New website

In the last few years I have not posted on this site which marked a movement for me away from blogging to the use of twitter and short form blogging on tumblr where I keep a number of bookmarking sites on different topics. This was in part driven by engagement with these new social media tools but it also due to time pressures as I embraced the final years of my PhD research.

I have recently cleaned up the site as an archive but in future I will will be posting at marcusodonnell.comScreenshot_13_01_13_12_12_PM

Taking radio journalism online in a multimedia world

Let me just say at the outset that I think the ABC’s response to the new digital media environment has been innovative and outstanding. Not only is their website full of fascinating content from their TV and radio networks but they have also started to produce innovative community projects like Pool, and their mix of commentary at Unleashed is terrific.

But it struck me when I clicked on a story at their website this morning that there is still a way to go. The story “Modern Mag,” from Radio Australia, about the launch of a new fashion magazine for Islamic women is on the news home page under “The best of the ABC” banner. It has a short description: “Aquila Asia is a fashion magazine aimed at Muslim women in South East Asia,” and a picture of a veiled woman (see pic above). When you click on it you get an audio player of the five minute interview with the magazine’s editor. It’s a good listen and challenges some misconceptions about contemporary Islamic women.

However it is – or should have been a visual story – a women’s fashion magazine is a visual medium and one of the main topics of discussion is the use of varied models which reflect the differences in the lives of Islamic women. It would have been a simple matter for the producer in prepping the story to ask for the editor to email a couple of sample spreads and images which could have been loaded onto the program’s website with a brief two para introduction. Or with permission these images could have been taken directly from the magazine’s website.

This would have had two effects: on air, the presenter could say, “If you want to know more about Aquila Asia take a look at our website,” and in the post-live online environment, the presentation of the audio with the addition of simple visuals provides a much stronger representation of the story. The presenter even refers to the magazine’s website during the interview without providing viewers with a web address. Again if the small story had been preloaded, this information would also have been available to readers.

I don’t deny that there are resource implications in this type of approach, but if the workflow is handled well they can be minimal. I have written before about how a multimedia approach demands a simple checklist that associates sourcing of multimedia elements with the traditional checklists already a part of all editorial pre-publication  workflows. As a transitional approach I am not even saying that all radio stories demand this type of treatment but radio producers do need to ask themselves: is this a story which needs additional visual material provided through our website. If the answer is “Yes,” then contemporary listeners will expect nothing less.

American public radio NPR are ahead of the curve in making this transition and show what a contemporary online radio environment should be like. They also have one of the only decent news apps for the iPad.

“The best of the ABC” can no longer be produced in simple one medium format – the best now demands a multimedia approach.

The story can be heard here.

And the Aquila Asia website, which is fascinating, can be found here. They even have a facebook page.

Make convergence part of all your editorial workflows

BAM premiers new film on Alexander Shuglin…The “father of ecstasy” is still a serious scientist hard at work in his home lab despite failing health.

Making the transition from print or simple broadcast to fully convergent, multimedia journalism is not easy and does involve a range of labour and other costs. But I am constantly amazed at how media organisations – from big well resourced mainstream orgs to new and innovative blogs – ignore simple steps because they haven’t come up with a convergent workflow checklist for their stories, which would enable them to quickly add multimedia reader value.

For example, given that many companies now post their film trailers on YouTube there is no reason not to include an embedded trailer with every film review. This is even more important when you are reviewing festival and independent films which may not get wide mainstream release. Cinematical is a great site that covers film culture from mainstream Hollywood to independent arthouse releases. They are a blog product of the new media age, yet even these new comers have failed to take simple – more or less cost free/time free – steps to integrate multimedia clips into their site which is about MOVING PICTURES!

I clicked on this fascinating review this morning of a new documentary about Alexander Shuglin the mavrick chemist behind the development of ecstasy. It’s just premiered at the New York’s BAMcinemaFEST and is unlikely to get to Australia anytime soon, so I immediately went to YouTube to see if the trailer or any excerpts had been posted. Sure enough the production company behind the film had posted the trailer a week ago, so Cinematical could have legally and quickly embedded the trailer in their review. This would have given me instant access to a taste of the film and would have kept me on the Cinematical site and encouraged me to explore it further.

All this requires is a different mindset and a new easy step in the final editorial workflow…. Byline. Check. Picture caption. Check. Embedded YouTube trailer. Check. etc. It certainly requires more than adding an embedded film trailer to a review to complete the move to a fully convergent media experience but unless media organisations begin to integrate these first, easy, cost free steps they will never be able to make the bigger moves.

So let me give you a taste of the film:

The problem with iPad news apps

A turtle took a video camera for a swim and ended up on YouTube

I have been loving my iPad. Many of its features make reading the web a much more intimate, easy and pleasurable experience. However none of the mainstream news organisations – except perhaps NPR, which comes close – have managed to produce a fully functional app which matches the breadth and versatility of their respective websites. The real problem however is with sharing via blogging or social media sites.

Earlier today I came across a cute little story on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s new app about a Turtle activating a waterproof camera and taking it for a swim. The camera was found washed up on a beach in Florida and its contents were posted on YouTube. It’s hardly a breaking news story but it is a perfect light relief “share” story and my problems getting the word out illustrate some of the frustrations with the iPad as a creative reporting tool and some of the problems with current news organisations’ decisions around how to produce news apps.

Normally the Turtle story would have been easy to share because, unlike a number of other news apps, the ABC has good Twitter integration – including auto link shortening – for sharing stories straight from the app. However, the app story has no link to the YouTube video. The ABC is not alone here all news apps have decided to forgo links within their apps, so researching connections to related content is difficult. But if I was going to tweet this, I first wanted to view the video and of course I wanted to include a link. So I had to exit the app and go into the YouTube app and search for the Turtle video. I tried a few different searches – including some written phrases from the YouTube notes quoted by ABC – which failed to turn up the video. So I exited the YouTube app and went to Safari, I tried the ABC’s normal website to see if they linked to the video in their web version of the story. Not that I could see. Safari produced a few other news versions and one of them provided a link to the video, which on the iPad opens in the YouTube app. The You Tube app has share via email but no Twitter integration. So to share a simple 140 word tweet I had to:

1. Open the story in the ABC app, press the share via Twitter, which produces an auto tweet of headline and shortened url, which I copied but didn’t send; close

2. Open Twitterific app, paste tweet into new tweet form but didn’t send; close

3. Open YouTube app and find Turtle video; press the share via email and copy the url – as the app has no browser style url field; close

4. Back to Twitterific, open new tweet field which has kept my previous unsent version pasted from  the ABC app, add in the YouTube info and finally send.

It probably seems even more complex than it was. In some ways switching between apps is just slightly more complex than switching between open tabs on a normal browser (two or three finger taps instead of one mouse click), and for some functions I have learned to adapt pretty well, however in this case it was far more complex than it aught to have been. Hopefully all this will improve with the multitasking functions on the new iPhone4 OS but this doesn’t hit iPads till later this year.

However even after all this I had not anticipated one final problem. As I was reading and tweeting other stories, I noticed a message from @marygazze: “That turtle link just raised a huge red flag with bit.ly. Got another?” Hmm. Turns out that the ABC uses “is.gd” shortening and when I transfered it into to Twitterific the already shortened link was reshortened by bit.ly and this caused the “red flag”. I tired to check all this on my iPad but finally I got up and went into the study opened up my big browser and a set of tabs and had the whole thing fixed and retweeted in minutes.

A final interesting point is that when I looked at the normal ABC web story (not the iPad app version) on my large screen desktop I saw that they had actually included a link to the YouTube clip in the sidebar under “related stories.” I had missed this on my initial scan when I checked the normal ABC site through Safari on my iPad:  firstly I was looking for an instory link and secondly the smaller screen didn’t allow the sidebar link to jump out on a quick scan. This in itself is an interesting comment on Nick Carr’s recent thoughts on “Delinkification“. (For further comments on this see Jason Fry’s thoughts at Nieman Lab)

The Turtle story itself wasn’t really worth all the effort. The camera was found in January, so it’s really a strange story for ABC to be running six months later. But it serves as a good case study of certain trends in news delivery and my experience tweeting this story certainly serves as an interesting case study of the tweetability of iPad news. It also signals that news organisations should think harder about the nature of news in the evolving news ecology. If a news organisation is going to run a story in any format about a YouTube video they are simply not providing complete reporting without providing a link, if they can’t or wont provide a link why even bother running the story. Not providing a link demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of viral YouTube videos and web sharing which is after all at the heart of what makes this story newsworthy.

Just to complete the strange twists of this story on sharability, I can’t embed the video here because the original poster disabled YouTube’s normal embed settings. Maybe he didn’t want to infringe the Turtle’s copyright! (More likely it’s a perverse attempt to up his view rate) If you want to see it, here’s the link to YouTube.

I have lots of other thoughts on iPad news apps and usability issues which I will cover soon in another post.

BBC Newsroom Head talks web video

Andy Plesser of Beet TV reports on the BBC’s approach to web news video.

Video news reporting for the Web, different than conventional television news, is quickly evolving and the BBC is innovating in a variety of forms including one which the newsroom calls a “show and tell.”

Recently in London, I spoke with Mary Hockaday, Head of the BBC Newsroom, about video news reporting for the Web.

She refers to an emerging format for correspondents on the ground to act as a sort of guide, providing an unscripted, personalized tour of the circumstances of a news story.

Jon Stewart fact checks CNN

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
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Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Jon Stewart takes a look at recent CNN reporting and asks why they invested time and effort in “fact checking” a Saturday Night Live sketch and let so many whoppers from their guests – outrageous exaggerations in the health care budget for example – go through to the keeper. He says that there idea of balance seems to be to get “two crazy bald guys” from different sides of politics to go head to head until the moderator says: were out of time “Well have to leave it there”.

A recent tweet from Jay Rosen at NYU raised the question that there might be a connection between this and the recent news that CNN has fallen to last place in the prime time cable race. NYT’s Decoder comments:

The results demonstrate once more the apparent preference of viewers for opinion-oriented shows from the news networks in prime time.
CNN has steered opinion hosts like Nancy Grace to HLN, while maintaining more news-oriented shows on CNN itself. When news events are not being intensely followed, CNN executives acknowledge, viewers seem to be looking for partisan views more than objective coverage.

Rosen also tweeted this: “With 2.8 million followers @cnnbrk managed 0.8 posts a day for the past month. CNN has no idea what it’s doing on Twitter.”

Blogging versus reporting

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Two recent reports from the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt show the way mainstream journalists are using bogs and traditional reports to cover their beat. Butt filed two reports of the Vatican communication’s director Federico Lombardi’s defense of recent Vatican press gaffes. What is interesting is that her blog report and her news item contain pretty much the same information but vary greatly in tone. Her standard report begins:

The Vatican’s communications chief has defended his handling of the controversies surrounding Benedict XVI’s papacy by arguing that the furores have benefited the Holy See.

Father Federico Lombardi said that many of the scandals had led people to think deeply about topics such as inter-faith dialogue, anti-Semitism and Aids prevention.

The pope has aroused controversy on several issues. His quoted remarks about Islam being “evil and inhuman” prompted violent protests around the world. Catholic-Jewish relations were severely tested when he lifted the excommunication of Richard Willamson, a priest who was a Holocaust denier. Benedict also angered health campaigners, politicians and activists by claiming that condoms aggravated HIV/Aids.

The incidents meant the pope’s ability and judgment were questioned as never before.

Despite the episodes generating unprecedented hostility towards the Vatican, Lombardi said in a speech in London on Monday night he was “convinced” the question of Christian-Muslim relations had been addressed more frankly following the pope’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, when he talked about Islam. He also said the “clamorous response” to Williamson’s declarations had allowed the Vatican to reinforce its position on anti-Semitism, and that the pope’s remarks on condoms had led to a “greater understanding” of “truly effective” HIV/Aids prevention strategies in Africa.

Her blog report relates to the same speech but is much more personal – and cynical – in tone:

Last night I had the pleasure of going to mass in search of Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s director of press, who was giving a lecture on communications. It doesn’t take a genius, never mind a religious affairs correspondent, to think that the head of Vatican PR pontificating (ha) on communications is akin to Norway giving masterclasses on getting a joke. Lombardi, an Italian priest who started his press career on La Civiltà Cattolica, working his way up before replacing the long-serving Joaquin Navarro Valls in 2006, has come under sustained fire since taking over at the helm of the Holy See press office.

First there was Regensburg. Then there was the lifting of the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying priest Richard Williamson. I know the decision was unconnected to the Holocaust denial, but it’s not that hard to Google, I do it before every date. Then there were unscripted remarks about condoms aggravating the spread of AIDS that were later edited to say something rather different. Bring in a bit of papal revisionism – he wasn’t a member of the Hitler Youth, oh hang on yes he was – and an almost unintelligible speech that angered gay rights campaigners and dominated news cycles for 48 hours with little or no clarification from the Vatican and we have all the makings of what Catholic and non-Catholic commentators called a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck. But wait! Apparently, we/I/you/they got it wrong. Citing not so much divine intervention as the law of unintended consequences Lombardi said that Muslim-Christian relations were better because of Regensburg, that the Williamson episode had allowed the church to clarify and strengthen its position on antisemitism and Holocaust denial and that the pope’s intervention on condoms was carefully crafted to allow deeper discussion and reflections on the topic.

Apart from the jokey tone the interesting thing about the blog report is that it links to details of all the previous reports such as stories about Regensburg and the Williamson fiasco. So the blog report is both more personal and potentially more personalised in the sense that it provides vertical history to the story which enables the reader to personalise the story for themselves.

Both reports use the same key quotes from Lombardi. The standard report is clear inverted pyramid style writing which quickly summarises the key points of the story while the blog report also introduces the key elements but does this in a less formal and many would argue a more engaging way. Given that the information is virtually identical in both reports it is interesting to compare the apparent objectivity in the standard report with the clearly cynical tone of the blog post. This is an easy case where the conventions of objective journalism – such as the judicious use of quoted phrases – allows a source like Lombardi to hang himself without any visible bias in the reporting.

Next Gen Evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

A surprisingly detailed and measured look at the changes in the evangelical landscape from gay magazine The Advocate raises some of the same points covered in the Newsweek article I wrote about a few days ago. It notes that young evangelicals are more likely to be concerned about the environment and more likely to believe in some form of relationship recognition for gays. Jonathan Merritt a young evangelical leader puts it this way:

“My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for,” the 26-year-old says. “Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they’re in danger of losing their legacy.”

Whatever his personal beliefs on marriage equality are, you’re not likely to hear him rail against a gay rights agenda in the vitriolic vein of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. On his blog Merritt criticizes a Starbucks-addled American culture that ignores the atrocities in Darfur. He renounces the use of torture. Most notably, Merritt recognizes the burden of 6.7 billion people on the world’s ecosystems and chastises Christians who don’t view conservation and carbon footprint reduction as godly mandates. “Environmental stewardship has been integrated into Christian thought since the beginning of time,” he says. “Unfortunately, when modern evangelicals began associating themselves with a particular political faction, they were skittish about issues seen as leftist or liberal policy.”

Matthew Fox the former Dominican who was hounded out of the Catholic church for his exploration of creation centered spirituality makes a great point about the individualist drive of traditional religious right positions:

“So much of the [evangelical] agenda has come from the modern consciousness of the individual,” says Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian in Oakland, Calif. “Am I saved? Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? But I think this generation has grown up with the realization that the planet is dying and that its survival is a little more important than whom people sleep with.”

For more from Fox check out this interview

Battlestar Galactica at the UN

So say we all: BSG rocks the UN...."The UN is more than a building with fantastic curtains" - Whoopi Goldberg.

So say we all: BSG rocks the UN...."The UN is more than a building with fantastic curtains" - Whoopi Goldberg.

I am just catching up on this one thanks to a post at The Seemless Web (a great blog on law and popular culture I’ve just discovered), but a few weeks ago the UN hosted a forum to celebrate the finale of Battlestar Galactica. Apparently the seats of the general assembly were decked out with name plates for the 12 colonies of Kobol! As Marc Bernardin at PopWatch cutely reports : “Sci Fi turned the United Nations into the Quorum of Twelve. Which may be the third coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” But it’s not as crazy as it sounds, Bernardin continues:

While the idea of the UN hosting a retrospective on Battlestar Galactica might sound a little odd, as the night went on it started to make perfect sense. From the very beginning, BSG has dealt with moral issues — what it means to be human, the rule of law vs. the military might, the arguable merits of armed insurgency — issues which find themselves on the UN’s docket almost every day. As Robert Orr, the Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning put it, “You’ve got people thinking about issues that we try and get people thinking about every day.”….

When one of the UN’s representatives talked about how part of their mandate was to safeguard the human rights of everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and station, Olmos got a little heated. “You never should’ve invited me here,” he said, before blasting the UN for continuing to use race as a term of separation, of division among peoples. His voice rose, steadily, as if years of social activism was coming to a head on this night. Then, directing his attention to the high schoolers [300 in the audience]: “Adults will never be able to stop using the word ‘race’ as a cultural determinant….There is only one race: the human race. SO SAY WE ALL!”

I swear to you, everyone in that chamber shouted it right back at him. Because the Admiral asked us to.

And Mary McDonnell leaned over and gently wiped a tear from Olmos’ cheek.

The continuing politics of torture

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

In his latest New York Review of Books article Mark Danner makes the key point: “When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing.” Which is not to say that he believes that torture is still occurring but that the politics of torture is still at the heart of US politics and the ongoing construction of the symbolic war on terror:

Torture, as the former vice-president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland. For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president, as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this. For if torture really was a necessary evil in what Mr. Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of “keeping the country safe,” then it follows that its abolition at the hands of the Obama administration will put the country once more at risk. It was Barack Obama, after all, who on his first full day as president issued a series of historic executive orders that closed the “black site” secret prisons and halted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been practiced there, and that provided that the offshore prison at Guantánamo would be closed within a year.

In moving instantly to do these things Obama identified himself as the “anti-torture president” no less than George W. Bush had become the “torture president”—as the former vice-president, a deeply unpopular politician who has seized the role of a kind of dark spokesman for the national id, was quick to point out.

In an interview about the release of the ICRC report on torture, which Danner and the NYRB have made available for the first time, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, whose book Journey to the Dark Side documented many of the stories in the report, makes a similar point to Danner. The Obama administration cannot get away with a neutral position:

It seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as “witch hunts” and said we’re not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they’re going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they’re trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They’ve come out critical, they’ve said “we’re fixing this, it was wrong,” and they have started to fix it — I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they’re trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don’t think that’s going to work because they’re going to have a choice here. They’re at a fork in the road, where either they’re going to open things up, or they’re going to have to cover things up. There’s not a real neutral position to be there. And that’s what I think they’re beginning to realize.

Both Mayer and Danner make the same point that Cheney’s recent posturing about torture is pragmatic politics setting up a potential blame game if another attack occurs on Obama’s watch. As Danner puts it:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling. …Cheney’s politics of fear—and the vice-president is unique only in his willingness to enunciate the matter so aggressively—is drawn from the past but built for the future, a possibly post-apocalyptic future, when Americans, gazing at the ruins left by another attack on their country, will wonder what could have been done but wasn’t. It relies on a carefully constructed narrative of what was done during the last half-dozen years, of all the disasters that could have happened but did not, and why they did not, and it makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

Danner points out that there are others in the same administration, with access to the same reports, that dispute Cheney’s view:

We know a great deal about the Bush administration’s policy of torture but we need to know more. We need to know, from an investigation that will study all the evidence, classified at however high a level of secrecy, and that will speak to the nation with a credible bipartisan voice, whether the use of torture really did produce information that, in the words of the former vice-president, was “absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US.” We already have substantial reason to doubt these claims, for example the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who, as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell, had access to intelligence of the highest classification:

“It has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

New State of Play

Helen Mirren and Russell Crowe as the editor and her journalist in State of Play

Helen Mirren and Russell Crowe as the editor and her journalist in State of Play

From this NYT preview, sounds like Kevin McDonald’s two hour movie remake of the BBC series State of Play may have turned out OK. The change from London to Washington and from 2003 to 2008 mean the metaphor of the journalist has also undergone some renovation:

For the newspaper scenes Mr. Macdonald built a newsroom in Culver City, Calif., that is even messier than the real thing. He spent a lot of time at The Washington Post, and hired its metro editor, R. B. Brenner, as an adviser. “My idea was, what if you took the newsroom of ‘All the President’s Men,’ clean and crisp, with that ’70s architecture and bright primary colors, and imagined that it hadn’t been cleaned up in 30 years?” Mr. Macdonald said. “That sort of reflects the difference in how journalists are perceived now.”

He added that he was particularly pleased at the way the movie beefed up the character of Della, a young Scottish reporter played by Kelly Macdonald in the original, and turned her into a blogger (played by Rachel McAdams) who is somewhat at odds with Mr. Crowe’s old-school, shoe-leather character. “You’ve the blogosphere versus the print media,” Mr. Macdonald said. “If ‘All the President’s Men’ was what it was like in 1974, this is the way it is now.”

The death of Christian America?

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Amidst the proliferation of religion stories to coincide with Easter, the Newsweek cover story is a fantastic piece that has depth and currency. Written by the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, it is beautifully researched, engagingly written and strongly argued. It draws out a number of different points of view and possibilities around the theme of what a reported drop in religious affiliation might mean:

Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is “losing influence” in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

A few teaching points on style:

  • note the way he bookends the long feature with an anecdote from one of his key sources, Albert Mohler;
  • note the way he acknowledges his own religious position but neither his personal voice or faith dominate his argument;
  • note the diversity of primary and secondary sources and how he makes use of academic texts in a very reader friendly way; and
  • note the way he deep backgrounds the American constitutional tradition and various religious movements.

In a web post accompanying the article Meacham makes the point that some readers interpreted the story as an attack on Christianity. This is clearly not the case and is pretty obviously a knee jerk reaction to the coverline (“The decline and fall of Christina America”) by believers inculcated with the view that the press is anti-religious. Meacham notes:

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a “post-Christian” phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan “city on a hill.”

The final edition in Denver

Saying goodbye

The Rocky Mountain News, has become a regular example in my lectures to young journalists because of their commitment to great story telling, creative multimedia approaches and pulitizer prize winning features. Unfortunately they are about to become an example of a completely different kind: of the difficulties of sustaining a profitable model of journalism in the current economic environment. Today they closed their doors after their proprietors failed in their one month bid to sell the paper. As usual they say goodye with a stylish piece of multimedia. Hopefully their website will stay operational.


Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

Yes We Can

This little video is a perfect example of multimedia reporting. A great summary intro which narrates the civil rights precedents to the Obama victory which combines historic footage intercut with Obama’s victory speech and contemporary commentary is followed by an interview with the perfectly chosen Maya Angelou. She concludes with a recitation of her poem “I rise” which resonates with the type of rhetorical speech making of Obama and other black leaders from the opening report. It also has an accompanying text feature

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Dopple your fun – Technology – smh.com.au

Five internet gurus spell out what’s happening at technology’s cutting edge, writes Nick Galvin.The breakneck pace of online innovation is showing no sign of slackening. New tools, concepts and services seem to pop up on the internet almost daily, making it nigh on impossible for the average punter to keep up with it all.

Dopple your fun – Technology – smh.com.au

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Student blogs as uni promotion

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

A number of universities are using student blogs as a kind of “reality ad” for their courses and campus life. Here in Sydney UTS had an ill fated go at it that didn’t really take off but as I noted in another post last year Sydney Uni has a more vibrant project still going. Today I came across a really good example of it at Ball State, Indianna. These bloggers have remained committed over the course of the year and have produced an interesting take on campus life. The vodcasts by a com student adds an extra dimension as well.

What is even more impressive is all the other uses of blogging at Ball State. Everyone from Freshman advisors through to the alumni office are using blogs.

The communication and media students have a number of different blogging projects. Notes from the digital Frontier presents a range of comments from young people about technology, social networking and media – its opinionated and not very in-depth but it presents a really interesting way of getting students to begin to track their own interaction with the new digital environment. Ball Bearings is a neat multimedia site that the students produce with lots of good little info packages, games blogs and videos.

It’s a very impressive cross-campus cross-faculty commitment to blogging it would be interesting to see how blogging is being used at the subject level in different courses for assignments at a University like this – I will search around and see if I can find out more.

Possibleworldz redesign

I have redesigned this site again following on from last year’s attempt to integrate my different blogging worlds. I was never completely happy with my 2006 design and my attempts at regular blogging this year have been sporadic to say the least. I am hoping that having my key content areas up front will encourage me to write more across diverse areas.

It is interesting that in the last 12 months the notion of using WordPress as a CMS has evolved pretty dramatically. The mimbo theme that I have adapted here makes this very easy and there is also at least one “pro-theme” around as well.

When I searched tweleve months ago the commentary on WordPress as a CMS was scattered and unfocused. Now there is also a lot of very informed discussion and many helpful hints on taking WordPress beyond blog style sites. Miriam Schwab over at WordPress Garage now has a whole section on WP as a CMS.

One of my projects for next year is to take our student journalism website to WordPress and in many ways this redesign has been a test run for that.

The interesting thing about websites and blogging is that it is a constant process of adaptation and reinvention and in this way it becomes the perfect metaphor of life lived across a number of possible worlds.

Symbolic politics

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

They kept the star power to the end. Al Gore fired-up the weary Bali climate change conference delegates with a speech which named the inconvenient truth everyone was battling against: the Bush delegates were stonewalling again. But his message of hope was more instructive: America is changing. As Time noted:

Toward the end of his speech Gore, with his customary taste for the eccentric analogy, invoked the hockey player Bobby Hull, who Gore said was skilled because he sent the puck, not where his teammates were, but where they would be. “You have to look to where we’re going to be”

If Gore wasn’t enough. Leonardo Di Caprio also flew in for the final hours of talks or maybe for the after party. Who knows? He might not have much effect on the talks but according to the The Guardian’s David Adam his arrival cheered many weary women journalists.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd got a lot of great press to start with after announcing his signing of Kyoto but in the last few days his refusal to join Europe on the 25-40% emissions clause has dulled his star. Rudd said last week that these talks were “horse-trading” and as a former diplomat he knows the trade better than many others.

To explore a slightly different metaphor, one with some poignancy after more news about further arctic ice caps melts: everyone is trying to stay afloat. Some are dog paddling quietly while others are splashing around trying to get attention. Europe is making a big noise hoping to push the agenda forward while the US is playing the old game of talking to extend the talking rather than to conclude the deal. Australia is playing to two different audiences: Rudd can’t afford to give the home-front opposition forces an excuse early in his term to talk about economic irresponsibility of his climate stance so he is being cagey on exact targets – he says he is waiting for his commissioned economic impact statement. He needs this report as ammunition. On the international level he seems to be siding with the US Japan and Canada perhaps, one would hope, in order to later play a mediator role which will push this group forward. Adam is more forthright about this political game than most of the mainstream reports have been:

Few will say it officially, but most here seem to have settled for a Bali roadmap that commits all countries to a formal negotiation on a new treaty, but doesn’t include the numbers. Even Greenpeace said as much this morning, joining the US, the UK (and so Europe) and the UN officials running the whole circus. So why are we still here? And why the continuing threats from both sides? Seasoned observers say this end game is all about how to sell the agreement when the countries go their separate ways tomorrow and have to explain to their citizens what they have signed up to. Each needs a success to trumpet, some good old fashioned political spin. Ours will be that the US has been dragged to the negotiating table. Mr Bush will point out that he is taking the issue seriously, without actually committing to anything.

There is a lot of posturing going on here but symbolic politics is increasingly important. In Bali Gore again went with his “the earth has a fever” metaphor and it is the power of metaphors like this one mixed with the startling brutality of constantly emerging new scientific facts that has really pushed the debate forward. The theatre of dispute has also emerged as important in the last days of the talks with the Europeans and the Indonesians unafraid to make their anger clear.

The term “roadmap” which is constantly being used reminds of course about another series of endlessly disastrous negotiations: the fraught process toward peace in the middle east. Here key moments of symbolic politics seem to have had little effect on real outcomes. But at least the pressure of symbolic politics have kept all parties at the negotiating table. As Yvo de Boer, the UN’s point man in Bali told the BBC it is unlikely that the politicians will walk away from Bali with no agreement:

“It’s possible but it won’t happen,” he said.

“It won’t happen because such public pressure has been built to deliver a result here, I do not believe ministers will be able to leave this conference without a political answer to the scientific message they have received.

”Everybody is working hard towards a result, nobody wants to see it fail and nobody wants to be the country that makes it fail.“

Charlie Rose Interview with Jon Krakauer

Emile Hirsch plays maverick mystic Chris McCandless in <em>Into the Wild</em>” width=”440″ height=”229″ /><p class=Emile Hirsch plays maverick mystic Chris McCandless in Into the Wild

In this interview Jon Krakauer talks about Christopher McCandless and what drew him to the story of the young man who went “into the wild”. He says he felt a visceral tingle when he first read reports of the hunters who had found the then unidentified body of the young adventurer

And from the original article on which Into the Wild is based:

McCandless’s personality was puzzling in its complexity. He was intensely private but could be convivial and gregarious in the extreme. And despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham who would seize any excuse to regale friends and strangers with spirited renditions of Tony Bennett tunes. In college he directed and starred in a witty video parody of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. And he was a natural salesman: Throughout his youth McCandless launched a series of entrepreneurial schemes (a photocopying service, among others), some of which brought in impressive amounts of cash.Upon graduating from high school, he took the earnings he’d socked away, bought a used Datsun B210, and promptly embarked on the first of his extemporaneous transcontinental odysseys. For half the summer he complied with his parents’ insistence that he phone every three days, but he didn’t check in at all the last couple of weeks and returned just two days before he was due at college, sporting torn clothes, a scruffy beard, and tangled hair and packing a machete and a .30-06 rifle, which he insisted on taking with him to school….McCandless could be generous and caring to a fault, but he had a darker side as well, characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption, qualities that seemed to intensify throughout his college years. “I saw Chris at a party after his freshman year at Emory,” remembers Eric Hathaway, “and it was obvious that he had changed. He seemed very introverted, almost cold. Social life at Emory revolved around fraternities and sororities, something Chris wanted no part of. And when everybody started going Greek, he kind of pulled back from his old friends and got more heavily into himself.”

Who’s on the Line?

Would a jury convict Jack Bauer?...Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't think so

Would a jury convict Jack Bauer?...Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't think so

From a longer Washingtonpost.com article about TV and movie representation of surveillance:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who back in June reportedly went to great lengths to defend Jack Bauer. …At a legal conference in Ottawa, responding to another participant who warned against asking, “What would Jack Bauer do?”

Scalia mounted a spirited defense, saying, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. . . . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The Globe and Mail of Canada reported on the event.

Scalia then apparently hammered at the legal conundrum of prosecuting the likes of Bauer:

“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him?”

He asked: “Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”

Billy tells nothing

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Pastor in Chief from Time’s Nancy Gibbs and Michel Duffy has a perfect anecdotal opening:

You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners’ shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.

And as we read further we are promised so much. Gibbs and Duffy tell us that they visited their famous subject, Billy Graham, several times over thirteen months, and that the aging pastor who has been a fixture on the American political scene for over fifty years had agreed to talk to them about his unique relationships with the last 11 presidents. What a story!There are some lovely moments and the picture we get of Graham, as a lovely old man who has led a fascinating life but still retains his innocence, is finely drawn. We are told that the Presidential families and the Grahams could empathise with each other because they were all public figures:

For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss–literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004.

We are treated to intriguing little scenes such as his last conversation with Lady Bird Johnson:

Last month, Johnson’s daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.

We are told he “thinks a lot of” Hillary Clinton. That Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality and commissioned a “secret” actuarial report on the likelihood of surviving another term in office. But there are no real secrets revealed here although some startling hints are dangled:

Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower’s or Johnson’s private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon’s political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.

These fascinating questions are raised by the authors but we are not privy to any of Graham’s answers. His role in lobbying lawmakers on an arms deal certainly sounds like a “line” was crossed and an exploration of this would have made for a much more revealing feature. I suspect there were strict guidelines about what could and couldn’t be written about and maybe this is Gibbs and Duffy’s way of hinting at what they can’t write about until after Graham goes to meet his maker. But in the end they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their stated purpose:

At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham’s 50-year courtship of – and courtship by – 11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people.

In the end they add absolutely nothing to this “public debate”. All we get is Graham hagiography. It’s a perfect example of a beautifully crafted feature, on a fascinating subject that fails dismally because it says nothing so well.

Why do men kill their wives? – The Boston Globe

Why do men kill their wives? from the Boston Globe provides a great example of an effective anecdotal lead:

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, LISA HARTWICK WAS RIDING IN AN elevator in Boston when she overheard a conversation between two men. One of the men was going through a divorce, and he was venting to his friend about lawyers and child support payments. At that point, Hartwick recalls, the man suggested, within earshot of everyone, that maybe he should just kill his wife, that it would be cheaper and easier that way. Hartwick, the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was stunned. “I really didn’t know what to say,” she recalls. “Luckily, his friend said to him, ‘That’s a lot of money. I understand. I’m going through it myself. But you’ve got kids.’”

Writer Keith O’Brien then moves quickly, using the anecdote to frame the feature “question”. He continues:

It was probably just talk. The man was frustrated and likely never had any real intention of murdering his wife. Then again, who knows? Spouses kill spouses for many reasons. But the most intriguing reason may be this: Sometimes men – and let’s be clear here, it is almost always men – decide to murder their wives simply as a way to end a rocky, unhappy marriage and avoid a divorce that could ruin their bank accounts or trash their reputations or spoil a dream life they have concocted for themselves. It is bizarre, seemingly inexplicable choice, especially considering the type of men involved. They are not hardened criminals, by and large, but rather domesticated suburb dwellers with fine cars, big houses, and nice wives. When the cops show up after these same wives turn up dead, the neighbors are shocked. Not here, they say. Not this guy. He wouldn’t choose murder over divorce, the risk of prison time over child support payments. He wouldn’t do this. To observers – and ultimately to jurors – it makes absolutely no sense. And yet the list of apparently nice, normal suburban Massachusetts men who have made this decision is long and infamous.

He then moves into a quick set of exemplar cases and on to the timely reason for the feature’s appearance: “And now the state is gearing up for not one but two trials of high-profile alleged wife killers in Middlesex County.” The feature continues to skillfully weave, case data with anecdotes and expert opinion and comes full circle at its end with another anecdote and a similar question mark. After describing the case of Harold and Jamie Stonier, O’Brien concludes with an account of Harold Stonier’s testimony:

On the stand at his trial in 2005, he gave a wandering explanation for why he wanted to hire a hit man to off his wife. There were financial problems. He alleged that she was a bad mother. That she only wanted him for his money. That he was under a lot of pressure. That his job was very demanding. That his wife was out of control. That he was having a nervous breakdown. That he was trying to do everything he could to save the marriage. But it just wasn’t possible, he told the jurors, and he began to think about having her killed. As far as he was concerned, this was perfectly logical. Everyone having problems in their marriage, Harold Stonier testified, must from time to time think about these things. Right?

In another feature this could have well been an opener but in the context of the structure that O’Brien has used, coming back to an anecdote that mirrors his lead and raises a similar question works well. He leaves the reader pondering but he has equipped them with a set of stories and facts which allows them to think more carefully about his rhetorically posed question.

Fearsome foodie

Shelley Gare’s Weekend Austraian Magazine cover story on Melbourne Chef d’jour Shannon Bennett isn’t a ground breaking piece of literary journalism but it is a very good example of a lively, meticulously researched and well structured profile that also tells a wider story.Gare inserts a bit too much of herself into the feature for my liking but she is great at building in anecdotal detail and description. After a story about a Barcelona chef who has “has taken a green olive, pureed it, and then bound it back together with gelatine so that it has the mouth-feel of egg yolk but still tastes of olive,” Gare introduces Bennett’s restaurant Vue de Monde:

But the Little Collins Street restaurant has a similar devotion to detail and surprise. It serves a water, for example, that has been harvested from the cleanest clouds on the planet. It’s called Cape Grim Water, it comes from air blown up from the Antarctic over empty, icy ocean, and it’s offered to diners who are drinking particularly fine wines and want an absolutely neutral palate. The clouds form when the cold air meets the warm air over the north-west cape of Tasmania. There are just zero to 500 particles per cubic centimetre in the air, say the water’s bottlers, compared with 5000 to 10,000 particles in Sydney’s and 10 times that in China’s.Once collected, the water goes straight into tanks and is never allowed to come into contact again with the pedestrian air you and I breathe. It makes me think of larks’ tongues and peeled grapes, but when I finally taste this bottled rainwater it is like drinking dew from a meadow. Indeed, given the ingenuity and expense that goes into gathering it, I start thinking this water is pretty reasonable at $11.50 a 750ml bottle ($7.50 recommended retail). That is exactly the effect luxury is supposed to have upon us.

Gare spent four days at Vue de Monde (yes it is spelled that way she tells us because of a misprint on early stationery that they decided to stay with) and she builds in some fine descriptions of the place and of the chefs at work:

My first glimpse of Vue de Monde is at 10am one Tuesday when the high white space of the restaurant is empty, the cool dark pierced only by the pale green tracery on the water glasses and the glint from the hand-forged Laguiole Inox cutlery from France. But already, the long open kitchen is flooded with golden light, like a stage. There are heavy mirrors suspended above the two marble-topped “passes” – where the food is passed from the kitchen, assembled on plates, and passed to the waiters. The mirrors reflect the chefs as they do their prepping. Some have been at it since eight this morning. They will work until close to midnight, then be here again early tomorrow. At this time of day, the tableau looks like a foodie version of Rembrandt’s study of dark and light, The Night Watch.It’s also the time of day for hours of drudge work. Apprentice Matt Butcher is starting on a 20kg bag of potatoes which must be peeled, sliced top and bottom and then put through the French fries cutter. A young English chef-de-partie, Alasdair Hancock, is cutting potatoes into half-moon slices, and then piling them into pyramids for potato mille-feuilles to go with the paper-thin Wagyu. On another day, three chefs take two hours to produce 48 vacuum-packed serves of Murray cod which will later be poached. It will be enough for about two days. A young kitchen-hand manfully surveys a massive tray of dark brown cooked hare legs which have to be turned into confit. A small pie stuffed with rare quail breast and quail mousse studded with foie gras cannot be baked until another chef-de-partie has scored its puff pastry lid 32 times.It reminds me of artisans hunched over their precious work, ruining eyesight, fingers, backs and shoulders as they create something they believe is a privilege to make. “Arthritis at 25,” Hancock says. “They don’t tell you that at college.”

This last para is also typical of the way she uses “quick quotes” to add personality and contrast to her reporting.Like all good profilers she has clearly interviewed a large number of people to get a handle on Bennett. She uses them to build up a picture of the determined and demanding 31 year old. But she uses their quotes selectively.Her structure is quite complex and she meanders in and out of anecdotes, comment, background and interview with her subject but she maintains a beautiful sense of flow with smart connecting devices.

But that’s Crazy Talk

Sharon Weinberger’s extraordinary feature for the Washington Post Magazine about “TIs” – people who belive they are “Targeted Individuals” of government mind control experiments – is a fine example of suspending judgement and allowing a sympathetic portrait to emerge from an unusal story. She does not avoid the humour in the story but she never laughs out loud at her subject’s expense:

IF HARLAN GIRARD IS CRAZY, HE DOESN’T ACT THE PART. He is standing just where he said he would be, below the Philadelphia train station’s World War II memorial — a soaring statue of a winged angel embracing a fallen combatant, as if lifting him to heaven. Girard is wearing pressed khaki pants, expensive-looking leather loafers and a crisp blue button-down. He looks like a local businessman dressed for a casual Friday — a local businessman with a wickedly dark sense of humor, which had become apparent when he said to look for him beneath “the angel sodomizing a dead soldier.” At 70, he appears robust and healthy — not the slightest bit disheveled or unusual-looking. He is also carrying a bag.

It is also beautifully structured with the story of Harlan Girard as the anchor of the narrative, but far from the only voice. Weinberger introduces us to other TIs and pursues research and reporting that tries to determine what exactly the Pentagon is doing in the area of mind control. It is an excellent example of a feature that combines research into a broader social issue and intimately told stories of those whom it affects.In the end it comes full circle and ends with a celebration of Girard’s survival:

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.”That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”

Grizzley attack

Thomas Curwen’s narrative about Johan Otter’s encounter with a grizzley bear is one of those features that grabs you and wont let you go – just like the grizzley in attack mode:

JOHAN looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn’t sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.

It is dynamic wordcraft that recreates the frenzy of the attack through the rhythm of the writing.Curwen told Narrative Digest that he received over 400 reader emails about the story and his experience with the piece convinces him “that the salvation of newspapers lies in narratives.”

Good Mother Bad Mother Politics

It is hard to imagine what the impeccably dressed Condoleezza Rice feels when she has to defend a President that she must now know deep down is a tremendous disappointment. She endured hours of Senate grilling including a bravura performance from Senator Barbara Boxer :

BOXER: October 19th ’05, you came before this committee to discuss, in your words, how we assure victory in Iraq, and you said the following. In answer to Senator Feingold, “I have no doubt that as the Iraqi security forces get better — and they are getting better and are holding territory, and they are doing the things with minimal help — we are going to be able to bring down the level of our forces. I have no doubt” — I want to reiterate — “I have no doubt that that’s going to happen in a reasonable time frame.” You had no doubt, not a doubt. And last night, the president’s announcement of an escalation is a total rebuke of your confident pronouncement.

Now, the issue is who pays the price, who pays the price? I’m not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old, and my grandchild is too young. You’re not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, within immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families, and I just want to bring us back to that fact.

NPR has done a series of interviews with families who have lost kids. And the announcer said to one family in the Midwest, “What’s changed in your life since your son’s death?” The answer comes back, “Everything. You can’t begin to imagine how even the little things change, how you go through the day, how you celebrate Christmas”…

RICE: And let me just say, you know, I fully understand the sacrifice that the American people are making, and especially the sacrifice that our soldiers are making, men and women in uniform. I visit them. I know what they’re going through. I talk to their families. I see it.

I could never — and I can never — do anything to replace any of those lost men and women in uniform, or the diplomats, some of whom –

BOXER: Madame Secretary, please, I know you feel terrible about it. That’s not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions. And the fact that this administration would move forward with this escalation with no clue as to the further price that we’re going to pay militarily — we certainly know the numbers, billions of dollars, that we can’t spend here in this country.

The exchange has been called a “flash point” by the NYT and has been the talk of the blogsphere with many like Rush Limbaugh accusing Boxer of “hitting below the ovaries”. Rice said in a later interview that Boxer has “set back feminism” with her comments:

“I thought it was okay to be single,” Ms. Rice said. “I thought it was okay to not have children, and I thought you could still make good decisions on behalf of the country if you were single and didn’t have children.”

The anti-feminist line is of course a furphy. Boxer’s emotionalism highlights something essential that is missing from the public debate. The orchestration of the war and Rice’s own quibbling over words – such as whether Bush’s new plan is a “surge” “escalation” or her latest obfuscation: “an augmentation” – abstracts the reality of war’s mortality. That Bush and Rice are put under personal notice of their complicity in the deaths of not just US troops but of thousands of Iraqis is only right in what has become their personal crusade. A crusade where they have repeatedly ignored the advice of their own experts. Bush and Rice have no option but to continue to defend the fantasy and it is up to people like Boxer to puncture the plausibility this fantasy with the real stories of those being affected.

Andrew Sullivan says that Boxer’s statement “was the kind of cheap shot that makes substantive discourse impossible. Boxer was questioning Rice as a senator questioning a secretary of state. Their family relationships are utterly irrelevant to the point at hand, i.e. the current Iraq strategy.” This is typical of those that imagine that “substantive discourse” must remain in a Habermassian rational mode. Neither Bush nor Rice produce “substantive discourse” on Iraq their statements are littered with emotional appeals very similar to Boxer’s. This is merely a clash of stories and sits uncomfortably because it is clearly emotive where as Bush and Rice’s rhetoric is often cloaked more carefully.

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Images of death

The Saddam hanging videos have raised key questions about the changing power of circulated images. The brutality of the incident is emphasised in the dirty grain and jerky focus of the mobile phone images. the release of the second video apparently posted on a pro-baathist news site and apparently showing the ugly state of Saddam’s neck after the hanging was labeled: “A new film of the late immortal martyr, President Saddam Hussein.” It is clear that the images are quickly becoming a part of the radical Sunni haigiography of Saddam.Today there was a brief report in the Sydney Morning Herald about revenge hangings by Saddam’s supporters:

The day after Saddam’s execution, residents in Baghdad’s Haifa Street reported that three minibuses had roared into the street. Gunmen pulled blindfolded prisoners out of the buses, shooting any who tried to resist. They then threw ropes over streetlight poles, put nooses round the necks of the remaining hostages and suspended them. “We watched as all these blindfolded men were hung up and some were shot in the head,” said a supermarket worker, Imad Atwan.An Interior Ministry spokesman said 102 bodies of Shiites had been discovered. “We believe 90 per cent of them were taken hostage for Saddam Hussein’s execution,” he said.

It is interesting that this incident has been barely reported and no images of it have begun to circulate whereas when four American contractors were hung on the bridges of Fallujah the west’s outrage was enough justification for the publication of the images.On Alternet today Richard Blair reminds us of the power of images on public opinion during the Vietnam war (image above: Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photo of nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack) and notes that both the US government and the American media continue to censor images of the Iraq war:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post buried a story on Page A14 that could certainly have a significant influence over the public’s perception of future U.S. involvement in Iraq:

Capturing images of war on their digital cameras, as many troops in Iraq have done, Marines took dozens of gruesome photographs of the 24 civilians who were killed in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005… …Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack. …The images are contained in thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents obtained by The Washington Post. Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish… [emphasis mine]

During a week when George Bush is preparing to announce his strategery for escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq, and on a day when five more servicemen were killed, the Post editors made a decision that they wouldn’t publish graphic images of the war, either in their newspaper or online.

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Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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Student blogs

I have just finished marking 75 student blogs and 75 reflective essays from this semester’s features course.I had the students posting three times a week in three categories: observations from life, analysing features and feature ideas. This seemed to me like a perfect vehicle to explore observational writing, strong structure and interesting ideas – the three cornerstones of good feature writing. The advantage of the blog over individual assignments in these areas is that, as an ongoing series of weekly exercises, students gain both an experience of writing to deadline and a sense of a developing set of ideas emerging over time.The work was, of course, variable but there was a strong emerging consensus in the reflective essays that the blogging exercise was a surprising but important learning experience. The following quotes are typical:

Student 1: At first I was reluctant to do some of these things (especially the descriptive writing exercises), but once I started to write more regularly, I became quite fond of my blog and was committed to building it up and making it look like a complete piece of work.Student 2: Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this course was – completely unexpectedly – the blogging exercise. At first, this seemed to be a useless adventure into time wasting, however, over time this became the most important part of the course. Working to a deadline, constantly thinking of new ideas, and pressuring myself to better each post. The blog assignment proved so useful to me personally, that I landed a job working as a paid blogger for a website. Its amazing that at the beginning of the session, I said that I wouldn’t want to blog, even if I was paid to do it. Three months later I am getting paid for it, but I’d gladly do it for free.Student 3: Despite some initial skepticism, I really enjoyed doing the blog assignment. I never saw myself doing something like that and, although I often forgot to post or ran out of time, I liked seeing its progression online. It taught me to think about writing constantly, for example every time I saw something interesting I’d think “oh I should do an observation piece on that!”

Nearly all of the reflections about the blogging exercise express initial reluctance/scepticism about the idea but then go on to say how this was overcome as they “got into” the task. The different way that different students “get into” blogging is interesting:

  • For some the “ah hah” moment comes as they begin to see the blog as a “thing” that they can tinker with, change, develop and create. They move from doing an assignment to “making it a complete piece of work”
  • For others it is noticing the influence of the blog on other aspects of their work or thinking as one student said: “I realised I was beginning to think like a journalist” because the blog became a focus for what might have just been passing ideas.
  • For others it is getting over the “geek” factor – “they” do that it’s not for me.

This confirms an old post of James McGee that I often quote when talking about blogging:

There are four hurdles to pass to move from willing volunteer to competent blogger: learning the technology environment, developing an initial view of blogging, plugging into the conversation, and developing a voice. These are not so much discrete phases as they are parallel tracks that can be managed. (McGee 2002)

There are other elements that emerged from this semester’s work that I will post about over the next few days.

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Fallen Preacher Man

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In amidst following the election coverage (and all my corrections) I have still found time to be fascinated by the Ted Haggard scandal and have been spending time as a lurker in the Christian blogsphere (a revelation in itself – a very vibrant and diverse community) where the discussion has been fierce. What struck me immediately is how Christians, no matter their protestations, have taken it in their stride, this is because in some way “sin” is even more familiar to them than sanctity. As Jeff Sharlet commented on radio open source:

Is this the end of the Christian Right? No, no. Where does it go from here? Ted’s downfall is just going to make the movement stronger…This is a classic narrative, the fallen preacher. They know how to deal with this story, they depend on this story for drama, just as much as secular reporters depend on it.

This embrace of the predictable narrative is very striking. It is what gives Christianity a disturbing circular logic. Take this comment:

Praise the Lord that He knows what is best for HIs children. Even through this dark time I see more of God’s grace. Although the world my use this as an excuse to point the fingers at us Christians as hypocrites…we can point back to Christ as our Savior. Let us brothers and sisters show the Lord that they too need a Savior as Ted Haggard does. Let us show the world that He will forgive His child and that we are not perfect beings…just forgiven. Let us count it all joy through this trial and glorify God in the midst of it. We must stand together for the Lord’s sake.

Christianity as a narrative is all about the miracle of paradox: God/Man, Three-in-one God, darkness into light, he died that we might have life etc. At its most sophisticated it represents a deft worldview that engages in a beautiful dance with both the sacramental/symbolic and the materiality of life but at its most mundane it becomes just plain hokey: one door closes another opens. Either way, for the believer it is an unshakeable, incredibly buoyant framework.The other aspect of this symbolic world is that it is populated by a set of contradictory signs that depend on each other. The fall of Haggard is not only understandable it is in some ways necessary to the ongoing strength of the symbolic narrative and as Sharlet has pointed out the “gay man” (archetype not person) is also vitally necessary to the construction of the contemporary evangelical self.

This whole idea of purity as a way in which you can become a real activist in the cause. You might not be out there protesting outside an abortion clinic, or going out on a mission trip, but you are sort of conducting a mission trip in your own genitals. Driving lust out from your body the way Christ drives the demons out. And it makes everyone feel like, wow, I’m a part of something big…And the reason that the gay man looms so large is because, in their imagination, he’s the one who gives into his temptations entirely…The gay man, he’s not even procreating, it’s just about him, it’s just about pleasure, it’s just selfishness.

There have of course been some quite sophisticated takes on what Haggard means by Christian bloggers. The editor of Reformation 21 has what is in many ways a very traditional view of the whole episode but he recognises that there are two narratives and both the “denounce Ted” and the “just like Ted” narratives are equally flawed. But he does make the interesting point:

The Ted Haggard situation exposes a lot of dark reality in the evangelical movement that we should not gloss over in the interests of “grace”. A high percentage of our churches have hired ministers based solely on their oratorical gifts, with little consideration of whether or not they really are men of God. Godly men who lead holy lives are run out of pulpits so that hip, cool, media personalities can be put in their place. It is generally true, in my opinion, that our evangelical movement has pursued lifestyle happiness over biblical holiness, has emphasized numerical sucess over biblical truth, and has revelled in the gifts of men rather than in the glory of God. In this respect, I fear that the “show grace to Ted” argument fails to confront the values that dominate the broader Christian movement of which we are a part that have contributed to such scandals.

This post or others like it are not going to change these structural issues within American evangelical christianity but it does show a recognition that the logic of transformation at the heart of the personalised message of salvation does have to be taken seriously at the orgainsational level.

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Incestuous Amplification

The wisdom from political commentators last night seemed to be that Rumsfeld would be given a reprieve in spite of the election results. The history of the Bush regime shows heel digging as a common response to critique. But maybe the decider has just had enough this time. He admitted to reporters today that he lied when asked about Rumie last week because it was the only way to get them to go onto the next question in pre-election week. No one has made much of this admission – it seems that it is suddenly acceptable for the president to lie to reporters when it is politically expedient.

The rules of the political-media game used to be that you could obfiscate and avoid but never lie. But Bush seems quite happy to admit to this lie and expects everyone to understand its necessity.

Lying in politics takes different forms it is not often presented as blatantly as this. One of its forms is what John Stauber calls “incestuous amplification” – the repetition and reinforcement of political spin by a tight cadre of players. WMD is the prime example. But a lot of the talk during Rumsfeld’s resignation today is similar, even people like McCain who have had huge disagreements with him over war strategy felt the need to compliment him.

Rumsfeld himself, of course, praised the President:

“The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war– the first war of the 21st century. ” Rumsfeld said. “it is not well-known, It was not well-understood. It is complex for people to comprehend, and I know with certainty that over time the contributions you’ve made will be recorded by history”

The first draft of such history is already being written and as we all know is no where near as complimentary. I am currently reading Woodward’s State of Denial and “dysfunctional” – the word that everyone is using – does not even cover the half of it. Rumsfeld comes across as a deeply neurotic control freak and George – I go with my gut – Bush as something like the Moousketeer-in-chief.

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A Christmas gift for Ted..

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

This is what Ted Haggard wanted for Christmas… It’s just one of the poses from Mike Jones massage web site. Rev Haggard is obviously not the only local Jones was keeping happy, his site says:

“Voted best massage and personal trainer for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 by readers of the community newspaper Out Front Colorado. Former state bodybuilding and powerlifting champion.”

Now you know why Ted was tempted.

It is interesting that some of the media are being quite coy about Jones describing him as a “former prostitute” yet he is quite happy to say that he was with Haggard as recently as August.

As the photo indicates Jones is anything but coy: “If you like a strong muscle man to bring pleasure to you then please call me. I am a muscle stud with a friendly personality and a caring heart.

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Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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A new home

After days of fiddling this new version of my blog is up and running. I have brought together all the entries from my other blogs and reverted to the name I chose when I first started blogging in 2004 – but with a “z” because the other domain was taken. I thought it was about time that I grew up and started to manage my own blog, cut the Typepad apron strings and built my own WordPress home.

I am a bit unsure about bringing together my Ph.D blog and my blogging and teaching blog but I want to see how it goes. Eventually I would like to learn enough about WordPress to bring over some of my other projects to this site as well.

I get my students to blog because I tell them that it encourages the practice of writing so maybe this new space will encourage me to also practice new kinds of writing. The irony is that the research and construction of the site has well and truly kept me away from the writing I should be doing – not to mention the marking!

Not New York

tsq_040_030

I have been thinking a lot about the “apocalytpic cities” section of my thesis. Initial thoughts are to focus on New York, but the whole idea of the multimodal mythic cluster means that New York is every city and every city is New York. Well, that is to say that New York is London, LA, Berlin, Shanghai, Hong Kong and various other nameless apocalyptic cities.

Just been searching out reviews of Children of Men a new adaptation of the P.D. James novel. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón(Y’Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Azkaban) it is set in a beautifully dystopic London cityscape. The film is set in a world where New York has been destroyed by an atomic bomb some years earlier so in a sense London becomes the haunted double of the destroyed city.

children-of-men

A number of the reviews criticise – as reviewers love to do – “gaps in the logic” of the film, but given Cuaron’s other films and the bits that I have seen on the trailer I suspect the film has a compelling visual logic – a spatially imagined logic that is played out in the filmic recreation of “London”. A futuristic story is by definition one that will have gaps: the gaps of what has not yet been. The imagined city in such films is the fragile container of such aporia.

Just started today must try to see over the weekend.

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At Reuters, a New Book and a Lost Job – New York Times

New York Times reports that Joe Maguire, one of two editors in charge of markets coverage at Reuters, has apparently been fired because his new book on right wing commentator Anne Coulter: Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter. A clear case where a commitment to objectivity principles quash argued critique.

On Wednesday, Mr. Maguire discovered he would have plenty of free time to promote his book, which comes out this week. Neither side in this dispute would say that he was fired.

“There was a difference of opinion about the approval I received to write this book,” Mr. Maguire said. “I thought I had met the conditions, and proceeded accordingly. As a result, I no longer work there.”

Mr. Maguire, who joined Reuters in April, said the book “looks at Ann Coulter’s arguments, and deconstructs them to show how misguided they can be.”

He added: “When the political discourse has dropped to the unfathomable levels it has, someone has to say this is wrong.”

He said he was unable to interview Ms. Coulter for the book, or even get her to return e-mail or phone messages left through her publicist.

Reuters confirmed that Mr. Maguire was granted conditional approval to write his book on Ms. Coulter — a conservative lightning rod, author and TV talking head. When asked what changed once the book was ready, a company statement pointed to Reuters’ principles of “integrity, independence and freedom from bias.” The statement reads: “Our editorial policy and The Reuters Trust Principles are prominently displayed for all to see on www.about.reuters.com. Mr. Maguire’s book will soon be available. Both speak for themselves.”

The bizarre aspect to this story is that Reuters is literally hiding behind their statement of principles and wont even say that Maguire was fired – they know that this would never play in a general discussion of freedom of expression. In announcing to colleagues that Maquire would not be working at the company any longer management gave out a copy of the “Trust Principles” and said that employees were not to ask why Maguire had been fired.

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Huffington in fine form on Woodward

The Blog | Arianna Huffington: Woodward as Journalistic Hero: the Real State of Denial | The Huffington Post:

Talk about being in a state of denial: praising Woodward for his very-late-to-the-party Iraq pile-on is like a music critic writing a rave of “Let It Be” and getting credit for discovering The Beatles. ….

Then there was the revelation, breathlessly delivered by Wallace in his intro, that after two years and more than 200 interviews, including “most of the top officials in the administration,” Woodward has come to “a damning conclusion: That for the last three years, the White House has not been honest with the American public.” Stop the presses, hold the front page! And burn all the copies of “Fiasco,” “Cobra II,” “The One Percent Doctrine,” “Hubris” — plus 99.9 percent of the blog posts on Iraq that have appeared on HuffPost since we launched — that have previously come to exactly the same “damning conclusion.” Why fork over $30 for much-older-than-yesterday’s news?

In her New York Times review of “State of Denial,” Michiko Kakutani says that Woodward paints a portrait of President Bush as “a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.”

To which I say: “Welcome to 2002, Bob.” I can only hold my breath in anticipation of what headline grabbing insights “the best excavator of inside stories” will “unearth” for his next book: “Paris Hilton: Shallow Party Girl,” or, perhaps, “Islamic Fundamentalism: Could be a Problem in the Future.”

A China moment?

0214_bush_460x276_1Stanley Fish says that it’s time for Bush to go to China.

I don’t mean that literally, but metaphorically. It’s time for George Bush to do what Richard Nixon did – perform an act whose effectiveness is a function of the fact that he is the last man anyone would have expected to do it. What would that act be? It won’t be – and shouldn’t be – agreeing to a face-to-face, one-on-one debate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, if only because when you accept the other guy’s invitation you cede him the initiative and the position of leadership, and we all know that George Bush will never willingly do that. No, it has to be something that a) makes clear that he is the one in charge, and b) is so surprising and (apparently) out of character that its very announcement alters the geopolitical landscape and disarms criticism in advance.

Fish’s idea is that Bush should announce a personal fact finding mission to the Middle East. An intriguing idea but I am not so sure it’s a China moment or would have the far reaching effects – symbolic or actual – that Fish proposes it might. What’s interesting are the comments at NYT.com. Here’s a typical comment:

Dear Mr. Fish: Indeed, the Grand Tour is an excellent idea (It is also clear you were enjoying yourself, tongue-in-cheek-or-otherwise, while you were composing this piece.) Here’s why it won’t happen: 1) George Bush does not expose himself to criticism; 2) George Bush does not expose himself to possible harm (Vietnam); 3) Mostly, George Bush does not do anything anyone else thought of first, unless that person’s last name is Cheney or Rove. You last name is Fish. Nice try anyway.

Both Fish and the commenter think they know who Bush is and how he thinks. They want him to act outside the square, jump out of his box because they are convinced they know exactly what box he’s in at the moment.

There’s a lot written about and a lot of evidence to support the incurious, man on a mission, black and white Bush – so much so the very idea of a China moment seems pretty preposterous. But more fundamental then any character flaws that we may or may not be able to identify is Bush’s sense of history. Bush and Nixon have very different notions of their own relationship to the world and to history. Nixon for all his flaws fundamentally saw himself as a statesman that’s what made China possible. Nixon prepared his whole life for that China moment, he not only wanted to be president, he wanted to be a historically significant President. He spent the last twenty years of his life ensuring that legacy. Bush is an accidental president. I suspect he would not have run again had he lost in 2000.

Nixon had both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda that had evolved and matured over time. He was an archetypal politician who for all his paranoia and self-aggrandizement knew – from bitter experience – that politics, real politics occurred over time. Bush has not set out to achieve anything because he believes he has been given a mission.

Bush believes – and in some senses he is right – that he has had his China moment. For Bush the transformation came early on: grabbing the megaphone in the rubble of ground zero, addressing the memorial at the National Cathedral and addressing the joint session of Congress in the weeks after 9/1, Bush unexpectedly declared himself to be a real leader – a war president. The puppet from Texas began to take hold of the strings. Sure his speeches were being written for him but what was new was a deeply personal sesne of mission that animated those speeches like never before.

Bob Woodward has been rightly criticised for giving Bush a free ride in Bush at War and Plan of Attack but what emerges clearly is Bush’s own conception of who he was and how he reacted and Bush believes himself to be a man called and transformed.

According to Woodward’s book, in the lead up to the joint session speech Bush had been insistent that it include a strong sense of his personal dedication to this new moment in American history. He hammered Mike Gerson and his coms team for a set of words that matched how he said he felt:

“I will not forget this wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

Gerson waited anxiously for a call from his boss following the speech. When the call came, according to Woodward, they both remember what the President said:

“I have never felt more comfortable in my life.”

After he made that declaration, the Presidency of George W. Bush jumped outside its box. Bush grabbed at the power of the “war time president” he quickly declared himself to be. Bush believes quite resolutely he has already been to China. Bush maybe worried about the short term prospects of his party in the mid-terms but I don’t think he worries about his role in history.

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TIME.com on the NIE

TIME.com: Why the Fight Over the NIE Report May Be a Wash:

Mark M. Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, in Arlington, Va., supervised the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates from 2002 to 2005, when he was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Lowenthal tells TIME that such estimate always allow people “to pick and choose to find whatever you want.”

“The Administration is smartly pointing out that there has not been another major attack in five years,” Lowenthal said. “You can argue whether that’s an accurate portrayal of how much progress we’ve made. But it’s more likely to resonate with people than something in the sixth paragraph of an NIE.”

The President’s friends and advisers say that his most critical mission is to leave his successors the tools to fight and win a multigenerational war on terror. If the trends described by the report materialize, that fight may be at least as harrowing for them as it has been for him.

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Condi the true believer

President Bush Returns To White House
Media Matters has a great analysis of the Katie and Condi show that aired recently on US 60 Minutes. The interview was pure Couric and pure 60 Minutes and represents what is best and worst about both those brands. Couric sits with that intense look that somehow manages to convey admiration and slight approbation at the same time but doesn’t convey the import of either emotion. She asks how you ask the Secretary of State out on a date (Rice: “I’m not going to go there”) and uses a quote from her daughter “Who made us the boss of them” as a question about American intervention in the Middle East. There are moments when she pulls Rice up: “But that’s not the question…” but she basically gives her a free ride and doesn’t challenge her on any substantive point. Significantly for Couric who’s move to CBS was wrapped up in the rhetoric of wanting to do serious journalism she never comes back at Rice or argues a a single question based on research.

But the show does what it sets out to do brilliantly, it produces a powerful piece of television which appears to grant the viewer unique and intimate access to the most powerful women in America. And just as the segment title proclaims, Rice is a “True Believer”. This is the myth of Rice that we see played out again and again. The girl who rose from Bombingham and emerged with determination and ambition. The loyalist who selflessly serves her president. The woman of conviction who wants to change the world. This is summed up in a little set piece Rice delivers early in the interview:

“I probably have at one level, a better understanding, or perhaps, let me say a more personal understanding of what the dark side of human beings can look like. I remember very well in 1963 when Birmingham was so violent. When it acquired the name ”Bomb-ingham. That even with my wonderfully protective family, you had to wonder why are they doing this to us? And on the other hand, I have a great faith in the ability of people to triumph over the dark side of human beings.“

She also uses her experience growing up in the pre-civil rights south to great effect to counter criticisms of the Bush administration’s push to ”spread democracy“ in the Middle East:

”And so when I look around the world and I hear people say, ‘Well, you know, they’re just not ready for democracy,’ it really does resonate. I hear echoes of, well, you know, blacks are kind of childlike. They really can’t handle the vote. Or they really can’t take care of themselves. It really does roil me. It makes me so angry because I think there are those echoes of what people once thought about black Americans.“

Many profiles of Rice draw comparisons between her and the President: sport, faith, fitness and steely conviction. As Nicholas Leeman once wrote: ”When you hear Rice speaking, that is what Bush would sound like if he was as articulate as she was.“

 

Rice and Bush are an intermingled myth she is always by his side, always whispering in his ear. Of all his advisers Rice is the one that is most visibly by the side of the decider. There has been speculation about the extent or power of her actual influence at different points but her most powerful role of being the other Bush – the same but different – has not changed. It can’t change without fundamentally altering the whole script: she’s a true believer.

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Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terror Threat

Finally what was bleeding obvious is now official. The New York Times reports on a new US Intelligence Estimate that comes to terms with the other effect of the Iraq war:

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

The intelligence estimate, completed in April, is the first formal appraisal of global terrorism by United States intelligence agencies since the Iraq war began, and represents a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,’’ it asserts that Islamic radicalism, rather than being in retreat, has metastasized and spread across the globe.

An opening section of the report, ”Indicators of the Spread of the Global Jihadist Movement,“ cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology.

The report ”says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,“ said one American intelligence official.

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The Greatest Story Ever Sold – By Frank Rich – Books – Review – New York Times

In a review of NYT Columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Never Told, writer and now Bard professor Ian Buruma sums up some of the general problems with current journalism – not startlingly original but neatly expressed:

THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling (over WMD and Bush-critical jounrnalsim): the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bêtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.

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Bush’s Black and White Ball – he’s threatening to take it on home.

A lot of stuff in the press – news, analysis and opinion – about opposition to Bush’s wiretap and torture plans from leading Republicans like Colin Powell. It is interesting though that even when these pieces seek to address substantive issues they nearly always end up analysing policy as posture rather than policy as content: Bush as defiant or Bush as backed into a corner.

Bush Untethered – New York Times Editorial:

Watching the president on Friday in the Rose Garden as he threatened to quit interrogating terrorists if Congress did not approve his detainee bill, we were struck by how often he acts as though there were not two sides to a debate. We have lost count of the number of times he has said Americans have to choose between protecting the nation precisely the way he wants, and not protecting it at all.

On Friday, President Bush posed a choice between ignoring the law on wiretaps, and simply not keeping tabs on terrorists. Then he said the United States could rewrite the Geneva Conventions, or just stop questioning terrorists. To some degree, he is following a script for the elections: terrify Americans into voting Republican. But behind that seems to be a deeply seated conviction that under his leadership, America is right and does not need the discipline of rules. He does not seem to understand that the rules are what makes this nation as good as it can be.

Analysis: Bush Sees Fewer Policy Options – Washingtonpost.com:

WASHINGTON — When President Bush addresses world leaders at the United Nations this week, he will have fewer options and lower expectations on almost every major foreign policy front than a year ago.

The United States is relying more readily on international institutions and alliances for help in Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Sudan and elsewhere. Yet, according to analysts, the Bush administration has less room to maneuver. Bush and his foreign policy advisers have tried with some success to dispel the caricature of Bush abroad as a Texas cowboy riding alone and herding the U.S. into an unpopular war in Iraq.But the war, now in its fourth year, devours resources and energy for other global objectives and feeds mistrust about U.S. intentions, experts say.

“I’m not sure they have changed their mind about to what extent to proceed unilaterally and how much to use military force so much as they have run out of options,” said Richard Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University who studies foreign policy and national security.

With Bush nearly halfway through his final term, time is dwindling for him to accomplish his signature goals of confronting terrorism and spreading democracy, and he faces more distractions at home, said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

When the president speaks to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, he plans to carry a strong message, “based upon hope, and my belief that the civilized world must stand with moderate, reformist-minded people and help them realize their dreams.

”I believe that’s the call of the 21st century,“ Bush told reporters Friday.

ABC News: Bush and Congress Butt Heads

In the Rose Garden Friday, President Bush was loud and clear: If Congress doesn’t agree with him, the hunt for terrorist plots will be crippled.

”The bottom line is simple,“ he said. ”If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program is not going forward.“…

”The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,“ Powell wrote to lawmakers. Redefining the Geneva Conventions ”would add to those doubts“ and ”put our own troops at risk.“

The president dismissed that argument — and some attempts from reporters to ask him about it.

”But sir, this is an important point,“ NBC’s David Gregory said in one exchange.

”The point I just made is the most important point,“ Bush replied.

President Bush was feisty and confident. Experts say his attitude is sure to bolster the mood at the White House.

Ana Marie Cox, Time.com’s Washington editor, commented on the White House’s strategy.

”I think they’re banking on the American public liking to see that strong president, liking to see someone be decisive,“ she said.

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9/11 in a Movie-Made World

Tom Englehardt poses a fascinating set of “what ifs” in an article that traces the “movie-made” world of September 11.

So here was my what-if thought. What if the two hijacked planes, American Flight 11 and United 175, had plunged into those north and south towers at 8:46 and 9:03, killing all aboard, causing extensive damage and significant death tolls, but neither tower had come down? What if, as a Tribune columnist called it, photogenic “scenes of apocalypse” had not been produced? What if, despite two gaping holes and the smoke and flames pouring out of the towers, the imagery had been closer to that of 1993? What if there had been no giant cloud of destruction capable of bringing to mind the look of “the day after,” no images of crumbling towers worthy of Independence Day?

We would surely have had blazing headlines, but would they have commonly had “war” or “infamy” in them, as if we had been attacked by another state? Would the last superpower have gone from “invincible” to “vulnerable” in a split second? Would our newspapers instantly have been writing “before” and “after” editorials, or insisting that this moment was the ultimate “test” of George W. Bush’s until-then languishing presidency? Would we instantaneously have been considering taking what CIA Director George Tenet would soon call “the shackles” off our intelligence agencies and the military? Would we have been reconsidering, as Florida’s Democratic Senator Bob Graham suggested that first day, rescinding the Congressional ban on the assassination of foreign officials and heads of state?…

If it all hadn’t seemed so familiar, wouldn’t we have noticed what was actually new in the attacks of September 11? Wouldn’t more people have been as puzzled as, according to Ron Suskind in his new book The One Percent Doctrine, was one reporter who asked White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “You don’t declare war against an individual, surely”? Wouldn’t Congress have balked at passing, three days later, an almost totally open-ended resolution granting the President the right to use force not against one nation (Afghanistan) but against “nations,” plural and unnamed?

Peter Manning, in an interview in today’s Australian (not online) promoting his new book, argues that we shouldn’t indulge in grand before and after 9/11 “new world” narratives, he points to other tragedies of much greater proportion such as Rwanda. But the reality is that 9/11 did fracture the world in a new way. The enormity of 9/11 cannot just be measured in the tragedy of the 3000 who died (how can you usefully “measure” 1000s or tens of 1000s of dead people anyway). The enormity of the event is in its production and its image. And as Englehardt points out, that is something radically new and powerfully familiar. Because of our “movie-made” world 9/11 was utterly familiar and totally startling all at the same time and that is the new sensation we are still getting used to even as we watch those towers fall again and again.

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Myth and possible stories

Great quote from a William Doty essay:

Myths die when they are no longer retold and revised. Mackey-Kallis proposes that myths “must change in culturally specific fashions if they are to speak to the changing conditions and concerns of the culture. Myths that do not evolve are no longer useful and often fade away. A living myth, therefore, is a responsive myth (233, my emphasis; she gives examples using the myth of the American West). Such a requirement leads her to an emphasis that falls within the third aspect of mythological interpretation: ”The mythic critic can also ask to what extent does the story that is being told open up interpretive possibilities rather than close them down?“

Such a critic may become quite unpopular when dealing with new potentials for revered and familiar myths within a scriptural canon! Imagine applying to a parable of Jesus the following question by Mackey-Kallis: ”To what extent does the myth allow for, even invite, multiple stories, with possibly different moral lessons for living, to coexist in the same mythic universe and possibly even inside of the same story?“ (233).

This fits perfectly with my own work where I have been critical of work in journalism and myth that merely looks for the mythic prototype or structure in contemporary news without asking how it is reinventing rather than just repeating the myth in a new guise.

Ref: Mackey-Kallis, Susan. 2001. The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.

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J Student blogs at NYT

In a fascinating experiment NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has selected a J student Casey Parks to travel with him throughout Africa and write about their experiences on a blog. Unfortunately this great little experiment is behind the Times Select barrier and requires paid registration (you can get a 14 day free trial or its $50 a year for lots of goodies).

This is a great way to use a blog and Parks is writing an interesting reflective narrative as she comes to terms with the desperate poverty of Africa, meeting with leading politicians and trying to break through to street level in spite of language barriers. She makes a good attempt not just to describe what she sees but to relate this to what it means for her as a journalist:

We’ve met a few people in Africa so far who have complained about Africa never receiving any positive press.

“Why do people only write about the bad stuff?” they ask us.

I’ve had the same question for years about Mississippi. In fact, one of the reasons I want to be a national correspondent is to be able cover the South in a more accurate way. Journalists from New York or other northern cities often swoop in, researching but not understanding the state, then file stories that don’t reflect the complexities of Mississippi.

Yes, it’s easy to report that the state is poor or repressive toward women. But where is the good coverage, the life that keeps people living there?

And I think many people in Africa feel the same way. Of course, I think many journalists writing about horrors in Africa are doing so in an attempt to help Africa, but there has to be some balance. As Prime Minister Mangue asked yesterday, “What about Africa’s progress?”

In thinking about Mississippi in the past, I’ve often thought of the William Blake quote, “Pity would be no more if we did not make somebody poor.” What would the other states do without Mississippi to pick on, to make them feel better about their own evolutions? Last night, looking out toward a very illuminated Yaounde, Cameroon, I asked Naka, “What will the world do once Africa really progresses?”

“They’ll work on Antarctica,” he replied.

The work of mourning and September 11

Began reading a very thoughtful article by Adi Drori-Avraham on September 11 this passage in particular struck me:

The photographic image, with its indexical power, its unflinching persistence to freeze time, to capture, to arrest, defies any attempt to deny or forget. As an authentic representation of events, the image not only testifies that an event really happened but also guarantees that it never ceases to happen. ‘When the picture is painful’, writes Ronald Barthes inCamera Lucida, ‘nothing in it can transform grief into mourning’ (1993, p. 90).

I was surprised over the last week, watching a number of the 9/11 5 year anniversary TV specials, how potent those endlessly repeated images remain. Because of this research I am in the zone of the event all the time so I was a little shocked when my reaction to the towers falling was so visceral. You know exactly what’s coming, that crumbling fall is animated for mere seconds but I still found it awesome and terrible. Continuously transforming and continuously untransformed.

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OpinionJournal – Jack Bauer Insurance

Can CIA agents be sued for protecting America with too much vigor?:

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

What would Jack Bauer do? If he worked at the CIA in real life today, the anti-terror hero of Fox’s “24” would apparently be buying insurance in case the ACLU or John Kerry decided to sue or subpoena him for protecting America with too much vigor.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that more CIA counterterrorism officers are signing up for private insurance that would pay for civil judgments and legal costs if they are sued or charged with a crime. These are the agents who interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and other jihadis, using what President Bush last week called methods that were legal but “tough.” Those methods succeeded in breaking these men into divulging information that led to the arrest of other al Qaeda bigs, and to the foiling of plots that could have killed thousands.

“ ‘There are a lot of people who think that subpoenas could be coming’ from Congress after the November elections or from federal prosecutors if Democrats capture the White House in 2008,” wrote the Post, quoting a retired intelligence officer close to the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which conducted the interrogations. This is not paranoia. We reported yesterday how Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, is blocking Bush nominees simply for having been mentioned in passing in emails about Guantanamo. Some of us also remember the infamous Frank Church hearings of the 1970s that pilloried the CIA and weakened it for decades.

Though the government pays the premiums for this kind of insurance, it is a sorry spectacle that these agents must now fear partisan retribution for having done precisely what the country asked them to do. The story is one more reason Congress should follow through on Mr. Bush’s request to put its stamp of approval on such interrogations, including ex post facto immunity for these CIA officers.

Intelligence is the front line of this anti-jihadi conflict, and the danger from the current political second-guessing is that CIA officers will go back to the FBI’s law enforcement mentality of reading terrorists their Miranda rights that failed the country leading up to 9/11. The country needs Jack Bauer insurance, too.

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In Latest Push, Bush Cites Risk in Quitting Iraq – New York Times

In Latest Push, Bush Cites Risk in Quitting Iraq – New York Times:

“The war we fight today is more than a military conflict,’’ Mr. Bush said in a speech to veterans at an American Legion convention here. ”It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.’’…..

At the same time, he placed various factions of terrorists — Sunnis who swear allegiance to Al Qaeda, Shiite radicals who join groups like Hezbollah and so-called homegrown terrorists — under one umbrella.

Experts said that might be overstating the facts.

“ ‘Network of radicals’ suggests they are actually connected in some practical fashion, and that’s obviously not the case,’’ said Steven Simon, a State Department official in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush’s father.

But the comparison is central to Mr. Bush’s message, said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the National Republican Committee, who has played an integral role in developing Republican strategy for the midterm elections.

”I thought linking together the different elements of this ideological movement was important to do, and was effective,’’ Mr. Mehlman said.

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Retraumatisation

A disturbing but beautifully crafted narrative from the Guardian about Katrina survivors:

Katrina’s winds died a year ago, but they left deep scars. You see them in wrecked streets. You see them in destroyed forests. You see them in tiny white mobile homes that now dot the Deep South. You see them most, perhaps, in people’s fearful expressions when a hard rain begins to fall from an angry summer sky.

Dr Becky Turner sees them in the play of children. Her big blue bus pulls up outside schools on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and pupils walk in to use toys and paints. It sounds like fun. But what Turner and her colleagues see each day, drawn in crayon, is far from harmless. Turner uses play to tease out the children’s storm stories, and help them talk about the horrors.

And the horrors do come. Many of the children of Hurricane Katrina lost relatives. Some saw them die. All of them are still living with the hurricane. And it is about to get worse. Turner’s mobile mental-health unit is preparing for a flood of new cases as the anniversary approaches. ‘It will be like a retraumatisation,’ Turner says in a weary voice. ‘The storm just goes on and on.’

So it does. Katrina hit on 29 August 2005 and, a year later, life on the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is still a nightmare. Rebuilding scarcely seems to have begun. Gaunt ruins stretch for miles through a disaster area the size of Britain. All over America, from Houston to New York, hundreds of thousands of evacuees have been torn from their homes. Many expect never to return.

Bodies are still being found – this month a victim’s skeleton was unearthed in New Orleans – yet Katrina is now an ignored tragedy. The hurricane slammed one of the poorest areas of the country. It had no respect for colour, creed or wealth, but its victims tended to be black and poor. For a while it pointed a spotlight on issues of race and poverty, but America quickly returned to other matters. Katrina asked fundamental questions about American society. It prompted a nation and a White House to pledge itself to meet the challenge. But after a year, Katrina is a test that America is failing. The storm’s victims are still living in limbo as the rest of the country has moved on. They are the forgotten. This is their story.

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More on Bush and Katrina

With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.

The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:

During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.

He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.

However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.

When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.

Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:

There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.

The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.

Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.

It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.

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Blogs on TV

Interesting post by Donna Bogatin about blogging taking a starring role in a new police investigation series USA networks Psych. What is think is even more interesting is the fact that Gus (played by West Wing’s Dule Hill) the sidekick of the starring psychic baddie catcher Shawn, blogs in character on the show’s website. The posts aren’t usually about incidents that occur on the show, the blog provides a back story including what Shawn and he did at school:

I’ll never forget the Bosseigh High alma mater, and not just because we had to sing it all time at school events. I mean, look at it. Have you ever heard of school song so sadistic and poorly punctuated? Excruciating pain? What’s up with that? And what’s that colon doing at the end of the sixth line? I swear it’s not a typo, that’s the way the song was written, and for four years, I had to look at it painted in big letters on the wall of the gym. I brought it up to administration at least half a dozen times, all they ever did was give me a form to fill out.

Ask Shawn to sing the song, and he’ll gladly oblige. He still knows it, too, and he’ll sing it for you the same way he did then – at the top of his lungs, changing the last line to “If we catch your underwear.” Some things never change.

The alma mater isn’t the only thing I remember from high school. I haven’t forgotten anything, and although it’s never fashionable to say it, I really had a pretty great time in high school. And yes, you could say I was involved, if by involved you mean ASB Cabinet, Mock Trial Team, Latin Club, Junior Kiwanis and the V8 Society (a club dedicated to muscle cars, not vegetable juice), I also filled the second half of my senior year for the guy that made the morning announcements, after he got fired for playing “Whoomp! (There it is) one too many times over the school PA.

Shawn was involved, too, but most of the clubs he was in were clubs that he started himself. He was the captain of the napping team, ran an underground newspaper (for which he was the gossip columnist), led an unsuccessful two-day boycott of the Pythagorean Theorem and subsequently founded the Quadrilateral Appreciation Society. Oh, and he somehow lettered in Track and Field even though he wasn’t even a member of the team.

Backstories of the characters are becoming increasingly important in building fan communities, 24 and anumber of other shows now post full CVs for their major characters on the show website. With 24 this has been taken a step further by fans who have developed long Wikipedia entries for the key characters.

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Blogs at Sydney Uni take off

Found an interesting article from the Australian’s Higher Education supplement about Sydney University’s embrace of blogging. It’s bizarre that the most traditional of universities would be the first university in Australia to set up a campus wide blogging project. In May the university set up a system open to all university staff.

“I don’t know of any other Australian universities who have set up a staff blog system like this,” says Charlie Forsyth, manager of Sydney’s web services. He says the idea is to make it easy for staff to blog, to collaborate with one another, to reach out to industry and the wider public, to share knowledge and engage in debate.

“The blogs will not be centrally moderated,” Forsyth says. But the standard university policy on computers applies; this forbids uses that are “illegal, unethical or inappropriate” or anything that would cause “embarrassment or loss of reputation” to the university.

The marketing arm of the university is also embracing blogging with a site called Sydney Life. Here they have employed a series of students to post on their experiences of life at the university

Like most blogs it has regular, journal-like entries with a comment thread. But the home page banner carries the university shield and Cohen, Sydney’s marketing information manager, vets every post before it’s uploaded.

Can big institutions tame the free-spirited blog format?

“I think it’s working because I don’t domesticate it too much,” says Cohen, who was fascinated by blogs before she came up with this official use for them.

At Sydney Life she doesn’t see a lot of room for posts about dating or wild nights. She says subjects more suited to the readers include how to make friends in first year, insider tips for enrolment day, study and procrastination, as well as immersion in campus clubs and societies.

Spencer, president of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, doesn’t regard Cohen’s editorial control as heavy-handed; in fact, he’s reassured she’s there. “Obviously we’re writing for a fairly specific audience and it is under the university name,” he says.

He’s found it fun, a totally different way of writing, and an inspiration to look into blogging more closely.

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Back with Bush in New Orlean’s

I am back after taking six months leave of absence from this project currently focusing on getting together a stronger structure for my thesis.

In the news everything circles around the same issues. With the first anniversary of Katrina and the fifth anniversary of September 11 both approaching there are a growing body of comment pieces which from my perspective seek to make sense of the myth of President Geroge W Bush. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Mark Silva catalogues the series of powerful image moments that constructed the overall image of a removed president as Katrina made landfall:

At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer’s guitar for photographers.

The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.

When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation’s most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.

This image of a detached president, inappropriately upbeat seems to have had a major impact on his standing as a leader. But it also clustered with a range of other misadventures and missteps. Silva continues:

The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush’s handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.

“The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House’s ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.”

The elephant in the hurricane was of course the issues of race and poverty. Something that overtime even Bush seemed to understand. Two weeks after Katrina he made a significant speech that linked race and poverty and made a commitment to developing minority owned businesses and increasing homeownership. But New Orleans is still waiting.

“He said he was going to talk about race and poverty,” said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. “When did that happen? It’s back to business as usual.”

The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.

But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.

Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners–and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.

“This is a unique opportunity in American life,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. “When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would.”

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More than craft plus

Stumbled across NYU’s Zoned for Debate: section again while buzzing around the web. Lots of good stuff. This from NYU prof Ellen Willis struck a chord:

The first step toward reinventing the journalism curriculum is to recognize that serious journalism–in all its genres and forms–is in itself an intellectual activity. While it may draw on academic knowledge, it has its own distinct character as an intellectual enterprise: it is a transdisciplinary inquiry into the present, which takes place not in scholarly journals but in a non-specialized public conversation. A serious journalist is by definition that figure so much discussed in the academy—the public intellectual. Craft is integral to all kinds of journalism—as it is, for that matter, to scholarship—but it is a means to an end: promoting a rich, nuanced, complex and diverse public conversation on contemporary affairs. How can journalism education contribute to this end? This is the fundamental question Columbia and all journalism programs must address.

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50′s and 60′s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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Treasonable journalism

There has been quite bit written about Pulitzers for Treason by right wing columnists in the US, following the Times‘ award for breaking the story about the NSA domestic wiretaps. But MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman got a shock when all of the reader responses to a recent column were anti-Times. Here’s some of the comments:

“Your last piece on the Pulitzers includes this gem: ‘If anything, the Pulitzer vindicates the (New York) Times as a hard-hitting and public-spirited news operation.’ No, it simply shows them to be law-breaking cowards (yes disclosing this program by using the sources they used is a violation of the law). How you can conclude that an award handed to a MSM (or “mainstream media”) outlet by a totally MSM-stacked committee shows anything other than the completely out of touch nature of the MSM is beyond comprehension!”

“You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong!” another reader named Steve Dansker wrote.

“First off, the Pulitzer is a popularity contest among those that constitute the Board. Look at the orgs these folks come from: most Awards seem to go to folks on the same papers (or is it just my imagination?).”

He added: “Get real: the ‘breaking of the NSA story’ was not a ‘break’ at all. It was in fact a traitorous act. The authors couldn’t have given more of a damn who it hurt or KILLED! They just wanted to (1) blacken the eye of a Republican Administration, and (2) get some notoriety. Do you really think this story would have been written if Gore had won? I think not!”

These comments don’t just attest to a fractious blue/red America, they highlight serious trouble facing the media. Surveys have for a long time shown that consumers have an uneasy alliance with media they read/watch. Many seem to believe that journalists are in the same category as used-car salesman when it comes to trustworthiness.

But these comments about the Pulitzers show something very disturbing about the current media environment. I think the last comment is most telling. It comes from a particularly skewed fantasy about journalism.

As a journalist I know that a big newspaper would have published the wiretap story no matter who it concerned because it is such a shattering story. I know nothing about the personal politics of the Times reporters who broke the story but as professional journalists no matter what their colors they would have been aware of the enormity of the story. In the end – and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the ideology of the big story, over rides all others for journalists.

But maybe this is not so different to Watergate when, at least initially, Nixon’s supporters were dismissive of what they perceived as biased liberal press attacks. But if the ideas expressed by Friedman’s readers are widespread this does not bode well at a time when the whole relationship between journalism, government, their sources, their respective privileges and responsibilities is under deep scrutiny.

It just keeps seeping out

Yet another piece of the Bush WMD jigsaw has emerged, this time from the former head of the CIA in Europe, Tyler Drumheller. He tells 60 Minutes this week:

Drumheller, who retired last year, says the White House ignored crucial information from a high and credible source. The source was Iraq’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, with whom U.S. spies had made a deal.

When CIA Director George Tenet delivered this news to the president, the vice president and other high ranking officials, they were excited — but not for long.

“[The source] told us that there were no active weapons of mass destruction programs,” says Drumheller. “The [White House] group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they were no longer interested. And we said ‘Well, what about the intel?’ And they said ‘Well, this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change.’ ”

They didn’t want any additional data from Sabri because, says Drumheller: “The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.”

The White House declined to respond to this charge, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that Sabri was just one source and therefore not reliable.

Drumheller says the administration routinely relied on single sources — when those single sources confirmed what the White House wanted to hear.

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