Friday, January 27, 2023


I'm not sure I could even name a favorite A.J. Liebling column.* Last couple decades, I've been much more in the "what delicate filleting from seven decades ago does this bit of brain-dead yapping from Fox News remind me of the most?" Monday, it was "Antepenultimatum" (Sept. 27, 1946). 

Liebling's topic was a "conspicuously civilized note ... telling the Yugoslavs that if they didn't rurn loose the surviving occupants of two American planes shot down by them, the United States would complain to the Security Council." He likened this to threatening your obstreperous neighbor with a lawsuit, rather than threatening to break his neck: "An ultimatum, I had always understood, is a threat to break the neck. ... Serbia received an ultimatum from Yugoslavia in 1914."

Imagine my delight when Fox's No. 4 story Monday morning** (the above is from around 8 Eastern) proclaimed that Poland had announced plans to send the Leopard 2 main battle tank to Ukraine, despite Germany's interest in delaying: 

Morawiecki said Poland had been building a coalition of countries prepared to send Leopards to Ukraine even without approval from Germany.

"We will ask [Germany] for permission, but this is a secondary theme," Morawiecki said. "Even if, eventually, we do not get this permission, we — within this small coalition — even if Germany is not in this coalition, we will hand over our tanks, together with the others, to Ukraine."

Back to Liebling:

Journalists, and especially the fellows who write for the press assocations, have a habit of using the strongest word they can think of in the lead of a story, even when the word really means something else. Headline writers often base their eye-smackers on the strongest word in the lead. That's the only reason I can think of for the use of the word "ultimatum" in every New York newspaper on Thursday, August 22."

You can see why, after a dose of ULTIMATUM GIVES TITO 48 HOURS TO FREE FLYERS, YUGOS GET ULTIMATUM and the like, Liebling "felt like we had left the diving board and would hit the surface of the third World War any second." (And if you too had had enough of UKRAINE: WORLD WAR III OR COLD WAR II? by the end of February, I expect he was nodding along.)

The fun continued when the story moved into the lead around 10 a.m.:

Germany will not stop Poland from delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Germany's foreign minister announced Sunday.

If Germany has mastered time travel to the point where it can cave in on Sunday to the Monday ultimatum, the rest of NATO should worry a bit that it doesn't send the damn things back to, oh, October 1941 or so. But I digress.

Liebling took himself to the references, starting with "a ninety-five-cent dictionary which I bought one time in a cigar store and which gives only one meaning for each word" and ending with the 13-volume Oxford, which gave pretty much the explanation the OED has today: 

In diplomacy, the final terms presented by one power (or group of powers) to another, the rejection of which may lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, and eventually to a declaration of war.

Because the OED is a fine place to play "that's been a verb longer than Missouri has been a journalism school," the next entry (barely two years younger) is worth noting:

A final condition or stipulation; one's last word on a matter.

Not everything in news is subject to the sort of know-it-when-I-see-it framing contagion that makes for crises or tragedies. Newsrooms are -- usually -- still careful to look up "hurricane" or "blizzard" before declaring one, even if they're consistently careless with "hurricane-force winds." And terrorism is often carefully licensed; it's always worth noting when an outlet like Fox calls "terror" on its own and when it waits for permission. sLiebling suspects a form of the latter: "a State Department public-relations official who, asked at a press conference 'if it is all right to call this thing an 'ultimatum,' may have answered, 'Sure, boys, go ahead.'"

With all that logged in, though, there's a point to Libling's prescriptivism: " I fear that I detected, in their taking the gloomiest possible view of the situation, a certain eagerness on the part of most of the newspapers" -- evidenced by what he saw as the Mirror's later regret that the pesky Yugoslavs had complied. Given the choice between Media Conspiracy and Media Stupid, my money is usually on the latter, but when Fox is out ahead of the world on the ultimatum front, I'm always inclined to give the old guy a listen.

* Granted,it's hard to go wrong with "Offers and Demands" (Jan. 26, 1963), but look at the competition
** The story at the link has been updated, though it still has the "5:49 am" time stamp.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Eyes 1, Brain 0

 The Fair 'n' Balanced Network is telling the truth here, you bet. It even has the direct quote to prove it! Let's look at the first three paragraphs of Wednesday morning's No. 2 story: 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador challenged President Biden on his "forgetfulness" to help Latin American countries during the North American Leaders' Summit Monday. He also encouraged him to prioritize fixing the migration crisis affecting the U.S.-Mexico border.

While public comments mostly struck a positive tone, López Obrador pressed Biden over his "abandonment" and "forgetfulness" to help Central American countries.

"This is the moment for us to determine to do away with this abandonment, this disdain, and this forgetfulness for Latin America and the Caribbean," Lopez Obrador said during a press conference Monday.

You can forgive the standard-issue Fox viewer, accustomed to stories about the president's memory issues, for reaching the conclusion that Fox intended before reaching the one that AMLO intended. Eyes 1, Brain 0, top of the 5th.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

'This is the reality they stole from us!'

First thing that came to mind on reading "Twitter Files" writer Matt Taibbi's "delerious reflections" on the process was: Did anybody think about getting him an A.J. Liebling anthology for Christmas? Because he might see something in Liebling's reflections on the World's Greatest Newspaper from 1950:

The visitor to Chicago, awakening unalarmed in his hotel room and receiving the Tribune with his breakfast tray, takes a look at the headlines and finds himself at once transported into a land of somber horror. ...  As he turns the pages of the Tribune, the stranger is likely to get the feeling that some of the people and events he is reading about superficially resemble people and events he remembers having read about in the world outside, but he never can be sure.

That's been my overall response to the "Twitter Files" frenzy. If you're concerned that "the version of the world that was spat out at us from them seemed distorted," wait until you hear about television! Or radio. Or, given that Hearst papers accounted for nearly a fourth of US Sunday circulation as FDR began his first term, the humble newspaper. If you're new to framing theory, here's Robert Entman's explanation from 1993:

To frame is to  select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

If you can shake off the moral panic over the smartphone as your overlord, you could bring in a number of other theories as well. Cultivation (people who watch a lot of TV tend to think the real world looks like its televised counterpart), agenda-setting (people tend to think issues that get a lot of coverage are important) and the "hostile media" perception (partisans of opposing football teams, or political parties, tend to think the game story is biased against their side) all explain different aspects of how the world outside -- stealing one from Walter Lippmann here -- comes to form the pictures in our heads. There's no constitutional right to a comfy world in which the other idiots out there agree with you.

How long have those pesky media been stealing reality from us? In American journalism, since before there was a United States. I won't complain if you say the Elizabethan age; here's one from the Big Securitization Book:

If you encountered the right balladeer at the right public square in London in 1588, you could learn the names of the 14 recently executed traitors, embedded in a moral lesson about the deserts of treason and conveniently sung to “Greensleeves.”

So aside from the persistent inability, First Amendment-wise, to reliably distinguish social media from the government at better than coin-toss levels, what baffles me most about the "Twitter Files" is the quaint belief that someone -- generally "our elite overlords" or some variant on that -- monkeyed with Twitter and ruined forever the level media playing field on which American politics had played out from the dawn of time through 2019 or so.

To which one could go on and on, but -- has AM radio just entirely vanished from public consciousness, or did none of you out there hear Rush Limbaugh's "Largest Radio Rally in History," featuring two hours or so worth of Donald Trump (to the point where Limbaugh was trying to nudge him off stage*) four weeks before the 2020 election?

True, the infamous Hunter Biden laptop (or the copy of its hard drive, or whatever) doesn't come up in that transcript, but it was certainly no secret to the Limbaugh audience in the weeks before the election. You can try your own site search at (replete with complaints about the rest of the media). What you can't do is say that reality was somehow stolen from you because your message wasn't front and center on every platform. That's Richard Hofstadter territory:

... The modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

The Twitter Files don't presage another Great Brown Scare (in which assorted "vermin press" figures actually did go on trial) or a crusade against the African American press like J. Edgar Hoover's earlier in World War II (cheered on by right-wing columnists like Westbrook Pegler). They don't herald a war of extermination like the one against the German-language press in the US in 1917-18 (to the satisfaction of the big conservative papers). That's not to say the files raise no concerns at all; it is a mild suggestion that we pay a bit more attention to what reality looks like before we report it stolen.

Yes, we need to stick up for the First Amendment when it's under threat. Yes, it protects your right to say what you damn please about public affairs. But it doesn't require me to go down to the basement and find an amplifier and an extension cord to help you out.

* I was listening, kids. It's my job.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Making things up about the stylebook

You’d think a truce had been declared in the War on Christmas or something if the comrades at The Daily Signal (“multimedia news platform” of the Heritage Foundation) have time to turn their attention to this:

Journalists are being told not to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” when writing about abortion. 

Fond of the passive as we are around here, that’s the sort of passive that ought to get your attention, herding-cats-wise.

The Associated Press issued new guidelines for the topic of abortion Monday. The writing stylebook says to now “use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don’t use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.”

Do tell!

The Associated Press is the most common stylebook among journalists, used by news outlets on the political left and right, including The Daily Signal. However, the updated abortion guidelines are one set of writing rules The Daily Signal will not be following. 

Who’s going to break it to them? Kids, these are not "new guidelines." The same language appears in the 2018 edition. And here's the "abortion" entry from 2014:

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and pro-abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

2002 is almost identical (both also include the caution about "abortionist"):

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

Read more »

Monday, November 08, 2021

Peak Fox

 That's the trouble with turning your back on Fox -- the backlog piles up until you hardly know where to start digging. But this Monday evening lead story deserves a special prize of some sort, because it has nothing (no, literally) to do with the text it links to.

Fox's stylistic flailing over the past few days has brought up some entertaining signals about news practice. Friday's top headlines played with "mega-spending bills" and "costly agenda" before setting on "socialist spending bill." By Saturday, it was "Swamp Spending Spree" and "MEGA-SPENDING agenda" (the excess caps in the subheds have a certain redtop flavour to them). The shift to listing all the zeroes in "massive $1,200,000,000,000 infrastructure is a style violation," but you have to admit it looks more dramatic than "$1.2 trillion," even when Fox doesn't remember to put in all the zeroes.* So the "YOUR money" above isn't too far out of tune, even if, you know, that's sort of where public funding comes from. But back to Our Top Story:

White House correspondent April Ryan was ridiculed on Monday after asking Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the racism "built into the roadways."

During the White House press briefing, Buttigieg was taking questions about the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed through Congress last week. Ryan took the opportunity to ask Buttigieg about the Biden administration's plans to "deconstruct the racism" that’s built into America's infrastructure. 

 Hang on to the "was ridiculed" for a bit, because we have a specific bridge to talk about, right?

 "Also can you give us the construct of how you will deconstruct the racism that was built into roadways?" Ryan asked.

Ryan then referenced an earlier interview Buttigieg gave The Grio in April when he said "there is racism physically built into some of our highways."

"I’m still surprised that had some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would have been, in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices," Buttigieg responded during the press briefing.

He added "I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality, and I think we have everything to gain by acknowledging it and then dealing with it, which is why they are reconnecting communities that billion dollars is something we want to get to work right away putting to work."

Ahem? Bridge? MY money?

Republicans and critics piled on Ryan's question for insinuating that roads are "racist."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted, "The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads."

Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance also weighed in.

And at this point we're into the standard "blasted" or "mocked" Fox story: quote-tweeting the Usual Suspects (if you're looking for a content analysis project, go see which ones you can associate with which Fox bylines). But still no bridge:

... Ryan has been criticized for her liberal bias and for openly cheering on Democrat officials. In December, the CNN political analyst praised former President Obama in light of his new memoir.

"You cannot work in that special, unique place and not have memories, and you are one of my fondest memories, and I thank you," she wrote on Instagram.

We can't exactly call the hed a lie, since there may yet be some trillion dollar plan funded with YOUR money that singles out a racist bridge for doom. Somehow, you'd think a Fox reader would want to know that.

* Thanks, Garrett

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Roaring and bubbling

Good thing there's no international mayhem or weather turmoil to cover at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network! Here's the No. 5 story on the homepage from Wednesday evening:

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were spotted strolling the beach in the Hamptons, east of New York City, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal roars back into public consciousness via an upcoming television special.

The sullen pair, accompanied by Secret Service, walked along a beach in the affluent Amagansett, New York, before Hillary took a brief break on a boardwalk while Bill briefly walked off before rejoining her and continuing on the walk.

As the inside hed notes, the spotting took place "weeks before miniseries" (by which it appears to mean Sept. 7, allegedly the release of a 10-part FX series called "Impeachment: American Crime Story"). But why waste time on details when there's more BREAKING NEWS? For example, the No. 5 story on the Saturday homepage:

Chelsea Clinton was spotted out for a jog in the Hamptons Thursday, weeks before her family’s personal life will be brought back into the national spotlight in the form of a documentary on her father’s impeachment.

Clinton, 41, was seen in several pictures, obtained by Page Six, out on a solo run wearing bike shorts, running shoes, and a shirt from a popular Manhattan restaurant after keeping a low-profile during most of the pandemic.

Funny, each story concludes with the same three paragraphs:

The show, a 10-part miniseries, stars Clive Owen as Bill Clinton, Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky.

The show's executive producer, Brad Simpson, recently said he doesn't think anyone in the Clinton camp has seen the series and doesn't suspect that they will watch it.

"No one, as far as we know, from the Clinton camp has seen this series," Simpson said. "Of course, I’m curious what they would think. I don’t imagine she will watch, no matter how emphatic we are to her."

One has to wonder what they'll come up with next. Actually, one doesn't.


Monday, August 23, 2021

And sit up straight when I'm talking to you

If you wandered into the Fair 'n' Balanced homepage Monday afternoon from somewhere in the adult world, the presuppositions in the No. 4 story might have seemed a little unusual:

Former "View" co-host Meghan McCain scolded Vice President Kamala Harris Monday for laughing when asked about the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, comparing the "craven" veep to Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally troubled character in the 2019 film "Joker."

Harris initially laughed when asked about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the controversial evacuation process as Americans try to exit the country due to the Taliban’s swift takeover. Harris has a long history of laughing when confronted with tough questions and famously giggled on multiple occasions when she was asked about visiting the southern border

Long history, famously giggled -- but wait! There's more:

... Phoenix’s "Joker" also suffered from uncontrollable laughter, sometimes at inappropriate times. He was eventually driven insane and became a psychopathic murderer. McCain made the comparison after Harris burst into laughter when a reporter shouted a question seeking her response to reports of Americans being trapped in Afghanistan.

"Hold on, slow down everybody," Harris said while laughing. She eventually answered the question but critics slammed her for appearing to find humor in the questions.

If you're new here, let's flash back to March and the best-known case of Fox policing Harris's inability to sit up straight and act like a young lady. Here's the No. 2 story from March 22:

Vice President Kamala Harris laughed while responding to a question from a reporter who asked Monday if she would be visiting the border amid the growing migrant crisis.

While taking questions from reporters outside of Air Force One, Harris was asked if she had "plans to visit" the southern border as the immigration crisis continues to develop.

The vice president responded to the query with a "not today" before laughing. She continued on to say that she had visited "before" and that she probably would go back.

The White House did not immediately respond to Fox News’ question as to whether they thought Harris’ response was appropriate, given the situation at the border that the Biden administration refuses to call a "crisis."

Things got worse the next day, because backlash:

Vice President Kamala Harris is facing a backlash after laughing when a reporter asked if she planned to visit the southern border amid the migrant crisis.

"Kamala Harris laughs at a reporter who asked her if she has plans to visit the border. Don’t believe this administration when they say they are serious about solving this crisis," Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

And by the time we got to reporting on the afternoon talk shows March 30, Fox was in full behavior-cop mode:

The Biden administration's border policies are creating a catastrophe for everyone, Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich said Tuesday on "Outnumbered," in reaction to migrants receiving in-person schooling in San Diego while American students are continuing to learn from home. Pavlich blasted Vice President Kamala Harris for laughing off a question about the subject.

KATIE PAVLICH: "I don’t understand what she thinks is funny. American parents are getting screwed. Their kids are falling behind and the very people Democrats claim to be standing up for, minority students, aren’t getting an education and aren’t going to be able to compete with their peers in the United States. Not to mention across the world. And just on a basic staffer level, has nobody sat down with the vice president and said, you have to stop laughing when you’re asked serious questions. It makes you look out of touch, it makes you look incompetent. That’s a basic thing that they should’ve fixed by now.

Questions don't become "tough" or "serious" by themselves, of course. They become "tough" through being asked by Fox reporters. Here's a Peter Doocy example:

Doocy also asked about news that copies of Harris’ children’s book "Superheroes Are Everywhere," published in 2019, were given to migrant children arriving in the U.S.

Even Fox eventually had to admit that the "Superheroes" story was bogus:

At least one copy of Harris’ children’s book, "Superheroes Are Everywhere," was made available for migrant children arriving at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, a recently converted influx facility, along with basic hygiene supplies and clothing. The book was part of a citywide book and toy drive to support the migrant children staying there.  

... EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, it was implied there were multiple copies of Harris' book available for children in welcome packs. 

By July 3 (yeah, slow holiday weekend), her uppity impudent cackle had become the lead story:*

Jesse Watters said Friday on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ that Vice President Kamala Harris' signature 'cackle' is a "defense mechanism" when she is faced with a question she can't answer or doesn't want to respond to, adding that it often is employed to lighten the interview – which he said notably failed during a recent back-and-forth with NBC News anchor Lester Holt.

JESSE WATTERS: as someone who made his career doing man-on-the-street interviews, I feel like I am uniquely qualified to recognize when someone is uncomfortable in public -- and yes, this is a sign of discomfort when she's presented with the topic or question, when she's unsure or uncomfortable, she results to cackling.

In our industry, we refer to this as a defense mechanism. In layman's terms, it perhaps would be a glitch in the system, a tick, or a 'tell' in poker and she does it for several reasons: One, to soothe her anxiety. Two, to buy her time if she's unsure, she can use that time to formulate a response. Three, to kind of guide the vibe of the interview from a serious to a less serious one, and then finally, it is kind of a lame attempt to form a bond with the person asking her a tough question. 

Going back to last fall, one could point out that the laugh is often a response to a "stupid" question

Sen. Kamala Harris D-Calif., laughed when asked during an interview Sunday if she would advocate for a “socialist or progressive perspective” if elected.

CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell asked Harris the question during a "60 Minutes" interview with her and the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

... and even then can quickly spin off a second story:

Podcast host and author Ben Shapiro on Monday ripped Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for laughing at an interviewer who asked if she had socialist views.

“Kamala Harris -- I would love to play poker with Kamala Harris because she has the most obvious tell in the history of politics which is if she is asked a question that she does not want to answer, she breaks into that insane Joker laugh and it is pretty wild,” the host of "The Ben Shapiro Show" told “Fox & Friends.”

Shapiro said that “there is nothing funny about that question” and the follow-up question about her being a “liberal senator.”

It's almost as if ... I don't know, there were some immutable demographic characteristics that make Kamala Harris's response to stupid questions especially terrifying at Fox News. What could those characteristics be?

* It's a bit odd to have the "Fox News Staff" byline, rather than a named staffer, atop the lead story, but Fox talk shows have a habit of producing MAJOR BREAKING NEWS like this.