Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.

 

‘A Manual For The Police On How To Conduct Beatings’

Leonard Strickland was beaten to death; in jail, by prison guards. Those who did so, and those who supervised them, were secure in the knowledge that very little would be, and could be, done to bring them to justice. History and the law is on their side.

In 1992, in one of Clarence Thomas‘ earliest cases on the Supreme Court, Hudson v. McMillian, Thomas found himself on the losing side in a 7-2 decision. Keith Hudson, an inmate who had suffered a vicious beating at Angola Prison, had filed suit in a federal court, claiming violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. He won $800 in damages as the judge found he had been beaten “maliciously, unnecessarily, and wantonly.” On appeal, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was “cautiously” affirmed with only Antonin Scalia and Thomas dissenting.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished this case from “those cases where deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health is not a violation unless there is serious injury.” The relevant test was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” (Note the ‘good faith’ exception.)

Thomas, in his dissent, claimed that “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’….The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas based his decision on: the culture and values of the eighteenth century, the history of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying convention debates, and of course, the text of the Constitution. He noted the Supreme Court had, for a very long period in American history, rejected all “conditions of complaint ” claims and not held the cruel and unusual punishment clause relevant to prison conditions. He concluded that “Today’s expansion of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause beyond all bounds of history and precedent is…yet another manifestation of the pervasive view that the Federal Constitution must address all ills in our society….[including] any hardship that might befall a prisoner during incarceration.” Thomas went on to suggest that older cases affirming prisoners’ claims of beatings and torture should be overturned.

Scalia and Thomas lost, but they set the stage for what followed.

In 1996, thanks to extensive lobbying by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, though impatient with prisoners rights claims, for tactical reasons had earlier joined the Hudson v. McMillian majority, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, stating prisoners cannot recover damages under the cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause if there is “no permanent damage.” Prisoners cannot recover for pain and suffering even if the beating is “long, brutal, malicious, and wanton.” The Prison Litigation Reform Act was, as Martin Garbus claims, a “a manual for the police on how to conduct beatings and not get sued.”

The immorality and brutality of our prison system is scaffolded by our nation’s laws.

Note: This post is cribbed from Martin Garbus’ Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law, Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 74-75.

On The Possible Advantages Of Robot Graders

Some very interesting news from the trenches about robot graders, which notes the ‘strong case against using robo-graders for assigning grades and test scores’ and then goes on to note:

But there’s another use for robo-graders — a role for them to play in which…they may not only be as good as humans, but better. In this role, the computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human.

Instructors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been using a program called E-Rater…and they’ve observed a striking change in student behavior…Andrew Klobucar, associate professor of humanities at NJIT, notes that students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written. But [Klobucar’s] students are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words in the course of revising as students who are not offered the services of E-Rater, and the quality of their writing improves as a result…students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is “corrective, even punitive” do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer….

The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback…Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note….interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized….Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game-like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.

Not all interactions with fellow humans are positive; many features of conversations and face-to-face spaces act to inhibit the full participation of those present. Some of these shortcomings can be compensated for, and directly addressed, by the nature of computerized, automated interlocutors (as, for instance, in the settings described above). The history of online communication showed how new avenues for verbal and written expression opened for those inhibited in previously valorized physical spaces; robot graders similarly promise to reveal interesting new personal dimensions of automation’s spaces for interaction.

Bowe Bergdahl and the Military: An Unhappy Marriage

Bowe Bergdahl has always been a very interesting young man. As this profile by Kirk Johnson and Matt Furber makes clear, he carried around with him, as interesting people invariably do, a divided self, one drawn in several different directions all at once. Some psychic currents pulled him in the direction of spirituality and bookish solitude, others toward the outdoors, and yet others toward guns and adventure and traditional models of masculinity. These competing forces were enough to set up internal swirls and eddies, making his outward actions increasingly complicated, and setting him on an almost certain collision course with his employer, that bastion of hierarchical control: the military.

Many young men join the armed forces not because they want to go to war, but because they want to partake of certain benefits and pleasures that only the military can provide. (My father and my brother joined an air force because they wanted to fly. And they didn’t want to fly just airliners.) Some do it so they can travel, some to earn a college degree and marketable skills. And some, like Bergdahl perhaps, sense that the military might allow for a marriage of previously entertained passions. In this case, Bergdahl might have thought he would be able to traverse all manners of new landscapes, in the company of comrades, perhaps fulfilling a humanitarian mission of sorts, all the while equipped with gun and grenade.

We don’t know what caused Bergdahl to desert, or ‘go native’, or lose his bearings and allow himself to be captured. But we can guess at what might have gone wrong out there in Afghanistan. Perhaps, well aware of the histories of US and Afghanistan, and the manner of his use by the US Army, he had become possessed by the feeling that his mission was not as noble or well-defined or morally unambiguous as he might have imagined. More problematically, for a soul as restless as his, so used to questioning and inquiring, he would have found the military’s brooding indifference to his turmoil especially galling. This indifference would have been manifest not just in his superiors and the procedures they followed, but also in his comrades, many of whom would have better internalized the military’s expectations of them, and thus would have wanted nothing more than to complete their tours of duty quietly and return home.

The military, and war, can very often make men like Bergdahl into misfits. They find themselves out of place, literally and figuratively, their moral compass disoriented; even the vaunted camaraderie of the uniformed can seem a shallow cover-up for ugly deeds. They might expect mentorship from their superiors and only find unrelenting control and domination. Unsurprisingly, some snap–as Bergdahl might have.

Bergdahl’s re-entry to civilian life is likely to be very complicated. His older relationships need considerable reconfiguration and he might yet be punished–with varying degrees of punitiveness–by the Army. In any case, when the smoke has cleared, one can only hope he will write about his experiences. I look forward to reading his story.

Maureen Dowd Lays Her Mile-High Bum Trip On Us

It might have been predicted, with probability one, that in the wake of Colorado legalizing marijuana, we would be inundated with tall tales of reefer madness sweeping the state, scouring the slopes and plains of that mountainous land like one of those snowy avalanches that sometimes afflict its more outdoorsy folk.

That moment is now upon us. And leading this undignified panicky charge is a long-time resident of that wasteland of privileged, pompous fatuity, the New York Times Op-Ed page:  Maureen Dowd.

Ms. Dowd, it seems, ate a marijuana-infused candy bar in Denver, and then had a bad time. Or rather, Ms. Dowd consumed an edible item without making the slightest attempt to determine what was in it, a strange move to make given marijuana’s known properties. Perhaps a query at the counter might have been helpful? You know, along the lines of, “Hey, how much pot is in this thing?”, or, perhaps, “How much of this should I eat at one time?”

Imagine traveling to an imaginary land, which has recently legalized an intoxicating substance–let’s call it Shmisky for the time being–and made it available for sale in bottled form. You know, as a grown mature adult, that this substance, if consumed in excess, can cause vomiting, loss of motor and sensory control, and perhaps even death. Yet, consumed in reasonable quantities, it leads to a loosening of inhibition and a pleasant sensation of well-being; many societies, just for that reason, have used it to enliven many forms of social gatherings.

On your first day in town, you walk into a shmaloon–places where shmisky is sold to the paying public–push open its batwing doors, park yourself at the counter, and say, “Garçon, hit me up with your finest shmisky.” Your friendly server pushes over an unlabeled bottle containing a dark liquid, suggesting you might like one of shmisky’s variants, blended with a sweet soft drink; some folks like drinking it in this form to change its taste. You begin consuming glass after glass, tossing them down, digging the sweetness of the additive, not bothering to ask your newly made friend what the potency of the drink is.

Hours later, you awake in the street. Your jaw aches, your wallet is missing, and a foul odor suggests you have thrown up all over yourself. You dimly remember a game of pool, and saying to a a large man with tattoos, “I’ll whip your ass all the way from here to kingdom come.”

You realize you were an idiot. You walk back to your hotel, take a shower, call the police and tell them about your missing wallet. When the police press for details, you shamefacedly admit you consumed an intoxicating substance without bothering to check the quantity you were consuming.  The police snicker, but keeping a straight face, continue to politely and solicitously take down your report.

When you return home, still chastened, you write an article on a national soapbox, telling your readers to not be a colossal idiot like you were.

You’re probably not Maureen Dowd.

Note: On a related note, read my post on Lohocla, the killer drug.

Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

Brett Weiner at The New York Times has put together an amusing Op-Doc titled “Verbatim: What is a photocopier“? As  Weiner describes the provenance of the piece:

In a deposition in Ohio, a lawyer became embroiled in an absurd argument about the definition of a photocopier….The dialogue was so sharp, inane and fully realized that I assumed it was fiction. I traced the deposition back to the Ohio Supreme Court and downloaded hundreds of pages of legal documents from the case. To my pleasant surprise, it was as strange as it was true.

In this short film, I sought to creatively reinterpret the original events….My primary rule was the performance had to be verbatim — no words could be modified or changed from the original legal transcripts. Nor did I internally edit the document to compress time. What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded.

Wiener’s short film is entertaining enough; the conversation is exasperatingly funny.  My first  response to viewing it–on a friend’s Facebook pages–expressed the suspicion that The New York Times‘ readers might rest content with snickering at just legal conversations:

I hope people don’t think – as the New York Times seems to want them to – that this captures some conversational dysfunction unique to the legal profession or to its discourse.

The New York Times, of course,  seems to think it is on to a good thing when it comes to showing us how dysfunctional it thinks legal discourse can be:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim…legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government.

But the dysfunction on display in Weiner’s short film is far more ubiquitous and widespread – it is not confined to the legal sphere. This should be evident from the fact that the conversational interlocutors cannot and will not agree on the meaning of a widely used term; such disagreements are not unknown elsewhere, precisely so many conversations between humans are adversarial (like that between the lawyer and his unfortunate witness). In these settings, the acknowledgment of a shared meaning can  all too often entail the concession of a debating point, a rhetorical disadvantage that may seem unbearable enough to seek refuge in obfuscation. At those moments the failure to agree on meaning is a tactic to retain conversational advantage; it allows for the creation of an ambiguity where definite resolution would lead to unfavorable outcomes. (The witness in the video above is clearly worried he might concede too much by agreeing on a meaning of the term ‘photocopier’).

The most common and painful instance of this occurs in arguments between couples headed for a break-up: as the relationship disintegrates and falls apart, so do the conversations between the former lovers. (Our literature is replete with these; the mastery of a novelist is often displayed in his or her recreation of these agonizing moments.) These become increasingly conflicted and intractable; the shortest, simplest resolutions cannot be arrived at. All too suddenly, a pair of humans who had once imagined their significant other could actually intuit their inner feelings and sensibilities, find themselves unable to make their simplest pleas and requests comprehended and heard. Failures of memory are a well-established trope of these conversations, of course–“You hurt me when you did X?” “But I didn’t do X, so I have no idea what you are talking about”  – but so are failures of commonly understood meanings. We find out that our former lover ascribes meanings to “respect” or “commitment” or “listening” or “fidelity” that we don’t; our best attempts to point out we once shared meanings flounder. My examples are all of terms that are quite complex but as folks engaged in break-ups find out soon enough, you can’t agree about the meaning of just about anything as things get worse.

Failure to agree on meanings is more common than we imagine; it is how we indicate to our interlocutors we are not full, or even partial, participants in our conversation; it is how we indicate that our ends are different and will be achieved in our own distinctive ways.