Scientists and Journalists Aren’t on the Same Side, But They’re Often Heading in the Same Direction

What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read

Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.

The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.

The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.

Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.

Policy, politics and cultural coverage isn’t pure science coverage

I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.

Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:

Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)

I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.

He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.

First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.

I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time. 

Source: House Science Committee. Text added by author.

We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.

Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.

Journalists and scientists are both committed to accuracy

Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.

Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.

The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.

This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.

Journalists and scientists have different audiences and jobs

Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.

But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.

So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.

Arguing about science and whose side science is really on has gotten so popular that launched SciCheck in January 2015.
Arguing about science and whose side science is really on has gotten so popular that launched SciCheck in January 2015.

Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.

The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.

Journalists aren’t here to help anyone’s cause, including scientists’

There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.

For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.

Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).

Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.

Here’s that New Scientist cover.

Not really, but okay!

And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.


Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.


To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?

Ice, Ice, Maybe

Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.

At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.

AntarcticaPredictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:


Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.

Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.

USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:USAToday

Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Post went out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.


Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.10.16 PMOf course, Mooney and Freedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.

For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:

Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.

“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.

Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.

Journalists also have to hold scientists and institutions accountable

Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.

Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”

Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:

When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.

Even science education and science funding choices aren’t purely about science. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued, any societal debate that involves science also involves value judgments.  

Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.

A series of hopefully helpful, but not exhaustive suggestions

Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)

For scientists

  • Anticipate misunderstanding of your work — both intentional and not — and insist that public information officers and reporters anticipate it, too.
  • Demand accuracy, but understand when journalists aren’t just reporting on the science.
  • If you have a problem with a story, be direct, clear and forthright about it. Journalists are used to criticism and it’s easy for them to write you off as a hater if you come across as griping. (With exceptions for hacks and fabulists, of course.)
  • If you think a piece was missing context, but wasn’t expressly inaccurate, ask for an update, a chance to do a guest post (if possible, depending on the outlet), or just blog about it on your own.
  • If a reporter won’t correct a real error and you think it’s important enough, you can go over their heads to an editor or, if that doesn’t work, call them out online, but before you do that, ask someone with an outside perspective, preferably a press officer at your institution or a fellow scientist with lots of media experience, how strong your case really is. Ask them to think about it purely on the merits — as if they were reading about it online instead of chatting with someone they known and respect.

For journalists (and media outlets)

  • Build and link to explainers on controversial topics so audiences who are new to an issue or need a refresher can go back to that content when something new breaks. You have no idea how much scientists would love to see this and well-done explainers are often evergreen traffic sources. It’s also a great way to not have to reinvent the wheel when a new controversy erupts.
  • Understand the prevalent misinformation around a scientific topic and anticipate how scientists will see work as feeding into or pushing back against it. If you’re relatively new to a topic, ask scientists you’re interviewing what sort of inaccuracies they would want you to avoid in reporting. They’ll have plenty to share, believe me.
  • If you a know a piece will be received as controversial, take a look at how Brooke Borel quickly, openly and non-defensively responded to such criticism. Do that. Your storytelling is incomplete without responding to your audience.
  • Be open with scientists about what you’re looking for and where their work fits in, especially if it’s a controversial topic. Scientists worry a lot about their media coverage and much of that anxiety can come from unnecessarily fearing the worst.
  • If a scientist perceives missing context outside of pure scientific facts as a type of error, explain the distinctions as you see them and consider offering to update the story with more commentary from the scientist or about the science. It’s painless and can enhance the story.
  • You can and will tick off scientists even if your work is accurate. The mere act of not using jargon and keeping things short can create explanatory gaps from a scientist’s perspective. Give them a break. If you get a critical email from a scientist, use it as an excuse to help them understand your work. If they’re still grumpy, offer to buy them a coffee or beer.
  • Similarly, if an editor tells you to oversimplify some cool, complex topic you discussed with a scientist, stand up to that editor and stand up for your audience. I’m a big believer that people who are wiling to read entire stories are also wiling to understand and think about them, too. (Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.)

For institutions and press officers

  • Don’t over-hype outlier findings, especially on controversial topics. Yeah, I know, this is tough one, but that’s why it’s important to give scientists the last-right-of-review on press materials. A university press officer looking to get attention for a study will often present it as “overturning” mainstream findings, for instance, and everyone involved should know that that usually leads to inaccurate reporting.
  • If a scientist seems worried about how some of their work will be received, listen. Pause. Tell your boss that the story is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Meet with the researchers and talk through some if-then scenarios you might run into when you release their new study.
  • If a scientist produces an outlier finding, point back to the mainstream science in the headline, subheadline and first paragraph of a press release. It’s hard to mistakenly overemphasize what is well-established. Figure out the 140-character version of the accurate takeaway for social media, too.
  • Non-jerkishly, but aggressively follow up on scientists’ behalf to correct inaccuracies. You’re allowed to be the bad cop sometimes. As Randy Olson has argued, if science communicators were 10 percent as aggressive as Hollywood publicists, mainstream reporting on scientific topics would be a lot more accurate.

A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):

  • For scientists: Don’t disengage and don’t let the fear of being misunderstood prevent you from trying to communicate. The long-term benefits of working with the media outweigh any drawbacks you might see over the course of your career. I’d add that it’s up to scientists to tell their own stories, otherwise other people will tell those stories without them.
  • Scientific societies are also a great resource for members interested in sharing their work. For it’s part, AGU has launched a whole new “Sharing Science” initiative well worth checking out, especially if you’re into the geosciences.
  • Is that really a melting Martian ice cap? And, seriously, can I still eat bacon? Societies are also a solid resource for journalists who want to connect with independent scientific experts on literally every scientific topic.

On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)

Bruce Springsteen at the Political Conventions

Bruce Springsteen is probably the only American artist who can get play at both political party conventions.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie referenced one of his songs in his RNC keynote address, talking about his childhood and the role his mother played in his life:

“I was her son as I listened to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ with my high school friends on the Jersey Shore.”

And the Obama campaign has been using “We Take of Our Own” as a campaign theme song. It played at the DNC as Obama ended his acceptance speech.

For the record, Springsteen is publicly supporting Obama and made a new video of the above song for the campaign.

Springsteen has a storied history of politicians invoking him and his work.

Wikipedia has the tale of the mixtape for the 1984 election. And Salon has a more detailed overview of Springsteen’s evolving politics and ideology.

It started with Reagan name-checking Springsteen in a speech:

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in [the] songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Springsteen responded at a concert a few days later:

“Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”

Then he sang “Johnny 99,” a song about a laid off autoworker driven to robbery – which inadvertently leads to murder – to pay his mortgage. “I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man,” Johnny tells the judge. “But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.”

According to the Associated Press, Walter Mondale stepped into the fray, too:

…Mondale went to New Brunswick, N.J., and accused Reagan of trying “to steal one of New Jersey’s most important heroes.”

“Bruce may have been born to run, but he wasn’t born yesterday. And when Bruce heard what President Reagan had said, here’s what the Boss had to say to him,” said Mondale, pulling out a U.S.A. Today article in which Springsteen was quoted as saying:

“There’s something really dangerous happening to us out there. We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas … I don’t think the American dream was that everyone was going … to make a billion dollars. But it was that everyone was going to have a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity.”

“That’s the real Bruce Springsteen, and he’s for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket,” Mondale said to cheers. But his press secretary later admitted there had been no formal endorsement.


The confusion probably started with columnist George Will, who mistakenly declared “Born in the U.S.A.” a paean to hard work and patriotism. In fact, it’s about a veteran who is let down by a lot of empty promises and misguided decisions from his government.

An artist’s worst fate, even more so than being ignored, is to be misunderstood. Being misused by politicians probably sucks even worse.

In any case, Springsteen seems to have taken matters into his own hands.

It’s much harder to confuse the message of “We Take Care of Our Own” than “Born in the U.S.A.” And he’s become much more explicit about who he does and doesn’t support for president.

If politicians are going to invoke you by name, they practically invite you to declare yourself for or against them and their policies. And while a lot of artists might have responded by taking a long vacation every two or four years, Springsteen made the right decision — to stand up for himself and what he believes in.

Notable Excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs Biography

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is remarkable on many levels. I was consistently struck by Job’s ability to simplify Apple’s mission and make command decisions about the future of the company. He was also a consistent advocate for the users of Apple products from within his own company.

Below are some selections from the book that stood out to me. Obviously, very few of us are CEOs of major corporations with compliant boards, so it’s hard to imagine many other organizations where someone like Jobs could pull off what he did. None the less, he was a man of incredible vision and he executed that vision effectively and sometimes mercilessly.

I should also note that this is the first time I’ve taken advantage of the Kindle’s highlighting feature as I read a book. All I can say is I wish I had this technology in college. It would have made quote citations in paper writing so much easier.

Jobs advocating for users:

One day Jobs came into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain, but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year. “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled. “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”

Jobs radically simplifying Apple’s product lines when he came back as CEO:

“It was insanity,” Schiller recalled. “Tons of products, most of them crap, done by deluded teams.” Apple had a dozen versions of the Macintosh, each with a different confusing number, ranging from 1400 to 9600. “I had people explaining this to me for three weeks,” Jobs said. “I couldn’t figure it out.” He finally began asking simple questions, like, “Which ones do I tell my friends to buy?” When he couldn’t get simple answers, he began slashing away at models and products. Soon he had cut 70% of them. “You are bright people,” he told one group. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products.” Many of the engineers were infuriated at his slash-and-burn tactics, which resulted in massive layoffs. But Jobs later claimed that the good engineers, including some whose projects were killed, were appreciative. He told one staff meeting in September 1997, “I came out of the meeting with people who had just gotten their products canceled and they were three feet off the ground with excitement because they finally understood where in the heck we were going.”…After a few weeks Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. “The room was in dumb silence,” Schiller recalled.

Jobs explaining how making a product you’d want to use yourself can be the standard for success:

The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.

Jobs on constructive vs. destructive politics:

In return for speaking at the [NewsCorp] retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said.

Jobs dealing openly (and harshly) with a failed product:

Jobs was furious. He gathered the MobileMe team in the auditorium on the Apple campus, stood onstage, and asked, “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” After the team members offered their answers, Jobs shot back: “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?” Over the next half hour he continued to berate them. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he said. “You should hate each other for having let each other down. Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us.” In front of the whole audience, he got rid of the leader of the MobileMe team and replaced him with Eddy Cue, who oversaw all Internet content at Apple. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky reported in a dissection of the Apple corporate culture, “Accountability is strictly enforced.”

Jobs coda to the book about how he wanted to deal with disagreements at Apple:

I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of shit and I can tell them the same. And we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments, where we are yelling at each other, and it’s some of the best times I’ve ever had. I feel totally comfortable saying “Ron, that store looks like shit” in front of everyone else. Or I might say “God, we really fucked up the engineering on this” in front of the person that’s responsible. That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest. Maybe there’s a better way, a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words, but I don’t know that way, because I am middle class from California.

Political Polarization and Obama’s First Term

Ryan Lizza’s excellent new piece in the New Yorker examines a series of memos that underscore some of the tough choices President Obama made in his first term.

An early passage caught my eye:

According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties…Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

The authors to whom Hacker refers have a webpage I’ve been perusing, that shows some interesting data linking income inequality and immigration rates to increased polarization throughout history. Three graphs to note are the overall polarization graph as well as the graph showing the harder ideological swing the House Republicans have taken recently and the corresponding graph for the Senate. The three graphs refer to the liberal / conservative divide over economic policy.

I often hear friends bemoan the false balance the media creates between the two parties and the liberal / progressive corollary that “the other side does it worse.” I do think conservatives are generally better at creating, distributing and adopting messages for media consumption. There are a lot of reasons for that, but maybe an overlooked but important one is that they benefit from a more uniformly ideological set of elected officials.

In any case, I do think we benefit from having more moderates in power.

What I Learned from Watching The Wire Three Times

I’ve watched HBO’s incredible series The Wire three times now. That’s about186 hours of screen time.

And it was worth every minute.

Some reflections below and — fair warning — spoilers abound.

I’ve watched HBO’s incredible series The Wire three times now.

That’s about 186 hours of screen time. And it was worth every minute.

Some reflections below and — fair warning — spoilers abound.


Go-Through One: Wait, What Just Happened?

The first time it was about the plot. Who would live and who would die? As my friend James has pointed out, the series truly hooks the viewer in the first season, when Kima Greggs is shot. The constant threat of peril continues as Stringer Bell, Bodie Broadus and Frank Sobotka meet their makers. In the series’ most intense standoff, Omar Little and Brother Muzone threaten to kill each other but work together instead. Overall, we watch dozens die and hear of hundreds more killed.

The Baltimore of The Wire is a war zone. And we are left with little satisfaction when the police put the bracelets on anyone. Avon Barksdale, Wee-Bey Brice, and Marlo Stanfield see jail as an extension of their street lives. In their world, jail time is comprised only of “The day you go in and they day you come out.” Though Dennis Wise (Cutty) puts the lie to that later.

The police characters experience “career death” over and over again as they lose and regain positions of power. McNulty goes to the boat and returns, just as Cedric Daniels winds up in a bland processing office before being given a command again. Carcetti moves up the ranks, Kima toys with different lines of police work and we watch as they all struggle to find their place in the world.


Go-Through Two: Yep, He Really Just Did That

The second time, it was about the characters. How were they changing and what was motivating their choices? Jimmy McNulty earns our admiration for his dogged police work and our contempt as we realize how disruptive he is to everyone around him. He finds peace for a while, but nearly breaks our hearts (and Beadie’s). Maybe he finds redemption in the end. But by the second run-through of the series, it’s a little harder to see him being happy, largely due to the absurdity of season five’s plot. By the third run-through, McNulty’s actions in the final season seem very much out of character (as do Lester Freamon’s and a few others).

Perhaps the most meaningful transformation comes to Roland Pryzbylewski. Prez is introduced to us as a misfit cop who shouldn’t be trusted with a gun. But Lester takes him under his wing and finds he has “a talent for the paper trail.” Prez’s judgment, it seems, is weak. But his mind is strong.

Prez’s true turnaround comes in the second season when his father-in-law Stan Valchek tries to remove him from the unit investigating the docks. When Valcheck calls Prez a “shit bird,” Prez snaps and sucker punches him. Our hearts leap for joy. Valcheck, after all, is an asshole. And Prez finally stands up to him and becomes his own man.

Of course, we’re crushed later when Prez accidentally kills a fellow officer. We know he means well. The poor guy just shouldn’t be out on the street with a gun. He should be in an office decoding drug dealer communications.

We watch as Prez struggles to take on the responsibility of teaching. By season five, we see him with a beard, symbolic perhaps of aging and gaining wisdom and experience. He seems far more in control and perhaps has found his place in the city.

In many ways, The Wire’s most complex character is Tommy Carcetti, though the story of a politician who loses his way is certainly a well-worn one. Its hard for us to tell if he’s acting for his own self interest or the good of his constituents. He starts out trying to wear the mantle of a reformer. We see him grill the police and try to get them to do better work. But as he decides to run for mayor, we see the first signs that Tommy is out there for Tommy. He withholds news he is running from his office-mate Tony Gray. And more heavy handidly, we see him engaging in vapid coitus atop a bathroom vanity with someone who is not his wife while he stares at himself in a bathroom mirror. Shades of American Psycho.

Eventually, as the city crumbles around him, Carcetti displays an incredible ability to convince himself that doing the right thing for him also happens to be the best thing for Baltimore. Eventually he decides the best thing he can do is run for governor to help the city from Annapolis. His endless cycles of self-justification leave us with a view of Carcetti that is far emptier than what we start out with, but we never sense outright malice of selfishness from him.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning a few characters who don’t evolve and earn our disgust or love with their consistency.

Drug lawyer Maurice Leavy doesn’t change. He is the most irredeemable character in The Wire. His motivation seems to be money and some modicum of power. We never see his home life and never get a chance to find out how he sleeps at night.

I would argue that Cedric Daniels’ character doesn’t change. He remains loyal and honest and lives his life with a clarity of purpose. The same is largely true for Bunny Colvin. Their jobs and even their families change, but they remain, at heart, good men.

Does Omar Little change? I think so. He starts out just trying to make a living. Granted, he chooses to do so by robbing drug dealers, but we learn throughout the series that Omar lives by a code. That code makes him face increasingly difficult choices. He won’t put a gun on a civilian, he says what he means, and he is, if nothing, reliable. But Omar eventually becomes obsessed with taking down Barksdale’s organization then Stanfield’s, ultimately leading to his demise.

And Omar does slip once. He promises Bunk no more bodies when Bunk springs him from jail. But later, in his quest to take down Stanfield, he kills Savino. Unlike other instances in which Omar kills quickly, he pauses before shooting Savino, and even considers letting him go before pulling the trigger. This is the only time Omar breaks his word. He doesn’t pay for it with his life — at least not directly. But he is shot dead shortly thereafter. Perhaps, in the jaundiced moral universe of The Wire, this is his punishment for going back on his word.


Go-Through Three: “Giving a Fuck When It Ain’t Your Turn”

The third time, it was about the institutions. What was pushing the characters in the world and institutions they inhabit? And ultimately, I found this to be the most interesting and satisfying level on which to appreciate The Wire.

The bureaucracy of the police system is self-evident, with their COMSTAT meetings and the constant shuffling between drab cubicles. But it also shows itself within the culture of the drug dealers. In the series’ first episode, William Rawls’ dressing down of McNulty for going to a judge is neatly juxtaposed with Avon Barksdale criticizing D’Angelo for costing them time and money by murdering someone.

Later, of course, Stringer introduces formal bureaucracy to the dealers. This leads to one of the show’s most devastatingly funny lines when a young dealer takes Stringer’s copy of Robert’s Rules of Order too literally. Stringer snaps a notepad from the young man, admonishing him not to take minutes on a “criminal fucking conspiracy.”

The second season introduces us to a culture in decline at the docks. (And we see first-hand the bureaucratic squabbling among law enforcement agencies over who has responsibility for the dead bodies that wind up in a container there.) The fourth season teaches us that schools are an institution, but that the streets the kids inhabit are a more powerful but informal one. The fifth season’s treatment of journalism as an institution is a caricature. Perhaps series creator David Simon was simply too close to subject matter and had some scores to settle. Nevertheless, we see the institutional pressures that drive the newspaper to value prizes and blind careerism over the truth.


Lessons from the Third Go-Through: Being Reasonable and Unreasonable

The characters in The Wire face a dilemma elegantly captured by George Bernard Shaw in 1903: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Shaw’s warning and inspiration follows: “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

There is no better contrast in the series between the reasonable and the unreasonable than in the relationship between McNulty and his sometimes supervisor Sergeant Jay Landsman.

When Freamon and Bunk discover the bodies in the vacant houses, Landsman is the one who warns them to hold off on reporting the discovery until the mayor’s office signs off on them publicly revealing dozens of new murders.

When Kima joins homicide, Landsman tells her that the department isn’t fooling around when it comes to murders. The bosses know their names, he says.

We might come to despise Landsman for his institutional laziness if he wasn’t so damned funny. From reading a porn magazine in front of the visiting mayor-elect, to warning us that a clean desk is “a sign of a sick mind,” Landsman seems to take joy in his role as an arbiter between Homicide and the bosses. His eulogy for Ray Cole and his retirement speech “eulogy” for McNulty are among the series’ most memorable lines:

We are police. So no lies between us. He wasn’t the greatest detective and he wasn’t the worst. He put down some good cases and he dogged a few bad ones. But the motherfucker had his moments. Yes, he fucking did. You remember the Mississippi extradition? The arson murders? He brought that case home. And the triple at the after-hours over on Hudson Street…that was Ray Cole at his best. And Fayette Street in ’93, the drug wars. He took a lot of hot corners and cooled them. Yes, indeed. He won as much as he lost. Much as any of us. Did he piss off a wife or three? No fucking doubt. I think the last one actually kind of got used to him, thank God. Did he say the wrong shit now and then? Did he bust balls and cheat on his taxes and forget to call his mother and fuck the wrong broad for the wrong fucking reason every now and then? Who fucking doesn’t? Christ! Was he as full of shit as every other sad-sack motherfucker wearing a badge of Baltimore City Police? Abso-fucking-lutely. His shit was as weak as ours, no question. But Ray Cole stood with us…all of us…in Baltimore…working, sharing a dark corner of the American experiment. He was called. He served. He is counted. Old King Cole.

And for McNulty:

He gave us thirteen years on the line. Not enough for a pension, but enough for us to know that he was, despite his negligible Irish ancestry, his defects of personality and his inconstant sobriety and hygiene, a true murder police. Jimmy, I say this seriously. If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you standing over me, catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.

Landsman sees the full picture of the police bureaucracy and adapts himself to it. He sees his role, those of his detectives and is the one among them best equipped to say goodbye to the ones they lose.

McNulty sees the whole system, too, but rages against it. He is constantly the unreasonable man.

Early in season one, when McNutly decides to pursue the Barksdale organization, Bunk admonishes him for “giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn.” More than once, as his investigations are delayed, defunded and deprioritzied, McNulty wonders aloud what it would be like to “work in a real police department.”

Daniels eventually gets McNulty’s number. In a meeting, McNulty calls Rawls “an asshole.” Daniels informs him that, “to you, everyone who gets in your way is an asshole.” McNulty can do nothing but stare glumly, acknowledge Daniels’ point, and move on.

Watching McNulty operate is a bit like watching someone cursing the brick wall into which they insist on running. Freamon questions why he keeps doing it. He tells him the cases ultimately don’t matter. That when he finally catches Stringer, there will be no “Jimmy McNulty Day parade.”

But McNulty is deeply troubled by his omniscient ability to see everything wrong with the institution around him and his crippling inability to do anything that can change it. Even in a sort of victory, McNulty sees only defeat: His reaction to Stringer’s assassination is to lament the fact that Stringer didn’t know McNulty was about to catch him.

In the end, McNulty is inhabiting Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” where he spends his life “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” As Beadie tells him, the only people who will ever be there for him, in the end, are his family, if he chooses them over his police work. McNulty, at least, receives his detective’s wake while he’s still breathing.

In contrast to McNulty’s apathy, Frank Sobotka is perhaps the only character in The Wire who truly believes in the institution to which he belongs. He lives for his union and eventually dies for it, after cheating, stealing and lying for it, too. But Frank ultimately realizes, far too late, that he is really fighting for the past. He and his colleagues see the future: machines rather than checkers loading and unloading cargo.

He laments the lost past in The Wire‘s most poignant line: “You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we’re just sticking our hands into the next guy’s pockets.”

Bodie Broadus also has a loyalty to his institution. But he works his way up the Barksdale ranks only to see that institution destroyed. Still, he takes in Wee-Bay’s son Naymon out of loyalty and remains in touch with Slim Charles and other former Barksdale gang members. He eventually capitulates to Marlo Stanfield and his assassins, watching his friends die for even the suggestion of betraying Stanfield’s operation. When Little Rick’s body is removed from one of the vacants, Bodie becomes an unreasonable man, screaming out his condemnation of the Stanfield operation. But no one listening is in power to change anything.

Later, McNulty tries to flip Bodie. Over sandwiches in a park, with a king-like statue overlooking them, he tells McNulty he feels betrayed:

I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I’ve been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You think if I get jammed up on some shit, they’d be like, “All right, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at, when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.

McNulty tells him someone has to step up if they’re going to take Stanfield off the streets. Bodie responds, “I’ll do what I gotta. I don’t give a fuck. Just don’t ask me to live on my fucking knees, you know?”

Bodie, like Sobotka, dies in a quest to recapture the order of an institution that no longer exists. Bodie refuses to give up his corner and a drug culture that had rules he could respect and understand. Frank refuses to give up his docks.

One can imagine the Broaduses and the Sobotkas passing each other on Moravia Road not knowing how much they have in common.

The characters’ helplessness in the face of their institutions is best captured in a quick exchange between Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale after Stringer is killed. Slim Charles blames Marlo Stanfield’s organization for Stringer’s death, but Barksdale tells him String died “over some other shit.” Slim tells him, “Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”

Perhaps nothing speaks better to the blind power of institutions in The Wire than Slim’s commitment in that moment to a war he can not win for reasons that no longer matter.

Can Anyone Fix It?

Ultimately, there are only three reformers in The Wire with the power and the will to change the systems they inhabit: Bunny Colvin, Cedric Daniels and Tommy Carcetti.

I’ve already explored Carcetti’s self-delusional ability to allow Baltimore to decline as he eyes the Maryland Statehouse. Power and ambition kill his reforming spirit.

Daniels is given a brief chance to reform the system. He assures the women who love him that he knows how the play the game and has learned his lessons. In the fifth season, we finally see him sitting atop the police force. And it’s crushing to see him lose his seat so quickly for politics outside his control. Seeing Valcheck replace him must feel like being kicked when he’s already down.

Colvin’s attempt at reform is more interesting. It works. Hampsterdam makes a return to civil life in other parts of his district possible. And we see “the academics” come in and help the addicts and others who flock to the free zone. The police commanders are apoplectic when they hear about it, of course. You can’t juke the stats by actually fixing things. But when Mayor Clarence Royce sees that the district’s crime statistics have dramatically dropped, he is intrigued. He wonders if “we can call this shit something it ain’t” and adopt it more broadly. An aide tells him not to even think about it.

If they did that, Royce might not get reelected. The voters would never understand.

In this instance, as in many others, The Wire’s message is ultimately political. The failings of systems are our failings. Our failing to care, to hold leaders accountable, to think for ourselves and outside ourselves. The Wire is perhaps the best kind of art in that it enhances reality in a way that makes it more understandable.

For their part, the creators of The Wire pledged to never vote anyone guilty should they serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case. But that sort of negating action, while concrete, falls short of reforms that would solve the problems The Wire highlights, which touch everything from the civil service and education system to housing oversupplies and the labor market.

And it would be a mistake to think that policy prescriptions are the sole solution. The Wire also teaches us — particularly through Bubbles — that the journey from statistic to citizen is also a personal one.

When we talk about the systems that bedevil the characters in The Wire, we’re also talking about the people that make up those systems. And we are talking about ourselves.


Conclusion: The Wire is Greatest Moving Sound and Image Contribution to Western Civilization

The first time I watched The Wire, I literally could not watch anything else for a month. It all fell short. As I watched The Wire a second and third time, some of the artifice started to show through, particularly in the fifth season. But overall, The Wire is hands down, absolutely, no arguments, the best television series in the history of the medium. And it is probably even better than that.

I suspect I’ll watch it a fourth time, probably with my kids.

What Would a Literal Adaptation of World War Z Look Like?

Paramount says World War Z‘s film adaptation will follow Brad Pitt’s quest to stop the zombie outbreak. While that departs radically what the book depicted — humanity learning from its failure to prevent and contain a zombie outbreak and its eventual triumph over the zombie menace — I get why a literal adaptation would have been pretty hard to pull off.

A literal adaptation would have involved dozens of directors from around the world each filming a chapter using local actors and locations. It would be 30 hours long and while I would watch every minute of it, I understand that the studio has to market the movie to people who didn’t read the book. That said, the book itself is pretty dark and the idea of depicting a post-apocalyptic environment where humanity is trying to rebuild is appealing, but probably not mass-appealing.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, was a great book. But the film version, which was a fairly literal adaptation, made for a soul-sucking, relatively boring cinematic experience.

Dave Weigel and the Tension Between Privacy and Accountability

Journalists have personal opinions. And then they have their work. The journalists I know and work with are fair minded, objective and generally can see all sides of an issue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have personal opinions. And it doesn’t mean they don’t get passionate or say flippant, funny, crass and sometimes offensive things.

It’s unfortunate that Dave Weigel resigned from the Washington Post after comments he made on a private, off-the-record listserv with other journalists and some of their sources were made public. It’s even more unfortunate that Media Bistro published the leaked emails and thought they were “newsworthy.” Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has since deleted the list. Weigel’s excellent apology and explanation of his resignation is worth reading.

Media institutions and the public in general need new standards for what is private and truly off the record versus what is public and deserves accountability. If Weigel had sent private messages that showed he was manipulating his reporting to make conservatives look bad, that would deserve accountability. But his personal opinion about Matt Drudge and few other figures doesn’t rise to that level. By all accounts, Weigel is a fair-minded reporter with a strong independent streak.

Philip Klein nails it. Media technology has changed and we need to change our expectations about what is private, semi-private and public:

To start with, it’s important to note that all of the comments at the center of the recent uproar were made on a private email list that was supposed to be off the record. Just for a moment, think of the things that you’d say if you were joking or venting anger among friends, and imagine if they became public with context removed. If everything we said privately were public, I wonder how many of us would be able to maintain jobs or friendships.