No time for both sides: journalists must take a stand

 

Pic: Unsplash

A click on one of Jason Kottke’s Quick Links took me first to this excoriating piece in The Atlantic, where James Fallows lays into the media coverage of Trump’s re-election campaign. It starts:

We’re seeing a huge error, and a potential tragedy, unfold in real time.
That’s a sentence that could apply to countless aspects of economic, medical, governmental, and environmental life at the moment. What I have in mind, though, is the almost unbelievable failure of much of the press to respond to the realities of the Trump age.
Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.

Fallows is very critical of what he calls “both-sides-ism”, which he defines as most journalists’ discomfort with seeming to “take a side” in political disputes, and the contortions that result. Reporters are, he says, most at ease when they can quote first one side and then the other, seeming to be neutral between the two—or when they present a charge, and then the response. But this doesn’t work with a President or his representatives who simply lie in public statements dozens of times a day. Therefore, there is no reason to present Trump’s claims on equal footing with other information. Simply put, what he says is probably not true. And yet the instinct is so hard to resist, the impulse to add “some critics say …” is so powerful.

Then Fallows goes on:
We can’t be sure now which is more destructive: a president openly encouraging much of the public to mistrust the democratic process, or that same president openly welcoming foreign interference in the process. Both are steps toward authoritarianism and danger, and awareness of them should shape coverage every single day.

Fallows’s article also had a link to a piece by Dan Froomkin, an experienced journalist who has done 12 years before the mast at the Washington Post, (Stop headlining Trump’s loony disinformation about Covid-19) on a site I’d never seen before, Presswatchers.

Froomkin is unequivocal about the role of the campaigning journalist. His article lams into articles such as this one from AP, which started:
Openly contradicting the government’s top health experts, President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus could be ready as early as next month and in mass distribution soon after, undermining the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and calling him “confused” in projecting a longer time frame.

This approach, Froomkin says, takes no account of Trump’s latest obviously delusional fantasy: that every person in America will be able to get a vaccine “very soon”. It was highly reminiscent of his famous still-a-whopper-more-than-six-months-later that “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”

Froomkin’s piece ends with a glorious paragraph which should appear in every handbook for the aspiring campaigning journalist for ever more:

I’ve written a lot about Trump’s response to the pandemic, and here is what has been clear all along: It’s an ongoing tragedy that he has no real plan to restore the country to health other than to peddle false hope, predict a quick end, adopt fake deadlines and shift the blame to others. The most urgent need is to test, test, and test even more, but Trump has never liked testing because the results “look bad”. The media has blown its coverage of the federal response by letting political reporters lead instead of health reporters. Political reporters pay way too much attention to whatever Trump says, such that whatever it is makes headlines. They let Trump set the agenda instead of letting knowledgeable people do it. Political reporters also give Trump way too much credit for trying, which he is not. They cover up for his incoherence, ignorance, cluelessness, gaslighting, and yes, just plain stupidity. They generally fail to properly exploit their rare access to him by confronting him with facts and piercing his bubble. They remain complacent in the face of a massive death toll, instead of relentlessly demanding more forceful action.

Great stuff.

A day at the cricket: the Lord’s Test, 1963

Wes Hall’s 40 yard run up, seen at the Oval in 1963. Pic: Audmanettv

Today is the last day of the cricketing summer. A summer so strange that not a single ball bowled in the first class game has been viewed by any paying spectator. However, it’s been great to have some free-to-view cricket back on BBC TV. First, highlights of all the test matches between England and West Indies/Pakistan. Then, live (!), two full T20 matches between England and Pakistan/Australia. And finally, more highlights of the 50-over series between England and Australia. Truly, you spoil us, Mr BBC Director-General.

Watching ball-by-ball coverage of Test matches was something I did all my life until the end of UK free-to-view transmission in 2005. That wonderful Ashes summer, with its series of close finishes, has rightly gone down in history. Over the previous four decades work would sometimes get in the way, of course, but there were always weekends. Plus I was sometimes able to filch the the odd day working from home. These occasions could be a bit dull but one Monday in 1984 I got lucky.  I spent the day correcting proofs on my living room table while at Lord’s, in the corner of the room, Gordon Greenidge was hitting 214 not out, as the West Indies got 344-1 in a run chase.

I’ve only ever been to a handful of Test matches, all at either Lord’s or the Oval, the last being in 1990 when I took my father to see England play India at the Oval. It was Sachin Tendulkar’s first tour, and we saw the young master fielding on the boundary just in front of us. My first visit was, however, 27 years before, to the famous Lord’s Test against the West Indies in 1963. A small group of boys were taken from my school, Thorpe House in Gerrards Cross, by the deputy head (and cricket coach) Mr Wood. His first name was Ken, but of course we never called him that. Test matches in those days lasted from Thursday to Tuesday, with a rest day on the Sunday, so I think that it must have been the Friday when we went. I really have very little memory of the day itself, but we must have travelled by train to Marylebone. I see from this report of the match that this was the day when England captain Ted Dexter hit 70 in an hour after lunch as England chased a first innings score of 301 by West Indies. I do remember watching from side on as Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith bowled with ferocious speed, and marvelling at the length of Hall’s run up, which must have been about 40 yards. (You get an idea of how long it was from the screen grab at the top of this piece, taken from the Oval test later in the summer.)

We were there on the second day, but in fact the Test match went on to a famous final day on the following Tuesday. I was spending my last term at Thorpe House as a boarder (even though we only lived half a mile from the school) so I watched the climax on TV in the boys’ common room there.

On the Monday, Colin Cowdrey had retired hurt with a broken arm, caused by a hit from Charlie Griffith. Then West Indies batted again, and were out for 229, so England were left needing 234. By the time the last hour started England needed 48 to win, with five wickets down. Brian Close and Fred Titmus were in. But then Titmus was out, soon followed by Fred Trueman. The score was 203 for 7 when David Allen arrived at the crease. After a few more big blows, Close was out, with England needing 15. The last fit man, Derek Shackleton came in. He and Allen could perhaps have scored them, but with hostile bowling from Griffith and Hall they could only prod the odd single.

At some point in the time that followed, the live TV coverage ended, as it was already past ten to six and the 5.50 news bulletin could not be delayed any longer. However, soon after the bulletin started, it came to an end (apparently under the orders of Sir Hugh Greene, then the BBC Director-General, who had been watching the cricket) and the cricket came back on again.

As the last over started England needed eight runs. They were surely batting for a draw. They got a couple of singles off the first three balls. Then Shackleton was run out on the fourth, but the batsmen had crossed. The nation held its breath as Cowdrey, arm in plaster, made his way to the non-striker’s end. Allen blocked out the two remaining deliveries and the match was drawn.

Unsurprisingly there is a lot of material online about this match, as well as Arunabha Sengupta’s atmospheric piece referenced above, but written in 2018, which I freely admit I have relied on for this piece. Here is the full scorecard at ESPN Cricinfo and here, amazingly, is a 40 minute YouTube video of the highlights of both teams second innings. There is also a shorter YouTube video of Hall, Griffith and Sobers bowling on the same tour, at the Oval test.

What wasn’t so apparent to a 13 year old boy at the time was the cultural significance of this Test series, which West Indies won 3-1, with only one draw. Only two years before Frank Worrell had become the first black man to captain the West Indies cricket team for an entire series, and this was the first time this had occurred in a team touring England. As a batsman his powers were waning, perhaps not surprisingly as he turned 39 during the tour. He retired from international cricket at the end of the tour and, tragically, died of leukaemia less than four years later.

West Indies fans, probably at the Lord’s Test 1963. Pic: ESPNcricinfo

I do remember the crowd at Lord’s. There were areas of unreserved ‘free seats’ and people could also sit on the grass (you hired a cushion for, I think, a shilling). Large sections were taken up by West Indies fans, as can be seen in the picture above, taken from the Sengupta piece. I love the fact that they are all dressed in smart clothes, with their brief cases and handbags in front of them. This was the first home Test match series against the West Indies for six years, and many more immigrants from the Caribbean had arrived in that time. The sheer numbers of West Indies fans are in stark contrast to the numbers who turn up now to modern Test match series. This perhaps mirrors the declining importance of cricket in the Caribbean – a shame when you consider the heritage they have to build on.

The boisterous crowds have been driven away, says this article in The Cricketer, ‘by high ticket prices, the end of block-booking and overzealous ground regulations on instruments, food and the like.’ The article links to an academic project at University College London which is hoping to shed some light on this under-appreciated corner of British cricket history. Led by Professor Michael Collins, it is compiling a social history of the Windrush generation through cricket which will attempt to answer the eternal question of why, if cricket was so important to so many African-Caribbean people in Britain, has their participation declined so markedly over the last 30 years. Collins says: ‘For many West Indian immigrants to Britain, cricket was a bridge across back to the Caribbean. It was part of their Caribbean identity, but it was also very much part of their British identity.’

It will be an interesting read. I look forward to seeing a copy. Contact Michael Collins here.

1963 West Indies tour Wikipedia page

Summer of 95

The summer of 1995 was a pretty memorable one. In June, we travelled from London to a holiday cottage in Kerry in Ireland, along with my brother, sister in law and their one year old daughter. It was too hot for the locals. One told a local radio phone in: “we Irish aren’t designed for heat. We’re not like the Japanese. It’s so hot I have to have a wash nearly every day”. We introduced our two year old son to a clear blue sea, ate fresh salmon sandwiches, drank cold Guinness and watched the famous South African victory in their home Rugby World Cup final on a tiny TV.

Meanwhile, back in London, John Major announced in his “put up or shut up” speech that he would stand for re-election as Conservative Party leader to stop the endless speculation about whether he should resign or not. After a very brief campaign, he beat the only person who ran against him, John Redwood, by 218 votes to 89.

Still in the world of politics, I did some freelance work for the Labour candidate in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, which took place on 27 July, but I was mainly busy in the small editing and design business that I had set up with my old colleague Lliane Phillips. Life there was going well; we worked from a small office on the top floor above a shop in Upper Street – voguish enough then, balls-achingly on trend now. Under the roof, we got boiling hot in summer and froze in winter. By then we had a couple of Macs. One was the pizza box style LC475, small enough to be portable, the other a Performa. We had both become deft users of QuarkXPress.

Even though we were firmly in the Apple camp, we could hardly not have noticed the release by Microsoft of its new operating system, Windows 95, described this week by The Register in a piece marking its 25th anniversary as “arguably the most consequential event in modern computing history”. I remember that the hype even reached the cartoon pages of the mainstream press, with Gary Trudeau drawing a hilarious sequence of Doonesbury cartoons which ran in the Guardian for a week or more.

Three of the Doonesbury series are shown above. In a search for them on Google, I came across the first two in a guide to the installation of Windows 95, a glorious web page set up by a Florida company which doesn’t seem to have been updated since it was created.

The Register article also has a link to a much under-appreciated resource, an hour-long (!) video guide to Windows 95 on YouTube, where your hosts are two fresh-faced young actors, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry.

As if to remind us where we are in the evolution of computing history, at one point the video proclaims Windows 95 as the “on-ramp to the Information Superhighway”. The Internet Explorer versus Netscape battle was about to start.  Google’s revolution of search was still three years away.

And all this was just 11 years after Apple’s 1984 campaign that introduced the Macintosh personal computer. The greatest TV commercial ever, according to Advertising Age. How time flew.

Designs on O’Sullivan

For ages I’ve had it in mind to write one of those ‘it wasn’t like that when I was young’ pieces about the history of desktop publishing. But when I turned on the TV on Monday afternoon to catch up on the score in the snooker World Championship match between Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan, I didn’t expect to spend the next hour chundering around the internet. The result was I came across the modern manifestation of a software program which I thought had long bitten the dust.

There above is Ronnie, in all his open-mouthed glory, snapped by me off the telly and sporting a sponsor’s badge proclaiming the word ‘Publisher’. I couldn’t think what that referred to, even though over the years, there have been a number of programs called with that name, the most notable being that belonging to Microsoft. According to this Wikipedia list, Ventura Publisher and Timeworks Publisher have also popped out of the floppy disk drives of history.

But it turns out that Ronnie O’Sullivan is now sponsored by the Nottingham-based firm Serif (Europe) Ltd, makers of a suite of programs called Affinity Publisher, Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo. Priced at around 50 quid each, they offer a reasonable alternative to the gouging subscription-only model now the only option from Adobe and its Creative Suite. (A nightmarish price of €61.49 a month for a single freelance designer.) The About Us page explains that the company goes back to the early 1990s and its original DTP program PagePlus.

As I still have the full Adobe CS4 bundle, and because I don’t do a lot of DTP work anymore, I don’t really need to upgrade my software, but I have to say that Designer does look like an impressive, professional-level program, and I might be tempted if I were still in the market.

It seems as though it has all the bells and whistles a hip young designer would need, just as long as they can tear themselves away from the snooker. And if Ronnie O’Sullivan goes all the way through to a Sunday late-night final session, it will surely have been a sponsorship deal worth making.

John Hume: ‘A man who had something big to do’

There are many tributes today to John Hume, whose death was announced this morning. The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, summed up his life in a well-crafted statement:

‘All of those who sought and worked for peace on our island of Ireland, and in the hearts of all, will have been deeply saddened by the passing of John Hume, Nobel Peace Laureate and Statesman.

John Hume, through his words, his astute diplomacy and willingness to listen to what was often difficult to accept but was the view of the ‘Other’, transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland, and the search for peace, with a personal bravery and leadership informed by a steadfast belief in the principles and values of genuine democracy.

John’s deep commitment to these values and his practical demonstration of tolerance and social justice, oftentimes in the face of strong opposition and tangible threats to his person and his family, asserted the fundamental principles of democracy. He and those others who helped usher in a discourse that enabled a new era of civil rights and responsive government that few would have thought possible, have placed generations in their debt, have been a source of hope.

That his efforts were recognised through the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize brought great joy not only to his people in Derry, his colleagues in politics, particularly in the SDLP, but to a wider global set of colleagues and fellow advocates for peace abroad who held him in the greatest esteem and admiration.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, may I say how deeply grateful we all should be that we had such a person as John Hume to create a light of hope in the most difficult of times.

It was Seamus Mallon, that other great statesman and courageous peace seeker and builder, who observed: “Inside was a man who had something big to do. There is a greatness about his political life in what he did and what he helped to do. I would put him in the same breath as Parnell and Daniel O Connell.”

We are grieving in this difficult year 2020 for two great apostles and seekers of peace.’

A fleet-footed move by the London Review of Books sent a remarkable 1989 article by Hume into their readers’ inboxes this morning. I’ve printed its 3891 words to read more carefully later but this trenchant paragraph stood out at first glance, and shows powerfully what he was up against at the time. It demonstrates the personal courage Hume showed in telling truth to the republican ‘movement’, armed to the teeth as they were:

For people who proclaim their Irishness and their pride in Ireland so loudly they are remarkably lacking in both the self-confidence and the guts to sit round and talk with their fellow Irishmen as a way of persuading them that this vision of Ireland is the best one. In particular, their decision to use guns and bombs to ‘persuade’ their Protestant fellow Irishmen is not only an extreme instance of lack of faith in their own beliefs or in the credibility of these beliefs: it is an indication of appalling moral cowardice and a deeply partitionist attitude. For its real effect is to deepen the essential divisions among the Irish people. There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the Nationalist community but by the whole community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the main target would be the IRA. It is they who carry out the greatest infringements of human and civil rights, with their murders and bombings, their executions without trial, their kneecappings and punishment shootings. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Who in Northern Ireland takes the most human lives?

(Incidentally, kudos should go to the LRB whose Diverted Traffic daily emails have been a welcome breath of air in these difficult times.)

A further demonstration of the international esteem in which Hume was held is shown by this photograph from 2014, taken when Congressman John Lewis, who also died in the last few weeks, visited Derry and walked arm-in-arm with Hume across its Peace Bridge.

Pic: Boston Globe

Hume did not do many public engagements at this stage in his life, but he made an exception to meet Lewis. That these two giants of the non-violent approach to politics should die with days of each other is a terrible loss to democracy. We must do all we can to ensure that their legacy lives on.

The trouble with José

Jose Mourinho: It’s all me, me, me. [Pic: Will Oliver/Reuters/Guardian]

It’s been a pretty desperate season to be a Spurs fan.

There was a time not so long ago when things were looking up. In the words of Barbra Streisand, ‘Life was all so different then’. The best time was probably the 2016-17 season, when there was real promise: three players (Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min) each scored more than 20 goals and the team finished second in the league with 86 points. Manager Mauricio Pochettino had brought about an attractive, attacking style of play which pleased crowds and pundits alike. The only fly in the ointment that year was the poor European campaign: after a humdrum Champions League group phase, they dropped down to the Europa League and were then knocked out of the competition by the mega stars of Gent FC.

The following season also went well, finishing third in the Premier League and reaching the last 16 in the Champions League. However, by 2018-19, the wheels were wobbling. Even though the team reached the Champions League final, it didn’t quite feel as though they deserved to be there. Scraping into fourth place in the Premier League seemed about the right level. The goal machine that is Harry Kane did, however, continue his remarkable record with 24 goals in the season, despite missing a slew of matches through injury.

Things were obviously going wrong at the beginning of this season. Hugo Lloris had a terrible injury, Christian Eriksen was obviously unsettled, and Dele Alli seemed to be completely out of form. By 19 November, only three of the first 12 league matches had been won. That was the day on which in what was obviously a pre-planned move by chairman Daniel Levy, Pochettino was sacked and José Mourinho arrived – to what can only be called an indifferent reception from Spurs fans. Things have improved slightly under the one-time Special One, but there has been no real evidence that a return to the Glory Glory days is on the horizon.

And so the interrupted campaign ended yesterday in a predictable dreary fashion, with yet another 1-1 draw, this time with Crystal Palace. Here is Paul MacInnes’s report in today’s Guardian, with two wonderful opening sentences:
It was time for one of those special José moments, where the glowering disappears for just a second and he pays himself a compliment: “Arriving 14th and finishing sixth is not bad at all,” he said. “I’m quite happy to be in the Europa League.”

Sums up Mourinho. Sums up Spurs’s ambition level under Mourinho.

Adding journalism to the Mix

Little Mix, left to right: Jade Thirlwall, Jesy Nelson, Perrie Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock. [Pic Marcen 27/Wikipedia]

A messed-up computer-generated news article about popular beat combo Little Mix (shown above) recently exemplified the problems which face news bosses seeking to cut costs by getting rid of real-life journalists.

The story was broken about a month ago by Jim Waterson in The Guardian, when he reported that dozens of journalists from Microsoft’s MSN website and its Edge browser had been sacked after Microsoft decided to replace them with artificial intelligence software.

About 27 individuals employed by PA Media – formerly the Press Association – were told that they would lose their jobs after Microsoft decided to stop employing humans to select, edit and curate news articles on its homepages. The decision to end the contract with PA Media was taken at short notice as part of a global shift away from humans in favour of automated updates for news.

However, the plan backfired when it turned out that the software had difficulty picking out the correct mixed-race individual from file pictures. One of the first MSN articles led to a story about the Little Mix singer Jade Thirlwall’s personal reflections on racism being illustrated with a picture of her fellow band member Leigh-Anne Pinnock.

Thirlwall went on Instagram to protest: “@MSN If you’re going to copy and paste articles from other accurate media outlets, you might want to make sure you’re using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group.”

“This shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME that it’s become a running joke,” she said. “It offends me that you couldn’t differentiate the two women of colour out of four members of a group … DO BETTER!”

Apparently Thirlwall did not know that the image was selected by Microsoft’s artificial intelligence software.

Waterson went on to write:

Asked why Microsoft was deploying software that cannot tell mixed-race individuals apart, whether apparent racist bias could seep into deployments of the company’s artificial intelligence software by leading corporations, and whether the company would reconsider plans to replace the human editors with robots, a spokesman for the tech company said: “As soon as we became aware of this issue, we immediately took action to resolve it and have replaced the incorrect image.”
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.

And this is the bit from the “you couldn’t make this stuff up” department:

Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again[Emphasis added]

Not simply names on a list

The New York Times has rightly been commended for yesterday’s stunning type-only front page. Blogging great Jason Kottke has a nice piece about it:

In the past five months, more Americans have died from Covid-19 than in the decade-plus of the Vietnam War and the death toll is a third of the number of Americans who died in World War II. When this is over (whatever that means), the one thing we cannot do is forget all of these people. And we owe to them to make this mean something.

Tree of the week revisited

The moment I saw this picture in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago I knew exactly the place from where the shot had been taken, before I had even looked at the caption. It’s in the Phoenix Park near the Magazine Fort car park. Although I’ve now changed my usual starting point for my daily dog walking route, this tree is only a few dozen yards from the car park which I used to use. The tree’s shape, along with the worn-down path and the curve of the two small hills, are unmistakeable. It must have also made a real impression on the photographer, Finn Richards, because although in real life it’s quite small he describes it as standing “guard over the hill that it sits in front of.”

Because of the restrictions, I wasn’t able to get to the location to check whether my memory was accurate until today. All the smaller gates to the Phoenix Park are currently closed to cars, so I had to leave mine outside and walk in – but there the tree was, just as I recalled.

I haven’t got quite the right angle – it’s difficult comparing the screen of an iPhone with a scrumpled sheet of paper, especially when a dog demanding that a ball be thrown is also present – but I’m sure it is the same tree. I took another shot from a different angle, which shows its position relative to the Magazine Fort.

Looking more carefully at the Guardian’s shot today, I was slightly puzzled by the state of the grass – long, dry and sun-bleached. However, when I checked Finn Richards’s page on Instagram, I see that it was taken in July 2018, which explains it.

There is a reasonable chance that exercise and other restrictions will be relaxed slightly more next week. This could mean more regular trips to the park – something that both the dog and I are already looking forward to.

 

Culture as class performance

From Normal People by Sally Rooney:

“He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw her hands up and said: Not politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money.”

[page 221]

Other articles which have used the same quote:
Nathan Goldman, The Baffler
Lonesome Reader
Maks Bookshop Cafe
A Purple Onion
Eats Reads Rambles