Archive for the ‘original reporting’ Tag

Endless quest for a fix at CNN

CNN’s broadcasts these days are packed with cheerleading for the network’s viewer participation opportunities. You’re encouraged to “share your story” at CNN iReport or “join a live chat” at Anderson Cooper’s blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network’s nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you happen to notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Back on October 28th, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. (Watch the CNN clip here.) A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know about bugs as they are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn’t entirely surprising since the form’s auto-reply message says, “While we are unable to personally reply to every e-mail, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one.”

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN Managing Editor Jay Kernis‘ email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is “dedicated to assisting our viewers.” After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, different from, though similar to, the one I’d used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. “We will look into,” @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as being on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN’s website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network’s “Copyright Agent.” Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he’d look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

As of this publication, CNN still hasn’t provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn’t much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there’s no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn’t to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs’ recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We’ve had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the LA Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility — a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

We’ve been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it’s pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let’s take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS Media Shift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as part of the Report an Error Alliance.

[This post first appeared at PBS.org’s MediaShift Idea Lab.]

UPDATE 12/9/10: CNN has finally responded with a correction. Details here.

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Wall Street Journal pushes flimsy Obama story, then stonewalls

*Post updated below with a response from a WSJ managing editor.

Just ahead of last week’s election the Wall Street Journal reported that “high-level Democrats” were calling for President Obama “to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers” in the face of an imminent drubbing at the polls.

But an error report on MediaBugs flagged a conspicuous problem with the story: It contained no evidence supporting the claim in its headline and first paragraph. Not a single one of the eight people quoted in the piece called for Obama “to remake his inner circle” or “fire top advisers.” (Read the story here.)

Over the past week our MediaBugs team contacted the Journal five times seeking a response to the error report. We emailed a reporter, a managing editor and a general address designated for reporting errors to the newsroom. We also called the phone number listed with corrections info in the print edition. We haven’t received any response.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a void when trying to reach the Journal about an error report. And while the previous instance involved a minor mistake, this one is more substantial.

It isn’t just that we think a reasonable error report deserves a response. It’s in the Journal’s best interest to provide one.

Surely more than one Journal reader wondered why there were no quotes to back up the story’s headline and premise. With no explanation from the newsroom, all we can do is speculate. It’s possible that the reporters spoke with “high-level Democrats” who said they wanted Obama to fire top advisers, but who would only say so off the record. (In which case the article might have explained that.) Or it’s possible an editor chose to punch up the opening and add a headline intended to attract maximum eyeballs. Maybe somebody at the Journal was eager to suggest a dramatic loss of confidence in Obama on the eve of a big election — after all, ever since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, critics have been identifying a rightward slant in its news pages. (See, for example, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and many other sources.)

It’s also possible that the above explanations aren’t remotely accurate. We just don’t know.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. A Wall Street Journal reader raised a legitimate question; by failing to respond, the paper has left a void for its readers to fill with suspicion and surmise. (Journal readers may have noticed that no top advisers have departed the administration since the election; meanwhile, subsequent reports from Politico and NPR indicate that changes at the White House are likely to involve the “reshuffling of a relatively small cast of Obama insiders” and that “nobody expects an inrush of new blood.” Still, even the departure tomorrow of the entire White House staff would not answer the questions raised by the Journal story.)

When MediaBugs reaches out to newsroom managers about an error report, we explain that our aim is to help close the feedback loop, often inadequate, between the public and newsrooms. (Read our newly published national survey of news sites to see just how inadequate that feedback loop typically is.) We don’t tell editors whether they should run a clarification or correction — that remains up to them to decide and to articulate to the public.

In the pre-Internet age, it was easy for a news organization to control a conversation in the public view about its journalistic practices, or simply to ignore it altogether. Today, the conversation about journalism is everywhere; that’s the case whether or not a news organization chooses to engage with it. When it comes to championing accuracy, the best way forward is to be accessible, transparent and engaged with the public.

[Note: This post also appeared today on our MediaBugs blog.]

UPDATED Nov 12: The Wall Street Journal has finally responded, saying that it “fundamentally disagrees” with the error report posted on MediaBugs. You can read the Journal’s full response here. MediaBugs takes no position on specific bug reports; from my vantage as the project’s associate director I’ll say that we are glad to have the Journal’s response — a primary goal of ours is to connect the public with newsrooms on error reports and establish a useful record of the discussion that ensues.

In my personal opinion, as a blogger who sometimes writes about media, I’ll say that I find the Journal’s response totally lacking. It plays like bad kabuki, failing to address the actual problem raised by the bug report and further undermining the Journal’s credibility. I won’t spend time dissecting it here — because my project partner Scott Rosenberg has just done so over at Wordyard. “Like any journalist who’s been working for three decades, I’ve written and edited thousands of headlines on thousands of stories,” he says. “There is no way I would ever sign off on that headline and lead for that story. Our MediaBugs error-report filing called them ‘completely unsupported,’ and I agree.”

Go read Scott’s post for the stark details as to why — they are illuminating. When you run a story that you don’t have, as he puts it, and then defend it with misdirection and a high-handed tone, you only hurt your credibility more.

[In other MediaBugs news today, CJR’s Craig Silverman talks with me about our new report on corrections practices across major U.S. news sites. Whereby I offer a crucial update to Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan.]

Postcard from Vancouver

A few snapshots from the final weekend here at the 2010 Winter Games.

The Olympic Cauldron at the convention center in downtown Vancouver, early Saturday evening:

The Olympic Rings on a barge just off Stanley Park in Coal Harbour, early Saturday evening. Every time Canada won a medal, the Rings changed color for a little while accordingly, to gold, silver or bronze.

By mid morning on Sunday, every single drinking establishment in the downtown area had a line around the block in anticipation of Canada facing off against the United States in the hockey gold medal finale. Some people were offering $100 just for a guaranteed spot to watch the game… in a bar. On Saturday night, some tickets to the game for sale online apparently were going for as much as $10,000.

A building at Georgia and Burrard streets draped in the Canadian flag:

Vancouver is an international city on a normal day, but for the past couple of weeks has transformed into a truly global village, with legions here from all over the world. It’s been fun just to walk the streets and mingle with the excited and friendly (and youthful) masses:

Bonus question: Is it really true that Russian skater Victor Plushenko was once an American rock star?

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
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Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
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The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
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Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
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A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems to Kill Whales

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale — a threatened species in Canada — turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska:

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

Tragic, gruesome and strange — the size of the ship really begins to sink in when you realize that the dead fin whale pictured above is approximately 70 feet long, a magnificent giant cruelly rendered small. (More photos here in the Vancouver Sun’s report, and more here on Flickr.) Consider, also, that soon the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess won’t even nearly measure up to the largest, most consumptive recreational beast riding the seas. That’ll be the stupefying Oasis of the Seas.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will conduct a necropsy to determine if the ship struck the fin whale while it was alive or if the whale had already been floating dead at sea and got caught on the bow. The latter seems the less likely scenario. A fisheries spokesperson, Lisa Spaven, appeared to acknowledge as much: “Vessel strikes are a very real threat to fin whales,” she told the Sun.

Moreover, an account I heard today from a source in Vancouver appears to contradict a statement put out by Princess Cruises this weekend regarding whales in the vicinity of the ship.

“It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life,” the statement from the cruise company said. “We are not aware that any whales were sighted as the ship sailed through the Inside Passage to Vancouver yesterday.”

But according to my source, two passengers who arrived on the Sapphire Princess in Vancouver this weekend said that several passengers on the ship had seen whales swimming around and under the ship as it traveled the Inside Passage cruise route just north of Vancouver Island.

Spaven, the DFO spokesperson, told the Vancouver Sun that she believes the whale was struck north of Vancouver Island, since fin whales aren’t normally found in the straits closer to Vancouver.

The Inside Passage is famously rich with marine wildlife and is a crucial habitat and migratory route for whales. As the Sun also reports: “This is the second time in the last 10 years that a cruise vessel has come into the Port of Vancouver with a whale caught on the bow. In that instance, in June of 1999, the Celebrity Cruise vessel MV Galaxy collided with an adult male fin whale, which likely happened as the ship transited the Hecate Strait north of Vancouver Island.”

For some compelling related reading, I strongly recommend Charles Siebert’s article “Watching Whales Watching Us,” published recently in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a deep, enthralling account that dives into some provocative thinking among marine biologists today about our evolving relationship with whales — which may yet hold hope, despite our terrible history of assault on one of the earth’s most sublime creatures.

PART 2:
There is more to Princess Cruises’ history with whales. In the summer of 2001, one of its ships slammed into a pregnant female humpback whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska, killing it. As Mother Jones reported two years ago via a National Park Service report, in January 2007 “Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision.”

You can read the rest of the report at the MoJo link above, including details of the six-figure penalty paid by Princess in a plea agreement. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, “in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment.”

Pending findings on the Sapphire Princess and the fin whale’s death, perhaps that assessment needs updating.

I’m compelled to add that I feel a particularly personal sense of investment in this story. Exactly a decade ago, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel into Glacier Bay, along with three good friends, on a 10-day sea kayaking trip. I’ve explored deep wilderness throughout my life, and Glacier Bay was among the most memorable places I’ve ever been. On a couple of days during the trip, we spotted cruise ships on the horizon. We were thankful to be far away from them. In this photo I took from my sea kayak in July 1999, you can see a large cruise ship in the distance (at the right-center edge of the image) heading north against the backdrop of the Fairweather Range.

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We camped on nearby shoreline that night, where an exquisite sunset perhaps hinted at what was to come on day nine of our trip.

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The next morning we paddled into the placid waters of Beartrack Cove to the east. We were sole representatives of humanity in a place that sees little of it. There were colorful marine birds, salmon returning to spawn in coastal streams… and suddenly that morning, one enormous humpback whale. It surfaced about 30 yards in front of our tiny, tiny boats.

The whale appeared to be feeding, its dark mass breaking the surface several times with its huge mouth open. We stopped paddling and tapped the rails of our boats gently to let it know our location. We watched in awe as it reappeared around us at various spots in the cove for about half an hour before it submerged for other waters.

It was the most glorious kind of nervous I think I’ve ever felt, a truly unforgettable experience.

Tiananmen Square erased

“Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989,” Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, wrote this week. “Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.” He described China’s nearly 300 million youthful netizens and their unprecedented capability to express a roar of dissent, despite heavy government censorship.

I shared that essential optimism, albeit cautiously, in thinking and writing earlier this week about the potential of digital communication from Tehran to Beijing. After I published that post, a friend who teaches in the Bay Area emailed me with a striking example of how successful the Chinese government has been at burying the bloody history of June 4, 1989:

I taught modern Chinese history last semester. I had 3 students who grew up in mainland China in my class. They had never heard about Tiananmen. One of them is the son of a top official in China who was heavily involved in the economic development of Shanghai, the miracle city we all saw during the Olympics. This kid was brilliant and incredibly well informed about Chinese history already. He has levels of access you and I can only imagine and is being groomed to be an elite in the Chinese power system. He had never heard about Tiananmen. Interesting to think that a generation of leaders is growing up with a false view of their recent history.

While the student’s ignorance isn’t surprising, it is indeed astonishing to think that even the very people who might soon be running China wouldn’t necessarily know about what transpired at Tiananmen. Imagine Barack Obama being elected U.S. senator from Illinois without having a clue that Chicago had been torn by violent protests in the 1960s.

One place for inquiring Chinese youth to start would be the collection of raw U.S. government reports from 1989 found in the declassified history of Tiananmen Square at The National Security Archive.

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An overview section titled “The Crackdown” brings into focus the actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the resulting human toll. (In retrospect the initial estimates of people wounded, killed, arrested and executed were conservative. Emphasis here is mine.)

The Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for the following morning (Document 13) reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” …

One section of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary for June 5th (Document 17), titled “After the Bloodbath,” focuses on developments in Beijing. It reports that “troops continued to fire indiscriminately at citizens in the area near Tiananmen Square.” It also notes the destruction of a large number of military vehicles, threats to execute students, and the potential for violent resistance by students. …

By June 21, the Morning Summary (Document 29) was reporting that, “More than 1,500 have been arrested … including at least six of the 21 ‘most wanted’ student leaders.”

That same section documents how Chinese soldiers also began to turn on each other.

sq_on_fire_AK47sPBS/Frontline has a lucid narrative timeline of the political and on-the-ground developments leading up to the explosion of violence, including the moment when the PLA soldiers began “firing on unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.”

On the New York Times’ Lens blog, four photojournalists who captured famous images of the Tank Man share engrossing eyewitness accounts.

“The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded,” photographer Stuart Franklin writes. “In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard to obscure evidence of the massacre.”

And Chinese officials remain hard at work on that goal today, despite the irrepressible promise of digital technology. As Yang Jianli, who participated in the 1989 uprising and was held as a political prisoner in China for several years, wrote this week: “It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 ‘cyber cops’ to censor Internet traffic.”

UPDATE: In addition to the four photojournalists’ accounts and well-known images from Tiananmen, The Times’ Lens blog now has up an image never before published, with a dramatically different perspective on the Tank Man. The image was captured by then AP photographer Terril Jones. The Tank Man can be seen at the left, in the distance, with the tanks rumbling towards him, while other protesters flee in the foreground:

TerrilJones-TankMan

As Times editor Patrick Witty writes, the newly published image encourages a fresh evaluation of the encounter: “Mr. Jones’ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.”

At the above link you can also read Jones’ account from Tiananmen, and why he didn’t seek to have his photo published until 20 years later.

This is David Foster Wallace

On Tuesday, Little, Brown and Company publishes a book version of “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” the celebrated commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The pocket-sized book breaks up the nearly 4,000-word speech into digestible pieces on the page, some as brief as a single phrase. It’s an intriguing approach: In one sense, practical to publishing the essay in book form while drawing out its epigrammatic layers. At the same time, it seems rather un-DFW — contrary to the hyper-digressive, cascading prose for which he is so well-known.

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Whether Wallace would approve of the presentation we probably can’t know. But it highlights a radiant directness that was often in danger of obscuring beneath his towering intellect. (It’s worth noting that there are some subtle differences to be found in other versions of the commencement speech floating out there; I contacted the publisher seeking clarification on how the text was prepared, but a publicist responded that Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, was declining to be interviewed about the book.)

Wallace’s focus was on the far from easy task of living life consciously in the adult world. He begins with a “didactic little parable-ish story,” as he puts it, about young fish who are oblivious to the environs through which they swim. More than just challenging the conventions of the commencement genre, Wallace makes use of them with a fierce sincerity: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

Segments like these carry an added poignancy in the wake of Wallace’s death by suicide last fall at the age of 46. Rather than a matter of morality or religion or the afterlife, he went on to tell the young graduates, “the capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

More striking, though, is his evocative insight and humor. If the students really do learn how to think and pay attention in life, he tells them, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”

The pleasure of experiencing Wallace’s speech again underscored a realization I had when reading D.T. Max’s lengthy look back at Wallace’s life: The world deserves a published collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondences, too. Various bits of it appearing in the recent New Yorker article — with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others — cast additional light on Wallace’s humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

While I’ve admired some of his fiction, I’ve always thought Wallace was at his best with essays and literary journalism; as I wrote about here recently, gems found in his private correspondences show how the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too.

The back cover of “This Is Water” asserts that the essay was Wallace’s answer to “the challenge of collecting all he believed about life and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” The inflated language of marketing copy, it would seem — Wallace’s prolific, restive consciousness probably could never be so perfectly distilled. A deeper look at his personal correspondences, meanwhile, could only add to the picture of a life and work tragically cut short and revered by so many.

It’s no longer the war next door

Rising talk stateside about Mexico’s violent drug war has included a lot of buzz about potential “spillover” of the trouble — but it spilled over long ago, reaching far and wide. According to a report in December from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Mexican cartels maintain distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 American cities, from Orlando to Omaha to Anchorage. They control a greater portion of drug production, transportation and distribution than any other criminal group operating in the U.S., filling their coffers with billions of dollars a year.

Indeed, the war against the cartels is very much a Mexican-American one. Just take a look at this current threat assessment map from the National Drug Intelligence Center, showing U.S. cities implicated:

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

Violence has also been imported in no small quantity. Although the most sensational killings have taken place south of the border, brutal assaults, home invasions and murders connected with the drug trade have plagued U.S. cities and towns, particularly in the south but reaching as far north as Canada.

Buzz in Washington has also included the specter of Mexico becoming a “failed state.” Journalist and author Enrique Krauze says the talk is overblown. “While we bear responsibility for our problems,” he wrote this week, “the caricature of Mexico being propagated in the United States only increases the despair on both sides of the Rio Grande.” It is also profoundly hypocritical, he said.

America is the world’s largest market for illegal narcotics. The United States is the source for the majority of the guns used in Mexico’s drug cartel war, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Washington should support Mexico’s war against the drug lords — first and foremost by recognizing its complexity. The Obama administration should recognize the considerable American responsibility for Mexico’s problems. Then, in keeping with equality and symmetry, the United States must reduce its drug consumption and its weapons trade to Mexico.

Apparently this concept has reached the presidential level. At a prime time news conference on Tuesday otherwise dominated by discussion of the economy, President Obama reiterated a major border initiative unveiled earlier in the day and acknowledged: “We need to do even more to ensure that illegal guns and cash aren’t flowing back to these cartels.”

One way to help achieve that goal, it seems, would be to reconfigure policy with the recognition that the war on drugs as we know it is a proven failure.

Update: The San Francisco Chronicle reports about how cheap and easy it is to get high-powered assault rifles in Nevada. Many of them filter south to Mexican gangs by way of California. One of them was used to kill two police officers in Oakland on Saturday.

Mexico’s drug war, fully U.S. loaded

The raging drug war in Mexico is about to command even greater attention inside the United States. It’s not just the gruesome tales of drug cartel violence to the south; the U.S. is far more caught up in the maelstrom than many north of the border may care to realize.

Tuesday at the White House, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laid out Obama administration plans to throw additional money and manpower at the problem, amid mounting fears about “spillover” of corruption and violence into the U.S. On Wednesday, Napolitano will go to Capitol Hill specifically to address the crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Mexico.

The administration is deploying big guns like Napolitano and Clinton with good reason. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, “The government is girding for a possible Katrina-style disaster along the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border that would involve thousands of refugees flooding into the U.S. to escape surging violence in northern Mexico, or gun battles beginning to routinely spill across the border.” A recent story from international reporting start-up GlobalPost shows how joint U.S.-Mexican operations have been implicated in the spreading violence, on both sides of the border.

Some relatively obscure testimony by senior officials from the ATF and DEA to a Senate subcommittee last week contains stark details about our country’s role in the predicament. Simply put, the U.S. is serving as a vast weapons depot for the drug gangs. Because firearms are not readily available in Mexico, cash-wielding drug traffickers have gone north to obtain many thousands of them. According to the law enforcement leaders’ testimony, 90 percent of traceable seized weapons have come from the United States. The ATF reports disrupting the flow of more than 12,800 guns to Mexico since 2004.

Smuggled weapons seized recently in Texas. (Photo via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Smuggled weapons seized last December in Texas. (Photo via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

The weapons aren’t just coming from the U.S. border region. The law enforcement leaders cited a case from April 2008 in which 13 warring gang members were killed and five wounded: “ATF assisted Mexican authorities in tracing 60 firearms recovered at the crime scene in Tijuana,” they said. “As a result, leads have been forward to ATF field divisions in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle.”

Sources of the weapons, they said, “typically include secondary markets, such as gun shows and flea markets since—depending on State law—the private sale of firearms at those venues often does not require background checks prior to the sale or record keeping.”

Military weapons are also a growing problem: “In the past six months we have noted a troubling increase in the number of grenades, which are illegal to possess and sell, seized from or used by drug traffickers, and we are concerned about the possibility of explosives-related violence spilling into U.S. border towns.”

Given that the global war on drugs is a proven failure, there was another striking aspect of the testimony: The top revenue generator for the Mexican cartels isn’t cocaine, heroin or other hard stuff. It’s… marijuana.

Napolitano’s message Tuesday included the assertion that the Obama administration is “renewing our commitment to reduce the demand for illegal drugs here at home.” That comes on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcing that the federal government will no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states where they are legal under state law. With the prospect of a day trip to Ciudad Juarez looking increasingly like a visit to Kabul, and with the violence ricocheting northward, perhaps those who have been advocating fundamental changes in the nation’s marijuana laws will start to see some political traction for their ideas.

Faces of the recession in San Francisco

I thought it would be illuminating to get past the abstract brutality of the reported figures, to match some real faces with the numbers. A short visit today to the California Employment Development Department on Turk Street provided about 40 of them.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

At a “job focus workshop” for people collecting unemployment insurance, the EDD instructor directed the conversation around two crowded conference room tables. People of all kinds listed their occupational fields and spoke briefly about how their job search was going. Not at all well. A few remained upbeat, but the discouragement and resignation among many was palpable. To some degree it was a matter of the diverse Bay Area economy, but the breadth of the carnage was still astonishing. No age or job sector was immune.

There were as many mid to senior-level professionals as working class folks, if not more of them. David, a lawyer for an energy company. Linda, a commercial real estate broker. Michael, a manager from a biotech firm. Also present: several people in marketing and sales, two people in the printing business, two bank tellers, an accountant, a travel agent, a telecom maintenance worker, a warehouse manager, an ice cream delivery truck driver, a construction worker, a creative director for an advertising agency, an environmental consultant, a mental health worker and a professional photographer.

The health care industry is said to be one of the few bright spots right now in terms of prospects. But here, too, was Olga, a soft-spoken middle-age woman, recently laid off from her job at a nursing home. Next she tried to pick up work as a home-care provider, but that didn’t last either. Apparently people losing their jobs are also giving up on health insurance for themselves and their families.

“This week I’ve been going door to door at offices downtown, asking to see if they need a receptionist,” Olga said. “Nothing yet.”

Someone across the room let out a small sigh.

Recently, a friend of mine who works downtown noted that the buses headed there during morning rush hour have been noticeably less full. Some popular lunch spots have started to look sparse. On a recent afternoon she was in a sandwich shop when a Latino man walked in, approached the counter and simply began pleading in a broken accent.

“I need a job,” he said, “I need a job.”

A reality check for the recovery plan haters

It doesn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary when Rush Limbaugh looks at Obama’s economic recovery plan and reiterates his desire to see the president fail. Or when Gov. Bobby Jindal, purportedly the rising star of the Republican Party, argues that federal spending is a bad way to pull the nation back from the brink. But these are no ordinary times — faced with the greatest domestic crisis in modern memory, at what point does hard-line politics make for sheer lunacy?

While reporting for a forthcoming magazine piece, I spoke recently with economist Dean Baker about some of the political right’s machinations regarding the economic meltdown.

“One thing that was amazing to me was people blaming the housing crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act. It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “The idea was widely circulated, so there are a lot of people out there who believe that what lies at the center of the crisis is that the government forced banks to make loans to poor people and minorities. That’s absurd, and the media should’ve been doing more to point that out.”

A few did, at least: Businessweek’s Aaron Pressman explained last fall why the 1977 federal law, requiring banks to lend in low-income neighborhoods where they take deposits, had little to do with the insidious subprime mortgages that inflated the housing bubble. (Pressman further pointed out that the Bush government in fact weakened the CRA, while enabling Wall Street to gorge on dubious derivatives and absurd leverage.) But the blame game holds powerful emotional appeal in dark days, and the warriors of the right soldier on in earnest. hannityfox Fox News’ Sean Hannity keeps repeating a debunked GOP talking point that the freshly signed $787 billion recovery package contains a $30 million provision to save a salt marsh mouse in San Francisco. Simply erroneous, as Congressman Joe Sestak pointed out this week on Hannity’s own show. (Here’s the video.)

Baker worries that partisan warfare will squelch political appetite for additional stimulus — which he believes will be necessary going forward. Obama had to fight hard just to get the first big spending plan through Congress. “Nobody wants to waste money,” Baker said, pointing out that job creation and a particular project’s usefulness are different issues. “But if the alternative is that people think we’re somehow going to benefit by not spending money, then they’re just on another planet.” Without more government spending to come, he said, “we could see this downward spiral continue for some time.”