Archive for June 2009
In the movie Ocean’s Eleven, our hero Danny Ocean (George Clooney) trades witty banter with his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), now the curator of a Las Vegas casino gallery:
The Vermeer is quite good. Simple but vibrant. Although his work definitely fell off as he got older.
Remind you of anyone?
And I still get Monet and Manet confused. Which one married his mistress?
Right. Manet had syphilis.
They also painted occasionally.
After a few days of Michael Jackson coverage, I started turning it off when it veered into personal and business topics. Which is much of the time. Sure there is a life and now a death fascinating for its pained complexity. But he also made music occasionally.
I finally got around to playing some old favorites. This led me to a musical test, based on the constant drumbeat that Thriller is the bestselling album of all time.
Gather up a few of the other bestselling albums ever. Depending on the list you use, here are some, along with the first track:
AC/DC, Back in Black (Hells Bells)
Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (Bat Out of Hell)
Eagles, Their Greatest Hits (Take It Easy)
Backstreet Boys, Millennium (Larger Than Life)
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Second Hand News)
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (Speak to Me)
Shania Twain, Come on Over (Man! I Feel Like a Woman!)
Mariah Carey, Music Box (Dreamlover)
Sit down and play the first track of these. Whether or not you love or loathe the music, see if any of these tracks really move you to get out of your seat.
Not fair to look only at all-time? Then look at the list of the bestselling albums for each of the past fifty years or so. These cover every possible genre, from soundtrack in 1957 (My Fair Lady) to hip-hop in 2008 (Lil Wayne, The Carter III).
With one exception, none of those albums has a first track irresistible dance song, so propulsive that it is simply more work to sit down than to get up and move.
The exception of course is 1983 and 1984, when Thriller was the bestselling album two years in a row. And if just for a moment you want to cleanse the environment and exorcise the media vultures, listen to the six minutes of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and get up and dance.
Whatever else we think or believe or know or learn about Michael Jackson, there will always be the music. Which for forty years, he occasionally made.
In the wake of this week’s news about South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, The State newspaper finally published the e-mails it has been holding since December.
There are plenty of things inquiring minds want to know. But once all the top-line questions eventually dies down (Should Sanford resign? Should The State have published these personal and passionate love letters at all? Who is this mystery woman and was she worth the trouble?), some bigger and more significant questions will have to be dealt with:
Did The State exercise its most strenuous journalistic efforts in pursuing this story over the past six months?
If it didn’t, does that disprove the primary argument that newspapers make to justify their existence: that in the face of media alternatives, there are some things that only real, resourceful, professional news organization can do?
You might call that the Watergate rationale for existence. So it may be helpful to take a quick look back at the most famous newspaper investigation in American history. As we now know, Woodward and Bernstein performed a Herculean amount of legwork on the story, but were regularly sent back for more to meet the publication standards of Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post.
Here is what we are able to piece together about the investigative efforts at The State.
First, one of the best recaps of the investigation appearing on The State site is not from The State itself, but written by the New York Times:
E-mails led The State to Atlanta airport
By TIM ARANGO and BRIAN STELTER – The New York Times
About six months ago, an anonymous tipster sent The State newspaper copies of e-mail messages supposedly exchanged between Gov. Mark Sanford’s personal e-mail address and a woman named Maria in Argentina.
Reporters sent e-mails back to the originating e-mail address and to the woman, whose e-mail address was included, in an effort to verify the messages were genuine. They never heard back. A second round of e-mails also failed to get a response, so the paper did not publish them until Wednesday, after Sanford admitted having an affair.
“We had not determined they were authentic,” Leroy Chapman, the governance editor at The State, said of the e-mail. “What it was, was a puzzle piece that was hardly discernible.”. . .
According to The State, the e-mails did contain very specific information:
The State has removed the woman’s full name and other personal details, including her address, e-mail address and children’s names.
A McClatchy special correspondent, Angeles Mase, Wednesday visited the 14-story apartment building in Buenos Aires where, according to the e-mails that included her address, the woman lives. . The woman at the address answered to the name in the e-mails and, at first, agreed to speak to a visitor, but she declined after the visitor identified herself as a reporter.
So this is what we know:
Six months ago The State tried to verify the e-mails by e-mailing Maria. They got no reply and after trying twice, they gave up.
The State admits that it had a lot of personal information about the woman. But there is no indication of personal follow-up in Buenos Aires until this week.
Of course, the simplest route to verification would have been to confront the Governor with the e-mails. There is no journalistic rule that requires unassailable prima facie authenticity; on the contrary, a simple denial in the face of absurd evidence is the best way to set aside baseless fabrications. Unless such a denial isn’t possible.
I am not suggesting crossing any professional lines of investigation. I am not ignoring the difficulty editors have in making investigative decisions.
I am suggesting that there were completely appropriate ways of pursuing this story months ago. Maybe that pursuit would have led nowhere, but maybe it would have moved all of this in an entirely different direction. If it’s important now, it would have been important then.
I’ve said before and will continue to say that newspapers serve an irreplaceable role in our society. Their demise is not inevitable. But if they want to keep standing, they will have to stand head and shoulders above the media pack. I’m not sure that is what happened here.
I am about to become the 1,900,000th person to comment on the jury award in the music file-sharing case of RIAA v. Jammie Thomas-Rasset. Actually, that is the number of dollars the jury awarded to the recording industry, $80,000 for each of 24 songs she was accused of illegally sharing. Questions about how this single mother of four will come up with the money, whether the award will end up reduced or even forgiven on appeal or in bankruptcy court, etc., will all be hashed out elsewhere.
Here are a few points.
I believe in intellectual property and IP rights, and I believe that creators should be able to use or dispose of that property and those rights in any way the laws allow. And I believe the laws should also be available to protect that property when it is taken and those rights when they are breached. If the laws are imperfect or useless, we should change them.
That’s the creed. That’s the perfect world. Now here’s the real one.
There may be no area of our public lives more complicated than intellectual property right now. There are plenty of areas that are more significant, of course, just not many that are more complicated.
Intellectual property today sits at the nexus of ultra-dynamic forces of business, technology, law, society, information, entertainment, etc., etc. I would call it a perfect storm, if that wasn’t such a cliche. Maybe it’s more like the movie Ghostbusters, when Peter, Ray and Egon accidentally cross the streams from their proton packs. It’s that powerful and explosive.
The major players sometimes seem to be stuck with strategies and tools from a different age. How else to explain an almost $2 million award against a woman who says she doesn’t have that kind of money, so why should she even worry about it. Yes, the recording industry seems to have the law on its side, but, no, if all this was meant to be terrorizing, it’s probably instead going to be taken as a joke, if not an incitement to further defiance. (The irony is that the industry has already decided to drop the strategy of suing small file sharers as examples.)
It is, to torture a metaphor, as if the media and entertainment industries have the keys to a shining new intergalactic space ship. But when it comes to property and rights, the only tool they want to use is a hammer. They keep banging on the thing to get it to work right, the way they think it should, but in the end all they end up with is a dented space ship that still doesn’t work.
We all hope they get creative, and acquire or build the tools they need for the 21st century, but in the meantime, they just have to quit that banging.
You can learn a lot watching the Daily Show and Colbert Report on Comedy Central. There’s continuing head-shaking about how many people get their news and information primarily from these “fake” news and opinion shows. But I think that these shows get their appeal from being in the tradition of the King’s fools, the savvy jokers who got away with speaking outrageous truth that others won’t touch.
On June 10, the topic of The Daily Show report End Times was the antiquity of newspapers. Jason Jones visited the New York Times. There was a conversation with Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who was surprisingly realistic as he talked about the journalistic lifeboats they were building. Then there is this amazing exchange with Rick Berke, Times Assistant Managing Editor:
Jason Jones: Why is aged news better than real news?
Rick Berke: I’ve never heard the term aged news.
JJ: Well, the newspaper is aged. I mean, it’s yesterday’s news.
RB: Not necessarily.
JJ: Give me one thing in there that happened today.
RR: (Long pause) But…um…nothing here happened today. But…I think you see several things that didn’t happen yesterday.
JJ: So it’s even older.
RR: Depends on your perspective.
No matter how many times you watch it, this looks like a scene from an absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco. Someday, a scholar of this extraordinary media era may even write a dissertation about this dialogue.
It is no secret that I am a big fan of ink-on-paper media, that I think they offer some unmatched and irreplaceable strengths and qualities. But I’ve also been clear that until those media focus brutally and creatively on those qualities and on these times (see my post on Walter Annenberg’s plan to save newspapers), successful solutions will remain as out of reach tomorrow as they are today.
Newsweek reports that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (of Scooter Libby Rod Blagojevich fame) has been on a campaign to stifle a book he believes is defamatory:
In the past year and a half, Fitzgerald has written four letters to HarperCollins—owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—demanding it “cease publication” and “withdraw” copies of Triple Cross, a 2006 book by ex–TV newsman Peter Lance that criticizes Fitzgerald’s handling of terror cases in New York in the 1990s. Fitzgerald raised the temperature even more last week, aiming to halt a paperback version. “To put it plain and simple,” he wrote in a June 2 letter obtained by NEWSWEEK, “if in fact you publish the book this month and it defames me or casts me in a false light, HarperCollins will be sued.”
In light of this, there has been talk about whether Fitzgerald’s campaign is appropiate given his office, along with the typical talk about censoring controversial views (in this case, that claim that Fitzgerald’s action contributed to 9/11).
All this discussion misses a big point: Defamation is dead.
This doesn’t mean that there is no longer a legal remedy for lies that injure. It just means that in this century, the lies (if they are lies) plus any actions taken to stop them will always add fuel and make the fire burn much brighter. Always.
There was a time, and not that long ago, when conversations or letters or newspapers or magazines or broadcasts that caused harm could be effectively retracted and contained. The errant newspaper or show might never again see the light of day. You sued, the claims did get some extra attention, but if you prevailed, you could be pretty sure the content would ultimately be seen or heard rarely, by a relative few.
Information true and false never dies any more; it lives forever and explodes.
So now, even assuming Fitzgerald’s claims are correct, and assuming he receives money damages, here’s what happens.
If the book is revised or even withdrawn, the claims will still be seen by millions, both in reports and in the original form of the book which will live somewhere online. Yes, there will also be reports of the finding of falsity, which is better than nothing, but no real antidote to the poison.
Of course people should stand up against published lies. Some would say that despite all the channels for lies to live and thrive exponentially, the very same channels are also available for corrective truth.
It’s also true that even in the pre-digital age, lies couldn’t always be muted, let alone killed, by law or otherwise. Still, if you were the victim of a public lie, would you want the task of weeding the Internet garden to find every time the lie popped up?
I have no immediate solution, just a couple of pop culture allusions.
In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tries to erase offensive graffiti, but realizes “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘F**k you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.”
In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein created a special class of licensed professionals known as Fair Witnesses, whose sole role was to accurately observe and report what they saw and heard first-hand. Maybe in an age where truth and its variants are so easy to disseminate, it’s time to consider such a program.