A Postscript to a Hasty Judgement: When Indignation Trumps Caution

Because I was so quick to tell you the story — reported so ably in the New York Times by Richard Perez-Pena — of a student with a stuttering problem  at a New Jersey college who had been asked by the Professor not to speak in class, I need to add a postscript.

While the full details of the story may remain murky, Perez-Pena — in the admirable journalistic tradition of careful follow-up when new details are revealed — — wrote a subsequent story with the instructor’s version of events.

Without claiming that I now have a firm handle on the truth in this complex situation, I do feel obligated to state the following:

Virtually every complex human interaction imaginable defies easy description. First-rate writers and researchers can try, and perhaps come close, but it is inevitable that different parties and witnesses to an interaction will see things differently.  Perez-Pena, a skilled and distinguished  professional,  was forced — given the initial choice of the professor not to comment — to write the first  story without her version. Only days later, when she did agree to speak, Perez-Pena immediately wrote a follow-up.

The speed with which I angrily chastised the instructor and the institution for this incident, while born of a deep anger and sensitivity to discrimination against people with disabilities, clearly should have awaited a fuller  account including the professor’s version. I still may not agree with what I now know was  the professor’s judgement, but the point is that my reaction preceded my even having any idea what that  judgement was.

The fault was allowing my indignation about discrimination  (an indignation that is alive, well, and still white-hot) to lead me to temporarily reject even the possibility of an alternate version of events.  I should have thought more carefully before allowing anger to trump caution.

Isn’t it just like complexity to come along and ruin certainty and clarity?

First There Were 30 Bodies in a Pit; Then There Were None

I don’t like “gotcha” media criticism, especially the kind that attempts to elevate some completely human error – either intentional or not – into a mortal sin. Some sins – especially of the journalistic variety – do have serious consequences for the victim of the inaccuracy or typo, can mislead and confuse, and can plant seeds of fear and anxiety in communities already reeling from one trauma or another. Not good.

But I really need to see intentional malice or serious negligence to go from annoyance to indignation.

Yesterday afternoon, in quick succession, I received several news bulletins about 30 dismembered bodies that had been found buried outside Houston. The news bulletins, which I include here, came from serious news organizations, and were phrased with language implying enough certainty that I immediately forwarded the news to some colleagues at John Jay College’s Academy of Critical Incident Analysis, a research group in which I participate. Among other things, we are interested in the impact of sudden high profile catastrophic incidents on public attitudes, behavior and the larger social order.

Most of you already know how it ended. It was a completely inaccurate report that had originated with nothing more than a tip from a psychic. It should never have been elevated to the status of an urgent bulletin. Even worse, in this case, is that several of the bulletins were neither hesitant nor qualified. Bodies had been found.

The serious news organizations that made this bizarre leap will certainly examine how and why this happened and determine how to avoid it in the future. It was not a routine mistake. It was bad. Real bad. First there were bodies and then there were none.

But less than focusing on the mistake, I think we need to think carefully about a newsgathering environment that has elevated speed to such importance that time for contemplation and evaluation may have slowly slipped away. Speed, of course, has always been part of the highly competitive journalistic enterprise. The 20th century began with bloody battles between Hearst and Pulitzer over who could get the first and second and third extras to the newsstand first.

Since then, though, speed as a term has almost completely lost its power to describe the “speed of sound” global news environment. One piece of news, launched on the most appropriate channel, can be global in minutes. Rather than being something that can be pulled back or reconsidered, an inaccuracy is now launched into permanent orbit and circles and circles the globe even after it has been throroughly debunked. And sometimes the subsequent “debunking” gets infinitely less play that the initial nonsense.


We are now in a world where caution isn’t simply important, it is absolutely required of anyone who reports anything, including each of us as we report things to each other.

Yesterday, lots of people in lots of places – fearing being slow in the age of the fast – skipped the caution. And the result is that there will be a pit of dismembered bodies outside Houston for a long, long time.

Even though it really isn’t there at all.

Wanted! Science and Medical Reporting That Can Accurately Interpret Complex, Nuanced Findings

Sometimes I worry that my posts keep repeating themselves, and that each time I point out how often well-intentioned reporters botch the  reporting of nuanced scientific findings, I might simply be repeating myself.

But I care about this problem because, each time a story appears with a new scientific or medical finding, an entire community of people dealing with an illness or condition is mobilized and immediately  begins to focus on the new development. 

Ad why not?  Their health, well-being, and lives  might be at stake, not to mention that of their friends and family.

You may not know that the New York Times has been grappling with this very issue for the past month. The issue is Alzheimer’s.

Today, around 2 PM   the public editor of the New York Times posted the latest update to a month-long controversy that started with a story that  first appeared on August 10th.

In this case, the original August 10th story had to do with the hypothesized connection between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Public Editor’s warning?  Beware “the problems that arise when a story or headline couches some development as an absolute – in this case, new research describing a relationship between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Yup, a big problem.

Reverend Campfire, Media Coverage, and the Social Fabric

I’m telling you: This job never gets boring.

Every day offers some new and provocative illustration of the intricate and fascinating role that media and culture play in both weaving and tearing away at our fragile social fabric.

This week’s example came like clockwork, ripe for analysis by all who watch the social parade and all the passing wackos, issues, provocateurs, and even — when we least expect it — occasional voices of reason and clarity.

This week it’s the lunacy of one profoundly disrespectful and incoherent member of the clergy (self-proclaimed) who, gleeful at what is likely the first time anyone other than his dentist has paid attention to the bile coming out of his mouth, is threatening to burn a copy of the holy text of a major world religion.

Look, I know this is a world in which the World Wrestling Federation seems to be the arbiter of rules for civil discourse. Maybe we should simply ignore this nonsense, however hateful. Yet this is a fragile historical moment in which a vile threat by a vile man has found its way into the midst of a social context marked by fear, loathing, raging Islamophobia, and a backdrop of what the eminent Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter once perceptively called ” the paranoid style in American politics.”

And, of course, the whole hateful spectacle is being reported and re-reported by a mass media that, whatever you think of the coverage, has quite correctly gauged the zeitgeist as to the newsworthiness of it all. People do want to hear about Reverend Campfire. The direct intervention of both the President and Secretary of Defense has only heated up the whole noxious brew and made it an even more legitimate news topic.

Which leads to one of the iconic and ultimately unanswerable questions that seems to always come up in media studies: Does all the media scrutiny fuel the frenzy? Or is the frenzy itself a legitimate news topic?

The easy part is the “who causes it?” question. In a complex and crowded 24-hour digital information environment, no one culprit is an easy target. All sorts of individuals and institutions –political, media, corporate — are acting simultaneously, interacting with one another, struggling to promote an image of themselves and their views that supports their interests and agenda. To point to any institution as primarily culpable for a momentary frenzy or panic is to try to make the richly complex, multi-variate process of social and organizational behavior fit into a simple cause and effect model.

You may wish the media had ignored Reverend Campfire and his book-burning threats, and you make think that ignoring him would have ended the whole shebang. But to dismiss this as primarily a media-constructed spectacle is to engage in that great American past time of latching onto the nearest reductionist answer to our latest vexing question.

Like it or not (and I don’t), this is a legitimate news story, deserves media scrutiny, and even reveals a fundamental truth about free society: The social fabric, even when vigilantly supported and protected by constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, is always just one rip away from serious damage by a kook like Reverend Campfire.

And that damage can be caused by one, perverse loony-tune who truly seems to be enjoying his ability to elicit a great big national squirm.

Believe me, I’m more than sick of hearing about Reverend Campfire and his three-ring hate-fest.

But maybe the dues we owe for the protection of free expression include being forced to listen to one slightly imbalanced exhibitionist and then having to watch the whole spectacle actively covered by a seemingly obsessed, yet free, press.

If that’s the price, I’m ready to pay.

Congratulations to Sheri Fink, Pro Publica, and the New York Times: Pulitzer Prize for “The Deadly Choices at Memorial”


Photo Credit: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times


Late last year,  I called your attention to a riveting piece of investigative reporting that was a cooperative venture of the non-profit investigative journalism group Pro Publica and the New York Times

Photo Credit: Tony Carnes/ Christianity Today


Reported and written by  Sheri Fink and A.C. Thompson,  The Deadly Choices at Memorial describes the frenzied and painful struggle inside a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina as the  staff dealt with seriously ill  and terminal patients. 

Dr. Sheri Fink


Today the piece won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. 

A must read. 

I’d Laugh If I Wasn’t Screaming: The Revolt of “The Soldiers of The Selfish Revolution”©

Absolutely and mind-bogglingly astounding.

Today, in a compelling demonstration of just how compassionate and altruistic some people can be, thousands of people with health insurance gathered on Capitol Hill to protest a bill that would provide some coverage for those who are not covered.

What happened to the grand American tradition of at least being a little ashamed and even secretive about your selfishness? Now, apparently, you can boldly and even proudly trumpet your belief that your good fortune should not be extended to others.

I can’t believe that some of these soldiers of the selfish revolution © didn’t at least wear masks.

Yes I’m angry. But I learned a long time ago to always look for the sadness underneath my occasional ranting and raving. And this time it wasn’t hard to find: I share a country with at least some people whose social conscience ends right at the place where the needs, sometimes the desperate needs, of others have to be considered.

Listen to the wisdom of one of these anti-government  misanthropes:

“It’s time to make a stand,” he said. “We want to see limited government, not more taxes put in our face. We don’t believe our health care system entirely broken. We need to slow down, stop and start over with this legislation.”

Mr. Scevola said that he had health insurance through his employer. “Kaiser Permanente,” he said proudly. “They are the best on the West Coast.”

I’m so thrilled he is happy with his coverage.

Another Brilliant Coup for Pro Publica: Abuses at University of Phoenix

Whether the non-profit model for investigative journalism ultimately catches fire, the best of the current non-profit organizations doing in-depth reporting is Pro-Publica.   I previously called your attention to Pro Publica’s  incredible cooperative reporting effort with the New York Times, written and reported by Sheri Fink, detailing the struggle for survival inside Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina.

And now another: Pro-Publica reporter Sharona Coutts has written a detailed and compelling report about abuses at the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest for-profit university that relies heavily on on-line instruction.  The report details mind-boggling recruiting and financial aid abuses.

One reason I get excited about the Pro-Publica model, even though it may be short-lived, is that  it is almost impossible to imagine a major media outlet covering a story like this with substantial human and financial resources. Yet it is a story that must see the light of day  in an  economy in which countless prospective students are desperately seeking the training they need to keep their head above water.

Pro Publica deserves a real pat on the back.

Upton Sinclair Has Just Officially Risen from the Dead


This will be an interesting couple of weeks for the producers of ground beef.

Michael Moss has produced a masterful piece of investigative reporting in today’s  Sunday New York Times entitled “The Burger That Shattered Her Life.”

If someone had told me that a meat-grinding expose was coming, I would have assumed that, since  no inspection process is perfect,  problems would inevitably be discovered and reported.

But I never would have expected revelations about the content of ground beef that seem drawn from Upton Sinclair’s nightmarish early 20th century muckraking classic ” The Jungle.”

I mean,  we are talking about a serious “yuck-factor.”

Moss’s story is a brilliant combination of the poignant story of an individual victim embedded in a larger story about the shoddy and secretive system that was responsible for her sickness and paralysis. The story closely follows the specific lot of tainted meat that harmed the young woman from the various factories that produced it to her dinner table.  It is not a pleasant journey.

This is what a great reporter can do.

Subprimed, a film by Sarah Friedland, Kahil Shkymba, and Joy Nayo Simmons

subprimed photo

There’s joy in Mudville today.

A film, “Subprimed,”  made in our MFA program at Hunter College by students Sarah Friedland, Kahil Shkymba, and Joy Nayo Simmons, under the supervision of Professors Kelly Anderson and Tom Angotti,  is the subject of Jim Dwyer’s column in the New York Times, “Student Filmmakers, Not Ceasing or Desisting.”

Check out the column and read about just what this subprime crisis means for real people, living real lives on the edge, who had a dream of owning a house.  And take a look at those who sought to exploit those dreams, one of whom, Mr. Makhani, is filmed offering the compassionate observation that “If the client is stupid, that’s not my problem…We’re not going to have classes to teach people how to read.”

Here are some clips from this work in progress.

Ah, just knowing that those who would hurt and exploit others are feeling some agita this morning.

A Story of Life Inside a Hospital During Hurricane Katrina: Bravo to Pro Publica and The New York Times

katrina hospital

A truly ground-breaking news story appeared in the Times this weekend. Done in cooperation with the non-profit nvestigative journalism group Pro Publica, and reported by A.C. Thompson and Sheri Fink, the piece describes the frenzied and painful struggle inside of a New Orleans hospital during Katrina as staff dealt with seriously ill patients.

One of the most amazing pieces of journalism about catastrophe I have ever read. And so painful to read that I had to struggle to finish it.

A must read.

The Arguments About Blogs and Twitters and Tweets Are Interesting, But Irrelevant; They Have Come of Age


Something extremely important is happening at this very moment and it is worth taking a look.

Despite all the past debate about the blogosphere — sometimes heated — among conventional journalists, bloggers, and plain old twitterers , the New York Times is putting together some extraordinary breaking coverage of the events in Iran using just these types of “questionable” sources.

These  include Flickr, Twitter,  social networks, instant messaging, You Tube, and numerous blogs. The Times coverage appears in the Lede blog on the home page of the Internet edition.

I have always listened when Bill Keller, Times Managing Editor, and other journalists have offered their sometimes biting critique of the blogosphere:  Who are these bloggers? What are their sources? How can they be trusted?  These are fair questions.

But forget those  arguments for a second and look at the Times itself. The fact is that, when events like those in Iran occurred,   experienced journalists immediately  looked to all these fragmented sources and knew just what to do with them.  They collated them, questioned them, linked to them, accepted some,  rejected others,  and tried to fit them into  a larger puzzle.  It worked.

One big kvetch of conventional journalists has been that the blogosphere has no fact-checkers and editors.  But the complaint has essentially fizzled. The Times proved a basic point:

They are still the editors!

No one forced them to quote from the blogs and the tweets of students caught in the midst of demonstrations.  They did it carefully,  and with the clear belief that “the amateurs” helped fill-in the details of the complex story they were covering.

And what do you know? The amateurs didn’t overrun quality journalism. They didn’t replace it. They became an indispensable part of the mix.

In the end, all these new-fangled news sources from the street turned out to be  not all that different from the old stodgy, official sources: You look at them, judge their validity, decide when they can be embedded in a larger story, and either use them or not use them. Of course, you have to be cautious, very cautious, but  —  in the end — you are still the editor.

Barstow’s N.Y. Times Investigative Series on Pentagon Hucksters Earns Polk Award

When David Barstow’s remarkable New York Times investigative pieces on corrupt propagandizing by the Pentagon first appeared,  they became required reading for my students.

And it wasn’t even the propaganda that was the mortal sin.   Our system is one in which politicians and agencies are allowed to vigorously promote their point of view while  we are obligated to vigorously monitor their output for spin and fluff and  other self-serving nonsense.  I have occasionally helped government agencies shape messages about safety and health emergencies.

But the “sins” uncovered in Bartow’s brilliant series “Message Machine” went way beyond the pale. The paid  military analysts were misrepresented by the networks  as neutral experts.  In fact, a number of them were shown to directly financially benefit from defense contractors when they promoted a certain point of view.  Sure, we are all drowning in phoniness. But this was phoniness for bucks that had life and death implications.

If you have any interest in the role of the press in society, the Barstow series is a must read.

A confession:  I am not naive about news management and spinning and lying and payoffs and all the rest.  May  God forgive me any spinning I have ever done that, well, spun more than it should have.

But this story shocked me.

Tonight David won a coveted 2008 Polk Award.

Photographs, Sound, and Story: How “New” Newspapers Are Reviving the “Old” Photo Essay



There  are  many  recent examples I could have chosen  of the new look of newspapers,   but check out the  what  the  New York Times is doing with stories,  sound, and beautiful still  photography.

If,  like me,   you  think that still  photography  is a revealing and sometimes even profound way to tell a story,  I’m  curious what you think.  Some of these  photographs are  amazing  character  studies which  magnify and empahasize the qualities of the subject. 

The photographic essay is alive and well on-line. 

Use good headphones.   Someone did some fine sound work. 

Weegee?   Maybe not.  But darn good.

More on New York Times Investigative Piece on Military Analysts

Sometimes I think that the word “liar” is the linguistic third rail of American politics. Even in the dirtiest political campaigns, adversaries are often reluctant to call each other liars, as if avoiding that word means they have held the line and remained civil.

Thanks goodness I’m not running for office. I can say “lie” or “liar” when I want.

But – truth be told — I rarely do so. And when I do, I do it carefully. Because lying, at least as I have always understood it, is not simply making a mistake: It is intentionally telling someone something that you know not to be true. It is using a position of superior power and influence to say something untrue to hurt or deceive another person.

And, in the worst case, it is intentional deception that makes it more likely that another human being might be hurt, injured, or killed.

That is why I really have no problem saying that David Barstow’s remarkable piece in today’s New York Times, telling the story of how the Pentagon groomed some of the military analysts who have appeared on television to offer opinions about the war in Iraq, is a story about liars.

After reading Barstow’s piece, I feel on absolutely solid ground using the word. This is the story of a small group of senior military officers who, knowing one truth about the disastrous progress on the ground of the war in Iraq, intentionally went before mass audiences and – under the direction of the Pentagon — made contradictory and untrue statements, statements that they hoped would have the effect of marginalizing and silencing opponents of the war.

Even worse, these were lies that several now admit were made to protect ongoing profitable relationships with the Pentagon and defense contractors.

Angry disagreement about foreign policy is one thing.

But this was lying. And it was lying that cost lives. It is despicable.

Read it and see if you agree.


“I Felt We’d Been Hosed:” When Pentagon Propagandists Lie to Their Own Supporters

I hate the term “must read.” Who decides what the “musts” are? And whose interests are served when something must be read?

Forget all that. This is a must read.

Today’s New York Times strips away the veneer of phony objectivity of the military analysts who appear on network television.  David Barstow’s riveting story “Hidden Hand of Pentagon Helps Steer Military Analysts”   (registration required)  details the Bush Administration’s effort to curry favor with a group of network television  military analysts and keep them supplied with self-serving talking points.

And yet this isn’t the most stunning part of the story.

Administrations have always fought to have the media well supplied with a selective version of facts that are often at odds with what soldiers are seeing on the ground. Spinning and hosing is an old story.

The real stunner, and I’ll let you read it and decide, is the story’s evidence that — by not even telling the truth to the analysts ostensibly sympathetic to the administration — the adminstration left a slew of their allies feeling burned and lied to or what one senior officer called “hosed.”

It’s one thing to create propaganda that you dish up to your adversaries. This is the story of how the Pentagon tried, often unsuccessfully, to spin their own supporters in the military who served as media analysts. 

And how one ended up saying “I felt like we’d been hosed.”

A must read.  Superb reporting by David Barstow.

What Microsoft Execs Were Secretly Saying About Vista

Get a load of this.

I am a PC guy working in a MAC-heavy environment. I love PCs. But these MAC users are people skilled in digital media and new technologies who use it for a whole host of impeccably argued reasons. I mean, I work with people who actually futz with the inside and outside of their machine and write code.

Cool code-writers!

These are also people who know why — in exquisite detail — they don’t use a PC running on Windows.

I immediately thought of them today when I read Randall Stross’s amazing Digital Domain column in the New York Times. (Registration required) It turns out that Microsoft execs not only knew know that VISTA was a lemon, but that they were exchanging brutally frank emails about its mind-boggling lemonishness.

When you have studied and taught about rumor and urban  legend, you know that the miasma that is culture and the marketplace often has some pretty weird and ludicrous stuff circulating about various brands and products.

But the noise about a VISTA disaster wasn’t legend, wasn’t rumor.  And we know this now precisely because the very stratosphere of the Windows development and sales team was saying it.