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Jul. 28 2010 — 10:38 am | 61 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Slow news: A movement we should all get behind

Car crash

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We have collectively blundered into a P.T. Barnum media age when being first trumps being accurate. The economic rewards of the Internet flow to those who win the search-engine wars by being fast and furious rather than to those laggards who wait to be accurate and comprehensive. It is as if the motto of today’s journalism has become: “He who dies with the most clicks wins.”

Columnist Walter Shapiro

I have two deadlines so I shouldn’t write this.  And you do, too, so you shouldn’t be reading it. But life flies. Can’t miss stuff. Right?

Click. Lost you. Click. Back, huh?

Forget the humor. As Shirley Sherrod learned first-hand, today’s politics/media vortex sucks us in one minute  and spit us into a different strange landscape minutes or hours later. Everyone is dizzy. But is anyone smarter?

Now Walter Shapiro (in a column passed on by friend and former True/Slanter Jeff Seglin) is offering a solution: Slow news.  News that means something. News that concentrates on what’s important and verifiable rather than throwing stuff on a virtual wall to see what sticks — and gets clicks.

That’s it. Really  do have two deadlines. But enjoy Walter’s piece (linked here and above).

And Walter, do send me the slow news petition to sign.

Jul. 26 2010 — 11:21 pm | 43 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

For traditional news sites, ignoring blog distortions is not an option


Image by USDAgov via Flickr

My colleague Paul Niwa offered this interesting observation today: The media can no longer stand on the sidelines in high-minded silence when a firestorm of spin, packaged as news, races across the blogosphere.

The rules of journalism, in other words, have changed. And there is no going back.

Niwa made this observation in the context of the Shirley Sherrod story.  Several major news outlets, he noted, chose to simply ignore Andrew Breithart, the right-wing propagandist at BigGovernment.com, when he released a video clip carefully edited to make it appear as if Sherrod had made racially charged remarks when she spoke in March to an N.A.A.C.P. chapter.

But in a world in which the public needs reporters more than ever to sort fact from fiction, silence becomes its own form of complicity. That’s why I now believe that The Washington Post was right during the presidential campaign to publish a front-page story about incessant (and false) rumors that Barack Obama was a closet Muslim.

At the time I cheered critics, some of whom posted commentary calling The Post story a contender for the worst piece of political reporting on the campaign trail.  Certainly the piece could have been cast less opaquely. But silence in this case would not have been golden.

The traditional media can’t leave the task of debunking myth to specialty sites such as FactCheck.org any more, even though investigating fabrication doesn’t  come all that naturally to serious journalists. They’d rather spend their limited time investigating real news rather than debunking tall tales.

But the sordid story of Sherrod’s dismissal, without any serious investigation by the administration into the veracity of the charges made against her, suggests media cannot simply ignore what they suspect or know to be untrue.  They need to expose the lie or fabrication — and embarrass those who spread it.

Jul. 26 2010 — 10:32 pm | 133 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

When True/Slant turns out the lights, here’s where you can find me

As those of you who’ve stopped by periodically know, I’m a pretty eclectic blogger. (Read, undisciplined.)

So when True/Slant shuts its doors Sunday, I’ll at least for now split my blogging between two sites, both on blogspot.  When I’m writing about American politics and culture, I’ll post to America in the Age of Obama. When I’m writing about travel or posting more whimsical personal pieces, I’ll put them on Lansonfootprints.  If any of you are gluttons for punishment or want to look up past posts, I’ve been told that True/Slant archives will live on, mine at http://trueslant.com/jerrylanson.

I’ll miss being part of a community of writers and bloggers, and will be on the lookout for opportunities to join one again. In the meantime, however, please do stop by and leave a note occasionally. Out among the millions in the solitary blogosphere, the silence can be deafening.

Jul. 22 2010 — 11:52 am | 275 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Instant news and the sad saga of Shirley Sherrod


Image by USDAgov via Flickr

I’ve been traveling so I’m just now fully focusing on the tawdry tale of Shirley Sherrod’s firing for utterly fabricated reasons.

That right-wing bloggers would totally twist and distort the words of someone, particularly a black public official, to score points and manipulate public opinion doesn’t surprise me. The Beck-Limbaugh school of despicable distortion has driven what passes for political dialogue on the Right in this country for a long time now.

But that a Democratic administration and the NAACP would buy this distortion hook, line and sinker without question, that a government official would be fired with no effort to inquire of her what the facts truly were — that’s a shocker.

A friend sent me an email today with the transcript of the speech that Shirley Sherrod actually gave. I won’t characterize it. You can read it yourself below. But as my friend, a well-respected retired journalist and journalism educator, writes: “Not until I read the full transcript of her remarks this morning … did I realize the depth of the injustice done to Sherrod. Not only was she not racist in the speech in question. She was the very opposite of racist – she was making the case, as a black woman, for the importance of not being racist, for seeing clearly the needs of all people. It is an eloquent and pretty amazing speech … That it was distorted in such cruel, mean ways that were blindly accepted is unbelievable.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has now offered Sherrod a new job. How sweet. In the meantime, I’d like to know who is asking these questions: (1) Why did no one talk to her before she was publicly humiliated and fired as the chief of the department’s rural development office in Georgia? (2) Why did no one ask to see the entire 45-minute speech these out-of-context remarks were drawn from? (3) Why are the Democratic Party and NAACP, of all people, so cowed by the demagogues running the blogosphere for the right?  (4) Why hasn’t Tom Vilsack been asked to resign as Secretary of Agriculture?  (5) Where is Barack Obama in all this?

In case you like me were traveling during this brouhaha, here’s a brief summary.  The uproar began, the Associated Press reports, “When the flame-throwing conservative website BigGovernment.com posted a two-and-a-half-minute video clip of Sherrod’s speech to a rural south Georgia NAACP banquet. The website’s owner, Andrew Breitbart, said it showed that the NAACP condones racist elements, just as the civil rights group accuses the tea party movement of doing.”

So how did the administration react to this “flame-throwing conservative website.”  Even before remarks taped by Bill O’Reilly calling for Sherrod’s resignation ran on Fox News Monday night, the Department of Agriculture had forced her resignation, The New York times reports.  It continues:

By Tuesday, Ms. Sherrod’s forced resignation was the talk of cable television news, and it was becoming clear that the Breitbart video clip had been taken out of context. After seeing the full video, the N.A.A.C.P., which had initially applauded Ms. Sherrod’s resignation, had reversed itself, saying it had been ’snookered’ into believing she had been acting with racial bias.

But what appears to have really happened is that the White House and NAACP had panicked. Sherrod gave her speech in March. Yet in the idiotic, red-hot, every-second-counts environment to which news and politics pander today — and I don’t use that word lightly — everyone seemed to have been scrambling desperately to control damage rather than to gather facts.

Noted a Times editorial: “The administration’s haste to fire Ms. Sherrod was unfair and unseemly. She told of how an agriculture under secretary phoned her to demand she resign instantly via her BlackBerry. The official anxiously cited the likelihood the furor would ‘be on Glenn Beck tonight.’”

I don’t know Shirley Sherrod. But she certainly sounds like a good woman to me. Notes The Times:

The full video of Ms. Sherrod’s March speech to an N.A.A.C.P. gathering in Douglas, Ga., shows that it was a consciousness-raising story. Ms. Sherrod’s father was murdered in 1965 by white men who were never indicted; she spoke about how in response, she vowed to stay in the South and work for change. She married the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a civil rights leader and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Later, as director of a nonprofit group in Georgia formed to help black farmers, long before she went to work for the Agriculture Department, Ms. Sherrod received a request to help a white farm couple, Roger and Eloise Spooner, and she confessed in the speech that the request had given her pause. She did help them, however, and as the fracas over her firing became public this week, the Spooners came to her defense …

Given her background and a roomful of people who heard her original speech, how could top officials in the executive branch of the U.S. government act so hastily and so ignorantly?  And will they learn anything the next time red-hot, manipulative spin passes itself off as news on the blogosphere?  I wonder.

But the world of the Web has its strengths. You can be your own judge. Here are Sherrod’s words, posted on Salon by Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh.  And here is how Sherrod, the woman fired for supposedly racist remarks, ended her speech.

I’ve come to realize that we have to work together and — you know, it’s sad that we don’t have a room full of white and blacks here tonight ’cause we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point as Toni Morrison said race exists but it doesn’t matter. We have to work just as hard — I know it’s — you know, that division is still here, but our communities are not going to thrive — you know, our children won’t have the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and have a good life if we can’t figure this out, you all. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment.

Jul. 22 2010 — 10:04 am | 37 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The name may carry irony, but ‘Charm City’ really is that

Baltimore Inner Harbor

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BALTIMORE, Md. — The nickname, “Charm City,” is served up with a tongue-in-cheek twist in this gritty, no-nonsense, blue-collar town.

Baltimore is a city of simmering summer heat and door-front stoops, cobblestone streets and small shops, neighborhood bars and more than its share of street people. It’s a port city that’s strived to rebuild around its waterfront. It’s a city of brick row houses, some in disrepair, others spruced up down to their brass door knobs.

But something else does stand out about this city: In its distinctive, no bullshit manner, it is charming. Waitresses call you hon. Crossing guards greet you with a friendly hello. School kids wander to community guardens as part of summer camp. And, from her perch amid plastic flowers on her stoop, a great-grandmother down the block from our daughter will regale you with stories of how she bought her place with $200 down and $7-a-month payments during the Depression.

Those of varying ages and races appear to mingle comfortably. And everywhere, residents sports orange and black, the colors of the ever-struggling Baltimore Orioles, the team with a great downtown stadium and awful, cellar-dwelling record.

Our older daughter Betsy moved to Baltimore 11 years ago to enroll in Maryland Institute College of Art. She never returned home, not even for a summer. She’s waited tables, tended bar, run a college cafeteria and now, along with her guy, co-manages Turp’s, a down-home, neighborhood sports bar on Charles Street two blocks south of the train station. Since July 2, she’s been on leave, the mom of newborn Dylan, our grandson.  Baby and mom are doing great, moving at the same casual, hot-climate pace that marks much that’s done in Charm City.

In afternoons and evenings, this has been a chance to bond with Betsy and the baby. But from 8 to noon, before the streets truly sizzle, Kathy and I are giving Betsy a little space and finding new places to walk or read or drink coffee in Baltimore’s neighborhoods.  If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s this. Baltimore is truly as eccentric as Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Anne Tyler makes it sound in her novels. It’s a place of sniffing bow-legged dogs, old men washing pickups, and young and old alike hanging out on narrow streets, talking to friends and watching strangers walk by.

Kathy and I are starting to wonder whether we might consider retiring here someday. But then, we probably should ask Betsy first.

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    About Me

    I teach journalism at Emerson College in Boston. I've coached writers at a dozen newspapers, blogged, written a couple of textbooks and a few columns. I'm also a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News before Knight-Ridder's demise. My passions are politics, travel, music, most things French, and the outdoors.

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