Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I read Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel primarily for the subtitle: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload. Kovach has been chief of the Washington bureau, the editor of the New York TimesAtlanta Journal-Constitution, and directed the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard University. Rosenstiel was a media critic for the Los Angeles Times, chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, and a press critic for MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams. Together they bring more than 80 years of journalistic experience to the book, their third.

They point out something that every astute consumer of news recognizes: even as the number of newspapers have declined, the number of other "news" sources—cable TV, blogs, websites, tweets, and more—has exploded. At one time, the newspaper's editors acted as gatekeepers to filter and vet the stories people would read; that function is much less significant today. Today news consumers have to vet the stories the stories they see on CNN, the Daily Kos, Reuters, MSNBC. Indeed, virtually every story. How do you tell what is reliable. How do you determine what facts (or whose opinions) to trust?

Kovach and Rosensteil point out there are four kinds of journalism. The journalism of...

1. Verification. The traditional reporter's attempt to obtain the truth about an event and "puts a high value on completeness: answering questions that the facts of an event may suggest and attempting to put these facts in a complete context so that they can be understood as they happened."

2. Assertion. The reporter simply passes along what were once the raw ingredients of journalism—the rumor, innuendo, allegation, accusation, charge, supposition, and hypothesis—directly to the audience. The reporter is a conduit, an enabler for sources and newsmakers.

3. Affirmation. This is opinion—or propaganda—masquerading as journalism. The practitioners are strongly ideological, often demagogic. They cherry-pick their facts, ignore alternative viewpoints, and appeal primarily to people who already agree with their views. They are not interested in looking for the truth because they already know it.

4. Aggregation. This is a benefit (or curse) of the internet age. It becomes embarrassingly easy to obtain stories from a variety of sources on a single topic. The stories may all follow the same ideological line—it depends on the aggregator—or they may offer a more complete picture with added details.

To become a more conscious and careful news consumer, the authors suggest we ask six basic questions about stories:

—What kind of content am I encountering?
—Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
—Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
—What evidence is presented, and how was it tested of vetted?
—What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
—Am I learning what I need to?

Two weeks ago, I was exposed to more cable news than I'd ever seen during an extended period. I found it superficial, unsatisfying, and often inadequate. Blur articulated my feelings. While the book is filled with interesting stories and good advice, I am skeptical that many Americans will take their suggestions to heart.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan in Print

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period by Mary Elizabeth Berry is a fascinating study of Japanese publishing between roughly 1600 and 1800. Berry is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and while her book has all the bells and whistles an academic study requires--47 pages of notes, a bibliography with more than 350 citations (the majority in Japanese), and full index--Berry's writing is lively and interesting as well as authoritative. The book is also beautifully produced with 34 b&w illustrations; it is a pleasure to hold.

In 1700, if you were Japanese, lived in one of the major cities (Kyoto, Edo, Osaka), and were literate, you had access to a plethora of printed information: maps, guides, genealogies, directories, catalogues, histories, medical advice, agricultural instruction, and much, much more. To convey this diversity, Berry begins the book by creating a Kyoto silk merchant about to make his first trip to Edo. "Being something of a bibliophile, you begin your research [into the trip] by consulting recent booksellers' catalogues, rough equivalents of Books in Print, which have been appearing in major cities since at least 1659. Koeki shojaku mokuroku (A Catalogue of Publications for Public Utility) published by a consortium of Kyoto firms in 1692 contains entries on over 7,000 current titles divided into 46 main categories (and numerous subcategories). You winnow leads from some obvious sections ("Geography," "Travel," "Famous Places") and from a few less obvious ones ("Erotica," "Military Affairs") hoping to come across additional items--ephemera, privately printed matter, texts published outside Kyoto that may not have made it into the catalogue--as you browse the shops. There are over 100 of them. Some are small printing houses stocking their own titles. Others retail texts on specialized subjects such as Chinese learning or poetry or medicine or Zen Buddhism..."

I found it fascinating that before 1600 there are virtually no maps--or no maps that have survived. After Tokugawa Ieyasu finally united the country, however, cartographers began thinking of the country as a unit and mapping it in considerable detail: roads, rivers, ports, fords, bridges, towns, villages, shrines, temples, famous spots, and more. With better maps came a need for descriptions of those shrines, temples, and famous spots, plus an interest in identifying all the businesses and their locations in the cities and towns. Readers wanted to know where to find the "masters" and "famous artists" and "famous craftspeople" and there were guides to tell them.

Berry not only describes these printed works--the maps and directories--but suggests how they were both affected by and affected Japanese culture. She makes the interesting, and to me persuasive case, that all this printed material helped turn the extremely fragmented and feudal Japan into the nation that was, in many ways, prepared intellectually and socially for the Meiji revolution of the 1860s. Japan in Print is a window into a Japan I had not known existed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Google Translate

I continue to learn new Japanese characters and review grammatical forms. I'm working with a couple Japanese friends, helping them with their English and they help me with my Japanese. One of the our texts is a book of useful sentences that illustrate various patterns. I just came across the following:

社長はだれのことをどなたのですか?("Shacho wa dare no koto o donata no desu ka?")

The text translates that as, "Who did the boss shout at?"

Because the verb "shout" is not in the sentence, I decided to check it with Google Translate. The program translated it as "How is anyone to be president whom?"

I think I have to check this one with my friends.