The week (June 30th): Nobody asked me, but…

Once again, with a tip of a cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“REASONABLE DOUBTS AT DUKE” is the title of Ruth Marcus’ column in the Washington Post as she places herself squarely in the camp of those observers who are skeptical of charges that three Blue Devils lacrosse players raped an exotic dancer at a team party in March.

Marcus admits that she began presuming guilt, but has since changed her mind. She writes:

The paucity of physical evidence; the accuser’s prior unsubstantiated rape charge; her changing stories that night; sloppy and unreliable identification procedures — any of these alone, and certainly all of them together, make it hard to understand why the prosecution is going forward and impossible to imagine that it could win a conviction.

Meanwhile, the story (with a plot-line worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel) continues; it is a story that, as the old newsroom cliche goes, “has legs.” First, Reade Seligmann, the Duke player with a seemingly exculpatory alibi, returned to court in Durham and had his bail reduced from $400,000 to $100,000. Then, the same judge (Superior Court Judge Ronald Stephens) reduced the bond for Collin Finnerty, another suspect in the case. David Evans, the third player accused, was found guilty of a noise violation for playing music loudly in January (at the house where the rape allegedly occured).

Life does go on, however. Duke is now looking for a permanent lacrosse coach; there’s some sentiment, it seems, for selecting Hofstra head coach John Danowski, whose son, Matt, is on the Duke squad and one of the better collegiate players in the country.

GREAT BIT OF REPORTING by Sam Farmar (The Times of London) who “ventures deep into the jungle” to interview  Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony and “challenges the Lord’s Resistance Army leader on the massacres, mutilations and mystical spirits that made him Africa’s most wanted man.” Kony, who denied the charges of employing terror tactics, tells Farmar “I will use the Ten Commandments to liberate Uganda.” One intriguing fact from the piece: Kony has the latest Newsweek magazine brought to him by “an elaborate system of runners.”

OUTGOING HARVARD PRESIDENT LARRY SUMMERS explained to ABC’s George George Stephanopoulos that he resigned after controversy over comments he made about women and their lack of progress in science to avoid distracting from the agenda he wanted to advance for the University.

Was that the real reason Summers wore out his welcome? Some commentators, among them independent journalist David Warsh, point to Summers’ brusque management style and argue that the real problem was “a fundamental mismatch between the university and the executive who in 2001 was chosen to head it.”

Summers was also interviewed by the Harvard Crimson, and spoke quite eloquently of how he had conceived his role as president of America’s oldest institution of higher learning:

I always thought Harvard’s traditions—the Harvard of common rooms and paintings on walls and House masters—could take care of itself. My job was to be with the Harvard of the future: the undergraduates, the post-docs with their lights on at two in the morning, the assistant professors sending e-mails with 3 a.m. timestamps. It was the future that I tried to be with.

IS SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN in danger of losing the August Democratic primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont? Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson (“Lieberman Is Paying Price for One Peck From W”) and Dick Morris (“… and why Lieberman can’t win his and shouldn’t try”) think so; Morris wants Lieberman to run as an independent (“We need you too much in Washington.”) I think Connecticut Democrats will give Lieberman the nod despite his support of the Bush Iraq policy and that the resulting “Joe-mentum” will return him to the Senate.

WHICH IS THE STRONGER BASEBALL LEAGUE, American or National? Former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo, now with the Cincinatti Reds, doesn’t mince words: he thinks the American League is much tougher. Arroyo told the Boston Globe:

The strongest lineup in the National League probably isn’t as strong, or as tough to pitch to, as Toronto or Baltimore. If everybody’s healthy in St. Louis’s lineup, that’s probably the only one that can compare. The White Sox are tougher, Detroit this year is probably pretty tough, and then you have the Yankees, Toronto, and Baltimore in that division 19 times a year. I mean, it’s hard to pitch over there.

And don’t forget the impact of the designated hitter: there’s no “easy out” in American League line-ups. Arroyo shouldn’t complain–he may very well win the Cy Young award pitching as a National Leaguer.

PARISIANS HAVE THE RIGHT IDEA on city planning, even if they adore Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke. Journalist Charles Bremner reports in his Paris weblog that “…Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris, and his left-wing council approved a 20-year development plan that maintains the ban on tall buildings. Critics dubbed it the “Amélie” plan after the 2001 film because it mainly keeps Paris the way that residents and tourists love it rather than competing with high-rise London and Shanghai.” Here’s where a little bit of civic paternalism isn’t such a bad thing. Boston’s mayor Tom Menino, who has been pushing for an “iconic tower” for the Athens of America, should take note.

WAS GEORGE ORWELL RIGHT? Can a watching Big Brother alter our behavior? BBC News reports that a poster of human eyes made people act more honestly (at least as judged by donations to a “honesty box” for drinks at a Newcastle University canteen). For what it is worth, the 1956 version of Orwell’s novel 1984 features some quite chilling Big Brother posters.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Denying the boy crisis

A new Washington think tank, Education Sector, has released a study, “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” that, in the words of the Washington Post, “argues that widespread reports of U.S. boys being in crisis are greatly overstated and that young males in school are in many ways doing better than ever.”

As Jay Matthews of the Post reports, the study, authored by Education Sector senior analyst Sara Mead, claims that “over the past three decades, boys’ test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.”

So why the widespread perception that there is a boy crisis? Matthews summarizes the findings of the Education Sector study on this question:

It concludes that much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him.

“The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse,” the report says, “it’s good news about girls doing better.”

If only it were so.

As I have written before, wishing something to be true, won’t make it true. Nearly anyone who teaches on an American college campus today is aware of the real story–the growing gender gap and its disturbing social and demographic implications–if they trust their eyes (see “Those lying eyes“) and the relevant statistics. Further, the notion that test score “improvements” reflect meaningful educational progress (for boys or girls) is laughable in a globalized economy.

It doesn’t take long to spot some of the flaws in the Education Sector study; its selective use of data and argumentative tone suggests that it was written to support foregone conclusions, not to look at the situation objectively.

Take, for example, the claim that “more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.” That is true–more men are attending and more are getting degrees than in the past–but it conveniently ignores underlying trends and the growing gender gap on American college campuses. The chart provided by Education Sector (see here) shows an ascending line for the number of men attending college–and it should, since there are more male students in college today on an absolute basis than 30 years ago. A second chart begins to hint at the gender problem, where female college enrollments show a dramatic upward trend in comparison to male enrollments.

What is missing is context: how large is the pool of college-aged men and women. Here’s what USA Today reported in 2005 (“College Gender Gap Widens: 57% Are Women.”):

There are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate last year. But nationally, the male/female ratio on campus today is 43/57, a reversal from the late 1960s and well beyond the nearly even splits of the mid-1970s.

The trends have developed in plain view — not ignored exactly, but typically accompanied by some version of the question: Isn’t this a sign of women’s progress?

Today, though, the blue-collar jobs that once attracted male high school graduates are drying up. More boys are dropping out of high school and out of college. And as the gender gap widens, concern about the educational aspirations of young men appears to be gaining traction, albeit cautiously.

The disparity is even greater than simple percentages suggest, because (as USA Today notes), there were some 800,000 more men than women in the 18-24 age group. That would suggest even greater under-representation of men than many realize hearing the percentage break-down.

What is even more disturbing is how consistent the declining trends for male students are across race, class and income levels. If you look at the statistics below (taken from the USA Today story), it’s clear that a shift of some significance is occuring.

  • “About 9.9 million women (57.4%) and 7.4 million men (42.6%) were enrolled in colleges eligible for federal student aid in 2003-04.”
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from low-income families (incomes less than $30,000), dropped from 44% to 40%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 46% to 42% (White), 43% to 39% (Hispanic), 54% to 47% (Asian) and an increase of 32% to 36% (Black).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from middle-income families ($30,000-$69,999), dropped from 50% to 44%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 50% to 43% (White), 48% to 32% (Black), 46% to 42% (Hispanic); 57% to 50% (Asian).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from upper-income families ($70,000 or more), dropped from 51% to 49%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 52% to 49% (White), 50% to 49% (Hispanic); 52% to 51% (Asian) and an increase of 41% to 48% (Black).

I find startling the declines in relative college attendance for affluent white, Hispanic and Asian males. Such a trend would suggest cultural and social factors that need to be addressed if we hope to stabilize the current college gender gap where it is. (I take it as a given that any society with a growing and significant educational gap between men and women is courting trouble.)

What about the “progress” on boys’ test scores that the Education Sector study trumpets? If you look closely, the study’s claim is that boys have narrowed the gap (somewhat) between their lagging achievement and that of girls the same age on reading tests. In a concession to reality, Mead, the author of the study, must concede that the results don’t look as convincing for older boys–the ones who are about to make college decisions.

And Mead also concedes that: “There are groups of boys for whom “crisis” is not too strong a term. When racial and economic gaps combine with gender achievement gaps in reading, the result is disturbingly low achievement for poor, black, and Hispanic boys.” Mead believes, however, that “closing racial and economic achievement gaps” would benefit these boys more than “closing gender gaps.” (Does this mean she would be content with a continuing gender gap, all things being equal?)

By the end of “The Truth about Boys and Girls,” Mead has backed away from her earlier sunny optimism on the question (“In particular, the disproportionate number of boys being identified with learning and emotional disabilities, suspended from school, and dropping out suggests that what our schools are doing doesn’t work very well for some boys.”) She concedes that something is amiss and that the notion of an educational crisis for boys must “resonate with the experiences of parents and educators.”

Her concern, she tells us, is that “The boy crisis offers a perfect opportunity for those seeking an excuse to advance ideological and educational agendas.” Mead finishes her report with a relatively dispassionate survey of the various educational “solutions” being peddled by cultural conservatives, progressive educators, researchers and pop psychologists, and then calls for “a more reasonable conversation” that could “lead to effective responses to the achievement problems facing some boys, without unfairly undermining the gains that girls have made in recent decades.”

It’s hard to disagree with her closing thoughts. That “more reasonable” conclusion, however, is lost when the “news” is, to cite the Post‘s headline: “Study Casts Doubt on the ‘Boy Crisis’.” The idea should be to improve the academic performance of boys without detracting from that of girls; denying or downplaying the problem only delays the day of reckoning.


USA Today data cited from: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies, 1995-96, 1999-2000, 2003-04; Income ranges adjusted for inflation to 1995-96 dollars; Source: ACE Center for Policy Analysis


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Luckovich’s Cartoon on Torture: Over the Line?

Did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mike Luckovich “cross over the line” with his June 22 cartoon depicting a hooded American lecturing an al-Qaida figure on the etiquette of torture? (You can see the cartoon here). Some AJC readers called the cartoon anti-American, and (no surprise) FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has been defending the U.S. military’s treatment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, criticized it on his program “The O’Reilly Factor.”

I don’t think Luckovich’s cartoon crosses that hypothetical line of decency or good taste. Nor do I think it is unpatriotic. The cartoon’s implied comparison is a bit tough to swallow (moral equivalency arguments have always seemed strained to me, especially when the comparison involves particularly henious groups, like the Nazis or al-Qaida), but, discounting for artistic hyperbole, it remains well within the bounds of civil political discourse.

Luckovich’s message: when Americans rationalize or support torture their tactics begin to resemble al-Qaida’s—and that message deserves a hearing. The question of torture in an Age of Terror is not closed. The national debate over what constitutes torture continues, even after Sen. John McCain’s successful push for tighter legislative standards on those interrogation tactics used by the military and the CIA.

In considering Luckovich’s June 22nd cartoon, and other editorial cartoons, where does this hypothetical line of “acceptability” run? What are those bounds? Editorial cartoonists are bound to offend some readers whenever they touch upon controversial subjects and the heightened imagery of cartooning can infuriate (even more so than inflammatory words). The tools of cartooning—ridicule, sarcasm, exaggeration, caricature and the use of stereotypes and analogies—are, by their very nature, provocative and easily misunderstood.

To take one example, cartoonists Jeff Danziger, Ted Rall and Gary Trudeau have all faced accusations of racism for their depiction of Condoleeza Rice, largely because they mined long-standing racial stereotypes (house slaves, Prissy in “Gone with the Wind”) in their portrayals of the Secretary of State. Their defense, more or less, was that they were employing irony to attack Rice’s role as an excuse-maker for the Bush Administration.

Kevin Kallaugher (KAL) of the Baltimore Sun contributed a witty panel cartoon to the Washington Post entitled “I Walk the Line,” capturing the “besieged feeling” many cartoonists have today in this post 9/11 world, where the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammed, and the death threats against their authors/artists, have highlighted the real dangers to those who practice this unique form of free expression.

Luckovich’s Cartoon

Some of the controversy surrounding the Luckovich cartoon is, no doubt, due to the events of the week in which it was published. The bodies of two American soliders—brutally tortured—were discovered in Iraq; the military is also confronting disturbing allegations of murder by U.S. troops; bad news continues to surface from Gitmo.

Public editor Angela Tuck of the Atlanta newspaper, who responds to reader complaints, offered her own criticism, focused more on the timing of the cartoon than on its content:

In a week that brought news of the brutal slayings of two young American soldiers at the hands of Iraqi insurgents and murder charges involving a handful of U.S. troops, the cartoon was ill-timed, as was its placement above the photographs of Pfcs. Thomas L. Tucker and Kristian Menchaca, whose badly mangled bodies were discovered this week in Iraq.

Tuck quoted Luckovich’s views on his cartoon ( “I believe our most powerful weapon is our moral authority,” he said. “Our level of conduct has to be beyond reproach. When U.S. government officials say it’s OK to use torture in some circumstances, it’s hard to say, ‘We’ll go this far and no farther.’ That’s when you have things like Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.”) and noted that the cartoonist now believed, “in hindsight… allowing some distance between the murders of Tucker and Menchaca and the cartoon’s publication would have been better.”

Tuck thought the cartoon’s message was somewhat ambiguous:

Depicting a U.S. figure wearing a hood like those worn by terrorists caused Luckovich’s intended message to be lost on some readers, myself included. When I first saw the cartoon, I wondered if he was equating the actions of U.S. troops with al-Qaida, which in my mind is a totally inappropriate comparison and one I can’t imagine him making.

I think Luckovich was making that comparison. Wasn’t he looking to jar readers out of their complacency, to make them think about the consquences of Americans using torture? That doesn’t strike me as “inappropriate,” even if the implied comparison is offensive. Torture is torture—the motives and nationality of the torturer are immaterial to the person being tortured. McCain and others have pointed out that rejecting any form of torture puts the U.S. on moral high ground and is consistent with national values. Luckovich’s cartoon highlights the issues involved.

The Iraq war and editorial cartoons

It’s not easy to lampoon or satirize during wartime without offending—and a divisive war, like the conflict in Iraq, produces strong emotional reactions to editorial commentary of any form. Iraq’s violence, and some of the disturbing images it has produced (beheadings and car bombings) make for grim cartoons. Some of the toughest anti-war cartoons have come from Jeff Danziger; he has been critical of the war from the start (and as a decorated Vietnam veteran, somewhat immune to having his patriotism questioned).

The Arizona Republic‘s Steve Benson angered some readers with his recent (June 7) cartoon about the alleged Haditha massacre, which featured dripping blood on the U.S. Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor symbol and suggested a cover-up was occuring.

In 2004, Ted Rall ignited a firestorm of criticism with his cartoon strip mocking Pat Tillman, the former pro football player who enlisted in the Army and was killed by friendly fire in April 2004. Rall’s strip (found here) implied that Tillman was an “idiot” for accepting Administration explanations for Iraq and Afghanistan and “a cog in a low-rent occupation army that shot more innocent civilians than terrorists to prop up puppet rulers and exploit gas and oil resources.” Rall later said he was wrong to have assumed Tillman was “a right-wing poster child” when reports surfaced that Tillman had regarded the invasion of Iraq as illegal. (I consider the Rall cartoon to be tasteless and to have “crossed over the line” of civility and decency; nonetheless, as a free expression advocate, I defend his right to publish it.)

In January 2006, Tom Toles’ cartoon of a wounded solider, an amputee, being attended to by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (portrayed as a doctor who says “I’m listing your condition as ‘battle hardened'”) brought a harsh response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They complained to the Washington Post that the cartoon was “beyond tasteless,” and “a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds.” Toles quickly responded that he meant “no offense toward American soldiers.”

Toles did, however, mean to highlight what many see as Rumsfeld’s somewhat cavalier attitude about the toll Afghanistan and Iraq had taken on the military, both active duty and reserves. At the time I thought Toles’ cartoon, while quite grim, had remained within bounds. (Interestingly enough, the Disabled Veterans of America agreed). Toles’ satirical arrows were aimed at the Defense Secretary, not wounded American soldiers.

Toles acknowledged that the figurative nature of cartoons, and their ambiguity, could lead to misunderstanding (and misrepresentation):

It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended. The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact

You can argue that Toles unfairly employed the plight of military amputees to attack Rumsfeld, but that takes the cartoon too literally. The wounded soldier is the symbol of an American military that has been “strained to the breaking point.” The cartoon is powerful because of that metaphor, and because it raises the issue in a personal way.

And Toles has it right on another count: we all lose if cartoonists hesitate to draw tough cartoons or shy away from controversial topics because they fear misinterpretation, or having their motives, or patriotism questioned. Fortunately, those drawn to editorial cartooning and political satire tend to be independent, hard to bully and unlikely to back down. If you worry about the state of free expression today, that’s something to be thankful for.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (June 23rd): Nobody asked me, but…

With full credit to famed New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THE CASE FOR AL GORE as the Democratic presidential nominee for 2008 is made quite cogently by New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, largely on the grounds that political moderates and liberals can be “intellectually sure and psychologically fervent” about Gore and that he can win (“He won once. He can win again.”)

Is it possible for a presidential loser to rebound two elections later? Yes, as Richard M. Nixon proved when he shrugged off the dual defeats of 1960 (as the GOP presidential nominee) AND 1962 (a loss to Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial race) to take the prize in 1968.

The difference? Nixon wanted the presidency with every fiber of his body. I don't know that Gore has the same deep-seated hunger. Without resorting to arm-chair psychoanalysis, there's always been an unanswered question about Al Gore: did he pursue a political career, instead of journalism or education, because he wanted to, or to please his father?

My guess? Gore doesn't need the presidency for self-validation in the way that a Bill Clinton or a Richard Nixon did…and he will not run. (Others disagree. The New York Post's Deborah Orin believes that Gore's refusal to endorse his former running mate, Joe Lieberman, in the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut is a signal that Gore is courting favor with the anti-war party faithful.)

Could he win the nomination? The Democratic Left sees Senator Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner, as choosing opportunism over principle on the Iraq war (vide, Robert Scheer's "Hillary's Hypocrisy" on The Nation.com), and would welcome Gore's candidacy. And Democratic primary voters skew left…

FILE UNDER: "GREED IS GOOD": European corporate executives are now seeking American-style pay packages, and governing boards there are apparently ignoring the research showing little connection between out-sized compensation and better performance. One irony, noted by Geraldine Fabrikant of the New York Times: greater disclosure of corporate pay in Europe is actually fueling the trend: "as compensation scoreboards become more common across the globe, they create the metrics that let executives claim they are worth more."

IF YOU CAN'T SCORE GOALS, you can't win soccer games, as the U.S. national team demonstrated in its quick exit from the World Cup (scoring only one bona fide goal in its three games).

American coach Bruce Arena can be second-guessed for not picking Taylor Twellman (the leading scorer in Major League Soccer), and the mercurial Clint Mathis (who scored a brilliant goal against Korea in the 2002 World Cup) for the national side; for playing Brian McBride as a lone striker for most of the three games; for relying on midfielder Landon Donovan, who has yet to prove he can play intensely enough; and for not starting Clint Dempsey, the future of American soccer, until Game 2.

Speaking of Clint Mathis, the "good-ole-boy" striker from Georgia never impressed Arena with his work ethic; and yet, Mathis scores goals. There is a marvelous story about Mathis playing for Hannover 96 in Germany, where he entered as a late substitute, scored an immediate goal, and than ran by the coach, Ewald Lienen, tapping an imaginary watch as if to say: "Why did you wait to play me?" Mathis did not see much playing time after that. (He is now on the Colorado Rapids MLS team).

AN INTRIGUING STORY by the Boston Globe's Beth Daley explores the growing shortage of honeybees, crucial for pollinating crops. According to the story, hives must now be trucked around the U.S. to "keep up with the blooming seasons for various crops."

Daley writes:

…the honeybee is locked in a two-decade battle with a parasite that has sliced the nation's commercial hives by one-third and appears to have wiped out much of the wild honeybee population. Now, frustrated with the parasites' ability to develop widespread resistance to the chemicals designed to kill them, the US Department of Agriculture, scientists, and beekeepers are racing to develop new weapons.

Her story traces how bees pollinating cranberries on Nantucket had started in Louisiana and made stops in California, New Jersey, and Maine. One startling fact: Australian bees were imported to pollinate California's almond crop.

ALESSANDRA STANLEY of the New York Times managed to lavish praise on Angelina Jolie while trashing CNN's Cooper Anderson for his interview with the latest Hollywood political activist ("Jolie's Extravagant Philanthropy Is Hard to Fault"). The article will certainly not make its way into Cooper's own publicity kit ("When journalists act like movie stars, movie stars act like journalists.")

THINK THE NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL COMMITTEE is nervous about the Virginia race between incumbent George Allen and Democrat James Webb, the former Reagan Secretary of the Navy? Allen only leads 51%-41% in the latest Rasmussen Reports poll. Webb has enjoyed a positive bounce since his June 13 primary win; the previous poll had Allen with a 50% to 30% lead.

Don't be surprised if Webb closes to within 5 percentage points of Allen by early October.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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Wikipedia, Jayson Blair, and first draft charm

So I have this vision of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder (sometimes described as the website's co-founder) as the Wizard of Oz, frantically tugging the curtain back to avoid scrutiny as the uncomfortable truth about his online encyclopedia emerges. For Wikipedia is not the democratic, open-access Internet repository of knowledge, back-stopped by self-correcting, collaborative editing, that we had been led to believe.

On the contrary, it is a lot more like, well, let Katie Hafner of the New York Times explain:

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.

"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."

And, we learn from Hafner's article, Wales' site has tightened up its controls on those who can contribute, as partisanship and entry-fiddling has grown.

At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts — one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

None of this should be surprising. I had always suspected that a small group of Wiki zealots kept the site running; and in some knowledge areas (pop culture, economics, statistics), it should be noted, Wikipedia is fairly accurate and well-written. The often-brilliant tech contrarian Nick Carr first noted (on his blog Rough Type) the Wikipedia clamp-down in May:

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that "anyone can edit," was a nice experiment in the "democratization" of publishing, but it didn't quite work out. Wikipedia is dead. It died the way the pure products of idealism always do, slowly and quietly and largely in secret, through the corrosive process of compromise.

Carr has a wicked sense of humor as well, as can be seen from his closing addendum:

CORRECTION: Jimmy Wales informs me that in fact there was never a time when "anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia," as I originally wrote. "There have always been restrictions on editing," he says. I guess I made the mistake, as others may have as well, of taking literally Wikipedia's slogan that it is "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." I apologize for my error. I have revised two sentences in the second paragraph to correct it.

What are we to make of this? In a sense, Wales and his "core community" have had to face up to reality. Carr notes that Wikipedia was "the poster child for the brave new world of democratic, 'citizen' media, where quality naturally 'emerges' from the myriad contributions of a crowd." The reality, it turns out, is that editorial gatekeepers with knowledge and judgment do matter. Expertise, training, experience is needed. Partisans, conspiracy theorists and cranks will muck things up if given access.

Lore Sjöberg had a hilarious riff on Wikipedia's New Age philosophy in Wired magazine ("The Wikipedia FAQK") in which he addressed the question: "But why should I contribute to an article? I'm no expert."

That's fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War — and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge — get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

It is easy to mock the excesses of Wikipedia (Sjöberg's send-up of the bogus Wikipedia entry on newspaperman John Siegenthaler, who was falsely implicated in the Kennedy assassinations, is priceless); and I can imagine Ayn Rand turning over in her grave at the thought of the collectivist ethos of Wikipedia (it does have a Borg-like quality to it). Rand can rest easy: the failings of this "citizen journalism" model are now surfacing. Wales and his "core" have apparently learned the lesson, one mainstream journalists have long known–accuracy, neutrality and context are not easy to attain and nigh impossible when you can't vouch for the bona fides of the authors or gatekeepers.

Take Jayson Blair, the serial fabricator who fooled a host of editors at the august New York Times before his exposure. The new Times ombudsman, Byron Calame, announced on Sunday in his column that, due to reforms in the Times newsroom, it was unlikely that Blair could today get away with his journalistic fraud. To be exact, Calame wrote "the tightening of procedures and the revamping of newsroom culture initiated over the past three years make such an extensive journalistic fraud much less likely to occur again at the paper."

But neither he, nor any of the Siegal Committee members he talked to, ruled out the possibility of single fraudulent articles making it into print, and it seemed to me that only Allan M. Siegel, the recently retired assistant managing editor, would go on the record that the "mass production of plagiarized and/or fabricated stories" couldn't happen again.

It is hard getting it correct the first time. As a blogger I know it is much more likely that I will make mistakes because I don't have editors or gatekeepers reading or reviewing what I write. Having that second read, that second or third pair of eyes, helps catch simple errors, confusing or misleading prose and sloppy thinking or language. Great editors insist not only on accuracy but also push for meaning and context in what they revise.

It reminds me of something writer George Saunders said (at a panel entitled "Just the facts: truth and the internet," (held during the PEN New York World Voices festival): "It can be very tempting once you've typed it just to hit send, but I would say, just to be a little bit hyperbolic, the biggest danger of the internet is that we are going to be seduced by our own first draft charm. Just because it's quick doesn't mean it's smarter."

Much of the charm of the Web is "first draft charm." But just as the rise of the Internet did not repeal the law of economics (a "sexy business model" is all fine and well, but eventually you need paying customers), it has not altered the need for gatekeeping and editing (or conscious self-editing)–not if you take words and ideas seriously.

The issues of establishing the facts, of accuracy and of relying on objective-means reportage are the same for Wikipedia as they are for the New York Times (and, I would argue, as they are for the individual blogger). What shouldn't be lost, however, is the need for that accuracy, for the checks and balances of tight editing, for the individual responsibility (and, yes, conscience) of writers and reporters in checking and verifying the facts–whether or not they have an official press card.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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The week (June 16th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a nod to New York's own Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

YOU CAN ADMIRE AN INDIVIDUAL's integrity and consistency, even when you disagree with their world view. Take, for example, conservative North Carolinian John Hood of the John Locke Foundation who has been criticized by some on the Right for not rushing to defend the three Duke lacrosse players charged with raping an exotic dancer. A National Review Online column by K.C. Johnson argued that "a monumental miscarriage of justice is unfolding in Durham" and that Hood should join in defending the players. The Durham Herald-Sun quotes Hood as having characterized the lacrosse players "poorly supervised, irresponsible louts."

Johnson's NRO piece further maintained that colleges should focus on educating students, not overseeing their behavior, and criticized Hood for having written that Duke should be stressing "the life of the mind, not the life of the party."

Hood's somewhat tart response to the Herald-Sun: "he never thought the university experience is supposed to be 'a journey of self-discovery punctuated by vomit.'"

Hood also told the newspaper that the courtroom was the correct place to decide the case, and he was not willing to draw conclusions based on leaks and defense attorney statements. Fox commentators Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have been leading the charge for the case to be dropped.

Hood added that college athletes are privileged and "have a special responsibility to conduct themselves as young men and not young boys. Why observing that is inconsistent with me being a conservative, I can't understand."

CONSERVATIVE COLUMNIST PEGGY NOONAN cheap shotted former Navy Secretary James Webb, winner of the Virginia Democratic Senatorial primary on Tuesday, as "Nancy Pelosi with medals" in the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com. Noonan is exercised because Webb has been a critic of the Iraqi war from Day One and is a libertarian on social issues, and he may unseat the new darling of the Hard Right, Senator George Allen, in the general election.

It is passing strange to see Noonan sneer about medals and attack a former Reagan official and decorated Marine war hero, especially when the architects of the Iraqi war somehow all managed to avoid collecting any of those medals. It is particularly unfair to distort Webb's views on Iraq and call him a "standard-issue Democrat," when Webb is arguing for caution on the question of any U.S. troop withdrawals.

US SOCCER COACH BRUCE ARENA arrived in Germany as a bona fide soccer genius, his squad rated fourth in the world (yes, I know it was inflated), looking to make a mark in the World Cup. After a 3-0 opening game drubbing by the Czechs, criticism from some team members and the press, and a meeting with soccer power Italy tomorrow, look for Arena's reputation to return to earth.

CREEPIEST COMMERCIALS ON TELEVISION have to be the Citibank identity theft ads, with strange-looking people lip synching as they take on the voice of the gloating thief who stole their credit card number. The emotion evoked is repulsion, not any desire to sign up for Citibank's protections.

DICK MORRIS of Triangulation fame is predicting the Democrats will win back Congress in 2006…or is he? His latest piece in The Hill is, well, Clintonian in its ability to argue several different, and contradictory positions. His real conclusion: it's too early to say.

FARHAD MANJOO is a gutsy, independent journalist: his Salon piece "Was the 2004 election stolen? No" decimates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Rolling Stone reportage ("Was the 2004 Election Stolen?') Manjoo doesn't pander to the left-of-center Salon readership; he shows that RFK Jr.'s analysis is selective, his facts shaky on the question of exit polls, and his central premise ("Republicans prevented more than 350,000 voters in Ohio from casting ballots or having their votes counted–enough to have put John Kerry in the White House.") doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

What is clear, however, is that there were Republican attempts to disenfranchise Democratic voters in Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire by hard ball tactics (most narrowly legal, but not very appetizing nor in keeping with the democratic spirit).

MORE AGING ROCKERS are looking to extend their careers in Nashville. Bon Jovi crosses over by enlisting Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland to sing on a country version of "Who Says You Can't Go Home;" Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Johnny Van Zant and brother Donnie of .38 Special are performing as the Van Zants; and Kid Rock keeps collaborating with country singers. The trend is touching even the young: pop singer Michelle Branch is part of The Wreckers (along with Jessica Harp) and the duo is opening for Rascal Flats.

FLORIDA POLITICS delight all those who wonder at the bizarre. Last month a Florida minister revealed that God had told him in a dream two years ago that Charlie Crist (the Republican Attorney General) would be Florida's next governor. Crist is running against Tom Gallagher in the Republican primary, set for September, and some polls give him a double-digit lead. As to the dream, I'm not sure quite what to say, except that if Crist doesn't win, there be some 'splaining to do.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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High and low

Comes the news from the nation's capital that Donald Hall has been named poet laureate.

There's something a bit, well, Continental, about having an official, national poet laureate. The Brits have had them since the 17th century, named by the monarch, but they also have The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Our Republic (and its poets, from Phyllis Wheatley to Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot) thrived long before anyone thought to designate an official poet laureate. The first such position was awarded in 1937 as a Library of Congress sinecure; nonetheless, who can quibble with the notion of raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

Americans struggle with the notion of publicly-funded high culture, and it's reassuring to see the list of past poet laureates have included decidedly common touchers like William Carlos Williams (who didn't actually serve), Robert Frost, James Dickey, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Billy Collins.

That's not a bad thing. Selling lots of books of poetry, like Billy Collins has, shouldn't automatically brand you as "too popular," or worse, a purveyor of "low culture." Yes, post-modernism has eroded the line between high and low in academic circles (want to bet on the number of doctoral dissertations written on Elvis Presley in the past decade?) so it is harder to make those traditional literary distinctions.

Donald Hall is an interesting mix of the high and low, a Boston Red Sox fan who writes of baseball and a rural New England life, but also is deeply learned. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted that most of the New Hampshire poet's work is accessible, but added that Hall's best work was "The One Day," a book-length poem that is "in a sense, the last masterpiece of American modernism."

Gioia, a former business executive and a talented translator and poet himself, has been a champion of more accessible poetry, and verse that comes from experience, as he explained in an interview some years ago:

A poet must be honest to experience. Whatever I write must somehow be grounded in my actual life. Contemporary American poetry does not have nymphs and shepherds, but it has its equivalent cliches. Most American poetry takes place in prefabricated literary landscapes, be they redwood forests or working class bars – conventionally poetic places where poets have poetic experiences. I have tried to write out of the range of my actual experience, which means the suburbs as well as nature, which means books and music as well as the family…

I thought of Gioia's emphasis on the artistic everyday experience when I read Robert Pinsky's Sunday column in the Washington Post where he considered the question of "bad poetry" of the recent past, observing that "that much extremely popular poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries now seems unreadably awful. One-time poetry stars such as Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest and Joyce Kilmer maintain small, devoted followings, but are best known for 'bad poetry.'"

Pinsky focused on Guest, his poem-a-day newspaper column, and his use of "rustic dialect." Pinsky maintained that "before we condemn them as merely naive or faux-naif or just false in an outdated fashion, we should remember the popularity of country music and also the affected, exaggerated 'incorrectness' of the rap idiom. Most American popular song since the birth of rock has been in dialect: A spectacularly successful example is the vaguely Appalachian character created for himself by Bob Dylan."

Pinksy is right to see both country and rap as filling a void in American popular culture–but it is not only of dialect, but also of authenticity. Anyone who has lived in the South knows that the words of country music reflect the rich use of English, the "countrified wisdom" Pinksy cites, found in daily conversation, just as rap and hip-hop mirror the word play of some city streets.

There is nothing false about it. The lyricists of many country songs will tell you that they've borrowed a key line, or image, or story, from something they've heard or experienced. Many of their songs rely on clever word play to illuminate and entertain: from Roger Miller ("I'm a man of means by no means/ King of the road") to Kris Kristofferson ("Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/ And nothin' left was all she left to me") to Mark McGuinn ("Hey, Mrs. Steven Rudy/ You're the neighborhood beauty/ And that wedding ring is as ugly as your husband is to you") to Toby Keith ( "I ain't as good as I once was/But I'm as good once as I ever was") country songwriters meet Gioia' standard of remaining "honest to experience."

And there is a rueful humor about much of country music, (a legacy of a tough Scots-Irish fatalism by those who settled the Appalachian region?), a closeness to the elemental that resonates with working people, and a willingness to voice sometimes harsh truths.

Despite his high culture (Harvard) education, Donald Hall's poetry is close to the earth; Billy Collins wrote that Hall's "simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority."

Take Hall's poem "Distressed Haiku," written after his wife's death. He draws on the self-deprecating humor of country folk ("Will Hall ever write/lines that do anything/but whine and complain") and the rural love of exaggeration ("The Boston Red Sox win/a hundred straight games") while hitting us with a hard truth:

You think their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen

Then they stay dead.

There is a distinctly American touch to this, a directness and honesty that appeals. It reminds of us of why we are drawn to poetry, why as William Carlos Williams once wrote of the absence of poetry, "men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there."


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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