Big-Data

Nate Silver: Geek? Yes. Thoughtful journalist? Bigger yes.

FiveThirtyEight post on disputed climate change story signals commitment to transparency

Yesterday, after reading criticisms of Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight, I thought: Denny, find out for yourself. After all, I am, at least historically, a geek. And, I thought, years of reading his New York Times blog showed me Nate is King Geek and FiveThirtyEight at ESPN would, no doubt, reflect that.

So I read “The Messy Truth Behind GDP Data.” Not bad. Classic FiveThirtyEight geeky on an important topic. But, even through so many pundits and politicos base analyses on flawed understandings of GDP, reading the post was akin to watching paint dry. I tried Harry Enten’s story about Hillary and polling. Egads: So. Many. Numbers. Unfamiliar terms. Headache ensues.

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MH370-path

MH370 infographic in the National Post: the facts are confusing and the reporting is making it worse

The media’s coverage of the MH370 story could benefit from more journalists and fewer infographic designers.

Malaysia-370The search for Malaysia Airlines MH370 continues. Malaysian authorities have now decreed, on the basis of evidence derived from an innovative new data analysis procedure, that the flight ended in the southern portion of the Indian Ocean.

I’m looking at the latest reporting and I’m not going to lie. If I was intrigued before, I’m now downright baffled. We know – or at least we think we know – that the flight veered off course in a manner that certainly indicated active human decision making and control. We know it was headed not northward toward China, as scheduled, but westish, in the general direction of India.

But my perplexity over the facts, such as they are, is only being compounded by the ineptitude of the journalism being devoted to the story.

Take this morning. I was looking over the coverage and map/infographic in the latest National Post story. Ideally, infographics are supposed to make things clearer, but in this case… Well, have a look.

First check out the top section of this map, which shows the track that has become familiar enough to those following the story. Then have a look at the bottom, where they mark the spot that the flight hit the water.

The design staff at the National Post is taking a pretty cavalier approach to geography. (We’ve warned you before about infographics, if you’ll recall.) This one does what modern infographery all too often does – it adjusts the objective truth of things in order to make best use of the available space. As in, you have x number of pixels by y number of pixels – make the world fit cleanly. This makes for a pleasant viewing experience, perhaps, but I’m not sure how well the reader’s sense of what actually happened is served.

To illustrate the point I hit Google Maps and plotted out the relevant points of the MH370 case I’ll let you compare and contrast and draw your own conclusions.

1: Kuala Lumpur, the flight’s point of origin.
2: The point where things went sideways.
3: The location of the last ping.
4: The spot where they say the flight ended – 1500 miles southwest of Perth.

Notice anything odd? As in, how far does Perth look to be from Indonesia on the infographic vs. how far it is on the actual map? Scale? Fuck scale. We only have x pixels, so let’s scooch Malaysia over here a little and move Australia a few hundred miles to the north. Yeah, there we go!

I’d love to see the National Post infographic group’s map of the world. You know, the one where Ecuador is 20 miles south of Omaha.

This works fine, I suppose, in a world where everyone is pretty good with geography and can be counted on to instantly get what’s happening. It’s also no big deal in situations where it’s no big deal. That isn’t the case here, and it even took me a few seconds – because I was trying to parse the fact that the plane wound up making another left turn, apparently – because I stopped and said wait a second – this isn’t right.

Here the infographic actively warps the story. Why? Because if we’re attempting to understand what may have happened to MH370, the infographic fails to accurately convey the scope of the flight. You can look at it and have some questions. But when you look at the actual map, the scale of your questions can’t help but change. A few hundred miles and a few thousand miles – those are potentially different sets of questions, aren’t they?

Thinking Americans have long since given up on journalism, I suppose. I don’t expect stories to be covered in depth. I don’t expect much in the way of insight. Objectivity has devolved from myth into cruel joke. And if someone is bright enough to grasp technical issues, they’re probably also bright enough to land a job that pays better than the scraps your average reporter has to live on these days.

But dammit, is it asking too much for your infographics department (yes, there are people whose jobs are dedicated specifically to developing infographics, because readers like how they can quickly “communicate a story”) that they not actively mislead us? I mean, I expect this kind of silliness out of US outlets, but National Post is Canadian. You’d think they’d be embarrassed to behave like Americans.

[sigh]

I hope investigators find the wreckage. I hope they find the black box. I hope they find an explanation. But I’m not sure I’m optimistic. Right now it feels like the Question-to-Answer ratio is 1:1,000,000. And even if we do get something like a conclusive answer, I’m going to have Sean Paul Kelley’s observation on the trustworthiness of the sources lodged firmly in the front of my mind.

But at the moment, I’d be satisfied if the media outlets covering the story employed more journalists and fewer infographic designers.

Malaysia-370

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: three things you should know

Anonymous intelligence sources and modern journalistas – we’ll never be able to trust another word we’re told.

Malaysia-370As I suggested the other day, Malaysia Airlines MH370 might go down as one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. Or it might not. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been tracking the story with all kinds of curiosity, and there has certainly been a lot of material generated to serve the market for our curiosity.

If you’re following the story, there are three things to know/think about/keep in mind as it develops:

1) Anonymous sources. It seems like every article I’ve read in recent days has quoted Malaysian government officials who could not be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the story. Continue reading

Malaysia-370

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: is it doomed to be one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries?

The case of the missing plane is confounding all my attempts to construct a plausible theory, and it’s driving me crazy.

We all love a good mystery. But only if it comes with a resolution. If we can figure it out, that’s ideal. If not, we need somebody else to figure it out and tell us.

Books and TV shows and movies are perfect if you have the mystery Jones because the case is always solved in the end. In real life, we’ve gotten pretty good at investigating and when all is said and done, we usually walk away with at least a strong suspicion as to whodunnit.

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WordsDay: Literature

WordsDay: Rich Tosches’ Zipping My Fly: Compilation Errors…

Sometimes a compilation reminds one that, to paraphrase Sesame Street, “Some of these things are not like the others…”

Zipping My Fly by Rich Tosches (image courtesy Goodreads)

The next book from the 2014 reading list was supposed to serve as a light refresher from my literary and “social/critical” reading choices. Rich Tosches’ collection Zipping My Fly falls roughly into the pattern of most creative nonfiction about the sport of fly fishing. But unlike the wonderful John Gierach’s humorous yet meditative works such as Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing or the late, lamented Harry Middleton’s equally enjoyable On the Spine of Time (a book especially close to my heart because Middleton fished the trout waters of my own beloved Smoky mountains), Zipping My Fly, a mélange concocted of columns Tosches wrote for the L.A. Times and supplemented with pieces he wrote for magazines (and perhaps solely for this collection), fails to connect.

Tosches’ book fails on a couple of counts and it’s important to note these both to be fair to him and as counsel to others who may be thinking of using collections of past newspaper/magazine columns or blog pieces to construct a book. This can be done successfully, but some thinking, revising, and editing may be in order. One wishes Tosches had done some of the aforementioned for this volume. Continue reading

War

US war movie military policy: Baby Boomers grew up on films where battle was noble and Americans never died

America’s permanent war policy is a reflection of WWII movies, which offered an unrealistic vision of war’s motivations, consequences

My Depression-born parents raised me in a rural idyll during the Eisenhower years. As a child, I snuck into the Garden Theater to watch war movies. They enthralled me: Battle Cry, To Hell and Back, Away All Boats, D-Day the Sixth of June, The Wings of Eagles, Battle of the Coral Sea, and my favorites, the submarine movies: Run Silent Run Deep, The Enemy Below, and Up Periscope. I revered Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and John Wayne in Operation Pacific and The Flying Leathernecks. Later, I learned mediated definitions of traitorous betrayal in Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Continue reading

SportCenter’s guide to golf coverage: all things Tiger, all the motherfucking time

ESPN isn’t a division of TMZ, but some days they might as well be.

ESPN-golfI was just watching SportsCenter as I ate dinner. After telling us the good news and the bad news about today’s Lakers/Thunder game (good news: OKC lost; bad news: LA won) co-host Matt Barrie turned to the weekend’s big golf tournament, the Doral. Obviously, the dictates of big time sports journalism meant that he led with the winner guy who tied for 25th. Continue reading

Journalism

Better local news ahead — at Gannett papers? Really?

Gannett returns to its TV-model origins to revitalize revenue, reporting quality

What? Better local news coverage at Gannett Inc.’s 80-plus newspapers? Seriously? And they’re hiring more reporters, and good ones at that? Huh? Print revenue is still declining but Gannett is investing in quality?

That’s the portrait Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston paints of Gannett’s attempts to revitalize both USA Today and its chain of dailies nationwide.

The McLean, VA, newspaper and broadcast chain has begun inserting national and international news sections carrying the USA Today brand into some of its local dailies. The move, designed to emulate the audience-and-revenue building power of network TV, has already dramatically boosted circulation at Gannett’s flagship paper (albeit under new, looser accounting rules), while giving the local papers a polished new look and better, more uniform national and international coverage. Continue reading

Journalism

Local newspapers: fewer reporters = less content = declining revenue

Corporate owners treat news as “product.” As a result, the industry is on life support.

by Patrick Vecchio

I can’t remember how young I was when I fell in love with my local newspaper. It started with a comic strip: Mandrake the Magician. I would wait on our front porch for the newspaper boy, spread the paper on the floor and read Mandrake on my hands and knees. As I grew older, my interest expanded to different sections of the paper. By the time I reached high school, I was reading it from front to back. I loved it.

I never left my hometown, and after studying journalism in college, I began working as a reporter at a tiny daily newspaper about 20 miles away. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Journalism

The daily newspaper editorial: Make it weekly, please

Daily editorials, striving to not piss off anyone, have achieved ‘terminal neutrality’

Who — or what — killed the great American editorial? Wasn’t there a time when great newspaper editorials regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others?

Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, poses these questions on the website of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Greenberg calls the forces that murdered the American newspaper editorial “as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves.” Among them are the goal of not pissing off anyone; “the stultifying editorial conference,” designed to drain life out of editorial positions; and hewing to “the party line or socio-economic fashion.” These forces produced, says Greenberg, “terminal neutrality.”

Although these forces had the daily newspaper editorial on its deathbed by the mid-1980s, Greenberg doesn’t reveal that I — yes, me! (gasp!) — pulled the plug on its life support. Yep, I pounded a few nails into the coffin of the daily newspaper editorial all by myself. Continue reading

Advertising

Advertising’s enticement: You must crave, therefore you must buy

Advertising may be evil, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.

Despite my exposure to what a colleague estimates is nearly 100 million advertising impressions as I approach seven decades of life, I am not taller, I am not more attractive, I am not thinner, and I sure as hell don’t smell much better than I did in the 1950s.

I teach in a journalism school in which more students aspire to be advertising and PR madmen and madwomen than journalists. So I think about advertising often — mostly with disbelief and frequent outrage (the righteous kind, y’know).

The disbelief: I watch an ad in which a pricey luxury sedan maneuvers at night through lanes illuminated by paper lanterns. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Freedom

Edward Lucas “Snowdenista” piece in the Wall Street Journal is the most dishonest thing you’ll read today

Snowden, Assange, Greenwald, and anyone else who believes that NSA spying on American citizens is wrong is a tool for Mother Russia. Makes sense.

Edward Lucas of the Economist. #wanker

I just read Edward Lucas’s Wall Street Journal piece entitled “A Press Corps Full of Snowdenistas.” I can’t honestly say if Mr. Lucas is a liar, an idiot, or simply a guy who’s a little too captive to the security state party line to see past his own dogma. We’ll be charitable for the moment and assume the latter, although “wild-eyed apparatchik” is hardly something to aspire to.

The premise of his rant is more or less summed up with this: Continue reading

Steroids

Should Major League Baseball allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame? Yes, says Matt Record.

Part 1 of a series.

by Matt Record

Baseball has been marked by cheating forever. It’s hypocritical to draw a line now.

These are – in my opinion – the top 15 best position players in the history of baseball:

  • Babe Ruth
  • Barry Bonds
  • Willie Mays
  • Ted Williams
  • Ty Cobb
  • Hank Aaron
  • Tris Speaker
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Honus Wagner
  • Stan Musial
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Rogers Hornsby
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Eddie Collins
  • Mickey Mantle

The fact that two of the top 15 best hitters may never make the hall of fame is a  shame and a frustratingly meaningless shame at that. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Sports

Baseball Hall of Fame voters: it’s time to judge the judges

by Rafael Noboa y Rivera

Baseball writers in the Steroid Era had one job. And they failed at it.

Earlier this week, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) unveiled the newest Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. Baseball fans were paying particularly close attention to who made the cut, as they have the last few years, because many of the eligible players were star performers during baseball’s Steroid Era. Many of these writers show no mercy towards players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. Players they once laureled as Olympian heroes are now condemned as cheats, unworthy of the game’s highest honor.

What is interesting is that even as they stake out the higher ground, piously commenting on how moral standards must be maintained, these same writers are pleading with us as baseball fans to give them a break, cut ‘em a little slack. Continue reading

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Black Thursday

Thanksgiving is now Black Thursday and Black Friday is upon us: what should America not be thankful for?

The nation gives thanks … for what?

I was never a William Burroughs fan, but I nonetheless find myself thinking about his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” surely one of the most caustic (and insightful) takes on our great American holiday. I’m in this sort of mood for a reason. Or two, or three.

First off, you may have noticed all the static around the news that more and more businesses will be open today, getting a jump on tomorrow’s appalling orgy of consumerism, Black Friday. That term originated in the early 1960s, apparently, with bus drivers and the police, who used it to describe the mayhem surrounding the biggest shopping day of the year. Continue reading

Beltway Zen: has the Washington Post ever met a liar it won’t publish?

At WashPo, the narrative is more important than the facts…

Earlier today a friend forwarded me, via e-mail, the text of an opinion piece that was ostensibly about the “new reality” on the right. It began well enough.

Following the recent tea party Tet Offensive — tactically disastrous but symbolically important — the Republican establishment has commenced counterinsurgency operations. Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — both facing primary challenges from the right — are responding more forcefully to their populist opponents. Continue reading

CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

BBC blows climate coverage, again

This is dispiriting. Why the BBC, of all media, continues to do this defies reason—although there probably is a reason for it, just a really stupid one. As we all know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) started releasing its next round of reports last week. And as we all know, the global warming deniers—those that are left, anyway—are all set to denounce it. Except the BBC apparently couldn’t find any scientist in the UK who was prepared to do this. The Guardian’s John Ashton takes it from here, reporting that when the IPCC Summary came along last Friday:

At breakfast time, Radio 4′s Today programme informed listeners that despite extensive efforts, the BBC had been unable to find a single British scientist willing to challenge the IPCC’s findings. At that point the BBC might have concluded that the IPCC’s views represent an overwhelming consensus and left it at that.

So then what happened? Continue reading

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment

Is James “The Liar” Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, on the way out?

I wonder if he can lie with his mouth closed?

Every once in a while, I like to check the Federal Register. This is a vice I should indulge more frequently, apparently. This evening I indulged, and discovered this:

Designation of Officers of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence To Act as Director of National Intelligence
A Presidential Document by the Executive Office of the President on 09/25/2013

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, as amended, 5 U.S.C. 3345 et seq. (the “Act”), it is hereby ordered that:

Section 1. Order of Succession. Subject to the provisions of sections 2 and 3 of this memorandum, and to the limitations set forth in the Act, the following officials of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in the order listed, shall act as and perform the functions and duties of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) during any period in which the DNI and the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence have died, resigned, or otherwise become unable to perform the functions and duties of the DNI:…

This couldn’t get much hotter off the press if it tried, and it strikes me as a very big deal, indeed. Surely someone in the media caught wind of this, right?

Not that I can find.

A variety of news searches using Google turned up nothing on today’s presidential memo on succession for the role of Director of National Intelligence. For that matter, nothing came up about the memo when I search my news sources and blog roll in InoReader (the tool I use now that Google’s Reader is caput). That, however, is not to say that there wasn’t anything relevant out there.

Marcy Wheeler’s emptywheel had this fresh, new content today:

Senate Intelligence Committee Open Hearings: A Platform for Liars

So DiFi’s [Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA] idea of an “open hearing” is to invite two established liars. And for her non-governmental witnesses, one keeps declaring Congress NAKED! in the face of evidence the government lies to them, and the other tells fanciful stories about how much data NSA shares.

It’s like DiFi goes out of her way to find liars and their apologists to testify publicly.

I love it.  For that matter, Ms. Wheeler starts the piece off strong with:

Pentagon Papers era NYT Counsel James Goodale has a piece in the Guardian attracting a lot of attention. In it, he says the first step to reform NSA is to fire the liars.

Excellent. Ms. Wheeler might not have mentioned today’s succession memo, but perhaps Mr. Goodale did over at the Guardian?

To reform the NSA, fire officials who lie

This article is also from today, and it’s an excellent bit of reportage. Mr. Goodale ends it on this note:

Obviously, if this culture seeps into popular culture, lies and deceits will be easily tolerated – and we will all be the worse for it. President Obama should focus on this issue before it is too late. But it is not at all clear that he cares about it any more than Congress or the Justice Department do.

Interestingly, he also makes no mention of the memo hot off President Obama’s desk.

If this were a reshuffling of succession rules for just about any other agency, it would probably be among the dullest things ever. With James “The Liar” Clapper at the center of so much controversy, however, should we see this as just a bit of housekeeping minutiae? Or should we expect to see an announcement of Clapper’s resignation soon?

I hope so. Part of me will cheer. The dominant, cynical side of me will just wonder who will be signing Clapper’s checks next. My gut says he’ll still be an intelligence insider, just on a private contractor’s payroll.

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Image credit: Official portrait in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Cross-posted from Ars Skeptica

This “just” in: Jabhat al-Nusra rebels claim chemical weapons attack in Ghouta with an oops

StopJabhat al-Nusra Rebels Admit Responsibility for Chemical Weapons Attack
Paul Joseph Watson, Global Research/Centre for Research on Globalization
September 1, 2013

Militants tell AP reporter they mishandled Saudi-supplied chemical weapons, causing accident

 Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia.

This article also posted the following important update:

UPDATE: Associated Press contacted us to confirm that Dave Gavlak is an AP correspondent, but that her story was not published under the banner of the Associated Press. We didn’t claim this was the case, we merely pointed to Gavlak’s credentials to stress that she is a credible source, being not only an AP correspondent, but also having written for PBS, BBC and Salon.com.

By all means, take a few minutes to read the full article and peruse the ones linked below.

From a Google news search just now, Monday, September 2, 2013 2:42 AM MST, here is what amounts to full coverage of this claim at a first pass.

Saudi Prince Bandar behind chemical attack in Syria: report
Tehran Times, August 31, 2013

Syria: Rebel Groups, Not Assad, Behind Chemical Attacks Says Pat Buchanan
IBTimes, September 1, 2013

Saudi Bandar Provided Gouta Chemical Weapons, Militants Mishandled
Al-Manar TV Lebanon, August 31, 2013

Further, a search on Bandar chemical weapons turns up the these results.  One might say there is a dearth of Western coverage.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister on accusations over chemical weapons
Euronews.com, September 1, 2013

What passes for American coverage?  The New York Times does not disappoint.  By that, I mean if you expect selective silence and beating the drum for war, you’ll not be disappointed.

President Seeks to Rally Support for Syria Strike
2 hours ago

To be certain, Saudi Prince Bandar is mentioned…in exactly one sentence.  That sentence, however, had absolutely nothing to do with the context presented above.  One might think, given the gravity of the allegations and, for that matter, the sheer mind-boggling nature of a terrorist organization issuing a mea culpa rather than a boast, as well as the implication of an AP reporter’s credibility in the matter, that maybe some mention would be made of these journalistic developments from the Middle East.

Naturally, a cosmic prank of this magnitude must come with a punchline.  Here it is, from three days ago.

EXCLUSIVE: Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack
MintPress News, August 29, 2013

Of note at the end of the MintPress article:

Some information in this article could not be independently verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates . 

The same can be said, in spades, for US claims. See the FAIR analysis for examples.

With all the doubt flying around, let’s take just a moment to vet MintPress as a source, shall we?  Here’s their About page.  Here’s a write-up from MinnPost from nearly two years ago. Here is an excellent compare and contrast analysis from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Zero Hedge, a blog of mixed distinctions, was also on top of the MintPress story. Examiner.com covered the story from MintPress.

Here’s my burning question for you, dear reader.  Where else have you heard this coverage?

Whatever the truth is, before we go lobbing so much as one shot across the bow the American public would be well advised, whatever the short-term humanitarian cost, however horrible it is, to demand a full independent investigation to ascertain as well as possible just what the hell actually happened.  We have had far too many conflicting claims, far too many inconsistencies, and far, far too many weasel words, strong assurances, and empty platitudes compounded with nothing but circumstantial evidence and strident demands for trust from this administration to just sit back and let hawks from both the left and right railroad us into what may turn out to be a cataclysmic conflict.

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Image credit: MSVG @ flikr.com.  Licensed under Creative Commons.

Frost Nixon

RIP: David Frost and the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon

Frost NixonAdapted from a piece that originally ran in December 2011.

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When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. -Richard Nixon to David Frost

British television journalist David Frost is dead at 74. While it isn’t necessarily clear that a man who spent time as a comedian and game show host ought to have his visage chiseled into Journalism Rushmore, there is simply no way to ignore his substantive moments, which are headlined by his famous interview series with disgraced former president Richard Nixon.

This is more about Nixon, perhaps, but as we reflect upon Frost’s career and the public reception of the play and film about their encounter, it has become nearly impossible to think of him in any other context, at least on this side of the Atlantic. And if a media personality is to be judged on one moment, what better one than the events commencing on March 23, 1977?

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After a community theatre performance in late 2011 of Frost/Nixon, my companions and I found ourselves discussing a topic that has come to intrigue me a great deal: the curious rehabilitation of Richard Nixon. Continue reading