Slate inexplicably lays off Jack Shafer

Jack Shafer

Earlier this summer, Mark Lisheron called and asked if I’d like to talk with him for a profile of Slate media critic Jack Shafer that he was writing for the American Journalism Review. Well, of course. Shafer is among the very best when it comes to journalism about journalism. He’s also been kind to me over the years, so I was happy to return the favor. You can read Lisheron’s piece here.

Then, yesterday, the inexplicable happened: Slate got rid of Shafer, according to AdWeek, with editor David Plotz citing ongoing financial woes at the pioneering webzine. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post also ties the move to problems at the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.

Shafer is a dogged reporter in a field where too many media critics would prefer to sit back and pontificate. (Yes, irony alert. I get it.) But he wore his reporting lightly in the sense that you could tell how much research he’d put into his pieces, yet he didn’t feel compelled to show his work all the time. As a small-“l” libertarian, he also brought a calm, iconoclastic perspective to a field dominated by liberals and conservatives thundering at each other about allegations of bias.

It was Shafer who popularized my two favorite descriptions of Rupert Murdoch: “rotten old bastard” and “genocidal tyrant.” Though Shafer is no admirer of Murdoch, he uses the former description more affectionately than not, and “genocidal tyrant” is actually something Murdoch himself coined. Nevertheless, I always enjoy borrowing those descriptions and crediting them to Shafer.

As for Slate, well, times are tough, and I suppose Plotz has access to website traffic numbers to justify his decision. But as far as I’m concerned, Shafer is pretty much the only reason to look at Slate, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll even bother with it anymore other than for exceptional articles someone flags on Twitter.

Shafer, I suspect, will soon surface in a better job than he’s got now. Still, this is a bitter day.

Photo via the Missouri School of Journalism.

Four smart people, two debates

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and Globe columnist Scot Lehigh take on the issue of former Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger’s conduct with regard to his brother Whitey Bulger, the notorious mobster who’s been charged in connection with the killings of 19 people.

Silverglate argues that Bill Bulger, also a former president of UMass, was under no obligation to help authorities capture his brother, and that the testimonial privilege granted to spouses should be extended to other family relationships as well. Lehigh counters, “Faced with a moral dilemma, William repeatedly made the wrong choice, putting loyalty to his felonious brother over responsibility to his neighborhood, his constituents, or the larger public community whose university he led.” (Note: Silverglate and I collaborate occasionally, and the latest example will be online later today.)

On an entirely different matter, Slate media columnist Jack Shafer assesses Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal sites, and finds them lacking. “Besides being wildly expensive to create, hyperlocal news doesn’t seem to appeal to a broad audience,” Shafer writes.

That prompts a response from Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent hyperlocal site in western New York. (Owens posts two comments; read the second one first.) Here’s an excerpt:

As my friend and fellow indie publisher notes, it’s only expensive if you have a big corporate structure to support and shareholder demands to meet. There are a handful of successful local online ventures that produce a ton of highly engaging, sought after, popular, memorable local news that do it at a fraction of the cost of the corporate entities.

I posted a brief comment as well, contending that Shafer’s complaint seems to be more about his lack of interest in community news than about anything intrinsic to Patch.

Instant update: Paul Bass, editor and founder of the New Haven Independent, just weighed in. And if you scroll way down, you’ll see a brief comment from another Media Nation favorite, Debbie Galant, co-founder and co-editor of Baristanet in Montclair, N.J.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.

Jack Shafer’s Rx for the Globe

Writing in Slate, Jack Shafer picks up on the ideas of Philip Meyer, whose argues in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper,” and in a more recent piece in the American Journalism Review, that newspapers should cater to the elite, well-educated audiences that are already their last dedicated readers.

Last thoughts (probably) on Maureen Dowd

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt today largely absolves columnist Maureen Dowd, writing, “I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Over the past week, I’ve thought a lot about plagiarism in the context of teaching journalism students. So it’s relevant to point out that, at Northeastern, we define plagiarism as “intentionally representing the words, ideas, or data of another as one’s own … without providing proper citation.” Based on what we now know, I sort of agree and sort of disagree that Dowd did not plagiarize. And I definitely agree that what she did wasn’t right.

When the news broke that Dowd had copied more than 40 words from Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo without quotation marks and without attribution, my first thought was that bloggers would pore over everything Dowd had written to see if they could find other examples. Well, it’s been a week, and the Marshall incident still stands alone. I don’t think it’s plausible that Dowd would suddenly start plagiarizing at the age of 57. So not only is this a first-time offense, but it speaks, I think, to a lack of malice aforethought on her part.

Earlier in the week, I and other commentators wrote that we had a hard time believing Dowd could be telling the truth when she said she had somehow managed to insert Marshall’s words, almost verbatim, based on a casual conversation she’d had with a friend. She has now clarified that, telling Hoyt she’d exchanged e-mails with a friend — still unnamed — and then copied and pasted his or her thoughts from the e-mail into her column.

That is a pretty lame way to write a column, and as Hoyt says, readers have a right to expect that a columnist, as opposed to a news reporter, will use her own words except when quoting others. Dowd’s editor, Andrew Rosenthal, disagrees.

Now, this may surprise readers who’ve never worked in a newsroom, but Rosenthal’s take is pretty much in sync with the way journalists work. As an editor, I have written whole paragraphs into opinion pieces by people with well-known bylines. As a writer, I’ve had editors do the same with me. But it’s one thing to acknowledge that journalism is a collaborative process; it’s another to have friends help you write your column, and then turn it in to your editors without telling them.

If intentional theft is at the heart of plagiarism, then Dowd didn’t plagiarize Marshall. But she did plagiarize her friend, even if she did it with that friend’s acquiescence. And though she may never have lifted someone’s published words before last week, it could well be that she frequently cobbles together e-mails from friends in the course of writing — assembling? — her column.

At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert calls on the Times to produce the e-mail. At Scripting News, Dave Winer offers a similar view. My own take at this point is that Dowd not only owes us a fuller explanation, but she also owes her readers an apology. A brief suspension wouldn’t be out of order, either. It’s not a matter of wrecking her career; it’s a matter of basic accountability.

By far the most logical explanation would be that Dowd copied and pasted the Marshall passage herself with the intention of crediting him, and then forgot to do so. We could all understand that. Because she has given us something so much less straightforward, and because we still don’t know everything, I wonder if something else is going on.

At the Nytpicker, Amy Alkon asks something I’ve been wondering myself. Is it possible that an assistant did most of the work, including grabbing the Marshall quote without attribution, and that Dowd is now covering for both the assistant and herself? Normally I don’t like engaging in such speculation. But given the lack of transparency on the part of Dowd and her editors, I see no reason why we can’t offer some educated guesses.

Unfortunately, Dowd had the day off today. She should be writing her next column for Wednesday’s paper. I’ll extend to her the same invitation she received from Slate’s Jack Shafer last week: She should use her column to tell us what happened, how it happened and what she’s learned from the experience.

The standards to which she is held ought to be at least as high as those expected of any college sophomore.

Photo of Maureen Dowd (cc) by Matthew and Peter Slutsky and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Maureen Dowd odds and ends

As the Maureen Dowd plagiarism story continues to wind down, a few stray pieces:

  • Despite Jack Shafer’s splendid suggestion that Dowd offer a full accounting of what happened in today’s column, she instead weighs in with an insipid imaginary conversation between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Gah.
  • Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, whose words were appropriated without credit by Dowd in her Sunday column, says he “never thought it was intentional,” and “that’s pretty much the end of it.”
  • The New York Post has picked up my Guardian column on the matter. Sure, I’m getting a kick out of it. But I’m also less than thrilled to be drafted by Rupert Murdoch into his ongoing pissing match with the Sulzbergers.

Dowd was just talking with a friend

I don’t think New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd committed a hanging offense. But I continue to be troubled by her explanation of how she came to lift a paragraph from Josh Marshall’s megablog, Talking Points Memo.

OK, so Dowd was “talking” in a “spontaneous” manner with a friend, as she put it to the Huffington Post. Fine. I had decided to assume for the purpose of moving on that by “talking” she meant “e-mailing.” It would be completely believable if she had copied and pasted from a friend’s e-mail who had volunteered to help her write her column. Lame, but believable.

And yet here is what she told a blog called the Nytpicker, via e-mail:

no, we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in;
i just didn’t realize it was josh marshall’s point, and we’ve now given him credit
my friend didn’t want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do

I don’t see how you can possibly construe this as an e-mail exchange, especially when, as you will see, the Nytpicker had contacted her a second time trying to clarify exactly how Dowd had managed to reproduce Marshall’s rather lengthy graf almost word for word. Hey, she was just talking with a friend. Right.

(Via an e-mail to Media Nation citing National Review’s Media Blog, which in turn got it from DailyKos.)

Dowd’s modified limited hangout

Jack Shafer points out in Slate that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd deserves credit for not going into hiding, not whining and not claiming that what she did wasn’t plagiarism. I’ll give her that.

In an e-mail to Media Nation, Shafer also fingered an attribution I’d messed up in my Guardian column, which has now been corrected. I’d misattributed a Dowd e-mail to the wrong source. Thank you, Jack.

Reading the Times with Times Reader

Last week’s David Carr column on paid content brought a response from Slate’s Jack Shafer, who reminded us of his love for a product I had frankly forgotten about: Times Reader, a subscriber-only program that lets you download that day’s New York Times and read it offline, at your leisure.

Times Reader is based on some of the earliest ideas for online newspapers — ideas that were washed away by the rise of the Web. Indeed, Shafer even links to a video about the Knight Ridder digital tablet, an early-’90s idea that never came to pass. As envisioned back then, you’d plug your device into a slot on your cable-television box in order to receive newspapers, magazines and possibly books. You’d pay for it all, of course.

Click on image or here for a Flickr slideshow
of page captures from Times Reader

Anyway, Shafer’s latest prompted me to see if a Macintosh version of Times Reader had ever become available. Indeed it had, and I promptly downloaded it for a test drive. Because we subscribe to the Sunday print edition, there’s no extra charge for us. Otherwise, it’s $14.95 a month.

Is it worth it? Reluctantly, I have to say no, except for a certain small subset of readers. If you want to read the Times on your laptop every day in a place without an Internet connection — say, on a commuter train, or a bus — then Times Reader is for you. Of course, even trains and buses are increasingly likely to offer WiFi, so maybe I should describe the target audience as a subset of a subset.

First, the good. The typeface used by Times Reader is strikingly attractive, presented in a three-column format, almost as if you were reading a print newspaper. Because the entire paper resides on your hard drive, navigating Times Reader is very fast. Using the cursor keys, I find that I can skim through the paper much more effectively than I can with the Web edition.

In addition, we all know that the experience of reading a newspaper in print is very different from reading it on the Web. In print, there are boundaries; we’re limited to what the editors have chosen for us. The glory of the Web is that there no limits, but that’s its downfall, too. The temptation is to follow link after link. Before you know it, your intention to read the paper is gone.

Times Reader reimposes those sense of boundaries, especially when you turn off your Internet connection. (There are links, but you can’t follow them unless you’re online.) It’s just you and the paper, so you might as well read it. Unless you are an extremely disciplined person, you’re likely to read more of the Times using Times Reader than you would with the Web edition. If, like me, you don’t have to pay extra for Times Reader, then you ought to give it a try and see if you like it.

So what’s not to like? Quite a lot.

First, despite the attractive typeface and presentation in Times Reader, I actually find the Web version easier to read. The type is plainer, the leading (spacing) wider. I’d also rather have one column to negotiate rather than three. Readability tends to be a subjective judgment, but there you have it.

Second, photography in Times Reader is an afterthought. The Times, like many newspapers, has used its Web site as a way of giving us more, better photojournalism than ever before. Yet Times Reader doesn’t even give us as much as the print edition. There is a “News in Pictures” feature, but it’s completely random and unsatisfying.

Third, the Web edition includes a view of the print-version front page. I have no particular psychic need to have the print edition, but I do like to look at page one to see how different stories were played. You don’t get that with Times Reader, and the organizational scheme is such that, beyond the lead story, you don’t get an entirely clear idea of what’s important and what isn’t.

Fourth, Times Reader isn’t just a closed environment; it’s claustrophobic, even compared to the print edition: there are no ads in Times Reader, and I miss them. Advertising gives you a sense of liveliness, of stuff going on. I hardly ever click on Web ads, but I’m glad they’re there. Of course, Times Reader also cuts you off from all the great online-only content the Times Web site offers — videos, blogs, slideshows and the like.

Finally, I’m not sure all content is present in Times Reader. Last Thursday, for instance, I couldn’t find David Pogue’s technology column (and, as best as I can tell, there is no search function). I was also interested in trying out the crossword puzzle, but the necessary Mac software for my version of OS X (10.5) seems to have been botched.

Times Reader is a valiant attempt to come up with an online newspaper that people will pay for, and it’s something you may consider trying if you want to read the Times in a spot with no reliable Internet connection. But, to my eyes, it’s not nearly as good as either the Times in print or on the Web. Too bad.

Beyond convention wisdom

Jack Shafer of Slate and Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine are both arguing that the media ought to stop covering the national political conventions.

Their reasons are obvious. The nominees have been chosen entirely through the primaries since the 1970s, so there is literally no news coming out of them except for the acceptance speeches of the vice presidential and presidential candidates. I understand the point. But I would make two counterarguments.

First, what better place is there for the three cable news networks to be? The prime-time line-ups of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC consist mainly of talk shows with a heavy political bent. The conventions give them a chance to do what they do, only at a higher level and with a larger audience. Nothing wrong with that.

Second, the conventions are filled with interesting stories, though very few of them take place inside the hall. Yes, I’d agree that having 15,000 reporters on hand to cover the same thing is nuts, but that’s not what they ought to be doing. Maybe 10,000 of them ought to go home (perhaps I don’t disagree with Shafer and Jarvis after all), but the other 5,000 ought to get outside and look for stories.

In 2000, I was at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, on assignment for the Boston Phoenix, when similar complaints arose about the news-free nature of the event. I wrote about what the media should have been covering rather than whining about the dullness of the proceedings. I’d say the same thing today.