I'd have to say Ari Fleischer, who served in that position for the first couple of years of George W. Bush's administration. I remember often shouting at Fleischer on the TV as he spun some inverted version of the truth to the press, inventing absurd new terms (Remember "homicide bombing"? Don't ask.), telling Americans to "watch what they say," and most of all, just shamelessly denying what everyone knew to be true (Jonathan Chait penned the definitive takedown of Fleischer). On the other end of the spectrum I'd have to put Mike McCurry, who did the job under Bill Clinton, including the period covering the impeachment scandal. McCurry wasn't any more forthcoming than anybody else who has held that job, but he had an easy, straightforward manner that seemed to make the interaction between himself and the reporters more of an honest negotiation over what information they could get, and less some kind of game whereby the spokesperson tries to deceive and the reporters try to catch him/her at it.

When current White House spokesperson Jay Carney took the job, he seemed like the perfect person for it. An experienced reporter himself, Carney knew the press corps as a former colleague, and in his frequent television appearances while at Time magazine he came off as articulate, informed, and thoughtful. But Carney has been less than a smashing success. He doesn't have the blatant contempt for reporters that Fleischer had, and the times he's been caught saying something untrue have actually been relatively few in number. The problem isn't so much what he says, but rather that he refuses to say much of anything. In fact, he's got a dozen different ways to say that he won't answer your question. Or actually, as it turns out, a baker's dozen. Yahoo News did the yeoman's work of analyzing all of Carney's briefings, and here's what they came up with:

Offensive Photo Spreads and Insincere Apologies

An image from a recent Vice magazine photo spread. That's supposed to be Sylvia Plath, getting ready to put her head in the oven.

Throughout its existence, Vice magazine has attempted to cultivate an image of edgy rebelliousness, with provocative covers and journalism that runs less to "Here are stories you need to know about" and more to "Check out this crazy shit that's happening somewhere!" Which is fine, but it has a definitely male perspective, which is one of the reasons people were shocked when the latest issue of the magazine featured a photo spread of models re-enacting the suicides of famous female writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. The caption below each photo described their method of suicide, along with credit for the clothes the models were wearing. The most disturbing shot was probably that of a model posing as Iris Chang with a gun pointed at her head, but the most tasteless had to be that of the one portraying Taiwanese author Sanmao, who hanged herself with a pair of stockings. They included a fashion credit for the stockings wrapped around the model's neck.

After what one might have thought would be entirely predictable criticism, Vice pulled the photo spread off their web site and issued a brief apology, which was itself a rather un-Vice-like thing to do. (The photos, along with a lengthier description of the controversy, can be seen here at Jezebel.) So did they do the right thing by pulling the photos? And should they have apologized? I'm a little conflicted, but since we seem to be seeing a lot of these kinds of mini-controversies lately—someone says something others find offensive, then we debate whether they should have said it, whether they should apologize, and where the boundaries between provocative art/entertainment and just being a jerk are (see here on the question of rape jokes in standup comedy)—let me give this a shot.

The Gang of 8 Lobbies Fox News

Ryan Lizza has a behind-the-scenes article about immigration reform in the New Yorker, based mostly on interviews with members of the Senate's Gang of Eight, which shows some of the personal aspects of how big legislation can get accomplished. For instance, John McCain, ever the prima donna, comes across as seething with resentment that Marco Rubio has gotten more attention on the issue than he has. And the part that may get the most notice is the blunt words of an unnamed Rubio aide, who in regard to the question of whether certain immigrants take jobs from Americans, says, "There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can't cut it...There shouldn't be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can't get it, can't do it, don't want to do it. And so you can't obviously discuss that publicly." Hey dude, guess what: you just did! But in any case, here's the part that interested me:

Cable News Is a Third of a Century Old

A snapshot from CNN's first hour on the air.

This Saturday marks one-third of a century since CNN debuted as the world's first 24-hour news channel in 1980 (if you're looking to get them a gift, the traditional 33rd anniversary gift is amethyst). Prospect intern/sleuth Eric Garcia came across this video of the network's first hour on the air, which begins with Ted Turner giving a speech about the new era of global understanding they're launching. He makes special note of the fact that he's standing under three flags: the U.S. flag, the Georgia flag (its old confederate version, which was adopted in 1956 as a protest to Brown v. Board of Education or to honor the nobility of the Confederacy, depending on your perspective), and...the flag of the United Nations! Cue conservative spit takes.

Back in those days, of course, the UN was considered a well-intentioned if often ineffectual organization, and not a sinister black helicopter-wielding global conspiracy to take your guns and impose a one-world government with George Soros as Supreme Ruler (and the UN was a particular cause of Turner's; he later gave the organization a billion dollars). But let's take a look at the video; once you get past Turner's speech, it doesn't look much different from what cable news remains today, apart from the fact that the anchors are reading off of actual papers on the desks in front of them and not off teleprompters (go to the 8 minute mark):

What's Eating the Left's Media?

The liberal media may be in a funk. MSNBC is getting some of its worst ratings in years, and Digby tells us that liberal blogs have experienced serious declines in traffic since the election as well. So why might this be happening?

There are two answers, neither of which would give you much solace if your job depended on raising TV ratings or bringing in more ad revenue for your web site. The first is that outside events, in the form of the natural ebb and flow of the political world, have conspired against the liberal media. The second is that the model—liberals talking about politics—is affected by that ebb and flow in a way conservative media aren't.

Will Blog for Swag

Why tech reporters should feel a little wrong about all that free stuff they're taking home

Flickr/ MDrX

Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with. 

Notes on a Pseudo-Scandal

OK folks, if you have the patience for some meta-blogging on the subject of Benghazi, let me share with you some of the thoughts that have been running around my head as I struggle with how to talk about this story. Whenever a topic like this comes up, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do I have something worthwhile to contribute to this discussion? Is there something that needs to be said but hasn't been yet? Is this thing even worth talking about? Much as I'd like to be immune to the consideration of whether I'm doing a favor for those pushing the story for their own partisan ends by keeping the discussion going, it's hard to avoid that question popping into your head from time to time.

There's an objective reality out there, hard though it may sometimes be to discern—either there was or was not actual wrongdoing, and the whole matter is either trivial or momentous—but everyone's perception of that reality is formed within the context of a partisan competition. Irrespective of any facts, Democrats would like this story to just go away, and Republicans would like it to become The Worst Scandal In History. I'll be honest and say it's hard to avoid thinking about that when you're writing about it. Even doing something like refuting the latest crazy thing someone on the right is alleging does, to at least a small degree, help maintain the story's momentum.

Are the Koch Brothers Getting in the Newspaper Business?

David Koch, possible future newspaper mogul. (AP photo/Carlo Allegri)

If you ask ten conservatives what they think of the New York Times, seven or eight of them would probably tell you that it's an organization whose primary purpose is advancing a sinister liberal agenda, and journalism just happens to be the tool it uses to accomplish that goal, though they'd be more likely to call it propaganda than journalism. The rest of us think that's nuts, but those conservatives sincerely believe it. So it's not surprising that some of them would dream of creating a conservative version of what they imagine the liberal media to be. Sure, they've got Fox News, and they control most of talk radio, and they have their magazines and web sites. But wouldn't it be something to have some real old-fashioned newspapers to advance the cause? And not just ones that are ridiculed like the Washington Times, but papers that already have respected names and large audiences?

Sounds like an interesting idea, which is why Charles and David Koch—who, depending on your perspective, are admirable and civic-minded businessmen committed to economic freedom, or dangerous plutocrats committed to bespoiling the Earth and enhancing their own wealth and that of their class at the expense of the rest of us—are considering buying a group of newspapers from the troubled Tribune company, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Hartford Courant. So what are the implications of the Kochs getting so heavily into the newspaper business?

Pete Williams Is a Good Journalist, But He's Not a Hero

At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama.

There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of pointless, ill-informed blathering, everyone seemed to agree that NBC's national security reporter Pete Williams was a hero. As Politico reported, "Inside the studios of NBC, Williams is being widely referred to as a hero." "Pete Williams Becomes the Reporting Hero of the Boston Bombings," said the Huffington Post. "NBC's Pete Wililams: Media Hero of the Boston Bombing Coverage," said the Atlantic Wire. Other outlets didn't use the "hero" word but still rushed out laudatory stories about Williams.

So what exactly did he do to deserve the title of "hero"?