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Published: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 10:43:14 -0400


Westworld’s Season 2 Premiere Was a Subtle Salute to Video Game Side Quests

Mon, 23 Apr 2018 08:01:00 -0400

The long-awaited robot revolution was in full swing during Westworld's mostly fascinating, occasionally frustrating second season premiere last night. Viewers were forced to think long and hard about which side—robots or humans—we're even cheering for, though the story's self-awareness subverts the notion that these sides matter much. From the comfort of our couches, Westworld the HBO prestige drama is for us what Westworld the amusement park is for its guests: entertainment. It's a violent, titillating distraction, and nothing more. And yet Westworld's deceased mastermind, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), believes that such stories might disguise a greater truth. "Something deeper, something hidden, perhaps," he says in the first season finale, shortly before sacrificing himself so that his greatest creation, Dolores (Rachel Evan Wood), can achieve full sentience. Here at the start of season two, Dolores isn't exactly the hero. Her crusade to punish humankind for her mistreatment may be perfectly justified, and the way she turns her the tables on her tormenters is hugely satisfying. ("Doesn't look like anything to me," she says to a trio of humans begging for their lives, deliberately deploying the line her programming forced her to utter every time she encountered something incomprehensible.) And yet it's hard to feel particularly invested in her mission—partly because it's straightforward vengeance, and partly because so much of her previous behavior has been scripted that we hardly know the real Dolores, if there even is such a thing. Arguably the closest thing viewers have to a protagonist is Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Bernard occupies a sort of middle ground between the warring factions: he's a robot who has only recently been made aware of his status, and unlike other hosts, he was designed in the likeness of a specific human, Ford's long-dead partner, Arnold. Bernard seems like he wants to keep the humans and the robots from killing each other—but most of all, he wants to protect his secret. Consider the following question: what is Westworld about? Throughout much for the first season, the answer was relatively straightforward: It was a show about a futuristic park that contained humanoid robots as attractions. The hidden purpose of these attractions might have been to remind man of his hubris, much like the genetically engineered dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (another intellectual property of Michael Crichton, who directed the original 1973 Westworld film). But now Westworld is less Jurassic Park and more Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Matrix, or the Dune prequels, or Portal, or any other science fiction story involving intelligent machines rising up against their human creators. As the leader of the robot revolution, Dolores is thus the most important character within the central story arc—or "narrative," as Ford would put it. Indeed, Ford christened this his "Journey into Night" narrative, which happens to be the name of the premiere episode. The villains of Dolores's arc appear to be the corporate honchos at Delos, the company that owns the park and is apparently content to let everyone die as long as it can obtain some important piece of information embedded within Peter Abernathy, the robot who played Dolores's father. Bernard is caught somewhere in the middle of this conflict. But because Westworld is an amazingly self-aware show, and because I had just recently re-watched the first season, I found myself drawn to several of the side plots, or side quests. A side quest, most video game fans will know, is an optional adventure the characters can undertake in lieu of continuing the main story. Don't feel like advancing the plot yet? Why not help the sad girl track down her missing chickens, or aid the mysterious mask merchant in peddling his wares, or help an old witch procure the necessary ingredients for an important potion? (These are all side quests from the 1998 Nintendo 64 video game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.) In "Chestnut," the second episode of the first season, Ford[...]

After All This Time, Barbie Still Draws Some Feminists' Ire

Sat, 21 Apr 2018 10:00:00 -0400

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie. Hulu. Available Friday, April 27. At the rate millennials discover previously unknown anatomical flashpoints like thigh gaps and sideboobs, you may well wonder if the tiny shoulders in the title of Andrea Blaugrund Nevins' new Hulu documentary on the Barbie doll are some new aspirational physical phenomenon for today's on-fleek sista. But actually, it's drawn from a comment by Mattel Inc.'s publicity chief, Michelle Chidoni, after another round of discordant arguments with feminist critics of her company's billion-dollar doll. "Feminism, and how a girl sees herself, and self-esteem for girls, to put all that on the tiny shoulders of an 11-and-a-half-inch doll, is quite a burden," says the exhausted Chidoni. It's a burden explored at delightful and occasionally poignant length in Tiny Shoulders. Nominally an inside look at Mattel's 2016 roll-out of several new chubby dolls (or, as the Mattel corporate-speak dictionary had it, "curvy"), Tiny Shoulders is really a history of Barbie and her feminist tormentors. And it turns out those tiny shoulders conceal some real muscle. Tiny Shoulders emphatically makes the point that Barbie was not devised by a cabal of male misogynists but a pioneering female toy-company executive named Ruth Handler who had detested her years as a housewife ("Oh, shit, it was awful!" she exclaims in a clip from an old interview) and was puzzled that all the dolls in the late-1950s toy marketplace were babies, as if little girls were interested in nothing but their future reproductive function. Handler's daughter and friends, she had noted, preferred to play with paper-doll adult figures, spinning little fantasies about grown-up life as they tried different dresses on the cut-outs. Why not create a three-dimensional version of those paper dolls, complete with (ka-ching!) lines of clothing and accessories? Mattel's male executives were uniformly horrified by the idea of a doll with breasts, and the engineers said all those tiny fingers and toes would be impossible. (They weren't entirely crazy; when the company began manufacturing Barbie, new machinery had to be invested to mold her feet.) But when Handler discovered Bild Lilli, a bosomy, foot-tall novelty doll sold in German tobacco shops, mostly to men ("I'm not quite sure what they do with her," one Mattel executive says, skittishly), Handler had her model. Mattel trimmed her bust size and de-beautified her a bit—Handler didn't want her looks to intimidate her 8-year-old customers—and by 1959, she was in stores. Barbie brought in $351,000 the first year, a pretty healthy sum for Mattel, then a mom-and-pop toy company. Within a decade, Barbie sales had ballooned to $500 million a year, and would eventually soar over $1 billion annually. Gloria Steinem, in a Tiny Shoulders interview, scornfully declares that "I am so grateful I didn't grow up with Barbie. Barbie is everything we didn't want to be, and were told to be." Which raises the question: "Who's this we?" In fact, little girls loved Barbie. Tiny Shoulders shows the giant stacks of scrapbooks holding letters and photos sent in by little girls anxious to share their Barbie adventures, many with inscriptions like "To my best pal, Barbie." They made it clear that the doll was being played with exactly as Handler had predicted, as an agent of their fantasies of the future. And that future was not, mostly, lolling around the pool at Barbie's Dream House while Ken went off to work each day. As early as 1963, Career Girl Barbie came dressed in a tweed suit, topped with a woolen cloche, the famous decolletage nowhere in sight. Miss Astronaut Barbie beat Sally Ride to space by 18 years. Nurse Barbie came along that same year, and by 1973 she had finished med school and become Surgeon Barbie. Barbie ran for president in 1991, when Hillary Clinton was still just an ex-first-lady of Arkansas, and had the good sense not to call anybody deplorable. "Barbie became things real women hadn't become," says Amy Richards, co-author of the Gen X feminis[...]

No Scandals in This HBO Elvis Documentary, Just Music

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 14:55:00 -0400

Elvis Presley: The Searcher. HBO. Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. If the HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher has a motto, it's a quote from an interview that Tom Petty gave the filmmakers shortly before his death last year: "We should not make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later." Made with the assistance of the Presley family, the 206-minute The Searcher contains nothing of the tabloid Elvis. If you want to see him shooting out TV sets, watching teenage girls wrestle in their underwear, or chat up the dangers of drugs with President Nixon, this isn't the film for you. Even the benign side of celebrity is missing: There are no scenes of Elvis giving away cars to fans or racing his jet across the country for a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. Instead, The Searcher zeroes in almost exclusively on Presley's music: where it came from, how he found it, how he synthesized rhythm and blues and country and western—and eventually jazz, gospel, opera and even old Marlene Dietrich records—into something so new that nobody even knew what to call it. Literally: On an old tape from the night Elvis and a pickup band turned a stately bluegrass waltz called "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" into a balls-to-the-wall jam that didn't resemble anything known to human ears, you can hear Sun Records owner Sam Phillips burst into the studio and shout, "That's a pop song now!" The phrase rock and roll wasn't yet part of the world's musical vocabulary. But it would be. "It was in that moment that the world changed," recounts The Band's Robbie Robertson in quiet awe. There are a lot of reasons to love The Searcher, and that tape fragment is a big one. Director Thom Zimny, who has made several well-regarded Bruce Springsteen documentaries, got access to everything in the Graceland archives, from home movies to ancient recordings of radio interviews. They range from lovable oddities, like Elvis' mom Gladys singing gospel songs, to the downright awesome: An old interview with long-dead Ike Turner recollecting the odd little white kid who used to sneak into his shows on Memphis' Beale Street and move his feet frantically to the beat of Turner's blues riffs. Some of those riffs, no doubt, made their way into Elvis' act at some point. The central point of The Searcher was that Elvis was influenced by everything, but imitated nothing. "He can pull in a wide range of genres," says one rock writer interviewed for the documentary. "And they all come out Elvis." There are interviews aplenty in The Searcher, including several with Elvis contemporaries like his longtime guitarist Scotty Moore that were done just before their deaths. (Startling—and, depending on your age, perhaps chilling—fact: Elvis would be well past 80 if he were still alive.) They are at their most insightful in discussing his records – how, exactly, he put them together. (And nearly everyone agrees that, especially in the beginning when all the rules were being made up as they went along, it was Elvis himself doing the producing, regardless of who was credited on the label.) "He didn't want to overproduce anything," says Phillips, whose pioneering Sun label issued Elvis' first two dozen recordings. That's putting it mildly; Sun's tiny studio never had more than two microphones, and rarely brought in a drummer. As Bruce Springsteen perceptively notes, much of the beat in early rock and roll records came not from a percussion section but a slappy, stand-up bass. The one interviewee who offers more personal that musical commentary is Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla, whose affectionate reminiscences are often laced with piquant humor. Just 15 when they started dating, she wryly admits she knew a lot more about the teeny-bopper music of pretty boys like Fabian and Fankie Avalon than her new boyfriends. And her description of listening to her parents dismissing Elvis as "disgusting" as they watched him on TV, not knowing he'd be dating their daughter in little more than a year, is hilarious. But it's al[...]

This Just In: The Simpsons Is Still On the Air

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 12:55:00 -0400

(image) The most striking thing about this week's Great Apu Debate isn't that various people like or dislike a '90s cartoon character. (*) It's the fact that the show is still on the air. I just called Apu "a '90s cartoon character," but they're actually still making up stories about him. No, really: They even have the same guy doing his voice. It's wild.

I kept watching new episodes of The Simpsons a lot longer than most of my friends kept watching new episodes of The Simpsons, making it about as far as 2009—but man, now that's nearly a decade ago. I can't even say "it isn't funny anymore," because for all I know the show has had a hidden revival and is secretly funny again. (Hey, it happened once before.) I'd hope that one of you would tell me about that if it happened, but I can't really expect you to, because let's be frank: You aren't watching either.

And this week the series suddenly wandered back into the news. But not because it did something radically new. We're talking about it because it was talking about itself, and by "talking about itself" I mean "talking about stuff it did in the '90s."

It's an odd sort of double vision, to be living and dead at the same time. The Simpsons is an old man haunted by his own ghost.

A couple years ago, Simpsonwave videos were big for a second or two. For those of you who missed their brief moment, these are fragments of old Simpsons episodes remixed into lo-fi nostalgic-sad mood pieces. Here's one:

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Here's another:

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Even as The Simpsons continued to air on Fox each week, those mini-movies treated the show not as an ongoing program but as a loose dreamscape of distorted memories, their images irrevocably tied to the past. Simpsonwave was an offshoot from the whole hypnagogic pop movement, a micro-genre obsessed with cultural memory. And you know what? That's been going on for a decade-plus now too; it's no more novel than The Simpsons is. Soon I'll be nostalgic for nostalgic remixes of early Simpsons episodes, and meanwhile new episodes of The Simpsons will keep coming out without anyone noticing, except occasionally when the series responds to a controversy about a choice some long-retired writers made when the Soviet Union still existed.

(* I'd write a post about Apu, but my views on the subject are unclickably moderate. Within the hermetic world of The Simpsons, I think Apu is perfectly defensible. I also think any South Asian who had to put up with kids yelling "Apu" at him has every right to resent the character; God knows I've hated TV shows for far less than that. Apu doesn't offend me, and the fact that he offends you doesn't offend me either. Peace.)

Before People Fretted About Fake Videos, People Fretted About Fake Photographs

Wed, 11 Apr 2018 13:28:00 -0400

Franklin Foer has heard about deepfake videos, and he's worried. His latest chin-stroker in The Atlantic, headlined "The Era of Fake Video Begins," warns that in a world of "almost seamlessly stitched" visual fakery, our eyes will "routinely deceive us." Video manipulations "will create new and understandable suspicions about everything we watch," and figures in the news "will exploit those doubts." Our "strongest remaining tether to the idea of common reality" will fray, and "the collapse of reality" will follow. The whole thing gave me deja vu, because I'm old enough to remember when this magazine came out in 1985: Come for the faked photo of saucers over San Francisco; stay for the story headlined "Digital Retouching: The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything." Comparing Foer's feature to that old Whole Earth Review is a little unfair, because the Whole Earth article is actually rather good. It's not an essay but a roundtable discussion, with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Jay Kinney weighing in on what would happen now that the old laborious photo-doctoring processes were giving way to far faster and easier digital manipulations; between them, the trio has the historical and technological perspective that Foer's story lacks. But like practiced showmen, they open with an attention-grabbing scary scenario: "Your honor, we cannot accept this photograph in evidence. While it purports to show my client in a motel bedroom with a woman not his wife, there is no way to prove the photograph is real. As we know, the craft of digital retouching has advanced to the point where a 'photograph' can represent anything whatever. It could show my client in bed with your honor. "To be sure, digital retouching is still a somewhat expensive process. A black-and-white photo like this, and the negative it's made from, might cost a few thousand dollars to concoct as fiction, but considering my client's social position and the financial stakes of this case, the cost of the technique is irrelevant here. If your honor prefers, the defense will state that this photograph is a fake, but that is not necessary. The photograph COULD be a fake; no one can prove it isn't; therefore it cannot be admitted as evidence. "Photography has no place in this or any other courtoon. For that matter, neither does film, videotape, or audiotape, in case the plaintiff plans to introduce in evidence other media susceptible to digital retouching." —Some lawyer, any day now. Two things about that monologue jump out. The first is that it sounds a lot like Foer's fears about video manipulations today. The second is that photographs are in fact still used as evidence in courtrooms, with generally agreed-upon standards for when to treat them as authentic. The reasons why they still get used as evidence in 2018 were explained in advance by Kevin Kelly in that same Whole Earth forum: We've been spoiled by a hundred years of reliable photography as a place to put faith, but that century was an anomaly. Before then, and after now, we have to trust in other ways. What the magazines who routinely use these creative retouching machines say is "Trust us." That's correct. You can't trust the medium; you can only trust the source, the people. It's the same with text, after all. You can print a lie in 100,000 subscriptions and it looks the same in ink as the truth. The only way to tell is by the source being trustworthy. The only way my words are evidence is if I don't lie, even though it's so, so easy to do. We know what it looks like when a crisis of trust hits the courts, because we've seen it happen in several cities. Thousands of people have been released from jail because particular cops or crime-lab employees turned out not to be trustworthy. Those convictions were not overturned because Americans lost their faith in photographs, or in any other technology. They were overturned because institutions themselves, or members of those institutions, lost public f[...]

Brickbat: Say What?

Wed, 11 Apr 2018 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Malaysian officials have proposed a law that would ban fake news and impose prison sentences of up to 10 years and fines of up to $128,000 on those who violate the law. Critics say the law is aimed at stifling dissent.

Americans Can’t Stand Each Other, So Let’s Stop Forcing Our Preferences on One Another

Tue, 10 Apr 2018 00:01:00 -0400

As a display of Americans' seemingly growing intolerance for one another, last week presented something of a perfect storm. The flash career of a prominent conservative writer at The Atlantic, the seeming endorsement by several tech executives of one-party rule, and the president waging war against businesses to punish media companies that criticize him provide the latest suggestions that some Americans don't play well together and should probably withdraw to separate corners. Kevin Williamson's mayfly tenure at The Atlantic represented a rare and aborted effort by a mainstream media organ to connect with ideas with which many of its readers are unfamiliar. Williamson is "an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don't yet cover comprehensively," editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg told staffers in an internal email. But maybe people prefer that some things remain mysteries. At least, that seemed to be the case once the blunt and provocative Kevin Williamson was revealed to actually believe that aborting a pregnancy should be treated as homicide, and subject to the applicable penalties—potentially including capital punishment. When Goldberg discovered that Williamson's hard-core social conservative opinions "did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views," Williamson was fired. Exposure to opposing views can be scary for some—so scary, in fact, that prominent tech gurus think perhaps we should sideline them entirely somehow. "We can't have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win," Peter Leyden, CEO of Reinvent Media, insisted recently. Leyden puts forward California, where the GOP has collapsed and been swept aside by a nearly one-party state, as the ideal outcome for "the new American civil war." Leyden doesn't fret that the disappearance of one of America's two major parties would turn democracy into a sham, because in the California primary system "the voters still got a choice between, say, a more progressive candidate and a moderate candidate…who almost all operate within a worldview that shares much common ground." The rest of the country should follow California's lead on embracing one-party rule, Leyden opined. Evan Williams, cheif executive at Medium and the former head of Twitter, called this an "interesting take." Current Twitter chief Jack Dorsey named it a "great read." Sure—if you're into creepy bedtime stories. While we're on creepy, let's talk about President Trump's battle against the Washington Post via Amazon. By all accounts, the nation's chief executive has declared war against the online retail giant to punish the company's CEO, Jeff Bezos, for his ownership of the Trump-critical Washington Post. "Mr. Trump sees Mr. Bezos's hand in newspaper coverage he dislikes and is lashing out at Amazon as a proxy," according to the Wall Street Journal. Given my own family's long experience with Trump's thin skin (he threatened to destroy my father over the publication of an unauthorized biography), it's easy to imagine the guy acting on his own intolerance of criticism (as well as the example set by his White House predecessors) to attack his political opponents. And why shouldn't we attack and try to sideline one-another at this point in our mutual loathing? Americans increasingly want very different things from their political system. "[I]n recent years, the gaps on several sets of political values in particular—including measures of attitudes about the social safety net, race and immigration—have increased dramatically," Pew Research Center reported last October. Just two weeks ago, Pew added that while Democrats and Republicans embrace their political loyalties out of support for their preferred policies, "sizable majorities in both parties cite the other party's harmful policies as a major factor." No wonder, as a CB[...]

The Simpsons Admitted Apu Is Problematic, Just Not the Way People Wanted

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 14:10:00 -0400

On last night's episode of The Simpsons, the show finally addressed the controversy surrounding the character of Apu, who some viewers consider a racist caricature of an Indian man. Apu, an Indian immigrant and manager of the Kwik-E-Mart, is voiced by Hank Azaria, a Jewish man. His portrayal of Apu has drawn criticism—most recently in the 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu—for relying on ethnic stereotype. Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu, the film's star, is a Simpsons fan who grew up being thankful for Apu's existence but has come to view the character as extremely problematic. In a clip from the episode, Marge sanitizes a bedtime story, prompting Lisa to point out that the politically correct version is pretty boring. "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect," she says. "What can you do?" A portrait of Apu sits in the corner of the screen as she says this. The Simpsons goes after politically correct critics, singling out "The Problem With Apu" — Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) April 9, 2018 Kondabolu was not pleased. Wow. "Politically Incorrect?" That's the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad. — Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018 In "The Problem with Apu," I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress. — Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018 Elsewhere, public reaction was thunderous. NPR's Linda Holmes accused The Simpsons of essentially telling Kondabolu to "drop dead." "So Lisa, the show's unshakable crusader for justice, including in matters of popular culture, has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the lazy idea that asking for better representation is an unfair burden on creators; an unreasonable demand that things be 'politically correct,'" wrote Holmes. "That is regrettable, to say the least." Joe's Carl Kinsella went even further, calling the episode "a gaping wound where the show's funny bone used to be. A malignant tumour in its brain blocking the path of any possible introspection whatsoever." I don't agree. The clip was clearly introspective. After lamenting that erasing all offense can make for uninteresting comedy, Lisa tacitly references the show's history of depicting Apu as a stereotype. Marge say that "some things will be dealt with at a later date, if at all." Many seem to be interpreting this as the writers letting themselves off the hook (The New York Times called it "a dismissal"), but I'm not so sure. It sounds like The Simpsons is making fun of itself for not handling this whole thing better, while also mocking the humorlessness of political-correctness-run-amok. The expressions on their faces say a great deal: Lisa and Marge look uncomfortable, even regretful, rather than defensive. This falls well short of a full apology, and thus it isn't surprising that Kondabolu and company aren't satisfied with it. But The Simpsons didn't dodge The Problem with Apu. The writers evidently think the problem is more complicated.[...]

How to Sniff Out Fake News

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 12:00:00 -0400

Say you're a person of average intelligence (or higher) who likes to keep abreast of the news and who therefore follows several sources of it. Lately you've seen a number of people, not least among them the president of the United States, screaming about Fake News. You may well be wondering how, in the current fractured media landscape, you're supposed to discern who is telling the truth, who is lying—and who is telling the truth or lying about who is telling the truth. What is to be done? Here's one thing that is emphatically not to be done: Emulate Malaysia, which has just outlawed "fake news" and authorized prison terms of up to six years for so-called offenders. If there's anything worse than having giant news corporations, social-media censors, and search-engine algorithms decide what you can and cannot see, it's having the government make that decision. Besides: Teasing out the true from the false is really not so hard. A few tips: (1) Know the source. Say what you will about media bias—and there will be more to say in a few paragraphs—established media organizations work hard to get their facts right. They hate—hate, hate, hate—getting the story wrong. Some do, sometimes. Sometimes they get badly burned. Janet Cooke at The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. Jayson Blair at The New York Times plagiarized and fabricated stories. There have been other instances. But here's the thing: After each of these scandals, the news organizations made very public, excruciatingly detailed confessions laying out their own mistakes. Sketchy outlets never even correct minor mistakes, let alone big ones. That doesn't mean traditional media should automatically be believed about everything. It does make them more believable than some random website you stumble across on the internet. (2) Check the sources. Good news media cite them: A story on the federal deficit, for instance, will cite and perhaps link to the Congressional Budget Office. A story on highway fatalities might cite the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If you see a story about a study purporting to find no link between drunk driving and highway deaths, you might want to know whether it came from the Centers for Disease Control or, say, the Distilled Spirits Council of America. (3) Investigate. If a Facebook post claims scientists in Atlantis have invented a perpetual-motion machine, look it up. And here's a pro tip: Don't just Google it. Confine your search to a reputable source of information by using the search term "site:"—as in, "" or (This is also a good way to frustrate search algorithms that clutter your results with ads.) (4) Read both sides. News sources aren't the only ones that are biased. So are consumers. (Insert shocked face here.) Example: A Gallup-Knight Foundation survey recently found that 42 percent of Republicans, and 17 percent of Democrats, consider accurate but unflattering articles "fake news." This is a classic case of confirmation bias: the tendency to reject information that challenges our established beliefs. Some media have built entire business models around catering to partisan bias (here's looking at you, Fox and MSNBC). This means that while they will not knowingly report anything false, they will leave out a great deal that is true. For instance, shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated, The New York Times ran a series of prominent stories about the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, linking them to the political tenor of the day. But as Commentary's Seth Mandel, Algemeiner's Ira Stoll, and others pointed out, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries is nothing new. Yet The Times largely ignored or downplayed it until January, 2017—leaving the dangerous impression that anti-Semitism is contingent on U.S[...]

Beware Censorship by Proxy

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 09:59:00 -0400

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. YouTube is worried you might believe too much of what you see on its website. Amid the clamor for someone, somewhere to do something about "fake news," the company plans to attach "information cues"—excerpts from Wikipedia—to videos that touch on "a list of well-known internet conspiracies." When YouTube, Facebook or Twitter cracks down on some form of expression—conspiracy theories, radical rants, terrorist propaganda—some of the targets inevitably complain that their freedom of speech is under attack. (This feeling of victimhood may be what sent Nasim Aghdam to YouTube headquarters, gun in hand.) There is a strong retort to this: These are private platforms with a right to decide what they publish. It is no more a violation of the First Amendment for YouTube to muzzle a channel it finds offensive than it is for this newspaper to refuse to run a column calling for Minnesota to invade Wisconsin. But what if a private platform suppresses speech because it's afraid the government might otherwise step in? Just as one effective end-run around the Fourth Amendment is to ask private companies for data they slurped up on their own, the First Amendment can be sidestepped when officials pressure the private sector into self-censorship. The end result can be rules more restrictive than the companies would impose on their own—and more intrusive than the government could get away with if it tried to impose them directly. It's happened before. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free-speech protections did not apply to the movies, a decision rightly reversed in 1952. In the interim, the industry opted to stave off federal regulation by establishing a series of self-censorship systems. The most powerful of these was the Production Code, which was created in 1930 but didn't really grow teeth until 1934, when Congress was mulling several bipartisan bills to tone down motion picture content. Hollywood got the message. Under the code, seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy," plots couldn't involve "sex relationships between the white and black races," and the drug trade "should not be brought to the attention of audiences," among other tight constraints. Some filmmakers found ways to subtly subvert the restrictions. Many others threw up their hands and let their films be bowdlerized. The Federal Communications Commission directly regulates much of what can and cannot be said over the "public" airwaves. But private radio and television networks also have created their own internal Standards and Practices departments that control content, sometimes at absurd levels of caution. (Early network censors objected to terms as mild as "bloody," "bollixed" and "the W.C.") Broadcasters are not eager to offend their audiences, so some version of Standards and Practices would probably exist even without the FCC. But the desire to stay on regulators' and legislators' good side has clearly been at work in those departments' decisions as well. You can tell because the self-imposed rules eased up when federal content controls were relaxed in the 1980s. The comic book industry adopted a Comics Code after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing in 1954 on their products' alleged role in fostering crime. The immediate effect was to infantilize the industry, forcing a range of popular horror titles into the dustbin. The "parental advisory" labels affixed to CDs were invented following another Senate circus, the "porn rock" hearings of 1985. The stickers kept some records out of certain stores, and prompted some producers to edit songs or change album lineups to avoid the restrictions. In 1993, another set of Senate hearings inspired a comparable ratings system for video games. Those moves haven't had as much forc[...]

Killing Eve Offers Up an Exciting, Hilarious James Bond Gender Bend

Fri, 06 Apr 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Killing Eve. BBC America. Sunday, April 8, 8 p.m. Waco: The Longest Siege, Smithsonian Channel. Monday, April 9, 8 p.m. Eve Polastri works for MI-5, the British equivalent of the FBI, but her job—personal assistant to a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of security for visiting dignitaries—is mundane and her life terrifyingly boring. Literally: She awakes screaming from a dream that she's fallen asleep on both of her arms at once. She amuses herself by reading case files on female killers and plotting ways to get murder her husband without getting caught. But then, this cockeyed line of feminist thinking leads to her accidental involvement in the investigation of an apparent political murder. (Thinking aloud in front of a boss, Eve correctly guesses that the killer must be a woman.) And now she finds herself living out both sides of her fantasy in a kill-or-be-killed pursuit of a gorgeous but quite insane Russian assassin named Villanelle in BBC America's comic suspense thriller, Killing Eve. Alternating effortlessly between weirdly funny and chillingly tense, Killing Eve is the utterly endearing love child of oddball British novelist Luke Jennings and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars in the eccentric Brit television comedy Fleabag. Waller-Bridge's adaptation of Jennings' book offers, from one perspective, a dizzy feminist reformulation of the James Bond mythos, with the same lively direction framing the same lushly exotic scenery and the same exotic manners of population control. The only difference, seemingly, is the gender of the killers. But there's more to Killing Eve than gender-joshing. Eve and Villanelle are polar opposites—or, perhaps, two sides of the same coin. Eve (Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy) is frowsy, middle-aged, and sexually indifferent, at least to her husband. Villanelle (Jodie Comer, Starz's The White Princess) is young, sleek, and promiscuous. Villanelle is a highly trained assassin. Eve, for all her intellectual prowess about the nature of homicide and its practitioners, is scared by loud noises. Most of all, Eve likes to think about killing, the whys and, especially, the hows. Villanelle just kills, constantly and joyously. Their cat and mouse game is magnetic and even erotic. It's also often extremely funny. Though violence can erupt, quickly and bloodily, at any moment in Killing Eve (I advise getting a tune-up for your gag reflex before sitting down to the first episode), the laughs come more frequently than shudders. And the show's value as a British-American cultural exchange cannot be underestimated. However else would we have known the overweening importance of genitalia references to the science of insulting bosses in Great Britain. "Dick swab" and "monkey dick," just to use a couple of examples, could be lexicological breakthroughs. But it's the women who really power the humor in Killing Eve. Comer, a product of British TV who isn't well known to American audiences—though she will be, soon enough—brings a manic, grisly, energy to her part. The scene in which she engages in a stare-down with an 8-year-old across a restaurant floor—just because—is a hilarious encapsulation of her entire character, a high school mean girl with a 9mm Glock and a case of sharpened knitting needles. Oh, meanwhile, deftly paints herself in the awkward hues of Fargo as the smart but often bumbling Eve. Watching her bring her textbook interrogation skills to bear on a half-mad witness who, before her sanity cracks altogether, discloses only that the cops should look for "a small-breasted psycho" is like a post-modernist chapter for Dick Tracy's Crimestoppers Textbook. As convincing as the bloodshed in Killing Eve is, it's all the work of the special effects geeks. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the mind-boggling b[...]

Newspapers Care Much More About Bashing Sinclair Than Criticizing an Unconstitutional Attack on Free Speech

Fri, 06 Apr 2018 13:59:00 -0400

If Jesus was right about how ye shall know them by their fruits, then we might have a good test case for gleaning what the journalism establishment (such as a thing exists) considers an important threat to a free press. In one corner we have a must-run cookie-cutter anti-"fake news" promotional video ordered up by the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group to its most-in-the-nation 193 local-TV-news outlets, at a time when the company's controversial merger with Tribune Co. is being held up by anti-trust regulators at the Justice Department. In the other we have a Sex Trafficking Act passed overwhelmingly by Congress (388-25 in the House, 97-2 in the Senate) despite being vociferously opposed on free speech grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and reliable civil libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the latter of whom warned that "Civic organizations protecting their right to free speech could be [ruined] by their more powerful political opponents" and that subsequently there could be "an enormous chilling effect on speech in America." So: The act of an individual company possibly flattering its regulator while mandating politically tinged content, versus the act of the federal government knowingly limiting speech in such a way the Justice Department has warned might be unconstitutional, and that has already prompted some prominent websites to self-censor. The choice seems clear to me. As a stand-in for what the journalism class prioritizes, I'll use newspaper editorials. Searching both Nexis and Google News on "editorial" and "sex trafficking act" and "Sinclair," here is what I found over the past couple of months: * Sex Trafficking Act: 3 4* newspaper editorials, 2 of them in favor. * Sinclair Broadcast: 15 newspaper editorials, 14 of them critical of Sinclair, 5 supporting federal government intervention, and exactly 1 criticizing Sinclair while telling the feds to back off. Let's reward the good behavior first. Here is an Orange County Register editorial concluding that the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) is "well-meaning" but "wrong." Sample: FOSTA's penalties not only use the precautionary principle to justify a sweeping suppression of consensual communication, they also force private online companies like Craigslist to unwillingly shoehorn the precautionary principle into their business model. On top of these flaws, FOSTA commits one more sin. Now that websites face a one-strike-you're-out law on precautionary grounds, the door is open to more laws doing the same. In a free society, that's impermissible. FOSTA is a big mistake. That's it! There's your one American newspaper* editorial criticizing a probably unconstitutional clampdown on free speech. By contrast, this Kansas City Star mastheader does not even mention that a free-speech objection exists, instead exulting in the "bipartisan win" and how "this fight was worth it": Ever since the wildly lucrative world of sex trafficking moved from the streets to the internet, market leaders in commercial sex advertising like Backpage have hidden behind an antiquated section of the Communications Decency Act. The act provided Backpage with what [Sen. Claire] McCaskill called "complete and total immunity from being held accountable for their bad behavior." As for the Sinclair dogpile, I previously pointed out the Boston Globe's remarkably shortsighted conclusion that political slant itself is one good reason for the federal government to block the company's expansion. But don't sleep on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "In reality, the eerily Orwellian video, which quickly went viral, makes the case against the Sinclair-Tribune deal," the paper wrote[...]

Liberals Finally Find Some Media Bias They Dislike

Fri, 06 Apr 2018 00:15:00 -0400

Last month, news anchors at Sinclair Broadcast Group's TV stations were required to read a script critical of "fake stories" and general bias in the major news networks. Because some of the phrasing mirrored President Donald Trump's overcooked critique of liberal media outlets, the story triggered widespread and overwrought warnings about authoritarianism and the rise of state-run media. It's true that Sinclair, the largest owner of U.S. TV stations, would have been better off following the lead of the big outlets: hiring and working with people who subscribe to the same worldview and then simply letting them do their thing. But as long as we have a media market and inhibit government meddling in speech—thank you, Citizens United and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai—the idea that we are powerless to turning away from "propaganda" is nothing but alarmism. Every Sinclair market has an alternative local news station for viewers, not to mention other sources of information consumers can read and listen to if they desire. Then again, having read the panicky coverage before watching the Sinclair videos, I was surprised by the innocuousness of the spots. The anchors were plainly reading a scripted public service announcement that claimed there is a "troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories" at major news outlets and then offering themselves as an alternative. They then cautioned viewers to avoid the "sharing of biased and false news" on social media, which is, I am often told, a plague on democracy. "But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short," the script goes on to say. "If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us." The rhetoric was a less sanctimonious version of CNN's apples and bananas commercial from a few months ago—another finger wagging aimed at political foes and competitors. One peculiar complaint about the Sinclair spots is that local anchors were being "forced"—a word widely used by those reporting on the incident—to read opinions they do not share. "I felt like a POW recording a message," one aggrieved newsreader told CNN. As a writer, I can sympathize with people being asked to say things that undermine their beliefs. In truth, though, no one can force you to say or write anything. If you find the words "fake" and "news" morally and professionally objectionable, quit. The concept of free will has little part in any of our national conversations these days. You'd think that Russian bots, Facebook posts, and local news anchors all have the preternatural ability to burrow into your brain and make your choices for you. CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter went as far as to claim that viewers were being "force-fed" the Sinclair viewpoint, which would mean that every time an outlet is "leaning forward" or telling us that "Democracy Dies in Darkness" or lecturing us about "fake news," it, too, is force-feeding consumers their partisan talking points. It's clear that the oversized reaction to the Sinclair script is occurring because it flaunted the wrong bias. And considering the often sycophantic treatment the previous administration received from major news outlets, it's difficult to take those acting appalled very seriously. In fact, those who act most disturbed are in part responsible for the rise of openly partisan journalism. That's because in many ways, politically motivated news is as much a market reaction as an ideological one. Take CNN's full-blown push for gun control over the past few weeks. Is the network any less culpable of the supposed manipulation of democracy when it features a virtually unchallenged—and often fact-challenged—opinion that runs in a loop for a week? CNN wasn't alone. Surely,[...]

5 Things Everyone's Getting Wrong About Sinclair Broadcast Group

Tue, 03 Apr 2018 14:37:00 -0400

"This Pravda-style propaganda," a visibly shaken Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC show Monday morning, "has to stop." Dan Rather concurred: "It's Orwellian," the veteran newsman tweeted. "A slippery slope to how despots wrest power, silence dissent, and oppress the masses." John Oliver, the discreet Superman of American journalism, performed last rites. "A brainwashed cult," he pronounced. What is it that has the journalistic class manning their battle stations against the totalitarian menace? This Deadspin supercut of the country's biggest name in local TV news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, beaming out to each one of its markets the exact same promotional message: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> "Sinclair's fake-news zombies should terrify you," ran the headline of a David Rothkopf piece at CNN. You can see what he means—especially given the backstory, as reported a month ago by CNN's Brian Stelter, that the notoriously Republicanoid parent company was making local anchors "uncomfortable" by insisting they record the thing word for word. (There has been at least one refusenik.) Sure, many of the melodramatic sentiments contained within the advertorial were virtually indistinguishable from recent promotional campaigns by The New York Times ("factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever" vs. "the truth is more important than ever") or The Washington Post ("this is extremely dangerous to our democracy" vs. "democracy dies in darkness"), but the hostage-video vibe was unmistakable. When reading from the exact same teleprompter language, the least you can do is smile! src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> That video above and other such cookie-cutter local-TV segments that Conan O'Brien enjoys mocking were brought to you by a company called CNN Newsource, though there is clearly a difference between syndicated goofball content that stations choose to run and heavy-handed "fake news" lectures that they're ordered to broadcast. As one Sinclairite emailed Stelter last night: "It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets." Still, a certain sense of perspective and proportion has been noticeably absent from this, a story that has captured media imaginations far in excess to the facially unconstitutional assault on free speech that Congress passed just last month. So in order to encourage more media literacy and make even more new friends on Twitter, here is my list of five things people are getting wrong about L'affaire Sinclair: 1) Sinclair is not remotely a monopoly. "Sinclair Is Bad for Democracy. So Are Other Media Monopolies," runs the Washington Monthly headline from David Atkins. "Sinclair Broadcast Group is a Media Monopoly Thanks to Bill Clinton," says Colin Kalmbacher of Law & Crime. "Sinclair Broadcast Group and Media Monopolies, Explained," offers Teen Vogue's Danielle Corcione. None of these pieces manage to explain how a company currently prohibited from operating two of the top four stations in a given television market meets any of the various definitions of monopoly. Sinclair mostly owns and occasionally operates 193 local TV stations across the country (or "nearly 250" in the inflationary math of Law & Crime), including affiliates for ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. (Confused by that? See #3.) As Jack Shafer wrote in Politico last year, "Today, the United States has 1,775 total television stations, about 5,200 cable systems run by 660 operators reaching 90 percent of homes and so many cable channels that TV executiv[...]

Experts Agree That Massively Popular Roseanne Reboot Shouldn't Be Popular at All

Fri, 30 Mar 2018 15:10:00 -0400

Oh, Roseanne Barr, can you ever win? Sure, the reboot of your wildly popular and long-lived eponymous 1990s sitcom is a ratings hit, but all the smartest people are acting like you just finished singing the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres game circa 1990. Or dressing up like Lady Hitler and burning cookies. Or pushing Pizzagate, the most-batshit-crazy Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory of them all. Or recovering memories that your parents molested you and then retracting them. How can you come from low-class roots, become massively successful in show biz, and then be pro-Donald Trump and pro-abortion at the same time? It just doesn't make sense, say all the smartest pundits in the country and at least one of your former co-stars? Can't you see that you're tearing us apart! It's not news that real-life Roseanne, who ran for president herself back in 2012 with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan as veep, is a Trump supporter, but the shock of someone being funny on network television and playing an unapologetic, unironic Trumpista at the same time is just too much for some of us to bear. To paraphrase Nixon, we're all snowflakes now. But who gave you the right, the person who popularized the once-ironic term domestic goddess before it was glammed up by Nigella Lawson and before being down-classed by Charlie Sheen, to be messing with our social-political-cultural categories yet again? Here's Roseanne's case for The Donald over Hillary Clinton way back in June 2016: I like Trump because he financed his own [campaign]. That's the only way he could've gotten that nomination. Because nobody wants a president who isn't from Yale and Harvard and in the club. 'Cause it's all about distribution. When you're in the club, you've got people that you sell to. That's how money changes hands, that's how business works. If you've got friends there, they scratch your back and blah, blah....To me, he's saying that the order of law matters. When a president can just pass laws all on his own, that is a little bit different than [Trump's] saying what America was supposed to be about. And Trump is saying people will have to be vetted, we'll have to have legal immigration. It's all a scam. I mean, illegal immigration. When people come here and they get a lot of benefits that our own veterans don't get. What's up with that? What's up, indeed? Roseanne has called herself a socialist at various points, by which she seems to mean a redistributionist rather than a latter-day Rosa Luxemburg, but she also has long trafficked in populist sentiments too. In her new sitcom, her titular character avers that Trump won the election because he at least talked about jobs. Her character and real-life counterpart, like most Americans, are finding fewer and fewer touch-points with traditional political categories of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. I don't presume to understand, much less agree, with Roseanne's political or comedic agenda but the plain fact is she's connecting with contemporary audiences and voters precisely because she no longer feels constrained by two political parties that have been around since before the Civil War. Roxanne Gay, who says she won't continue viewing the reboot even as she admits to laughing during its first two episodes, says that Roseanne's views are "muddled and incoherent." Which is to say they are merely reflecting new possible groupings in the body politic. Why shouldn't there be a political party that is pro-abortion and pro-lower taxes, say? Or pro-free trade and pro-union? Anti-war and anti-immigrant? I'm not arguing for any of those particular configurations, I'm simply stating that the conventional groupings we've inher[...]