Tag Archives: journalism

A Return to Good Journalism, 6/26/18

26 Jun

After an unfortunate detour into rage-blogging inspired by a piece of bad journalism over the weekend, we now return to our normally scheduled array of good journalism I’ve read over the past week.

For a far more illuminating portrait of changing election trends in northeastern Minnesota (beyond Duluth), I turn to Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s visit to Duluth last week, he penned an article on trade policy and its effects on the rural mining region in northern Minnesota, and why the argument about trade isn’t actually about trade. He followed up with a piece on immigration over the weekend. I always enjoy Brown’s work, but he’s been growing punchier of late, and his on-the-ground reporting from a region that is on the brink politically is vital reading, and I expect it’s illuminating even for someone who knows little about the Iron Range.

Speaking of communities that are in decline, The American Conservative’s New Urbs series has a bit from photographer Vincent David Johnson, who relates his travels in photographing the ruins of rural America. It’s a fascinating dive into towns that are fading from memory. Also, one of the reasons I enjoy TAC is the fact that it is the rare site where one can usually safely violate the cardinal rule of internet comments sections—which is, of course, Never Read the Comments Section—and come away not feeling awful about humanity. Instead, you’ll find that the vast majority of the commenters are intelligent people bringing a wide variety of usually interesting perspectives to the article, and this post delivers on that front.

Sticking again with our theme of small towns facing hard times: from Bloomberg News, about a month ago but still interesting, and related to the above articles: why do people stay in towns that are in decline?

And, to switch gears at the end, here’s a remembrance of longtime Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who died this past week, from Peter Wehner in the New York Times. I don’t share many of Krauthammer’s view on foreign policy, which was his main focus, but he was an idiosyncratic thinker who never quite fell into clean categories, and a powerful prose stylist. But the picture that emerges here, as a person in possession of great intellectual humility and in endless search of reality. He also handled both personal misfortune and his impending death with laudable grace. I will always celebrate such traits in people, no matter where they landed politically.

While this post is, alas, far less cathartic than my last one, I hope people find something of actual educational value in it.

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How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism

22 Jun

There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blog. I know nothing of Ms. Cox’s work; who knows what she was directed to do by editors or higher-ups, or what wound up on the cutting room floor, or if she just had a bad day. I write, so I get it. The rest of her work may be sterling. But she has produced a remarkably lazy and awful piece, and while Mayor Emily Larson has already offered a much politer response than mine, City Pages responded with its usual elegance of a drunken elephant, and Perfect Duluth Day has devised a brilliant creative writing contest around it, it deserves to be dissected, line by line. Some opportunities are just too golden to miss.

The original article is in bold; my comments are in normal text.

Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.) 

Most of the eastern end of Lake Superior is Canada, which has interesting implications for both Ms. Carnahan’s claim and Ms. Cox’s witty repartee, but let’s not quibble with that stuff.

Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators.

I wonder if Ms. Cox was time-warped to 1984 while on her visit. Duluth has certainly been to hell and back over the past few decades, and the opioid epidemic is real. I also understand how someone who drives in on I-35 from Minneapolis, winds past the paper mill and the port area, and stops only at Amsoil for a Trump rally before heading back south could come to this sort of conclusion. (Knock down some big retaining walls and put up a hill to block the view of downtown, and someone driving into Minneapolis from the west on I-94 would probably conclude the same thing.) An effort to attack these problems is no small part of why I chose to move back to Duluth and try to do some good. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere when discussing Decline Porn, Duluth is in many ways an exceptional Rust Belt city for the road it has traveled since the depths of the 80s. Some of this is probably just due to dumb luck and accidents of history, but it’s reality.

A few other blown details: as far as steel mills go, the Morgan Park operation was not large. Grain shipping trends have approximately nothing to do with the loss of the steel plant, and the regional wood products industry does only insofar as it fits into a concurrent rush of deindustrialization. Correlation is not causation.

Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling.

This is a great example of bad use of statistics. Minneapolis (where Ms. Cox lives) and St. Paul both have poverty rates that are a tiny bit higher than Duluth. Other semi-comparable regional centers such as Mankato and St. Cloud have even higher poverty rates. If one knows anything about how urban development works, this is not a remotely surprising statistic, and comparing cities (instead of, say, metro areas) is pretty disingenuous. This is perhaps even more true for income statistics, which, if viewed in proper context, will show that Duluth is perhaps slightly below the average for other small Midwestern regional centers, nestling just below much faster-growing places like St. Cloud and Fargo, but hardly destitute.

Oh, crap. With this next paragraph, we have to go sentence by sentence.

Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent.

This amateur architecture student is very curious to learn where these examples of brutalist architecture are in Duluth. The Holiday Center, there’s one, sure. A few buildings on the UMD campus? Maybe the Radisson, though I’d say that’s more modernist inflected. The vast majority of the buildings in downtown and along the waterfront long predate brutalism as an architectural trend, and our handful of later-stage office buildings are fairly tame. Otherwise, yeah, grain elevators do in fact look like grain elevators. Ore docks are ore docks no matter where they are, and Duluth’s are pretty busy these days, with the exception of the one that’s under consideration for some pretty fun ideas.

But, if you want a catchphrase for how liberal America has completely lost any sense of what people in the working class actually do with their lives, “industrial shipping contraptions” does a pretty good job of capturing it. How lazy can you get?

Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime.

Every day when I walk out of my office downtown, I brush off a layer of grime off of myself and wonder why I live here.

It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.

This is already a revision on Ms. Cox’s behalf: she added the word “potential” after a few people pointed out that Duluth went 2-to-1 for Clinton in 2016. However, even the revised version is bizarre and difficult to defend. Census estimates show Duluth has grown somewhat more diverse and somewhat younger in recent years, neither of which would predict a drift toward Trumpism. If anything, city politics have taken a noticeable left turn over the past few years. What exactly about this city makes it potential Trump country, then? The simple fact of whiteness? The fact that it has some things in common with other cities in other states that broke for Trump?

But, if you bother to look closely, places like Flint and Youngstown and Scranton remain strikingly blue on election maps. Rust Belt cities themselves did not carry Trump to victory in Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania. The suburbs to which some of their former residents fled, on the other hand, are a different story, and deeply rural areas another story still. Duluth has not experienced much suburbanization (see the decline porn piece linked to above), so that’s perhaps of interest; maybe there’s a good article that could be written about Hermantown, the suburban home of the Republican candidate in this year’s eighth congressional district race. Or maybe not; I believe Hermantown still went for Clinton by a pretty solid margin. But that might, at least, be worth exploring. Instead, we get a lazy narrative that is also flat-out wrong pretty much everywhere.

“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.

Um, okay. Why are these people’s past presidential sightings relevant?

Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import.

Does this mean we’re a part of “Official Trump country?” Woohoo! That said, Minnesota’s eighth congressional district has gotten a fair amount of play in national media for its role as a swing district. The parties sure noticed too, given that it was the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2016. Its result also bucked the narrative Ms. Cox is trying to write, at least temporarily.

There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail.

As Mayor Larson noted, the Fallowses with CBS and Outside magazine have weighed in on the local psyche. I’m not saying they’re dead-on, but the claim as made here is untrue. Maybe there haven’t been any political exposés because…Duluth’s politics are pretty much unchanged? And because, only now that Trump has brought it to their attention, the national media is starting to recognize that Minnesota has a serious chance to flip to the GOP column in 2020? (I don’t totally blame the media for that; Clinton’s narrow escape here in 2016 wasn’t exactly the headline on election night.)

The next few paragraphs aren’t really about Duluth, so they don’t get my hackles up. Instead, they are standard fare of liberal reporting in the Trump era, in which our brave correspondent ventures in among the unwashed Trump masses to report back to the liberal denizens of metropolitan areas who are safe from contact with such mysterious people. Nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, but certainly not horrible journalism by any stretch. Moving on:

[The crowd] knew their [sic] lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.” 

A moment ago, Ms. Cox said the attendees “weren’t even especially practiced Trump supporters.” Now they are well-trained actors. Which is it?

Also, Amsoil Arena opened in 2011, and has typically been lauded as one of the nicer college hockey arenas in the country. (If we’re really measuring, these people even call it #1; I can’t attest to many out east, but I’d agree it’s equal to or better than most of the other Midwestern ones that inhabit the top of the list.) Amsoil pays homage to Duluth’s industrial past through an intentionally industrial feel with the exposed concrete blocks, but any mustiness is an awfully new development.

And Amsoil the company, for what it’s worth, is doing well, and provides over 300 fairly good jobs to people in the Duluth area. It’s the sort of enterprise we should celebrate if we want to see small cities succeed. But of course if Trump sets foot in an arena it sponsors, it’s important that a national audience’s exposure to it come through a quick potshot.

By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”

That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.

I award a few points for poignancy here, though the actual words quoted sound like something any president ever has always said when firing up a crowd at the end of a speech.

There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night. 

This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.

I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse? 

She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”

Ms. Cox also made a correction to this part of the piece to fix another earlier error. But aside from how pedantic we could be about “being in the shadow” of an arena that is across a several parking lots, a freeway, and most of downtown from the location described, this is actually the hint of a good article. The facts about domestic violence are jarring and real, and she gives a bit of nuance to her crime statistics, though they are still crappy. (Don’t compare suburbs to central cities, please.) Juxtaposing a festive political rally with nearby trauma can be compelling. Weighing concern for people thousands of miles away against forgotten people just down the street is an interesting philosophical question. There are the makings of a very good piece here.

Unfortunately, that good piece is not the one Ms. Cox wrote. Instead, it is a cheap shot at a city that gets so much of its context so fundamentally wrong that no number of little edits here and there could possibly rescue it. It is exactly the sort of thing that a Trump supporter can hold up to show how out of touch those Metro Elites are from the places they breeze through and attempt to describe. I doubt Ms. Cox intended to do that, but the fact that it came off this way just shows how out of touch she was when she wrote it. It is emblematic of many of this country’s divides, and only reinforces them.  It is a shame it was published.

If Ms. Cox ever returns to Duluth, I’d be happy to give her a tour that includes equal parts decline porn and rebirth, and all of the murky ground in between. I hope that, then, she could write something more attuned to reality. In the meantime, I’m going to head out on to my porch and have a beer on a perfectly air-conditioned Duluth evening, and maybe wander down to the lake while I’m at it.

After I wipe the grime off my chair, of course.

Good Journalism, 6/10/18

10 Jun

Here is a seeming resumption of the weekly series of interesting articles that was rudely interrupted by my vacation a month ago and never recovered. There are only two this week, but they deserve to be read.

When it comes to writing grand summations of the failures of recent history, no one does it better than George Packer. The New Yorker writer pumped out the definitive books on the Iraq War (Assassins’ Gate) and the Great Recession (The Unwinding), and his not-frequent-enough articles in the magazine never disappoint, either. He’s back this week with a review of  a memoir by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s longtime speechwriter and confidante.

When it comes to cataloging the failures of liberal dreams, no one does it as poignantly as Packer does. Rhodes provides the perfect set of eyes for the Obama Era: young, raw, optimistic, and a true believer. He believes his words are guiding the arc of history, even more so than Obama, who usually had a fairly good grasp of his limits, even when surrounded by worshipful choirs. (There is also a call-out to Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration for the Obama Era worldview, which comes across as eerie given Bourdain’s suicide within a week of the publication of this piece.) This makes it all the more jarring when an idealistic foreign policy settles into a “don’t do stupid shit” realpolitik, and when transcendent messaging about a united nation succumbs to the reality of calculating opponents both in Congress and abroad. Hence the title of the book: The World as it Is. It’s the Trump Era liberal’s lament of innocence lost.

If our hypothetical jaded young liberal decided to get all existential as he tried to figure out where the world is going, he might wander off into Nietzsche, who, according to Ian Marcus Corbin, is “fundamentally concerned with how we will thrive in a post-theistic universe, one that emphatically does not care for us, was not made for us, offers icy silence in response to our pleas for solace and succor.” (He’s in a pretty dark place, you see.) Nietzsche is no liberal, and in an essay in the Weekly Standard, Corbin rightfully skewers a recent book that acknowledges this threat to the liberal order, but does little to explore why people would find it attractive, thereby committing much the same error that Rhodes and Obama did. Corbin and I come from very different background, but I suspect we wind up in more or less the same place. Nietzsche offers a valuable critique, though he, too, is incomplete, and paths forward may be both obvious and maddeningly hard, even for committed believers. But we just have to keep chipping away.

Good Journalism, 4/26/18

26 Apr

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.

A Bunch of Good Journalism, 4/11/18

11 Apr

I’ve been reading a lot of random stuff this week. Here are links to some of it.

In my dreams this might become a weekly or semi-weekly feature, though that also requires me to read and collect enough interesting things over the course of a week, and these things will need to be linkable from a blog. (My book-reading goes in fits and burst these days, as I sometimes spend days buried in print, and then lapse into weeks of nothing but articles on the screen, or in print editions of magazines.) I’ll do my best to collect a wide range of thought on timely topics, though I make no claim that they will aspire to some sort of balance, and much good writing is not necessarily timely (or always is). I will even resist the urge to take potshots at Mark Zuckerberg as part of this, even though this week’s events have teed me up there. The intent is really just to collect good, thoughtful journalism.

No, instead of any take on Facebook, I’ll direct readers to the most jarring thing to hit the presses this week: Junot Diaz’s confessional on the abuse he endured as a child, and how it left him sexually broken for years and years thereafter. It’s a searing take on how trauma can linger, and is a valuable window into human brokenness and sympathy, which can be all too rare in highly charged times. It deserves to be read a billion times more than the latest piece on why Donald Trump is destroying America/is its savior.

Sticking with the New Yorker, we come to Vinson Cunningham’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, which is a critique of the direction of the Catholic faith under Pope Francis. The review is one of the most clear-eyed takes on Catholicism in recent popular press, and engages the Church as the complicated institution that it is, instead of trying to cram a take on the church into a liberal or conservative worldview. (I’m not Catholic, but I dabble in Catholic circles more than anywhere else.) Cunningham seems to share my appreciation of Douthat, who is a master of poking holes into liberal orthodoxy and making people think, while also delivering valuable critiques to his book within a historical context. The concluding stab pairs nicely with Diaz’s piece, and points to something that turns off at least one person with some curiosity about the Church far more than any doctrinal debate ever could.

Okay, fine, I’ll find one article about Trump: David Brooks, another member of the Times‘s Endangered Conservatives Club, speaks to the failures of  Never Trumpism in his Tuesday column. I’ve defended David in the past and have him to thank for a supporting role in my drift into my current career trajectory, but have found him a frustrating columnist in the Trump Era. He’s at his best when doing pop sociology and reviewing others’ scholarly work, not when he’s trying to mount a defense of a mushy view of the American republic from his privileged throne. (He said he was going to make a better effort to understand his country post-election, but evidence of any such effort is pretty thin.) This time around, though, he’s exactly on point as to why the forces arrayed against Trump, whether on the left or conservative critics such as himself, have failed, and will continue to fail unless they change tack.

Or maybe the issue is just baked into the media. Over at The American Conservative, Telly Davidson provides a take on a dust-up over Kevin Williamson, the National Review writer who was hired by the Atlantic for a hot second before the Atlantic got cold feet over his comments on. Williamson is a firebrand who likes to unsettle people; I quoted the piece that put him on my radar when he took a conservative angle to blast the working class white people who became a focal point among the chattering classes during the 2016 election season. I’m ambivalent on all of this; my instinct is usually to appreciate a skilled writer who brings an original perspective, yet I’m also not really a fan of Williamson’s level of bombast, and while the Atlantic‘s waffling elicits an eye roll, he largely dug his own grave. But, whatever one thinks of Williamson’s current employment status, Davidson is on to something in discussing the broader media environment in the time of clickbait. It’s broad brush writing, and there are obvious exceptions, but it’s also a very fair diagnosis of an industry that deserves much of the criticism it has merited in recent years. So quit reading all that junk and stick to intellectually curious blogs.

Lest we get down on journalism, though, here’s Roger Cohen from a couple of weeks ago, writing beautifully about the importance of his craft. I make no claim to being a journalist, but it does get at why I write, and is a reminder of how a lifetime of observing can burst forth in a few moments of clarity that, with any luck, will mean something to someone, somewhere. We’re drowning in supposed journalism today, but a few pieces really do pierce through the endless news cycle and the default cynicism that seems to pervade an era. May we continue to find those pieces, whether in the Times or some local rag, and share them as widely as we can.