Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Charlie Mackesy's illustrated book explores love, fear, acceptance and belonging. It's a perfect anecdote for our anxious age.

The world is loud.

Our media is loud. Our entertainment is loud. Our environment is loud. Our politics measure on a scale of one-to-Trump with rageclicks in between.

Think, then, of an escape that’s quiet like falling snow.

My daughter introduced me to a book like this. She’s two. Her daycare gave it to us when her sister was hospitalized. It’s a fairly big book with somewhat abstract line drawing and aphoristic writing. We put it on a shelf thinking she might be ready for it a few years down the road. But she found it and has me read it to her most days of the week. Here’s a typical page.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

It’s a sweet book. If it existed a few years ago, my cynicism would have discarded it. Now that I’m old(er) with two children, and the older curls up in my lap when I read to her, it hits me in the feels.

Here’s the beginning of a theme that runs for a few pages.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is an exceptionally gentle book for an exceptionally loud age. Its quiet writing follows four slightly bemused characters as they explore love, fear, acceptance and belonging.

It’s also amusing in its hushed asides.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

There’s a generosity here that I haven’t come across in a long time. If you find life chaotic, consider giving it a read.

Consider too, reading it with someone, awkward as that may be. A two-year-old is good company. So too a twenty-two or eight-two-year-old.

In a world that’s angry and shouty – in a world where there is so much to be angry and shouty about – this book provides a few moments of quiet reflection that lets us breathe again.

That’s the quiet this book speaks.

An Awkward Transition

I write this as a Covid outbreak makes its way through the Trump White House, as the country still doesn’t have a handle on the coronavirus, as millions are laid off from jobs that aren’t coming back, as an election looms a few weeks off, as protests continue around the country, as 2020 continues to rear its ugly head.

I write from a little corner in my unfinished basement. I set this up as my office seven months ago when the coronavirus shut the world down. Far as I can tell, it will probably still be my office seven months from now. The best I can say about it is that I can hear my daughters through the ceiling; and if I want to take a break during the day, I can step outside and pick weeds which – if you haven’t given it a try – is actually kind of calming.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

My family lives in Rhode Island’s rural west. We moved here last winter from New York City, settling in about a week before sheltering in place began.

We don’t necessarily experience the national drama in our neck of the woods. Instead, we read and watch from afar as the country stumbles along in what, hopefully, is the final throes of whatever it is you want to call these last number of years. Let our national body give a final spasm to shake its fever and then let’s get better, together. That’s hoping for the best, at least.

That’s not to say what happens elsewhere doesn’t happen here. After closing for the spring and summer, the historic inn down the street finally shut down. So too the local fabric store. I bump into my neighbors while doing yard work. They too are furloughed, or somewhat working from home, or wondering what comes next, and tracking whether their kids will be in school, out of school, or some combination of the two.

Some yards have Trump signs. Some go for Biden. A conspicuous majority have neither but instead post placards supporting favored candidates in our local races. They’re tired, I think, and don’t want to be hassled for signaling their intent on a national scale. It’s all just… too much. At least that’s what I think I think.

A small ice cream shop on the corner of a modest Main Street a few towns over shut down for the summer. They tired of the righteous refusing to abide by social distancing and mask wearing when placing orders for their cones. The final straw came when two grown men harassed teenage servers for asking them to follow store rules. Freedom, as we’ve seen expressed throughout the country, brought to us by aggrieved Kens and performative Karens.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

I wonder whether the social and economic impact of these small town examples resonate further than the vast scale of shutdowns and closures we’re seeing in places like New York City. Instinctually, I hypothesize yes.

When there are only a few things of this and that, and you take some away, you’re removing a large percentage of what didn’t exist in large numbers in the first place. Out here in the country, there aren’t many alternatives once something is gone. Then again, city business are shuttering at scale and the city is a much less forgiving place.

I also wonder what seven and ten and fifteen-year-olds think of all this. Kids old enough to have various senses of what’s going on be it coronavirus or the protests and counter protests surrounding social justice, police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder what they think of Trump and his voting conspiracies that darken the upcoming election, threaten our sense of democracy and give pause to any hope that we might just yet make it out of all this.

Do they even think of the upcoming election? What do they think of the actors playing out the drama? Do they think about what America is, or was, before all this. “All this,” after all, is their normal. Depending on their age, there’s little – if any – point of reference to before times. Everything that is, just is. That’s the way it is, and was, far as they mostly know. When, I wonder, will those of us older think the same.

And, finally, I think of how an election fatalism spawned by the president’s ongoing assault on mail-in voting now spreads through the country. We collectively know a shit show awaits us. We bide our time. We listen to anger. We rageclick. We doomscroll. We rinse. We repeat.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

It reminds me a bit of the lead-up to the Iraq war under president Bush. Then too we had an administration warping reality, flooding the field with fictions and alternative facts that required those opposing them to prove impossible negatives. Prove there are no weapons of mass destruction. Prove that voter fraud won’t take place.

The only real difference is the speed of the media apparatus churning all this. Back then it was a credulous media backstopped by Fox News, talk radio, influential blogs and email threads. It all felt fairly instant but you could still sneak a few hours of sobriety into your headspace.

Now, social media kindles animosities by the minute, conspirators thrill when the Fox constant launders their latest misinformation, and networks of second and third tier actors eagerly amplify it all for a man hermetically sealed off from humanity but all too ready to infuse his invective back into the system. It’s a feedback loop, perfected.

The rest of “normal” media is more skeptical of what’s happening now than what happened then. Unfortunately, they aren’t built for times like these. Their tools and operational standards prevent them from calling crackpot ideas and actual crackpots by name. They’re either overwhelmed by the volume or frame what’s happening as differences of opinion.

While there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, they report, some believe differently. And on they go, amplifying nonsense under the distant gaze of an objectified journalistic objectivity until the nonsense becomes a reality that the rest of us have to deal with.

Both sides of the story need be told, they tell us. Besides, he’s the president, they tell us.

Yes, but he’s a crackpot with years of receipts to demonstrate the point.

The mind races. We could go on. This is the bane of our current American age. The mind can always race because we can always go on.

Lucky are those living in saner worlds where media and politics isn’t so loud, where the stakes aren’t so high. Lucky are those living in stable, functioning countries. We once thought we were among you.

Which makes The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse just a little more important than it otherwise may be. It’s a book that gives us 30 minutes of sanity in an otherwise insane world. This quiet shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s a generous gift for the anxious among us. And who among us isn’t anxious these days?

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
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The future of propaganda is now. We're watching it with China's media response and social media control of information related to the Hong Kong protests.

One of the earliest ponderables we’re asked to consider concerns issues of observation and perception. Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound when no one’s around?

A 21st century media variant runs like so: If an event takes place and no one shares it, did it really take place at all?

Consider China, where tensions between pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and the Chinese government continue to rise. Just this week masked assailants attacked protestors and police fired rubber bullets at them.

That’s what we see and hear on the outside. Inside China, the story is different. There, the country’s propaganda and censorship apparatus works to shape narratives and keep information from the public. The result is that not much is known in the country about why protests are taking place, only that they’re an affront to China and its One Country, Two Systems policy.

Quartz recently published a video demonstrating how the Chinese actively bury news coming out of Hong Kong. It’s a fascinating look at the country’s censorship technology. It includes removing social media posts containing specific words and phrases (common and well known); removing single messages (be it a video, image or text) from within people’s private message threads (less well known and eyebrow raising); and flooding the information field with counter-narratives (a common propaganda tactic).

View on YouTube

The attempt is full state control of the information ecosystem. It begins with disappearing content, continues at scale with state narratives, and continues by gaslighting those who say a story or event runs differently.

Take the state-run China Daily newspaper. Visit its web site and the stories about Hong Kong are few. Those you do find call the non-violent protestors “radical rioters” who must be “smacked down“. A far cry from what the rest of the world has seen and watched in international coverage.

China’s official channels decontextualize the protests. Mainland Chinese watching the country’s most popular news program aren’t told why there are protesters, only that there are protesters, and no matter what the protests might be about, a silent majority supports China’s Hong Kong policies.

Aside from this, the protests don’t really register as news. One of the few Hong Kong-related items on the China Daily home page is a special advertorial on doing business in Hong Kong.

Combine the non-coverage with the country’s ability to disappear social media posts about the protests and, arguably more sinister, its ability to silently block individual messages within chats between individuals and you see how effective traditional propaganda becomes when combined with cutting edge digital censorship.

Video Still, What Hong Kong's Protests Look Like from Inside China, via Quartz.
Video Still, What Hong Kong’s Protests Look Like from Inside China, via Quartz.

Into the information vacuum go the words, images and narratives of the state. A 2017 study estimates that the Chinese government fabricates about 448 million social posts and comments each year.

If mainland Chinese can’t see the protests, don’t hear about the protests and can’t share information about the protests, what does it mean to say that that they’re taking place?

Primary in the activist’s toolkit is that someone, somewhere bears witness and passes information to a larger collective that can then take action based on that information. What happens when the ability to do so is silently stripped away?

What we see in China are the early years of a state’s attempt to digitally root out that capability. More, we’re watching the attempt to do it surgically and at scale.

Some of the techniques might seem blunt or crude at this time but it’s a given that they’ll only improve moving forward. That other authoritarian states are watching, learning and looking to get their hands on the technologies and methodologies to do the same is also a given.

Give it a generation. As the tools grow more subtle and difficult to perceive, the state’s ability to simulate reality and codify opinion will grow more complete. Reality won’t be televised. Instead, and unfortunately, it will be delivered by bots and trolls, fakes deep and shallow. With it, the state’s will have an ever growing capability to gaslight and silence those that disagree.

We’re watching how this new censorship tech works in Hong Kong, one protest at a time.

Featured image – Detail, Fables and Fairy Tales by Filip Zrnsević.

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Where goes truth when a new Gallup poll indicates American trust in the media is (yet again) at an all-time low?

Back in 2009, Michael Hirschorn, reflecting on the first decade of the 21st century for New York Magazine, wrote that we live “in a media age that lacks a central authority to referee reality” where there’s a “nagging sense that the agents of chaos are now so diffuse and powerful that no central authority can counteract them”.

Welcome to 2016 where the question isn’t whether we live in a fact free age but whether anyone can mediate truth from fiction.

Fox News’ Chris Wallace rejects the notion that it’s his responsibility to fact-check the candidates when he moderates one of the upcoming presidential debate. “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad.” he told Howard Kurtz in a recent interview. But, if not journalists, then who?

A new Gallup poll indicates American trust in the media is (yet again) at an all time low. This is quite a blow for a journalists who believe, ostensibly, that they work for the public, that their job is, indeed, in the public interest and that “truth squadding” is part and parcel of their work.

Simply, if people don’t trust “the media” as arbiters of the truth, can or will they trust anyone outside their information cocoon? Long term trends on American faith in institutions suggest no. Similarly, studies show that people not only reject information that counters their beliefs, but will double down on those beliefs despite the fact that they’re based on falsehoods.

As a societal – and psychological – issue there’s no real solution to navigating truth and establishing basic facts. Yes, newsroom fact-checking is and will continue to be exceptionally valuable and important but if the audience distrusts those doing this important work, more needs to be done.

One starting point would be for our broadcast media to stop enlisting partisans as voices of authority in their segments and instead promote, dare I say, actual experts on the issues being debated. It’s a small step but could move an important needle despite distrust in experts to begin with.(1)

That said, let’s travel back to 2004 when Jon Stewart pleaded much the same to the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire. “You’re hurting America,” he said at the time. The same holds true today.

Image: American trust in the media, 1997 – 2016. Data via Gallup.

Americans Hate the Media originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project

  1. Yes, I realize there can be a disconnect here where a public that lacks faith in institutions will also lack faith in experts. We saw this in England with coverage of Brexit and we see it in the United States as well.

    I’d argue though that a primary reason for this distrust is because of the prominence our news organizations give to strict partisans.

    In this framing, experts are just another distrustful voice that viewers see and hear. That is, because of the he-said, she-said, partisan production structure employed by our media outlets, the expert is positioned to fail.

    He or she is just another “voice” that is presenting information we should be skeptical of.

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A new study shows how little we know about current and historical events. This affects strategies for how we understand and process the news.

A new study by the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic outlines how much American university students don’t know about the world around them. If we were grading, most of us would get a solid F (PDF).

Earlier this year, CFR and National Geographic commissioned a survey to gauge what young people educated in American colleges and universities know about geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics…

…On the knowledge questions asked, the average score was only 55 percent correct. Just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal pass—66 percent correct or better. Just over 1 percent—17 of 1,203—earned an A, 91 percent or higher. Respondents exhibited limited knowledge of issues critical to the United States. Only 28 percent of respondents knew that the United States is bound by treaty to protect Japan if it is attacked. Just 34 percent knew this about South Korea. Meanwhile, only 30 percent knew that the constitutional authority to declare war rests in the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

Basic conditions and realities about the world are also relatively poorly understood. Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States. However, only 34 percent of respondents recognized this fact; 49 percent said it was false.

Our assumption is older folk wouldn’t do any better.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss, though. We see this first-hand as we tumble through our current fact-free presidential election.

Interesting is a piece from the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan who reported this weekend on various news literacy programs and efforts that target our information environments.

“‘There’s a cacophony of untrue information out there,’ and it’s drowning out what’s dependable and accurate,” Leonard Downie Jr., former Washington Post executive editor, tells her. While we have more information at our disposal, she writes, we’re not better informed. Instead, we trend towards news that fits our biases or throw our hands up trying to make sense of the barrage of “facts” that come our way.

Sullivan name-checks programs and efforts — the News Literacy Project, The Lamp and the Center for News Literacy among them — that are doing serious, heavy-lifting for younger news consumers but more needs to be done. What needs to be done, though, is a difficult nut to crack when we exist in an age where spin, half-truths and outright fabrications cross our daily social feeds.

Ignorance has consequences. As Sullivan writes, “Citizens who don’t know much, and don’t care to find out, will get the government they deserve.”

Let’s deserve better. As the Council on Foreign Relations, National Geographic study shows, we’re not very good with current or historical events. We need to help ourselves help ourselves.

At the very least, check in with the likes of Factcheck.org, Politifact or The Washington Post’s own Fact Checker as the election draws closer. More important, dig through claims, and discover how, if and where they’re sourced before passing them along.

Getting to Know What We Do Not Know originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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What should the media call an armed group that takes over federal property and makes political demands? Oregon gives us a chance to consider.

What should we call an armed group that takes over federal property and makes political demands? “Armed group” is a start. So too “militants,” “insurgents” and “armed insurrectionists.” Some want even stronger language: “terrorists” or “domestic terrorists” is their choice.

The New York Times originally called the group behind the weekend takeover of a federal building in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon “armed activists,” while The Washington Post added a modifier (“armed anti-government activists”) before settling on “occupiers” in its initial reporting.

While newsrooms wrestle with the semantics, “militia” continues as a go-to term. (USA Today: Oregon militia takeover: How did we get here?; MSNBC Militia members occupy Oregon refuge, vow to stay for ‘years’; Al Jazeera: FBI seeks peaceful end to Oregon militia occupation; CBS News: FBI takes helm of efforts to end militia occupation.)

Even though “militia” is significant in the American lexicon (a 2011 FBI statement explains why the agency includes “militia extremists” as a domestic terror threat), critics are unsatisfied, find the word too soft and want more forceful language used.

Meantime, the Associated Press is moving away from the term but is doing so, it says, to bring clarity to its international audience.

“We’re trying to avoid terms like ‘militia’ and ‘militiamen,'” writes Tom Kent, Standards Editor for the Associated Press. “AP content must be clear for readers around the world, and ‘militiamen’ may be confusing — readers might think that the people involved are members of a government-sanctioned paramilitary force who are rebelling against government authority.”

Kent writes that the AP has settled on “‘armed men,’ ‘armed ranchers’ and so forth” to describe those who took over the wildlife refuge.

And so forth?

Listen to The Washington Post’s Janell Ross and her take on early reporting of the event:

[No] one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation — and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die — the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.

Inherent in the critique is recognition of a double standard. We don’t need to close our eyes to imagine very different coverage if, as Vox notes, “black or Muslim protesters with guns took over a government building instead of a predominantly white group.”

Over on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall describes the somewhat delicate coverage of the building occupation as both a “mainstreaming of violent right wing extremism” and a type of “white privilege performance art“:

[I]f we think about it, we all know that it doesn’t get a very tough response because the country just takes it for granted that white people in the interior West just act weird and do stuff like this.

Which, sure, partially true, but more a reflection of the media bias employed when other protest groups in the US and abroad are covered. See, for example, Joshua Keating’s satirical take on how the US media would cover the takeover had it occurred in a foreign country. (“An armed rebel group has seized control of a government building in the country’s sparsely populated northwest frontier territories.”)

Which isn’t to say that we should be throwing around stronger language, specifically the “terrorist” tropes bandied about (mostly) playfully with #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS.

As Brian Beutler writes in The New Republic, the group’s behavior is “obnoxious, illegal, and incredibly reckless.” But, he adds:

It’s also quite different from, say, shooting several people in a Planned Parenthood clinic to scare women out of having elective abortions. To paraphrase Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican primary field, these guys are radical, but they aren’t terrorists.

Coming at this from a different angle is Slate’s Jamelle Bouie who writes about the tempered law enforcement response to the occupation.

Again, critics charge that the response would be drastically different if the armed group was non-white, and especially if it was an identifiably Muslim group.

But, argues Bouie, suggesting that this group should be treated with the same aggression and force that we saw in, say, Ferguson, misses an opportunity:

[W]hy won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer, goes the argument, violence is acceptable.

But that’s perverse. If there’s a question to ask on this score, it’s not why don’t they use violence, it’s why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals? If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.

The same argument extends to language. While we should hold newsrooms accountable for how they describe all groups, and the double standards that emerge when they do so, the solution isn’t the amplified and hysterical labels we so often see.

It’s smarter, more thoughtful, and more nuanced reporting than we so often see.

Language, Militias and Occupation originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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What do publishers and news consumers do in a world of infinite choice?

There’s a game that a group of people have been playing for the last few years. Be the last person in America to know who won the Super Bowl. Unplug both online and off, avoid people and places that might clue you in, and see how long you can last. This year, some fell within an hour. Others barely made it a few days before the news presented itself.

The game is an exercise in “intentional ignorance” as The New Yorker put it back in February. Through it, we learn how pervasive information is. We learn that whether we seek it or not, news finds us.

This is how we generally “know” things we haven’t consciously read, listened to or watched, such as who won the Super Bowl; that an earthquake happened somewhere; that a Gwenyth Paltrow is trying to survive on food stamps. Information is ambient. We don’t just brush up against it. We exist within it.

Publishers still struggle to make their way through an information saturated world but generally gravitate toward settled strategy: Bring the news to the social and mobile platforms where people already are. Become a signal or a beacon on those platforms. Become the trusted someone an audience can hold onto. Trust that they’ll share.

Some of this is clever. For example, the BBC covered India’s elections and launched an Ebola information service in West Africa with chat apps.

Some of it’s simply puzzling, like now, where the new, new thing being considered is to hand the keys over to Facebook and publish news natively on that platform.

And some is settling on a more subtle, design approach. As Amy Webb recently pointed out, it’s not just information that’s ambient. Attention is ambient too. That is, we have repetitive, mindless moments over the course of a day where we fiddle somewhat unconsciously with our devices. Publishers can harness these moments, she thinks, with better material and interface design.

Apple’s new watch uses haptic, or tactile, feedback for information prompts which is neat until, perhaps, it becomes annoying. We’ll find out more as the New York Times experiments with its one sentence stories.

All this is a relatively straightforward overview of how publishers can — or intend — to reach audiences. But flip the equation and ask how news consumers make their way through the ambience. How they find new stories, sources and a bit of joy in the serendipity of discovery. The question isn’t just how do we find and read the news when there’s infinite choice; but how do we organize our media diets to fit the flow of our otherwise busy lives. For many, it’s ingesting small bits because that’s all the time available. Many also try to make space for more substantial meals. The question though is how?

Yes, there are the Flipboards, Instapapers and Feedly’s that attempt to solve the particular issues of news and information everywhere. Facebook is ever tinkering with their algorithms in an ongoing attempt to surface relevance. While worthwhile tools, apps and algorithms alone won’t solve personal, individual news consumption and understanding.

Instead, the solutions are more methodological. That is, how in a news ambient world do we create habits that enable deeper understanding of the issues important to us and bring a bit of joy as we do so? How do we understand tools and services offered to us so we can leverage those that are best for our particular needs? How, at root, do we become more literate?

A version of this originally appeared in The Future Journalism Project.

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We love books but there’ve been too many for about 500 years now.

Over at The New Republic, William Giraldi explains why both readers and writers need books:

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction—there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader—as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves. The personal library also heaves in reproach each time you’re tempted to grab the laptop and gypsy from one half-witted Web page to another. If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.

But it’s not just books we need, says Giraldi, we need physical books that we can touch and smell. He doesn’t say this as a technophobe, and he doesn’t lay claim to various studies that say we absorb and understand more from the physical page than the digital screen. Instead, Giraldi argues, “like so many literary points worth emphasizing, [this] is an aesthetic one — books are beautiful.”

There’s something, he suggests, in sitting among your collection that inspires. Giraldi quotes Sven Birkerts: “Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.”

But what if there are simply too many books these days? Forget digitization and the volumes previously out of print but now available. This is a problem that dates back to the 15th century when the printing press was in full swing and 20 million books were printed in Europe.

We live – and have lived – in a world of “overproduction,” argues Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books.

Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems from this very space into which I am writing.

Inevitably, this tends to diminish the seriousness with which I approach any particular book. Certainly the notion that these works could ever be arranged in any satisfactory order, or that any credible canon will ever emerge, is gone forever. I’m disoriented and don’t expect things to be otherwise any time soon.

Disorientation, an inability to create a canon, cultural critics would call that a decentralization — or disintermediation —of authority. A subset of them would argue this is a good thing and that we live in an age of cultural negotiation.

But if there are too many books, maybe we shouldn’t read them at all. Maybe it’s easier – perhaps better – to just read reviews and get the gist.

“[W]e’ve always been shallow readers,” writes Noah Berlatsky and we shouldn’t fret that our digital screens amplify that. Our best way forward is to skim through writing about writing “and have some idea about it.”

And here’s where the Internet may truly become a boon for culture. Where else are you constantly encouraged, and even required, to talk creatively and endlessly about works you have not really read, and things you know little about?

For Berlatsky, books are a “cultural network” where it’s more important to know what a book’s generally about and how it relates to others “than to know exactly what’s in that one book in particular.”

Or, as Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, puts it, “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system.”

Harsh, for the book lover, to be sure. Harsh for the author too.

The book here becomes a mere data point on a larger system and understood in aggregate. It becomes, in a sense, mere metadata. Or, in a world of media everywhere, where we have what seems like infinite choice over both form and content, the book is simply being relegated to one of many choices.

Clay Shirky alluded to this a few years back:

“Having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace…. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.

Again, decentralization, disintermediation and cultural negotiation. This time not within a set of cultural objects, but at a macro level concerning what objects our culture holds valuable. We may not like the result but can’t deny the reality.

Over at The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani writes:

A UC San Diego report published in 2009 suggests the average American’s eyes cross 100,500 words a day—text messages, emails, social media, subtitles, advertisements—and that was in 2008. Data collected by the marketing company Likehack tells us that the average social media user “reads”—or perhaps just clicks on—285 pieces of content daily, an estimated 54,000 words. If it is true, then we are reading a novel slightly longer than The Great Gatsby every day.

Of course, the word “read” is rather diluted in this instance. You can peruse or you can skim, and it’s still reading. I spoke with writer and avid reader John Sherman about his online reading habits. “Sometimes, when I say I read an article,” said Sherman, “what I actually mean is I read a tweet about that article.” He is hardly alone in this.

We no longer read for knowledge, she writes, but instead consume whatever and wherever in a perpetual search for information.

The book holds out promise for more though. Let’s leave it with Giraldi:

Dedicated readers are precisely those who understand the Socratic inkling that they aren’t smart enough, will never be smart enough—the wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books. Anthony Burgess once suggested that “book” is an acronym for “Box Of Organized Knowledge,” and the collector is pantingly desperate for proximity to that knowledge—he wants to be buffeted, bracketed, bulletproofed by books.

Image: Sucked In And Drawn Along, by Lotus Carroll.

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Republicans hear what they want to hear. Think everyone supports them.

The government shutdown came and went this week as some Republicans finally convinced other Republicans that threatening a global economic cataclysm isn’t the best thing to pursue.

Good on them, we suppose, but what we saw during this latest generated crisis was the filter bubble in full effect.

While the concept specifically refers to how algorithms increasingly inform what information we receive and are exposed to, it can be broadened to include the active choices we make with our media diets, who we choose to friend or follow on our social networks and how willing we are to accept intellectual dissonance when reading, watching or listening to views that run contrary to our own.

The danger of the bubble, of course, is that once inside we only hear information we want to hear. Sympathetic to the shutdown and unworried about the consequences of defaulting on the debt? Fox and friends reframed it for you. This wasn’t a shutdown, it was more of a pleasant “slimdown.”

Observations about the echo chamber the shutdown’s leaders were operating within came from both left and right. Let’s start left with Salon’s Alex Pareene:

What’s funny about all of this, though, is how much it just reinforces the insane bubble that all of these people — conservative members of Congress, conservative media people and professional conservative activists — live their entire lives in. They are all talking to each other, and only to each other. The fact that the conservative position is deeply unpopular, the fact that conservative strategy is incoherent and self-defeating, none of that is reaching them. John Boehner and Ross Douthat know what’s going on. Rep. Tim Huelskamp only knows what he reads at RedState and what he hears from people who only read RedState.

Over on the right was National Review’s Robert Costa:

[S]o many of these [conservative] members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn’t exist in a normal environment.

In a study of the increasingly obvious, Pacific Standard reported on the increasingly obvious. Namely, how polarizing media – our intellectual cocoons – give us respite from an outside, cruel world. This is why we gravitate toward our left/right media, silly and outrageous as they may be.

“The data suggests to us that outrage-based programming offers fans a satisfying political experience,” write Tufts University Researchers. “These venues offer flattering, reassuring environments that make audience members feel good. Fans experience them as safe havens from the tense exchanges that they associate with cross-cutting political talk they may encounter with neighbors, colleagues, and community members.”

Put another way: Our day to day is hard. When we come home we want to kick back, relax and hear people stroke, if not necessarily our ontological egos, our day to day political ones. Twenty-first century life is a hassle. When a day comes and goes we want somewhere, someplace, that simply lets us rest peacefully in our beliefs.

Take it away, Pacific Standard:

In other words, being a part of, say, the community of Rush Limbaugh listeners—an identification talk-show hosts regularly attempt to instill in their fans—is a comforting social experience. It’s a way of feeling like part of a community that shares your values…

…Discussing politics with your colleagues or neighbors comes with the fear of saying something unacceptable, and subsequently being excluded from the next barbecue or water-cooler conversation. In contrast, “the comfort zones provided by the shows we studied present no such risk,” [the researchers] write. “In fact, they offer imagined and, in some cases, tangible social connections.”

The New York Times’ David Carr started to think about this last week. Much has been written about how our gerrymandered congressional districts has lead to extremism. Carr writes that our collective media habits are gerrymandered too:

The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse…

…As I flipped through cable channels over the last week, the government shutdown was viewed through remarkably different prisms. What was a “needless and destructive shutdown” on MSNBC became a low-impact and therapeutic “slim-down” over at Fox News.

But cable blowhardism would not be such a good business if there hadn’t been a kind of personal redistricting of news coverage by the citizenry. Data from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on trends in news consumption released last year suggests people are assembling along separate media streams where they find mostly what they want to hear, and little else.

But more media, and more diverse media, won’t solve any of this, argues Reuters’ Jack Shafer. Instead, he writes, Americans are purposefully, willfully and perpetually, perhaps, political imbeciles. That’s the way we roll.

Despite greater access to information than ever before. Despite all the news apps at our fingertips, Shafer cites a 2012 Pew study showing that “total minutes of daily news consumption between 1994 and 2012 is down for all age groups.”

Channeling Ilya Somin and his book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Shafer goes economic and concludes that collective ignorance isn’t due to a lack of information supply. Rather, it’s demand. Politics is too confusing. Our sense of belonging to and being able to affect the system is too obtuse. We’d rather watch football.

And so here we are. A debt crisis averted by punting it down the road. The current budget deal between Democrats and Republicans lasts until mid-January. Then we’ll be back with partisans hunkered in their bubbles while the rest of us try to grab some sanity in the next shiny thing.

Too negative a take? Facebook researchers report that our networks aren’t echo chambers at all but instead expose us to more varied opinions than what I write might lead you to think. I’m not buying it.

A version of this article original appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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Politico complains that Obama plays the press. Same as it ever was: Every president's played the press.

Politico’s Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen came out with a longread yesterday about a rift between the Obama administration and the Washington press corp. Specifically, the issue is about access to Obama. More specifically, about how the White House has conducted few interviews with establishment media.

In Vandehei’s and Allen’s eyes, Obama is a media “puppet master” who, along with his staff, “has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).”

The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

The story is one of disruption. That is, disruption of an establishment press corp that feels slighted that the White House can – and does – go around them with its messaging by using social media and content marketing strategies. But there’s also a sense of entitlement permeating the piece.

For example, for all their handwringing that the president hasn’t given “an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years,” Vandehei and Allen point out the Obama does give frequent interviews. Matter of fact, 674 in his first term, over 500 more than George W Bush gave in his first term.

But these interviews aren’t with the right people. Instead, “they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.” Reporters who, in their estimation, would ask the tough and unpredictable questions. (See Allen’s  tough and unpredictable questions for George W Bush above from his 2008 one on one interview with the president.) 

And then there’s the complaint that the administration is creating content and taking that directly to the public rather than going through press intermediaries:

Still, the most unique twist by this White House has been the government’s generating and distributing of content.

A number of these techniques were on vivid display two weekends ago, when the White House released a six-month-old photo of the president shooting skeet, buttressing his claim in a New Republic interview that he fires at clay pigeons “all the time” at Camp David…

…The government created the content (the photo), released it on its terms (Twitter) and then used Twitter again to stoke stories about conservatives who didn’t believe Obama ever shot a gun in the first place.

All of which is to say, And?

In an age where everyone’s a publisher and everyone’s a brand, it would be surprising for a presidency not to employ these tools. In fact, they follow a long, if frustrating, history of political stagecraft and media manipulation.

In “Stagecraft and Statecraft: Advance and Media Events in Political Communication”, Dan Schill writes:

There is a complicated relationship between newsmakers and the journalists that cover their activities. [Philip] Seib reviews this relationship: “The journalists try to gather information, the politicians try to shape the news. This process tends to become a struggle for control over the information. Reporters can gather plenty of newsworthy material on their own, but they also need some cooperation from the candidates and staff members. Any major campaign will offer a rich diet of media events, but real news is often in short supply.” While the relationship can be adversarial, it is largely symbiotic – what is good for the candidate is usually also what is good for the reporter. Both campaigns and the news media want a compelling narrative, compelling pictures, and large audiences… Reporters rarely deviate from the news narrative that has been established. Especially at the presidential level, politicians can control the rules of engagement and “freeze out” reporters who do not follow those rules. According to [Tim] Cook, “Reporters, dependent on presidents’ cooperation, end up prisoners in the all but hermetically sealed pressroom, reluctant to roam far from their connection to fame and fortune in the news business. Instead of encouraging innovation and enterprise, the White House breeds concern among reporters about missing out on the story that everyone else is chasing.” Members of the news media should recognize this relationship and understand the factors that allow newsmakers to exploit this relationship, control the news agenda, and receive favorable coverage.

Go back to Timothy Crouse’s 1972 book, “Boys on the Bus,” about that year’s presidential campaign and reporters are complaining about “media events” and message control.

Or fast forward to the Reagan years and press complaints about Reagan’s mastery of political television and the importance of image over substance and you have, largely, the same phenomenon. It’s just different technology these days.

This isn’t to suggest that sit downs with the president aren’t important. They most certainly are. But the tug and pull between administrations and journalists is well known and well understood. It’s the journalist’s job to inform the public and if the only way they can do that is to get the coveted presidential interview they’re not doing that job well.  

To blame techniques such as social outreach and content creation by non-media actors is to cling to a traditional information flow that media modernity has long eclipsed.

We’re well into a new day and a new age. Instead of griping about it, change your tactics. There’s a whole lot of important reporting to do.

Related, Part 01: The Seven Secrets of Political Theater.

Related, Part 02The Staging of a Photo-Op.

Meantime: Here are selected questions by Politico’s Mike Allen during his 2008 interview with George W. Bush, as posted to Twitter by Gawker’s John Cook. Complete interview transcript via Politico.

About

A version of this article originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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How news organizations are covering fact and fiction in the 2012 presidential campaign.

While much is being said today about the veracity of Paul Ryan’s convention speech, if you turned off your set after listening to the talking heads last night you’d come away with the belief that this, by far, was: The. Best. Speech. Ever.

I had the unfortunate displeasure of listening to Politico’s deeply cynical panel that appeared late night on CSPAN. It was a good half hour of brushing aside the factually challenged and pimping the excellent and energetic delivery, the quotable one liners, the zing. Never mind that the main thrust of Ryan’s arguments are untrue.

While Politico’s on camera team waxed effusive about Ryan’s stirring rhetoric, Wolf Blitzer had one of his Wolf Blitzer moments. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo calls it Great Moments in CNN Euphemisms:

Blitzer: So there he is, the Republican vice presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of Republicans here certainly Republicans all across the country were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney’s campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered.

Yes, I’m sure there’s a profession out there, somewhere, that might “want to go forward” with some of those points. Considering his perch atop CNN’s news team it’s too bad Blitzer hasn’t figured that out yet.

And in an up is down, left is right world, it’s Fox News (!) among the cable networks that starts to set the record straight:

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

Fortunately, a journalistic slumber begins to lift. Over at The Atlantic, James Fallows collects a number of non-network sources debunking what he calls the “Post-Truth Convention Speech“:

To restate the larger points for the moment: The bad one is that a major party’s nominee for national office apparently just doesn’t care that he is standing in front of millions and telling easily catchable lies. The less-bad one is that parts of the media are noticing, and are trying to figure out what they can do in response.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent believes news organizations need to bring lies front and center. Stick them in the headline, he writes, don’t bury them four paragraphs deep. He praises the Los Angeles Times for doing just that when a Tuesday headline read, “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama”.

Writes Sargent:

I didn’t expect this, but the epic dishonesty of Romney’s campaign is finally prompting something of a debate among media types about whether what we’re seeing here is unprecedented — and how to appropriately respond to it…

…There seems to be a bit of a strain of media defeatism settling in about this. James Bennet, the editor of the Atlantic, wrote yesterday that he is glad to see news outlets calling Romney’s falsehoods out for what they are. But he wondered whether we are about to discover that the press is essentially impotent in the face of this level of deliberate dishonesty: “what if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?

I’m sympathetic to the question. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the Romney campaign’s gamble here, which is that the press simply won’t be able to keep voters informed in the face of the sheer scope and volume of mendacity it unleashes daily.

Earlier this summer Harvard’s Nieman Foundation released a report called Truth in the Age of Social Media.

“Verifying information has always been central to the work of journalists,” its authors write. “These days the task has taken on a new level of complexity due to the volume of videos, photos, and tweets that journalists face. It’s not only the volume that presents challenges but the sophisticated tools that make it easier than ever to manipulate information.”

We recommend reviewing it. The report looks at how news organizations are addressing truth and verification. Would be nice if some of the big players covering our conventions would take notes on it too.

About: Dazzling. Deceitful. Distracting. originally appeared on the Future Journalism Project.

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The good. The bad. The brutal. Welcome to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Before we leave the Olympics behind here’s a selective roundup of some of the best (and worst) coverage we saw during the last two weeks.

We call it the FJP Media Games, English Language Edition.

Best Olympic Coverage
Gold: The BBC
Why: From FJP contributor John Johnston: “The BBC’s coverage has been amazing throughout. They’ve had a stream of every sport on their website uninterrupted, their live player has had chapters installed to let you go back to any point of the action on their TV stations. They’ve had great pundits, great insight and have just covered it impeccably.“

Best Use of Lego Animations to Get Around IOC Licensing Issues
Gold: The Guardian
Why: The International Olympic Committee is rather aggressive when it comes to protecting its brand. Only those who’ve paid steep licensing fees can broadcast moving images and other brand marks associated with the games. (For example, an English butcher near a yachting event was told he couldn’t display his sausages as Olympic rings).

The Guardian obviously didn’t have video to use in its reporting so it did the next – and possibly best – thing: It recreated weightlifting, gymnastics, basketball, track and swimming events out of stop motion legos.

Best Introduction to a Sport We Previously Dismissed
Gold: Brian Phillips, Grantland. Sparkle Motion
Why: Writing on deadline, Phillips needed to come up with something about the Olympics. His plan was to write something snarky about “one of the sillier-sounding Olympic sports ‘race walking, maybe, or trampoline’” but then he discovered a love for Rhythmic Gymnastics:

The problem my little plan almost immediately ran into is that when, as part of my research, I started watching [Rhythmic Gymnastics] videos, I found that I actually liked it. I mean, I think you’re not supposed to say that if you’re an American sports fan with pretensions to red-bloodedness, but fuck it: These women are amazing. If you care about sports on any level beyond box scores and regional rivalries, if you love watching a wide receiver make an acrobatic catch or a striker score an off-balance goal, if you ever feel astonished by, just, like, the incredible things people do with their bodies — then I defy you to watch a few minutes of RG and not think it’s pretty cool.

Best Retro Technology Used to Report The Olympics
Gold: The Animated GIF
Why, part 01: As Buzzfeed’s deputy sports editor Kevin Lincoln told Nieman Lab’s Andrew Phelps, “What GIFs do is sort of bridge the gap between an image and a video, which becomes incredibly useful in sports — you don’t have to wade through and listen to an entire highlight video, but at the same time, you get the motion and action that makes sports sports.”

Why, part 02: Check this use of animated GIFs to illustrate how and why a Korean fencer refused to leave the floor after a timing dispute lead to her defeat in a match for Olympic gold.

Best Owning of an Olympic Meme
Gold: McKayla Maroney
Why: To be sixteen. To be an odds on favorite to win Olympic gold. To fall short, get caught in a photo with an odd expression your face and have that turn into a viral meme. That is the case of McKayla Maroney. Lesser spirits would hide under the table.

McKayla owns it though, posting a picture of herself and some teammates on Twitter/Instagram that they were #notimpressed that the Olympic pool was closed.

Dishonorable Mention

Worst Olympic Coverage
Gold: NBC
Why: Criticizing NBC became a sport in itself. But know what? Like other gold medalists, the network earned it. It wasn’t just the tape delays. Here’s a critique from Jim Sylvester in a comment to one of our posts.

NBC is offering some form of reality show that is loosely based on the Olympics, but it is not “sports coverage.” …For one, it lacks coherence.  It’s some sort of wretched compromise between continuous coverage and a Sports Center highlights review.  What NBC is peddling  is chopped up drips and drabs of pieces of events that interrupt the unceasing flow of advertisements – which is the real content being provided.

Supposedly there is an out (but only with a cable subscription – which seems to serve the purposes of NBC’s owner Comcast) to access all events live and online, but as anyone who has suffered with that service knows, it is unreliable, crashes, repeatedly buffers, and is heavily laden with ads imposed at short intervals that can and do interrupt events at critical moments.

Worst Reaction to An Olympic Gold Medalist
Gold: Some Haters on the Internet to Gabby Douglas’ Hair
Why: We consider this self evident.

Most Dickish Profile of an Olympic Athlete
Gold: Jere Longman, New York Times. For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image
Why: From Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg:

[A]s Olympic gymnastics and swimming competitions wound down and London and the world geared up for track and field, the New York Times published one of the nastiest profiles I’ve ever seen of an athlete, or really anyone, an indictment of the media presence of hurdler Lolo Jones. “Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses,” wrote Jere Longman, in a piece that flayed Jones, while passing less judgment on the media outlets that have asked her to pose while scantily dressed or the companies that have purchased her endorsement.

In an Olympics that’s been marked by stories about the financial woes of athletes, and the financial disparities between the families of competitors, there’s something deeply strange about condemning a competitor for doing what it takes to fund a rigorous training program and to stay financially afloat.

See also, Isaac Rauch, Deadspin. What Did Lolo Jones Ever Do To The New York Times?

Worst Reaction to Olympic Media Criticism
Gold: (tie) Twitter and NBC
Why: As #NBCFail trended to a fever pitch, Twitter informed NBC how to file a complaint against British journalist Guy Adams for posting the corporate email address of NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

NBC followed through and Adams’ account was suspended until public outcry eventually got him reinstated.

Next Up

We’re sure you have your own so hit it in the reblogs or comments below. Next stop, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and then on to Rio.

A variation of this post originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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Pussy Riot gets the headlines. Meantime, killings and massacres continue. Why the media covers what it covers.

Last week when news broke that a Russian court sentenced members of Pussy Riot to two years in jail, The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner asked whether the case was getting too much coverage in the Western press.

In his article, Chotiner compared the guilty verdict coverage to the lesser coverage given to 22 Shias pulled off a bus in Pakistan and executed by the Taliban.

I don’t want to undercut the reporters who have chronicled Russia’s long, miserable record on free speech. Locking up a band for criticizing the president, or the church, is terrible. But I can’t help but think there’s something a little off-kilter in the sheer amount of attention Pussy Riot is getting. The coverage is morphing into the human-rights equivalent of the blanket coverage afforded to the lone white girl who goes missing on a tropical vacation.

Of course, you can’t measure every story by whether it is more or less outrageous than the slaughter of 22 bus passengers who happened to come from the wrong religious sect. But the media frenzy does make me think that for many people in the news business, the story of the band is appealing in large part because of its name and the camera-friendliness of its members–not to mention the celebrity of Pussy Riot defenders like Madonna, Sting, and Paul McCartney.

While apples and robots, the critique reminds me of something The New York Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote a week earlier about the killing of six Sikhs near Milwaukee.

In it, he notes that immediate media reaction was that the killings were most likely a case of mistaken religious identity. That the killer, Wade M. Page, thought the Sikhs were Muslim. But then he asks this important question:

Yet the mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

As a Sikh, Vishavjit Singh has found himself wrestling with the subject these past few days. “If this had happened at a mosque, would our reaction be different?” asked Mr. Singh, a software engineer in suburban New York who also publishes political cartoons online at Sikhtoons.com. “I hope not, but the answer might be yes. You’d have the same amount of coverage, but you might have more voices saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s understandable, we’re at war, we’ve been at war.’ That’s an unfortunate commentary on our society today.”

These observations that violence against Muslims is expected, understandable and more explicable – yet, reminder, not excusable – gets to the crux of Chotiner’s Pussy Riot critique.

Again, it’s apples and robots, but the infatuation with the Pussy Riot case is how mundane the original protest is to Western eyes and ears, and how disproportionate the punishment is to the original “crime”. Wouldn’t a simple fine and some community service have done the trick?

The absurdity of the Pussy Riot case encapsulates a wide swath of what’s happening in Russia today. It provides an easy peg to explore the return of Vladimir Putin to official power in Russia’s strange political landscape, the country’s tenuous straddling between East, West and somewhere in between, its desire to still be considered a superpower and the fledgling democracy movement within the country.

Here’s Julia Ioffe, also writing in The New Republic:

[T]he case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist.

And this, I think, makes the continued coverage legitimate. It’s a story that helps us pull back the onion peel that is Russia.

For the unfortunate in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world we aren’t necessarily learning anything “new” by the atrocities taking place. These humanitarian catastrophes have become expected, understandable and more explicable.

Deserving of coverage, always, and certainly, and not ever, excusable.

Background

Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic. Is Pussy Riot’s Persecution Getting Too Much Coverage?
Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times. If the Sikh Temple Had Been a Mosque
Julia Ioffe, The New Republic. How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

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