The Same - The Pass
In college, I took an intro-level microeconomics course with a professor who had taught for a long time at the university. Every few years (even though it seemed like an annual ritual), he would put out a “new edition” of his microeconomics textbook, slap a new cover photo on it, and jack up the price – all while requiring students to buy the newest edition.
So, was this “new edition” really all that new?
Of course not. None of my classmates nor I ever found any major (or even minor) differences between the editions. It was still an overpriced textbook, and requiring the newest edition really only helped boost the professor’s textbook royalties.
Naturally, when the College Board announced “major changes” to the SAT, I thought back to my intro to econ course. How “major” are these changes to the SAT really? Is reverting back to the 1600 scale truly all that new?
The answer to these questions depends on your frame of reference:
- If you’re a high school student, you’re probably thrilled and relieved that there’s no longer a mandatory timed essay portion of the SAT.
- If you’re a college prep advisor, you might be excited that the College Board’s new partnership with the nonprofit Khan Academy will help ensure more students can access free test prep.
- If you’re a high school English teacher, you might be delighted that the vocabulary will more reflect the lexicon of students today or be chagrined that this change responds to a fugacious trend.
- If you’re a high school counselor, you might be happy that the College Board is offering four college application fee waivers for low-income students — or perhaps you already knew that this practice has been in existence for years.
Now, we know what most of the media thinks about these latest developments with the SAT:
- CBS called the announcement “sweeping changes”
- The New York Times called them “major changes” (Note: An updated headline has now removed the phrase “major changes” from the title, but the URL still reflects the original title)
- NBC News labeled them “big changes”
- The Wall Street Journal said that the College Board “shakes up” the SAT
You get the picture.
In large part due to this deluge of news coverage calling the changes such “big news,” I went on a bit of a Twitter rant to point out that the new developments were not, in fact, all that major. Here are a few highlights:
Alright, I got something to say about this #newSAT.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
I’ve seen people and media call these newest tweaks “big news” and “major changes.” This includes college access programs and advocates.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
Is the supposed alignment with #CommonCore State Standards positive? Sure, alignment could be good.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
But let’s not carried away. Changing up how the SAT looks isn’t all that “big”!
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
What would be “big” is if we stopped supporting a test that has disproportionate negative effects on underrepresented & low-income students.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
What would be “big” is if #colleges and universities did away with the SAT and ACT altogether.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
What would be “big” is if we made sure that all students could receive a quality and affordable college education.
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
Until then, let’s not call news like changes to the #newSAT “big.”
— Sam Lim (@samsonxlim) March 5, 2014
The truth is: the SAT is a charade. For all the College Board’s talk about “delivering opportunities” and making college more accessible for students, the SAT represents an unnecessary — and useless — barrier on the road to college.
Just last month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a report that found virtually no difference in college completion rates for students, regardless of whether they submitted SAT scores or not. The study affirmed what previous research had already found: including or not including the SAT (or ACT, for that matter) in college admissions considerations really doesn’t make much of a difference.
So then, why do the SAT and ACT remain such a major part of the college admissions web? There are a couple of factors, but at the root of these is one common denominator — money.
Consider that the test prep industry generates over $1 billion each year (this doesn’t even include the profits from actual testing), and consider that the SAT is better at predicting a student’s socioeconomic background than his or her college success.
So, while the news of this week has focused on the College Board and what it has done to retool the SAT, the deeper issues that impede college access still remain. The true culprits in this equation are the colleges and universities that still feed into the testing frenzy, allowing concerns over institutional prestige and rankings to cloud their ability to enact truly impactful policies for expanding access.
When colleges and universities require the SAT or ACT, families with the means to put their children through test prep courses are at an even greater advantage over low-income and even many middle-income families who simply cannot afford such extraneous luxuries. Frankly, what does it say about the test itself when an entire industry is built around prepping students for it? And, truthfully, a nice PR move like partnering with the Khan Academy is nothing but a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue (and what does it say about the Khan Academy, too?).
It’s time to throw out an anachronistic component of college admissions that is doing nothing but driving an academic arms race among higher education institutions. Instead, let’s focus our efforts on real, substantive issues such as trimming the costs of administrative bloat, addressing the mountainous student debt bubble, and boosting declining state investment in higher education. The bigger news focus this week should have been on efforts such as the new Higher Ed, Not Debt initiative launched by a number of education champions, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
But, instead, we’ve been hearing all about this “new SAT.” As a higher education access and affordability advocate, I could certainly break down the ways in which the changes to the SAT might impact how we work with students as they prepare for and apply to college. But that’s for another day, since — as a higher education access and affordability advocate — I also feel the need to point out when the discussion is heading in the wrong directions.
And that’s the point — because, in the grand scheme of things, until we really shake our college admissions processes free of these measurement tools of privilege and focus on true systemic ways to increase access for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students, changes to the SAT really aren’t that major after all.
At around 5 PM on Wednesday afternoon, RT (formerly Russia Today) anchor Liz Wahl decided to call it quits on-air, accusing the channel of “[whitewashing] the actions of Putin.”
Wahl’s announcement created quite the buzz in media circles. The New York Daily News, temporarily losing track of the date by several decades, declared: “A ‘Russia Today’ anchor broke through the Iron Curtain.” The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Russian Channel’s War Coverage Continues to Cost It Journalists.” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell dubbed Wahl “today’s bravest person on TV.” And Business Insider helpfully proclaimed: “Anchor For Russian Propaganda Channel Dramatically Quits In Protest Live On The Air.”
Perhaps no one was more effusive in his praise for Wahl than James Kirchick, a contributor to The Daily Beast. In an “exclusive” post-resignation correspondence with Wahl, Kirchick reports that, as far back as last August, “Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit.” (Wahl had first contacted Kirchick last year after he had taken a brief hiatus from agitating for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s execution in order to stage a bizarre one-man TV protest against Russia’s undeniably pervasive homophobia — a stunt that lasted two minutes and was utterly unrelated to the panel on which he’d been asked to participate.)
“Wahl did a very brave thing,” Kirchick concluded. “Unlike [Abby Martin, another RT anchor who had expressed her displeasure at Russia's Crimea intervention, two days prior to Wahl], who will continue to cash Putin’s paychecks, Wahl is now out of a job. But that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”
Aside from the obvious absurdity of calling an American anchor working from Washington, D.C. “brave” for publicly denouncing the editorial decision-making process of her foreign employer, Kirchick’s article failed to define what exactly differentiates “real reporters” from “Russian-government funded propagandists.”
This is especially surprising given Kirchick’s own background as a reporter for a government-funded propaganda network. As a recent writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Kirchick and his employer were funded entirely by the United States Congress. RFE/RL got its start in 1949, when it was founded by the anti-Communist organization National Committee for a Free Europe. That organization was launched, in turn, by none other than Allen Dulles, who just four years later would take the helm of the CIA as the Director of Central Intelligence. (He still holds the record for the longest tenure as DCI.)
RFE/RL was itself funded by the CIA as late as 1971, a fact that brought the radio network no small amount of notoriety. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe headed up an American anti-Soviet propaganda operation that “sent 590,415 balloons that carried 301,636,883 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from August 1951 to November 1956.” (The historical legacy of this “extensive propaganda campaign” is recounted on RFE/RL’s web site.)
Today, RFE/RL is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an entity that also supervises other bastions of independent journalism such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. (This is the same Office of Cuba Broadcasting that, during the George W. Bush administration, paid ten reporters varying totals of up to $240,000 each to disseminate anti-Castro opinion — the revelation of which resulted in the termination of three of them by El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald‘s Spanish counterpart.) The BBG is itself under the watchful eye of foreign relations committees in both the House and the Senate, and its budget is set annually by Congressional appropriations committees as well. Last year a former board governor, commenting on an inspector general’s report portraying widespread dysfunction at the BBG, explicitly described the organization’s purpose as “telling [the American] story worldwide.”
Kirchick’s role at RFE/RL included filing American-friendly stories with headlines such as this one, from August 26, 2011: “As Libyan Rebels Assert Control, Calm Descends Over War-Torn Capital.” In that particular piece, published five months after the U.S. and its allies launched a military intervention in Libya that quickly obliterated the operation’s stated objectives (as described by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973), Kirchick bizarrely declared:
As fighting continues in the Libyan capital between rebels and fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of calm has finally settled over most of the city, putting something of an end to what has been the most intense conflict to emerge in the “Arab Spring.”
Precious little has been achieved in Libya since the war that killed Colonel Qaddafi and ended his 42 years of autocratic rule. The country held its first free elections amid much euphoria in 2012, creating a General National Congress that then appointed a new government.
But both bodies have come under criticism for failing to manage the country effectively. Security is deteriorating amid growing corruption and perceived incompetence, and the Congress has been frequently gridlocked by a strong divide between Islamist parties and the more liberal groups that are nervous about the growing power of the Islamists.
Tensions have been rising in recent weeks as the militias that fought the war against Colonel Qaddafi have tried to influence the political process. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel and held for hours in October by militia members who wanted to force his resignation. On Tuesday, two militia groups demanded that the Congress dissolve itself or face the arrest of its members.
You know, “something of an end” to the conflict. It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether Kirchick’s coverage was influenced by the government that funded him.
Indeed, given the reality of his former employer’s history and present (an association which Kirchick happily touts on his own site), it seems particularly incongruous of him to call Liz Wahl brave for stating the below today:
Last night RT made international headlines when one of our anchors went on the record and said Russian intervention in Crimea is wrong. And indeed as a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges — especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents, my grandparents, came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces.
I have family on the opposite side, on my mother’s side, that sees [sic] the daily grind of poverty, and I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the first-hand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country. And that is why personally I cannot be part of network [sic] funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.
Even leaving aside the above confusing litany of digressions — which reads more like a checklist of patriotic cliches than a plausible justification for quitting one’s job on a live television show — there is little courageous about Wahl’s pronouncement. And the timing, coming just two days after her colleague Abby Martin’s more measured criticism of Russian foreign policy — statements that did not, as it turned out, culminate in a melodramatic abdication of the anchor’s perch — is certainly interesting, to say the least. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is Wahl’s apparently sudden epiphany as to RT’s source of funding. One can only surmise, of course, that James Kirchick remained just as blissfully unaware of his own benefactors during his time at RFE/RL.
RT, in responding to Wahl’s accusations, stated:
When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.
Even given the blatant pro-Kremlin slant of RT’s entire oeuvre, it is hard to disagree with the network’s assessment. Wahl leaves RT for an almost certainly brighter future in American journalism: by feuding with her employer — whose bankrollers in the Kremlin are particularly vilified in the popular American mindset at the moment — in such a public manner, she managed both to significantly raise her media profile and to solidify her mainstream American bona fides at the same time. (Hey, it worked for Juan Williams.) Fox News must already be on the phone.
But RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, speaking in the wake of Abby Martin’s on-air critique, scored the most on-point observation:
Media outlets do not exist in a vacuum. Can you really expect any American corporate-owned news network to report a story in a way that goes against the U.S. national interest? Or Euronews to not advocate [European Commission] positions?
Given our own recent history with unjustified violations of other nations’ sovereignties, Simonyan’s question seems fair — “Russian-government funded propagandist” or not. As for James Kirchick, well, it takes one to know one.
Continuum - Young & Sick
Noah Newkirk of Los Angeles made national headlines yesterday when he interrupted an oral argument in the Supreme Court with a protest over the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Newkirk, who had been admitted into the courtroom as a spectator, stood up and made his statement toward the end of arguments for Octane Health LLC v. Icon Health and Fitness, Inc.–a case that involved patent attorneys’ fees, not campaign finance–before being promptly removed by security. Because cameras are not permitted in the courtroom and the Supreme Court does not broadcast its oral arguments live, initial media accounts of the disruption either summarized or quoted only snippets of what Newkirk reportedly said, while the court’s official transcript of the Octane oral argument left out the protest entirely.
Thanks to new video released by a YouTube user named “SCOTUSpwned,” however, we can now see footage of Newkirk’s protest in full, which was clandestinely recorded (and captioned) by an anonymous person sitting in the spectators’ section with Newkirk yesterday. In addition, SCOTUSpwned also posted five other secretly-made videos from two different Supreme Court oral arguments from this term, ranging from four seconds to half an hour in length. I’ve watched all of them and identified the relevant oral arguments where I can, which I describe below. We begin with the first video that SCOTUSpwned uploaded:
Video 1 (MOVI0000) – Timestamped 10/08/13
Burt v. Titlow (argued 10/08/2013): 16 minutes into the video, you hear one of the attorneys, John J. Bursch, say, “[Y]ou can see how that difference played out in this very case because the Sixth Circuit didn’t look at all the other evidence …,” which matches page 55 of the transcript of the Titlow oral argument.
Video 2 (SUNP0000) – Timestamped 1/25/08
It is inconclusive where this was taken, since the video only lasts 4 seconds. Based on the timestamp, however, I believe this was recorded during the same session, by the same person, as Video 4 (which was of the Burt v. Titlow oral argument; see below).
Video 3 (MOVI0036) – Timestamped 1/1/2008
Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness (argued 2/26/2014): 34 seconds into the video, you can hear attorney Carter G. Phillips say, “And then when Congress, in 1952, incorporates the exceptional case standard…” which matches the argument on p. 32 of the transcript.
Video 4 (SUNP0001) – Timestamped 1/25/2008
Burt v. Titlow (argued 10/08/2013): Around 38 seconds into the video, Valerie Newman says, “It appears from the record that he got his information from the media. This was a highly, highly publicized case,” which corresponds with p. 50 of the transcript.
Video 5 (SUNP0019) – Timestamped 6/14/2008
Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness (argued 2/26/2014): 50 seconds in, Roman Martinez says, “Here Congress did not say otherwise. Congress did not embrace a clear and convincing standard,” which matches the dialogue on p. 26-27 of the transcript.
Video 6 (“Supreme Court caught on Video!”) – Timestamped 10/08/13 [UPDATED]
Burt v. Titlow (argued 10/08/2013), Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness (argued 2/26/2014): This video contains footage from two separate oral arguments. The first 1:10 is from Titlow–although it is mislabeled in the video as “the oral arguments… for the case McCutcheon v. FEC” (which was argued the same day as Titlow, but is not the same case). At the 50-second mark, we can hear Valerie Newman, Titlow’s attorney, say “She had already pled, so she had already entered a plea, and all that was left was sentencing,” which matches p. 50 of the argument transcript. The last half of the video is from yesterday’s Octane Fitness v. Icon Health argument and includes Noah Newkirk (captioned as “Kai” in the video) asking the justices to overrule Citizens United. Newkirk waits until Carter G. Phillips says, “If there are no other questions, your honors, I’d urge you to affirm” (p. 48 of the Octane argument transcript) before standing up and protesting. The video then shows him being removed from the courtroom. The anti-corruption grassroots group 99rise, of which Newkirk is a co-founder, took responsibility for the protest and issued a press release that included the full speech Newkirk made in court.
[UPDATE: The original version of this post misidentified the first minute and ten seconds of the video as coming from the McCutcheon v. FEC oral argument, in part due to the caption of the videographer and in part due to the fuzziness of the audio--I believed the female voice I heard was Erin Murphy, a lawyer for the McCutcheon appellants. Upon further audio analysis, however, I realized that the words the female attorney was saying matched up not with the McCutcheon argument transcript but the Burt v. Titlow transcript, and that the voice was Valerie Newman's rather than Murphy's. None of the six videos on SCOTUSpwned's YouTube page are from McCutcheon v. FEC. I regret the error.]
As far as I can tell, these are the first videos of the Court in session to go public, sparking online discussion about the identity of the cameraman, the method they used in compiling this footage (what did they use to film the Court, and how did they get it past security?), and whether this incident might ultimately push the Supreme Court toward or away from allowing live broadcasts of its proceedings.
I’m also wondering whether we can expect a “sequel” from 99rise anytime soon. It appears from the differing timestamps and varying audio quality on some of the videos that multiple people managed to sneak devices in and film the Court (Video 1, for instance, bears the correct date for the oral argument in Burt v. Titlow but makes it difficult to hear the words of the attorneys because it captures mostly the breathing of the cameraman, whereas Video 4 of the same oral argument has an incorrect timestamp but much cleaner audio), but to date, only Noah Newkirk has been thrown out for causing a disturbance. It is unclear whether any other collaborators were caught recording the arguments during yesterday’s scuffles. Since the group obviously cares a great deal about the Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence and made a point to be physically present on the day of the McCutcheon argument (Burt v. Titlow, after all, was argued on the same day as McCutcheon), I’m guessing that they were at the Court yesterday because they believed that the justices were going to issue a ruling in McCutcheon. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but what will they have planned when the Court actually does, and how does Court staff plan to tighten security before that day comes?
Well, this went about as well as could be expected:
By its very nature, House of Cards invites discussion. It entire first season was foisted upon us all at once last February as an early Valentine’s Day present: a tale of escalating palace intrigue that culminated, in Episode 11, with the shocking (and somewhat absurd) murder of Congressman Peter Russo. Season 2, which was released – en masse, once again — to much fanfare on Friday, provoked even larger ripples online, eliciting the ritual thinkpieces, interviews, and meta-analyses.
You’ll forgive me, then, for wading in myself. As a binge-watcher of Season 2 (I finished the finale sometime after midnight on Monday), I fell prey, like so many others, to the seductive guile of Frank Underwood as he marched his way straight into the Oval Office.
Let’s leave plot contrivances aside for a moment. House of Cards may fancy itself pop culture’s sharpest purveyor of political realism, but its broad narrative brushstrokes are nothing if not impressionistic. (Either that or I’m not nearly paranoid enough about my elected officials.)
Much of the conversation sandwiching the release of the second season centered on House of Cards‘ innate cynicism. Ian Crouch, writing for The New Yorker, for example, explained the show’s ethos thusly:
“House of Cards,” back now with its entire second season streaming on Netflix, is a show about contempt. There is contempt in the general, interpersonal sense: the politicians, operatives, journalists, and various other D.C. types all hold one another in especially expressive disregard. (Last season, Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, explained his relationship to his colleagues like this: “They talk while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”) And there is contempt in the legal sense—the plots turn on the subversion and manipulation of rules and regulations, and the breaking of laws (murder, etc.) for personal gain and professional advancement. Ethics, like feelings, are obstacles, and beneath consideration.
Crouch goes on to claim, rather convincingly, that the series saves its most ferocious contempt for its own audience: “We are the ones, after all, who tolerate and thus perpetuate the real-life theatre of venality and aggression from which ‘House of Cards’ derives its plausibility.”
As a description of the political status quo, this is certainly true. Crouch, however, clouds his thesis by emphasizing the cockiness of Beau Willimon, the showrunner whose elimination of yet another principal character in the Season 2 premiere showcased, Crouch reports, “a power trip in which the show and its main character assume parallel roles as bullies.”
While this is a perfectly defensible interpretation of the relationship between House of Cards and its enraptured fan base, it is not, I think, the most accurate one. Contempt implies strength of feeling: it is, after all, one of the telltale signs of a marriage in dissolution. Admittedly, it is often a sign of power inequality as well: the strong feel contemptuous of the weak, not vice versa. Nevertheless, contempt connotes a vigorous degree of hostility.
But it is this precise feature — red-faced rage and its emotionally-charged cousins — that is almost entirely absent from House of Cards‘ dalliance with its viewership. On this, Todd VanDerWerff of A.V. Club hits the right note:
Midway through the season-two finale of House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood confronts one of the many people incredibly pissed off at him backstage at the opera. (It has to be the opera, for House Of Cards does not do subtlety.) The conversation is interrupted by a patron who exits the auditorium, presumably looking for a bathroom. They look over at her as she walks through—both seemingly miffed that she even exists. It’s a scene that summarizes House Of Cards’ relationship to the average American citizen: Everybody in this country is grist for the mill for politicians like Frank, who serve only themselves and carry out their real deal-making far behind the scenes of what’s available to the press and C-SPAN. And don’t you think you have the right to know about it. At best, you’re an irritating inconvenience. At worst, you’re dead.
Contempt is for threats; rivals, even. Contempt is what drove Frank Underwood to send Peter Russo to his makeshift gas chamber in Season 1 and Zoe Barnes to her early demise in Season 2. It is, as a general rule, the principal sentiment vaulting Underwood’s entire career past those of his peers in the House of Representatives and beyond.
But a clear line separates the contempt pervading nearly all of House of Cards‘ interpersonal relationships from its most crucial one by far: that of Frank Underwood’s with the audience. When, in the new season’s premiere, Kevin Spacey at last addresses the viewer, he gazes not directly into the camera, as is his wont, but through a bathroom mirror. As he speaks, the camera pulls in slowly until the frame edging the glass is almost completely obscured: Frank Underwood has met his reflection, and it is us.
Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first—small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.
Ian Crouch views this parting scene as evidence of Willimon’s arrogance:
And then there is one last shot, in case there was any confusion as to the message: a pair of silver cufflinks bearing Frank’s initials. They’d been mentioned before—a birthday gift from his body man—and, called back, they make for a funny visual gag: “F.U.” … We’ve been told, as the Times likes to say, to “commit a physically impossible act.” Frank despises most everybody—why should we be an exception?
But here Crouch misunderstands Underwood and, by extension, Willimon. “F.U.” is the precise opposite of a “power trip:” it is, rather, the ultimate invitation to an insiders’ club. It is a joke so obvious it begs to be understood, a wink that demands a knowing nod. As a sophomoric sight gag, “F.U.” is a souvenir to its audience. But as an epithet, “F.U.” is decidedly not a message to those of us who watch House of Cards: it’s a contemptuous insult for everyone who doesn’t.
From this perspective, the message of House of Cards is remarkably consistent. It is no accident that an unsubtle version of Politico – an online-only publication dubbed Slugline – serves as the most formidable opponent of Underwood as he rapidly scales the Washington political ladder. Indeed, it is only the murder of its most intrepid reporter that reestablishes Underwood’s control over his own destiny, an objective that could only be derailed by a consummate insider such as Zoe Barnes. In a two-season narrative arc dedicated to highlighting Frank Underwood’s utter mastery of his domain, the single common thread uniting him to all of his peers in House of Cards is their overwhelming collective insulation from life outside the Mall.
Indeed, the fiercest contempt in the series is reserved for all of The Others: those who believe in a democratic politics, the power of representative elections, education reform, foreign policy initiatives, the national interest. People who didn’t catch “F.U.” Simpletons, one and all.
Is anyone really supposed to care about any of the particular policy battles waged throughout the first two seasons? Do we even remember what they were? Of course not: we’re here for the spectacle. We’re here, in short, to become insiders too. It is in this arena that House of Cards excels: it masterfully inhabits the universe populated by our politicians and the hordes of journalists who mob their every prepackaged press conference and giggle over their every wayward tweet. Contempt for the real world goes without saying. We are all complicit in trading away accountability journalism for tabloid-style coverage of the daily political grind, and House of Cards is our soma.
Todd VanDerWerff neatly captures this addiction to irrelevance towards the end of his review:
Yet House Of Cards is also weirdly perfect when it comes to what it’s meant to do, which is keep viewers plowing through episodes, regardless of time spent doing so. There are just enough flourishes around the edges…that it’s possible to feel like House Of Cards has something deeper on its mind, even when it’s all but clear it doesn’t. This is sleight of hand that works much better in the middle of the binge, rather than a few hours later, when contemplating whether the plot made any sense.
VanDerWerff appears, at first glance, to be damning House of Cards with faint praise. But it is really quite the opposite: in portraying Washington as a city full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, House of Cards has in fact perfectly captured the reality of modern politics in the era of horse-race journalism.
Proof that supply and demand are not always in perfect equilibrium, at least in the realm of quality journalism:
What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.
Tom Friedman is the most embarrassing of a truly amateur-hour op-ed operation at the Times.
Yesterday I finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Map and the Territory. (Not to be confused with Alan Greenspan’s treatise of the same name.) A rather short book (the paperback version clocks in at 269 pages), it was originally written in French (La carte et le territoire) and translated into English by Gavin Bowd.
It was, in general, an easy read. I wouldn’t place it among my favorites, but then meditations on human deterioration and eventual death — the preoccupations of the Louis CK set, so to speak — were never my forte to begin with.
What caught my attention more, however, was the translation itself. One of the striking features of the novel is the author’s insertion of himself — or some twisted literary version of himself — into the story. Because Houellebecq plays such a central role in the narrative, the book begins to get creative with its references to him. In addition to simply referring to him as Michel Houellebecq, he is alternatively described thusly:
- “He rang the doorbell and waited for about thirty seconds, and the author of The Elementary Particles came to open the door, wearing slippers, corduroy trousers, and a comfortable fleece of undyed wool.”
- “‘That’s a magnificent subject, fucking fascinating even, a genuine human drama!’ the author of Platform enthused.”
- “He hammered on the door for at least two minutes, under a heavy downpour, before Houellebecq came to open it. The author of The Possibility of an Island was wearing gray-striped pajamas that made him vaguely resemble a prisoner in a television series; his hair was ruffled and dirty, his face red, almost with broken veins, and he stank a little.”
- “Nevertheless, the poet of The Art of Struggle stepped back a meter, just enough to allow Jed to take shelter from the rain, without, however, really giving him access inside.”
- “‘Just one bottle?’ asked the poet of The Pursuit of Happiness while stretching his neck toward the label.”
After noticing many of these constructs throughout the book, I began to think this was some sort of literary in-joke: Michel Houellebecq using a fictional version of himself to promote his oeuvre. But several elements conspired against this interpretation as I continued reading. First, Houellebecq wasn’t the only author referred to by the titles of his books, thereby eliminating shameless self-promotion as the likeliest explanation.
Secondly, other parts of the book were clunky as well. In the second excerpt above, for example, “enthused” is used to describe Houellebecq’s statement. As the late novelist Elmore Leonard once wrote, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”
Finally, there were a few tell-tale passages that betrayed the original French lurking just beneath the English translation (even though Gavin Bowd, the translator, is a native Scotsman). One is the following:
Even if he speaks at length about it over several pages, the camera equipment used by Jed had, in itself, nothing very remarkable about it: a Manfrotto tripod, a Panasonic semi-professional cameoscope — which he’d bought for the exceptional luminosity of its sensor, allowing him to film in almost total darkness — and a hard disk of two teraoctets linked to the USB outlet of the cameoscope.
“Teraoctet” is, of course, the French translation of “terabyte.” Similarly:
It was the last important decision he had to take in his life, and Jed feared that this time again, as he used to do when encountering a problem on his building site, he would choose to make a clear-cut choice.
“Taking” a decision, as opposed to making one, is another quintessential French-ism (from prendre une décision).
Evaluated separately, none of these linguistic tics is particularly noticeable. But the cumulative effect is to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the translation as a whole: The Map and the Territory, obsessed as it is with the distinction between a representation and that which is represented, requires a certain delicacy of language.
Bowd appears to have drawn the line at a literal translation: where the French version referred to Michel Houellebecq as the author of The Elementary Particles, for instance, Bowd apparently did the same in English, every time. But it is entirely unclear to my (decidedly non-fluent in French) eyes whether the true meaning was just as accurately conveyed in English as it was in the original French. Here, too, the map is certainly not the territory.
In tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, Amy Chozick delves into the political intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. The online hubbub over the article, titled “Planet Hillary,” actually began on Thursday, when the magazine cover art was released, to widespread bewilderment:
Hillary Rodham Clinton, as you've never seen her, on the cover of this Sunday's NYT Magazine pic.twitter.com/QIsqibZaq5
— David Joachim, NYT (@davidjoachim) January 23, 2014
Anyway, I got around to reading the piece today and couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling about it. It took me a few minutes to realize that “Planet Hillary” was a vintage Politico-esque creation. It deals almost entirely in political maneuvering and the “who’s-in-who’s-out” hysteria endemic to public figures and their extensive entourages. More damningly, it is almost completely devoid of policy discussion.
Granted, there is a place in political journalism for fluffy, narrative-driven, gossip-heavy recaps of the Washington social ladder. But generally speaking, The New York Times has not been that place. (The reliability of that axiom is one major reason I’m a subscriber.) In fact, it is perhaps because of the Times’ historical reticence to portray the constant power shuffling within American politics as equivalent to its counterpart in a typical high-school cafeteria that “Planet Hillary” seemed to meander so aimlessly and conclude in such a random way: the Times simply isn’t good at this kind of thing. Which is itself a good thing.
But after several further minutes of reflection, I noticed a much more specific problem with the piece: it is utterly stacked with anonymous statements and characterizations. To quantitatively confirm my suspicions, I re-read the article, this time marking every statement by any source (including quotes, paraphrases, and descriptions) that met the following criteria:
- It was made to Amy Chozick in the course of her reporting for the article (so “James Carville has compared the Clinton world, perhaps not so originally, to an onion” doesn’t count, because that statement happened outside of Chozick’s reporting)
- It was attributable to one person only (so “Several people close to Clinton have already discussed installing someone to play the role of ‘chief listener’” doesn’t count either, since it represents an aggregate of multiple conversations)
- It was explicitly attributed, whether anonymously or otherwise, to a person (so “When Ready for Hillary held a seminar for donors at Le Parker Meridien hotel last fall to discuss what it would take to win in 2016, Bill Clinton personally checked in with an attendee to ask what was being discussed and who was there” doesn’t count because the anecdote wasn’t directly attributed to any particular source)
Keep in mind that these are extremely conservative criteria. There are, for example, multiple statements attributed to “several people close to Clinton,” “several people close to the Clintons,” “several others,” and “others,” to name a few examples. These I did not count, as it is conceivable that the sources’ collective anonymity was more a function of Chozick’s concision than her sources’ desire for discretion.
I was also, of course, careful to include all instances of named (that is, not anonymous) sources. Consider the following passage from the article:
A few months later, over lunch near the White House, Reines laughed as a couple of meddlesome emails popped up on his BlackBerry from two older Clinton loyalists who had re-emerged since she left State. In between bites of a shrimp cocktail, he called these noodges “space cowboys,” referring to the 2000 film in which Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play aging pilots who reunite to disarm a Soviet-era satellite on one last mission.
I counted this as a named statement, despite the fact that it’s only two words long (“space cowboys”). I’m also counting it as a separate named statement from another quote earlier in the same paragraph by the same source, solely because the statements occurred at different times chronologically. (Elsewhere, I counted him again in an innocuous comment about the names of his kittens.)
Despite all of these precautions, 18 of the 36 statements — exactly 50% — that were made to Chozick in the course of “Planet Hillary” were anonymous (19 of 37 if I’d counted “a foundation spokesman,” which didn’t seem designed to provide discretion, but rather to avoid introducing too many irrelevant names). Here were a few representative examples:
- “Legally she could not participate in fund-raising or political activity, and so the period, noted one staff member, seemed like a quiet four-year pause.”
- “Until recently, her seven personal aides worked out of a tiny Washington office (‘smaller than my first N.Y.C. apartment,’ one aide said in an email) on Connecticut Avenue.”
- “She ‘inspires loyalty, and she’s loyal back,’ another person close to the inner circle says.”
(Emphases mine. You can check my count by viewing my spreadsheet here. Yellow-highlighted rows represent anonymous statements.)
The “Guidelines on Integrity” document available from The New York Times Company’s web site has this to say about anonymous sources:
Anonymity and Its Devices. The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.
Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage states:
[A]nonymity is a last resort, for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification…
If concealment proves necessary, writers should avoid automatic references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity”; rote phrases offer the reader no help. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons. Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable. And, given the requirements of newsworthiness and substance, it should not be invoked for a trivial comment: “The party ended after midnight,” said a doorman who demanded anonymity. (If the doorman simply refused to give his name, that is a less grandiose matter, and the article should just say so.)
Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies. If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.
It is quite clear that the three nameless quotes I excerpted above, as well as others like them, fail to meet the Times‘ threshold for granting anonymity. In some cases, Chozick’s usage is directly contradictory to policy. If anonymity “should not be invoked for a trivial comment,” then the statement by the “one aide” (quoted above) on the size of Hillary Clinton’s Washington office, for example, is certainly a violation of the rule.
Anonymous statements have long been a source of contention with readers, a point Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has raised multiple times. (A 2009 article by a previous public editor for the Times, Clark Hoyt, cited a study finding that almost 80 percent of anonymous statements in the newspaper failed to meet the official New York Times standard.)
“Planet Hillary” seemed to me to be an especially egregious case, as the underlying substance of the article was already paper-thin. The anonymous statements simply added to the puffy feel of the piece itself and contributed to an overall sense of (mostly banal) palace intrigue. Here’s hoping to see less of this in the future.