Just the two of us: More short reviews

I suppose the rest of you will put your reviews in the comments.

Mainstream media
“The job of a newspaper,” goes the old saying, “is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Newspapers used to be seen as protectors of the little guy, seekers of truth, pillars of the community. Now, the “mainstream media” is the punch line of jokes and the punching bag of pundits, bloggers, and Hollywood. But newspapers — the good ones — still perform an incredibly valuable function. As their revenues dwindle and their editorial staffs are chipped away, who will commit the resources to real investigative reporting, like this, this, this, this and this?
Lisa Parrish

passing strange
Passing Strange (book and lyrics by Stew; music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; directed by Annie Dorsen; now playing at the Belasco Theatre)
Performer and songwriter Stew narrates this autobiographical coming-of-age rock musical by singing, declaiming, and playing guitar as his young alter ego alternately stumbles and struts through a South Central L.A. adolescence and sojourns in Amsterdam and Berlin. The show is almost as cliché-filled as usual Broadway fare but redeems itself with buoyant energy and a knowing, poignant confrontation between the self-involved fantasies of youth and the realities of adulthood. (“Your epiphanies will become fair-weather friends.”) The music is successful pop, rock, and blues with just enough showbiz to tell a story; issues of race and authenticity are dealt with deftly and lightly, including the best malapropism I’ve heard in a while: “I vant to die and be reincarcerated as a black man.”
Dave B

14 responses to “Just the two of us: More short reviews”

  1. Dave says:

    Okay, Parrish, I share your concern about who will fund investigative reporting once newspapers have died off. But if “newspapers used to be seen as protectors of the little guy, seekers of truth,” wasn’t that perception at least somewhat inaccurate? For example, you link to the NY Times stories that exposed the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, published in December 2005. I’m glad the Times paid its reporters to do the work to uncover this story. But remember that the story was solidly reported and ready to go in late 2004, before the presidential election, and somehow the administration talked the Times into holding off publication for more than a year. I’m supposed to trust a paper that is that subservient to power? I’m supposed to believe that the self-image of the journalistic profession as bold Woodward and Bernstein truth tellers is the end of the story?

    Or consider this, from a little blog item I saw the other day:

    Here’s how NPR anchor Scott Simon introduced a segment on March 15 in which senators James Webb and Jon Kyl talked about “what the war has meant and what the future might hold”:

    “This coming Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. So far 3,975 U.S. service men and women have died. Estimates on the number of Iraqis killed range from 47,000 to 151,000, depending on the source.”

    But what sources are those? The New England Journal of Medicine (1/31/08) published a survey conducted by the Iraqi government on behalf of the World Health Organization, which estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed by violence between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006. This, presumably, is the source of NPR’s 151,000 figure. The write-up in NEJM begins: “Estimates of the death toll in Iraq from the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 until June 2006 have ranged from 47,668 (from the Iraq Body Count) to 601,027 (from a national survey).”

    Is the 47,668 figure from Iraq Body Count–a group that tabulates accounts of civilian Iraqi deaths that appear in Western news sources–the source for NPR’s 47,000 number? There does not seem to be another major survey of Iraqi deaths that provides that estimate. Yet this is clearly described as a figure from June 2006–before the biggest peak of violence in late 2006-early 2007. Iraq Body Count currently reports that there have been at least 82,249 reported civilian deaths in Iraq; why didn’t NPR use this number instead?

    And if NPR is taking its lower estimate of Iraqi fatalities from the NEJM report, why does it ignore the higher estimate given in that same report of 601,000? That’s the estimate made by the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, and published by the Lancet medical journal (10/11/06). It’s a well-known study done by highly regarded scholars; indeed, when the 151,000 figure came out, NPR’s All Things Considered (1/10/08) turned for comment to Les Roberts, co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, which NPR referred to then as “a survey that continues to be debated in the press and political circles.” Between January and March, though, that much-debated study somehow vanished from NPR’s collective memory.

    It’s worth noting that 601,000 figure from Johns Hopkins study and the 151,000 number from WHO both only go up to June 2006, and therefore also leave out the worst of the violence. The most recent survey of Iraqi deaths is the poll conducted by Opinion Research Business, a top British polling firm, in August 2007, which found an estimated 1.2 million deaths by violence among Iraqi households. If NPR really wanted to inform its listeners about the range of credible estimates of Iraqi deaths, it would have included this survey–but instead left them with the impression that the highest plausible estimate was one-eighth as high.

    Examples like these, large and small, are all over the place. It’s no wonder that people don’t trust the mainstream media, despite the value it adds to our society.

  2. bw says:


  3. LP says:

    I knew my review would provoke comments like yours, Dave, and I can’t respond in kind right now as I’m hurrying to finish work before heading out of town. But I’ll just briefly say that I believe there will be a very unwelcome unintended consequence to the ongoing demonization of journalists / mass media / newspapers et. al.

    Over the course of the last two decades, it has become standard practice to label “journalists” as bad / lazy / evil / fame-hungry, etc. Yes, there are many bad journalists. Yes, the MSM put out innumerable errors and misrepresentations every day. But having seen (and heard) what goes on behind the scenes at papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times — the serious and detailed discussions about how to present facts in a fair way, by people who are truly striving to put out a fair and accurate product — I believe the pendulum has swung too far. Remember, it was right-wing asshole pundits who statrted beating the “media is too liberal! They’re not trustworthy!” drum to begin with, a mantra that’s now accepted by Americans of every political persuasion.

    It’s very difficult to do the kind of on-the-ground legwork it takes to produce a story like Anne Hull’s Washington Post series on Walter Reed. It’s one thing to sit at a computer and blog about why certainnumbers weren’t quoted in a story. This is legitimate, and important. But it’s another thing to actually do the legwork to dig in and report a story — a series of stories — that uncovers things that would otherwise be left in the shadows. My point is that the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. Yeah, sure, newspapers suck. Journalists are scum. Whatever. But as newspapers die out and “gumshoe” journalism falls by the wayside, there are a lot of important stories that will go unreported.

    Blech, I don’t have time to write this argument any better, and I can hear the eye-rolling from here. I’m not suggesting a return to the Walter-Cronkite-father-of-our-nation days. Just a little perspective.

  4. Dave says:

    Clearly newspapers are going through hard times, perhaps even dying. But are bloggers killing them? Radical leftist media critiques? Hardly. It’s the Internet that’s killing them — people getting used to not paying for paper editions and preferring the free and searchable Craigslist to inefficient (but lucrative for the papers) classified ads.

    As for the rest of the mainstream media, I don’t see television news dying off at all, although I wish it would — unlike newspapers, TV news adds nearly nothing of value to the discourse while often actively endumbening its viewers. And then what else — radio? NPR is doing fine, as sucky as it is most of the time. Newsmagazines, both popular and specialty, also seem to be finding workable business models in the internet age.

  5. LP says:

    No, bloggers aren’t killing them. My point was to offer a “review” of newspapers that happens to go against the prevailing opinion. I do think that, given the current knee-jerk response to journalists — when’s the last time you saw a journalist portrayed in film as anything other than a ratings-hungry, ethically challenged, narcissistic ass? — it’s a lot easier for people to dismiss the good that newspapers and honest journalists do. I’m not sure what the answer is, as there’s no holding back the Internet and the need for finding a new business model. I’m just offering a counterpoint to the general perception that newspapers / journalists = immoral hacks.

  6. LP says:

    Looks like it really is just the two of us, Dave. Except for Bryan’s lone token interjection: Damn!

    If we’re the last two people on earth, will you marry me?

  7. Dave says:

    I’m blushing. Yes, yes, the answer is yes!

    Except wouldn’t that be gay marriage, which is illegal?

    Did you see Season 5 of The Wire? I won’t go into detail here to avoid spoilers for people who haven’t yet seen it, but there’s a whole subplot centered on the Baltimore Sun newsroom, with both very good and very bad reporters and editors and also dealing with the cutbacks most newspapers have made in the past years. One problem as the show presented it was that the big media companies that now own newspapers want to make lots of profits, while in the past family-owned newspapers didn’t have the immediate pressure from shareholders. On the other hand, that Eric Alterman New Yorker piece a few weeks ago said that the profitability of newspapers is definitely way down from what it used to be.

  8. LP says:

    Yes, this is the problem. People want to get the newspapers’ content for free, but there’s no business model that brings in enough $$ to support the kind of reporting / editing that good journalism requires. This is also, of course, why newspapers have drastically cut back, and even eliminated, their foreign bureaus.

    You could certainly argue that hey, the market speaks and if there’s no demand for that kind of investment in stories, then too bad! But if we lose the investigative journalism of newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, it truly is a loss, in my opinion. I suppose I’m just on a mini-crusade to defend against the popular perception that it’s no big deal if newspapers go down.

    Can we have cupcakes at our wedding? Even if there’s no NYT to run our wedding announcement?

  9. Dave says:

    I agree that it will be a big deal if newspapers really die off. But I have no idea what to do about it, and I suspect that something will take their place, even though I can’t imagine its form or business model. And I really do think the news media in general is a propaganda tool for powerful interests, although most individual journalists do their jobs to the best of their abilities and with what they perceive as a fair amount of integrity.

    Cupcakes at the wedding, definitely.

    I love that several of the comments here are longer than the post itself.

  10. you guys make the cutest couple.

  11. ruben mancillas says:

    i’m sorry, i was going to write earlier but i thought the title was a direct instruction about how many total commenters were allowed.

    i love reading on the internet, by the way, but am pro-newspaper. i hope i’m not overly deluded or romanticizing something that never really existed but we do need some kind of instiutional framework that can support and produce meaningful investigative journalism and papers, for as flawed as they may be, still can get a job done that others aren’t at the moment.

  12. Godfree says:

    Reading about and listening to coverage of the ongoing Bear Stearns story highlights one of the big problems with the ways in which our world has changed and how the news media hasn’t had the wherewithal to keep up. News outlets, as they struggle for profitability, cut their own (somewhat) unbiased financial experts, and now rely on experts who have and incentive to push the Wall St. agenda.

    This is how things like bank bailouts become common sense. Every expert I’ve heard or read over the last few weeks has said the same exact thing: If Stearns isn’t saved it will cause too much instability in the world market. This would lead to a “global financial meltdown.”

    I’ve been paying particularly close attention to this story, and I have yet to hear an expert even attempt to explain why or how this “meltdown” might occur, or if there are steps that the government might take to prevent future peril. Of course not, that would mean more regulation, which is a bad thing for free markets, right? But no one seems comfortable in mentioning that this whole mess is a result of the vast deregulation of the mortgage industry, and the bundling and selling off of questionable loans to larger firms like…you guessed it…Bear Stearns.

    I guess we shouldn’t even mention the irony of “free marketers” backing government intervention to save a failing company. Just trust the experts people, they know way better than we do.

    Ruben I thing you should perform the service for Parrish and Dave.

  13. Dave says:

    Okay, so there are many reasons why the media suxxorz, but one is because people don’t call them on it. Many of you probably already get MoveOn emails, but in case you don’t, here’s a petition they’re doing to protest the incredibly lame debate moderating the other night on ABC. FWIW.

  14. Dave says:

    Or here’s a longer one with famous names appended.