Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

July 19, 2013 5 comments


After Rolling Stone put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, the Boston Strong community has suffered from an alarming lack of fainting couches. But I’m here to calm everyone down enough to unclutch their pearls and to explain a lesson we all should have learned in elementary school.

If you can uncover your eyes for a moment, let’s take a quick look at the infamous cover.


Once you get your CO2 levels regulated by breathing in and out of your paper bag, check out the part of the headline I’ve highlighted. Instead of “glamorizing” the subject of their article, they’ve defined him as “a monster.”

“Glamorize” is also a curious word choice for another reason. This image wasn’t staged; it’s a personal photo of Tsarnaev. It’s one the New York Times used on its front page. In other words, it’s an accurate portrayal of the alleged terrorist we’re interested in learning about.

There is some legitimacy in the criticism that Rolling Stone probably chose this picture to be deliberately provocative to sell more magazines. But unless you’re fundamentally opposed to any capitalist promotion in journalism your selective outrage carries little authority. As long as the image isn’t deceptive, selecting a picture that illustrates the nature of the story isn’t unethical.

So unless you deny the importance of studying the type of person willing to murder innocent civilians, you shouldn’t object to an accurate portrayal. And make no mistake, the article is about him and his transformation into a radical islamist bomber. So all those calls for putting a photo of police officer or a victim miss the point. The article is not about those subjects.

Mandating we only use photos of victims (even when not talking specifically about them) or only using scary images of criminals is a dangerous form a political correctness that prevents us from rationally understanding the threat. Using a “glamorous” photo isn’t unjustified once you recognize that seemingly normal people can become terrorists too. I wonder if the widespread knee-jerk reaction isn’t a subconscious defense mechanism against that frightening reality. When attractive people who look like us can be taken in and radicalized by such an unattractive ideology it scares us. Perception of the true face of the danger is essential to protecting us from the source of that fear.

We all should remember that looking at a cover-photo is only the beginning of how we consume the news. You are expected to judge the photograph, but it’s also understood you will read the content. If we censor ourselves from objectionable images and ignore the context, we’re ostriches blinding ourselves to threats. Everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging stores to not carry what you personally deem offensive forces others to submit to your information blackout. Just because it’s not illegal censorship does not make it benign censorship.

Just remember, don’t judge a book or a magazine by its cover.

(image: fainting couch)

Categories: Journalism

Cable News is a Derivative of Journalism

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Cable news is such a farce that it feels almost disreputable arguing over its contents, but I’m compelled to comment on Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly’s conversation about the pepper spraying travesty at UC Davis.


This is how Kelly euphemizes what the police did:

O’Reilly: First of all, pepper spray. That just burns your eyes, right?

Kelly: Right, it’s like a derivative of actual pepper; it’s a food product essentially. But a lot of experts are looking at that and saying, “Is that the real deal? Has it been diluted?

O’Reilly: They should have had more of a reaction than that.

Kelly: Ya. But that’s really beside the point, it was something that was obviously abrasive and intrusive. Several of them went to the hospital.

O’Reilly: They just wanted them to get out of there. Stop blocking what they were blocking – wanted to scatter them.

“It’s like a derivative of actual pepper.” Right, it’s like the cops are doing the kids a favor by teaching them about the financial tools they’re protesting about. I guess the officer just assumed they were all visual learners!

It is technically true that the compounds in pepper spray, the capsaicins, are a derivative of pepper. Although that is by no means a food product anymore than gold is a food product because you can ingest some gold flakes.

By casually comparing it to food peppers – even if true in a technical sense – deceives the audience about the severity of the tactic. Police officers purposefully sprayed a chemical agent into the eyes of peaceful students exercising their first amendment rights.

Notice how Kelly goes on to cite unnamed experts who question the potency of the chemicals. O’Reilly weighs in as if he knows how the kids should act after getting a proper strength dose of capsicum in their eyes. This is on a major news network. Couldn’t they have investigated and reported exactly the pepper spray used by campus police? The company that makes these orange band aerosols aren’t putting out a wimpy product:

The minimum required distance is 6 feet according to the label. Even the lower level commercial pepper sprays are intense. Here’s an overview by Scientific American of how hot and dangerous pepper spray actually can be compared to natural peppers.

As the chart makes clear, commercial grade pepper spray leaves even the most painful of natural peppers (the Himalayan ghost pepper) far behind. It’s listed at between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units.

Cable news may be a derivative of actual journalism, but it’s a euphemism to call it that.


(hat tip: Chris Caesar)

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The Immorality of Journalistic Social Responsibility

In 2005, The Economist ran a special report on the unintended consequences of corporate social responsibility. Instead of being ethical, executives attempts at advancing social policy confounds the purpose of business and government.

[B]usinesses should not try to do the work of governments, just as governments should not try to do the work of businesses. The goals of business and the goals of government are different—or should be. That, by the way, is why “partnership” between those two should always arouse intense suspicion. Managers, acting in their professional capacity, ought not to concern themselves with the public good: they are not competent to do it, they lack the democratic credentials for it, and their day jobs should leave them no time even to think about it.

The last few days have illuminated a similar paradox with journalists. Journalism should seek to maximize information as companies do for profit. The Fourth Estate has a duty to inform the electorate just as much as managers have a responsibility to their shareholders.  Only in clear cases where no public benefit could be gained – like publishing nuclear designs or troop locations – should journalists censor themselves. Companies similarly can exercise ethical judgement. But the duty of the press should not be confused.

The Bin Laden Photos

I sympathize with the motives of the administration to not make a “trophy” and to seek to protect the troops and other people at risk from any backlash. But I’m puzzled by journalists that argue that the government should not release the photos of Bin Laden.Would these same journalists refuse to print the photos if they were entered into the public domain? We may need quasi-sociopathic journalists that want as much information out to the public as possible. Journalists shouldn’t see themselves as gatekeepers for the state, but as orchestrators of a never-ending siege.

Instead of manning a battering ram, the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, and other editorial boards started shoveling a moat. I don’t see a hard distinction between conventional journalists and opinion journalists. Most surprising might be Andrew Sullivan, usually a First Amendment absolutist. He writes, “To put his head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way. We are better than that.”

I’d hope we’d be civilized enough not to celebrate the image. I wouldn’t want a poster of it hung in the Freedom Tower or in the Pentagon, but when did publication become the same thing as celebration? I wonder if Andrew’s fear doesn’t reveal more about what we think deep down about ourselves. I’ll be disgusted with the inevitable celebration of the image from many of our countrymen. I expect the government to have paternalistic inclinations, but the constitution doesn’t give journalists the freedoms it does to serve the interests of the state. The government made a decision to kill Osama Bin Laden. It’s not the job of journalists to aid the government in altering the consequences of the decision. It’s not as if releasing the photos would be incontrovertibly dangerous the way it would for nuclear secrets. Journalists are not equipped to decide in advance whether censoring itself promotes the public good. They are betraying their obligations as journalists by failing to inform the electorate.

Maybe the government is right not to release the photos. The negative consequences could outweigh any benefits, but journalists are neither elected officials nor merely private citizens. A watchdog press calling on the government to censor itself should make every citizen uncomfortable.

“Being Forthright Is Saying Nothing”

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s encouraging to see some actual adversarial journalism happening on this issue. Unfortunately, “adversarial journalism” isn’t redundant.

Progressives shouldn’t be hoping for more left of center journalism. Conservatives shouldn’t be thankful for Fox News. Journalists should be feared by anyone with power and responsibility.

Turkish Police Detain Journalist Jake Hess

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment
Jake Hess, a 2007 Suffolk University graduate, moved to Turkey two years ago as a human rights activist.

I’ve sat on commenting on this for a little while now, but I think it’s appropriate that I give attention to this important story. I’ve collected a few news reports and material to give readers a sense of the story. I want to acknowledge that I got most of these sources from the facebook page of fellow Clark alumni Chris Caesar, a personal friend of Jake, that’s been cataloguing the news reports as they appear. 

[Personal note: Although I don’t know Jake Hess personally I once sparred with him in an alternative newspaper at Clark University on the science of climate change and hurricanes. From what I know, he’s a good journalist and a caring person. I hope he gets home safely. Anything I can do to promote the safe return on Jake Hess I’m happy to do. I encourage others to do the same.]

Chris Caesar’s Press Release:

ANKARA, Turkey – A freelance journalist with ties to the New Hampshire Seacoast and Boston has been arrested in what appears to be a politically-motivated act of retaliation by the Turkish government, watch-dog groups reported Friday.

Jake Hess, 25, formerly of Hampton, was detained by Turkish police after publishing a series of articles critical of the Turkish government’s treatment of Kurdish refugees. Officially, the government alleges Hess has collaborated with the Kuridstan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a militant group outlawed by the Turkish government.

Hess’s attorney, Serkan Akbaş, said Hess “wrote several articles that angered the authorities,” adding that the timing of the arrest “clearly shows that they got annoyed with his articles.” His latest piece ( for the Inter Press Service news agency – examining the displacement of civilians after Turkish attacks – was published on August 4.

Antiwar Article:

SULEYMANIYA, Iraq – Compared to most internally displaced Kurds in northern Iraq, Shamal Qadir is almost lucky. Since the Turkish army devastated his village, Kuzine, in a bombing raid Jul. 1, he’s been living in a schoolhouse, where room temperatures are comfortable and basic amenities are accessible.

“Our family bought land and started building houses in Kuzine in 1996. We did it for our children, so they’d have a place to live in the future,” Qadir tells IPS. “Now, our dreams have been destroyed.” 

Qadir is one of roughly 6,500 people who have been driven from their homes by Turkish and Iranian bombings of Kurdish border villages in northern Iraq since May 24. About two-thirds of the displaced are currently living in dusty tent camps scattered across barren mountain ranges, their essential needs barely being met by international aid agencies and local authorities. 

Boston Globe

Hess was detained late Wednesday on allegations of collaborating with Kurdish activists accused of having links to terrorism, his lawyer said.

Lawyer Serkan Akbas said Hess will probably be deported rather than charged or jailed for an extended period.

Hess is accused of collaborating with the Union of Kurdistan Communities, the KCK,, which is allegedly an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK.


Akbas said Hess had not been taken to a court for questioning — a sign he would be deported.

“He is a good, peaceful, and principled guy,’’ Caesar said. “The idea he is helping the PKK is simply beyond ridiculous, not to be cliché. We’d crack up if he wasn’t in a Turkish prison.’’ 

Washington Post

Kurds, who make up roughly 15 percent of Turkey’s population, have increasingly been demanding cultural and social rights.

Local journalists who pursue stories on problems facing the Kurdish community are routinely harassed by authorities. Hess’s case highlighted the state’s continued uneasiness with reporting on the issue despite efforts by Turkey’s ruling party to build bridges with the Kurdish minority.

Democracy Now:

Johann Hari

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Journalists Without Borders have both issued statements calling for his immediate release. He is a legitimate journalist of extremely high integrity. The idea that he would have any alliance with, or sympathy for, a terror group is utterly absurd. Yet he is currently being held at the Diyarbakir Anti-Terrorism Branch.

Please take just a minute to call the Turkish Embassy in Washington DC on +1 202 612 67 00 +or email them at and politely explain that you expect this outstanding US citizen to be treated with decency, and released at once. A country that calls itself a democracy should not be imprisoning journalists for telling the truth.

Everyone should stand in solidarity with Jake Hess and other journalists bullied by those fearful of truth.

(photo: Boston Globe)

[update Aug 17]: Jake Hess refuses help from US. CNN

U.S. diplomats say Hess rejected their offer of assistance after he was taken into custody.

“We have spoken with him on the phone regarding his situation, and he specifically asked us not to share any information on his case,” said Deborah Guido, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. “He did not sign a privacy waiver. We can take an oral privacy waiver [by phone], and it was his choice. He did not want to be helped.”

Asked why he rejected the American offer, Hess answered that “the U.S. is an imperialist country, and I disagree with U.S. policy towards Turkey and the Kurds. It would be hypocritical to support an American journalist who is persecuted for human rights journalism while at the same time supporting the Turkish policy of criminalizing Kurdish political activists.”


Oil and Water, ctd

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment

It wasn’t just 1 Republican…

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