Brian Williams’ latest slow jam

Did NBC anchor Brian Williams lie, or misremember, when he told the story (again and again) of having been shot down in a helicopter over Iraq? NBC News has launched an investigation, so we should have an official determination soon. It has emerged that some of his other vivid personal experiences are also being reconsidered.

Williams is charming and personable, and his frequent appearances in entertainment venues such as The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon make him appealing. And yet.

Neither dishonesty nor a poor memory are desirable traits in a reporter. I can’t get inside of his mind to know whether he was deliberately embellishing stories or not, but … my intuition tells me that a person would not be so mentally confused as to not know for sure whether or not he was shot down in a combat zone.


Kirby Delauter’s belligerence backfires on Kirby Delauter

This story practically tells itself: A small-town councilman demands that the local newspaper not print his name or refer to him without his permission, or face legal consequences. Everybody laughs at him.

The paper in question reported the story, without Kirby Delauter’s consent (here), then followed up with an appropriately mocking editorial (here, and look closely for the secret code). The rest of the Internet, or a big segment of it anyway, happily joined in the takedown.

Kirby Delauter apparently has no idea how democracy, freedom or the U.S. Constitution work.


Does Harry Reid keep bills from coming up for a vote?

Every Republican sHarry_Reid_official_portrait_2009_cropenator quoted in this article from The Hill says that they had to insert some measures into the National Defense Authorization Act because Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader (for a few more hours) has been preventing bills from coming to the floor. However, there is no context, no information tell the reader whether or not that’s true.

Talking points are just that, an easy soundbite intended to be repeated over and over so that people will remember and come to accept it as true, because they have heard it a lot. Talking points are often not true, and almost always over-simplified even when they do contain some truth. In this case, Reid has blocked a lot of bills, but is it more than Republicans who have held the same position? Are there reasons such as poison-pill amendments that make otherwise good legislation unacceptable?

Adding that kind of context would make the article more useful for the reader. Given that the explanation for adding public lands amendments to the NDAA is Reid’s alleged contrariness, it would be directly relevant.

There is more to journalism than transcribing quotes, folks.


New York Times’ David Carr and the business of journalism

The challenges that the Internet has created for the traditional journalism business model is old news by now, but the New York Times’ David Carr details some of the tactics newspapers are trying to cut costs, such as buyouts, layoffs and paying reporters in gift cards for taking double-duty as delivery drivers.

So far, the only one of these phenomena I’ve encountered is layoffs—I’ve lost two jobs in 11 years to cost-cutting, and seen the same thing happen to dozens of colleagues over the years. There is no doubt, though, that times are hard for ink-on-paper businesses. (I am not sure that will always be the case, but it is for now.)

Journalism is an industry struggling to adapt to the new era; as I see it, there are two possible solutions.

Option One is give up allegiance to print. If the world is getting its news online, that’s where you need to give it to them. The downside of this, as traditionally print operations are finding when they try to do this, is that online journalism as both much more competitive (many more people able to enter the field, as Carr explains) and much less profitable.

Option Two is make your print material exclusive, valuable and not freely available online. The downside of this is that it won’t work for a daily newspaper. It would be next to impossible to create material regarding local news that is so exclusive and unique that it entices any significant number of people to pay for it. It is a model that could work for more specialized media though.

The truth is that journalism is an industry in transition, and where it ends up may not look much like where it started. For me and my colleagues trying to survive the evolution, this is what the Chinese proverb would call “interesting times.”


This guy posted a screen-capture comparing headlines. What happened next made me smile.

While reading an article at Salon,I noticed that the sidebar was showing a textbook example of SEO-friendly web headlines (Rolling Stone) vs. clickbait (Upworthy). Take a look.

Screen cap of headline stylesRolling Stone’s heds are simple, declarative and most include at least one name. Upworthy’s are vague, teasing and designed to entice the reader to click through to the story to find out what the heck is going on.

SEO-friendly headlines are more likely to bring in readers from Google or other search engines (are there other search engines?) They run the risk, however, of making the reader feel that the headline has provided enough pertinent information; clickbait heds, by contrast, are less likely to produce search engine hits — they are usually spread virally — but may entice a larger percentage of people to go to the article to find out what it’s all about.

Upworthy-style headlines, to be honest, annoy me; but they are effective. More clicks = more ad revenue, so there is an obvious incentive.

In my years as a web editor, I’ve become acutely aware of how different the web is. Headlines might seem like a small detail, but in fact, the headline is probably the single most important element of the presentation. The headline plays a major role in leading people to find your content in the first place, and then to drill down from a homepage to the individual article. Balancing clarity (good for search engines) with intrigue (good for encouraging click-throughs) is a constant challenge.


Ben Bradlee: No safe line except the truth

If you are a journalist of a certain age, you were almost certainly inspired by the figures of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men. Bradlee will forever look like Jason Robards in my imagination, but it is true his portrayal in the book and movie made an impression on me.

At Bradlee’s funeral, Carl Bernstein said: “We live now in an era when too many of us run afraid. . . . The dominant political and media cultures [are] too often geared to the lowest common denominator: Make noise, get eyeballs . . . manufacture as much controversy as can be ginned up. Ben lived and worked in an ungerrymandered world. He lived off the main road. There was no safe line except the truth.”


Who quackwatches Quackwatch? A case study in fallacy.

This article, by Dr. Dwight Lundell, challenges the conventional wisdom about cholesterol and its relationship to heart disease. What he says is nothing new to me, I’ve been reading up on this for a while and a growing number of doctors are questioning or outright rejecting the long-held assumptions. (Read the article for the details—that’s not my purpose here.)

Lundell was a heart surgeon for about 25 years and bases his conclusions in part on his observations of various patients.

On QuackWatch appears this article, by Dr. Stephen Barrett, titled “A Skeptical Look at Dwight Lundell, M.D.” Barrett’s goal is to undermine Lundell’s arguments about cholesterol.

Barrett challenges Lundell’s credibility with two lines of argument:

Lundell was disciplined several times during his time as a surgeon for lapses in treatment, mostly related to inadequate record-keeping, but also inadequate post-operative care of a patient in at least one case;

Lundell experienced some financial trouble, and pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

These arguments might undermine Lundell’s abilities as a clinician, or in the paperwork requirements of medical care, and they certainly suggest you would prefer not to lend him money. But they say absolutely nothing about his thoughts on cholesterol, inflammation and diet.

Barrett’s argument is nothing but ad hominem, that is, an attack on the other person’s character rather than an actual refutation of his case. If everything Barrett says is true, and he has the citations to validate his allegations, then we can agree that Lundell has some serious character flaws. However, that proves absolutely nothing about the validity of his science.

Ad hominem arguments are designed to cast an opponent in a bad light so that an audience will tend to doubt or disregard his position on the relevant issue even though there has been no evidence presented that addresses that position. It is a tactic adopted most often by those who have no real evidence to present.


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