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Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Joe Nocera of The New York Times says yes:

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.

However, to characterize Glass’s actions as a “big mistake” seems a bit too generous for acts of deliberate and repeated deception in which Glass fabricated, in whole or in part, dozens of articles during the mid-1990’s — mostly for the New Republic. Glass’s fraud was first exposed in 1998 by Forbes journalist Adam Penenberg; explored in more detail by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair; chronicled in “Shattered Glass,” a nice little film (see trailer at top of this post); and re-examined this week by The San Francisco Chronicle in a front-page story.

Glass, who received a law degree from Georgetown University in 2000, is now the object for renewed media attention because he is in a court battle over admission to the California bar. Though he passed the state bar exam years ago, he has been denied entry because of his past. Glass has challenged this ruling, and both the State Bar Court of California and the California Court of Appeals have ruled in his favor. Now, the state bar has appealed to the California Supreme Court, which recently accepted the case.

Media critic Jack Shafer has examined the recently unsealed court files from the Glass case, and he is far more skeptical about Glass’s rehabilitation than Nocera. On one side you have the testimony of more than 20 people regarding Glass’s exemplary post-scandal behavior. On the other side the California State Committee of Bar Examiners asserts that Glass has dissembled about the scope of his fabrication even as he sought to join the legal guild, first unsuccessfully in New York and now in California. Shafer writes:

Insisting that Glass has never rehabilitated himself in a manner that would make him fit to practice law, the Committee of Bar Examiners dissects his behavior since 1998 in the pleadings. It accuses Glass of misleading the New York Bar in 2003 during the admittance process.

Glass stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in all of [his] stories, so they could publish clarifications.” This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by ‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.” The committee found this Glass explanation “disingenuous.”

The California bar also notes that Glass low-balled the number of fabricated articles in his New York bar application and then offered a larger estimate in his California application. It also noted that Glass profited from the scandal through the publication of the novel “The Fabulist,” for which he received a $190,000 advance. (As Shafer notes, the novel bombed; fewer than 5,000 out of 75,000 copies were sold.) Shafer quotes the bar committee:

The concept of Applicant profiting from his wrongdoing appears inconsistent with the notion of moral rehabilitation. Applicant could have, and the Committee believes should have, used the money to correct his wrongs, to pay back the victims of his lies, or to fund charitable programs benefiting the journalism profession, which he damaged so greatly.

But what really rankles Shafer is the effort by Glass to blame overly demanding parents for the pattern of deception in his early life, something first noted in Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile and a more recent story posted at CNN. Shafer concludes:

Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest—as you might have guessed, I’m not—the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar?

The key word in Shafer’s critique is “excuse”; he does not see in Glass a clear acceptance of responsibility. Yet Nocera says of Shafer’s conclusion: “To my mind, that’s a serious misreading of the testimony, in which Glass seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did.” However, if you read the 160-plus comments to Nocera’s column, his readers overwhelmingly side with Shafer’s skepticism.

In Nocera’s column and the CNN profile, there’s no doubt about the sincerity of supporters for Glass; many have extended grace to him in remarkable and commendable ways. But the California bar’s concerns over how Glass has hedged about his past raise reasonable doubts because they echo his past tendency to cover one half-truth with another, and to do so in such a convincing manner that he could persuade even his greatest doubters.

The testimonials on behalf of Glass also echo another key observation by Bissinger, that Glass’s “nonstop yearning to please” others appeared to be “indisputably genuine.” It is difficult not to see suggestions of this trait in examples offered by those who support Glass. As Nocera notes:

People who know him tell me that he is “relentlessly honest.” Having once been a pathological liar, he now won’t tell even the tiniest of white lies.

This kind of comment sets off an alarm because, as Bissinger observed, Glass’s “eager-to-please” sincerity was central to his ability to cover his real conduct and true identity. The depth of his calculation was staggering, and this is why Nocera errs in characterizing Glass’s conduct as a mistake. We all makes mistakes, often in the form of innocent errors; this cannot be said of Glass. 

So we are left with this question: Is it ever possible for anyone to know who Stephen Glass really is? That’s exactly the question raised by the California bar.

Glass’s case raises perpetual questions about the nature of forgiveness. It is one thing to forgive Stephen Glass; it is another to give him the trust that comes with a license to practice law. One does not automatically lead to the other, as much as we love stories of redemption. In this case, I find myself torn. I do not wish ill upon Stephen Glass — and I want to avoid the cheap contempt of scorn offered from afar. But I cannot yet join Nocera in shaking off the doubts about Stephen Glass — though I’d love to be proved wrong.

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I mean Rupert Murdoch, not Voldemort.

Over the past two weeks, the developments in News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal have come so fast it is hard to keep pace. No matter how many executives fall on their swords, no matter how many newspapers Murdoch shuts down (one so far), no matter how many tactical retreats on corporate ambitions (the BSkyB takeover) — public outrage and media attention have not been blunted (unless you watch only Fox News).

That’s because the rot truly starts at the top, and no one gets the sense that Murdoch  is experiencing some sort of ethical epiphany — though longtime Murdoch-watcher Jack Shafer believes that Murdoch will survive, if not prevail, as he always does. Still, it has been decades since the Dark Lord of the Press has experienced setbacks of this scale. As A.C. Grayling noted:

There is no redeeming feature in the scandal that has engulfed Mr. Murdoch’s British fief, News International, other than that it has now killed his biggest-selling newspaper, The News of the World. This tabloid made its money by regularly crossing the line of decency; the revelation that it also regularly crossed the line of legality surprises no one, for no one expected any better. What has horrified the British public is the nature of the illegalities.

Still, in this case the moral outrage, however justified, is quick to explode and hard to sustain over time — which is why it has only forced tactical retreats from an organization that long ago lost any sense of shame. Murdoch never embraced the idea of journalism as public service; for that reason Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” mantra mocks and dismisses the pretensions of other news organizations. Fair and balanced was never the point — only power and profit. 

For that reason, there’s something far more significant at stake here than ethical questions and business models. It is power. The corrupt relationship between Murdoch’s papers and British government is the most obvious example, but we’ve seen it here in the rise of Fox News as an arm of the Republican Party (or is it the other way around?). It is the outsized degree of power accrued by this media organization that distorts the democratic process.

Only when this scandal shakes the distorted (and distorting) power of Murdoch’s empire will it begin to reshape the media landscape for the better. That’s one tall order. Resignations won’t be enough; prosecutions and convictions might not get us there either. But it is one place to start.

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Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He has worked for The Washington Post. Nearly a year ago he published a much-discussed profile of Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. And in a story posted earlier this week and published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, he shares perhaps his most significant story — his own.

Since age 12 Vargas has lived in the United States illegally.

His story is both a confessional and a challenge. It is confessional in that he unburdens himself of guilt from the lies he found necessary to maintain his life in the United States. At the same time Vargas poses a challenge, one he states most directly in his video: What would you do if you knew someone like Vargas? And chances are, many of us do — even if we don’t realize it. Vargas writes:

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

Vargas tells of how many people, when learning of his undocumented status, extended grace to him. A California DMV worker, whispering to him that his Green Card was fake and telling him not to return; a high school music teacher who changed an overseas trip to visit to Hawaii in order to avoid passport problems. This list goes on — people who made a choice to see Vargas as more than one of “them.”

I realize, however, that some would not see such acts as grace, but as assisting a law-breaker.

I don’t pretend to know the ideal legal solution on the question of immigration, though a chance for some sort of amnesty does not seem that outlandish — and a far cry better than the draconian and fear-driven attempts to crack down on “illegals.” At the same time, I do know of Scripture’s teachings to care for the stranger, and those teachings lead us in a direction very different from today’s polarized immigration debate.

With this story, and with the lauch of his website Define American, Vargas risks his own expulsion in order to make a case not just for himself, but for many others whose stories mirror his. He argues:

Our immigration system is broken — and fixing it requires a conversation that’s bigger and more effective than the one that we’ve become accustomed to.

Define American brings new voices into the immigration conversation, shining a light on a growing 21st century Underground Railroad: American citizens who are forced to fill in where our broken immigration system fails. From principals to pastors, these everyday immigrant allies are simply trying to do the right thing. Some are driven by a biblical call to social justice, while others believe this is a moral imperative. They, like Harriet Tubman and countless brave Americans before them, are willing to take personal risks in order to do what is right.  These heroes need to be the center of this national conversation.

I know people who would bristle in respons to such a statement. Heroes? Are you kidding? But Vargas’ story, and the challenge that accompanies it, is worth reading. The real question is: Do we have the courage hear it and ask: What does justice look like?

How we answer says a great deal about what it really means to be an American.

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South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke in Tacoma recently, and one person who introduced him offered this story:

One of the speakers, Free the Children Founder Craig Keilburger, said he became more and more cynical the more he read the newspaper as a college student.

“I didn’t want to start every morning looking at that violence, that poverty … that negativity,” he said.

But when he got a chance to speak to Tutu and told him about all of the negativity in the newspapers, Tutu had called him a “silly college boy,” Keilburger said.

Tutu said Keilburger should not look at the newspaper as a collection of negativity, but as “God’s to-do list, delivered to the front door every morning.”

If everyone started seeing the newspaper as “God’s to-do list” and started working on all of the problems the headlines presented, the world could become a better place, Keilburger said.

A good way to think of the news, but that to-do list sure is long.

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This once-proud magazine may be this desperate to keep readers, but I’m not that desperate to keep reading it. Makes me more sad than angry.

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Update at bottom

After hearing about Tim Hetherington’s death in Libya yesterday, I decided to push his documentary “Restrepo” to the top of my long to-do list, to experience the power of this Oscar-nominated documentary for myself.

And powerful it is. “Restrepo” chronicles the experience of a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a site of continual battle with the Taliban. Many articles have focused on the film’s intensely visceral perspective (see David Carr at The New York Times), and I have to agree. But it’s also more.

The film is a character study, in which Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (who wrote of his experience in the book “War”), are fully present with the soldiers yet allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.

While undeniably sympathetic to the troops, “Restrepo” also challenges us to reflect on the full range of the troops life in war. We see clowning around in down time. We see intense grief over the death of one of their own. We see the terrible consequences when U.S. fire injures civilians, including children. And we are left to wrestle with what this all means.

By the end of the film it’s difficult to offer a definitive answer, and even in post-deployment interviews the soldiers wrestle their experience and what they accomplished. However, it is tough to read in the closing credits that in April 2010 (just before the release of “Restrepo”) the United States withdrew all troops from the valley.

What’s important about Hetherington (and photographer Chris Hondros, who also died yesterday) was not just that he sought to bear witness, but how he pursued this task.  As Jon Lee Anderson noted in The New Yorker:

I think it’s safe for me to say that what Tim was trying to do by going to war was to look into the souls of men, whose truths are perhaps more exposed in that environment than in any other—and to show the rest of us what he saw. He gave us a legacy in the important work he left behind, and, for those of us who had the honor to know Tim as a friend, a cherished memory of a man whose own soul was very intact.

This is true regardless of the medium: with film, as was the case in “Restrepo,” or with still photography, as shown in his book “Infidel,” which Hetherington discusses in the clip at the top of this post — displaying a bit of his own soul along the way.

Amid the extreme inhumanity of war, Hetherington extended grace to his subjects by never losing sight of their humanity. Just as important, he also refused to apply the false gloss of manufactured glory. In doing so, he honored all his subjects.

The New York Times’ Lens blog has a very nice overview of Hetherington’s work. They offer the same with Hondros’ astounding photography, which you’ve likely seen even if you don’t recognize his name. And below, you can watch the trailer for “Restrepo.”

Update: Junger has posted a tribute at Vanity Fair. He concludes:

Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.

That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.

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As was the case a year ago, I want to recognize the students at The Falcon, SPU’s student newspaper, for another round of awards in the annual competition of the Society of Professional Journalists. This past weekend, they won first place in the competition for best non-daily student newspaper in SPJ’s Region 10, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The students work incredibly hard to produce the paper each week, and it is wonderful for them to receive this honor. On this, I cannot pretend to be objective.

Individual students also received a first place in General Column Writing (see here, here and here); a second place in General News Reporting (see here); and a third place in General News Photography (see here).  

I am very thankful.

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