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We need good newspapers now more than ever

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It didn’t come as a surprise to me that “digital revenue exceeded print for the first time ever” at the New York Times during the second quarter of 2020. During those three months, the Times added 669,000 new online subscribers, compared with only 493,000 new subscribers to the paper’s print edition. (By the way, those are pretty impressive numbers for the newspaper Trump calls “the failing New York Times.”)

For many years—at least since I started blogging, in 2008—pundits have been predicting that print is dead, long live digital. And it may finally be starting to come true. If so, count me among the recalcitrants. I’ve always subscribed to real paper newspapers, and I still do. I’ve taken the San Francisco Chronicle for at least thirty years. I like the experience of going to my doorstep first thing in the morning and (hopefully, but not always) seeing my paper there, usually wrapped in yellow plastic. I like sliding the paper out of its wrapper and looking at the headlines on the front page. It would be easy enough for me to get the digital edition only (and I’d save a few hundred dollars a year), but the experience wouldn’t be the same.

I have to admit to an additional motive for subscribing to print. It is more expensive, but I appreciate that my money is going to support good reporting. I see it as a kind of tax: if I value solid, honest, independent journalism, I have to put my money where my mouth is. Great reporters don’t work for nothing.

(After all this, you might think that I subscribe to the New York Times. In fact, I don’t. I would, but the paper wouldn’t be delivered to my home early enough, California time, for me to read it over my breakfast and coffee, which is my preferred time. I feel a little guilty about that, but my habits are pretty fixed at this point in my life. So the San Francisco Chronicle is my home paper; it’s reliably there by 6 a.m., and I’m an early riser. The Chronicle is not half the paper as the Times. I wish it were. But it does a decent enough job of reporting on local issues.)

This ties into the role of journalism as a whole. Most politicians hate reporters—not personally, but the way the Fourth Estate tends to ask embarrassing questions. Republicans, Democrats, they all resent having to be answerable to pesky, inquisitive newsmen and women. Which is exactly why we need news reporters. Can you imagine the sinister things Trump and the crowd around him would get away with, if there was nobody there to shine a light on the darkness? The danger to journalism, it seems to me, isn’t that print is threatened by digital, but that the field is being taken over by giant news conglomerates that have their own pecuniary interests. I like reporters who dig for the truth and then tell it, regardless of the political or financial interests of management. Good newspapers manage to keep a firewall, not only between the editorial side and the business side of the company, but between the two sides of editorial that often are at odds with each other: the “front page” news reporting and the “op-ed” pages. The Wall Street Journal is, or has been, a good example: their op-ed pages are truly deplorable, with rightwing hacks shoveling up great steaming piles of garbage. Yet at the same time, the Journal’s frontline reporters are (or used to be) free to write up the facts as they find them—facts that are often damaging to the Trump family.

I find it troubling, to say the least, that so many people have tuned out the news in their lives. Too many of them seem to believe that all reporting is bullshit. They think they can live their lives without getting tangled up in the affairs of the country. Such thinking is wrong, stupid and dangerous. You may think you’re not involved in or affected by the political clashes that occur in Washington, D.C., but you are: what the Congress decides, what the President signs, affects every one of us, from the safety of airplanes to the development of new drugs, from a woman’s right to choose to a gay couple’s right to marry and adopt children, from whether we go to war or don’t. The cleanliness of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is dependent on the Congress giving adequate funding to regulatory agencies. People would be well advised to follow politics more, not less.

And that’s why we need newspapers. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”


Wall Street Journal reporters are starting to rebel

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It’s encouraging that the Wall Street Journal’s own writers are demanding that the Murdoch family make “a clearer differentiation” between the newspaper’s news and opinion divisions, since the Journal’s embarrassing support of Trump has cast a shadow over the professional integrity of the reporters who work there.

It’s very sad; the Wall Street Journal has, or had, a well-deserved reputation for outstanding journalism. But, when the Murdochs made the decision to support Trump unconditionally, they flushed that reputation down the toilet. The extreme rightwing narrative peddled by the worst of the Journal’s op-ed columnists, such as Daniel Henninger and Kimberly Strassel, now have resulted in internal blowback unprecedented in the paper’s 131-year history.

More than 280 employees of the Journal sent a letter to management stating something I’ve been saying for years: the editorial page’s “lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.” You can say that again. What is a newspaper, after all, if it has lost its readers’ trust? It becomes nothing but a press release for the politician it supports. Why would anyone be interested in paying for a press release for Trump? We can get that for free on Twitter.

There traditionally has been a sharp dividing line between editorial page coverage, or “op-eds,” and news coverage. The former represents the opinion of the writer. The latter is, or should be, based on an objective reporting of facts. Opinionating has no place in news coverage, while op-ed pieces should at least try to stay faithful to facts. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal has wandered far afield on both fronts: their news coverage increasingly looks like puff pieces for Trump and hit pieces on Democrats, while the op-ed columns have become completely unhinged from factual reality.

The most egregious example of this—and, in fact, the last straw for the 280 Journal employees—was a Mike Pence opinion piece that denied the existence of a “second wave” of coronavirus in the U.S., and accused “the media” of contriving it. “Such panic is overblown,” the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force declared. It was such an obvious lie, so patently fake a claim, that no reputable newspaper ever should have allowed it to be printed; and yet the Wall Street Journal, which means the Murdoch family, did. It’s as if the paper allowed a flat-earther to declare that claims that the Earth is round are “fake news.”

We need news reporting now more than ever: real reporting, not made-up fantasies designed to protect a rogue, incompetent regime in power. This is why such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post are so important to the survival of our democracy; that is also why Trump hates those two papers more than any others. It’s because they shine a light on his lies and the lies of his accomplices. Can you imagine if the Times and the Post should cease to exist? Who would tell us what’s really happening in the halls of power in Washington? Trump would have access to his big podium, and be able to spew all the fake news he wants, unchallenged by anyone else. It would be like Big Brother in 1984, when all the information available to the citizens was via the telescreens, which were run by the government. Information was tightly controlled and “massaged”; inconvenient facts were “vaporized”; history was rewritten, so that only the official version of reality was left.

That’s what Trump wants. It’s what Mike Pence and Bill Barr and the rest of the Republicans want. It’s what the Murdoch family wants: they’ve made a lot of money off Trump, and they have no intention of changing that. So they’ve sent word out to the entire staff of the Wall Street Journal: we will continue to allow Republican op-ed columnists to lie through their teeth on the editorial page, and we will continue to strongly “encourage” our reporters to ignore or minimize facts favorable to Democrats and puff up things favorable to Republicans. The Murdochs, however, didn’t reckon with one minor detail: the Wall Street Journal’s own reporters, who have had it up to here.


Republicans unleash a flood of fake news on social media

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Research from the University of Oxford exposes how the far right is swamping our in-boxes with fake publications, in the approach to the 2020 elections.

“Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” reveals how the far right uses “cybertroops” to manipulate public opinion on social media “by gaining control of the narrative in the information age.” Running “fake accounts to mask their identity and interests,” they attempt “to appear as grassroots activism” by “mimicking human users.” Their methodology is to “create substantive content to spread political messages.” Often, though, the political content is hidden: cybertroops “weave propaganda seamlessly into what appears to be the non‐political musings of an everyday person.” For example, the Oxford study cites “a fortune‐telling blog that provided insight into relationships, weight loss [and] Feng Shui” but that was, instead, a front for subtle, insidious far-right messaging.

With these facts in mind, meet “Mark Fike.” He purports to be the editor of an online publication, Great American Wildlife, that on its surface looks like a guide to fishing, camping and hunting. Sounds innocent enough, but take a closer look. “Mark Fike” mass emails Great American Wildlife to people (including me) from purchased mailing lists. There is substantial evidence that “Mark Fike” is not a real human being, but is a “bot,” and that “Great American Wildlife” is little more than a rightwing attempt to manipulate public opinion to be more favorable to Trump. Fike’s latest email (I get one a day) begins with an advertisement called “Here are Trump’s two plans for re-opening the economy.” The one before that has an ad called “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan to Crush the Stock Market (Democrats Didn’t See THIS Coming”). “Fike” also pushes a favorite theme of the white supremacist/militia/gun nut crowd: “living off the land and firearms. I get a lot of questions thrown to me by acquaintances” concerning these topics, he says, without citing specifics. This brings to mind Trump’s method of introducing controversial topics by alleging, “A lot of people are saying” when, in fact, nobody is saying, except for a handful of Fox “News” commentators and deranged talk show hosts like Alex Jones.

Great American Wildlife’s mailing address, by the way, is Rising Media News Network, 754 Warrenton Road, Fredricksburg VA. That’s also the address on another email I get everyday, from something called Black Eye Politics, whose “editor” is one “Jim Sanders.” Black Eye is far more overtly rightwing that Great American Wildlife: recent articles include “America Could Face a Great Depression: What Limbaugh Revealed Will Make You Red With Rage “ and “Tucker Carlson Raised a Red Flag About Joe Biden That Left Democrats in Tears.” Black Eye is particularly obsessed with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

A third online “periodical” is Deep State Journal, (editor: “John Garrett”), which similarly shares the same Virginia address on Warrenton Road as Great American Wildlife and Black Eye Politics. “Deep State” strikes a middle tone between the fake innocence of Great American Wildlife and the blatant rightwing paranoia of Black Eye. A recent article compared Democrats to Roger “Verbal” Kint (Keyser Soze), Kevin Spacey’s insane character in The Usual Suspects: “the devil [as] master of misdirection” practicing “sorcery.” Deep State targets Barack Obama consistently, playing to rightwing fears that Obama was actually an agent of a foreign power.

There are dozens of these phony online newsletters; they’re sent every day to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans, many of whom will read them and think—as the Oxford study says—that they’re “grassroots activism” created by “human users” when in reality they’re bots. Trying to contact these organizations is pointless, since they don’t actually exist. It’s impossible to unsubscribe to them: you just have to let your in-box be swamped with them.

The U.S. Government claims to be aware of the potential for mischief created by these cybertroops; a recent article in The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists cites an effort by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (a think tank within the Department of Defense), to create “an AI [artificial intelligence] early warning system to monitor [such] manipulated content…”. The article’s authors warn that “Our ability to connect online has far outpaced our capacity to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information.” The problem, they explain, is that “Intelligence agencies, political parties, and rogue actors are all taking advantage of this complex and exploitable web of interconnections and using social media to disseminate altered content, fake news, and propaganda to interfere in elections and even to incite direct violence.” Keep in mind, elements among the neo-nazi, white supremacist far right would love for civil unrest to strike America, since they feel that they would be the beneficiaries of such unrest.

DARPA claims it wants to “warn human observers such as journalists or election monitors about potential threats in real time” posed by cybertroops and their fake online publications. It may well be that some scientists at lower levels within DARPA have such concerns, but they are working for an administration that has shown no inclination to muzzle, much less expose, fake content, and one moreover that punishes whistleblowers whom Trump calls the “deep state enemies” of America.

Mark Fike…Jim Sanders…John Garrett…if you believe these are real human beings, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The Republican-Trump re-election campaign, possibly in collusion with Russian intelligence, is off to a swift start, spreading disinformation and smearing Democrats. Keep a close eye your own in-box.


OMGNAs: The wine writer’s nemesis

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When I was a working wine writer, it seemed like every year the magazine wanted the same story right around this time:

WHAT WINE TO DRINK AT THANKSGIVING

I dutifully handed in my assignments, but I never felt particularly proud of them. These kinds of stories are known in the trade as OMGNAs, as in “Oh, my God, not again.” It’s nearly impossible to do a good job writing them; writers loathe them, because they’re the same, year after year after year. And yet, if you complained, the editors and publishers always argued, “Well, our readers like them, so you have to write them.”

What can you say about Thanksgiving wine? Elin McCoy did about as credible a job as possible yesterday at Bloomberg News, when she gave the standard (and only plausible) advice: Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé…so people can chose for themselves.” I mean, what else is there to say? Nothing. That’s the truth in a nutshell. But a column requires more than 18 words, so you have to take that simple message and spin it out to 600 words or 900 words or whatever your word count is.

What are some other OMGNAs? Well, to some extent the inevitable varietal roundups are. Here in California there are 5 or 6 major varieties that wine magazines have to write about. Zinfandel is one. Every three or four years, they have to do their Zinfandel writeup, and the slant is always something along the lines of “What’s new in Zinfandel?” After all, that’s what the media writes about, right? The news! Problem is, there’s not always something newsy about Zinfandel. You can’t just write an article saying, “If you want to know what’s up with Zinfandel, read the article I wrote four years ago, because nothing has changed since then.” If you handed that in, your publisher would probably fire you, so you have to make it sound like Zinfandel has gone through breathtakingly awesome changes for the better since the last time you wrote about it, which is why such articles are usually headlined something like “Zinfandel’s New Face.” New face, my butt: Zinfandel’s face is the same as it’s been for a long time. (By the way, that’s not a slam. I love a good Zin!)

One of the OMGNAs I dreaded the most came with the arrival of warm weather. That was when we always had to come up with our “Summer Whites” articles. The meme was always the same: “Now that the long cold winter months are over, it’s time to break out the whites to drink by the pool and the beach.” Every wine magazine in the universe has to write that article, which appears in the May or June issue. The article never, ever varies: It’s always about cold, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, whatever. You can recycle the same article endlessly, changing a producer here and there, substituting one recipe for another, maybe interviewing a famous hostess for her suggestions on how to throw the perfect backyard party. Writers hate that kind of thing. Well, I did. It’s not really wine writing, it’s entertainment writing. The two genres are totally different.

So what kinds of articles did I actually like? Terroir articles were the best. When I wrote about Cooombsville, I was in my element. Same with my article on Pritchard Hill, which was tremendously enjoyable. I got to dive down deep into issues of soil and climate. I met the major players and picked their brains, learning about their histories and their dreams. I tasted and analyzed the wines. The goal was for me to understand this area of Napa Valley, and so to be able to explain it to readers. That took real investigative reporting. It required the skills I had trained myself in for many years. There was no template: I had to come to my own conclusions and then frame them professionally and, I hoped, unassailably.

Well, I do realize that not every article a fulltime wine writer writes can be that fulfilling. I have some understanding of the way a wine magazine works, and how the bills are paid, and those Thanksgiving and Summer Whites articles are part and parcel of the process. So, I always told myself whenever I had to write them, just grin and bear it. That’s what pays your salary, Steve-o.


The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage, and Vegas, here I come!

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I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.

Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.

* * *

Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.

I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.

The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.

If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…


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