Posts from May 2003

How to make fishwrap

How to make fishwrap
: Matt Welch has a wonderful column about the newspaper biz post BlairBragg in the National Post (datelined Los Angeles, I should add).

He argues that newspaperpeople are more upset about BlairBragg because they (read: we) put it on a pedestal more than readers in most of America. Guilty. I love and admire the Times. That doesn’t mean I always like it. The paper has become terribly overwritten lately, with writerly writers spending paragraphs showing off before getting to the point, which just wastes my time as I try to figure out what the hell a story is trying to be about. I’ve never said the Times is perfect, but it is damned good.

The problem isn’t liking the Times. The problem, Welch points out, is emulating it in the wrong ways.

Almost every newspaper that views the Times as a role model… is a local monopoly in a less liberal city. Chances are, it will equate success with such Timesian yardsticks as Pulitzer prizes, and (in the immortal words of Rick Bragg) the ability “to go get the dateline.”

Amen, brother. I’ve said here before that if I ran a paper, I wouldn’t enter any contests. The only contest we want to win is the fight for the attention and affection of our readers. And the way to win that is to be useful, not to write 1,000-inch show-off thumbsuckers. But I say that such mondostories are born not of Times envy but of conference bragging.

Welch sees a silver lining in the cloud over West 43rd Street:

As importantly, the bulk of this navel-gazing is happening in public, giving readers a rare, transparent glimpse into the sausage-making minutiae of newspapering. A week ago, if you had asked 10 Americans about the journalistic significance of the word “dateline,” nine probably would have said “that stupid entertainment show on NBC.”

Perhaps. But the risk is that all this will make newspapers even more boring — not only in their new sense of what’s safe but also in their reflex to write reflexively, about themselves. Please, no.

Welch’s money graphs (as we say in the news biz) are these:

Newspapers, in theory at least, are attempting to help their readers become as educated as possible about their city, country and institutions. Luckily for everyone, the World Wide Web has enabled consumers these days to have an unprecedented ability to consume, debate and, most importantly, repackage their own news, from nearly infinite sources across the globe.

Every person who has created a current-events weblog — and there are tens of thousands of them, at least — has been forced to write headlines, weigh the veracity of sources, select an appropriate mix of stories, avoid running afoul of libel and copyright laws … basically, to make many of the decisions that are familiar to editors everywhere.

This has created a revolutionary level of reader sophistication, one that savvy newspapers will eventually recognize as a valuable source of feedback and potentially bottomless reservoir of distributed intelligence. If a newsroom uses the post-Blair level of scrutiny to strengthen practices and improve the product, these people will be the first the notice.

Right. We saw that during the war and not just on the Web but also on TV, as new tools gave the audience instant access to news as it happened or allegedly happened, including front-row seats at previously press-pass-only briefings. The audience had to learn, as reporters and editors have long-since learned (or should have), that you can’t take the first word as the true word; you have to see how things shake out; you have to ask more questions; you have to doubt.

And so here’s my money graph:

The Times represented the pinnacle of an old news business and it was taken to be as true as it gets because it was the best we had. But now we have something better and that’s not more newspapers (or weblogs): It’s more information, more up-to-the-minute news, more of it in the audience’s control. And the audience will have to learn that news isn’t easy. Nobody does it perfectly, not even the Times.

Put down that pen, Penn

Put down that pen, Penn
: All I have to say is, this guy needs an editor!

I kept trying to read Sean Penn’s full-page, type-crammed ad in yesterday’s New York Times but it was so badly written, such a drone, and so full of Penn that I gave up.

See whether you have more stamina than I do.

Here’s a PDF of the complete Penn screed.

Pincer movement on Iran

Pincer movement on Iran
: Not only is the right — that is, the White House — putting pressure on Iran, but so is the left.

Here’s a Manifesto for Iran signed by Noam Chomsky, Costa Gravas, Edward Said, Harold Pinter, and other leftie lights for the International Committee for Transition to Democracy in Iran:

…we hold that the peaceful transition of Iran to a democratic republic, free of all interference by religious authorities in the affairs of the state, would enable the decisive forces of the society

Are you ready for your closeup, Miss Diaz?

Are you ready for your closeup, Miss Diaz?
: There is an evil side to technology. This from Television Week [via Lost Remote]:

Cameron Diaz is beautiful, right? After all, the green-eyed blonde has been a regular on People magazine’s list of the most beautiful people in the world.

However, the magazine’s editors-and most of the Western world-do not have a high-definition TV. If they did, they would see that Diaz’s face is spotted with small pockmarks, the unfortunate consequence of a longtime acne problem….

When seen on film, Diaz’s skin imperfections are not noticeable, thanks to Hollywood’s talented makeup artists. However, with HDTV, the picture is so precise that the acne damage cannot be hidden. In a high-def broadcast of Charlie’s Angels on HBO, Diaz looks like a different person. She’s still very pretty. But to be very frank, I doubt that she would make People’s most beautiful list.

I am writing this not to discount the considerable charms of Cameron Diaz. But the story illustrates the impact that HDTV is having on the Hollywood glamour machine. As stars run for cover-literally-the industry is searching for new makeup techniques that will combat the evils of digital television. With high-def now in fewer than 6 million homes, the problem is under control. But if new solutions aren’t found-and millions more get HDTV, as expected-the technology could change our perception of who’s beautiful and who’s not.

: UPDATE: Ken Layne adds:

I’ve seen the HDTV screens in various sizes, and I have to agree it makes even an attractive person look like a grotesque, makeup-crusted whore on the wrong side of 50. Nobody needs to see anybody that goddamned close up in such perfect detail. I can be nose to nose with a living human and it will never compare to the horror of a three-foot-tall pixel-perfect Mike Wallace face.

He’s not anti-American; he just prefers flame-broiling

He’s not anti-American; he just prefers flame-broiling
: I just came across a page from the European TV show Arte with a quiz: “Are you anti-American?” (in German or French). The first questions: “Do you sometimes go to McDonald’s?”


: Baghdad’s first postwar Internet cafe opens, offering access for only $1/hour.

The Salam Pax litmus test

The Salam Pax litmus test

: I’m getting fed up with people ascribing their own opinions and world views to Salam Pax — or to what is being said about him on blogs or in print.

If you dare to criticize him, says one view, then you’re clearly a blind war-mongering rightie who won’t admit the trouble America is having postwar in Iraq.

If you dare to value him, says the other view, then you’re clearly a blind anti-American leftie who won’t admit to Saddam’s evils and America’s success.

I’ve been called all of the above in my comments and even in IM and I’m tired of it.

It’s all just camel poop.

Let’s remember that this is just one guy — one smart, articulate, brave, privileged, and haughty guy who happened to be the only witness to war in Iraq who could tell the world what he saw and what he thought online, taking advantage of this new and heavily gehypt thing called a weblog. Because of that, he became pseudonymously and deservedly famous.

But now, because of the way media works (and, yes, because of the way he’s working media) he is risking overexposure before we even know his name. But more to the point I’m making, he is becoming a symbol that takes on whatever shape the speaker wants. Without even knowing it, he’s being used.

I’ve tried to stay somewhat neutral and even-handed about Salam because that is, in fact, the way I look at him — I value and respect him and what he has done, but that doesn’t mean I also can’t criticize some of what he says (as I do with many of the bloggers to whom I link!). But people keep assuming what I really think — based, of course, on what they really think. So I end up having to give my Salam Creed every time I write about him, but apparently I have not done that well enough.

So, if you give a damn, here’s what I really think:

1. I have always believed that Salam Pax is real and in Baghdad.

2. I value his weblog and I’m glad he has been writing it and continues to. He has a helluva story to tell and he tells it well and we’re lucky to have had anybody there telling it. I would read his book. I would watch his movie.

3. I don’t know enough about his background to conclude where he fit into the bad old days. The online columns about him and his privileged position are convincing as far as that goes. But I still don’t know where he really stands and so I think trying to criticize him based on what he really thinks is impossible until you know what he really thinks.

4. I think he is getting a bit big for his britches now, which is both the fault of the media attention he has been getting and also his own fault for what he says and how he says it sometimes.. He has an attitude and it’s getting grating.

5. I think he should reveal his name and his family history and his positions and stop hiding behind his nom de blog. He no longer has to fear Saddam or fear his father’s wrath over his lifestyle (though, of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other forces to fear in Iraq). Still, revealing himself is the only way to stop people assuming who he is and what he thinks — and assuming the worst to fit this agenda or that.

6. I agree with those who say he is to glibly critical of the American effort. You can’t say that you’re against Saddam and want him out and then try to easily slough off the sacrifice and work of those who did it for you. Yes, I’d say he’s ungrateful.

7. On the other hand, I agree with those who agree with Salam that the American postwar effort has problems. The first problem, in my mind, is that the expectations were set too high. Of course, things can’t be all fixed up and democratized in two months! What a ridiculous presumption! But then again, we’d be in better shape if we showered the people of Iraq with the fruits of capitalism and democracy right now; it would only pay dividends in the region. So we’re not doing the best we can do. And that’s not an anti-American position.

8. Finally, as I’ve been saying again and again, what we need in Iraq now — what Iraq needs — is more voices, more viewpoints. We need Iraqi weblogs written by individuals who are now free to say what they think, individuals of all sides. That is how to plant and water a democracy.

The reason Salam Pax rose to fame is because he was the only one there doing what he was doing. The reason he is becoming such a matchstick now is that he is still the only one doing what he is doing.

I urge him to find others to join him online; that will show that he is generous with his knowledge and open to a free future and willing to contribute his expertise to help build it.

So that’s what I think, if you give a camel’s ass.

: UPDATE: I see that Glenn Reynolds left a wise comment on the topic at a post below. So you don’t have to go digging, here’s what he said:

I didn’t find Salam’s post especially over-the-top. And I think he’s very honest, and not at all over-the-top, in saying that things are better, but he doesn’t know how they’re going to turn out, and he’s angry about some stuff that’s going on.

From here it’s easy to say that of course there will be problems. And of course there will. But living with them is something else.

I’ve said all along that I didn’t think Salam was an agent of influence — though of course I couldn’t know — because he didn’t seem to do a very good job of pushing a useful ideological line for, well, anybody. His dad’s obviously an even bigger shot than we thought. Now he seems to be doing well in the occupation, and if Salam were a sellout, the obvious move for him would be to be singing the praises of America all the time now, and explaining his earlier negative posts as self-protection under Saddam. He’s not doing that. That suggests that — while he may be wrong about stuff, of course — he’s honest.

As for the intemperate response to email — hey, he’s just getting the loads of crap that we bloggers out in the non-war-struck world have had a chance to adjust to gradually. God knows what I would have said if I had suddenly opened my mailbox to find today’s typical collection of love- and hatemail by the hundreds, with no buildup.

My advice to Salam: put up a Paypal button. One person who sends you fifty bucks makes up for a lot of assholes who call you names.


: Netzeitung, the German online newspaper, interviews Thomas Burg, the organizer of the BlogTalk conference in Vienna, and we see this wonderful exchange (don’t worry: you don’t have to speak German to enjoy the joke):

Netzeitung: Werden Weblogs zu sehr gehypt?

Burg: Nein, ich denke zu wenig.


Netzeitung: Are weblogs over-hyped?

Burg: No, too little, I think.

Don’t you love it: Gehypt. What a great verb for our age. It’s the Gawker of verbs. I was with a bunch of people last night and told them about it and they all started using it, as in: Madonna’s too gehypt.