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Post "New York Times": Formidable, Indispensable, and Often Wrong (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 01/15/19 3:45 AM

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"New York Times": Formidable, Indispensable, and Often Wrong (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 01/15/19 3:45 am)

Gary Moore writes:

I'd like to second Boris Volodarsky (Jan 13th and 14th), speaking generally of the Mueller investigation. I lack Boris's admirable knowledge of the specifics in such cases, but in a more general way, including the subtext of articles like the one cited from the New York Times, Mueller's Russiagate is looking more and more like Ken Starr's Whitewater two decades ago.

The faithful know the devil is hiding in there somewhere. Know it, know it, know it--and so every detail is a shocking confirmation of what they already know. Each paragraph seems to promise that the horrific bombshell is coming in the next. Or the next. Or the next. And then: There! See how we've proved it! Analytical reading is left to slink off guiltily, feeling it must have missed something. How could all that eloquence and highly detailed cataloging be mistaken?

On the matter of the Times and Boris's distrust of it, I think we've all marveled at Boris's rare and valuable inside knowledge of his subject matter. But such firsthand knowledge--often unlike the kiting of favored authorities in media narrative--can put the possessor behind the eight-ball on the matter of the Emperor's New Clothes, which everybody else seems able to see. I know specifically from my own area--including on-the-ground legwork in Latin America--that the wonderful articles I loved in the Times sometimes seemed to fall apart and leave me disillusioned when I saw what they were leaving out, distorting, or demonizing--though always in highly skilled, pensive language crafted to show the opposite. The gremlin in Simplified Media Narrative was most famous in the Times in the 1930s--and on Russia issues--when correspondent Walter Duranty went down in later history as the man who had successfully minimized and in large part hidden the Ukrainian famine. What is less known about Duranty, but was remarked in print by other correspondents, was his remarkable care and skill in crafting his obfuscations so that they sounded elaborately broad-minded, cautious, considerate--that is, believable, in ways the reader might not even have thought to imagine.

A half century later, in the 1980s in conflictive Nicaragua (Tim Brown and others may recall an echo) there was a Times correspondent who struck me as eerily reincarnating Duranty, right down to the fact that, in person, the elaborately erudite language (in print) turned out to come from a fast-talking, cynical-sounding Jimmy Cagney type, whom the public never saw--similar to what was said of Duranty as well.

I commiserate with JE's challenge as to how the Times, filled with formidable and sometimes indispensable articles, might in some way be questionable. Part of the trompe l'oeil in Simplified Media Narrative may lie in the fact that easy reasons for the illusions--reasons like ideology or bias on the left or right (usually accused on the left regarding the Times) may not fully cover the imponderables. In the early 2000s (as is often now forgotten) the celebrity disaster was Times reporter Judith Miller, who, far from beating a leftwing anti-war drum, was a chief voice in ratifying the era's most disastrous Emperor's New Clothes, the non-existent weapons of mass destruction said to be hoarded by Saddam Hussein in pre-invasion Iraq. When the illusions crumbled, Miller was fired and chief editor Bill Keller had to step down. Here, too, was the seductive cry of witch hunt, though in language, style, and tone far, far, too loftily crafted to seem able to hunt a witch.

It's a dilemma for democracy that most people are ill-positioned to do the kinds of digging, not just on a given story but into the lifetime of patterns behind stories, to be able to assess media narratives from a behind-the-curtain perspective. And there's the problem that for many, previous prejudices might win the day anyway. But for those who, on whatever motivation of background or temperament, do happen to go to the mountain and dig into the mines of the gnomes, the dilemma can become more piquant, as in that other fable, H. G. Wells' Country of the Blind. It becomes a matter of how to avoid ridiculously and ineffectually hopping up and down and shouting, "See! See! See!"--when of course the other side is saying it already does see, and in much more persuasive language.

JE comments:  The rub of "fake news" accusations is that they (the accusations) often contain some grain of truth:  "See!  See!"  Ever notice how the closer you're personally connected to a news event, the less accurate the report seems? 

Speaking of the King of Rome, as they say in Spain, we'll hear next on this topic from Tim Brown.

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  • Bias, Narrative Expectation, and the "NYT Problem" (David A. Westbrook, USA 01/17/19 3:55 AM)
    Within 24 hours I happened to read Gary Moore's thoughtful post (January 15th) and an old essay by my friend Jim Faubion, a philosopher and anthropologist at Rice.

    Faubion remarked that one of the typical if not universal experiences of ethnographic fieldwork--which typically takes a considerable amount of time--is a reorientation and sometimes substantial revision of the beliefs and understandings that motivated and structured the research project in the first place. What George Marcus called the "slowness" of the ethnographic inquiry results in very different understandings than usually found in even very fine journalism. (I elaborate on these various temporalities at some length in my book Navigators of the Contemporary.)

    Ethnography thus serves as a counterpoint to the "NYT Problem" with which this thread is concerned. From that perspective, the question becomes, why is journalism so often wrong, or if not wrong, somehow "off," which one only discovers after acquiring some substantial familiarity? The obvious answer is "bias," usually of a politically partisan sort. But, as Gary points out, while political allegiances certainly color accounts, partisan bias doesn't seem like an adequate answer.

    We get more traction if we understand "bias" not just in terms of simple advocacy, e.g., for or against a current administration, but more completely in terms of narrative expectation. Journalism is about stories, narratives. And to read such stories, we need to have some kind of expectation of the kind of story we are reading, or else we are going to have to do a lot of work. That is, we in some sense generally read stories we have read already, just with different names and dates.

    In a fine essay, Jeff Jarvis (a professor of journalism) analyzes the Claas Relotius scandal as an example of the dangers of narrative for news. Relotius is a prize-winning journalist, notably for the left-leaning weekly Der Spiegel (roughly equivalent to Time back in the day), who for years has published things that simply are not true, often about America. How did this happen, many Germans reasonably ask. The deeper problem, argues Jarvis, is not simply "bias" or "fake news" (although some of this was in fact fake), but the dependency of journalism, almost regardless of media, on "a good story," which has its own seductions, even for fact checkers and editors.


    The point of many of Relotius' stories is that America is brutal. I have much to say on this score, but for present purposes the focus should be on German readers, expectations, rather than American conditions, descriptions. "The US is a brutal society" is a banality among large numbers of Germans. So a Spiegel article instantiating what such readers (including the Spiegel editors) already knew is hardly surprising or difficult, and therefore encounters little skepticism or critical resistance. In fact, the reader is free to admire the polish of Relotius's prose, for which he won all those prizes. "Facts" are for ornamental or illustrative purposes in what is essentially a rhetorical performance, informative like a forensics competition. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but not unique, and the general problem is widespread.

    Jarvis suggests journalists should listen more and speak less. Right. Unfortunately, news must be delivered quickly, or it is not news. And the business model of the press requires huge amounts of content. And so narrative, telling lots and lots of stories, now, is imperative, especially given a 24-hour news cycle. Even erstwhile periodicals like the New Yorker and the Atlantic report daily now. (Flip over to CNN's webpage and ask yourself how much of this is actually news.) In the process of story manufacture and distribution, what Gary calls "simplified media narratives" are required because neither writers nor especially readers have time to process new narratives. "Facts" are therefore inserted into ready-made narratives that, at least in the abstract and often in some detail preexist the news events in question. (Anybody who has been asked by a journalist for a quote or worse, background, comes to realize that the story is already almost finished.)

    So what we generally read is only in a primitive, if still necessary, sense "the news." Its framing is old, and may or may not be apposite. We readers, who have no other sources, are not in a position to know. We are thus not simply biased by the will of another, but predisposed, quite literally, prejudiced. At this juncture, it might be worth remembering that "bien pensant" is not a compliment.

    JE comments:  "We generally read stories we have read already"--how true.  I have the silly habit of checking Yahoo! News first thing every morning (to see if the world's still there?), and they are notorious for recycling content. Often they don't even bother to change the dates and names.  At present, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a safe bet to appear in the top 3 or 4 stories.

    Even WAIS is guilty of pandering to "narrative expectation" more than I'd like to admit.  EU dysfunction anyone?  How about the sundry "declines" of economic justice, civility, and civilization itself?

    The bias/expectation distinction is important.  It's easier to understand news inaccuracies if we detect an underlying agenda from an outside actor.  Bert Westbrook asks us to probe deeper--to look at ourselves.

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    • Narrative Expectation: We Need Somebody to Demonize (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 01/18/19 3:11 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      Thanks to Bert Westbrook (January 17th) for his insightful confirmation
      of my "Simple Media Narratives" post.

      As a journalist, when
      digging reveals hypocrisy or blindness in mainstream media
      narratives, I get the queasy feeling of my own life and aims
      being balanced atop nothingness. And though antidote appears
      occasionally in the intrepid counter-exposé, time has shown that
      this is often one more pipe dream: A lone voice not only goes into
      the crackpot bin, but there is the deeper problem of even phrasing
      a counter-narrative when so much resistance must be replied to at
      every turn.  Bert's phrase, "narrative expectation," goes a ways toward
      explaining why large parts of journalism can be undermined (however
      privately) if the primary evidence is sifted. As Bert said, a reader
      looks for a "story," a manageable packet of meaning, and manageability
      often means it must repeat what the reader already expects--that is,
      prejudice is built in. It may be of the left or right, but unfortunately the punch
      often demands an ancient standard in human interpretation: demonization,
      somebody to lynch.

      I wrote the post after a long period of digging into a recent news theme,
      the immigrant "caravan" phenomenon at the southern US border. I didn't
      know at the outset that this was one of those periodic topics bringing out
      some of the worst in journalism, as the temptations of story-packaging
      emotion--thrilling crusade and desperate need--leap to precedence over
      inconvenient background facts, the hiding of which can seem insignificant,
      or even a badge of honor in inflated, bafflingly shallow concealers. After
      other long experiences, I think this topic was doubly doomed, simply because
      it involves that "other America," the part of North America that speaks Spanish,
      that is, Mexico and now prominently Central America, whose image is summed up
      in strategy-speak as "the underbelly"--or, more poetically by James Agee, in a bygone
      paean to supposed wanton passion, calling Latin America "that woman."

      North-of-the-border ignorance about Latin America, awe-inspiring as it is, takes strength
      from the region's own patterns of tumult, which leave examination up for grabs. That feeling
      of balancing atop nothingness multiplied as I finally wrote what would be my post on the immigrant
      caravans. Even a sympathetic reader should perhaps not be asked to wade through the resulting
      twists. Ambivalence keeps popping up everywhere: that pesky lack of a unified call to crusade.
      The post is soon to follow.

      JE comments:  The lone voice ends up in the crackpot bin--Gary Moore couldn't have said it more concisely.  Yet the "vox" in the desert is also what we demand from our heroes.  Is it the Quixote factor--both heroic...and insane?

      Gary has already sent his post on the immigrant caravans. Before the light of today wanes, it will see the light of day.

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  • "Received Wisdom" and the Nicaraguan Contra War (Timothy Brown, USA 01/18/19 4:23 AM)
    Gary Moore's reference to the Nicaraguan Contras reminds me of a question I'd like to ask my fellow WAISers:

    I served more than a decade in Central America (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) as a Marine Embassy Guard or diplomat. I spent seven years after I retired researching, writing and successfully defending my doctoral dissertation. It took me several more years to find a publisher willing to publish it, because what I documented did not support the "received wisdom" of any "Latin America experts."

    It was finally reviewed and recommended by three former career Ambassadors with decades worth of hands-on experience on the ground and published as The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua by the University of Oklahoma Press. Once published, it's since been made "unavailable" in a number of university libraries.

    Has anyone else in WAIS read it? If so, I'd like to know what they thought of it.

    JE comments:  You've put me on the spot!  The only Tim Brown opus in the WAIS library is your excellent autobiography, Diplomarine.  My apologies, but I'll go on record that I'll put The Real Contra War on my summer reading list. 

    Good God--with temperatures below zero predicted for the weekend, can I already be talking about summer reading?  This semester at the College I'm directing nine senior projects.  (My previous record was five.)  This involves countless hours of doing what I do most:  editing.  Except for WAIS, I fear there'll be little time for anything else.

    If I may pry, Tim--how has your book been made unavailable?

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    • How Do Library Books Become "Unavailable"? (Edward Jajko, USA 01/19/19 4:49 AM)
      I join JE in asking Timothy Brown how "a number of university libraries" have made his book The Real Contra War "unavailable." And, if he knows, which ones? WorldCat lists at least 620 copies in various public, college, and university libraries. (620 copies! Makes for a comfortable retirement, no?)

      Books can become "unavailable" within libraries for many reasons, among them theft or other misappropriation, "squirreling-away," mislabeling, incorrect shelving, and of course malicious interference for political or other ideological reasons. Tim may recall the library of the Hoover Institution, which had closed stacks and idiosyncratic classification systems. Materials incorrectly shelved could be lost for years.

      JE comments:  Important insight from WAISworld's foremost librarian, Ed Jajko.  For an academic book, 620 copies is very good.  In Hispanic literary studies (my field), sales of 150-200 would already be a bestseller.

      Anyone who's tried recently to publish a scholarly book knows that the industry is in crisis, even obsolescence.  Our own Ronald Hilton saw this 35 years ago, when he embraced the Internet as the way to reach the largest audience inexpensively.  Academia has failed to catch up, though:  even as it becomes increasingly difficult to publish a work in ink-and-paper form, scholars still don't get adequate recognition for electronic publications.

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      • "The Real Contra War" and Royalties (Timothy Brown, USA 01/21/19 1:55 PM)
        I thank Edward (January 19th) Jajko for his research, although my question was how many of my colleagues in WAIS have read my book The Real Contra War, not how many libraries have misplaced, lost or buried a copy.

        In fact I had no idea so many copies have even been sold, since my contract with UOK Press requires them to send me an accounting of all sales of it.  I'm a freelance writer and have to declare my income on my tax return.  I'll go back to my tax documents and see if I can confirm that they made these reports and I received royalties for their sales to academic libraries of that many copies, since I can assure Ed I've never received anywhere near enough from sales of all five of my books to do much more than buy an occasional lunch at Starbucks.

        Thankfully I'm a retired Consul General, so I live off my pension not my research books.  Maybe my next book From Warriors to Witches will do better.

        JE comments:  "Freelance writer" has such a glamorous ring to it, but it must be a constant struggle to pay the bills.  I would never be brave enough to go down that uncertain road. 

        Who in WAISworld can give us more insight on the economics of freelancing?

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