Saturday, October 23, 2004

"Learning to stimulate the sex drive of crocodiles has proved more difficult."

This article is brilliant. Funnier than anything The Onion's written in the past year.

"Tomorrow, I will go back to being funny, and your show will still blow."

I've been thinking more about Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance (video mirrors via Lessig and Lisa Rein), and his followup on The Daily Show.

It's telling that Tucker Carlson's main rejoinder is that Stewart didn't ask "pointed" questions when John Kerry appeared on The Daily Show. On its face, this seems a clear enough criticism, and even a fair one. But in order to understand Carlson fully, you have to examine his words closely in the wider context of Washington journalism. From the CNN transcript (emphases mine):

CARLSON: It's nice to get them to try and answer the question. And in order to do that, we try and ask them pointed questions. I want to contrast our questions with some questions you asked John Kerry recently.

...[deletia]...

CARLSON: Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show.

STEWART: Right.

CARLSON: Let me suggest why he wants to come on your show.

STEWART: Well, we have civilized discourse.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Well, here's an example of the civilized discourse. Here are three of the questions you asked John Kerry.

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: You have a chance to interview the Democratic nominee. You asked him questions such as -- quote -- "How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally?"

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: "Have you ever flip-flopped?" et cetera, et cetera.

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: Didn't you feel like -- you got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question, instead of just suck up to him?

Now, this exchange has a clear enough "secular" meaning --- i.e., the meaning it conveys to laypeople --- but I think it has an additional layer of "esoteric" meaning --- i.e., its meaning among people who, like Tucker Carlson, inhabit the peculiar world of Washington journalism. Admittedly, I'm not one of those people, but I read about it here and there, so bear with me as I speculate about it.

In this world, news organizations reward journalists for breaking "scoops" and "exclusives", which requires access to sources --- the more highly-placed the sources, the better. But, of course, all highly-placed sources have powerful incentives to influence news coverage, and so they use "access" as carrot and stick to reward complaisant journalists and punish independent ones. Journalists therefore engage in a perpetual and carefully calibrated balancing act, trying to please their editors without offending their sources.

Ideally, journalists would all be brilliant and hard-working enough to fight the pernicious enfeebling effects of the "access" trap. Ideally, journalists would respond to punitive access-denial by redoubling their efforts and digging deeper to find independent sources. Ideally, the press corps would show some solidarity by collectively blasting politicians for playing the access game in the first place, even though the game gives certain individual journalists a competitive advantage.

In practice, journalists are often dimwitted, lazy, and selfish, and hence they become captives of the game.1

Talk shows operate under similar incentive structures: your producer wants you to get high-profile guests, so you have an incentive to kiss ass. Meet the Press's Tim Russert was able to get Bush for a rare exclusive interview because Bush's handlers knew that Russert wasn't going to be confrontational or ask hard followup questions.

In this context, Carlson isn't merely accusing Stewart of asking Kerry lame questions. Look at the transcript: Carlson's accusing Stewart of playing this game, of asking lame questions in exchange for access to Kerry --- or, more precisely, of acting like a pushover for certain (liberal) guests because that will increase the likelihood of getting more guests like them.

And in making this accusation, Carlson makes a fundamental error, because The Daily Show isn't playing the access game at all. Under Jon Stewart's leadership, The Daily Show's mission has been simple and twofold:

  1. Be funny.
  2. Enlighten your viewers. (This clause is what separates TDS from the likes of Jay Leno, who is intermittently funny but whose jokes rarely reach beyond dragging out a dozen variations on the conventional wisdom's caricatures-of-the-hour.)

Neither of these goals requires high-level access or high-profile guests. The Daily Show operates outside the whole world of incentives familiar to Carlson's colleagues. Jon Stewart et al. can chug along merrily, season after season, simply by mocking the previous day's newspaper headlines and cable news clips. In fact, Stewart's sharpest barbs tend to lacerate the media rather than politicians. Gaining "access" simply doesn't constitute a significant part of The Daily Show's winning strategy. No doubt the show was happy to get John Kerry, Richard Clarke, and other high-profile guests, but the vast majority of the audience would watch even if the show never had such guests. Or, indeed, if the show never had guests at all --- the guest segment, which only occupies the last third of the show (after the second commercial break), is usually the least funny part.

And so The Daily Show operates in tremendous freedom, a freedom that they use to powerful effect. Carlson's criticism, by its esoteric meaning, is just plain wrong.2

Now, suppose we give Carlson the benefit of the doubt and consider the secular meaning. In this case Carlson isn't wholly wrong; he's just trivial. Sure, Stewart should have asked Kerry better questions. However, even if we grant this point, it's a pretty minor one, compared to the devastating hits Stewart lands on Carlson. First of all, I think Carlson misrepresents or misunderstands parts of the interview --- when Stewart asked Kerry, "Have you ever flip-flopped?", he was satirizing the silliness of letting an empty catch-phrase set the terms of political debate. In other words, he was making fun of people like Carlson. Second, as I've already said, the interview segment of The Daily Show has never been terribly important to its success. Finally, although Stewart's interview questions may not always be "tough", his interviews generally reflect a combination of respect, curiosity, and an earnest desire to get past shallow talking points. Given the comedy/talk-show format, and given that the interview only lasts about seven minutes, Stewart does a terrific job. "Toughness" is a phony measure of journalistic and comedic integrity. The true measure is whether the journalism and the comedy honor the truth.

Now, admittedly, Stewart's reply to Carlson --- that Crossfire shouldn't hold itself to the low, low standards of The Daily Show --- is a dodge (as my man AJ notes). Obviously, The Daily Show ought to bear some responsibility for its coverage, just as Crossfire does.

Stewart's reply should have been: "Maybe I wasn't as tough on Kerry as I could have been, but our comedy is fundamentally honest, whereas your debate show is fundamentally dishonest. When we make fun of something, we're very careful to do it in a way that respects the truth --- whereas when you criticize something, you're generally engaging in hackery. We're not hurting America. You are."

So why didn't Stewart come back with this statement? Probably some combination of modesty and a reluctance to admit publicly to taking himself seriously. It's popularly assumed that comedy is the antithesis of seriousness; at least, comedians and others often claim that comedy works best when it doesn't have an agenda and skewers everybody equally. But in fact, much of the greatest comedy (1) has a deadly serious agenda, beneath the laughter, and (2) advocates against the powerful and for the powerless. These are two facts that most comic writers, artists, and performers understand on a gut level. The alleged value-neutrality of comedy is a social fiction that serves the dual purpose of allowing its targets to save face ("Well, they really make fun of everybody, not just me.") and giving comedians plausible deniability in the face of power. Court jesters have always lived by the king's sufferance, and they require cover to do so.

So Stewart should be forgiven for employing this dodge. I'd argue that the substance of his criticism remains valid, and the substance of Carlson's criticism is (depending on your reading) either incorrect or inconsequential.

I do, on the other hand, agree with Nick Confessore, who writes in TAPPED:

As a side note, I do think Stewart misdirects his ire. Personally, I'm less concerned with vapid cable chat shows -- which very few people watch and not many people take seriously -- than I am with vapid print and network news coverage, which many more people see and take seriously.

My friends should find my agreement no surprise. I bitch on this blog fairly regularly on Sundays about something or other that I find in the Sunday Times. Stewart's right that bad cable chat shows hurt America. But bad news coverage hurts America more.

On the third hand, I think that people find Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance satisfying partly because they understand it as an attack on shallow hackery in general, and not merely the particular shallow hackery of debate shows like Crossfire. Stewart's been declaiming from his little alcove on Comedy Central for years. This appearance was, to some extent, a coming out: Jon Stewart, tossed among the lions, telling them off to their face.


1 In fairness to journalists: reporters work under tremendous deadline pressure; reporting without high-level access probably requires a lot more labor; and individual news organizations don't really have enough "boots on the ground" to counteract the superior firepower of a modern political spin operation. This is not to excuse the ridiculous reporting of people like Elisabeth Bumiller, but merely to acknowledge that reporters operate at a structural disadvantage.

2 And, as further evidence that Tucker Carlson really intends the esoteric meaning, observe the note of catty jealousy in Carlson's remark: "Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show." A similar note of jealousy appeared during Stewart's appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show, wherein O'Reilly said: "OK, when you get a guy like Kerry on... and again, he bypassed me, so I took it personally, he went over to talk to you..." In the universe of talking heads, landing a high-profile guest is a status symbol: it signifies your influence in the national dialogue, or at least your exalted place in the chattering classes' pecking order. Carlson and O'Reilly cover their jealousy with humor, but it's nevertheless recognizable. I submit that it simply doesn't occur to Carlson and O'Reilly that Stewart isn't playing the same game that they are --- that The Daily Show doesn't especially care about access, or star-guest one-upmanship.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"The wrong war, at the wrong place..."

It's probably not widely known where this quote originated.

You may also be interested to know that Dick Cheney was quoting Spiro Agnew when he questioned Kerry's judgment ("not his patriotism") in the debates. When do you think the Republican Party's finally going to get over its Nixon administration nostalgia?1 Agnew and Nixon both resigned in disgrace. And that's just what they got caught for --- the greater outrage of lying about our actions in Vietnam was arguably more serious, and seems even more frighteningly relevant today.

I ♥ Wikipedia.


1 As I've written before, my guess is: when the last white man who hit puberty before the 60's dies.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Moving to my gmail address

Attn. all: I am experimenting with using my gmail.com address as my primary personal email address. Please direct future email to (myrealfirstname)@gmail.com. The email address in the sidebar now forwards to this address. I will still be able to receive email at my old personal address for the near future, so don't worry if you've sent me email recently.

FYI, this change is prompted by the fact that gmail.com now supports filtered automatic forwarding, which means users can now get the best of both worlds: I can read and compose email using my preferred local mail client, and I can also use the archiving and search features of gmail. This should also make future ISP transitions easier, as I can just change the target forwarding address.

Details of my mail setup, for the excessively geeky and curious:

  • For outgoing mail, I have my mail client set the From: and BCC: fields to my gmail.com address. This way gmail receives a correctly labeled copy of my sent mail for archival; which, among other things, is critical to keeping gmail's "conversations" feature useful.
  • I have a filter that matches email that appears to be from me --- using the query from:myname@myisp.net OR from:myname@gmail.com --- and labels and archives it, so that I don't have all my BCC:'d outgoing mail cluttering up my inbox.
  • I have a filter that matches email that doesn't appear to be from me --- using the query -(from:myname@myisp.net OR from:myname@gmail.com) (note the minus sign) --- and forwards this email to myname@myisp.net, archiving a copy on my gmail account. This way all email from other people gets forwarded and saved, but I don't get my self-sent outgoing mail forwarded back to me.

Anyway, it appears to work pretty smoothly. I had to spend about an hour today updating all my mailing list subscriptions though, which was kind of annoying. I wish there were some kind of (appropriately authenticated and extensible) protocol whereby an ISP could notify mailing lists and other service providers about email address changes. Email really is dumb.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Dick Cheney's So-Called Competence

It's become conventional wisdom that Dick Cheney is, for all his flaws, a highly competent manager with a deep background in defense and military affairs. Well, check out this Suck.com gem, by infantryman Ambrose Beers, from back in 2000, wherein we learn:

In his book It Doesn't Take a Hero, retired U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf describes the evolution of the plans he and his staff made following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. As his mission to defend Saudi Arabia quickly grew into an offensive plan to drive Iraqi troops out of everyone's favorite oppressive rococo emirate, Schwarzkopf developed a four-step course of action intended to grind his enemy down into miserable fighting condition before finishing him off with an overwhelming and elaborately staged ground attack. Problem is, all of that grinding and staging took time - and quite a few of the people Schwarzkopf worked for wanted to see the lion eat the fucking gladiator already. Following one White House meeting at which he'd asked for more time and more troops, Stormin' Norman reports, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called to warn the Desert Storm commander that he was being loudly compared, by a top administration official, to George McClellan. "My God," the official supposedly complained. "He's got all the force he needs. Why won't he just attack?" Schwarzkopf notes that the unnamed official who'd made the comment "was a civilian who knew next to nothing about military affairs, but he'd been watching the Civil War documentary on public television and was now an expert."

And then, twenty pages later, Schwarzkopf casually drops the information that he got an inspirational gift from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney right before the air war finally got under way. Cheney was presenting a gift to a military man, and he chose something with an appropriate theme: "(A) complete set of videotapes of Ken Burns's PBS series, The Civil War."

The remainder of the essay has several other juicy bits. And they aren't just cheap shots: consider that the complaint of military planners, from the very beginning, has been that we didn't have enough troops in Iraq to win the peace. Cheney's had a hard-on for ill-planned, undermanned military escapades involving the deaths of other people for years. His central role in the Iraq war, and its disastrous outcome, reflects Cheney's thorough incompetence as a civilian commander of military efforts.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Gwen Ifill is terrible

"Global test"? "Trial lawyer"? "Flip-flopper"? Halliburton? Ifill is like a farce of a parody of a Bob Somerby caricature of a White House press pool reporter, recycling the greatest hits of the gotcha catchphrases from the past few months of campaign coverage. I was surprised that she didn't bring up the Swift Boat Veterans.

Actually, from my past viewings of NewsHour, I've been thoroughly unimpressed with everyone on the show besides Jim Lehrer. Is it too much to ask that talking heads be (1) adequately informed about the substance of public policy --- at a very minimum, better informed than I am, given that talking about it is their full-time job --- and (2) able to speak about it clearly and in detail?


ABC "who won?" instant poll: Cheney 43%, Edwards 35%, Tie 19%, though their polling sample was 38% Republicans, 31% Democrats, with the balance independent.


The NBC "Truth Squad" fact-checkers missed the point of the Cheney vs. Edwards disagreement on counting combined coalition and Iraqi casualties, versus counting coalition casualties. Edwards's point was that, unlike the 1991 Gulf War, the ongoing Iraq war has the United States bearing the lion's share of the burden among "coalition" forces. Iraqi deaths aren't relevant to this argument. Or are we now counting Iraq as part of the coalition that invaded Iraq?


NBC, post-debate "let's see what bloggers think!" segment: John "Hindrocket" Hinderaker (of Power Line) and Ana Marie Cox (of Wonkette). Somehow AMC resisted the temptation to make fun of Hindrocket's nom de plume on network TV, and instead stammered out a comparison of Cheney to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (roughly: "you can hit him, but it's just going to sink in and your hand's not gonna come away with much substance") and giggled. Oh, Ana! A rather tame snark! I'm so disillusioned. Nevertheless it's clearly unbalanced for NBC to tap one partisan Republican blogger, and one blogger whose political affiliation is best described as "pro-dick-jokes".

OTOH I think there is something to Cox's assertion that it's hard to land hits on Cheney. There's plenty of facts to nail him for, but he's such a low-affect speaker, and such a shameless liar, that he can just pull more falsehoods and non sequiturs out of his ass and roll on with scarcely a noticeable interruption. It's up to journalists to fact check his ass in the days to come. Let's see if it happens.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Slideshow testimonial

Matthew Flatt gave a couple of talks at our dept. last week. One of them was on Slideshow, the very cool cross-platform Scheme-based presentation package which most PLT Schemers have been using for conference talks for the past couple of years. Today, emboldened by Matt's tutorial, I used it to give a presentation to my research group, and I'm happy to report that it went off relatively well.

I'm not sure if Slideshow will wean me off PowerPoint for conference talks, but for quick intra-dept. presentations I've mostly been using LaTeX's slides package; and Scheme's a much better programming language than LaTeX. After hacking around with LaTeX's pathetic \newcommand macros for so long, it was a huge relief to have real data structures and functions. On the other hand, Slideshow's support for mathematical formulae is much weaker than LaTeX's, although I suppose I could hack up some Scheme code to call out to latex and generate a bitmap (the moral equivalent of George Necula's TeXPoint)...

Anyway, Slideshow's definitely worth a try if you have similar needs. Since Matt may not be visiting you anytime soon, the bundled tutorial on the examples page will get you up and running fairly quickly.

p.s. One thing that's cool if you're giving talks with Scheme code: you can cause the code displayed on your slides to get evaluated at presentation time, eliminating the annoying problem of maintaining internally correct and consistent code examples over many revisions of your presentation --- a problem that invariably bites me unless I proofread each slide about a dozen times (and sometimes even then). This feature is almost cool enough to make me want to hack up an interpreter in Scheme for an S-expression-ized syntax of my own language.