is increasingly copying others instead of writing their own work

Something is rotten at The Atlantic: Jordan Weissman “wrote” a piece called “Disability Insurance: America’s $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program,” which is just a restatement of an NPR Planet Money report and some of David Autor’s work (which I’m familiar with through his Econtalk interview and reading some of his subsequent papers; he’s also mentioned by NPR.) This comes not long after Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for trying to get writers to work for free. It seems like is increasingly doing things like this: using thinly-veiled re-writes to drive traffic to it. Weissman’s piece adds little if anything to the NPR piece, and The Atlantic could have just linked to that piece.

The magazine is still very good, and original, but The Atlantic’s web content has been getting worse in a very noticeable way, with thinly-veiled re-writes of other people’s work. If you want to write about other people’s work, just link to it directly.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon more and more, but this is the first time I’ve posted about it. I hope it doesn’t become a series.

(And I’m letting the Scientology ad thing slide, because I think it was an honest mistake.)

Tina Fey's Bossypants and its relationship to James Fallows' Breaking the News

This passage appears in Tina Fey’s memoir / how-to guide Bossypants:

And Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to filler, but viewers get kind of ‘bummed out’ if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so ‘Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin’ and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!

The downside of being a cable news star is that nay ass-hair with a clip-on tie can come on an as ‘expert’ to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not ‘conducted myself well’ during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly about who might win show biz awards.) There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush ‘retarded’ in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and not be able to respond.

I love the word “reportage,” which sounds like “personage,” and bears the same relationships to real news or reports that McDonald’s does to real food with real nutritional value. And the phrase “wars and stuff” lets Fey drop into the mindset of a network executive, perhaps just a few years out from his or her MBA, who is trying to decide what might maximize revenue this quarter. Answer: sharks, missing white girls, and fake controversy. We don’t need any stuff about wars, tough compromises, or deep trends! Let’s dazzle them with superficial bullshit, which a subset of them really like, and hope no one notices what we’re not covering!

(Unfortunately, this works because we, collectively, don’t demand better. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Fey’s critique is close to James Fallows’ in Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. Fey is being funny and Fallows serious, and Fey is dealing with a media environment a decade and change later than the one Fallows describes, but on a basic level the environment has barely changed. If anything, the explosion in cable news has made it worse in many ways, with only a handful of exceptions (The Daily Show, which fights against the dumbest parts of the contemporary media, or coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder). The net result of this is Americans losing confidence in the institutions that are supposed to serve us. The responsibility is partially ours, but it’s also partially that of the people who nominally serve us.

Everyone who pays attention to the media knows it’s broken, and that the brokenness seems to have seeped into the larger culture as a form of blanket cynicism and condemnation. I don’t have a strong sense of how to reverse this dynamic, save perhaps on an individual level.

See also David Brin on how an idea has, over the last twenty years, become “fundamental dogma to millions of Americans:” “The notion that assertions can trump facts.” I wonder if the Western world’s enormous wealth insulates people from the potential consequences of their beliefs; very people die or are seriously injured as a result of dumb beliefs based on erroneous or completely absent information. In other words, it’s now much cheaper to believe nonsense.

On a separate, and more pleasant note, Fallows’ new book, China Airborne, will be published on May 15. In addition, Bossypants itself is funny throughout. Samples:

* “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.”

* “In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”

* “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

* “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

Breaking the News follow-up

My post on James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy generated a fair amount of e-mail and commentary. In the comments section, Steve Karger pointed to The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, which rehashes of some of Fallows’ points but without acknowledgement except at the top, which has a quote, and the very bottom of the page, which says “With fond apologies to James Fallows.” Nonetheless, it’s worth reading.

I found What should be “the new rules of news” in The Guardian, one of the UK’s major newspapers. I especially like this rule:

3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

Sadly, its recommendations seem unlikely to come to pass: the incentives against better journalism seem too deeply entrenched, especially compared with the cost of real journalism. reports that “Journalists like Evan Thomas now admit the Clinton scandals were bogus. When will they admit they played along?” And the answer appears to be “never.” These kinds of retrospective pieces remind us of what’s wrong with the news business: reporters are participating in the practices that weaken confidence in the business, much like individual investors who make decisions that collectively shake the market’s foundation yet are personally beneficially.

Finally, Fallows himself caught my post and wrote in reply:

I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it’s worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

He’s correct, and others have been gathering plenty of fresh examples, as “The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get” shows. I have no idea what arrangements he has with his publisher, but perhaps a new edition with a new forward/afterward would a) give a reason for additional coverage of the book and b) give the benefit of a small number of new examples without having to overhaul the entire thing. Then again, as far as I can tell, Breaking the News got a fairly loud reception the first time and the problems it discusses are fairly well-known, so maybe this wouldn’t matter much.

As I said in my first post, I think the individual’s response to lousy news is likely to be limited, since I can’t immediately make structural changes in the big news organizations that produce lousy “news,” which some people seem to prefer, like Fox News. But if you are interested in better news, try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal (which still seems pretty good) and the New York Times.

Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — James Fallows

The weird thing about Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is how timely it still seems—I think Thoreau called books “the news that stays news.”* Even after some of the particulars Fallows wrote about have receded—like, say, the healthcare debate—the main point that news celebrities and TV-style have cheapened, perhaps dangerously, American knowledge and democracy remains. More importantly, the habit of political score-keeping rather than dealing with substantive issues remains too; Fallows quotes a Clinton administration staffer who said after the 1994 Republic landslide:

They [meaning voters] had ‘made the monkey jump’—they were able to discipline an institution they didn’t like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done.

The process seems to have accelerated: i part that’s because of the Internet—people have more choices for news—but I wonder if it’s also in part because of the product being produced. Fallows gives an excellent sample of what TV news is like: mostly chasing sensation and catastrophe that doesn’t really mean anything, or have any nuance: there’s no real ambiguity concerning whether a killer should be caught and punished, or that a tornado is a tragedy. As Fallows says, “Then there is political news, almost always in the context of horse race politics—the mayor is criticizing his opponents, the city council is arguing with the mayor.” But over what? And why? The scorecard aspect ignores these important issues.

I’m not giving specific examples from Breaking the News because they’re too involved for a (relatively) short blog post, and the most specific parts of the specific examples have changed. But Fallows gives numerous anecdotes and stories to back his points, and it’s almost impossible to have seen TV news over the last ten years and not nod in agreement. The only place he fails in his proscriptions for working past the problems; most revolve around the idea of public journalism, which involves greater citizen participation in news topics, commitment to real information, and so forth. The major problem appears to be that most of the public doesn’t seem interested in such subjects, or at least in paying for them. Those who are interested subscribe to The Atlantic (Fallows’ current home), or, today, find what they need on specialized Internet forums. Most people appear interested in celebrity gossip and hating whatever “the other side” is doing.

For me, Hacker News does a better job of finding what’s worthy than all but a handful of publications (The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times being the most obvious). But Hacker News is only an aggregator, not an originator. Despite strides being made by blogging, it hasn’t come close to replace media organizations—in part because of lawsuit threats that can stymie the proverbial little guy.

As Jack Shafer says on Slate, “Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.” This is true: but it’s also true that the “big media,” much as hate using that phrase, has disproportionate power—especially television. And the media business (another unfortunate phrase) doesn’t seem able to reform itself, so the Internet is doing part of the job for it. Still, media companies are in the business of giving people what they want, or at least what they seem to want, and what people seem to want is to have their prejudices massaged, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. And the status conveyed by TV (which Fallows deals with in a chapter titled “The Gravy Train;” one consultant says of pundits, “Every time they vanish from the tube for a period of time, the requests for their speaking and lectures drop off dramatically.” In other words, appearing on TV is insanely lucrative) means that far more people want to get on than can get on. The result: you can get people to do or say almost everything. As Shafer says, no professional body will stop you. But if people become more accustomed to unfiltered material on the net, maybe they’ll grow more tired of the news blowhards.

Against these problems, the individual doesn’t have a tremendous amount he or she can immediately do. “Don’t watch TV, or at least most TV news” is an obvious one that’s akin to telling people to eat their broccoli, even as McDonald’s continues to expand like waistlines. But, as any community organizer knows, making people aware of a problem is often an important step in solving it. Fallows made people aware of this problem in 1996. Alas: too little has changed. Maybe this post is another step, however tiny, in the direction of change for the better.

* This quote is probably slightly wrong, or wrongly attributed. Maybe he was the one who said, “Read not the times. Read the eternities.”

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