Monthly Archives: June 2012

Inside the Meme Factory

By Christopher B. Daly

That phrase, Inside the Meme Factory, is the working title of my next book. It refers to an idea that is well illustrated in a piece on page 1 of today’s Times by the estimable James B. Stewart (lawyer, book author, contributor to both the New Yorker and the Times — is there more than one of him?). In his article, Stewart seizes on a comment made by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and tries to walk it back to its origins. The phrase involved a rhetorical question raised from the bench by Scalia during arguments over the national health care law, asking whether the government could make Americans do other things that are good for them, such as eating broccoli. Here’s the nub:

It turns out that broccoli did not spring from the mind of Justice Scalia. The vegetable trail leads backward through conservative media and pundits. Before reaching the Supreme Court, vegetables were cited by a federal judge in Florida with a libertarian streak; in an Internet video financed by libertarian and ultraconservative backers; at a Congressional hearing by a Republican senator; and an op-ed column by David B. Rivkin Jr., a libertarian lawyer whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when he was 10.

 Stewart’s painstaking track-back shows that the idea of challenging the limits of the Commerce Clause originated with libertarian thinkers and was sustained in a series of hand-offs by other libertarians and conservatives, all working within the universe of conservative institutions (Cato, Reason, Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Reagan-appointed judges, a former Clarence Thomas law clerk, et al.) And, as so often happens, several of those institutions get crucial amounts of funding from the Kochs and the Scaifes.

The “broccoli” story exemplifies a much larger truth: most of the themes, slogans, argument-stoppers, images, and jokes that shape our politics and much of our public conversation don’t come from nowhere. Many of them are the fruits of deliberate efforts, especially among conservatives, and many of those efforts take place in a nearly hidden network of institutions. Those institutions include an array of think tanks, publishers, and conservative media outlets that generate and amplify conservative “memes.” In my book, I trace the deliberate campaign to fund and build this network of interlocking conservative institutions in the decades after World War II.

Stay tuned.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times, Supreme Court

Newsroom half empty?

By Christopher B. Daly 

No one said this would be easy. The threatened layoffs have hit the newsroom of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (and other papers owned by the Advance Publications chain).

Things to keep in mind:

–Not all the layoffs are in the newsroom.

–Some of these folks will be replaced.

–The alternative could well be bankruptcy.


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Filed under Journalism, media

Media hypocrisy check

By Christopher B. Daly 

With gasoline prices dropping, here’s my question:

If conservative media personalities really love this country and if they are really rooting for America, then why don’t they hail the good news of lower gas prices if those prices drop under a Democrat?

Hmmm. . .






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Filed under Journalism, Politics

Journalism on film

By Christopher B. Daly

Fun piece by columnist Dan Barry in the Times about the portrayal of journalists in U.S. feature films.

Two questions:

–How did he do this whole piece without ever mentioning the essential resource in this field: the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture program at USC? Either he didn’t do a whole lot of research, or he didn’t want to steer readers to a more authoritative source?

–The Times piece is illustrated by a still b+w photo from the iconic film comedy “His Girl Friday.” So far, so good. But the photo is credited to “New York Public Library.” Now, the paper may have found the photo there, but that doesn’t mean the Library has the rights to it. In researching the illustrations for my book, Covering America, I found (to my regret) that the rights are owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, which does not give away the right to reprint those images for free. For use of a different still from “His Girl Friday” in my book, Sony charged me $75.

[Note to Sony lawyers: I consider it “fair use” to post a copy of the version I paid for in this non-profit context for the purpose of illustrating my point.]

Still from the film classic “His Girl Friday,” set in a newsroom.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history

Abolish the NCAA (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

The battle over intercollegiate athletics rages on. (Actually, it is just a few folks crying in the wilderness.)

Recently, the reformist Joe Nocera of the NYTimes weighed in with an op-ed. Like many reformers, he seems to really believe in the need for more radical solutions, but he pulls his punches in the name of being realistic. Enh!

Earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Ed shared this story about a football player at the University of Memphis, which makes a powerful case for eliminating college athletics. It’s a thoroughly reported piece on the Chronicle’s handsome, lucid, well-designed website. ( Actually, the home page is not that brilliant, but the Memphis piece is beautifully laid out and includes relevant multimedia. The audio clips are really something.)

And Buzz Bissinger, never one to mince his fuckin’ words, had this to say: Ban College Football.

AP photo / Football at my alma mater, UNC

AP photo / Football at my alma mater, UNC

(Which would be a start. What educational purpose does college football serve? It really amounts to a farm system for the NFL in which the pro teams don’t have to pay player salaries.)

For that matter, what educational purpose does any intercollegiate athletics serve? If you are in college and you want to get some exercise, start a pick-up game and challenge the kids in the next dorm. Then, get back to reading long books.)

I say, ban the NCAA.

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Leaks investigation

By Christopher B. Daly

The Times editors probably should have slapped an “Analysis” label on this piece (which it carries online, but not in today’s print version) or put in the Sunday Review section. In any case, Charlie Savage has an intelligent analysis of why “leaks” investigations so often come to nought.

He makes a key legal point here:

Many people are surprised to learn that there is no law against disclosing classified information, in and of itself. The classification system was established for the executive branch by presidential order, not by statute, to control access to information and how it must be handled. While officials who break those rules may be admonished or fired, the system covers far more information than it is a crime to leak.

Instead, leak prosecutions rely on a 1917 espionage statute whose principal provision makes it a crime to disclose, to persons not authorized to receive it, national defense information with knowledge that its dissemination could harm the United States or help a foreign power.

And he goes on to make the point that prosecutors have a difficult showing the harm that flows from disclosures of classified information. It is almost never the case that a news media participant in a leak will divulge real, active military secrets. Instead, the practice of leaking is usually someone’s way of trying to win or shape a policy debate. It is the pursuit of politics by other means.


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Filed under First Amendment, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, New York Times, President Obama

Update on leaks

At his press conference later in the day (June 8), Obama had this comment on the issue:

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” he said. “It’s wrong. And people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office.”

Without confirming the accuracy of the information — which was revealed in two articles in The New York Times last week — Mr. Obama said the such leaks deal with the safety of the American people, its military and its allies.

“We don’t play with that,” he said, vowing to investigate the leaks. “We consistently, whenever there is classified information that is put out into the public, we try to find out where that came from.”


Of course, what else would he (or any president) say?

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Filed under Journalism, leaks, Politics, President Obama

On national security leaks

By Christopher B. Daly

Here we go again.

According to today’s Times, members of Congress (especially Republicans?) are outraged at the leaks on national security matters that they believe the administration is committing. Not only that, they are shocked (shocked, I tell ya) that such leaks might be carried out to advance the president’s political fortunes. Reading between the lines, it appears that they are upset that Obama officials go off the record and whisper disclosures to the Times and other news media informing the media and thus, the public as well, of their successes in the secret drone campaign and in the secret cyberwarfare we are apparently waging against Iran.

Imagine that: Could it really be that the Obama administration has invented a tactic that no other president (such as his immediate predecessor) ever thought of? Hmmm… Ever since the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917 and especially since the rise of the National Security state after WWII, this issue has been a chronic point of friction at the intersection of law, military operations, spying, and politics.

In all these situations, I believe the first question that any honest citizen should ask is this: Where is the harm?

Who, exactly, is harmed by knowing what the government is doing in our name around the world? There is no indication that any operational details have been compromised. (Surely, the remnants of al Qaeda know that we are gunning for them; just as surely, the Iranians know that we are trying to mess up the computers that run their nuclear program. So what?)

Look at it this way: with the leaks, the American people know enough to debate whether these are good ideas or not (and whether we want to re-hire the guy who is ordering them).

Without the leaks, we would be ignorant.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times, Wikileaks

News about the News

By Christopher B. Daly

As so often happens, the Monday business section of the New York Times delivers an array of stories about journalism and media worth reading. (Why doesn’t the paper have a “media” tab on its homepage?)

1. David Carr reports on talks between CNN, the ratings-challenged cable news pioneer, and Anthony Bourdain, the macho chef/traveler of Travel Channel fame. CNN execs are trying to address a problem I discuss in my new book (Covering America), which is much easier to formulate than to solve: what can a news-oriented cable channel do to fill all those hours when all hell is not breaking loose?

Bourdain could be part of the answer.

What else might help CNN? You comment; you decide!


2. Following up on the recent cutback in printing by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, comes a look at the broader trend, including some pros and cons.

3. From London, word that Rupert Murdoch’s troubles extend into an area he really cares about: the circulation figures of his newspapers.

4. From Shantou, a piece about how tricky it can be for Westerners to teach journalism to Chinese students in China. As a Westerner who teaches journalism to Chinese students in Boston, I can certainly sympathize. This piece also includes a bonus: an answer to the question of what Peter Arnett has been up to since he was forced out of CNN (in a failed attempt to pump up CNN’s prime-time audience ratings — see item #1 above).

So, there you go. (Just a typical Monday at the Times: four original, reported stories from across the globe that other people will be talking about for a week. )

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Filed under CNN, Journalism, publishing