Bob Schwartz

Category: Journalism

The Economist on Israel: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Economist - Israel and Gaza

If you read the biblical chronicles instead of the newspapers, you know that the Jewish homelands have lived forever from crisis to crisis. In the history of modern Israel, none of that has changed.

When you live in constant crisis, the historical topography can be indistinct—it can be hard to tell which one is bigger than another. But in Israel’s history, Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967 are epochal. The current Israel-Gaza conflict is still ongoing, but the current crisis of 2014 may join that cohort.

Among the thousands of pieces and millions of words generated over the past few weeks, the new cover story from The Economist, Winning the battle, losing the war is one of best and most even-handed evaluations published about the aftermath of all this.

“Even-handed” and “fair-minded” are hard to find in such a brutal and polarized controversy, and some would say they don’t exist at all. The Economist, for those who don’t know, is one of the most astute and level-headed journals of public affairs in the world. This piece, like others about contested matters, is not without embedded value judgments or opinions. It is just a sharp, worthwhile, and informed point of view that should be heard—even if it is shouted down as somehow biased and mistaken:

For all the blood and misery in Gaza, Mr Netanyahu will soon have a chance to show he has heard the critics. Having won his battle, he could return to the negotiating table, this time with a genuine offer of peace. Every true friend of Israel should press him to do so.

Thor Gives Birth to Twins

Nobody wants to hear from word nerds. They just stifle creativity and block linguistic evolution with their definitions and rules. Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland is the man (or eggman): words mean exactly what anybody says they mean.

Except they don’t, or they can’t or shouldn’t. If you tell a doctor you have a pain in your leg, and she examines and treats your arm, because leg now means arm, everybody has a problem.

Here’s the TMZ story that’s been widely picked up:

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky — Give Birth to Twins
Thor’s Got Twins Now!

3/20/2014 4:14 PM PDT BY TMZ STAFF

Chris Hemsworth and his wife are at Cedars Sinai Medical Center right now giving birth to twins … TMZ has learned.

It’s ultra-high security in their hospital suite … we’re told 2 security guards are standing at the door.  Chris is strolling the hallway and is being escorted with a guard.

Chris and his wife Elsa Pataky already have one baby — India Rose Hemsworth who is now 22 months old.  She’s about to have a couple new siblings.

Chris and Elsa were married in 2010.

This led to headlines like this one in the New York Daily News:

Chris Hemsworth, wife Elsa Pataky giving birth to twins

Nobody may care, except for mothers, doctors, and Mrs. Chris Hemsworth, but “giving birth” is not the same as parents having a baby. “Birth” is variously defined as “The emergence and separation of offspring from the body of the mother” or “The event of being born, the entry of a new person out of its mother into the world.”

Chris Hemsworth can be a proud and involved daddy. So can Thor. But neither of them can give birth, no matter what TMZ or the Daily News say.

Annals of Journalism: The Best Lead Paragraph Ever (Hint: It Involves Miley Cyrus)

Miley Cyrus Joint Dwarf

The Associated Press has issued the following lead paragraph for a story about Miley Cyrus’ most recent antics. It is the best lead paragraph ever.

AMSTERDAM (AP) — In an unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention, singer Miley Cyrus smoked a joint on stage and twerked with a dwarf during the MTV Europe Music Awards.

Journalism students and logicians, please don’t focus on the joint smoking and the dwarf twerking, and for God’s sake, avert your eyes from the videos and photos (okay, you peeked; it’s irresistible, isn’t it?).

Instead, pay attention to this phrase: “unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention.” What makes that phrase so delightful, the cherry on the Miley Cyrus-joint-dwarf news sundae, is that one of the largest news organizations in the world is covering the story, moving the success of her bid for attention from “likely” to certain and actual. As sure as the sun rises, Miley Cyrus will do something outrageous (the dwarf is an interesting touch, though it’s hard to say whether it’s trite or hip old school), and even the most respectable media outlets will cover it. So Associated Press, you just made your journalistic prediction come true. Oh the humanity! What would H.L. Mencken say?


There Is Still a War in Syria

Paris Hilton As Miley Cyrus
When there was less to people’s news and info lives—a newspaper or two a day, a half-hour network news show, a couple of news magazines a week—there were stories that rose to the top and stayed there, depending on importance. This didn’t mean that second-tier or frivolous stories didn’t get coverage or traction. People always loved celebrities, always loved hearing gossip, and when man bites dog, that’s always news. The down side was a certain provincialism that came with a narrow channel and less worldly attitudes: if millions were suffering in a place nobody heard of, with people unlike us, most readers and viewers might have no idea.

Now we can know anything, though we don’t know everything, or care about everything. This has left news leaders in a delicate position. There are going to be stories that appeal to a journalist sense and a humanist sense, that deserve at least regular mention, if not coverage that might only say, “And in the misery of this place or that war, it’s still happening, with no end in sight.” The dual problem is that people can find and figure that out for themselves, without a multi-billion dollar media enterprise telling them, and those media consumers might just as well pay attention to something else.

Which is why, unlike its predecessors World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, the Iraq War was not the top story every day of its ten years. Which is why the current violence in Iraq is barely covered, a turning away that in part must come from some profound but unspoken embarrassment.

For a few moments a few months ago, Syria was a bright shiny object. Red lines, chemical warfare, threats of military action, etc. After some erratic movement, slight progress is being made. But that progress does not include ending the civil war.

The New York Times, still possibly the world’s greatest news enterprise, has an ongoing section devoted to the Crisis in Syria. The increasing numbers stupefy: 6.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them seeking refuge in other countries. Now we hear about a cluster of polio cases among Syrian children.

We have plenty of our own problems, individually and as a country. Some of those are not small at all. But there is no polio. And the entire population of the state of Tennessee or Indiana has not had to leave their homes behind, dodging mayhem, unsure if they will ever return, or if there will be anything to return to.

We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be exhausted or crushed by the miseries of the world; that’s what keeping track of all the problems all the time would do. So yes, you can argue that it is important to learn from the news today that Paris Hilton has spent $5,000 on Halloween costumes so that she can dress up as Miley Cyrus. But for a change of pace, a regular, maybe daily, reminder that there is still a war in Syria might be of value.

The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

Kennedy Monore Kennedy
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Director John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez is about the heinous and now-legendary murder of Matthew Shepard. It obliquely brings three people to mind: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

All three are legends apart, so maybe it is not surprising that legends have grown up about all three in various pairings, and even all together on at least one purported occasion. Whether or not Monroe had an affair with either or both of the Kennedys, whether Bobby was with her on the night of her death, whether evidence of those affairs was covered up or destroyed, is almost certainly never going to be incontrovertibly established. Some will say that some of it appears near certain while other of it is sordid and unsubstantiated conjecture. For the most part, we’ve reached a general consensus that none were saints, none were complete role models, but that we liked some of what they did, and we liked them for what they did, including inspiring us, and the rest is just shades of humanity. JFK helped prevent a nuclear war, Bobby Kennedy helped end the Vietnam War, and Marilyn was just Marilyn. If they didn’t live like saints, they died as complex and heartbreaking lessons.

Jimenez has investigated the Matthew Shepard murder for more than a decade. He concludes that this was not a vicious hate crime against a young gay man. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about the epidemic of methamphetamine. According to this report, Shepard was troubled, and was involved in the Laramie meth scene. The killer, who knew Shepard, was a meth head who had been up for a week, and was trying to get information from Shepard about a meth deal. He intended to coerce the information from Shepard, but out of his mind, simply beat Shepard mercilessly and insanely. The killer and his accomplice pled guilty, which kept details of the local meth market and the killer’s gay dealings with Shepard—trading meth for sex—secret.

The police investigation never involved a hate crime. The now-infamous imagining of Shepard being trussed up on a fence in a crucifix position never happened; he was found on the ground, hands tied behind his back. The anti-gay angle for the horrific event was soon added.

This might present a problem.

Jiminez has found himself in an odd position. He is accused of being anti-gay, though he is gay himself, in which case he is accused of being a “traitor” to a cause. He is accused of being a tool of the reactionary right wing, though he himself is far from being a right winger. What he is, he repeats, is a journalist who wants to do what he is supposed to do: find and tell the truth, as best as it ever can be found and told.

Matthew Shepard has become very important to the movement for gay rights. It is a powerful story: the young man who did nothing wrong, who only wanted to live a free and openly gay life, who had the misfortune of running into a black-hearted, hate-filled, intolerant stranger—the sort that fifteen years ago, and today, you can meet anywhere.

If it turns out that some or more than some of what Jimenez concludes is true, what happens to Matthew Shepard, the young man and the legend? In essence, Jimenez says that nothing happens. The issues remain the same, the good fight remains the good fight, but we will be fighting it armed with a little more truth about the story, convenient or not.

That sort of complication should be welcome, but it may not be, at least not everywhere. We like our stories simple, because so much of life is convoluted and mysterious. There are lines that are clear, but simple stories are mostly for children. Grownups have to work and stretch. This is a warts-and-all age, so we take our big characters as they come: flawed but still valuable. People work every day, their entire lives, on establishing equality—some of those people under the Matthew Shepard banner. That cause isn’t going away, and if we have to accept a little bit of historical adjustment, that’s the price we pay for having our eyes open.

This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow

This Modern World
Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) is just about the best editorial cartoonist in America. He won this year’s Herblock Prize, named for the dean of modern editorial cartoonists.

Here is the current edition of This Modern World

TMW Current

If you would like to be delighted by a collection of all from this past year or so, visit The Nation.

It’s hard to pick out just one more to show off. This is Tom Tomorrow’s review of 2012
TMW 2012 1TMW 2012 2

John Kerry’s Munich Moment: Is Political Reporting Too Polite?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Hunter S. Thompson

About a week ago, President Obama said that if Syria’s Bashar Assad was not stopped from using chemical weapons, we might find those same weapons used against America. When asked about this days later, a presidential spokesman ignored the question. This weekend Secretary of State John Kerry said that the decision to stop Assad’s use of the weapons was a “Munich moment.” Meaning: Just as the Munich Agreement of 1938 condoned Hitler’s occupation of Czech territory, emboldening and enabling his vision of global conquest, so would our failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons further his insidious master plan.

Experts who have bothered to talk about the prospect of these chemical weapons being used against America have dismissed it out of hand. As for the “Munich moment,” that requires a bit more nuance. Nobody claims, at least not yet, that Assad has any extra-territorial plans or delusions of regional grandeur. His plan seems to be simply to punish any Syrians who stand in the way of him and his family fiercely holding on to power. Garden variety despotry; Assad is no Hitler. If “Munich” means appeasing his inhumanity, that is also silly. The bulk of Assad’s inhumanity is also garden variety: guns, bombs, etc. Nothing that Obama has proposed is intended to take care of that.

The region really did have a Munich moment in 1990. Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. A thirty-four nation coalition, led by the U.S., pushed him back to his own borders. Both the history of the Gulf War and its aftermath—including the decision by Bush 1 to go no further and the decision by Bush 2 to finish the job—are beyond the scope of this note. This is just to say that if you want to know what a Munich moment looks like, that was it.

The authenticity and civility of our political life are always in question. We ask whether politicians and their supporters are speaking truth, saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and saying it all in a way that is reasonably respectful and polite. That’s a lot to ask of them, and our expectations are right now pretty low. It’s also a lot to ask of political pundits and commentators. Unconstrained by the limitations of office or election, some of them, left to right, go wherever their opinions take them. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

Then there are political journalists. This is where things get tricky. Calling a political statement a lie or stupid, or calling a politician a liar or stupid, is supposed to fail the professional standard on a few scores. It supposedly puts a journalist’s objectivity in question; that sort of discourse is best left to political minions and commentators. And if not carefully couched or softened, it can come off as inappropriately impolite and uncivil, another professional faux pas.

We should all miss Hunter S. Thompson right about now. His suicide in 2005 left a gap in political journalism that hasn’t been filled and probably never will be. He didn’t begin as a political reporter. He came up as a writer during the time of the so-called “new journalism” in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et al), when the lines between the factual, the personal and the expressive broke down. By his own admission, Thompson was crazy, formally or informally; he was also a stunningly talented observer and writer. When he hit the political beat, it was right place, right time, right writer. If politics was an exercise in duplicity, venality and near-insanity, it needed a professional journalist just as insane. The collection of his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 presidential election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, is not just on another planet from the classic campaign coverage up to then; it is in another solar system.

Thompson had a special relationship with Richard Nixon. He ended up respecting and applauding Nixon’s brilliant mind as an expert football strategist, but otherwise Thompson despised him. He wrote a 1994 obituary of Nixon.  In it he continues the case for that untempered loathing, but in this excerpt also explains why it is an appropriate attitude for a journalist:

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It’s not that we don’t have good and great political journalists working today; we may have more than ever. And it’s not that there aren’t plenty of partisans pointing out gaps in someone else’s facts and reasoning.

It’s just that an amazing amount of stuff gets said and seems to get by far too unchallenged or challenged too narrowly or politely. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republican party produced a nominating spectacle that is widely characterized as a circus or a clown car. But at the time, journalists were unwilling to even hint at how ridiculous some of it was, as the party of Lincoln earnestly considered nominating Herman Cain or Donald Trump as their standard bearer.

Sure we need objectivity, maybe now more than ever in a social media enriched/poisoned environment. What we shouldn’t do is confuse objectivity with comity and politeness. If Hunter Thompson was shockingly blunt—and so much fun to read—it was to wake people up from the soporific effect of treating truth and lies, intelligence and stupidity, as rhetorical equivalents, in the name of objectivity, politeness and respect. In the name of keeping the peace. That would be the media Munich moment.

Update: Rereading this post, I have to add that the closest we come to Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” political journalism is The Daily Show on Comedy Central. This revelation came watching the first few days of Jon Stewart’s return after his summer away, coming back to a grim and arguably ridiculous political crisis. The Daily Show’s trick is to protest (too much) that it is a “fake” news show, which gives it total license to completely get its facts straight while speaking truth to absurdity. And when, as this week, vicious jokes aren’t quite enough, Stewart vents his frustration directly and straight, no humor. Oh, to see what The Daily Show would have made of the Nixon Years.