The Fact-Checker Follies, Continued
My new Think Again column is an examination of some of the revelations in the Times’ Tax stories of last week. It’s called “Will the Times’s Terrific Tax Reporting Matter?” and it’s here.
A few things that got list in the gift-giving guides were:
A) Charlie Christian, The Genius of the Electric Guitar, a four CD box set Columbia/Legacy. The great guitarist joined the Benny Goodman Sextet starting in 1939, America’s first integrated high-profile jazz group (or any other kind of group), which also featured Fletcher Henderson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone. Discovered by John Hammond—who, I didn’t know this, was Goodman’s brother-in-law—joined Columbia after four years at Victor. This box, a reconfiguration of the original box set from 2002 featuring the same repertoire, also includes an essay by Peter Broadbent, owner/administrator of The Charlie Christian Archive.
B) When reading this essay in the Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago, I got excited about The Cocktail Waitress, a previously lost work by James M. Cain, a former editorial writer for the New York World, by the way. Before getting the audio version, which is available from Harper Audio—I haven’t gotten the audio yet—but the publication led me to discover this new wonderful publisher Hard Case Crime. What a find. First of all, I just love the cover art. I love the love that has gone into printing these new (sometimes) but always retro books. And I love the honor they bring to the genre, as well the opportunities they offer both new writers and readers looking for the new. This edition of the new/old Cain comes with not only a cool cover but also a 4,000-word afterword by editor Charles Ardai discussing the book, its discovery, and the process of editing Cain’s original manuscripts.
C) I’m also eager to read this insanely ambitious book, The Twenty Year Death, a first novel written in the form of three separate crime novels, each set in a different decade and penned in the style of a different giant of the mystery genre. Read all about it:
1931— The body found in the gutter in France led the police inspector to the dead man’s beautiful daughter—and to her hot-tempered American husband.
1941— A hardboiled private eye hired to keep a movie studio’s leading lady happy uncoversthe truth behind the brutal slaying of a Hollywood starlet.
1951— A desperate man pursuing his last chance at redemption finds himself with blood on his hands and the police on his trail... and they got Rose McGowan posed for the cover painting ….
D) I am also looking forward to Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night, which was published by William Morrow and also available on audio from Harper Audio . If you’re a fanatic for this kind of thing, (or owe a present to someone who is) then you might be interested in the publication of Dashiel Hammett’s notes etc, for two Thin Man sequels. The Thin Man is one of the few great books that is also a great movie; usually great movies are made only from not-so great books, but in the noir/detective category, this rule has apparently been suspended, as with the Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, etc.
Last weekend were the Hot Tuna shows at the Beacon. I see Jorma has a blog where he discusses them at length. The shows did have a festive air to them owing to all of the guests and it’s nice to see how seriously the musicians took them in advance rehearsals, etc. I have my differences with the set list of course; Hot Tuna is one band that does not know their gold from their dross; or else they are a little too eager to satisfy the (now former) frat boy element of their audience. But they are an institution and a welcome one at that. And I think Friday night might have been the first time ever they gave it up and played a Dead song: appropriately “Sugaree.” The guests, who came and went with impressive direction, included Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Steve Kimock, G.E.Smith, Bill Kirchen, Cindy Cashdollar, Bob Margolin and Lincoln Schleifer.
If you saw the profile of Graham Parker in The Times's Arts and Leisure section last week, then you’ve heard about the Rumour reunion and the role that GP’s music plays in Judd Apatow’s new movie. This turns out to be a most welcome thing. I was a big fan in the days when we used to argue about who was better Parker or Elvis C., but I never realized how terrific Parker’s backing band was, nor how important they were to that burst of creativity that led to Heat Treatment, Squeezing Out Sparks, etc,.
GP has been holed up in upstate New York for decades now putting out albums for a “more and more exclusive audience” as I once heard him put it, but the role of his great music in "This Is 40," led to him bringing back all the boys for a new CD called Three Chords Good.
The show they did at the Concert Hall at the Ethical Culture Society was a little heavy on Three Chords Good, since most people had never heard it before but once the band got going with the classics (and Graham put down his pointless acoustic guitar), it came to life in a decidedly thrilling fashion. We got “Stupefaction,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” the Trammps’ “Hold Back the Night” He pulled out “Get Started, Start a Fire,” “Hotel Chambermaid,” “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” “Watch the Moon Come Down,” “Discovering Japan,” “Fool’s Gold,” “No Protection,” “Thunder and Rain” and “Local Girls” and the ideal closer: “I Want You Back.” He left the hall triumphant, smiling and with the crowd standing and cheering, feeling lucky to have been there and spent a few hours with some wonderful music and our younger selves. Just don’t ask us (too many) questions. Ain’t no answers in here. (And what a band! Where in the world have these guys been doing? They’re incredible.)
I saw David Mamet’s short-lived Broadway production of The Anarchist that weekend too, which will make one of extremely few people in the history of the human race since it may have set a record for world’s fasted closing. And no wonder. I was not as critical as lot of people of Debra Winger’s deadpan performance as a prison official, nor quite as impressed by Patti Lupone’s as a Kathy Boudin style ex-left-wing terrorist who, after 35 years of jail time, is hoping to be set free. I was mostly impressed by a) how difficult it must have been for both actors to learn all those lines (It is a two person show) and b) who in the world could possibly have thought that this was a show worth doing in the first place.
The production has almost nothing to recommend it. A passable idea, perhaps, but horribly executed by Mamet, who not only wrote the short, uninteresting, superficial (albeit faux-philosophical) (non)drama but also directed it without any appreciable staging or much of anything else that usually makes up a Broadway play. Don’t take my word for any of this. The Guardian reviews it here.
Writing on the front page of The Times, Patrick Healy speculates that this ridiculous excuse for a play may have been produced (at a cost of $2.6 million) as a sop to Mamet to grease the wheels for the revival, literally down the street of Glengarry Glen Ross, whose production is every bit as brilliant as the Anarchist was awful. (Said Ms. Winger to Mr. Healy: “It’s a bigger story than you could ever fit in your daily column.”
I’ve seen this play three times now, and a movie a few times, and while the marquee attraction is clearly Al Pacino. (He is certainly the reason they can charge $377 for the best seats.) The standout performer is Bobby Carnivale, whose Ricki Roma, the role Pacino played in the movie, is something that will last in the imaginations of people who see this play as long as they have memories. Pacino is no slouch either and I appreciated the way he underplayed the Pacino-style pyrotechnics in order that he might inhabit the role more closely than his outsized acting personality often allows. Indeed, the whose cast is terrific, but it’s hard to separate from the brilliance of the play itself, which is so brilliant, tough-minded, eloquent and angry, it’s hard to fathom where in world Mamet found it. It is truly one of the gems of the American theater—just a notch below Death of Salesman or the best of O’Neill. (I note once again that in this view, The Times reviewer, Ben Brantley, could not have been more off base in his review here (just as he was with Mike Nichols’ recent Salesman revival. The guy really needs a rest…)
I am tempted to draw a connection between the fact that Mamet has turned into a right-wing lunatic, particularly on Jewish issues and the fact that he has apparently lost both his gifts as playwright and his judgment as a director. I actually think it’s there. But it’s a case that’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing here, all of which boils down to: If can possibly see this production of Glengarry Glen Ross, then do so. It’s as powerful an argument for the purpose of art itself as I can imagine.
Lie of Omission
by Reed Richardson
Journalists learn early on in their careers that there are some words best avoided at all costs. “Proactive,” for example, is an unctuous, lazy term that rarely survives an editor’s scrutiny. “Unprecedented” is a minefield that begs for a reader to smugly point out the arcane—or worse, obvious—earlier example you overlooked. And for anyone who’s ever spent time on the sports beat, the verb “manage” you soon find out is reserved only for the actions of middle-aged men who are required to still wear baseball uniforms in their day jobs.
Most of these unwritten newsroom copy rules are beneficial, learned best practices that push journalists to be more precise in their language and to avoid lapsing into vague clichés or unnecessary hyperbole. But, occasionally, you run across one of these taboo words and realize that its subtle, but firmly enforced absence from the media lexicon is counterproductive. To consciously avoid using it only serves to make journalists less accurate in their reporting and compels them to use flowery euphemisms when the truth is much more simple and clear cut. And there is perhaps no better example of this contradiction between journalism’s habits and its principles than its conflicted relationship with the word “lie.”
Somewhere along the way the mainstream media collectively decided that calling something a “lie” or someone a “liar,” no matter how overwhelming the evidence, was a subjective judgment and, thus, out of bounds. Hence, even if a newspaper article quotes someone making a demonstrably false statement like “The sun rises in the west,” you’ll rarely, if ever, encounter a following sentence written by an “objective” reporter characterizing that comment as a “lie.” Better, according to the profession’s conventional wisdom, to just politely point out that the sun rises in the east, or best of all, quote someone else stating that.
For this reason alone, then, I regard the recent proliferation of media fact-checking platforms as a net positive for our democracy. Their willingness to embrace long forgotten words like “truth” and “lie” injects some refreshing honesty back into our discourse. And yet that doesn’t mean standalone factchecking is immune to the same institutional biases that plague the rest of the newsroom, which I went into more detail explaining here a year ago.
All of which brings me to Politifact’s annual attempt at trolling for publicity— it’s recently released list of finalists for “Lie of the Year.” Peruse it and you’ll quickly notice that the choices represent a paragon of partisan parsing, the epitome of forced equivalence, as the list oh-so-predictably includes exactly five “lies” from Obama or his supporters and five from Romney or another conservative. (In this case, the only other right-winger is Rush Limbaugh, whose lone entry on this list I presume is some kind of begrudging nod to his consistent body of work in the field, similar to the unrelenting Best Actress Oscar nominations garnered by Meryl Streep. Both could win these respective contests every year, in other words, but where’s the fun in that?)
But there’s something else notable about what’s on Politifact’s list, or rather what’s not on the list. Inexplicably, this journalistic arbiter of truth felt that Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47 percent” falsehoods weren’t even worthy of being included in the top ten. One might chalk this oversight up to Politifact’s questionable track record picking their “Lie of the Year,” since it’s 2011 winner had the unique quality of being something that was actually true. (The site’s readers, it should be noted, disagreed in their own poll.) But Politifact isn’t alone in this glaring omission, which was repeated by the 2012 Best/Worst lists of other prominent fact-checking sites like Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” and Factcheck.org. (To be fair, Factcheck.org did include a short blurb on “47 percent,” but literally as a final footnote that was not among their many “Whoppers of 2012.”)
Now, I get that there’s an argument to be made that the lies Romney told at that private fundraising dinner where he unfairly maligned half of the American public perhaps weren’t, individually, as egregious as his mendacious invective about, say, Obama’s welfare policy. But still, it says something that Politifact devoted eight separate posts to debunking Romney’s comments. What’s more, even some of their judgments in his favor wilt under real scrutiny. For example, there was this crime against arithmetic:
Romney told campaign donors that '50 percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job.' He missed a key qualifier—according to the research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job, while another quarter have found a job, but one that doesn’t require a college degree. Still, the research shows the employment picture for college grads is grimmer than at any time in more than a decade. We rate the claim Mostly True.
This is journalistic malpractice, no doubt. But for further proof that Politifact (and the other fact checkers) badly blew their analysis and missed the point of what happened in 2012, I offer up none other than Politifact’s own editor, Bill Adair, who said in defense of his organization’s lousy call one year ago: “We define the Lie of the Year as the most significant falsehood, the one that had the most impact on the political discourse.”
Looking back on the 2012 elections, is there any doubt that Romney’s “47 percent” comments fit this definition to a tee? Just look at the finalists that did make Politifact’s top ten list. All five of the chosen right-wing lies, when you peel back their respective ugly husks, reveal the same hard cynical pit—this smear that “47 percent” of the country are “victims” and hopelessly “dependent upon the government.” What’s more, everyone from conservative columnists to die-hard Tea Partiers to, just this week, his own running mate has now conceded that these lies irreparably poisoned Romney’s electoral prospects. The 2012 election exit polls, which showed Obama winning handily as someone who understands the concerns of the middle class and poor, only reinforced the extent of their impact. And not only did this same “makers vs. takers” argument color almost every aspect of Romney’s presidential campaign against Obama, it was the subtext of nearly every Republican running for federal office this past November.
To ignore or minimize the true import of Romney’s mendacious, “47 percent” comments on what happened in 2012, then, is to fail miserably at providing the precious context that these fact-checking sites claim is their one true advantage. It does a disservice to our democracy and only perpetuates a myopic, hidebound coverage that uses the word “lie” but doesn’t really understand what it means. That’s because there’s one other important lesson that every journalist has to learn when they begin their career, what you leave out of a story can often be more important that what you leave in.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m doing the Twitter thing here—(at) reedfrich.
Just read your essay “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in Alterman’s blog, and you have fully captured the propaganda machine that is right wing media. I might add an additional comment…since watching the results become final in this election, I feel more strongly than ever that the right wing media, and Fox News in particular, does not engage in their contentions to win over any new support, but rather to only paint a feel good perspective to their followers to keep them loyal. Had they painted an accurately negative picture for Romney in predicting the outcome of the election, they would have confused these followers, and these followers, being sycophants, will continue following current and future assessments stemming from their heroes. They choose not to hear it precisely because they do not want to know any other viewpoint, the “Bubble”, as Bill Maher appropriately calls it, is crowded. I used to get upset about Fox News, etc., and its blatantly biased reporting that is touted as “fair and balanced”. No longer…those who subscribe to this are a known quantity to the right wing machine, whose numbers refuse to “get it”.
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