Tom Friedman Has Joined Google’s HR Department

Tom Friedman is moonlighting by writing advertising copy for Google’s Human Resources Department; this talent is on display in his latest Op-Ed titled–appropriately enough “How To Get a Job at Google”. Perhaps staff at the Career Services offices of the nation’s major universities can print out this press release from Google HR and distribute it to their students, just in time for the next job fair.

Friedman is quick to get to the point (and to let someone else do the talking):

At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

True to his word, the rest of the Op-Ed is a series of quotes from “Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies.” Let us, therefore, all fall into supplicant mode.

The How To Get a Job With Us press release is, of course, as much advertisement for the corporation’s self-imagined assessment of its work culture as anything else; how obliging, therefore, for Friedman to allow Bock to tell us Google so highly values “general cognitive ability”, “leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership”, and “humility and ownership”. (In keeping with the usual neoliberal denigration of the university, Friedman helpfully echoes Bock’s claim that “Too many colleges…don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” Interestingly enough, I had thought Google’s workspaces with their vending machines, toys and other play spaces contributed to the “extended adolescence” of its coders. The bit about the “ton of debt” is spot-on though.) 

The use of opinion pages at major national newspapers for corporate communiques, to advance business talking points, to function as megaphones for the suppressed, yearning voices of the board-room, eager to inform us of their strategic perspectives, is fast developing into a modern tradition. This process has thus far been accomplished with some subterfuge, some stealth, some attempt at disguise and cover-up; but there isn’t much subtlety in this use of the New York Times Op-Ed page for a press release.

Friedman’s piece clocks in at 955 words; direct and indirect quotes from Bock amount to over 700 of those. There are ten paragraphs in the piece; paragraphs one through nine are pretty much Bock quotes. Sometimes, I outsource my writing here on this blog to quotes from books and essays I’ve read; Friedman, the Patron Saint of Outsourcing, has outsourced his to Google’s VP of “people operations.”

The only thing missing in this Friedman piece is the conversation with the immigrant cabbie on the way to Google’s Mountain View in the course of which we would have learned how his American-born children were eager to excel in precisely those skills most desired by Google. Perhaps we’ll read that next week.

Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

The Non-Existent Fourth Estate

In his review of W. Sydney Robinson‘s Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead (‘The Only True Throne’, London Review of Books, 19 July 2012), John Pemble writes

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of war upon helpless populations’. He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted’. It’s no wonder he had such a high opinion of himself: Victorian journalists were always being told how important and powerful they were. Bulwer-Lytton’s lines of 1838 – ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great/The pen is mightier than the sword’ – coined a proverb, and by common consent no pen was mightier than that employed by ‘the press’. This 18th-century term, originally used to refer to periodical literature in general, by early Victorian times meant first and foremost the daily papers. In 1828 Macaulay identified the press as ‘a Fourth Estate of the Realm’; by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’

Does the ‘press’ still rule? Can editors still claim the powers that W. T. Stead claimed for himself? It depends, I think, on what we take the referent of ‘press’ to be. If by ‘press’ we are referring to the gigantic media conglomerates that are the result of a never-ending process of corporate mergers of television, newspaper, magazine, and now digital services, then the answer is perhaps still ‘yes.’ The presidential candidate most likely to be elected is the one who can buy himself the most television time; the legislation most likely to pass is that which has been hawked the most successfully by its proponents on that same medium; wars are more likely to be declared if the press can be counted on, as in the case of the Iraq war, to faithfully parrot the talking points of the warmongers; a media frenzy over a politicians scandalous behavior can still bring end an career; a press conference remains the obligatory performative ritual for a disgraced leader; and so on.

But a great deal of what I’m describing above does not sound like what Macaulay had in mind in his ‘Fourth Estate’ formulation. All too often the media behemoth does not monitor the political process as watchdog, but rather manipulates it as active interested partner. How could it be otherwise given its monopolistic nature and corporate ownership?

Note: Pemble’s summation of the non-existence of the Fourth Estate, even in W. T. Stead’s time–unfortunately behind a behind a paywall at the LRB–makes for interesting reading: ‘the political weight of the press had declined as its circulation increased’ i.e., as it became subject to market forces.

2012′s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ‘em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.

Stenographers, Megaphones, or Journalists?

Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook status:

The New York Times gives us ‘news’ on the CTU strike and includes this:

‘Mayor Rahm Emanuel has focused on trying to improve the quality of public education, with a longer school day and more meaningful teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, meanwhile, has been intent on reinstating a 4 percent pay increase, and protecting those who are laid off when failing schools are closed.’

Yup, this is ‘news’ reporting all right. Just the news.

From: (‘Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund is Running Dry‘, NYT, September 16, 2012)

I hope it is clear what the problem is with the ‘reporting’ above.

And over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the too-cool-for-school endeavors of Mr. Peter Thiel. Today, the good folks at Techdirt have a response, which captures most of my central reactions to it.  ( I have a visceral reaction to showboats like Thiel that I will set aside for now.) To wit, it reads like:

[A] retweet of corporate PR.

In short, the New York Times article–by Caitlin Kelly–flirts with reading like a poorly edited press release. And the piece I linked to above–by Mary Williams Walsh–provides evidence too, of having been copied from Rahm Emanuel‘s manifestos.

We are, folks, seemingly confronted with creatures all too common in today’s journalistic world: the faithful stenographer and the eager megaphone.

A little story before I go any further. Some sixteen or so years ago, a good friend’s cousin came visiting to New York City. I met him a few times at parties and dinners and struck up some light conversation about his work at a pharmaceutical company’s press and public relations department. His job was to write up press releases based on material provided to him by company scientists, and then send them on to media outlets like magazines and newspapers.  This being 1996, he did most of his work the old-fashioned way, faxing one-pagers to a list of numbers every day. Crib a little, write a little, fax a lot. He was good at his work, very prolific in the releases he put out, and he was paid well. All seemed hunky-dory.

But all was not well. For as my new acquaintance confessed to me, he was alarmed at the rate at which his press releases appeared in print. Note, I did not say ‘material from his press releases’; rather, quite simply, all too many ‘journalists’ at the receiving end of his fax blasts were simply taking the press release, removing his name, making some minor cosmetic alterations and then simply the running the release as their article. Job done. On to the next ‘story’.

The New York Times has been honest enough to admit that in the past it was part of the cheerleading crew that failed to flag the Bush administration’s ghastly, criminal, war on Iraq. But the lack of critical appraisal shown then seemingly still afflicts the Grey Lady. And they aren’t alone in this abdication of journalistic responsibility either: as responses to the US administration’s ‘lede’ on the Benghazi attacks show, all too many journalists today are simply uncritical purveyors of whatever nonsense is sent their way from corporate and political sources. The next time you read a debate about the indispensability of the journalist in the context of today’s blog-happy world, keep that in mind. (These ramblings  remind me I need to get back to reviewing David Coady‘s excellent What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012), which provides a spirited and philosophically rigorous defense of the independent blogger.)

Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism

Over at the New York Times, Bill Keller, who has been doing his best to make sure it will be hard to take him for a serious  journalist, writes a piece–bursting to the seams with snark–on Wikileaks. Keller thinks he is providing a serious evaluation of the fallout of Wikileaks (most particularly, its leaking of a gigantic corpus of military and diplomatic secrets last year). But Keller–whose trafficking in superficiality has been embarassingly on display for all too long on the NYT’s Op-Ed’s pages–simply cannot be bothered with seriously engaging with the issues that Wikileaks raised. Like: the need for transparency for those in power (as opposed to the privacy rights of individuals); the relationship of journalists with politicians; and most importantly, the all-too-evident eagerness of modern journalists to roll over and play faithful stenographer or megaphone for Wall Street, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Instead, all Keller can do, in a pathetic display of lame attempts at sophomoric snark, is dish out one jibe after the other at Julian Assange. (His evident dislike for Assange tells me that Assange really hit home.) There are, count-em, sixteen paragraphs in Keller’s peice. It’s not till we get to the seventh or eighth paragraph that Keller stops being juvenile and starts to say something substantive.

And it’s not much. Roughly: Wikileaks exposed too much. In response, the always-secretive have become more secretive. And now life is harder for all us Serious Journalists[tm]. So let me get this straight:  in response to exposure,  those ensconced in power have dug their heels in, become more opaque, stepped up their chilling attacks on journalists and potential whistle-blowers, and this is Wikileaks fault? Could Keller be more offensive, more of a fawning lapdog of the powerful and the opaque, if he tried? I don’t think so.

Keller also forgets, in his Why-Did-This-Nonconformist-Crash-This-Comfortable-Politician-And-Media-Garden-Party litany, the role that the rest of his supine media crew played in ensuring that Wikileaks’ impact was minimized. Who took up cudgels on Wikileaks behalf? Did the media give ample column inches and airtime to the case for Wikileaks? Were the corporate-government smear jobs on Wikileaks adequately highlighted? Has the media establishment stepped back from its passionate embrace of those in power and looked a little more closely, a little more aggressively, at their pronouncements? They are the ones in power, remember?

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely.  It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful. The idiotic quoting of the off-base SNL skit, which confuses the privacy of private citizens with the opacity of governmental entities, is perhaps the best indication that Keller has lost the plot. But far more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive.

Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation.