Sunday, May 24, 2009

Becoming a news consumer, and a curmudgeon

Forgive me for a few minutes while I work on my curmudgeon merit badge today.

In my new life as a consumer rather than producer of news, I’ve been surprised to learn just how often the conventions of standard practice seem to run contrary to common sense.

EXHIBIT A: If you follow me on Twitter (@howardweaver) you’ll have seen my frequent laments about the AP’s moronic practice of attaching impressive-sounding labels to stories that that tend to be, at best, slightly better than average. These can be AP IMPACT or AP EXCLUSIVE or the like.

Here’s a recent example: “AP IMPACT: Grads face worries about money, future.”

Oh, please. Labeling your stories like that is just like using exclamation points everywhere. Like laughing at your own jokes, it’s not done in polite society.

EXHIBIT B: I also found myself chafing Sunday over an NYT story suggesting that the president's nuanced positions and willingness to re-calibrate earlier decisions might be viewed as “flip flopping.”

Here was the first sentence that struck me as both banal and self-referential: “In a sound bite culture, there are limits to how much nuance the public can absorb.”

Think about that. By definition, a “sound bite culture” is the product of people being fed sound bites. And who does the feeding? The press, mainly. And on what authority does this reporter get to say there are limits to how much nuance we can absorb? You really think anybody’s tested those limits lately? The only person who’s tried nuance in the last 10 years just got elected president, so maybe her pat little assertion isn’t true.

Later in the piece, the reporter resorts to a classic “no shit” observation to reinforce a questionable premise: “Americans’ patience may not last, and there may come a time when the public does not listen as closely or carefully to Mr. Obama as it does today.”

Oh yeah? It would be equally true (and equally unhelpful) to say, “Americans’ patience may well last, and there may never come a time when the public does not listen as closely or carefully to Mr. Obama as it does today.”

That kind of weaseling “no shit” generalization reminds me of the classic gag headline about a Carter speech that actually saw print: More Mush From the Wimp.

EXHIBIT C: Reading public editor Clark Hoyt in the same paper reminded me what a bad job the New York Times and the rest of the press did handling Maureen Dowd’s apparent plagiarism. Hoyt wrote “Dowd told me the passage in question was part of an e-mail conversation with her friend.”

Okay, then: she admits copying her friend but denies plagiarizing Josh Marshall. In either case, she passed somebody else’s words off as her own. That’s a sin in the newsrooms where I worked.

Perhaps the question of whether she should be fired remains open. The question of whether she should be trusted does not.

( The typically level-headed Hoyt also added, “I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”)

Exhibit D: One final peeve to end my apparently grumpy afternoon.

Most of the news reports I’ve seen and California's governor himself referred to recent election results on budget issues as an emphatic rejection by Californians. An article in the Sunday opinion section went so far as to call it a “resounding message” from voters.

That strikes me as an absurd characterization considering that it a verdict rendered by about eight percent of the state’s eligible voters. (The percentage of population is even smaller if you consider than less than three-fourths of those eligible to register bothered to do so).

What's more, here’s that troublesome word from Exhibit A, above: nuance.

Very few news stories or even commentaries on the election noted the 800-pounds of gorilla truth in the room: much of California’s budget crisis results from the profoundly anti-democratic fact that legislators here can’t enact a budget by majority vote.

Honestly, they can’t. The votes of those elected by the most people isn’t enough to govern in this instance. Owing to restrictions on majority rule adopted years ago, it takes a 67% yes vote to pass the budget. That’s right: 34% of the legislators can trump the other 56%.

Whether you think that’s a good idea or not, you have to admit it’s relevant information.


  1. Well, grumpy or not Howard, your points are exceedingly valid. Correlation doesn't imply causation, but I'd speculate that the public disliking the media, stems from the fact that the media isn't trusted. All of your points below are examples.

    P.s. I'd totally go for the curmudgeon merit badge too! What are the requirements?

  2. On Example D, beyond the super-majority required to pass a budget, did any of the coverage of the election talk about Prop. 13?

    Beyond the measures on the ballot, was there any consideration of what would be required to get California to a sustainable, predictable and therefore budget-able revenue (tax) base?

  3. Howard, there's two types of curmudgeon, just like there's two types of cholesterol -- good and bad. This is the good kind. Keep it up! :-)

    Feels just a *little* like the closing scene in Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines.

  4. Anonymous8:37 PM

    Howard, go away. Please, just GO AWAY!

  5. Anon837: I am sorry to learn that you are being forced to read things against your will. If you can advise me how this is happening, I will do whatever I can to help ensure that you only read things of your choosing.

  6. Anonymous2:16 PM

    I reserve the right to "not vote" as well as vote until they put a none of the above option on each choice.
    A disinterested yawn can be just as meaningful as a landslide vote.

  7. Anonymous3:50 PM

    On example B, perhaps the reporter was influenced by being repeatedly directed for the last 10 years to dumb down and shorten his or her stories, because company market research showed that readers want short bursts of news and don't care about nuances.