Veteran correspondent: Why we failed

By Christopher B. Daly

A recent piece by the redoubtable Carlotta Gall in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine points up one reason why the Times is so valuable to its readers. Gall was a correspondent for the Times in Afghanistan for more than a decade — arriving shortly after the 9/11 attacks prompted the United States’ ferocious counter-strikes in the Muslim world. Gall (who I met once when we gave her an award at Boston University) is one tough cookie — a veteran, smart, deeply informed observer of places and things that most Americans would never get to see first-hand. We have depended on her.

Now, in a kind of valedictory, she is stepping out of her duties as a day-to-day news reporter and taking on the role of an analyst. The Times ran a chunk of her forthcoming book in the Magazine, and here are the parts that really struck me.

First, she credentialed herself:

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, I went to live and report for The New York Times in Afghanistan. I would spend most of the next 12 years there, following the overthrow of the Taliban, feeling the excitement of the freedom and prosperity that was promised in its wake and then watching the gradual dissolution of that hope. A new Constitution and two rounds of elections did not improve the lives of ordinary Afghans; the Taliban regrouped and found increasing numbers of supporters for their guerrilla actions; by 2006, as they mounted an ambitious offensive to retake southern Afghanistan and unleashed more than a hundred suicide bombers, it was clear that a deadly and determined opponent was growing in strength, not losing it. As I toured the bomb sites and battlegrounds of the Taliban resurgence, Afghans kept telling me the same thing: The organizers of the insurgency were in Pakistan, specifically in the western district of Quetta. Police investigators were finding that many of the bombers, too, were coming from Pakistan.

Then, a bit later, she very helpfully boils down all those years of her hard-won education in the field:

“The madrasas are a cover, a camouflage,” a Pashtun legislator from the area told me. Behind the curtain, hidden in the shadows, lurked the ISI.

The Pakistani government, under President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was maintaining and protecting the Taliban, both to control the many groups of militants now lodged in the country and to use them as a proxy force to gain leverage over and eventually dominate Afghanistan. The dynamic has played out in ways that can be hard to grasp from the outside, but the strategy that has evolved in Pakistan has been to make a show of cooperation with the American fight against terrorism while covertly abetting and even coordinating Taliban, Kashmiri and foreign Qaeda-linked militants. The linchpin in this two-pronged and at times apparently oppositional strategy is the ISI. It’s through that agency that Pakistan’s true relationship to militant extremism can be discerned — a fact that the United States was slow to appreciate, and later refused to face directly, for fear of setting off a greater confrontation with a powerful Muslim nation.

I’d say that all the pundits and politicians who sit back here at home, safe and warm, should listen to someone who has actually been there and really knows what she’s talking about. So, there you have it: During all those years of dying and spending in that part of the world, the United States was basically being played as a chump, and the moment we leave, all parties involved are going to go right back to what they were doing before we got there.

 

 

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Abolish the NCAA: unionize!

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I have long maintained, the NCAA does not advance any educational purpose on college campuses (and, in fact, with its insane training regimens and travel requirements, intercollegiate athletic competition often works at cross-purposes to educational activities like attending class, reading, writing, thinking, etc.)

imagesNow comes word that the NLRB (an agency that rarely makes news in this atomized, freelance economy) has ruled that college football players at Northwestern should have the right to organize into a union like the NFL Players Union. And why not? Those players are on college campuses essentially to provide entertainment to the other students. They are provide a service, and most of them are students in name only. They should certainly have the right to bargain collectively. After all, they bring in big money by putting on a show that is worthy of televising.

(In fact, they should probably be bargaining with the NFL, since they work in what amounts to the NFL’s minor league or farm system.)

From today’s NYTimes:

The ruling comes at a time when the N.C.A.A. and its largest conferences are generating billions of dollars, primarily from football and men’s basketball. The television contract for the new college football playoff system is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years, and the current deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

The decision could give momentum to those who believe the N.C.A.A. should modify its rules on how athletes are compensated. The ruling applies only to scholarship football players at Northwestern, but the precedent could extend to other Division I scholarship football players at similar private universities. (Collective bargaining at public universities is governed by state law, not the N.L.R.B.)

“It’s another brick being taken out of the castle the N.C.A.A. has constructed,” said the ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former college basketball player. “It’s not going to stand forever, and we’re getting closer and closer to it tumbling.”


 

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 2.47.14 PM

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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Bloomberg News in China: Pulling punches?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The company known as Bloomberg — founded by Medford native and, oh, yeah, former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg — is really several companies. The one that made Mr. Bloomberg a billionaire is one that makes and sells proprietary terminals that big-time investors use to trade stocks. Mr. Bloomberg also runs a news service that originally just covered business but in recent years has ventured further and further afield until it has emerged as something like a full-service news agency along the lines of the AP or Reuters.

Trouble is, Bloomberg News is a comparatively small part of Bloomberg’s overall business. And when covering news jeopardizes the company’s other interests — by, for example, pissing off the leaders of China — then Bloomberg corporate executives will step in and protect the core business, at the expense of the journalism.

That appears to be just what happened this week, when Bloomberg corporate chairman, Peter T. Grauer, discussed China.

“We have about 50 journalists in the market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment,” Mr. Grauer said in response to questions after a speech at the Asia Society. “You’re all aware that every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably may have kind of rethought — should have rethought.”

Translation from corporate-speak: We are not a real news organization that wants to tell the truth no matter what and let the chips fall where they may. Bloomberg wants the chips to fall in his pocket. It’s his company, and he can do as he likes. But no one should be under any illusions.

If a story is true and interesting and you withhold it, you are engaging in self-censorship. If you really are in the news business, that approach, over the long run, is bad for business.

 

 

 

 

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To the Koch Bros: Maybe you’d prefer China

By Christopher B. Daly

Thanks to the NYTimes, we know a little more today about the doings of the Koch brothers — the secretive billionaires who are using the Citizens United ruling to spend unprecedented amounts of money to affect U.S. politics and policy. A major theme appears to be advancing their corporate interests by discrediting government, which attempts to regulate the fossil-fuel businesses that the Kochs profit from.

According to the Times:

Leaders of the effort say it has great appeal to the businessmen and businesswomen who finance the operation and who believe that excess regulation and taxation are harming their enterprises and threatening the future of the country. The Kochs, with billions in holdings in energy, transportation and manufacturing, have a significant interest in seeing that future government regulation is limited.

It occurs to me that there are countries where those very industries — energy, transportation and manufacturing — are encouraged and liberated from regulation. A paramount example would be China, which has achieved tremendous growth rates by unleashing those sectors.

But what China and the Kochs do not want to talk about are the social costs that de-regulation imposes on society. Here is a photo I took last year in Xian — a large city in China’s industrial heartland. Bear in mind, this was not taken on a cloudy or rainy day. It was just a normal day in China, with air so thick you could not read a cease-and-desist order through it.

A reminder: Spending money ≠ speaking.

To Messrs. Koch, I ask: can we keep our (relatively) clean skies, please?

Xian, China.  Photo by Chris Daly (March 12, 2013)

Xian, China.
Photo by Chris Daly (March 12, 2013)

 

 

 

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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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