from a funnel to a straw

Posted December 18, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

CBS has a solid piece tonight on the Sony hacking story. It’s good because it reports the latest leaks from Washington, the gist of which is that the U.S. government is real-real-real close now to declaring North Korea is, in fact, Dr. Evil, but which also gives some weight to the arguments against North Korea being the one.

And there is reason to be skeptical. Unfortunately you wouldn’t know that if you were, say, watching “The CBS Evening News” tonight. The piece mentioned earlier? It’s on the web. What ran on tv – and which is also appended to the web story – doesn’t allow for any doubt at all. It’s North Korea all the way down. And that’s what 99.9 percent of CBS News consumers got.

Mind you, I think CBS is acting in good faith here; this is just an example of the kind of compression which takes place in a half hour newscast. You end up having to toss out things like subtlety and ambiguity. If only there was an all-news channel, one that could devote resources and most of all, time.

Say, for example, CNN. Say, for example, 7 pm tonight.

Now I will admit that I rinsed dishes for a little while, and may have missed the thorough, well-researched, experts-consulted “let’s examine the evidence in detail” story. But as far as I can tell, in the roughly 20 minutes devoted to the hacking scandal, the only question on the table was how hard we should beat North Korea about the ears. At one point, one talking head made one noise in the direction of acknowledging North Korea hasn’t officially been named as the perpetrator of the hacks, but it was strictly pro forma stuff. The real action was a “debate” between Newt Gingrich and P.J. Crowley which was entirely an argument about whether to declare this a crisis now or three weeks ago, and whether to go in with cyber-guns blazing.

It’s hard to imagine how absurd this has gotten – people talking about war over a Seth Rogen comedy. Sony, of course, didn’t help matters by pulling the thing, a move that was forced by the country’s major theater chains saying they wouldn’t show “The Interview” because of some vague, hand-waving threat that something bad might happen at mall cinemas on Christmas Day.

Which points up just how weirdly uninformed we are as a country, how little sense of proportion and risk we have – the idea that hackers, who were only able to walk through Sony’s crown jewels because the company apparently had less security than your average 15 year old on Snapchat, are somehow going to be able to materialize a real, physical force and do real world damage is, well, not real credible.

But we’re damaged as a nation. We see 9/11 in lots of places, and we’re not good judges of whether there is even a remote chance of something like it happening again. So we get a case of Ebola in a U.S. hospital and we talk about closing our borders; we see ISIS, a genuine horror of a cult, and think they’re a danger over here. And some hackers of unknown origin pick up on media talk about a controversial movie and start using it themselves, and we all conclude they’re coming for our Netflix subscriptions.

It’s a fever, and I’m not sure what will break it – I flipped from CNN to MSNBC a few minutes ago and saw Noah Shachtman from The Daily Beast raise, briefly but seriously, the question of whether North Korea is guilty. But as soon as he got done with that answer, the host – I couldn’t tell how much Shachtman wanted to go along – fell back to North Korea, and what should we do about it. This is a bone we can’t let go of, at least not until the next homeland-threatening outrage comes along.

(Just to be clear, I’m not arguing North Korea didn’t do the hack. I am saying, and so is this person and this magazine, that the public state of the evidence is inclusive at best.)

language, tortured

Posted December 10, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

From Wednesday’s New York Times:

Some Twitter postings from Europe and the Middle East focused on the origins of the C.I.A.’s euphemistic terminology in describing its torture methods.

“The Gestapo called it ‘Verscharfte Vernehmung,’  ” wrote one blogger, Ian Geldard. “Exactly the same term ‘enhanced interrogation’ used by the C.I.A.”

The blogger Libya Liberty said, “Calling torture ‘enhanced interrogation’ is like calling rape ‘enhanced dating.’  ”

Some jihadists used the report to ridicule what they regard as a sanctimonious American preaching about moral values. “They call us monsters?,” Israfil Yilmaz, a Dutch jihadist,wrote on Twitter. “Slap yourself, read some of the @CIA torture reports and wake up.”

the great unlearning

Posted December 9, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

The best part of watching CNN on the day the CIA torture report was released was Diane Feinstein’s exquisitely detailed outline of what the report contains, complete with source citations, and John McCain’s impassioned defense of the report’s release.

The worst part of watching CNN was everything else.

On a day that saw much good reporting and writing – I followed the New York Times, the Intercept and the Dish’s live blog – watching CNN was a study in how cable news can grind anything to dust. Essentially, I watched the same thing over and over again, with different anchors, various guests and slightly different lead-ins. It went something like…

Anchor: “So one of the report’s central claims is that torture was ineffective, that it didn’t produce useful information. Do you think that’s true?”

Guest, who was usually ex-CIA or otherwise connected to the Bush era: “No, I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know the information we got through enhanced interrogation (or, as it became abbreviated Tuesday ‘IET’) saved lives.”

Anchor: “You’re sure? The report says it didn’t.”

Guest: “I’m sure – and I was there.”

This was the tip, over and over again, of the misdirection spear. Even a cursory reading of the summary report – or even reading the New York Times’ summary of the summary – lays out in detail, with documentation and context, why torture simply didn’t get us anywhere. As of the report’s release, it’s no longer a matter of contending opinions. It’s simply a fact – unless you’re CNN, in which case you more or less ignore the details as presented, skip to the conclusion those details support, and ask someone who is certain to disagree with the conclusion if, in fact, he disagrees.

This is not far from saying to someone “Scientists have established that the earth rotates completely once every 24 hours, and as a result, the sun will come up tomorrow. Do you agree?” It’s the most toxic thing about cable news, how it reduces everything to contending opinions, and CNN is the worst offender, because it has fewer fixed positions than either Fox or MSNBC. I think it’s what I was hearing in Feinstein’s voice when Wolf Blitzer tried to engage her on the topic and she essentially threw her hands up and said, ‘Just read the report.’

Really, it’s about that simple. The report itself, some of the reporting on it, and the rebuttals, if they have anything useful to contribute in the way of fact checking. Everything else is just rhetoric, and in this awful case, the facts are all that count.

(I’m not letting Fox off the hook – it’s just that they’re entirely predictable, and don’t make any bones about where they stand. They skipped out of Feinstein today before she got to the report’s conclusions, and last I saw, someone was suggesting that the report came out to distract the public from the real story, how Obamacare supporter Jonathan Gruber was getting grilled by Congress after calling the public “stupid.”

Maddow on MSNBC is doing the best job I’ve seen on cable today, at least in part simply because she has actually read the documents and is using them to tell the story, instead of glossing over these inconvenient truths. Best line – “It was not just a torture program; it was a very poorly run torture program.”)

rise and fall

Posted November 9, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Two books on radio, from two ends of its history.

“Hello Everybody,” by Anthony Rudel, is a history of the early rise of the medium. The bulk of the story is situated after the breakthroughs that led to radio, and ends, more or less, as Roosevelt takes office. As such, f.m. isn’t addressed at all, nor is a lot of time spent on technology in general. This is a social history of radio, what was said over the air and how and why it was important. Rudel writes about the role of baseball and boxing broadcasts, early forays in “news” and how it was mixed up with celebrity from the start, how entertainers and politicians figured out the best ways to use radio.

In his credits, Rudel acknowledges the work of a couple of newspaper reporters, for the New York Times and Washington Post, who had radio as their beat and who were writing every day. As such, there’s a deeply sourced quality to Rudel’s writing; one of the pleasures of the book is the tick-tock of major events.

As well, Rudel has the advantage of writing a history of radio – the book was published in 2008 – well into the internet age. He knows how connected we are now, and that informs his writing about how unconnected everything was back then. It’s as thrilling as any history of the early internet.

Want to know how the story ends? You could do worse than “Radio’s Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting In The 21st Century,” by journalist turned academic John Nathan Anderson. Anderson has specialized in an area of radio arcane to most people – the botched push since the 1990s to transition regular f.m.and a.m. to something called “HD” radio. You probably haven’t heard of it, because most people don’t have an HD radio or use one.

Anderson is a critic, but he’s also good with research and facts, and is careful to give all sides their due. The story he tells is that of a technology that promises much – it’s digital! it’s CD quality! it’s new channels for different audiences! – but struggles to deliver. Along the way, he meticulously documents how the drive for HD (which doesn’t stand for “high definition,” by the way) serves to give incumbent radio station owners, and especially large chains, even more of the broadcast spectrum than they had to start, while raising the bar to entry for anyone wanting to get into the business.

And while his story is focused on HD, by the time you’re through you can’t help but think he’s written a first draft of an obituary for radio in the 21st century. HD, as a way to keep audiences listening to “radio,” is already far back in a pack now dominated by audio delivered over the internet – traditional radio stations, “stations” that are internet-only and very often, a rich stew of programs that have radio as an ancestor, but are really becoming something else, something that will look back on things like HD and shake its head and wonder “What were they thinking?”

what i want from pandora

Posted November 6, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I play around with a bunch of different streaming services, but find myself gravitating back to Pandora. I like the interface, the built-in stations and the very few I have started on my own. In some hard-to-put-a-finger-on-it way, it seems closer to real radio than the others.

Plus, there’s a client for Windows Phone, and a not bad at all third party program for Ubuntu.

But it’s not perfect, and I wish for a few things. If you stream off the desktop and pay for a subscription, the stream is 192 kbps, which I’m fine with. However, streaming through a device like a Squeezebox or a Sonos is  limited to 128kbps, subscriber or not. I’d like that increased.

The other thing I want is podcast integration of some sort. Stitcher set out to be the Pandora of spoken word audio and has done an admirable job, but I’d like it if Pandora would be the Pandora of the field. My guess is Pandora doesn’t because the audience is smaller, licensing is more complicated and figuring out how to do it without gumming up the interface is daunting, but still. I pay $4.99 a month now, and I’d add a dollar to the bill, maybe two, to get something like what I get from Stitcher.

Speaking of Stitcher, any time you guys want to do a Windows Phone app, my phone is waiting.

what i do with politicians

Posted September 7, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I went to a press conference this week and asked a few questions. That in itself is unusual because I’m basically a news bureaucrat, the guy who signs time cards and looks at stories other, usually much younger, people write. But I went, because I hadn’t seen this politician in the flesh, and I wanted to.

Why I wanted to is what I want to note here, first noting that ‘why’ is not important at all to anyone but me. The questions and answers, and the context in which they took place, is what counts. This politician, and his counterpart in the other major party, have been taking some heat for not answering questions well or often or, in some cases, at all. We the press have solemnly noted that a political campaign is one long job interview, that answering our questions is what democracy is all about, that failure to do so is a Bad Thing. All of which is true, but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

So, at the press conference, with the candidate behind the podium in bright sunlight and a group of supporters flanking him, holding signs, I asked my questions. A few things: when you ask in that situation, in public, it’s always theater. Your role may be to be the reporter-who-doesn’t-care-about-the-theater-of-it, but it’s always there just the same, and when you ask you’re by definition performing. I know this, and I had a weird case of the jitters; I couldn’t figure out where to look or quite what to do with the rest of me. I brought a notebook, but my note-taking, to be charitable, sucks. I had trouble focusing on the sentences long enough to get them down. I was grateful we had a camera rolling.

What I shoot for is that state of grace where I’m not really thinking about any of this, where I’m just asking and the other person is just answering. I like to be all antennae when I ask a question; it goes out like a radio transmission, and I sit by the receiver, waiting to get something back. What that something is, I don’t know, and it’s the brief, nervous excitement of waiting, and listening as the question gets parsed and replied to, that I’m there for. That and all the other signals I think I’m getting – is the politician nervous? Is the crowd interested? Who’s smiling, who’s frowning?

Of course, what you usually get back is as predictable as a press release, and you often end up in the unsatisfying business of trying to make small distinctions – You said ‘no’ yesterday and ‘not’ today, and has your position changed? Anyway, neither the candidate nor I had good footing, so nothing much interesting happened, and I walked away no wiser.

The photographer Lee Friedlander was asked once about the act of photographing as art, and he corrected the questioner, said it was more like what an athlete does. You hit a ball or catch one or run fast because you can, because the act and your wiring agree with each other. Asking questions is like that, even though I hate intruding on peoples’ privacy, hate hurting people, hate being difficult or being seen as difficult. Sometimes – more so as I get older – I walk away, but sometimes still I ask and wait, and hope for the blessedly unexpected.

bruce morton: an appreciation

Posted September 7, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

For a few years back in the 1980s, I wanted nothing more than to be Bruce Morton, the CBS News correspondent who died Friday at the age of 83.

The obituaries online pretty much all describe Morton the way the New York Times does, as an ” a solid reporter of expansive breadth and expertise, with special gifts as a writer.” The last is the important part, because over the years I have come to think of Morton as representing the road-not-taken by TV news, the writerly road, for lack of a better word.

Now “writerly” is not necessarily a good thing, and certainly not a common thing, in TV journalism. As the medium has matured, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and in general, very plain, functional writing works, but even a little bit of literary flourish does not, especially when you move away from feature pieces and toward hard news. Writing that calls attention to itself is competing against TV’s primary selling points, pictures and sound, and you end up with stories that are more about style than about the subject at hand.

As I remember it, Morton fought this problem to a draw; I paid the most attention to him when he was writing about politics for CBS, and his pieces were deft; you got the point, got that there might be more points worth exploring beyond the horizon of the particular story you were watching and got that there was an intelligence behind the story, that the piece at hand was part of a larger narrative. He was seldom merely clever, though like all writers, he had his off-days.

Two memories:

- I met him once, in New York City, while I was in town working on a story. A guy at the network knew I was a fan and decided to surprise me by introducing him. I’d like to say it was memorable, but I was too flustered and worried about my own story. What I remember most was, he was surprisingly tall.

-  The very best memory I have of Morton is from the CBS News coverage of Tiananmen Square in 1989; Dan Rather was anchoring from there, and CBS had a murder’s row of correspondents on the ground including Morton and Charles Kuralt. While the details have long since faded, there came a point during the coverage where Morton delivered a magnificent “it doesn’t get any better than this” story wrapped live, and then Rather went to Kuralt, who did a piece that, impossible though it seemed to me at the time, was even better. Here were two great reporters, right in the middle of history, who were working at such a high level it was almost like play.

Of course, TV news isn’t built for such things – the Mortons and Kuralts are rare, since writers tend to gravitate to mediums where they can, well, write. And it’s easy to go wrong with writerly TV news; I know, I’ve done enough of it. But Morton reminds us that TV news had the potential to be somewhat different, a little more open to different ways of telling stories.


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