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The best book you may never have read (or forgotten about)

By Christopher B. Daly

Thank you, Dwight Garner, for the appreciation in today’s NYTimes for a neglected American classic — the 1974 oral history All God’s Dangers. It’s amazing to think that this wonderful book has fallen below the radar. Even compared to the other books that were finalists that year for the National Book Award, All God’s Dangers deserves to be read, taught, and remembered.

[What were those other books? It was a non-fiction all-star team:

--The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro

--All the President's Men, by Woodward & Bernstein

--Working, by Studs Terkel

--Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig.]

Rosengarten’s book, which began life as his dissertation for his doctorate in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, tells the story of an Alabama sharecropper, Ned Cobb, in his own words.

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

Ned Cobb (aka Nate Shaw)

It was was an inspiration (and a model, along with Terkel’s book, Working, another oral history) for the book that I and five co-authors began working on in 1982, called Like a Family. Like those two 1974 books, our book focuses on working-class people, telling their own stories in their own voices.

 

 

In his piece in the Times, Garner focuses on the book All God’s Dangers and does not pay much attention to whatever happened to the subject, Ned Cobb, or the author, Ted Rosengarten. You can find more about Cobb here and here. And you can find more about Rosengarten, who became a writer in South Carolina, here and here.

Ted Rosengarten

Ted Rosengarten

 

 

 

 

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Abolish the NCAA (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly 

More evidence of the corrupting influence of the NCAA?

From today’s NYTimes, a front-page re-investigation. Highlights:

Tallahassee, Fla. — Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s.

As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.

For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman’s allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.

Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.

After a Florida State student accused quarterback Jameis Winston of rape, the police did not interview him or obtain his DNA. Phil Sears/Associated Press

In his announcement, the prosecutor, William N. Meggs, acknowledged a number of shortcomings in the police investigation. In fact, an examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.

Again I ask: what is the educational purpose of intercollegiate sports?

 

 

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NY Times tiptoes closer to the F-word. Oh, my!

By Christopher B. Daly 

The New York Times has a very uncharacteristic Op-Ed column today by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower arguing that the Times should get in step with the rest of society and start printing a word we all know that begins with “f” and ends with “uck” (and it’s not firetruck!).

O tempora, o mores!

When Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1896, he had high aims. The patriarch of the family that still owns the newspaper — and still sets its editorial direction — wanted above all else to appeal to an

A young Adolph Ochs is noted in the trade press.

A young Adolph Ochs is noted in the trade press.

elite audience. His business model was predicated on the idea that he could survive in the crowded New York City market with a smaller audience than the vast audience of workers, tradesmen, and immigrants that Pulitzer and Hearst were catering to, provided that the Times’s readers were wealthier, which would make them more attractive to advertisers. So, he set out to distinguish his paper from the popular “yellow press” papers of Hearst and Pulitzer, which dripped gore and sex. They were read by chambermaids and stevedores, and Ochs wanted no part of them. He was aiming for the upper classes, and he presumed that they preferred a more-decorous approach.

So, in addition to his famous motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” he also spelled out his credo in a statement to his readers. He promised that the Times would not “soil the breakfast cloth” — meaning that families could bring his paper to the breakfast table (which would have a table cloth, because Times readers could afford them) and not have to worry that it would besmirch the conversation or corrupt the children. In fact, Ochs declared his intention that the Times would deliver the news “in language that is parliamentary in good society.”

Thus, it would appear that proper language is part of the paper’s DNA, and the Times has certainly been culturally conservative in the sense that it has been reluctant to depart from the late-Victorian standards of propriety and vulgarity laid down by the current publisher’s great-grandfather.

Of course, it is a fair question to ask how many families gather around the breakfast table sharing the print edition of the Times and how many families are succeeding in preventing their children from learning the f-word.

Pretty fucking few, I’d bet.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reporting on autism: wrong or dumb?

By Christopher B. Daly

What does it mean that the two sides of this graphic are so out of whack?

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What it shows (according to Princeton prof. Sam Wang, in an article in today’s NYTimes Sunday Review) is that journalists way over-report the wrong things about autism. Whereas most articles are about vaccines, the science suggests that most autism is a product of genes and/or prenatal and very early stresses on mother and child. Hmmm…..

I had never even heard about “injury to the cerebellum at birth,” which turns out to be a major added-risk factor. How are we supposed to understand issues like this and — god forbid! — formulate public policy when journalists present such a distorted view of the science?

Sheesh.

 

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What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.

It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)

Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.

Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.

–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.

–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of wapo-front_18june1972the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)

–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.

One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.

–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)

–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)

–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.

–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?

Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.

What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?

If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.

The original moonbats.  New York Sun, 1835

The original moonbats.
New York Sun, 1835

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Time Life magazines move downtown

By Christopher B. Daly

I guess the party’s really over. Time Inc., the once phenomenally profitable publishing empire founded by Henry Luce (and Briton Hadden) in 1923, is considering a move out of its landmark skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. According to today’s NYTimes, Time Inc., the company that publishes TIME, SI, People and many other magazines, is heading downtown — way downtown, to 225 Liberty St., a building just west of the site of the new Liberty Tower and the memorials to the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

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In its heyday, of course, Time Inc. was a powerhouse of profit, prestige, and political heft, as I wrote about in my book Covering America. After outgrowing its space in the original Rockefeller Center, Time Inc. was offered its own building across 6th Avenue. In 1959, Rockefeller Center expanded to the west side of the avenue with a building erected just for Time Inc., known as the Time & Life Building, at 1271 6th Ave. Here’s a version by Dan Okrent, from his book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. (Fun Fact: Dan was hired by Time Inc. in the 1990s to bring the company’s portfolio of magazines online, but that’s another story.)

What [architect Wallace Harrison] did deserve credit for was what Vincent Scully called the “incoherent splatter of skyscrapers” marching down the west side of Sixth Avenue. This western expansion of Rockefeller Center began with Harrison’s new Time & Life Building in 1959 and degenerated from there, a row of marble megaliths that seemed informed less by the doctrines of the International Style than by some for of totalitarian nightmare. . .(427)

One of Time Inc.’s neighbors in recent years has been News Corp, which occupies its own totalitarian megalith just south of the Time & Life Building. Other neighbors: NBC, CBS, CNN, and (until a few years ago) The AP.

I wonder who will be next to bail out from midtown?

Time & Life Building Photo by Richard Drew/AP

Time & Life Building
Photo by Richard Drew/AP

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By Christopher B. Daly 

Like many an apex predator, Snowy Owls are hard to take your eyes off. They are big, powerful, alert, and deadly. They are also gorgeous and — usually — pretty rare. In New England, we get to see them on a pretty regular basis, under certain conditions. If a fair number stream southward out of the Arctic north and if you are near the coast and if it’s winter, you might have a chance of seeing one. When you do see one, the sighting stays with you. Those yellow eyes are haunting, and the bird’s whole posture seems to say: Hey, I’m here, and I don’t give a shit about you. I’m not afraid of you, and I am intent on doing something else, so you go your way and I’ll go mine. 

This winter is going down as a season of record irruption for snowies, as documented in this great mapping project by Project Snowstorm. A hat-tip to NPR for this story.

Photo: Tom Johnson

Photo: Tom Johnson

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Surveillance state (cont): FISA courts fail to check Executive

by Christopher B. Daly 

“Experience has shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
― Thomas Jefferson

So it goes. As Jefferson warned us, the nature of power is to be aggressive, to try always to expand rather than to contract or even to abide. Today brings a fresh revelation about the FISA Courts and the Executive Branch. Thanks to Charlie Savage and Laura Poitras of the New York Times, we now know what some of us have long assumed — that U.S.  intelligence agencies have steadily expanded their powers to spy on Americans and have run through, around, top-secret-stampand over the few legal restraints put on them by Congress. Working with a new batch of documents leaked by Edward Snowden from the NSA, the journalists focus on steps taken in secret by the George W. Bush administration, with the compliance of the secret(ive) FISA Court, to respond to the attacks of 9/11 by expanding the powers of the surveillance agencies. From the Times:

Previously, with narrow exceptions, an intelligence agency was permitted to disseminate information gathered from court-approved wiretaps only after deleting irrelevant private details and masking the names of innocent Americans who came into contact with a terrorism suspect. The Raw Take order significantly changed that system, documents show, allowing counterterrorism analysts at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. to share unfiltered personal information.

Obviously, there is a challenge here to the Congress: since the executive and judicial branches won’t stop this, the legislative branch must do something to rein in the surveillance state.

I would feel more optimistic about the chances of that happening if it weren’t for the “Spy v. Spy” drama playing out right now between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA. Briefly, the committee thought it would be a good idea to look into the years of torture carried out by the CIA. The agency would have none of that, so it set up an operation that not only spied on the congressional committee’s staffers but engaged in a bit of cyberwarfare by hacking into the committee’s computers and deleting material. Has there ever been a more rogue operation? [Not only that: the CIA, which shows no respect for the rule of law, then had the chutzpah to refer the matter to the Justice Dept. to prosecute the Senate staffers involved. Now, that shows that someone at the agency at least has a sense of humor. Sheesh.]

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The hazards of granting anonymity, Part Infinity

profdaly:

Thanks, Dan, for identifying the journalistic issue behind this “story.”

Originally posted on Media Nation:

fnc-20130311-scottbrown I’ll leave it to my friend John Carroll to analyze the dust-up between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald over whether former senator Scott Brown is or isn’t still working for Fox News. (Short answer: he is.) No doubt that’s coming later today.

So just a quick observation. On Wednesday the Globe’s Joshua Miller quoted an unnamed source at Fox who told him that Brown was “out of contract,” thus fueling speculation that Brown was about to jump into New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race. It turns out, according to the Herald’s Hillary Chabot and Miller’s follow-up report, that Brown was merely between contracts, and that he’s now re-upped.

If I were Miller or an editor at the Globe, I would love to be able to point to a named source at Fox for passing along information that may have been technically accurate but was not actually true. But…

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Civil Rights journalism

By Christopher B. Daly 

A hat-tip to the now-estimable Southern Oral History Program, which once operated out of the smallest room on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, back in the early 1980s, when I worked there briefly as a researcher/cataloguer.

The program, founded 40 years ago and directed for decades by Prof. Jackie Hall, has grown into a powerhouse of teaching and conducting oral history. Among many projects is one involving journalism history. The SOHP’s “Media and the Movement” blog contains links to audio clips, photos, video, and more. It’s a great resource for anyone interested in the journalism of the “long civil rights movement” in the United States.

[p.s. So pleased to see that the motto of the SOHP is this quote from textile millworker Nell Sigmon: You don't have to be famous for your life to be history. My co-authors and I used that very quote as an epigram in the Preface to our book Like A Family, a history of the industrialization of the South, which grew out of the SOHP in the 1980s.]

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