The Spectator on the decline and fall of the New York Times

October 24, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Batya Ungar-Sargon used to be the opinion editor of The Forward, and now she’s an opinion editor for Newsweek (which leans right); she also just wrote a new boo, from which the Spectator piece below is excerpted. The book, whose title tells you where she stands, is called Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, and has endorsements by both Greg Lukianoff from FIRE and Jon Haidt. At the bottom you can see her interviewed by Megyn Kelly.

This all doesn’t necessarily mean that Ungar-Sargon is a conservative, and to some extent that’s irrelevant, for we should hear what she has to say: in this case, an analysis that could only have been done by a journalist on why the New York Times has sunk so low. It’s complicated, involving feedback between the reading public and the paper. (Actually, it’s not that complicated.)

Because I’m no fan of the new NYT (though I subscribe and read and like many articles), it’s become abysmally woke, and that’s what Ungar-Sargon is trying to explain: how it happened.

Click on the screenshot to read.

The sequence in short (quotes are indented):

a.) NYT decides to go digital in part.

b.) To boost their subscriber base, its journalism begins to fuse with advertising.

Of course, journalists have always been aware who their readers are and have catered to them, consciously and unconsciously. But it was something else entirely to suggest that journalists should be collaborating with their audience to produce ‘user-generated content’, as the report put it. ‘Innovation’ presaged a new direction for the paper of record: become digital-first or perish.

c.) Trump’s election gave the paper a huge boost in attention and revenue (remember, online most of the revenue comes from ads). Subscriptions in 2017 were up 46% from 2016. In the meantime, the paper realized that they could derive “emotional profiles” of its readers from the pattern of clicks, and use those to target the ads accompanying specific articles to specific readers. And because emotions drive readership, the Times, realizing what topics generated the most emotion, pitched its content to those topics:

If you want to know what makes America’s educated liberal elites emotional, you only have to open the Times. Judging by the coverage of recent years, two things make them more emotional than anything else: Trump and racism.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy soared to the top of the bestseller list as blindsided liberals sought to understand how people could have voted for Trump. For a brief period, it seemed like the American mainstream might truly grapple with the question of class. But this quickly disappeared in favor of an easier explanation: Trump voters were racists.

Liberal news media pushed study after study allegedly ‘proving’ that the class narrative — that Trump’s voters had chosen him out of economic anxiety — was false. They were simply racists, we were told by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic and Vox. You could feel the relief seeping through the repetition: if Trump’s voters are racists, we no longer have to care about them! This line absolved journalists of the inner twinge of doubt that must come to any honest reporter when they realize that they are afflicting the afflicted. There is only one problem. It’s just not true.

She goes on to argue that Trump voters weren’t one-issue voters who were promoting racism as the ideal, but had a number of different motivations, and were willing to overlook Trump’s own palpable racism because they liked other things he stood for.  As she argues, “Trump’s racism was not a deal breaker for his supporters, many of whom expressed discomfort with the president’s ranting and raving.”

d.) Journalists became complicit in an anti-Trump, anti-racist “moral panic”, which of course was good for the NYT’s bottom line. Judge this for yourself:

The truth is, the reasons people gave for voting for Trump were numerous —and legitimate. His promise to appoint conservative justices was a major motivating factor for antiabortion evangelicals. Others were swayed by his commitment to religious liberty, which gave him a lot of support in the Orthodox Jewish community. Independents especially appreciated his anti-war position. Lower-income voters were impressed by his opposition to America’s disastrous trade deals.

Anyone who talked to Trump voters knew their reasons for voting for him. But journalists at America’s leading publications did not know any Trump supporters socially, and that made it easy to caricature and misrepresent them. When New York Times reporters did venture into Trump country, they inevitably found some reason to tar the people they interviewed as racist.

This penchant was part and parcel of a larger dynamic that preceded Trump, in which liberal news media, increasingly reliant on digital advertising, subscriptions and memberships, have been mainstreaming an obsession with race, to the approval of their affluent readers. And what was once a business model built on a culture war has over the past few years devolved into a full-blown moral panic.

Any journalist working in the mainstream American press knows this, because the moral panic is enforced on social media in brutal shaming campaigns. They have happened to many journalists, but you don’t actually have to weed out every heretic to silence dissent. After a while, people silence themselves. Who would volunteer to be humiliated by thousands of strangers, when they could avoid it by staying quiet? The spectacle alone enforces compliance. . .

. . .This bears repeating: there can be no moral panic without the media and the social consensus they create. The power of the press — despite its unpopularity — is still immense. And it has used that power over the past decade, and with exponential intensity over the past few years, to wage a culture war on its own behalf, notably by creating a moral panic around racism.

Nor is it surprising that the New York Times played an outsized role in shaping our moral panic. Its business model is deeply bound up with the mores of affluent white liberals. Inevitably, in the spring of 2020, it turned its wrath on its own. By the time the dust settled, five people would no longer work at the Times.

e.) Ungar-Sargon goes on to review the familiar stories of the departure of Bari Weiss, op-ed editor James Bennett, and others. You’ll recall that Bennett was fired for running an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton saying that if (racially based) demonstrations got out of hand and couldn’t be controlled by the police, the National Guard or other troops should be called in to stop violence and destruction. (Most Americans agreed with this.) Cotton’s editorial was objected to by a thousand Times staffers, who said that the piece was racist put their black staff “in danger”. Twitter backed this up. (Go have a look at the editorial and the new “introduction” by the NYT editor.) Anyway, that was the end of Bennett.

What I found interesting is that the Times pretended that only one sub-editor, Adam Rubenstein, was responsible for editing Cotton’s piece, and, close to when Bennett left, he did too—another casualty. But Ungar-Sargon contradicts the Times’s own narrative about the vetting of the fatal op-ed (how she got this information I have no idea):

Cotton’s ‘whatever it takes’ language was harsh, but the majority of Americans — including a large share of black Americans — agreed with him. This is why the Times’s Opinion section, which planned to run an editorial and two opinion columns opposing the use of the Insurrection Act, was also on the lookout for a piece defending it. When Cotton pitched an op-ed about how Twitter was threatening to lock him out of his account, a senior editor suggested he write up his thoughts on the Insurrection Act instead.

Cotton’s first draft was deemed strong by two senior editors at the Times. He excoriated defenses of looting as ‘built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters’. He insisted that the majority ‘who seek to protest peacefully’ shouldn’t be ‘confused with bands of miscreants’. He argued that the president had the authority to use the Insurrection Act to send in US troops if governors couldn’t quell the rioting and looting on their own.

The draft went through a series of edits — fact checks, line edits, clarifications and copyedits. There were several phone calls to the senator’s office. A few lines were deleted and some language clarified. By the time the piece was ready for publication, no fewer than seven editors had worked on it. Having been approved one final time by a senior Opinion editor, the piece was published on the Times website on June 3.

All hell broke loose.

So it goes. The last part of the excerpt has an interesting comparison (my emphasis):

And the hunt for insufficiently antiracist Americans has become its own genre. The Times has run articles declaring that wine and surfing are racist, and that it’s time to ‘decolonize botanical collections’ by ridding them of ‘structural racism’. It even ran an article about a 15-year-old girl who used the ‘N-word’ when she bragged about passing her driving test in a private video to a friend — which another student got his hands on and saved for three years until he could use it to get her kicked out of college.

Stories like this seem to attract an unlimited audience in the way stories of crime once did for Joseph Pulitzer’s papers. That’s because articles that offend the woke person are crime stories for the affluent: stories of people just like themselves who commit crimes of thought or speech, and lose everything when they fall on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxy. As the Twitter mob pursues small infractions as avidly as it does large ones, and as the etiquette keeps shifting, who dares trust their own ability to judge right from wrong?

It’s how you know we’re in a moral panic: only the mob has the right to judge you. And too many journalists have ceded them that right. Indeed, a huge number of the mob are journalists — journalists from the most important newspapers in the country and the world, all tweeting the exact same meaningless sentence repeatedly. People who had been hired to think for themselves now mindlessly repeat a dogma like their jobs depended on it.

Well, they do.

There’s no doubt that the NYT caters to the mob: their firing of Bennett, and the disclaimer in front of Cotton’s editorial, shows that they not only lied about the vetting of that editorial, but also truckled to the mob and to their own staff, even though the paper initially wanted Cotton’s piece. They couldn’t rescind it, but the preface is now larded with self-flagellation about how the piece was insufficiently vetted. The truth is that it was well vetted, but black and white NYT staffers raised a ruckus because the editorial made them “unsafe”. That’s bogus, of course, but enough to make at least two heads roll at the paper.

I can only guess that Ungar-Sargon, who’s been around journalism a long time, had some inside information about what went on at the NYT. You may not agree with her analysis, but you have to agree with some of her claims. The paper is woke, and that goes for both the news section (which refuses or hesitates to cover stories that reflect badly on the Left) and the op-ed section.  Read her piece and report below what you think. I think it’s a thought-provoking analysis.

Here’s her interview with Megyn Kelly about the book. It’s interesting (especially Kelly’s take on Fox News and its audience after she’d worked there), so watch it.

h/t Doc Brydon

More anodyne cures for the world’s ills by Reverend Tish Harrison Warren

October 24, 2021 • 11:15 am

Yes, Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest who writes a weekly column to fill up empty space in the New York Times, has once again proffered a cure for the nation’s ills. It’s trivial and far from new, but at least it doesn’t involve God.  The email I got with the column (Ceiling Cat help me, I subscribe) was headed, “Why chatting with your barista could help save America.”  In the paper (click on screenshot below), it has a different title:

The entire thesis can be summarized with one of her paragraphs:

To learn how to love our neighbors we need cultural habits that allow us to share in our common humanity. We need quiet, daily practices that rebuild social trust. And we need seemingly pointless conversation with those around us.

By “pointless,” she means “avoiding hot-button issues like politics”. Her notion, which many others have suggested before, is that you can heal divisions between people by getting the “sides” to know each other. If you like or at least are friendly with a political opponent, you’ll find a way to eventually agree on politics.

This simple message, however, is unlikely to heal any divisions—after all, are citizens supposed to wait until they discuss these issues?—or are they supposed to become pals with their barista before bringing them up? Warren dilates at length about her hale-fellow-well-met Texas dad whom everybody loved and nobody hated, for he just cracked jokes and made pleasantries. He didn’t talk politics.

It goes on and on and on, without telling us how, after we’re pals with Trumpies, we can then begin to discuss abortion, the border, the unstolen election and so on.

And so we have the Paper of Record giving us stuff like this:

I see moments of this in my own life. I moved states recently and feel the loss of seemingly unimportant local relationships I’d built where we lived before. I have no idea if my favorite former barista and I shared any political or ideological beliefs. We likely disagree on important issues. But I don’t care. I know he adores his infant niece and I regularly asked how she was doing. He is working to get through grad school, and I found myself genuinely rooting for this person I barely knew.

Each of us is more than the sum of our political and religious beliefs. We each have complex relationships with the people we love. We each have bodies that get sick, that enjoy good tacos or the turning of fall. We like certain movies or music. We laugh at how babies sound when they sneeze. We hurt when we skin a knee. The way we form humanizing, nonthreatening interactions around these things taps into something real about us. We are three-dimensional people who are textured, interesting, ordinary and lovely. . . .

. . . Of course, to heal the deep divisions in our society we need profound political and systemic change. But though we need more than just small talk, we certainly do not need less than that. As a culture, our conversations can run so quickly to what divides us, and this is all the more true online. We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another. These are the baby steps of learning to live together across differences.

Yes, and maybe if the Taliban got to know more Afghan women they would eventually allow them to go to school. Maybe if more Texas lawmakers had cake and coffee with pregnant women they would rescind their draconian anti-choice law. When Lyndon Johnson rammed the Civil Rights Bills through the Senate, he didn’t make small talk with the Senators. He used his leverage and power to bring around the Southern opponents.

Yes, we have to be able to discuss things civilly, for then, so they say, consensus will come. That’s what Biden ran his campaign on, and look where it’s gotten him.

How much longer will the NYT torture us this way?

Two easy pieces

October 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

There are two items today that I commend to your attention.

The first is Andrew Sullivan’s latest newsletter on The Weekly Dish (click on screenshot below), in particular his main piece on a new phenomenon: people confronting politicians or those whom thy oppose in private venues, and harassing them or vandalizing their property. You might remember that this started in the days running up to the Trump election, when people would accost Republican politicians in restaurants, scream at them, or, sometimes, the restaurant owner would ask them to leave.  Although some readers thought this was fine, I didn’t. People should be able to dine in restaurants in public with their families and be left in peace, whether they be Trumpites or Bernie bros. (Most of the hectoring was done by the Left, but as Sullivan notes in this week’s column, the Right is not immune.)

Both sides need to lay off disturbing people’s regular lives, for it has no salubrious result; it allows some people to blow of steam while hardening the divisions in America. And it inspires other people to go off on their enemies in public.

Click on the screenshot to read, and remember to subscribe if you read often:

The title itself shows one example of Leftist damage to the home of Oakland’s mayor. As you see, it says “defund the OPD [Oakland Police Department]”, “cancel rent!” (that would work well) and so on. That mess of paint requires serious cleaning up!  Sullivan cites a bunch of examples of similar attacks by the Left, but you can read for yourself. I’ll adduce one more: the mayor of Portland, Oregon had to move because protestors went after his condo, even breaking windows of other people’s offices and throwing burning material in them. Yelling at people is insufficient these days! No, you have to follow them into the bathroom and yell at them in their stalls when they’re trying to micturate, as happened to Kyrsten Sinema.

And attacks by the Right as well:

Although not as persistent or as widespread as the far left’s invasion of the privacy of public figures, the far right is not innocent either. LA Mayor Garcetti’s residence was targeted by anti-lockdown activists; LA County’s public health director was also targeted at home; some folks brought menacing tiki-torches to the Boise mayor’s home; in Duluth, Trump supporters organized 20 trucks to circle the mayor’s home. Over the new year, Nancy Pelosi’s private home was vandalized, graffiti written on her garage door, and a bloody pig’s head was thrown into the mix for good measure.

There are also attacks on school board members around the country, who favor teaching the concepts of critical race theory to kids, or are implementing Covid mask policies. It’s fine and good to protest; it is not fine and good to force these people and their families to live under personal siege.

Anti-mask demonstrators, for example, hounded one Brevard School Board member and mother, Jennifer Jenkins, at her Florida home, at one point coming to her doorstep and coughing in her face. She later testified that she was ok with demonstrators outside her home, but that “I object to them following my car around, I reject them saying they are coming for me and I need to beg for mercy … that they are going behind my home and brandishing their weapons to my neighbors. That they’re making false DCF [child welfare agency] claims against me to my daughter. That I have to take a DCF investigator to her playdate to go underneath her clothing and check for burn marks. That’s what I’m against.”

All of this is to make the point that the personal is not political, a phrase that never made a lot of sense to me. Sullivan, like me, is opposed to this kind of stuff, and is and was also opposed to outing closeted gays. As he says, “I have long felt that way even about ‘outing’ public figures who have bad records on gay rights. Legitimize outing gays to combat homophobia and you legitimize other people outing gays in order to shame and humiliate.”

Sullivan ends like this:

What we’re losing, I fear, is the idea that we can take on a role as public citizens that is separate from our role as private human beings; that we can place limits on what the state can do to us, and what we can do to each other. As Hannah Arendt perhaps best grasped, a liberal society is almost defined by its belief that politics has limits, and that it exists to defend us from either the government or our fellow citizens leveraging private human flaws for political purposes. There are, in fact, many worse things than hypocrisy. Shamelessness, for example. The first is human; the second is sociopathic. I want to live in a world where the former prevails.

The idea that “the personal is political” is not just a glib phrase. It is actually best exemplified by totalitarian systems, which seek no limits to their authority over private matters, even those matters that are buried deep in your mind and soul, and which enroll citizens into becoming mutual spies in pursuit of heretics. I don’t want to live in that transparent, unsparing, brutalizing world. It turns us all into spies; it gives no one space to think or escape; it is devoid of mercy and gives no benefit of the doubt.

Let’s not lose the distinction between public and private. Let’s remember that everything we decide to do to violate the privacy of others comes back to legitimize others’ violation of ours. The immediate payoff may be gratifying; but what it does to a society over time, as the tit-for-tats cascade, is to remove the chance for civil debate, and enhance the power of personal hatred, and, ultimately political violence. That’s where this leads: a descent from civil argument to civil war.

That last sentence might be hyperbole, but it’s not out of the question.

Can we have a little civility around here? America is so polarized that even at the University of Chicago, when our administration refused to get rid of its police department, students camped out in the street in front of our Provost’s house for a week (an illegal act, but the police let them be for a while), and even painted a parking space for the Provost, who’s of Chinese descent.  She’s not by any means a racist, but that’s the worst thing that the Woke can call someone, and so they painted it in front of her house, helpfully in Chinese and English (I don’t even know if she reads or speaks Chinese). “CareNotCops” is the local student “progressive” group.

This is not okay:

***************

Second item (h/t Paul): a 28-minute interview of Bari Weiss by Brian Stelter, CNN’s lead reporter on the media.  The topic is why she, like Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, and others, have moved from “MSM” to Substack. Click on the screenshot below to go to the page with the audio interview, and then on the arrow by the header below.

As Stelter notes, Weiss now makes a lot more money on Substack than she did before she resigned from the New York Times, but I’m sure she did it for the freedom to write without censorship, not for money (she couldn’t predict that she’d get over 100,000 subscribers). She indicts the NYT for pushing a defined narrative rather than “all the news that’s fit to print.”  She wants her column, Common Sense, to be “the op-ed column I would like to read”, the place that cover stories that the MSM won’t touch.  She gives a laundry list of “the ways that the world’s gone mad”; you’ll be familiar with many of them, including MIT’s cancellation of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot’s invited lecture, which was completely ignored by the major media save the Wall Street Journal. (She also indicts CNN itself.)

In the end, her aim is to publish things that will affect our “fear-based society” in a good way, so that people don’t become afraid, as many are, to say what they think. Stelter pushes back at some points, and it’s a very good interview.

h/t: Paul

Filipina and Russian journalists share Nobel Peace Prize for promoting freedom of expression

October 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

As I mentioned this morning, two journalists, who are used as exemplars of all courageous journalists fighting for free expression, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The winners are Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, the former working in the Philippines and the latter in Russia. The Committee gave them the prize for

their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Ms Ressa and Mr Muratov are receiving the Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. At the same time, they are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.

In some sense, all journalists who follow Ressa and Muratov’s path have a share in this Prize.

The Committee describes their work:

Maria Ressa uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines. In 2012, she co-founded Rappler, a digital media company for investigative journalism, which she still heads. As a journalist and the Rappler’s CEO, Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression. Rappler has focused critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population. Ms Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.

Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions. In 1993, he was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaja Gazeta. Since 1995 he has been the newspaper’s editor-in-chief for a total of 24 years. Novaja Gazeta is the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude towards power. The newspaper’s fact-based journalism and professional integrity have made it an important source of information on censurable aspects of Russian society rarely mentioned by other media. Since its start-up in 1993, Novaja Gazeta has published critical articles on subjects ranging from corruption, police violence, unlawful arrests, electoral fraud and ”troll factories” to the use of Russian military forces both within and outside Russia.

Ressa worked for two decades as a lead investigative reporter for CNN and her activities have landed her in trouble. The New York Times adds this:

Ms. Ressa — a Fulbright scholar, and a Time magazine Person of the Year for her crusading work against disinformation — has been a constant thorn in the side of President Rodrigo Duterte, her country’s authoritarian president.

The digital media company for investigative journalism that she co-founded, Rappler, has exposed government corruption and researched the financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest of top political figures. It has also done groundbreaking work on the Duterte government’s violent antidrug campaign.

Both of these journalists are of course putting their lives in jeopardy with their reporting, which is clearly the point of this year’s Prize: freedom of expression in the face of repression. The NYT says this of Muratov:

Mr. Muratov has defended freedom of speech in Russia for decades, working under increasingly difficult conditions.

He was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 1993, and he has been the newspaper’s editor in chief since 1995. Despite a near constant barrage of harassment, threats, violence and even murder, the newspaper has continued to publish.

Since its start, six of the newspaper’s journalists have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote revealing articles about the war in Chechnya, according to the committee.

“Despite the killings and threats, editor in chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy,” the committee wrote. “He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”

And. . . .

Ms. Ressa has faced multiple criminal charges for the way her news website Rappler has challenged the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Both she and Mr. Muratov, whose Novaya Gazeta newspaper has been a persistent critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, work under governments that use a range of methods — from repressive legislation to arrests — to muzzle criticism.

Not just arrests in Russia, but murder. I think Muratov’s a bit safer now that he has a Prize: would Putin’s thugs dare to murder a Nobel Laureate?

Sweden is sending a message to the world at a time when freedom of expression is under siege in many places, including the U.S. and Britain. It may also be a message to those citizens who try to punish journalists and writers who produce stuff they don’t like (Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo come to mind).

This is an unexpected prize, as some readers thought it would surely go to Greta Thunberg for her advocacy of work on climate change. But she’s young, and there is time.

Here are the winners:

Here’s Ressa’s reaction when she gets the call from Sweden. Sound up! You can also hear what “The Call” consists of:

Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American

September 24, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Yes, that’s right: this is a real op-ed from Scientific American, which, if the magazine goes on in this vein, is going to fold—or at least should fold. Click on the screenshot to read. The word “problematic” should be your first clue that this is going to be painful:

I’ll give you the first of five reasons it’s “problematic” in full and then list the other four with an explanatory sentence or two from the piece. Remember, this is not a joke and it’s not April 1. This is intended as a real contribution to social justice.

As we will argue, our justice-oriented projects should approach connections to the Jedi and Star Wars with great caution, and perhaps even avoid the acronym JEDI entirely.Below, we outline five reasons why.

The Jedi are inappropriate mascots for social justice. Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. So it is that Force potential is framed as a dynastic property of noble bloodlines (for example, theSkywalker dynasty), and Force disparities are rendered innate physical properties, measurable via “midi-chlorian” counts (not unlike a “Force genetics” test) and augmentable via human(oid) engineering. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions. Sending the message that justice work is akin to cosplay is bad enough; dressing up our initiatives in the symbolic garb of the Jedi is worse.

This caution about JEDI can be generalized: We must be intentional about how we name our work and mindful of the associations any name may bring up—perhaps particularly when such names double as existing words with complex histories.

If you see lightsabers as “phallic”, you’re trying very hard to be offended.

The others (the explanation is much longer than I’ve excerpted)

2.) Star Wars has a problematic cultural legacy. The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism.

3.) JEDI connects justice initiatives to corporate capital. JEDI/Jedi is more than just a name: It’s a product. Circulating that product’s name can promote and benefit the corporation that owns it, even if we do not mean to do so. We are, in effect, providing that corporation—Disney—with a form of free advertising, commodifying and cheapening our justice work in the process.

4.) Aligning justice work with Star Wars risks threatening inclusion and sense of belonging. While an overarching goal of JEDI initiatives is to promote inclusion, the term JEDI might make people feel excluded. Star Wars is popular but divisive. Identifying our initiatives with it may nudge them closer to the realm of fandom, manufacturing in-groups and out-groups.

5.) The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept “justice” (or its comrades “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion”). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

I really don’t have anything to say about this except that Scientific American keeps pumping out the most ludicrous op-eds, some of which, like the one above, suggests that there are many people who would rather problematize acronyms than actually do anything for social justice. What this has to do with science is beyond me.

This is the first case of acronym-policing that I’m aware of, so it deserves some attention as a new sign of the insanity that is becoming normal in academic circles.

And I had to ensure that the authors are real because this is one of those pieces so close to satire that Titania McGrath (below) could claim credit for its authorship. But yes, the authors are real humans.

McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

August 22, 2021 • 12:15 pm

John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.

McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia.  It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.

His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:

 

The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:

a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.

b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.

c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”

d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:

Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.

Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.

e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.

f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.

Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:

“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).

But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.

As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.

By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.

To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)

 

An Intelligence-Squared Debate: Has the New York Times lost its way?

August 2, 2021 • 11:45 am

Here’s a 64-minute Intelligence-Squared debate on a topic of interest to many of us: “Has the New York Times Lost Its Way?” It’s a debate between four people: two for the motion (“lost its way”) and two against (the paper is fine). Here are the participants.

For the Motion:

Yascha Mounk – Author, “The People vs. Democracy”
Batya Ungar-Sargon – Deputy Opinion Editor, Newsweek Magazine

Against the Motion:

Frank Sesno – Former CNN Washington Bureau Chief
Virginia Heffernan – Columnist, Wired Magazine

Moderator: John Donvan, journalist and debate monitor

There are three rounds in the debate:

Round 1: 4-minute opening statements from each debater

Round 2: Conversation among debaters, questions by Donvan (he does a creditable job)

Round 3: Two-minute closing statements from each debater.

I think we all agree that the NYT is still one of the best papers around, but many of us object to how its editorial slant is spilling into the news coverage, including what topics are even covered—a point that Mounk makes repeatedly. Yes, as Sesno says, it’s making money, but $$ are not the question. I would be on the “lost its way” side, but would have added things like the 1619 Project, designed to propagandize schoolchildren (a NYT first, I think); the treatment of the Tom Cotton op-ed;  the firing of Donald McNeil for using the n-word in a didactic context but then allowing the word to be used in other didactic contexts (all the while saying “intent doesn’t matter”); the hypocritical hiring of Sarah Jeong versus the firing of Quinn Norton, and so on.

Yes, I still subscribe to the paper, because its reporting is still some of the best around. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t lost its way in some respects. The main way is that it has become beholden to the social media mob in a way that makes it change course repeatedly in response to pressure, and has allowed its editorial stance to bleed into the news (its anti-Israel bias is one example, but there are others, as Mounk notes). It is no longer, also as Mounk notes, “The paper of record”—a paper whose journalism can be read with profit by all (thinking) Americans.

Mounk and Sesno do the best job of defending their opposing sides, Ungar-Sargon weakens her arguments by getting overly worked up, and Heffernan, whose work is great in other venues, doesn’t seem to have much to say. I doubt this debate will change people’s minds, but you might have a listen. [GCM: Recall, though, as has been noted here at WEIT, that Heffernan is a creationist.]

And weigh in below in the comments. Do YOU think the NYT has lost its way?

h/t: Paul

New NPR ethics policy raises questions about what journalists are permitted to say privately

July 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

National Public Radio (NPR) has announced a new ethics policy, a revision of the policy last revised a decade ago. It’s described in a new article on NPR. According to author Kelly McBride (the public editor of NPR with expertise in journalistic ethics), the change was spurred by the murder of George Floyd that, in turn, caused younger journalists to begin agitating for the right to both do journalism and to express their political and ideological opinions on public media, in writing, or by going to demonstrations.

This contravened previous standards (widespread in journalism) prohibiting reporting journalists or commentators (not op-ed writers, of course), from expressing their views in public on political or ideological issues. There was a reason for that, which of course is that if you know a journalist has strong views on an issue, you might judge their reporting or commentary on that issue to be biased. Because the younger NPR reporters wanted to be able to express their views publicly, the organization tried to forge a compromise.

Click on the screenshot to read, and if you want to see the entire set of NPR ethical standards, go here.

Here is the big change that was made:

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As I’ll note below, it may not be so clear exactly what constitutes the “democratic civic values that are core to NPR’s work”.

Here’s what McBride characterizes as the most important changes in the ethics policy:

The new policy, which was shared with member stations by email on July 7, offers three revised sections: a rewrite of “NPR’s Guiding Principles,” a section titled, “Guideline: On Attending Marches, Rallies And Other Public Events,” and an update of the section on social media.

When comparing the new policy to the old, here are the other major developments:

    • The opening section lists core values of “honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness” and adds a specific reference to the “democratic role as watchdogs.”
    • NPR names diversity as a key guiding principle, with a specific obligation to include voices that are routinely left out of the news.
    • The policy refines and narrows the list of staff who are expected to comport with the most restrictive elements of the policy. It’s a long list, but it boils down to whether you shape content in any way or hold an executive title. Other job titles, including those who work in research, archives and data, and those who write promotional copy for the programming division, are exempt from restrictions on their public behavior.
    • The new standards reinforce the difference between straight reporting and commentary. “NPR journalists with a role in covering the news should stick to reporting and analysis,” the policy reads.  “Commentators have more leeway to express opinions and may do so as long as they are respectful and grounded in facts.” A new addition to this section allows anyone who works in news or programming to publish a first-person story when appropriate.
    • In the sub-section of the Impartiality chapter on attending marches and rallies, NPR adds another list of universal values including human rights, a free press, anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry.

This seems pretty fair to me, especially coupled with the stipulation that journalists have to vet their wishes to express political views in advance to their bosses, and that the NPR newsroom now has a standing committee to review individual cases. And there’s still a wall between straight reportage and commentary or opinion. McBride gives examples of things that can be allowed:

Is it OK to march in a demonstration and say, ‘Black lives matter’? What about a Pride parade? In theory, the answer today is, “Yes.” But in practice, NPR journalists will have to discuss specific decisions with their bosses, who in turn will have to ask a lot of questions.

The carve-out is somewhat narrow. Protests organized with the purpose of demanding equal and fair treatment of people are now permitted, as long as the journalist asking is not covering the event. However, rallies organized to support a specific piece of legislation would be off-limits. Other events featuring a slate of political candidates from one party are also out of bounds.

And again, that seems fine. Although NPR is clearly on the Left given its editorial content and choice of subjects to cover, that doesn’t bother me. either.

But there’s one bit in the piece that does worry me. It’s the idea that there are some areas of human thought where no dissent can be permitted, because what is “right” is palpably clear. And, indeed, nearly everyone agrees that it’s wrong to have slavery, to kill someone just for the thrill of it, or to steal someone else’s property because you covet it. But, as philosophers like to point out, these “rules” are often not so clear cut.  What bothered me is something said by Keith Woods, the chief diversity officer of NPR and co-chair of the committee that drafted the new policy (emphasis is mine):

Woods said that he and others argued that it was important for journalists to keep many of their personal views private, in order not to distract from the primary focus of reporting facts. But he added that it was a mistake in the past to allow that balancing act to overshadow all expression.

“There are things in the world where we are not torn about where we stand,” said Woods (who is also former dean of faculty and my former boss at The Poynter Institute). “We are against bigotry, we are against discrimination and unfairness.”

That sounds good, and I agree about bigotry being a universal no-no, but what about “discrimination and unfairness”? Here are some areas where there are active questions about justifications for discrimination and unfairness:

  • Is it okay to discriminate against Asian students seeking admission to Ivy League schools in order to maintain equity for other groups? (This is a form of affirmative action.)
  • Is it okay to rectify past discrimination by applying present discrimination? (This is a tenet of Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism platform.)
  • Is it okay to assume that if we see inequities in organizations, schools, or firms, those imbalances are prima facie evidence of bigotry operating at present?
  • Is it unfair to allow medically untreated biological men who present as transgender women to compete in women’s sports or be incarcerated in women’s prisons?

I’m sure you can think of other problematic issues like these.

The problem is that the ideas of “fairness” and “discrimination” are slippery ones. Indeed, in all the cases above, fairness is said to require some discrimination.

I’m sure NPR will strike the right balance between journalistic practices and personal expression, but what we see above is an attitude that’s inimical to rationality and free speech. It is the basis of Wokeness as well. It is the attitude that there are some stands that are so right that they are not only unworthy of discussion, but should be taboo to discuss.

And this statement, given above, appears in the Ethics section on “impartiality”:

NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.

The same questions apply. Affirmative action, for example requires discrimination on the basis of some of the traits listed. Are NPR editorial staff not allowed, in their private postings, to express opposition to affirmative action? Or to oppose the participation of transgender women in women’s sports?

Should police and the media release the ethnicity of unapprehended criminal suspects?

June 13, 2021 • 12:30 pm

To me the answer to the question above is a no-brainer: “Of course.” If someone who did a crime is on the loose, then anything that might help apprehend him (most criminals are men) could be useful. That includes height, weight, presence of glasses, facial hair, clothing, and ethnicity. In fact, of all of these identifiers, ethnicity is the hardest to change if you’re fleeing the cops.

And yet the media often (as in this case) quails at specifying the ethnicity of perps, as if somehow that would lead to stereotyping. But I don’t see how it could, unless it simply reinforces those bigots who would say, “See, another X did a crime.” But bigots don’t become more bigoted that way, and it seems to me that the advantage of helping police apprehend a criminal outweighs any considerations of reinforcing racism.

In fact, in this case the newspaper at issue refused to report any identifying information (though clearly race was the hot button) even though the cops already had. And they explained that they left out the information because it might “reinforce stereotypes.” Right then and there you know the criminal is black or Hisptanic.

The incident was the mass shooting in Austin Texas on Friday night, a shooting that injured 30 people, two critically. Here’s the first report (now archived) of two suspects on the loose from the Austin American-Statesman (click on screenshot)

Notice that this was published Saturday morning.  At the bottom of the article, however, is this “editor’s note”:

But in fact the description isn’t too vague to help cops apprehend the suspect, or the public to identify him.  Below is the bulletin issued yesterday morning by the Austin Police Department with the “vague description of the suspected shooter” (click on screenshot). It’s not that vague, and says that one suspect is “described as a black male, with dread locks [sic], wearing a black shirt and a skinny build.”  Surely this is of value in helping apprehend somebody. If someone is caught but doesn’t have dreadlocks, it would be easy to find out if he had them right before the shooting.

The paper clearly saw the police report, which came out the same day as the article above, and I strongly suspect that the paper didn’t describe the one suspect (not yet apprehended when the article came out) not because of vagueness, but because the suspect was an African-American. In fact, I know this is the reason because the newspaper says so: publication of the description “could be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes.”  As I said, this is a strong clue that the suspect is either black or Hispanic, so the disclaimer above is doubly ludicrous.

Here’s the police report.

When the suspect was arrested, a later report in the paper (curiously, with the same time of filing) still does not give details of who the suspect is (which is now less relevant except for those who keep track of race). But it has exactly the same disclaimer at the bottom! That makes even less sense.

While there’s no pressing need for a paper to describe someone who’s apprehended, I highly doubt that they’re withholding information because it could “perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” Instead, they’re withholding it because they think the paper will look racist if it identifies an apprehended suspect as an African American.

And their claim that “We will update our reporting” goes up there with “the check is in the mail” as One Big Lie. Remember, we’re talking about a mass shooter here, not a shoplifter or petty burglar.

The updated report:

I’ve seen the unwillingness to identify the ethnicity of unapprehended suspects in other media reports, but that often involves simply omitting identifying details rather than making an explicit statement about why they’re doing it.

We’ve come to a pretty pass when the fear of being called “racist” is so strong that it keeps journalists from giving information that might reduce crime. But sometimes criminal justice must outweigh social justice, particularly when the latter is—as it is here—misguided.

John McWhorter, the “n word”, and the odious hypocrisy of the New York Times

May 2, 2021 • 9:15 am

This week’s New York Times has a decent essay (click on screenshot below) by John McWhorter on the history of the “n-word”, which he actually spells out repeatedly—34 times. The reason? He’s discussing three things: the origin of the word, its various morphs and meanings, and how it became a slur at the same time that once-unsayable words like “fuck” have become pretty mainstream.

 

As McWhorter notes, the use of the n-word as a complete taboo has been in the air for some time, and was still used openly on “The Jeffersons” television show and on McWhorter’s own radio interviews. But when Christopher Darden refused to utter the word during the O. J. Simpson trial (remember that Detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of having used it), the true taboo period began, and of course is with us still. It’s even taboo to use it in a didactic fashion, or reading it as part of literature (see below).

This essay is not one of McWhorter’s best efforts, I thought, but is still well worth reading. I wasn’t as interested in the etymology of the word as how and when it became taboo, and in McWhorter’s main point, which he states succinctly:

 Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

In other words, the n-word is the new “fuck”.

Another issue with McWhorter’s essay is that he offers no opinion on whether the word can be uttered didactically, as in a reading of Huckleberry Finn or in a classroom discussion. While McWhorter clearly feels it’s warranted in his essay (he spells it on in full over thirty times), this is an essay on etymology and the demonization of a word—not exactly the same thing as teaching a book that uses the word. I would have expected McWorter to give an opinion about using the word in full in other contexts, but he doesn’t.

But perhaps he was prevented from doing so. If you recall from earlier this year, NYT science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was forced to resign because he used the word, and in a didactic context, on a trip with students to Peru. McNeil was simply trying to ascertain whether the word was actually used by another student, and was not using it as a racial slur.

It didn’t matter. As editor Dean Baquet emphasized in the NYT’s statement (my italics)

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” 

In other words, as the Daily Beast summarized its summary of the NYT staffers’ objections, which swayed Baquet from merely disciplining McNeil to eventually firing him:

But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel. . .

That would seem to settle the issue as far as the New York Times is concerned. It is the reaction that is important, not the intent of how the n-word is used.  Ergo the NYT should never, ever allow that word to be printed, for its usage in print will certainly offend some people. (Remember, too, that McNeil used the word verbally, in a question, and did not print it 34 times!).

I guess, though, that the paper has rethought its stance. Apparently intent DOES matter now, at least in the Times‘s explanation of why it decided to publish McWhorter’s piece including multiple instances of the n-word. Click on the screenshot below (the link appears in the header of McWhorter’s piece):

The NYT’s explanation (there’s more in the short piece):

McWhorter’s piece is about the word itself — its etymology, sound and spelling. Using asterisks or dashes to veil the word would render this discussion incomprehensible, as would using a phrase like “the N-word.” Employing that phrase as a stand-in would also make the essay hard to follow, since part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of “the N-word” and the slur itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.

McWhorter’s argument has implications that go well beyond linguistic curiosity. As he writes, “What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people.”

Tracing the evolving use of this slur and the controversy it engenders — even within The Times — shows us how our society and what it respects have changed.

The first paragraph is bogus; I replaced every use of the full word in McWhorter’s essay with either “the n-word” or “n—-r”, and it did not make the essay any harder to read.

The second two paragraphs totally undercut editor Baquet’s earlier statement that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Well, apparently they do, at least in an erudite essay by a black linguist.

Don’t get me wrong: I think McWhorter’s essay was readable and enlightening, and the recent transposition between slurs and profanity is a good point. There was no reason for him to have to use the euphemism “the n-word” instead of spelling it out.  What I object to is the hypocrisy of the NYT in saying that they won’t publish any “racist language regardless of intent”, and then backing off in this essay. As Greg asked me when he sent me these links, “How does Dean Baquet live with himself?”

Update by Greg: Reason’s media critic Jacob Sullum has also noticed the Times’ apparent inconsistency, in a piece entitled “At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses ‘the N-Word,’ Except When It Does”. He noted a number of recent mentions of the word in the Times:

Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper’s executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.