The Open Vein

There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.
— Terry Pratchett

#ProveItJonah and the Ethics of the Speaker Fee

There was a lot of news this week. Some 2 billion Catholics discovered that the Bishop of Rome would retire, just like any other mortal sick of the daily grind. A lunatic with an assault rifle shot up San Bernadino County. And then there was the big news: Jonah Lehrer, journalism’s latest cautionary tale, took the stage at Knight Foundation to offer his mea culpa for committing a laundry list of journalistic sins, including plagiarism, self-plagiarism (are we sure that’s a thing?), outright fabrication, and—for some reason this one seems the grossest offense—transcribing quotes straight from a press release. 

In reality, very few people outside the ever-shrinking fishbowl of media obsessives cared one whit about Lehrer and his public atonement. Over the past months I’ve noted, with some surprise, how few people outside of journalism had even heard of the scandal. So far as ink-stained villains go, Lehrer’s not exactly in competition with Rebekah Brooks. And indeed, Lehrer has had his defenders. Fellow New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell, told NYMag

“[Lehrer] didn’t twist anyone’s meaning or libel anyone or manufacture some malicious fiction … Surely only the most hardhearted person wouldn’t want to give him a chance to make things right.”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to agree with Gladwell. Because in fact, twisting meanings was exactly the nature of Lehrer’s graver sins: He cherry picked scientific evidence when it suited his narrative, and neglected those that didn’t. And he misquoted the scientists so that they seemed to be reinforcing his thesis. And he got a lot of money for doing so in a few of the most prestigious magazines in the business. Indignation: Duly piqued. 

But if the transgressions weren’t enough to turn my stomach, the schadenfreude that followed in their wake was. Does anyone really think Lehrer was the only one cutting corners? We’ve all struggled to sate the appetite of the Daily Fucking Beast that is the 24/7 news cycle. (Full disclosure: I re-purposed some of my blog posts for my Crowdsourcing book, and some material made the  reverse journey as well.) Oh, and about that note of glee in people’s reaction: Really? Oh. Joy. We’ve given another reason for readers to doubt us. Finally, Jonah was part of our tribe, pariah or not. He and I shared an editor at Wired, and another friend edited him at the New Yorker. I never begrudged him his success. I figured—wrongly, perhaps—that he’d earned it. 

So I guess part of me wanted to be convinced yesterday. I wanted to hear a redemption song. The speech, though, was unsatisfying. As more than one Tweet pointed out, he used the very vernacular of the (now suspect) genre of Big Idea journalism to elucidate the reasoning behind his transgressions. As if he himself constituted a fascinating anecdote that could be folded into yet another lucrative speaking gig. Have I already used “Ewww” in this post? 

But worse, by far, was discovering that he had accepted a $20,000 “honorarium” for the apology. Worse yet that the Knight Foundation, one of the consistently most interesting and valuable institutions left in our diminished industry, would offer it to him. I am a defender of speaker fees. (Not incidentally, I also collect them. I usually give around 10 speeches a year, though usually for sums less than what Lehrer was paid). They’re an effective way of transmitting ideas to a large audience, and great fun to boot. I stay on the straight-and-narrow by not tailoring my speeches to individual audiences, or writing articles about the companies that hire me to speak.

But there are times to take the fee, and times—a funeral, say, or just a charity event—when you don’t. This was, without question, Jonah—my friend who, by mere accident of fate, I never met—a time when you don’t. Jesus. 

So I was heartened all around when I read this from one of the students at Northeastern University, where I teach journalism: 

You’ve upset a great many people, and I don’t know if you could ever prove to all of them that you have changed and you’re ready to commit to what journalism really is. But here’s how you can prove that to me: Give the money away. Not only is it wrong for you of all people to accept money from the Knight Foundation, but it makes everything you said seem disingenuous. I could be sorry for a lot of things if it would put my firstborn through her first semester of college.

Sounds about right to me. #ProveItJonah

jayrosen:

Why NPR won’t give air time to the Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan.
No crowds, celebrities, mayhem or clear demands? No coverage. 
From the NPR ombudsman’s blog: 

NPR hasn’t aired a story on the “Occupy Wall Street” protest — now entering its second week — but several of you aired your concerns about the lack of coverage, and Ralph Nader called to say NPR is ignoring the left.. We asked the newsroom to explain their editorial decision. Executive editor for news Dick Meyer came back: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”

Well, at least we have an answer about priorities at NPR that people can argue with. That’s good. That’s transparency.
Prominent people, huh? As opposed to young people giving up their lives to sleep outside in rain, filth and noise and perhaps get maced to make a political statement about accountability on Wall Street…
Disruption? And that differs from an invitation to mayhem how… exactly?
Dick Meyer’s statement should be a widget. Meaning: NPR should keep a rolling list of candidate-for-coverage stories that it is not covering with a clear explanation for why it is not covering them, and then place it around npr.org as a sidebar. 
Photo by David Shankbone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

jayrosen:

Why NPR won’t give air time to the Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan.

No crowds, celebrities, mayhem or clear demands? No coverage. 

From the NPR ombudsman’s blog: 

NPR hasn’t aired a story on the “Occupy Wall Street” protest — now entering its second week — but several of you aired your concerns about the lack of coverage, and Ralph Nader called to say NPR is ignoring the left.. We asked the newsroom to explain their editorial decision. Executive editor for news Dick Meyer came back: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”

Well, at least we have an answer about priorities at NPR that people can argue with. That’s good. That’s transparency.

Prominent people, huh? As opposed to young people giving up their lives to sleep outside in rain, filth and noise and perhaps get maced to make a political statement about accountability on Wall Street…

Disruption? And that differs from an invitation to mayhem how… exactly?

Dick Meyer’s statement should be a widget. Meaning: NPR should keep a rolling list of candidate-for-coverage stories that it is not covering with a clear explanation for why it is not covering them, and then place it around npr.org as a sidebar. 

Photo by David Shankbone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Gambling Comes to Massachusetts: The High Cost of a Low Trade

My new colleague, Dan Kennedy, has a nice post up on the recent decision by Massachusetts state government to bring casino gambling to the state. It took me back, as gambling was once something of a beat for me: I spent the fall of 2005 on a book proposal (aborted when crowdsourcing blew up) about the nasty underbelly of the “gaming” industry. One of the most insidious impacts of gambling’s growth has been the domino effect casinos have on states. Iowans flocking to Illinois riverboats to empty their wallets puts considerable (and understandable) pressure on Iowa legislators to reclaim that “lost” tax revenue. “We have $1.5 billion worth of Massachusetts gamblers today who spend that money just in Connecticut,” Governor Deval Patrick told reporters Wednesday.

Now consider this: Researchers have made significant advances in their understanding of the neuro-chemistry of compulsive gambling (as opp. to its less virulent cousin, “problem gambling.”) Compulsive gamblers are now generally believed to have lower baseline levels of dopamine in their system. They’re thrill-seekers. Innocuous enough, yes? But unlike the general population, every time an addict experiences a dopamine rush it burns a neural pathway in that individual’s brain. This is what creates the ever-deepening sense of withdrawal.

Here’s the amazing part: Pathologists have discovered that from a physiological perspective, gambling and cocaine were indistinguishable triggers. Put bluntly: cocaine (a highly controlled substance) and gambling (a virtually uncontrolled substance) have identical effects on the addict’s brain. Do casinos know this? Duh. Casinos make at least a third of their income from the two or three percent of people who can’t control their impulse to gamble. Naturally, the casinos and slot makers like Bally capitalize on this research to construct gambling experiences perfectly calculated to provide that dopamine rush. The compulsive gambler is sated, just for a moment, before going back to chasing the high. (Here's a great piece from 2004 about the science Bally employs to keep pathological gamblers coming back.)

In researching my book I came across this anecdote: A photo showed a slot jockey holding up a check for $50,000. She looked inexplicably miserable. A friend of sorts—the floorman at the casino—explained why: She was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Fifty grand hardly made a dent.

"In this regard …

Crowdfunding becomes an offensive striking at traditional oligopolistic structures whereby a few white collars decide who gets to make it and who doesn’t, often overlooking huge groups of talented but poorly connected individuals.”

This is about as apt a description of Crowdfunding’s revolutionary appeal as any I’ve read. (From Benjamin Larralde’s post on Crowdsourcing.org. It’s worth reading the entire essay.)

The Missing Link: Creationism and Cryptozoology

"Only God knows for certain whether or not plesiosaurs are still alive. But again, if you believe that the world is millions of years old, then the possibility of a plesiosaur still living would be hard to accept. But if you believe the Bible, that the earth is less than 10 thousand years old, then the survival of the plesiosaur makes a whole lot more sense."                                                       — From "Are Plesiosaurs Still Alive.”

Yes. That does make a lot more sense.

A Transmedia Bibliography

Super rough post published in the spirit of “release early, release often.” I’m hoping to get a few selected people to add to. I’m in the beginning stages of writing a transmedia narrative. As part of the process I’m hoping to build a list of resources, print and otherwise. Any additions, comments, corrections, hugely appreciated.

1) 2003 Article: “Transmedia Storytelling,” by Henry Jenkins. (MIT Technology Review, January, 2003) The single seminal document that coined the term “transmedia storytelling” and put a conceptual framework around a cultural practice still in its infancy.

2) 2006 Book: Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins. (NYU Press, 2006)
Jenkins expanded on the article in his book, which was groundbreaking on several levels but particularly theorized that narrative would continue to migrate onto new platforms and, more to the point, multiple platforms at the same time.

3) 2007 Article: “Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games," by Frank Rose (Wired Magazine, Dec, 2007)

4) 2011 Book: The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, by Frank Rose (Norton, 2011)
Frank is a friend and a colleague from my days at Wired, and another pioneer of the emerging field of transmedia scholarship. This book focuses primarily on the commercial uses of using multiple platforms to develop character and narrative and to engage an audience over time, and through interactivity. But the ideas and case studies contained inside the book have implications for anyone working in the medium.

5) 2011 Blog Post: “Social Media Theater
KATE: This is especially worth reading, as it will only take a few minutes and will give you a quick overview of some of the exploration taking place and the questions I want to explore.