Saturday, October 23, 2010

Words of Wisdom Today from Mike Allen's Playbook

We live our lives by a simple rule that we teach our kids: If you wonder whether it's OK, it's not.

A little simplistic, but when referring to tenuous line between advertising and newsrooms autonomy, it certainly applies. Allen is referring to The Washington Post's ombudsman Andrew Alexander's piece about Amazon links being inserted into a Post review online. The click provided from an interested reader delivers a pay cut to The Post, which is slightly troubling in itself, but my (the newsroom's) sense of unease is amplified by the fact that the links will be in the article itself and not in some clearly-marked Amazon-hosted side bar or at the end of the article.

I don't know if there is a marked ethical difference on the placement of the links (though my instinctive response of, "...What??" tells me that I certainly believe so) but I am also seeing it from a reader's point of view. The idea of having links in my newspaper article drive me from the article to Amazon.com is just a little too jarring for me. If I were to click on "Transformer's toys" thinking it would lead me to somewhere else on Washpo/other news outlets (maybe a business story about how toys do as failing franchises grow? I don't know - just an example) it would be really disconcerting when I find myself at a website that is directly aimed at my money-spending sensibilities.

Now reader-convenience aside, as a wannabe journalist , the idea of having links to a consumer website within an article just makes me skin crawl. I know it's probably not a big deal (even Alexander says that no reader has complained to him about it) but even with all the safeguards put up by the Post, I feel like if I were a writer crafting a story, I might hesitate to use a product name unless if it's absolutely necessary.

I just don't understand why Amazon can't have a little scrollable sidebar where they automatically generate the products mentioned in the article - so it looks like it were an Amazon code generating it, instead of the Post hyperlinking it. Like I said, I'm not sure if it's a big difference, but it certainly makes me feel less uncomfortable when I look at an article littered with consumer links.

Perhaps the best thing for them to do is as Allen says Politico does: They include products in Playbook for a reader's convenience, but they get nothing from it.

After all, if the executive editor Marcus W. Baruchli says that their primary concern is "simplifying a user's experience," then I know it would be far simpler for me to not have to mull over the ethical concerns of their business practices within the newsroom.

PS. I just looked briefly through some articles and I realized that there are rarely any products mentioned in Politics, World and Domestic News and D.C. news, which is certainly expected.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Daniel Schorr, Journalist, Dies At 93


According to The New York Times obituary, Daniel Schorr was denied readmission into the Soviet Union because of his disregard for the Soviet censors, and he was #17 on Nixon's "enemies list" because of his reporting of the Watergate scandal.

Schorr discovered that "Follow the money," was never uttered by Deep Throat; it was actually written by the script writer for the movie! Alicia Sheppard recounts Schorr's efforts to find that infamous phrase in Woodward and Bernstein's book.

A former research assistant of Schorr talks about the invaluable lessons that he took from working with him. Guy Raz, now the host of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered, said that it is because of Schorr that he now believes that to practice journalism, there must be that "demand for excellence and accuracy and fairness and nuance and [the] kind of unwillingness to just take things for face value."

Good friends with Frank Zappa, Schorr was invited onstage to sing at his concert in 1988. He was, frankly, terrible.

Schorr would also sing German opera and Marx Brothers nonsense songs and Edith Piaf before going on air. Please read NPR's Scott Simon's tribute to the end.

(Photo: Schorr works at a press table during the Watergate hearings on June 1, 1973, while on assignment for CBS News. CREDIT: Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Runaway General

Since its publication last week, this Rolling Stone's article by Michael Hastings has been met with a lot of controversy. Not surprisingly, the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere (hey y'all!) immediately jumped on the most gossip-y aspect of the article: the beginning that featured the General and his aides criticizing President Obama and generally maintaining a tone of derision for much of the senior administration. The Biden/Bite-Me comment was repeated throughout the interwebs and the cable news networks, followed by speculation of what the president would say to McChrystal when he was summoned back to D.C. from Afghanistan because of this article (Spoiler alert!: McChrystal was dismissed; Petraeus replaces him in the sequel.) After the dust from that settled, all of these cable news networks and websites turned their attentions back to the war in Afghanistan.

Nah, I'm only playing. Why should we focus on the true subject of Hastings' article, the international war crisis? Journalists, being an inherently narcissistic bunch, decided to turn their attentions back to themselves. For the past week, Michael Hastings' integrity has been judged by a panel of flacks sitting against green screens in their cozy offices, and his article has been dissected, exulted and assaulted by the public and press.

As a journalism student, I truly am interested in the consequences this article would have on the future quality of war reporting. I very nerdily devour blogs about off-the-record/on-the-record nuances when embedded 24/7 with a platoon and I love seeing what other war reporters have to say about this (Hi Lara, good to see you again! Even if you are dead wrong). But when the amount of articles/blogs/cable news time devoted to this "introspection" far, far outnumber the articles that actually look at the subject of Hastings' piece, I can't help but feel like we have somehow missed the point. *

Yes, Hastings has written a profile of McChrystal, but it was not to showcase the General's insubordination. The article is about how our military is coping in what is now the longest-running war since Vietnam with a controversial strategy that Obama has supported with the 30,000 troop surge last fall. This military strategy is known as counterinsurgency, or COIN, and it is not something that will solve the war's problems with one fell swoop. Hastings describes it:
COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps

One of the biggest problems with COIN is that its success is hard to gauge. Dexter Filkins, an amazing war reporter for The New York Times, took part in a Q&A session over at the Times' At War blog and he said:
I think the best evidence of COIN working, at least marginally, is Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Remember how the Iraq war unfolded: In the first three and a half years, American troops concentrated mostly on killing insurgents. They did that, but they profoundly alienated the Iraqi population. The result was the apocalyptic levels of violence that we saw in 2005 and 2007. In 2007, with the surge, the strategy was fundamentally changed. The overriding goal became the protection of the population.

What is immediately alarming is Filkins reached for the Iraq war as the clear example of COIN working (according to Filkins, who said "best evidence" not "only evidence"), meaning that there are still really no successful long-term results that we can confidently point to.

Another thing that is disturbing in Hastings' article is how there is a disconnect between what the soldiers understand their role to be and how they wish to carry their roles out. Hastings gave several anecdotes of how soldiers are angered by the stringent directives from McChrystal to avoid civilian casualties. These young men believe that these edicts – that are probably distorted from having been passed down the ranks – put them in greater danger in an already-deadly war zone. Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks said:
"I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they're all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don't understand it themselves. But we're fucking losing this thing."

I may have to spend a little more time reading up on COIN but there seem to be an almost contradictory quality of a military invasion coupled with the COIN beliefs. By holding back the pressure because of McChrystal's understandable worries of civilian casualties, the soldiers believe that they are also allowing the insurgency flourish. Yet if they were to open fire on insurgents and kill a single civilian by accident, there will be ten more insurgents created because of the outrage over the civilian's death. This tug-of-war for the hearts of the Afghan people is really confusing to me, a reader. I can only imagine how it must feel having to try and fathom this while carrying out the duties of a soldier.

Finally, there is the problem of the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's presidency in Afghanistan. Last year, Karzai won the presidential election, an event that has been accused of electoral fraud rife with government corruption. He is also not a reliable ally to the U.S., and is without the support of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, in order for the U.S. military to help rebuild a government in Afghanistan, they will need the support of a strong leader who holds the faith of his people and shares the values of Americans. Hastings said:
This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we've backed.

It angers me, looking at these three main problems outlined in Hastings' article, that we can spend such a significant amount of time going back and forth about whether or not Hastings had betrayed an "element of trust." President Obama may or may not have dismissed McChrystal because of his Bite-Me jokes – but my guess is that the sloppy handling of this war showcased so clearly in Hastings' article is probably what convinced him that there needed to be a change in the commander executing a strategy that will very likely keep American soldiers in Afghanistan for an indefinite amount of time.

I'll leave you with the passage that broke my heart. It is about a visit that McChrystal made to the White House in mid-May with Hamid Karzai. Exultant praises are made to each leader and at one point, President Obama said, "There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years – in education, in health care and economic development," he said. "As I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed – lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier." Hastings follows the president's quote this:
It is a disconcerting observation for Obama to make. During the worst years in Iraq, when the Bush administration had no real progress to point to, officials used to offer up the exact same evidence of success. "It was one of our first impressions," one GOP official said in 2006, after landing in Baghdad at the height of the sectarian violence. "So many lights shining brightly." So it is to the language of the Iraq War that the Obama administration has turned – talk of progress, of city lights, of metrics like health care and education. Rhetoric that just a few years ago they would have mocked.


(*And yes, I have not missed the irony in starting this post with some media criticism.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pulitzer Highlight: Sheri Fink


I just wanted to take some time to acknowledge that the Pulitzer Prize winners for journalism were announced today, and one piece really stands out to me: Sheri Fink won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for her story of a New Orleans hospital and the staff who had to make difficult life-and-death decisions during Hurricane Katrina.

I remember reading "The Deadly Choices at Memorial" last year and being completely floored by how well-researched, well-written, and heart-wrenching it was. It appeared in the weekly New York Times Magazine, and the photos that accompanied it, shot by Paolo Pellegrin, compounded the sense of dreadful desperation faced by the stranded hospital staff during Katrina, when the hospital was cut off from help.

If you have a couple minutes, do take a look at it. I should have written about it when it was first published because it truly is a one-of-a-kind piece. The subject matter is gripping, and the amount of work that Ms. Fink had put into it really shows - she reportedly interviewed 140 people for this story.

Anyway, if you have more than a couple minutes, look through the other winners. I'm currently combing through them to see what I have missed, or had seen the first time around.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vigor Quest


Articles on the use of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) have been fairly popular lately, brought on (I believe) by the misdeeds of Tiger Woods. A couple days after Woods' affair(s) were splashed across the tabloids and blogosphere, The New York Times took a different tack with Woods' culpability. This time, Woods was not the story; he simply served as its hook.

I remember this story standing out to me because it was featured on the front page; at that time, I wondered if this would really be front page news if it weren't for the Tiger Woods mention. The story is about the F.B.I. investigation of Dr. Anthony Galea, who is suspected of providing performance-enhancing drugs to the athletes he treats, one of which is HGH. NYT did a good job following up on the story here and here.

For a while, because of the way HGH is presented in the media, I believed that anyone who injects himself with a hormone is probably a cheating top-tier athlete. For Tom Dunkel, the author of "Vigor Quest," this top-tier athlete is not even worth a mention in his article. His article focuses on older, well-to-do men who wish to curb the aging process using "age-management medicine."



The anchor of the story is John Bellizzi, a 51-year-old who plays soccer every week. To keep himself in the best possible shape, Bellizzi has approached Dr. Florence Comite, whose relationship with Bellizzi is like that of an ace mechanic to a classice car:

Her job is to keep him finely tuned despite worn parts. "I consider what I do aggressive prevention, the basis of which is metabolism modulation," Comite says. "Twenty years from now, this will be the standard of care."


Overall, Dunkel does a really good job balancing the skepticism that "mainstream medicine" has towards anti-aging medicine with the visible results from injections of testosterone and human chorionic gondatropin (H.C.G.), a hormone that is distilled from the urine of pregnant women. He is also careful to state that some of the patients who take these anti-aging treatments are instructed to revamp their lifestyle, so it is sometimes difficult to see whether if the physical and mental change comes from the good eating and exercise, or from the injections of H.C.G.

If the subject of an article is controversial and not generally agreed upon by the public, it is important to show both sides without making it seem like you are writing, "A is good. B is good. A is bad. B is bad." That was a rather pidgin way to illustrate it, but I do believe melding two opposing opinions can take skill, and Dunkel is a pro at putting his two ideas in opposition without seeming too "list-y."

An example would be his initial description of Dr. Florence Comite. He begins the paragraph by showing off her impressive medical credentials and her commitment to medicine; then Dunkel ends the paragraph by listing that a search of her name would get you to her entry on Quackwatch.com.

The merits of this article is that Dunkel is willing to show you more about each person he mentions. He could have easily dismissed Bellizzi as a youth-hungry, vanity-stroking dolt – but he takes us through Bellizzi's life before he met Comite and makes us believe that Bellizzi is doing this for empowerment over his own body and fate. And why shouldn't he? If we, as human beings, are able to fight for something we want, like our job or our apartment or our spouse, why should we not be able to exert some control over our aging process?

Dunkel also refuses to leave Comite as a question mark; he did his homework for this aritcle, and it shows. Dunkel goes through Comite's childhood, tells us her favorite book as a child ("Stranger in a Strange Land," by Robert Heinlein), and shows us how this tiny, miniscule fact connects to the way she works as a doctor. Dunkel wants to show that though Comite's current area of expertise is considered troublesome by mainstream media, she is, in fact, no hack. In 1985, after a tenure at N.I.H. does research in gynecology and precocious puberty (what?), Comite founded Women's Health at Yale University, "arguably the first clinic in the country to treat women's health issues as a special discipline." By listing her achievements and the obstacles she has faced, Comite is presented as a purveyor of independent thinking. 20 years ago, it would be impossible for a male-dominated profession to treat female health problems as conditions of the female body. Today, it would be appalling if a health insurance plan did not cover gynecology visits. What if – and Dunkel sets up his entire scene just so we can wonder – today's perspective on anti-aging medicine makes a 180 in 20 years?

With all that good aside, I do have two little quibbles with this article. The first is that Dunkel is quite a scathing writer. There are some things that seem like almost a dig to the anti-aging movements, and I personally enjoy it. However, my second read-through had me wondering if some of it was necessary. An example is when Dunkel is describing the two founders of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, both of whom are doctors and amateur body-builders: (emphasis mine)

[Alan Mintz] and her exercise partner, John Adams, owned a radiology-diagnostics company. They sold the business in 1994, pocketing millions. Rather than retire and work full-time on their pecs, they started Cenegenics Medical Institute...


Here's another about Alan Mintz:

That June, Alan Mintz invited [Comite] to Las Vegas, and she ultimately joined Cenegenics' medical advisory board. (Two years later, Mintz, while doing an overhead press in the gym, lost control of the weighted bar, which struck him in the back of his head. He died while undergoing brain biopsy.)


Now was that necessary? It's certainly quite the visual and there is an irony to it, but it does nothing to further the focus on anti-aging medicine. Poor Dr. Mintz - reduced to a punchline.

My second quibble is barely a quibble. It's just a nitpick, and it might not even bother you when you read the article (Please read the article) but it jumped out at me.

About 80 percent of Comite's patients are men. It's a good match. She finds male menopause an area ripe for exploration, and men are generally more receptive to the notion of age management than women, who have been bombarded for years with conflicting information about hormone therapy.

Bob Fitzmaurice, a 48-year-old ...


No, Dunkel, please go back and explain that previous sentence. I believe, as evidenced by face lifts and boob jobs and the rise of the popularity of "Cougar Town" (sorry, it's an awful show, no matter what you say), that women are very receptive to age-management. It is incredibly careless of Dunkel to write that (because it's not true) and not back it up with some quote from Comite. How does being bombarded by information of hormone therapy make women less receptive to age management? Personally, I have never been talked to death about hormone therapy - it's simply not mentioned. And Comite, being the person who set up the first Women's Health clinic (arguably) in America, would definitely have an answer if Dunkel had posed a follow-up question.

All in all, this article was really fantastic. I would never expect myself to go nuts over a health piece, but Dunkel did a great job fine-tuning all the medical jargon into something that is accessible and effective.