Nominally, anyway, this website is supposed to be about asking questions. Here is one: did the New York Times publish my favorite New York Times article earlier this month? I have been asking myself that question since September 8, when the paper ran an article entitled, “‘What Is Aleppo?’ Gary Johnson Asks, in an Interview Stumble.”
Before September 8, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, had been having a difficult time attracting national, mainstream media attention. By third-party standards, he was polling well, though, and, in early September, he was making a big push to force the hand of the Commission on Presidential Debates to include him in the then-upcoming first presidential debate.
Part of that push included an appearance on an MSNBC morning talk show that day. During the appearance, one of the hosts asked him, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” Johnson responded by attempting to clarify the question: “About?” The host: “Aleppo.” Johnson: “What is Aleppo?”
The internet exploded. A candidate the primary-party adherents previously refused to acknowledge existed rapidly was called out for widespread rebuke, deemed an unserious candidate, and declared unworthy of the presidency (one politically attentive friend wrote that this made Johnson less fit to occupy the White House than Donald Trump). The unstated assumption, of course, was that everybody knows what Aleppo is, and if Johnson is ignorant of such a basic thing (“What is Philadelphia?”), he must be a fool indeed.
News websites rushed to capitalize on the sudden spike in critical attention to the Johnson campaign, and the New York Times, by way of the above-linked article, was no exception. It soon became clear, however, that Johnson was not the only purported policy expert asking “What is Aleppo?” By the end of the day, two corrections appeared at the bottom of the Times’ viral content piece, which they published in their Politics section as part of their Election 2016 coverage:
In this political age of internet journalism, that is the definition of perfection, and I have little more to add than to answer my question above in the affirmative.
(Regarding the coverage of the moment more generally, it almost certainly goes without saying that it ended with the “What is Aleppo?” question and ignored Johnson’s recovery and substantive answer when he realized he was being asked about Syria.)
This presidential campaign has been relatively gaffe-free, at least by conventional (e.g., Joe Biden) standards. Many regard Trump’s entire campaign as one long-running gaffe, or worse, though, and it likely has warped our understanding of what it is for a presidential candidate to “gaffe” during a campaign.
As Trump’s campaign gained steam, writers took aim, laboring to describe just how terrible and unpresidential they believed Trump was. In one sense, the task was easy. Trump provided– and is continuing to provide– plenty of examples, any one of which seemingly would have been enough to sink a candidate’s chances in previous elections. (Maybe part of the reason people have been so quick to pounce on Johnson after his Aleppo gaffe, as well as the more recent one (details; response), is because it allows them to slide back into normal campaign territory. Johnson is more of a conventional presidential candidate than Trump, and, as such, he has made some seemingly typical candidate blunders.)
In another sense, though, the task of describing and contextualizing Candidate Trump has proven increasingly difficult, because, even before Trump emerged as a viable politician, we were doing a poor job of allocating our extreme adjective resources. The danger of describing everything as “incredible” is that, when something actually incredible (unbelievable, terrible, etc.) happens, the dilution of the word’s meaning makes it difficult to contextualize just how extreme the occurrence was. Maybe Trump really is an unimaginably extreme candidate; more likely, I think, he is exactly as extreme a candidate as we used to consider our politicians (“war criminal!” “savior!”).
Johnson’s gaffes may facilitate the termination of any practical viability present in his campaign. They probably could not have come at a worse time for him. They also offer a lens through which to view the campaigns of the primary parties’ candidates, as well as the media’s coverage of the campaign as a whole.
More than anything, though, I keep coming back to that New York Times article, which, if little else, serves as a needed lesson in humility and a (perfect, humorous) reminder that we all might not be the experts we think we are.
Two of the results of the widespread availability of the virtual printing press that is the internet are an increase in published criticism and, in reaction to that increase in criticism, an increased demand for people to publish their material, and particularly their critical material, under their own names. Part of this second result is borne out of a demand for authenticity: we want to know that the things we see and read online are real. Another comes from a voiced desire of the criticized to know their critics. The foundational concept is a belief that people are unlikely to publish false, baseless, or mean-spirited commentary under their own name, because they likely would suffer adverse consequences. In essence, anonymity is harmful to public discourse because it allows people to participate in public discourse without consequences.
Anonymity is not all bad, however. As evidenced by the success of increasingly openly partisan cable news networks, people prefer to receive information and discuss issues with others they already know they agree with. It seems likely that people decide what they think about an article, or even whether they are going to read it at all, simply by referencing source identification material. Republicans disregard MSNBC and the New York Times, to which Democrats flock while disregarding Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, to which Republicans flock. The point is not that these are necessarily insightful, intelligent, or worthwhile information sources, but that context matters in deciding how– or whether– people approach offered ideas, content, information, or potential conversations.
Anonymity can make discourse more robust because it necessarily emphasizes content over source-information context. Readers and listeners must engage with the idea or ideas presented because there is nothing else. Without preconceived expectations, people are more likely to consider an opinion they otherwise would ignore or find a new way of understanding an idea with which they already generally agreed, all of which can lead to more meaningful exchanges of ideas and reassessments of one’s own views.
Setting aside the net neutrality policy debate, the internet’s level publishing platform does not seem to have allowed for a multitude of dislocated voices so much as a partial reorganization of collective publishing entities in a way that is not so different from the newspapers and magazines that controlled periodical publication during the wholly print era. For those writers coming of age today, the internet’s vastness actually may make it even more difficult to catch the eye of those in control of the most well-attended publishing outlets.
What may be different today, though, is the relative ease with which readers may examine an individual’s writings, musings, exercises, and even drafts posted online before the individual accepted an invitation to join a popular publishing platform. Sometimes, as in the case of Clay Travis, who posted multiple unfavorable comments of Fox Sports not long before accepting an offer to join the network, it is quite easy to find this content. Other times, a small mistake can unlock a trove of old material. Read more…
The decline of traditional journalistic media is well documented. In recent years, newspapers like the Ann Arbor News and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have shuttered their doors. In order to survive, some papers, such as Detroit’s Free Press and News, have merged to varying degrees. Other regional papers, like the Tennessean, are shells of journalistic operations, mere AP repeaters after laying off batches of reporters. Some national papers– including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times– have gone to paid online platforms.
We have been told that the internet would be able to replace traditional print media, but experience suggests we have yet to realize that future. Web-based writers largely are concerned with reactions and opinions, and actual reportage appears have to decreased across the board, with foreign and local beats particularly suffering.
One outlet, Grand Rapids’ The Rapidian, is advancing the news media banner in the twenty-first century, though, and it is doing so through a hyperlocal, citizen-driven approach. The idea is to have a community’s members conduct actual reporting and create original content tied to the issues affecting that community and the happenings within it. The online-only newspaper seeks to capture the diversity of happenings and perspectives across the community’s varying neighborhoods– indeed, The Rapidian organizes content both by subject area and place-rooted bureaus— in a rigorous manner by providing training from experienced journalists and writers. This journalistic training, in turn, deepens residents’ connections to their community by providing them with tools to become more engaged community members.
It is easy to see why Grand Rapidians would want to support The Rapidian, a deeply engaged news source that is growing and developing along with a revitalized city that is doing the same thing, particularly when the city’s familiar news source, The Grand Rapids Press, is doing the opposite. (To its credit, MLive, the media group that now operates what remains of The Press and a number of other, formerly independent Michigan newspapers, has been a public, financial supporter of The Rapidian.)
It also should be easy to see why those who do not live in Grand Rapids nevertheless should want to support The Rapidian. Few communities currently have a dynamic, locally focused outlet like The Rapidian, but many, I suspect, would like and benefit from one of their own. The long-term solution, of course, is for members of these communities to create their own hyperlocal news source. (Anyone involved* with The Rapidian certainly would emphasize the “long-term” nature of that solution, I suspect.) The short-term solution is for members of these communities to support The Rapidian. The Rapidian is a national leader in this concept and a possible model for hyperlocal news media in other communities, and as such, its continued success makes it more likely that communities outside Grand Rapids will be able to follow its lead and develop their own versions. Thus, no matter where you live, if you have an interest in participatory locally focused news and media that works in the twenty-first century, you have an interest in supporting The Rapidian. You can do so here today.
* Disclosure: I am a former member of the board of directors of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, the umbrella media organization that serves the city through numerous channels, and of which The Rapidian is a part.
I launched ALDLAND, a new blog about sports and culture, this morning. My hope is that it will develop into a multi-author site that’s both more frequently current and less frequently serious than the material that usually appears here. I fully intend to continue writing here as usual, and, as this site surges past 8,000 overall page views today, I am grateful for your continued readership.
An introduction to the new site, and the first day’s posts are available at http://aldland.wordpress.com.
I wrote about the value of citation before and suggested that it has a few different purposes (e.g., allowing readers to locate the materials upon which an author relied; strengthening an author’s credibility; and showing respect or signaling quality). The substance of that post was tied to the release of the ABA Journal’s top one hundred law blogs of 2009. Continuing the tradition, the publication now is seeking nominations for its 2010 list. While I (somewhat famously) supported the nomination of The Volokh Conspiracy for the 2009 list, I think there are some newer sites that also deserve attention in 2010.
Because of the title, the first is recent Georgetown Law graduate Mike Sacks’ First One @ One First, a Supreme Court blog. Frequent readers of this site will recall that I’ve linked to F1@1F many times, and Sacks’ on-the-ground reporting style is a needed compliment to more traditional outlets like SCOTUSblog (which itself has a redesigned site). He also provides specific and general analysis of cases and Court trends in a way that is both informative and easily understood. From Sacks’ first post:
My name is Mike Sacks. I am a third-year law student at Georgetown interested in legal journalism and the intersection of law and politics. This semester, I have no morning classes. As such, I will be taking advantage of living only minutes from the Supreme Court to pursue a rather unorthodox extracurricular activity: reporting from the Court as the first one in line at One First Street.
For every politically salient case from January through April, I will attempt to be at the head of the general admission line….
Camping out at the Court in winter’s nadir will not be easy. Tents are forbidden. The concrete sidewalk makes for an unforgiving bed. Sprinklers spring up in the still of the night. Challenging climate be damned, however; when the next person arrives, excited to be first, he or she will find me, with my cracked lips and frozen fingers, sardonically asking how it feels to be second and seriously inquiring why he or she is crazy enough to get in line so early.
And that question–”why are you here?”–is what I set out to explore. Every Supreme Court reporter tells us what goes on inside the Court at argument and in its opinions. Every Supreme Court reporter gets insight and analysis from expert academics and practitioners. Sometimes Supreme Court reporters even interview a party in the case to expose the human element often lost in the rarefied air of high court’s legal abstraction. But no Supreme Court reporters ever ask the Courtroom’s spectators why they have congregated inside the Temple of our Civil Religion.
Our citizenry who have come to witness the Court first-hand surely have something to say, whether when waiting in line before the Court opens or spilling out onto the steps after the Chief Justice’s gavel bangs closed the day’s session….
While Sacks has been coy about plans for year two of his blog, he recently promised to share more about “big things” yet to come, so stay tuned.
The second is the News blog at Law School Transparency‘s site.* LST is a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality and transparency of law school employment data. As with F1@1F, I have linked to LST information here before. See, e.g., here. From the recent post entitled, “Support Our Mission? Nominate LST as a Top Law Blog“:
The ABA Journal is soliciting nominations for its annual list of the one hundred best legal blogs. If you think Law School Transparency belongs on that list, please nominate us by clicking here.
Visibility is an important component of our drive to further our transparency mission. In addition to the growing amount of information available in our Data Clearinghouse, this blog allows us to communicate openly and directly with all of our stakeholders, including law schools, current, past, and future law students, and the general public. We have and will continue to use this space to create an open conversation about transparency in law school employment data reporting.
Your support will make LST an even more visible part of the legal community online.
I have written about substantive aspects of law school and the legal profession. See here and here. LST’s work, which is in line with my emphasis on the importance of access to information, provides a complimentary, quantitative perspective based around statistical data. See also here.
The legal profession isn’t the only important thing in the world, nor has it been the sole focus of this site. With the recent appointment of two new Supreme Court justices, the impending start of a new Court Term, and the ongoing media attention to LST’s efforts, however, this is a fitting time to highlight these two sites and recognize their continuing contributions.
Topsy Washington – “Recognition,” The Waterline EP (2004)
* Full disclosure: I recently became a member of LST’s Advisory Board, and I have begun to assist with blog posts, including the one quoted above.
The settling of conflicts is one lens through which to view the progression of civilization. To this point, conflict seems to be endemic to human society, and we appear to have an inclination to resolve these conflicts. This extends to more general areas like arguments and problem solving.
A rough history suggests that, early on, the way to resolve conflict was through physical violence and, if the scale and magnitude necessitated, war. As nomadic tribes coalesced into agrarian communities, humanity saw the rise of civil society, politics and diplomacy, and the eventual proliferation of oral and verbal discourse. See also The Beer Theory of Civilization; I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. This notion of a shift from violence and war to civil discourse, peaceable assemblies, and political engagement isn’t a perfect historical description, of course. More than a few early cultures had their philosophers and deliberative political structures, and more than a few modern states continue to rely on militaristic means of conflict resolution. (Indeed, physical violence probably remains the real trump card in the vast majority of aggregate and individual dispute resolution.) Still, there has been a marked development of peaceful, deliberative means of problem solving in recent centuries.
The United States is no stranger to violent means of conflict resolution, even setting aside foreign policy. The Civil War stands out in this respect, as do the dropping of the atomic bomb and the violent and deadly acts of those dubbed “domestic terrorists.” Even the dueling that claimed the life of one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers was a recognized part of the European culture Americans imported and sustained for some time. By the time of the civil rights movement, violence remained on the table and indeed was a viable option for both sides. There nevertheless was a perceivable shift in which violence was a last resort and peaceable means were preferred in the first instance.
The peak of this time of civic unrest, the late 1960s, has become an archetypical reference point for much of the subsequent civic and political action. The question now is whether this model has been stretched too thin, overused, and, in a certain way, too peaceful, in the age of the internet. Is web-based “social networking” the sort of engagement and participation that would impress Tocqueville, Kennedy, King, Putnam, or Armstrong? Are 140 characters enough for a meaningful treatise? Can a Facebook.com group change the world? Or should we just grab a groupon and plan our revolutions face-to-face at the newest eatery (that checks out on Yelp, of course)? In short, global electronic connectivity has fostered the rise of a sort of wide-sweeping, possibly disparate civic engagement, but is it of significant consequence? Have we walked too far away from the days of settling our differences and sorting things out on the battlefield?
During that high period of American public participation more than forty years ago, a British group already was recognizing the runaway (from meaningfulness) potential of burgeoning civic engagement. The melodic title track of an album otherwise described as “sentimental” and “nostalgic” has a more satirical ring in my ears. (That or it’s the most conservative song ever written by a group banned from performing in the U.S.) Lyrics are available here. A live performance from 1973 gives the feel:
The familiar album version is available below, and there is space for your responsive comments below that. Whether you have some ideas about the role of violence in modern dispute resolution, the future of web-based civic engagement, or a new verse to add to the song, I welcome your thoughts.