Archive for the 'journalism' Category

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

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A note to everyone who looks like the people from the bar last night: you’re on my list

[by JSC5]

If you were looking for a concrete example of what I was talking about in my previous post on how terribly puerile our privacy culture is these days, then look no further.* The libertarian/conservative law prof blog Volokh Conspiracy has you covered. Here’s Prof. Kenneth Anderson talking about the effect the JournoList ‘scandal’ has had on his perceptions of reporters in general:

When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much? 

So Kenneth Anderson used to have tremendous respect for Peter Finn’s work as a reporter because of his extensive body of work as a journalist. But post-JournoList, suddenly Kenneth Anderson has grave doubts about Peter Finn’s reporting — so much so that he’s decided to cast aspersions about Finn’s work on a widely-read media outlet.

That’s quite an about-face to be caused by one listserve. For those of you who’ve rationally decided to care more about your own things than the latest inside-the-beltway ‘scandal’, here’s a brief recap. JournoList was a private listserve for center-left journalists, opinion writers, professors, bloggers, and public intellectuals. From what I know, J-Listers used it to chat about current events, policy, sports, gossip, and the state of journalism. Some members clearly used it to let off steam. Dave Weigel, a former journalist/blogger for the Washington Post, famously used it to complain to his friends on JList about Rush Limbaugh and some other celebrities on the right. Someone with an anti-Weigel axe to grind leaked the JournoList archives to a new right-wing website called the Daily Caller. It was a win-win for all involved in the shady deal: the Daily Caller got a bunch of new hits, and the leaker got Weigel fired and may have destroyed his career (we’ll find out in a few years).

Some conservative media outlets decided to run with the story that JournoList was a liberal cabal coordinating stories and manipulating the news. The evidence to support this view is pretty weak / non-existent, but that hasn’t stopped some people – like Kenneth Anderson – from moving into full freak out mode.

It’s probably unfair to single out Kenneth Anderson, since there are plenty of other examples, but I think it’s important to have a concrete example of how insane our culture has become. Anderson used to have a very high opinion of some journalist named Finn based on years of experience consuming and appreciating  his reporting. But now that some partisan hack media outlets are publishing vague accusations of journalistic misconduct among a group of people on J-List, Anderson is suddenly extremely distrustful of ALL JOURNALISTS. I apologize for the profanity, but that’s just fucking nuts. I’ll echo my colleague JSC7 in asking why vague allegations about JList, or specific citations of intemperate words said in private, should be such a powerful signal that should change a person’s professional credibility despite years and years of actual work product that could provide a more accurate source of judgment?

Let me put this another way: A random, untrustworthy dude on the street comes up to you and says that some heinous shit went down at a local bar last night. Do you (A) dismiss the bum’s allegations and go on with your life unless you get some actual, credible information, or (B) gasp in horror and publicly question the morals and credibility of anyone who even looks like the people who would have been in that bar last night — even if you had just recently asked one of them to be your newborn child’s godfather?

Common sense says (A). Certain oh-so-earnest and concerned political operatives on the right say (B).

Does this mean that everything about JournoList was above board? I don’t know. I wasn’t on it. But nothing yet has come out that makes me think JournoList was any more problematical than an office water cooler. So like any sane, good-spirited person, I’m choosing not to believe the worst and most outlandish conspiracy theories until I see some credible evidence. I’d like to even stop reading, writing, or caring about this topic untill/unless this credible evidence materializes. Unfortunately, the cause of maintaining standards of decency and privacy is too important.

* The title of the piece in question, as you’ll notice if you click through, is “A note to all the non-JList reporters”. Combine that with my bar analogy later in the post and you have the odd title to my blog post. Sorry about that.

What is an objective journalist?

[by JSC7]

As usual, unfashionably late to the party on the whole Dave Weigel “What happens on the mailing list stays in the mailing list” fiasco, but watching it play out has been a doozey. Here’s JSC5 bigger picture take, the Bernstein post he commented on, and some other reactions (1, 2, 3, 4). I don’t know, the whole thing seems to be one straw man after another. The one reasonable point that people have made is that reporters can have strong opinions about whatever topic they cover, though I feel like even there the analysis tended towards abstraction. Would we get up in arms if an environmental journalist sent a private e-mail talking smack about BP? Would we get angry about a correspondent in Burma told a buddy that he hoped the junta would set themselves on fire?

You can’t answer no to that question, yes to the Weigel equivalent, and still believe in the objectivity of news. If you answer the two questions differently, it’s probably because you think there’s something inherently worse about the Burmese junta than merits aggressive reporting from contrarian reporters, and that that something is lacking in conservative U.S. politics (Weigel’s beat). Now, that might be true, but if you think that reporting should change based on your opinions about the topic being reported on, then you’re not asking for objective news, because objective news would presumably have some standards that are independent from your personal tastes.

Which brings me to the bigger topic, which I haven’t seen mentioned in the Weigel case, which is how the hell do we measure objectivity in journalism in the first place? We can call a journalist voluminous, hardworking, concise and precise with his facts, but how do we go about calling him objective? In psychology there’s a word signaling, which means using something to signify something else (like, walking with a swagger to signal that your genes are the awesome). Weigel’s Journolist rant was taken as a signal of his lack of objectivity. Somehow, this rant managed to outweigh whatever signals of objectivity his entire opus of journalistic work was emitting.

This should be setting off red flashing alarms. I would hope that the Washington Post had some kind of opinion about Weigel’s objectivity before they saw the rant. If you called the in 2009 and asked them, hey, is Weigel an objective reporter?, they could have done more than shrug their shoulders. Somehow, though, a few lines about Matt Drudge’s self-immolation totally tipped the scales.

What this suggests to me is that it’s really hard to tell an objective journalist from a non-objective one. I haven’t heard anything more rigorous than a bells-and-whistles version of “I like to think I’m objective, and I like Weigel’s reporting.” If a show of hands is the best we’ve got, well, then we don’t got much, and whether Weigel should or should not have been fired is not the question we should be asking. Instead, we should be asking why ancillary factors like Journolist rants can totally change our evaluation of articles that have, without complaint about their objectivity, already been edited, published and consumed.

State-owned enterprises

[by JSC5]

A good illustration of the incoherence of our discourse about government-owned enterprises, from today’s NYT:

Neil M. Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program of the Treasury Department, said both carmakers [GM and Chrysler] needed to shut down some underperforming dealerships. But it questioned whether the cuts should have been made so quickly, particularly during a recession. The report, released on Sunday, estimated that tens of thousands of jobs were lost as a result.

After having read and watched most of Mr. Barofsky’s congressional testimony for a one of my jobs, I can honestly say that I think he’s done a great job as Special Inspector General for TARP. This latest SIGTARP report, however, seems to suffer from a problem shared by just about all analysts, commentators, politicians, and academics who work on bailout issues and the problems of state ownership. What exactly are our goals with these bailed-out institutions? Should we run them for the public benefit, or run them as businesses to return them to profitability as soon as possible? Or do we have hybrid, competing goals?

I think conservatives (and the rest of us!) were worried that state-owned enterprises would get treated like adjunts of the state and be forced to operate suboptimally in order to support public goals like employment. It now turns out that the Administration, perhaps afraid this perception, has been very aggressive in pursuing profit-maximizing personnel cuts and dealership reorganizations. Does anyone think this will win the Administration any love from conservatives (or from the rest of us)? If anything, the Adminstration is now catching flack for not doing enough to support employment.

All I’m saying is, we need to decide what the proper goals for SOEs are. And then we need to tell SIGTARP, congressional representatives, and everyone else in the system, so that we don’t get whiplash going from shouts of “socialism!” to “free market ideolog!” in 2.6 seconds.

The internet and privacy: stop taking the easy way out

[by JSC5]

[Update: Thanks to Jonathan Bernstein for linking to this on his site and giving us our biggest readership day since we started. For all of you new-comers, if you like what you see, please feel free to look around the rest of the site and sign up for our RSS feed.]

Jonathan Bernstein may be (is!) a brilliant analyst of the structure of American politics in the modern era, but I really hope people don’t start taking his words of wisdom on other major life issues seriously:

Kids: never, ever, ever, write something anywhere that you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.  Forget the WaPo; the universe is going to make you suffer, and it’s just brutal.

Let’s imagine I’m an impressionable kid and I take Jonathan’s advice seriously. What effect does it have on me? I’ll give just two of many examples:

  1. I’m going to have a hell of a time maintaining long distance relationships of any kind (friendship, family, romantic). The phone only really works if you pre-plan a meeting time that works for both of your schedules, a challenge that becomes especially thorny if you’re calling across time zones. Written communication opens up the possibility of regular, spontaneous contact — the kind of contact that social relations thrive on — by letting the sender write when she has the opportunity and the receiver read it when he’s got a free minute. But would I really want the New York Times to run with the hyperlinked headline: “So-and-So Calls Shake Weight Ad ‘Funny as Shit’ ‘” ? Like an inmate or an astronaut, I guess I better restrict my long distance relationships to a once-a-week phone call from now on.
  2. I will never go on the record with an opinion stronger than “I guess it could be defensible to conclude X, but proponents of !X make some good points, too.” This one’s a no-brainer. It’s really hard to know what the big issues of the day will be 10, 20, or 50 years from now when people might be digging through my written record for a quote to exploit. No one’s ever been impeached for saying they love America, apple pie, and grandma — or for omitting their opinion entirely. If I want to have a successful career, clearly I’m going to have to turn into either a blithering idiot of a stereotypical politician on the one hand, or Elena Kagan on the other.

Whether we’re talking about private missives or public pronouncements, Jonathan Bernstein’s advice to keep yourself out of the written record is just terrible. When so much of who we are is mediated by writing, it’s detrimental to humanity to tell young people that the tyranny and whim of public standards of acceptability should determine who they are and what they write.* And unfortunately, Bernstein’s advice seems to be pretty common. The popular reaction to the Weigel affair, which Bernstein is writing about, seems to be: hey, he shouldn’t have written those emails with the expectation of privacy, and he should have known what was coming to him if they got out. That’s the typical advice to young people regarding internet privacy, and privacy in general.

Maybe it’s good strategic advice for an individual — but, given the developmental and experiential importance of putting yourself in your writing, maybe it’s not. Either way, it is a terrible standard to be advocating to the public. We desperately need to move away from a society that invests zero effort in understanding what someone is really trying to say and instead focuses on the ‘controversy’ surrounding the statement itself. We desperately need to move away from a society that doesn’t give a damn about context, presumptions of privacy, or the complicated inner world of all human beings.

I think most people realize we need to end this culture of public tyranny. And yet very few people seem to be willing to argue against it when it matters. Telling someone you’ll keep your trap shut if ya know what’s good for ya may help him avoid getting whacked by the mob, but it won’t do much to end the reign of terror of La Cosa Nostra. And that is, after all, what we need to do.

*This may seem at odds with my previous post on Elena Kagan, in which I defended her for making sacrifices and structuring her life to maximize her odds of ascending to the Supreme Court. I’d separate these two posts by noting that Kagan is an individual who should be free to choose the life she wants, which apparently involved neutering her public, written opinions in order to have success in her profession. That’s a legitimate choice for an individual to make, and far be it from me to start criticizing her work-life balance. People are allowed to prefer work. Jonathan Bernstein’s advice, however, applies more broadly to just about everyone, and affirms the principle that we all ought to judge others and expect to be judged by whatever the prevailing standards of middle-of-the-road, vanilla opinions are these days. As a standard that would apply to everyone, I find this very disagreeable and worthy of ridicule.

JSC’s brush with blogging fame

Our faithful readers will be happy to know that when there’s not a smorgasbord of vague topics engaging our talents of producing excessive word counts, we at JSC sometimes spend our time hobnobbing with the international blogging elite. On Monday night, along with a co-worker and Beijing’s uncontested cupcake queen, I met for drinks with Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and Brad Plumer, who are on a journalist trip through China. Aside from some great anecdotes that stem from the words “journalist” and “China” popping up in the same sentence, it was fun to hear their views on the country and argue a few of our own (my co-worker and I represent two-thirds of the shadowy “ex-pats who run a small company trying to spread Western educational techniques” mentioned in Ezra’s post).

Now that you’re sufficiently disarmed and dazzled by my lifestyle, there’s a cool lesson from this. I arranged the meeting by sending a message to Ezra through the Washington Post website, telling him that there were some entrepreneurs in Beijing who would love to meet up and chat about China. Now, in a well-functioning world, there would be someone more important than me to get in touch with him. Whatever your opinion about blogging, these guys represent an important slice of public debate in the United States. If you’re a China scholar, or some kind of official willing to meet off record, or even an American Chamber of Commerce official, don’t you try to pull these guys off to the side for a few hours? Anyone? Bueller?

This is an example of an important school of philosophy, which goes by the name of “people in important positions are not on top of their own business”-ism (another fun example was a story a friend told me about how last week during Hillary’s visit to China, she was doing a speech and some totally unrelated guy got up on stage while she was standing for a photograph, ran up, shook her hand, said some words, and walked off, without anything happening. Secret Service? Bueller?). Anyway, if you live in a country that someone important is visiting, try to shoot them an e-mail. There’s a good chance they’re holed up in a fancy hotel looking for an excuse to get out.

Say what, Tom Friedman?

I don’t know why Tom Friedman is still a prominent public ‘intellectual’. The man has a really tough time coming up with an argument that doesn’t assume, as the old yarn goes, that the plural of story is data – as anyone who struggled through The World Is Flat will tell you. If, like me, you had to put his book down after the third OMG! anecdote involving a random CEO, a first class airline lounge, and a developing country, and you’ve been living in fear for years that everyone else on the planet thinks the book is actually good and only you hated it, then you’ll really, really appreciate these three brilliant Friedman reviews by Matt Taibbi.

With that as background, let’s look at Mr. Friedman’s recent opinion column in which he pretends like he knows something about political science. The core of his argument:

I want a Tea Party of the radical center. Say what? I write often about innovation in energy and education. But I’ve come to realize that none of these innovations will emerge at scale until we get the most important innovation of all — political innovation that will empower independents and centrists, which describes a lot of the country.

He goes on to advocate non-partisan redistricting committees as well as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Bam, you’ve just been Friedmaned. But whereas a highly-paid, jet-setting columnist gets to disregard actual human knowledge in favor of pulling things out of his ass, we in the small-time blogging world of Joint Stock Company like to keep things a little classier. So here’s an evidence-based look at Friedman’s four key assumptions that make his argument work (or not):

  1. Independents and centrists make up “a lot of the country”
  2. Gerrymandering promotes partisanship
  3. STV reform would empower the center of the political spectrum and reduce partisanship.
  4. Moderates actually care about good governance, balanced budgets, debt reduction, and innovation.

Let’s go point by point.

First up, ‘Independents’. This one’s the easiest, since political scientists have been debunking the Myth of the Independent for over 20 years now. You can read up on some of the details on these posts from a great professional poly sci blog. The take-home lesson is that political independents aren’t actually very independent. Most are just partisans who prefer to call themselves ‘independent’ because it sounds a whole lot better. Who would you believe, the party hack, or the independent-minded bloke? Case closed. The fact is there are very few true Independents in our country. Most people are strong to mild Democrats or Republicans.

Next up, the much-maligned gerrymandering of districts. There’s actually been some academic research into the effects of gerrymandering on partisanship recently (pdf), and the researcher could not find a significant effect. This squares with arguments from policy wonk bloggers, who don’t think that gerrymandering is the source of partisanship in America.

On to voting reform. I’m actually a big fan of the Single Transferable Vote, but I don’t think it would do what Friedman seems to think it would do.  As Yglesias noted on his own Friedman response: ” The dynamics of a political system that features a President, along with a congress, creates incentives for politicians to try to fit themselves into one of the two major parties. That’s at least part of the reason why the Blue Dog group in the House has preferred to organize itself as a party faction rather than a free-floating centrist party. Moving to an STV system might push more moderate legislators in the direction of trying to run as third parties, or it might expose those legislators to third-party challenges from the left.” Or perhaps what STV would actually do would be to empower the extreme right and left (as happens often in multi-party parliaments in other countries, as DiA notes). In other words, if you’re looking for a slam-dunk path to reducing partisanship, STV ain’t it. [Though STV is great for many, many other reasons].

Finally, the actual politics of the center. Friedman wants the center to be the sober, responsible political group that will cut spending, raise taxes, and invest in education, energy, and business innovation. I sympathize, because I, too, yearn for many of Friedman’s goals. But I don’t see much reason to believe that the center of the political spectrum is where I’m likely to find like-minded individuals. Why? This one’s harder to argue on evidence than the previous 3 points (because there’s just not much data on it), but my strong hunch is that people in general love government spending when they and people like them are net recipients, and tend to dislike it when they aren’t. That’s how you get welfare state farmers complaining about spending health care reform, and Medicare recipients bashing food stamps. It’s the simple ethnocentric formula we’ve always had as a species: in-group = good, out-group = bad. For an interesting read on ethnocentrism and support for various types of government spending, see this interesting book and blog post. Are we to expect that somehow the people in the center are magically exempt from what look like general trends for the rest of the population?

In summary, Friedman is right in that he political process is hyperpartisan, but that’s because we as a people are hyperpartisan (contra Friedman). Creating a non-partisan redistricting process may be a good thing to do, but there’s no reason to think it will change the partisan nature of our politics. STV is great on its own merits, but there’s no reason to think it would increase or decrease partisanship either way. The smart way to handle modern partisanship is to realize that it’s here to stay. The idealized bipartisanship of the past was a result of political parties that were riven by race, and only after decades of ideological re-sorting following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did we finally arrive at a modern, ideological party system in the 1990s. Putting Friedman’s ignorance of the evidence to one side for the moment, the bigger problem with his column is his quixotic quest to 1) pretend that magical people in ‘the center’ are not partisan, and 2) empower them. Why not take people as they are, and change our naive institutions so that they can function in our brave, new, partisan world? Ending the filibuster, anonymous holds, and unanimous consent in the Senate would be a good start, and eminently more practical than waiting for the Godot of a reasonable, policy-oriented, Independent movement.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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