Thursday, February 28, 2008

Three Pegs, the Same Hole

It’s not a comfortable topic.

A column by humorist and Miami Herald blogger Dave Barry on getting his first colonoscopy -- 10 years later than he should have -- drew two responses, one by an ``expert’’ and another from a person who, although she did not have a title, has been there. Both think the column will be helpful.

The American Cancer Society estimated that 148,810 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year, and 50,000 will die, wrote Phyllis Teitlebaum, the RN coordinator at the Cancer Resource Service, Baptist-South Miami Regional Cancer Program in Miami.

Most important, Barry pointed out that

The fear of having a colonoscopy is far worse than having one,

she said.

Ana Maria Bacallo of Miami described herself as part ``of the over-50 crowd that has had this dreaded test.’’

The bark is worse than the bite,

she said.

Barry got his first colonoscopy at 60, after his brother Sam reported that he had learned, by way of the procedure, that he had cancer. (Sam’s cancer was removed surgically. Barry's results were negative.)

Barry’s describes MoviProp, which they make you drink before the exam to clear out the colon, as ``a mixture of goat spit and urinal cleaner, with a hint of lemon’’

``Have you ever seen a space shuttle launch? This is pretty much the MoviProp experience, with you as the shuttle. There are times when you wish the commode had a seat belt.

Then
``you have to drink another liter of MoviProp, at which point, as far as I can tell, your bowels travel into the future and start eliminating food that you have not even eaten yet.’’

Monday, February 25, 2008

Just Don't Ask Me to Define `Insanity'

Feb. 25, 2008

Dear Karin Wahl-Jorgensen:

Last night I finished reading your ``Journalists and the Public’’ for the Feedback Journalism class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Interesting to read about the criteria that cause editors to eliminate letters from publication. During 11 years, I struggled with attempting objectivity and the pain of feeling the deadline pressure shaping my work into pre-fabrication. However, I had only a vague idea of what an editor’s job is like, and none about a letters editor’s job.

I was most interested to read in chapter six about editors’ ``expression preferences.’’ I was grateful that you pointed out that political movements used to contain a great deal of emotion, if emotions weren’t their only fuel. I suspect that activists who shun emotion in their public communications now have for some reason decided that they must take an objective tone, and their feelings have nothing have to do with objectivity. Why did we become so hung up on trying for objectivity anywhere and everywhere?

``Though the embarrassing, the painful, the wonderful, the funny, and the beautiful textures of our lives may be grounded in experiences of a deeply personal nature, perhaps they are also the only experiences we can truly share with others, and speaking about them the only way to link us together in an emphatic pursuit of the elusive common good.’’

Really nice.

Although the use of objectivity and nothing else cuts out a lot of useful communication, I still want and expect at least an attempt at objectivity in news reports. One way for the public to get around the limitations of newspaper objectivity could be in the use of blogs. That is, blogs that aren’t written by crazy people, but more on that in a minute.

The only trouble with your recommendation that letters editors get more time to find letter writers and spend more time editing shaky letters into readable form, is that it is kind of thin. As Bob Dylan said, I don’t think that’s liable to happen / like the sound of one hand clappin.’ For publishers and owners, time is money and that rule is gonna remain inert short of sea change. Those people just don’t give a damn.

Depressing to read that editors speak an ``idiom of insanity.’’ But it seems all too clear, based on what I read in your book, that a lot of the letter writers are ``insane,’’ or close to it. They produce an avalanche of letters that just don’t qualify. Buried under the avalanche, the editors had the idiom forced on them.

So I walked away from your book wondering how people who don’t employ emotion and their experiences in politics could be persuaded to do so. I also suspect that letters sections won’t get better until we figure out why there are so many ``insane’’ writers out there. A lot of folks aren’t born crazy, they’re driven to insanity. Good news articles could explore why this is, and how to change it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

All That Bad, Bad Stuff

From three whole weeks of reading The Miami Herald, I’ve gained the impression that its readership is passionate. They are split over the plan, passed this week by the city and county governments, to construct a traffic tunnel and a new stadium for the Florida Marlins. The main sticking point is that the plan, slated at nearly $500 million, was never put to referendum.

This has lead many readers to cite this as a symptom of rampant corruption. The old-boy network has taken money from taxpayers and from two redevelopment authorities that were not chartered for large-scale commercial development projects. The old-boy network gave the money to their own – the elites who are going to make big bucks from the development.

And – this is an ugly issue, but it must be mentioned – there is a fair amount of acrimony against the community of Cuban exiles. The Herald, like many, many other media outlets, allows readers to post responses to its stories, blogs, letters to the editor and columnists.

After President Fidel Castro announced his resignation this week, the flood of such remarks for and against were often acrimonious, bitter. Although many were concerned with Castro’s decision to quit, often they spoke either for or against the value of the Cuban community in Miami. I have used the word ugly, and ugly some were.

The instant on-line comments on any Herald item are often odious, Herald ombudsman Edward Shumacher-Matos, said in a column from Dec. 16, 2007. Put another way, the paper has a problem with ``ranters.’’

The problem is so bad, he said, that it begs for some sort of regulation of the Internet.

After the Herald informed its readers of the shooting death of the Washington Redskins’ safety Sean Taylor in November,

``Taylor was called a `thug,’ and an `animal.’ Contributors, with absolutely no evidence, openly speculated under The Miami Herald’s banner whether a drug deal or sexual cheating was involved. In what amounts to a public tarring, some suggested that Taylor’s virtual wife, the mother of his 18-month-old child and long-time partner, did it.’’

The Herald deleted responses that were actually much worse, Shumacher-Matos said. In a column from Dec. 16, 2007, he said the paper uses software that screens out remarks that include offensive words. I’ve seen words using the dollar sign instead of the letter S.

Herald editors don’t take unilateral initiative to delete the offensive material, Shumacher-Matos said. Instead editors ``react to readers who complain by clicking on a box next to each comment’’ before deleting messages.

Part of the answer might lies with requiring readers to register with the paper’s Web site before they submit their comments, Shumacher-Matos said.

``Registration… is a must. On the Taylor story, both ESPN.com and WashingtonPost.com reported far fewer offensive materials than The Miami Herald. One difference is that those sites require registration, including confirmation of the reader’s e-mail address.’’

Regarding registration: Right now the Herald requires on-line readers to register by providing, along with an e-mail address, a user name, password, first and last name, the city or town, state and country where the reader lives, their gender, year of birth, and to indicate whether they subscribe to the Heralds print edition.

The same information, and nothing more, is asked of those who want to post comments on stories.

By e-mail I asked Shumacher-Matos whether the registration system is the one he had in mind in December, or whether a new one is in the works.

Regarding deletion of offensive messages, I asked Shumacher-Matos if Herald editors will delete a message even if they considered it inoffensive, just because a reader clicks on the ``Report as violation’’ link.

I got an automated reply saying editors and Shumacher-Matos consider ``issues of coverage, readers [sic] questions and significant media topics and writing occasional articles’’ about them.

More on the issue of deletion of offensive messages in the post below this one.

Shumacher-Matos said the Herald must be willing to spend money to hire editors who would review comments before they are posted, as the New York Times has done.

There are people out there who believe that the Internet should not be regulated, and many medium are not ready to challenge that belief, he said.

``Media companies today, with reader and viewership numbers dropping along with their stock prices, are further cowed by the arrogant claims of the ascendant internet culture and its Ayn-Rand like absolutism against any controls.’’

In November 2007, the number of visitors to MiamiHerald.com was up 66 percent from the previous year, Shumacher-Matos said.

``(R)egistration might slow or even temporarily reverse such strong growth. I suspect from their language that the ranters in the site are not the young, upwardly mobile or educated readers that the Miami Herald and its advertisers want.’’

This reminds me of what Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, in ``Journalists and the Public: Newsroom Culture, Letters to the Editor, and the Public,’’ discussed as the ``normative-economic’’ approach that editors use to decide which letters to publish. The idea is that a desirable letter will promote public debate and increase circulation at the same time.

But editors can keep letters with racist, sexist and homophobic, etc., material out of a newspaper.

Not so easy to keep the crap off the on-line instant comment board.

Shumacher-Matos said,

… (I)f news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media… The law may catch up with the internet anyway, and should.’’

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Pedantic Nation, tasteless National Review

I cannot be the only one who has wondered if political candidates gain or lose votes because of endorsements. Perhaps there really are folks who wait for other people to make up their minds for them. They look to their federal or state representative or mayor, or labor union, etc., to dictate their vote.

But I can’t help but think that most people, even before the endorsements roll in, have gone a good distance toward deciding how they are going to vote – if they plan to vote at all.

This would apply even if the endorsement comes from an influential senator – Ted Kennedy, for example. Although the endorsements last month of Senator Barack Obama by Kennedy, his son U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and niece Caroline Kennedy, as the Democratic presidential nominee, may influence few voters during the primary season, they certainly were taken seriously by at least two political journals – The Nation and The National Review.

The Nation had high praise for Ted Kennedy. No one else in the history of the Senate, the lefty journal intoned, has been ``a more consistent fighter for an enlightened agenda, be it civil rights and liberty, gender equality, labor and immigrant justice, environmental protection, educational opportunity or opposing military measures.’’

Kennedy was ``a rare sane voice among the Democrats in strongly opposing the Iraq war…’’ and he endorsed Obama in part for also opposing the war. ``And let no one deny that truth,’’ The Nation quotes Kennedy as saying.

This is all to dump on Hillary Clinton for voting to authorize the war. The Nation said that Hillary would probably – only probably – be a better candidate than the Republican nominee. The Nation also excoriated her for doing less than John McCain to fight Pentagon waste and minimize the power of lobbyists. The ``war profiteers’’ have given her more money than to McCain. She gets a noticeable amount of cash from ``the bankers, Wall Street traders and other swindlers who produced our economic meltdown…’’

The point of the blog on the conservative Review’s cite is that while Obama may have the Kennedys’ endorsements, he is no Jack Kennedy (the article actually uses the cliché as its title) – at least not yet, because he hasn’t shown that he understands that ``the great question of modern history is whether free governments or coercive governments will prevail,’’ as Kennedy had comprehended.

But the Review can’t resist the temptation of indulging in reminders of Chappaquidick and Bill Clinton’s philandering. It jokes that Kennedy endorsed Obama out of jealousy. ``The Kennedys, after all, didn’t get three full years at the White House. And now Bubba and his consort, hillbillies practically, are trying to add four more years to their eight.’’

Since when did the assassination become the stuff of humor? But seriously, folks, this is a reprehensible statement.

Although The Nation blog is earnest and pedantic, it least it has the guts to lay into a candidate who stands in approximation to its political perspective. In other words, the candidate is a Democrat. The blog is also much more substantive than the Review's posting.

The National Review has bad things to say about almost every Democrat it mentions. I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t like the way the Review says the bad things.

Maybe the Review blogger, sticking it to the ``hillbillies,’’ had more fun writing his commentary than did the Nation blogger. But – surprise – politics isn’t always about fun. We would hope it would be about substance, and responsibility.