into the morass

Following up on yesterday’s request for help with the notorious Bret Stephens op-ed on climate change — no help has been forthcoming, by the way — I’d like to call your attention to this superb column by Damon Linker:

Stephens didn’t deny the reality of climate change. He merely dared to advocate a slight rhetorical adjustment to the way environmental activists and their cheering sections at websites like Slate and Vox, and newspapers like the Times, go about making their case to the wider public. What followed was not a reasoned debate about the rhetorical effectiveness of claims to modesty and certainty, dispassionate concern and outright alarmism. Instead, there was simple, pure, satisfying, but politically impotent condemnation: “You can’t say that!”

Perhaps the most telling response was that of Susan Matthews at Slate, who admitted that Stephens had not denied any of the facts of climate change, and agreed that Stephens is exactly right in his claim that scientists and journalists who speak for scientists often mishandle probabilities and discount their own biases — but insisted somehow all that makes his column even “scarier and more damaging.” Your overall argument is not wrong, and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

I think journalists are so upset with Stephens not because he challenges the scientific consensus on climate change — he clearly doesn’t — but because he challenges them. His argument, as Linker suggests above, is about rhetorical effectiveness: He claims that if people who are seriously and legitimately concerned about climate change went about their business in a more epistemically modest way, they might well win over more people. That is, rhetorical extremism might not be the best way to go, even when the facts warrant it. But, it appears, if there’s anything worse that climate-change denialism, it’s journalistic-wisdom denialism.

Yet in other arenas, arenas where they don’t perform, I’d bet those same journalists could understand the legitimacy of Stephens’s general point. For instance, when people have accused Rod Dreher of being “alarmist” in The Benedict Option, Rod has typically replied that he writes that way because he’s genuinely alarmed. To which some of his critics have said “Yeah, but you don’t have to sound so alarmed. You’re scaring people off who don’t already agree with you.” And isn’t this a a reasonable criticism? Especially given what we have learned about the backfire effect — the tendency people have to double down on wrong ideas when they’re presented with facts that challenge those ideas? And if it is a reasonable criticism, mightn’t it apply to journalists too? Believing in SCIENCE doesn’t give you infallible judgment.

There’s one more context for this whole argument. I have been meditating over the last couple of days on this tweet from my friend Yoni Appelbaum:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps? Given the economic realities Yoni’s tweet points to, I’d say: not bloody likely. The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won’t happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.

help wanted from thoughtful people

Suppose you’re a person who believes that anthropogenic climate change is very real and very, very bad news. Suppose further that you believe that portrayals of a future of chaotic weather and massively destructive rises in sea level — e.g., the portrayals we see in Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novels — are not manifestations of apocalyptic alarmism but are sober, well-thought-out, plausible projections from the best current data. And suppose further that you read that Bret Stephens op-ed and think that it’s not only reasonable but self-evidently correct.

Where would such a person go to be taught, in calm, clear, and rational prose, why that last supposition is in conflict with the previous ones?

the wrong vox

The other day Vox.com ran an article claiming that the pace at which technological innovations are accepted is speeding up. The problem is, as Matt Novak pointed out, that really isn’t true. Not true at all.

And then things started getting a little weird. Vox began silently to make changes to the story, at first making slight alterations — where it has referred to “the internet” it now refers (more accurately) to the “World Wide Web.” Over the next day or so further changes were made — charts were deleted and added — still with no acknowledgement. But eventually two statements were added, at the beginning of the article:

Correction: This post originally gave incorrect dates for the introduction of radio and television technology and the invention of the cell phone. It also mis-labeled the web as the internet. We regret these errors.

and at the end:

Update: This post has been modified to include the original technology-adoption chart from the FCC that’s the source for our graph. The graph has also been tweaked to more clearly denote the adoption of the web starting in 1991, not the broader internet. And Gizmodo is right: we should have noted these changes at the time. Our apologies.

“Matt Novak” or “Paleofuture” would have been better than “Gizmodo,” but this is a significant step forwards. However, it’s not all that it should be. In a smart post written before the corrections were acknowledged, Freddie deBoer wrote,

It’s okay to make corrections — better than okay, actually, it’s necessary and responsible. But you have to come out and say you did that by writing a brief section (a paragraph will do) saying “we changed X, Y, and Z, and this is why.” If you don’t, it just looks dishonest, and it risks contributing to a sense of imperiousness that is not a good look. Worse, it gives you less incentive to not make the same mistake in the future, if you just disappear the old problems. There’s an “Updated by” line at the top, but no other information, and for me, that doesn’t do enough. Don’t compound the problems, guys. Just own up to them.

By the standards Freddie lays out, which seem to me the right ones, Vox’s appended statements do half the job: they acknowledge that changes have been made, and made to correct errors, but they don’t deal with the larger problem, which is that some of the key claims in the article were and remain simply incorrect. As far as I can see, Vox has corrected the factual errors which led to the inaccurate conclusions but left those conclusions in place. Which seems a little odd.

I think this little contretemps needs to be considered in light of the big essay that Ezra Klein wrote to launch Vox, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” Here too we find a strong argument based on what turns out to be, as Caleb Crain pointed out, a simple and straightforward misreading of the data. But Klein has made no corrections, and as far as I can discover, there’s no acknowledgement on the Vox site of Crain’s challenge.

That “as far as I can discover” is perhaps the most important point of all. Vox doesn’t have comments. There is no “letters to the editor” page. Vox has no ombudsman. You can email or tweet at its writers, but they’re free to ignore you, and who knows if the editors see any of those communications? The site has no contact page that I can find. There’s not even a search box on the site: you have to use Google to find articles. Basically, Vox.com is a black box. Now, for the “card stacks” there is apparently some kind of correction model in place — but if for card stacks why not for articles? There seems to be no policy here, and only one person — the superb tech journalist Timothy B. Lee — whom I’ve seen responding to corrections. (He’s the one who let Matt Novak and me know about the changes made to the article I refer to at the beginning of this post. If others at Vox are doing this, please let me know in the comments.)

Klein has said repeatedly — see this interview for instance — that he wants to use Vox to explain the news to people, which is cool, but the explainer model coupled with the strong discouragement of feedback sends a pretty clear message: We know, we tell, you listen.

Contrast that attitude to the the model the venerable New York Times says it wants to follow in its new endeavor, called The Upshot.

Perhaps most important, we want The Upshot to feel like a collaboration between journalists and readers. We will often publish the details behind our reporting — such as the data for our inequality project or the computer code for our Senate forecasting model — and we hope that readers will find angles we did not. We also want to get story assignments from you: Tell us what data you think deserves exploration. Tell us which parts of the news you do not understand as well as you’d like.

The staff of The Upshot is filled with people who love to learn new things. That’s why we became journalists. We consider it a great privilege to be able to delve into today’s biggest news stories and then report back to you with what we’ve found. We look forward to the conversation.

Maybe The Upshot won’t live up to these noble ideals, but such an announcement is a good start. And shouldn’t a high-profile “new media” venture like Vox be even more aware of and willing to embrace the communicative possibilities of … well, of new media? Instead, they seem to be creating a one-way street, like a Victorian newspaper. Klein has said that he and his fellow Wonkblog writers “were badly held back not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.” But to me, the culture of journalism is not looking so bad right now. And while Vox.com is definitely a work in progress, it’s not a good sign that responsiveness to and intersection with readers doesn’t seem to have been part of their initial vision at all.

I hope Vox fixes these problems. There are things about it I really like — many of the card stacks are crisply accurate and therefore quite useful, and it has some first-rate writers, like Tim Lee and Dara Lind: see Lee’s excellent explanation of the confusing Aereo case and Lind’s clear and information-rich stack on prisons. But as long as the site remains so closed-off to its readers, many people will be likely to conclude that the difference between old media and new is that the old has higher standards and more accountability.

the geeks inherit the earth

Emily Bell recently argued that some hot new tech/journalism/etc. companies that are positioning themselves as radical alternatives to business-as-usual are, in the matter of hiring women and minorites, totally business-as-usual: a bunch of white guys with a slight scattering of women and minorities.Nate Silver, one of those whom Bell was describing, didn’t like her accusation: “The idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.”Zeynep Tufecki has precisely the right response to Silver’s annoyance:

What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.”

Most tech people don’t think of it this way, but the fact that most of them wear jeans all the time is just another example of cultural capital, an arbitrary marker that’s valued in their habitus, both to delineate it and to preserve it. Jeans are arbitrary, as arbitrary as ties….

How does that relate to the Silver’s charged defense that his team could not be “bro-y” people? Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of “macho” jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

I’m reminded here of a fantastic essay Freddie deBoer wrote a while back about the triumphs of geek culture, especially in its love of fantasy and SF:

Commercial dominance, at this point, is a given. What critical arbiters would you like? Is it a Best Picture Oscar for one of their movies? Can’t be. Return of the King won it in 2003. (And ten other Academy Awards. And four Golden Globes. And every other major award imaginable.) Recognition from the “literary establishment?” Again, I don’t know what that term could refer to; there are publishers and there are academics and there are book reviewers, but there is no such thing as a literary establishment. Even a cursory look at individual actors dedicated to literature will reveal that glory for sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels has already arrived. Turn of the century “best book” lists made ample room for J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others. Serious book critics fall all over themselves to praise the graphic novels of Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman. Respect in the world of contemporary fiction? Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and other “literary fantasists” have earned rapturous reviews from the stuffiest critics. Penetration into university culture and academic literary analysis? English departments are choked with classes on sci-fi and genre fiction, in an effort to attract students. Popular academic conferences are held not just on fantasy or graphic novels but specifically on Joss Whedon and Batman. Peer-reviewed journals host special issues on cyberpunk and video game theory.To the geeks, I promise: I’m not insulting you. I’m conceding the point that you have worked for so long to prove. Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. It’s time to enjoy it, a little; to turn the critical facility away from the outside world and towards political and artistic problems within the world of geek culture; and if possible, maybe to defend and protect those endangered elements of high culture. They could use the help. It’s time for solidarity.

And this is what I’d also like to say to Nate Silver: Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. Dude, you worked for the New York Times and you left it voluntarily — to work for ESPN, 80% of which is owned by Disney and the other 20% by Hearst. In 21st-century America, it is not possible to be any more inside than this. You cannot stick it to the Man — you are the Man. It’s best that you, and people in similar positions, realize that as soon as possible; and forego the illusion that you have some outsider status that exempts you from criticism like that presented by Emily Bell. Whether you agree with Bell’s argument or not, get used to it: you’re going to hear a lot more along those lines as long as you continue to be the Man.  

disrupting journalism!

(Nah, not really. Just wanted to try out that language for size.)

But: I was talking with some people on Twitter this morning about my frustrations with what has now become a very familiar set of experiences: the whole merry-go-round of publicity that accompanies the appearance of a book.

Before I go any further, I should note that my adventures on this merry-go-round amount to nothing in comparison with what people-who-make-their-living-by-writing go through. Only once in my career have I written a book that generated perceptible media attention, and doing the publicity for that absolutely exhausted me — which probably accounts for my dyspeptic attitude towards even small bouts of book-promoting exercises today. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be Neil Gaiman: “I’m currently dealing with how to go back to being a writer. Rather than whatever it is that I am. A traveller, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.”

So here’s how it goes: a journalist writes or calls to ask for an interview, and wants to do the interview by phone. If I agree — in violation of my profound dislike of the telephone — then commences the awkward dance of trying to find a time when we can both talk, and, when that’s finally worked out, I am permitted to try to improvise on the spot answers to questions that I have already answered, with considerably greater care, in the book itself. Then I just have to hope — though the years have almost cured me of hoping — that the journalist transcribes what I say accurately and in its proper context. And, for dessert, I get to be annoyed by the way I put things and wish I could go back and express myself more clearly.

(By the way, no belief is more sacrosanct among journalists that the belief that it would be profoundly unethical to let me rewrite my comment about, say, nineteenth-century controversies over the Ornaments Rubric — even though I’ve yet to find anyone who can explain to me why that would be so. They always invoke politicians and political controversy, without explaining why the same rules should apply to interviewing politicians and interviewing scholars or other writers.)

Perhaps you can tell that I’m not thrilled about this way of doing things? So my common practice now is to decline phone interviews and ask to do things by email instead. Sometimes I am told that this is not permissible, in which case, Oh well. (When I’ve been given a reason, that reason has always been “because in email you don’t get the give-and-take,” which always makes me wonder whether there are email clients without Reply buttons.) But when people agree, then I sit down to answer the questions and realize, wait a minute, I’m writing the article! I’m going to do all the work and they’re going to get the byline and the paycheck! Well, it was my choice, after all….

I’m supposed to be willing to do all this because it gets my book “exposure,” it has “publicity value,” and I suppose that once may have been true, but I wonder to what extent it now is? Certainly publishers believe in it, and promote the model; but I have my doubts that a model formed by a kind of handshake agreement among publishers (who want to get the word out about their books) and journalists (who need ever-new “content”) is all that it needs to be when we all have the internet and its social media at our fingertips.

I’m just wondering — genuinely wondering — whether there might be models of doing … this kind of thing … don’t know what to call it … that might be more flexible and generous and less taxing to everyone concerned. Especially, of course, The Author, but I’ve been on both sides of this fence: I have interviewed people for articles — almost always by email, though once I bought lunch for a well-known musician for an Oxford American piece that never saw the light of day — and I’ve written for dailies, weeklies, bimonthlies, monthlies, quarterlies, the whole show, so I know those challenges as well. There’s drudgery for journalists in the usual way of doing business, and maybe it could be made more fun for them as well.

Even small adjustments could help: Alex Massie suggested to me the value of IM interviews, and that made me remember the few times I’ve done those — I really enjoyed them. They have the spontaneity of conversation but also allow you to take a moment to get your thought into shape before committing to the Enter key. In another exchange that happened almost simultaneously — I like that about Twitter — Erin Kissane emphasized just this value of conversation, and I suppose that’s one reason why I have always enjoyed talking with Ken Myers for his wonderful Mars Hill Audio Journal: the dialogue gradually and naturally unfolds, and while Ken always edits with care and skill to make me sound smarter than I am, he never eliminates that conversational tone. If doing publicity were always like that….

Anyway, I’d love to hear some good — disruptive! innotative! — ideas in the comments, especially from journalists. And thanks to those of you who, over the years, have helped to put my ideas before the public.

And by the way: if you don’t subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal, you should consider it. It’s great.

paywalls vs. ?

Jeff Jarvis is contemptuous of Rupert Murdoch’s decision to charge for online access to his newspapers and magazines. I think that it’s hard to imagine paywalls working, but what should Murdoch do? Oddly, Jarvis makes not one recommendation. If paywalls are so obviously misbegotten, what are the alternatives? Perhaps if there really are any Jarvis would have mentioned them. Maybe building paywalls and trying to keep sites alive via advertising are just two different ways of losing money.

The Death and Life of the Book Review

The Death and Life of the Book Review:

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”
I may have to comment later on this fascinating article.

Robotic sports writers

The Singularity Hub posts on a new program that can churn out sports news stories:

Called Stats Monkey, the new computer software analyzes the box scores, and play by plays to automatically generate the news article. It highlights key players and clutch plays and will even write an appropriate headline and find a matching photo for a [key] player!
… [I]t could work for every sport humans like to read about. Moreover, Stats Monkey could be adapted to write business stories, or conference updates, or other forms of professional journalism that rely heavily on numbers and analytics. Writing, it seems, is no longer immune from automation.
Robotic sports journalists will make a nice complement to robotic athletes. Now all we need are robotic spectators! Human inefficiency could be removed from sports altogether, and then we could wonder at the technical prowess of games just as we marvel at the skills of server stacks:
And hey, if things really work out, soon we won’t need humans for writing Singularity blogs either.

flipping fast

Google’s new Fast Flip intrigues me — I’d like to see it develop into a replacement for my RSS feed reader, and I think it might. Presumably Google’s Marissa Mayer is thinking of Fast Flip when she says this:

The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. For example, digital music caused consumers to think about their purchases as individual songs rather than as full albums. Digital and on-demand video has caused people to view variable-length clips when it is convenient for them, rather than fixed-length programs on a fixed broadcast schedule. Similarly, the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article. While these individual articles could be accessed from a newspaper’s homepage, readers often click directly to a particular article via a search engine or another Website.
Presumably this is the future of journalism as Google sees it. And Google will have a big say in the future of journalism, whether we like it or not.