Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.
Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching. From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not...

The Trouble with Scoops

Flickr/Aaron Tang
It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, The Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why? I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point . When Americans are looking to...

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.
As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell. But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points...

Mr. Brooks’s Planet

Josh Haner/The New York Times
Since New York Times columnist David Brooks is the very model of the sentient conservative, his acknowledgements of social reality are often more than just personal—they signal that a particular state of affairs has become incontestable to all but the epistemically shuttered. Writing today on President Obama’s new budget, Brooks applauds the president for proposing to reduce Social Security and Medicare payments, and wishes he’d boost spending on discretionary spending programs that might stem the collapse of working- (and much of middle-) class America. Conservatives generally—over to you, Charles Murray—now acknowledge that the American working class, very much including the white working class, is imploding, citing the decline in marriage rates and out-of-wedlock births. They note as well that incomes and labor force participation are tanking, too. But they usually resist the idea that there’s a causal link between the lack of economic opportunity and the decline in the number of “...

Rand Paul Is a Genius

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news. When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government...

Thinking Outside the (X)Box

There was soul-searching to spare at the Game Developers Conference, as attendees had some warranted stress over diversity—but they should be sure to remember to work on improving the world outside the industry too.

Flickr/Official GDC
Brian Taylor O n the narrow sidewalk outside the building where the Game Developers Conference was held, a group of enthusiastic marketers offer free t-shirts that say “0% THE MAN 100% INDIE.” It seems like a call to arms, but a tiny bit of research unearths that it's a new campaign by Samsung to attract game developers to their app store. Sure, Samsung may be an underdog in this realm, when compared to Apple, but you gotta admit the Korean phone giant is at least 30 percent The Man. This style of borrowing progressive language in the game industry is quite common—as noted and skewered in a presented “rant” during the conference by game designer Chris Hecker. The Game Developers Conference is held each year in the Bay Area, taking place during the last week of March this year. It's the major professional conference of the video game industry, where the people who make games gather to network and give presentations about the year's successes and failures. GDC is the most inwardly-...

Why Are Lists So Irresistible?

Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater—the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania—about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about. That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect 's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," Gabriel...

Sunday Shows Continue Long Tradition of Suckage

Oo, fascinating!
The Sunday political talk shows—your "Meet the Press," your "This Week," your "Face the Nation"—embody just about everything that's wrong with American politics, with Washington, D.C, and with the media. Every Sunday, you can flip between them and watch one party hack or another mindlessly deliver talking points, then watch the host try fruitlessly to trap said hack in some piece of hypocritical position-switching, then watch a bunch of "party strategists" bicker through the delivery of more talking points. I can understand why people who aren't interested in politics would find them unbearable, but even I can't stand them, and I'm someone who listens to C-SPAN radio in the car. (If you're interested in the depths of my disgust, you can read more here ). But there's no doubt they play an important role in Washington's political life, through the twin powers of agenda-setting and status conferral. The topics discussed on the Sunday shows are considered important topics, and the people...

"Jackass" Goes Geopolitical

Vice's foray into doumentary film may make you shake your head, but you can't deny it's good television.

Vice Productions
Vice Productions HBO's new Friday-night newsmagazine, Vice —as in the uppity print-mag dudes turned YouTube stuntmasters who recently made news by sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea, not the police beat—comes on like a revved-up 60 Minutes for the tats-and-testosterone set. Trouble spots around the globe are high on the menu; either danger or the threat of it gets amped up with shameless music cues and attention-grabbing cutting. All three regular correspondents are, as may go without saying, male, with original Vice co-founder Shane Smith in the Mike Wallace Yoda slot opposite a couple of younger wiseacres: Thomas Morton, Vice 's anxiety specialist, and Ryan Duffy, the show's jaunty answer to Kid Rock. The whole thing comes to us courtesy of executive producer Bill Maher, whose contending yens to be a thoughtful guy and a hip one often remind me of a ventriloquist who hasn't caught on yet that his dummy is psychotic. All the same, any of you who still keep an Edward R. Murrow...

We're All Buzzfeed Now

Not the NRCC web site.
A year or two ago, people would heap scorn on the Huffington Post, since although it employs excellent journalists who do valuable reporting, it also practices a brutal click-driven kind of management, in which celebrity news and grabby headlines are used to pull readers in, leaving some vaguely ashamed they read it in spite of themselves. HuffPo may not have invented the sideboob slideshow, but they brought it to such a high level that they eventually created an entire sideboob section on their web site, which is, not surprisingly, the top result you get on Google when you search the term. The section was created as a joke, but also kind of not. Yet these days, you don't hear many of those complaints about HuffPo anymore. Why? One word: Buzzfeed . One might not have thought that another web site could find gold in the combination of guilty pleasure clickbait and actual journalism that HuffPo pioneered, but Buzzfeed did. Today, if someone is lamenting our short attention spans and the...

The AP Gives Up "Illegal Immigrant"

Flickr/Emilio Labrador
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by lots of different publications, has announced that it will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." This essentially accepts the argument that advocates for immigrants have been making for some time, namely that the fact that someone immigrated illegally doesn't make them an illegal person, any more than the fact that you got a speeding ticket means you should be labelled an "illegal driver," despite your violation of the law. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were contemptuous of the AP. On the right, however (and in the conservative media), even the term "illegal immigrants" is considered unduly generous, the preferred terms being "illegal aliens" or just "illegals." The AP also doesn't like "undocumented immigrant," which is preferred by immigration activists, "because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence." That seems kind of silly; if you refer to someone as an...

The Pointlessness of Contrarianism for Its Own Sake

When you write for a magazine with a particular ideological bent, it's natural to wonder whether you're being too soft on "your" side. This question comes up more when your side is in power, since they're the ones who are implementing policies and making decisions; when the other side is in charge, most of your time is spent documenting and analyzing all the harmful and dangerous things they're doing, and your side is occupied with fighting the ruling party and waiting for its turn. Obviously, politics is a neverending conflict, and that conflict can produce a certain siege mentality. For instance, when a Democratic president proposes a plan for universal health coverage and Republicans attack it with a campaign of mind-boggling hysteria and dishonesty (death panels!), it's natural to spend a good deal of time correcting the record and defending it, even if you think that plan is less than ideal. There are some people (like Glenn Greenwald) who write largely about one set of issues,...

Dissecting Donglegate

Flickr/Chuckumentary When is a dick joke not just a dick joke? That’s the question at the heart of what’s being called “Donglegate,” the latest tech-industry skirmish in the ongoing battle over the sector's rampant sexism. The answer: When it's scientifically proven to impair a woman's ability to do her job. First, the basics: Tech professional Adria Richards was attending an industry conference called PyCon. Earlier that day, a fellow (male) attendee had made a joke to her about looking up women's skirts. She knew that such sexual comments were against PyCon's explicit community standards and tried to address it with him, to no avail. Later, when she heard some men sitting behind her cracking jokes about the size of their "dongles," she tried a different approach. She snapped a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with her location in the hall and a complaint about their behavior, to the attention of conference organizers. To their credit, PyCon officials took her tweet seriously...

The Evolution of MSNBC

What MSNBC used to be.
At the New Republic , Rebecca Dana has a profile of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, during which she points out that the network's current incarnation as the liberal's home on cable came about only because Griffin tried a bunch of other stuff that didn't work. There wasn't an ideological motivation, just a financial one. "Fox News is a TV network that succeeds because of its ideological slant," she writes. "MSNBC is a TV network that has an ideological slant because that's what happened to succeed." That came about after a period in which the network tried hard to duplicate Fox by hiring a bunch of conservatives. At various times the network gave shows to the likes of Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, Tucker Carlson, and Alan Keyes (the latter, called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense , for some reason didn't include "No, really!" in its title). When it turned out nobody wanted to watch any of those programs, they kept trying different things until Keith Olbermann tapped into the zeitgeist of the...

Always Be Monologuing

Al Pacino's endless arias are the only thing that save David Mamet's Phil Spector from being mere propaganda.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.'" So goes the disclaimer preceding director and writer David Mamet's Phil Spector , which premieres Sunday on HBO, and what sense are we supposed to make of that Bizarro World claim? The movie features Al Pacino in a surprisingly convincing impersonation—or maybe I just mean a disconcertingly affecting one—of the 1960s record producer now doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson (real name also used). Nothing already known to the public deviates from the record, including Spector's cuckoo array of wigs in the courtroom. As if Pacino's participation doesn't already lend enough heft, Helen Mirren, flagrantly miscast—but, as ever, classy, and cowing us into being predisposed in her character's favor is what she's been hired for—plays Linda Kenney Baden, one of the battery of legal eagles who represented Spector during his first trial. (It ended in a hung jury; a 2008 do-over convicted him.) The real Baden is also...