Massive media failure, now documented

“Attempts by the Clinton campaign to define her campaign on competence, experience, and policy positions were drowned out by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails. Coverage of Trump associated with immigrations, jobs and trade was greater than that on his personal scandals.”Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

Media watchers and exhausted members of the reality community already knew that media coverage of the 2016 Clinton-Trump campaign was a media disaster, which led to a political disaster, which is now leading to a disaster of democracy. This week a Harvard study has quantified and documented the media disaster.

Here is a link to the study. It can be downloaded in PDF format.

Those who don’t have time to read the entire study should at least read the conclusion, which starts on page 128. Do look at the charts and graphs, though. Some of them are terrifying. Also note (page 107) how the right-wing media were successful at using propaganda to turn Sanders supporters against Clinton. (We all know Bernie supporters who believed the lies about Hillary Clinton and who bleated that Clinton was as bad as Trump. We must never stop rubbing their noses in it.)

It is no secret that the right-wing media are a filthy swamp of lies and propaganda. There’s not much we can do about that. But the study makes it clear that, if mainstream outlets such as the New York Times had not been sucked in by right-wing agenda-setting on fake scandals such as the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump could not have won the electoral college.

I spent my life in the newspaper business. After the rise of Fox News in 1996, I watched, aghast, as most of my journalist colleagues were deceived by right-wing media strategies that turned the principle of “objectivity” into a utensil for corrupting mainstream newsrooms into agents of right-wing lies.

Editors and reporters are a herd, and few of them are geniuses. Within ten years after the start of Fox News, false equivalence had become an unchallenged standard in American newsrooms. They were tricked into treating the right-wing narrative seriously, even though it was transparent malarkey. Journalists became completely incapable of calling a lie a lie. I have lost friends over this when I tried to call them out for it. Not until a year ago, during the Clinton-Trump campaign, did an old colleague (one with a top-of-the-industry résumé, I might add) apologize to me and acknowledge that I was right. When newsrooms finally saw through the false equivalence trap, they turned as a herd, as they always do. Media scholars and media intellectuals have understood the problem all along. But you would be surprised how slowly this insight trickles down into newsrooms. When suddenly they saw Breitbart in the White House and a perilously deluded, disinformed, and enraged American public, even the slowest-witted mainstream journalists started figuring out that they had been used by malevolent (and outrageously rich) players who had outsmarted them.

Though I am not very hopeful, there are signs that the 2016 election taught a valuable lesson to the people in America’s newsrooms — that for 20 years they republished lies, tricked by their own principles, a little too dumb to perceive the trick. With luck, and with the chastening we have seen at the New York Times and the Washington Post (which slowly trickles down to lesser newspapers), maybe it is less likely now that it will happen again.

Postscript: I have not mentioned the broadcast media or cable news industry here because I completely disdain what they do and don’t regard it as journalism. As for Russian interference, as the Harvard study mentions, we don’t yet have all the information we need on that. I trust we will, eventually.

Preserving culture

Foxfire students interviewing Aunt Arie — photo by Foxfire Fund, Inc.

There are some strange ideas kicking around these days about what it means to preserve culture. But preserving culture is hard work and a labor of love.

Many, many people are doing this work. It involves books, books, and more books. It is being done with film and photography, with museums, with special events such as fiddlers’ conventions and food festivals, with archeology, and by scholars from many departments of the universities including linguists, historians, anthropologists, and even the music department.

Nor is white trash culture, or Southern culture, or Appalachian culture, being neglected. Far from it! It isn’t culture that white supremicists such as Peter Cvjetanovic seek to preserve. It’s privilege, injustice, and some sort of perverse notion of purity.

We might call the people who do the real work culture workers. And though preserving culture is a labor of love, there is so much demand for the products of culture workers that many people can make a living at it — scholars and writers, for example.

As I have argued in other posts, there is much that is sick in the conservative mind. They look to the past, but they look only to an arbitrary and falsely glorified moment in the past when their ilk were dominant. They selectively ignore the rest of the past. In doing so the conservative mind is blind to privilege and injustice and to the factors that rotted their moment of glory. I have no problem with statues, but the intention behind most statues is not to preserve culture. Rather, it’s to preserve glory.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

One of the things that bothers the dickens out of me is how disinterested many people are in preserving their own personal histories and their own family histories. Some may go so far as to sign up for and try to build lists of their ancestors, working on line. But how many people bother to get to know great-aunt Matilda before she dies, ask her about what life was like eighty years ago, and then write it down? In most families, collective memory rarely extends beyond two or three generations.

If the white racist Peter Cvjetanovic actually knew any history, he would know that cultures have been melding together throughout human history. As for the moment he glorifies, he also would be sensitive to African-American history, to how African-Americans helped to build this country, and to how African-Americans still have not achieved their full and fair share of justice and equality. But conservatives don’t care about justice unless it involves punishing people they don’t like.

Preserving culture is work that all of us can and should do. Now that I’m retired and don’t have to work for a living, culture work really is my life’s work from now on.

Those who have read my novels know how concerned I am about the loss of pagan Celtic culture to Rome and to Rome’s predatory religion. The damage to Celtic culture was so severe that it was a genocide, actually. Our only means of reconstructing that culture is to absorb what exists in the written records, look at what archeologists have learned, and then use one’s imagination. Where lost Celtic culture is concerned, many writers are doing that.

I don’t plan to publish my memoir for many years, but 150,000 words of it is written. We all should write our memoirs. I was very flattered when Ken asked me if he could interview me and videotape it as an oral history. He did the same thing with his parents. He ended up with so much video that he wasn’t sure where to store it. That is the kind of work it takes to preserve history and culture. All kids have that capability now. All that’s needed is a smart phone that shoots video.

While open-minded people are actually doing this work, small minds are mistaking the preservation of hatred and privilege for the preservation of culture.

That photograph of Peter Cvjetanovic — holding a torch, his face contorted with hatred — has quickly become a cultural icon. It’s a photograph that will still give people the creeps a hundred years from now. Cvjetanovic has contributed to the cultural record, that’s for sure. But in the exact opposite of the way he intended.

Total eclipse

I saw the eclipse inside the zone of totality at Franklin, North Carolina. Franklin is in the Great Smoky Mountains and is inside the Nantahala National Forest. I was with two friends, and we turned it into a tailgate party followed by dinner in Asheville.

This was my second total eclipse, so I knew what to expect: roosters crowing (check), birds confused (check), and cold chills imagining how terrifying a total eclipse must have been for our early ancestors, who didn’t know what was happening. Some of the locals were trying to make money off the eclipse and were charging $30 for parking. We found our own place — a business that was closed, with two big shade trees in front. We trespassed there (politely), and no one seemed to mind. In fact two carloads of students from Charlotte, admiring our spot, stopped and asked if they could join us, and of course we said yes. There were people everywhere.

The traffic jams were epic. On the way from Asheville to Franklin, there were two severe traffic jams caused by fender-benders. The return trip to Asheville should have taken little more than an hour, but instead it was four and a half hours of stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic. Still, everyone was patient and polite — no honking and no rudeness. Everyone seemed to be trying to make the best of it. Some people got out of their cars to share food and drink with friends they were traveling with. Stopped traffic is a bit spooky to me. It puts me in mind of conditions like those in the movie “War of the Worlds,” or zombie apocalypse movies (of which, for the record, I am not a fan).

We had reservations for dinner at the restaurant that is reputed to be the best in Asheville — the Admiral — but we had to call and cancel our reservations because we were so delayed. We ended up at the Storm restaurant in old Asheville.

A friend who watched the eclipse in Athens, Georgia (well outside the zone of totality), texted me this: “The light here was like I always imagined Lothlorien: golden but slightly dark around the edges, like early dusk except the sun was overhead, so it had this surreal quality. It was mildly mood-altering. Lovely.”

When I took the photo above, someone else was driving.


Library of Congress

I have never used Twitter. I never will.

If I take off my snark cap and put on my nice cap, and if I try to come up with a reason to justify Twitter’s existence, then this is the best I can do: Twitter is like texting, but it’s a broadcast rather than one-to-one. The 140-character limit isn’t so weird if you assume that most twitting — I mean tweeting — is done from phones. In fact, I think that when Twitter first came into existence, it used SMS text messages and had to work within a 160-character limit. You can use Twitter to “follow” someone that you’re interested in, or you can use hashtags (#babblebabble) to tune in to particular subjects.

Whatever. It’s still useless. A text message that says “I’ll be there at 6” or “I fed the cat” makes perfectly good sense to me. But nobody in the world — including Donald Trump — has anything to say in 140-character broadcasts than I am in any way interested in.

The situation has become much worse, because “Tweets” now find their way into news stories. If I still worked in a newspaper newsroom, I’d argue until I was hoarse that “Tweets” should be treated like any other quotation — inside the paragraph with quotation marks around it, appropriately attributed. But no, the print media seem to have taken up the horrifying, visually jarring convention of putting each litle Tweet into a paragraph of its own, with lots of white space above and below it, some of it in italics, including a bunch of stray characters that are no more useful than 75-year-old Western Union routing codes for Telegrams: “LA063 OD137 0 SFR200.”

And still worse, to stay within the 140-character limit, all sorts of ad hoc abbreviations, elisions and omissions are required, unless of course the Tweet is split into multiple particles, each helpfully numbered (5), (4), (3), (2), (1) in reverse order.

During the days of Western Union, bandwidth was extremely expensive. Depending on how far a Telegram was going, each character cost a lot of money. So there was a good reason for keeping your message short.

Now bandwidth is incredibly cheap, so cheap that we can stream high-definition movies, a different movie to each room of the house. Peter Thiel is famous for saying, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

My first job was as a newspaper copy boy in the 1960s. One of my responsibilities was looking after a room full Teletype machines. There was even a Western Union Telex printer in the room, because newspapers got a lot of Telegrams.

In many ways, I loved the days when bandwidth was expensive. When bandwidth was expensive, information that came in from far away was valuable, with an aura of exotic magic about it. If it weren’t valuable, it would not have been sent. Remember long distance? It was very expensive, and it was thrilling to hear a loved one’s voice from far, far away. These days the chatter is almost all worthless. That’s why I don’t use Twitter. Increasingly, I don’t use the telephone, either. But that’s a rant for another day.

A 1960s Telex printer, Wikipedia

A big backfire of right-wing propaganda

I try to limit my posts on politics to the times when I have something to say that others aren’t saying. The commentary in the mainstream media on Saturday’s events in Charlottesville has mostly been very good.

But I do want to point out here how a propaganda stunt by an ugly minority has backfired on its organizers, even though their web sites are claiming that it was a great success and just a beginning. They were greatly outnumbered. Some of those who were photographed with torches were embarrassed to be seen there, faces contorted with hatred. They tried to backpedal after their photos went viral in social media. If you read some of the comments in social media this weekend, then you know that this right-wing extremism, hatred, and gullibility extend far beyond the losers who carried torches in Charlottesville on Saturday. As long as the Republican Party stokes, or tolerates, this rage in its base, more white terrorism is inevitable.

The theatrics of their propaganda intentionally evoke the Nazis. I’m not sure how they think it will help them, unless they suppose that it makes them look powerful and that it evokes fear. Their most conspicuous web site, I believe, is the Daily Stormer, if you can stomach it. It appears to have been hacked by Anonymous during the weekend. Clearly they see Trump as their Hitler. I do, too.

Why is this happening?

All trails lead to the Republican Party, to the Republican media including Fox News, to professional provocateurs for the Republican Party including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and to Donald Trump and the White House.

It is not enough to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis. It is the Republican Party that brought us this.


The backfire has kept growing such that, two days later, Trump was finally compelled to condemn the Nazis: Trump denounces KKK, neo-Nazis as Justice Department launches civil rights probe into Charlottesville death

Republican politicians start coming around, though Mitch McConnell is still being a coward: ‘Vile bigotry’: Politicians respond to violent protests in Charlottesville

Game of Thrones

In looking through the blog logs yesterday, I noticed that someone searched for “Game of Thrones.” It seems odd in retrospect that I haven’t really blogged about the greatest achievement in fantasy since Tolkien, both in literature and in television. (I’m open to the argument that George R.R. Martin’s achievement has surpassed Tolkien’s.)

The reason, really, is that I’m so into Game of Thrones that, if I started writing here about Game of Thrones, there’d be no end to it. I would become a Game of Thrones boor. Besides, everyone writes about Game of Thrones. Each Monday morning after a new episode, the media cover last night’s happenings in Game of Thrones just like a news event. On a slow news day, Game of Thrones is a big story. The real world blurs into the Game of Thrones world. That in itself is tremendously exciting and serves as a reminder of the power of stories and the power of fantasy — not to mention our need for escape and distraction (especially on Sunday nights when so many hardworking people are dreading the reality of Monday morning).

Since the very beginning, with Season 1 in 2011, Ken and I have spent untold hours discussing each episode and developing what I would call Acorn Abbey’s theory of story analysis (which is pretty well developed and taken very seriously). If Ken is here, the discussion happens at the table, at breakfast and dinner. If Ken is away, the discussion happens in emails. Game of Thrones matters. If you’re a writer, you want to understand how Martin does what he does. You also become very attached to these characters. You have to know what happens to them.

Ken has pointed out how, in many ways, the genre of the two-hour movie is increasingly passé. Even when there are sequels, two-hour movies can’t accomplish what a series can accomplish — world building, character development, complex intertangled plots, a deep exploration of time, place, people and ideas. No doubt it was literature that led the way. Isaac Asimov started his Foundation series in 1951, and the Robot series in 1954. Though I think that Tolkien did not really think of The Lord of the Rings as a series when he wrote it, it was broken into volumes for publishing (starting in 1954). Now everyone writes series. Yes, most of them are bad. You’ve all heard Sturgeon’s law: “Sure, 90 percent of science fiction is crap. That’s because 90 percent of everything is crap.” Theodore Sturgeon was, of course, a science fiction writer.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, none of this needs saying. If you’re not, then it’s not too late. The books are as close as Amazon. Everything is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The two HBO apps, HBO Now and HBO Go, keep all seasons available for streaming.

And tonight at 9: Season 7, episode 5.

How to win: Torture the language and muddle the story

I pay very little attention to the science fiction and fantasy publishing industry anymore. Almost every book I try to read, I end up flinging away in frustration after the first few pages. Almost no one knows how to write, and almost no one knows how to tell a story.

Instead, what passes for “good writing” is innovation in quirkiness. Last night at the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, the Hugo award for the best novel of 2017 was won by N.K. Jemisin for The Obelisk Gate. I have not read this novel, nor will I. Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature saves me a lot of money and time, because I can fling books without having to buy them.

The quirk that Jemisin applied in The Obelisk Gate was to write the narrative in the second person, and in the present tense. And there is just enough dialogue in Amazon’s free sample to reveal that the characters are jerks who talk just like the here-and-now people in television’s meanest sitcoms.

This is the kind of writing that will win you a Hugo these days:

And this is the kind of characters and dialogue that will get you a Hugo these days:

Who am I protest? N.K. Jemisin sells lots of books, and I don’t. But I have to ask: Why does jerks arguing make good dialogue? I stand my ground: The best writing style is a style that the reader never even notices, a window into the story that is as transparent as possible. And though villains are necessary, there had better be some characters to fall in love with.

Here’s yet another Hugo winner that will be completely forgotten, and good riddance, before the pages have started turning yellow.

The new girls come on line

The easiest time of year to acquire chickens — at least in these parts — comes in the weeks before Easter. That’s when the local mills and Tractor Supply have chicks for sale. Spring chickens can be counted on to start laying in August. The new girls are right on time — maybe even a little early.

The abbey’s chickens are always beautiful and healthy, but 2017 has been a special year, I think. The rain and cooler weather have made for excellent pasturing and foraging. The chickens here have three fenced areas. During the day, when it’s hot, they have full shade in the woods. They love to spend mornings and evenings in the orchard. And when there are no young plants to damage, they have full run of the garden.

The first eggs are slightly smaller than the eggs of the mature chickens, about 52 grams vs. 62 grams. All the girls are laying superb eggs with good shells and golden yolks from all the grass and clover.

Conversion to SSL

The change should be transparent, but this blog has switched over to SSL, or “secure sockets layer,” protocol. You might have noticed that your URL window now says “https:” rather than “http:”. Depending on the browser you use, you may also see a padlock icon with the URL.

SSL uses encryption to improve the security of web sites. Though encryption is not really critical for blogs, since no private information is involved, nevertheless encryption is never a bad idea. Also, Google ranks sites higher when they use SSL encryption.

Not quite canary

For the past few months, I’ve been rereading Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I’m now on book 8. I would rate Winston Graham as one of the best novelists of the 20th Century, but that’s a post for another day. This post is about wine — dessert wine in particular.

In the Poldark novels, the poor folk drink gin. Everybody drinks ale. The gentry drink wine. The menfolk drink brandy. The gentry also drink a lot of dessert wines, and not necessarily with dessert — port (Demelza’s favorite drink), and canary.

If I ever knew what canary is, I had forgotten, and I had to look it up. It’s a sweet white (or yellow) wine. It was popular in Elizabethan England and on into the 18th Century. The wine was imported from the Canary Islands, and presumably that’s how it got its name. I would like to think, though, that the wine was a canary yellow. That’s how I visualize it, when they drink it in the novels.

I understand that winemakers in the Canary Islands are trying to have a comeback. But if anything resembling 18th Century canary wine is available today, I wouldn’t know where to get it. But there is sweet yellow dessert wine that is pretty hard to find and that also deserves a comeback — sauternes, which is made in Bordeaux.

I was suprised to see Trader Joe’s selling little bottles of 2011 sauternes. It wasn’t cheap, but the canary color was irresistible.

Some Googling showed that wine reviewers have mentioned sauternes occasionally in the past few years. One such reviewer disparaged the idea of drinking sweet wines with desserts — too much sweet, he said. Rather, he suggested having sauternes with lobster. I’m not likely to be making any lobster dishes any time soon. Maybe banana pudding?

This sauternes is only 13 percent alcohol. It would seem the fermentation is stopped early, when there is still lots of sugar in the wine. As I understand it, the grapes for sauternes are left on the vine for a while, partly to shrivel and dry (making a very concentrated juice) and partly so that bacteria specific to sauternes can grow in the grapes.

Also from Googling, I learned that someone in Scotland makes a scotch whiskey that is aged in sauternes casks. I have to try that.