Sunday, December 28, 2008

Strangest Cover Stories of the Year

...that I remember.

For newspapers.

First off, the Star-Ledger ran an analysis of the Sri-Lankan singer MIA's hit "Paper Planes". The article, written by a mommy blogger (as far as I recall, this is the only full-length feature she's published since blogging for, explores why the song is a hit and why it's caused some controversy--a type of article, minus the local quotes, that would be more at home in a music magazine like Rolling Stone. The song is mostly known for its gunshots and cash register rings in the chorus than for anything else, since practically every word (including the title) is indecipherable.

The New York Times caught a lot of flack for running a front-page story on Angelina Jolie's relationship with the celebrity press, specifically People magazine. It was pretty brash, saying that Ms. Jolie works the press to such an extent that she effectively controls coverage of herself and her family:
When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt negotiated with People and other celebrity magazines this summer for photos of their newborn twins and an interview, the stars were seeking more than the estimated $14 million they received from the deal. They also wanted a hefty slice of journalistic input — a promise that the winning magazine’s coverage would be positive, not merely in that instance but into the future.

According to the deal offered by Ms. Jolie, the winning magazine was obliged to offer coverage that would not reflect negatively on her or her family, according to two people with knowledge of the bidding who were granted anonymity because the talks were confidential. The deal also asked for an “editorial plan” providing a road map of the layout, these people say.
She's been transformed from freaky sexaholic to humanitarian mother, despite being widely vilified for wrecking Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's marriage. But while fascinating to those interested in celebrity, journalism, or just plain 'ol gossip, it's one of those articles that sticks out precisely because it's on the front page. Really? you say. It's that slow of a news day?

The Times' public editor points out that the article wasn't as accurate as it could have been, and calls for a correction, which was never given. But he also explains that while many people are angered when the paper covers "less than weighty" subjects in such high-profile detail, it's the newspaper's job to cover "all the news that's fit to print", whether weighty or not. Placement, of course, as well as tone, angle, packaging, etc, are all key components of how a story is accepted (or not), regardless of the facts. Obviously, "strangest cover stories of the year" are almost always never going to be about "weighty" matters, since those are expected to make the front page (and are very troubling when they are not).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Catch-up Time

Over the next few days, I plan to post on articles and topics that I wanted to call out from the rest of the year, but for one thing or another--lack of time, usually--just never got around to. Some of them were topics I wanted to expand on and the entries just never left the ground (really, the notebook). Most of them will be from the recent months and weeks, as they are fresher in my memory. Here goes:

New York Magazine is just fantastic. They always have really interesting articles featuring really interesting trivia, often about New York. Case in point: One out of every apartment in Manhattan is occupied by only one person; the number is one in three when you add in all the other boroughs. Jennifer Senior's December 1st cover story on loneliness doesn't offer much new insights other than those statistics, but reinforces a lot of existing theories on the nature of community (note: I did a lot of research in college on this topic, especially dealing with community vis a vis the internet, so it wasn't new to me). What I especially loved was that the article reaffirmed a lot of my anecdotal evidence regarding single life:

[Eric] Klineberg, the NYU professor who is writing about living alone, points out that single people are partly responsible for the vibrancy of New York’s public life: “We know form marketing surveys that single people go out more than couples,” he notes. “They’re more likely to go to restaurants, to bars, and to clubs. A lot of people who live alone say it’s very hard to enter their apartments and stare at the walls when there’s so much going on outside.”

Conversely, married people—women especially—have smaller friendship-based social networks than they did as single people, according to [sociologist] Claude Fischer.
The article goes on to say that that the reason why many single people feel lonely is when they are surrounded by other couples--and that family neighborhoods in particular are the places that have the highest rates of social isolation, especially among the elderly. Asynchronous environments breed loneliness; that's why it's better for one's livelihood if they aren't exclusively around others who are in a different stage of life.

Weak ties (acquaintences and people you are one or two degrees separated), the internet, and of course, New York City (and cities in general) get quite the boost here. But that's fine; the overarching idea is that people--connection--are what matters, and that getting out of the house and interacting with others will boost your mood. The internet bridges the public and the private, and often facilitates this.

I look forward to David Carr's column every week, and he rarely disappoints. While he has written many that I could talk about endlessly, his recent entry on how the media essentially created Black Friday opened my eyes to the symbiotic relationship between advertising and the media--something I all too often overlook.

I orginally had not planned to read the Times Magazine's cover story on John McCain the week before the election, citing time constraints and not much interest, but it turned out to be way better than their Obama cover the previous week. "The Making (and Remaking) of John McCain" ended up showing how important public relations and message-managing is--and how the McCain camp's infighting and lack of direction killed their campaign. The death knell is spelled out:
The campaign was in the throes of an identity crisis by June 24, when a number of senior strategists gathered at 9:30 a.m. in a conference room of McCain’s campaign headquarters in Arlington. As one participant said later, the meeting was convened “because we still couldn’t answer the question, ‘Why elect John McCain?’ ” Considering that the election was less than five months away, this was not a good sign.
If the people running John McCain's campaign cannot answer that question, then he is doomed.

Speaking of that long-ago election, remember that Wall Street Journal story on Obama's thinness? Apparently the reporter took some of her quotes from a Yahoo message board. Ouch. Certainly not the only time this year that a reporter got into trouble for going to dubious online outlets for sources.

I wrote a lot about the Journal's coverage of the election, especially how voters decide on a candidate. I had wanted to add another entry to that list, on their September 4th article, "The Biology of Ideology". It's the old nature vs. nurture argument: are even voting patterns predetermined? That's one heck of a scary idea. I was very skeptical of this idea and hated the article back when I first read it. I took a more pragmatic approach, of convince us why you're worthy. Tom Friedman summed it up five days later:
If you as a politician connect with voters on a gut level, they will follow you anywhere and not fret about the details. If you don’t connect with them on a gut level, you can’t show them enough details.
I wondered why it was ok for newspapers to openly assume Obama was going to win the presidency, as many non-opinion pieces used "when", instead of "if", in referring to anything after the election. Guys, that's why people say the media is in the tank for the dude. Lay off. Turned out Clark Hoyt at the Times agreed with me.

I felt though--and vaguely remember coming across something along these lines--that people tend to vote in step with the environment they find themselves in. In my social life, my friends and I (generally) read the same media, or at least the same types, have similar opinions, and come from similar backgrounds, so of course we tend to vote similarly. This is true all over; I wondered how hard it would be to separate from the pack.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Two very funny stories from the Times:

One, of course on their top emailed list, is the fact that President Bush nearly got hit with a shoe when he was in Iraq this weekend. There's even video!

And two, the Obamas cannot move in early before the Inauguration. Shows that no matter who you are, power and celebrity does have its limits.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"We Are Living In Exponential Times"

Why it's so exciting and terrifying to live now:

This is what makes me really want to do something with my life.

The song playing is Fatboy Slim's "Right Here, Right Now".

I'm Not Into It

Some reasons why I don't what to read He's Just Not that Into You:

"I think where a lot of women go wrong is through indulging in denial - denial that he isn’t that into us, but also denial that we are deserving of anything better. But when we decide to refuse to accept anything less than genuine into-ness, I think that we are much happier both in and out of relationships - because whether or not you are coupled up, it is crucial to keep in mind that you are great. Lately, in any case, I have come to realise that if a man behaves in a way towards you with regards to communication or kindness that you would consider to be sub-par in a non-romantic friend, then he is not worth pursuing. Not even if White Noise is his very favourite book."

Jean Hannah Edelstein (via gauntlet)

Jean makes some good points here, but He’s Just Not That Into You still gives me the shits. And like Jennifer Aniston, I still think it’s ultimately disempowering for women.

Here’s why.

1. Like most conventional wisdom, it’s overly simplistic; an “easy” response to something that is usually far more complicated. When most real relationships break down, it’s not as simple as the guy just not liking the girl all that much, but about some problem (or problems) in the dynamic between the two people that both are contributing to.

Often, ironically, the woman’s contribution to this dynamic stems from the insecurities and disempowerment fostered by mainstream women’s/dating culture (of which He’s Just Not That Into You is a part).

2. Call me a control freak, but I like to feel as if I have a say in the route my life takes - and certainly, no one would argue this shouldn’t be the case when it comes to work, friends, or what I decide to do with my Saturday night. This sense of influence over the world around us is also known as “empowerment” - think “we can make things happen” in The Craft - and is proven to be a key source of self-esteem and happiness in both men and women.

He’s Just Not That Into You is the opposite of this. It tells women that things are as they are, that there’s nothing you can do to change it, and that your best bet is to sit around waiting for that Prince who really is into you to come along on his white horse and choose you. The only thing that makes it any different to the more widely maligned (but equally widely cited) The Rules is that it dresses this old fashioned rhetoric up with “you go girl” and “you’re such a fox!”

3. Men, on the other hand, get to do all the choosing. They get to decide whether they like you or not, whether they want to launch a relationship and where they want that relationship to go. Sure, you can decide not to go along with them, but for all your “foxiness”, the book’s lasting message is that not many of the men in your life have really been “that into” you, so when you find one, you sure better hold on to him!

Hate it, hate it, hate it. But I do agree with Jean that no one - male or female (‘cos I know plenty of guys who let the girls they love treat them like crap) - should accept anything less than “genuine into-ness”* (and that often we accept subpar treatment from people because we hope we can change them).

* Which, by the by, means love, kindness and appreciation - not picking up the dinner cheque ever time, dropping everything at your whim, or buying you five designer dresses for Christmas.
Emphasis mine. Beside, I generally know when people are into me and when they're not. (Cue the loud guffaws. But I mean it.)

Jennifer Aniston made a similar point in Vogue. I wonder why she chose to do this movie, especially considering her dislike of "the kind of thing where women only feel empowered once they find the Man".

This Is How It Goes

A Tortious Act

Last week, Lori Drew was acquitted on three felony counts of unauthorized use of MySpace and one count of conspiracy, though she was convicted of a misdemeanor on the former. Members of the jury, according to forewoman Valentina Kunasz, wanted to convict her but the prosecution did not give them enough evidence under the statute:

"We felt that ... knowing that she's got mental stuff going on, was enough to turn what normally wouldn’t be tortious into tortious or malicious," Kunasz said. "And the fact that this 47-year-old woman is participating -- whether it be physically or just egging them on verbally -- to me something was very off. What they were trying to do as a whole in the long-run was humiliate this girl, make her feel like a piece of [dirt], and make her feel sad.... They were intentionally trying to hurt her."

But four jurors felt that because Megan and Sarah Drew had a opened a MySpace account months earlier to meet boys, that Megan was emotionally functional and should have known what she was getting herself into by communicating with "Josh." She should have been prepared to be rejected by "Josh."

But these two things can exist simultaneously. Megan could still be aware of what she was involved in and yet still be completely blindsided by what actually occurred. There’s rejection, and then there’s harassment.

The trial was plagued with a number of problems, including conflicting testimony, and the fact that Megan’s suicide was not suppose to factor into the decision. It’s practically impossible to leave Megan’s suicide out of the investigation, because no matter which way you spin it, the distress of the attacks on her through MySpace caused her to kill herself. She was especially vulnerable due to her past problems, and the fact that Lori knew about this only damns the woman more.

One of the issues in this case—and the reason it is held in Los Angeles, where MySpace’s servers are based—is that it’s supposed to be a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was previously used for hacking. Indeed, the fraud protection of the law can liberally be applied to this trial, even though emotional distress isn’t listed as a reason. The jury had to decide if Lori Drew obtained unauthorized access to MySpace’s computers with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on Megan Meir and a conspiracy to do the same thing.

This case has been closely watched by a number of people, partly because it is considered the first cyber-bullying case and could set precedents in the future.

Links to pdfs of the indictment and jury instructions, both before and during the trial, can be found, along with the complete story, at the Threat Level blog from Wired. Here's a related piece on vigilante justice and the role the Internet played with exposing the story.