Archive for July, 2010

It’s time for the Jackson household to hit the road for a vacation, so this will be my last post until August 5. We’ll be heading east to a family reunion in Pittsburgh, embarking on a pilgrimage to hallowed ground (otherwise known as Penn State), visiting with old friends and a taking a few days for sightseeing in Washington, D.C.

While in Pittsburgh we’ll have a chance to see the Pirates’ ballpark for the first time. With the caliber of the Mariners’ season so far, we should feel right at home. By the fortune of good timing, we’ll also get to catch a Gov’t Mule show as well. Opening for the Mule will be Jackie Greene, who has received many raves for his songwriting and performing. We look forward to seeing him for the first time. The clip posted at the top is a beautiful tune he wrote for Father’s Day.

For all of you who have taken the time to read this blog even once, and especially for those who came back for more — thanks. In anticipation of my trip, I piled up the posts the past few days because I had a lot to get out of my system. I hope you find some benefit in what you read. And if you are visiting here for the first time, feel free to rummage around this place and sample the posts as you please. Send notes and feedback if you like; I will get back to you once our trip is done. But for now it’s time for a little Sabbath.

See you August 5th.

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I couldn’t help but notice a contrast in journalism this week.

On one hand, you had the Washington Post rolling out “Top Secret America,” its massive three-part series on our sprawling national security and intelligence empire. It is a package that displays old-school in-depth reporting, so much so that it’s nearly overwhelming in its breadth and depth. At the same time, this old-school reporting was packaged with as many bells and whistles the Internet has to offer.

But while the Post package is packed with multimedia content, it’s the depth of reporting that makes the stories stand out. In fact, there’s so much depth that it takes some time for a story of this magnitude to sink in. But it’s a valuable effort that examines the core structures of the U.S. government and helps readers understand what’s at stake. And all this is the product of a two-year process of reporting, writing and editing.

On the other hand, there’s a story in Monday’s New York Times about the high-pressure world for reporters at Politico, which leaves many young staff perpetually exhausted. But Politico’s strength is not the in-depth investigative report; it’s churning out a constant flow of copy that’s designed to maintain the highest possible number of page hits:

Such is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.

The editors at Politico call this maintaining a “high metabolism” in reporting and writing. And while Politico is well-positioned to cover a story like the Shirley Sherrod battle, it’s difficult to expect the site will produce anything close to “Top Secret America.” Instead:

Politico editors talk about losing their audience as if it could happen at any moment. “Everybody in the audience is his or her own editor based on where they want to move their mouse or their finger on the iPad,” said the editor in chief, John F. Harris. “And if you’re not delivering to that reader, you’re going to lose them.”

It is not uncommon for reporters to awaken to find e-mail messages from either (Jim) VandeHei or Mr. Harris — sent before dawn — asking why the competition had a story Politico did not. Both men, former Washington Post reporters, harbor deep aversions to the inefficiencies that can burden large news organizations.

“That’s one of the reasons we were very attracted to starting our own thing,” Mr. Harris said. “We just felt like you could start from scratch and build a culture that doesn’t have those bad habits already cooked into it.”

But will Politico ever embark on the kind of reporting  necessary to produce a package like “Top Secret America”? Seems unlikely; it’s not in their metabolism for now. Amid its frenetic atmosphere, will readers ever have a chance to pause and reflect, much less the reporting staff? I’m not suggesting a simplistic either-or between the Post and Politico, but if page hits are the formula for success there’s little room for investigative work. Instead you have a hit-and-run journalism culture.

Sounds familiar. Right, Nicholas Carr?

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The ongoing fracas over Shirley Sherrod, filled to the brim with rage and resentment, points me back to a package of articles on “The Rage Culture” published this past week in The Chronicle Review. Most interesting is an essay by historian Elaine Tyler May, who traces the anger of today back to the attitudes and ideologies that emerged from the Cold War era.

I can’t do justice to her full arguments here, but even if you find her words to be provocative her conclusions are good food for thought:

The principles of individualism, unfettered capitalism, the sanctity of the home, and the suspicion of outsiders that gained salience in the early cold war era has far outlived the conflict itself. …

Fear has made Americans feel less secure. And the fear that breeds anger, hostility to government, and lack of concern for the common good may have made the nation considerably less secure. While Americans were distracted by street crime that harms relatively few people, unregulated private enterprise fleeced the entire country. Locks on the doors did not protect families against losing their home through mortgage foreclosure. Guns in their pockets did not prevent them from losing their shirts to Wall Street.

And what about democracy? Democracy depends on citizens accepting their differences and trusting each other, at least to the extent that they understand themselves as belonging to a civic sphere as well as a private sphere. It requires investing in the common good, and holding the government accountable as the institution that represents, and acts on behalf of, the citizenry.

If, in the name of security, Americans distrust one another and the government, and value private protection at the expense of public good, then the basic social  and political practices that ensure a healthy democracy cannot survive.

If May is correct, where is the Christian voice to be found amid this cacophony of distress? To what degree are believers fueling this age of rage, and to what degree do they step back and offer a prophetic voice of reconciliation? Where are the peacemakers who reject the templates of anger and conquest that shape the public sphere? And, in the small moments of my daily life, how can I offer one small witness that our life need not look like this?

Although I tend to refrain from Bible quoting, the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, offered here through the lens of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” stand as challenge to believers today — including me:

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

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If you work for a business that filters the Internet (as many universities do) and outsources the task of reviewing questionable content to unseen others, then this story reminds us that this work comes at a human cost. After all, someone ends up looking at this stuff. One firm mentioned in the story has 50 employees who examine an average of 20 million photos a week.

Now there are efforts to ensure that employers provide their workers with counseling, but it’s impossible to imagine how people don’t experience significant long-term consequences. One psychologist, who interviewed 500 content moderators, said they:

… were likely to become depressed or angry, have trouble forming relationships and suffer from decreased sexual appetites. Small percentages said they had reacted to unpleasant images by vomiting or crying.

“The images interfere with their thinking processes. It messes up the way you react to your partner. … If you work with garbage, you will get dirty.”

I don’t know what the answer is, but this reality troubles me. There are dangerous jobs in which risks to physical safety can be minimized. How do you minimize the emotional risks for a content moderator?

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Jeffrey Rosen explores the enduring memories of the Internet, and what they mean for our hopes of forgiveness:

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

He contrasts our web-driven transparency with village life long in the past:

It’s sobering, now that we live in a world misleadingly called a “global village,” to think about privacy in actual, small villages long ago. In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people — oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean — was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.)

But the Talmudic villages were, in fact, far more humane and forgiving than our brutal global village, where much of the content on the Internet would meet the Talmudic definition of gossip: although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes. “If a man was a repentant [sinner],” the Talmud says, “one must not say to him, ‘Remember your former deeds.’ ”

Unlike God, however, the digital cloud rarely wipes our slates clean, and the keepers of the cloud today are sometimes less forgiving than their all-powerful divine predecessor.

For the past decade, in books and articles Rosen has been an astute observer of how our connected world erodes our privacy. And privacy is important, he has long argued, because it protects us from being judged out of context in a “world of short attention spans.” He employs similar language in this new article, posted in advance of its publication in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Except now the problem isn’t just short attention spans; it’s eternal memory. 

In the end, he concludes, people must adapt to our new collective transparency:

Our character, ultimately, can’t be judged by strangers on the basis of our Facebook or Google profiles; it can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding.

In the meantime, as all of us stumble over the challenges of living in a world without forgetting, we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever.

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Update: Before the day was done on Wednesday, the offending video was pulled from YouTube — hence the black screen above. If you watch from roughly the 16 minute mark through 18:30 on the full-length version, you’ll see what was used in the original video post.

Original Post:

The furor over Shirley Sherrod and the accusations of racism leveled against her is a sad example of how ideologues can drive the news — especially when journalists don’t bother to check the source material.

The first clip at the top of this post is the one that started the media firestorm, which led to Sherrod’s forced resignation. The text that serves as a preface frames the video with an assertion that upon examination is blatantly false, and it frames this two-minute clip in the worst possible light. There’s a brief hint of a larger point in Sherrod’s speech that still survives here, but it is never explained.

The second clip is the full, unedited speech. The excerpt that has been the focus of all the media attention appears at the 16-minute mark. Before that point, Sherrod talks of her journey through the years: The murder of her father at the hands of white men in 1965, when she was 17. The refusal of a grand jury to indict anyone, despite eyewitness testimony. The way in which this horrific event changed her life. She had been determined to leave the South, no matter what, but when her father was murdered she made a promise to stay and change things.

To whom did she make that promise? God.

At the 15-minute mark, just before the clip in question, Sherrod talks about the goodness of God and how you never know where God is going to lead you. When she promised to stay in her home county, she did so as a prayer to God. And as she makes these comments you can hear outbursts of approval and understanding from the crowd. For moment her talk takes the shape of a testimonial, and the audience is like a congregation at church.

So what was the point of her story of the farm family that she “barely” tried to help? It was the part of a larger awakening for Sherrod, that the issues she faced weren’t just about race — they were about class, the gap between rich and poor. This is what the two-minute YouTube clip alludes to but never explains: How Sherrod’s heart warmed to this white farm family as she realized that no one was lifting a hand to help them.

No one understands this better than the farmers themselves, who were interviewed on CNN yesterday:

In the end, this is a story of reconciliation, of someone growing in her own awareness, crossing racial boundaries and acting to help others. But by wrenching a clip out of context and posting it on YouTube, that story is distorted beyond recognition. Any sense of justice is trampled, and grace is nowhere to be found.

What’s worse is when Fox News takes the lead and airs the clip, making it the centerpiece of news coverage during the day without appearing to do the slightest bit of research to assess the veracity of this two-minute snippet. Why research when the clip fits neatly into Fox’s narrative and serves as a rebuttal to the NAACP’s accusations of racism against the Tea Party movement.

There are now rumblings that Sherrod might get her job back. The NAACP admits it allowed itself to be “snookered.” For a good analysis of the whole sordid affair, see Joan Walsh’s essay in Salon. But while Walsh’s condemnation of right-wing journalism by the likes of Andrew Breitbart is on target, the “mainstream” media are not off the hook.

This isn’t the first time the press, and especially cable news, has allowed this kind of distorted clip to drive the news. When a discipline of verification falls by the wayside, ideologues who are interested in conquering their enemies — regardless of the truth — are allowed to have a free pass. Journalist Mark Bowden explored this reality in an excellent Atlantic Monthly article in October 2009. Bowden notes that the changing journalism landscape isn’t just about technology:

What gave newspapers their value was the mission and promise of journalism—the hope that someone was getting paid to wade into the daily tide of manure, sort through its deliberate lies and cunning half-truths, and tell a story straight. 

Andrew Breitbart and the ideologues of the right don’t care about telling a story straight, but we need journalists who do care. Otherwise, we allow Breitbart and bullies like him to drive the agenda for discussion and even official action, in Sherrod’s case. One might argue that within a day the truth did come out about Sherrod’s talk, but not until Sherrod paid a high price.

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Yes, what if universities marketed themselves like Old Spice? This parody, which I first saw at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, is the answer.

Sometimes, you just need to laugh.

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