Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Shattered Glass" and the Present of Journalism

One of my favorite, absolute favorite cable movies (movies that you tune into while its on cable and you get totally sucked in, no matter what part of movie you tune into) is "Shattered Glass," the story about Stephen Glass and his serial lies in journalism.  If you haven't seen the movie, or know the story, read this article by Adam L. Penenberg, the guy who broke the story.  If you don't want to read the article (but you should totally do), here's the short, short version: Stephen Glass was a journalist wunderkind who, in his early 20's, wrote articles for the New Republic and other major newspapers (Rolling Stone, George, etc), and in the guise of journalism, wrote complete fiction. Almost all of his articles were completely fiction.  And it was Penenberg who discovered the whole thing while writing for Forbes.com. 

I bring up this sordid history because in the aftermath of his journalistic oblivion, Stephen Glass, who was going to law school while writing all these articles, finished law school, took the Bar exam in New York and California, passed it, and as of yesterday, was denied entry to the California Bar by the California Supreme Court due to journalism history.  

Whether or not the Court's decision was justified, the whole Glass affair was the beginning of some interesting trends in politics and journalism that are still in effect today.  Here was a respected inside-the-beltway journalist who wasn't outed as a fraud by the so-called paragons of journalism, but was taken apart, bit by bit, by writer on the internet.  Not only that, but as Penenberg's article (you have to read the article) indicates, he crowd-sourced his research into Stephen Glass, using colleagues and interns, all working together.

That's amazing to me because virtually every internet investigation is done essentially the same way - one person says, "we need to research this, and I need help" and people who have a few minutes of time on their hands, step in and research. TalkingPointsMemo.com, VoiceofSanDiego.org, and a fair number of websites that do investigative journalism all use the same model of research as Penenberg. In that model, someone like Glass didn't stand a chance.

This story is also amazing to me because it showed how rotten DC journalism had become.  When he collected all the information, Penenberg presented it to Charles Lane and the New Republic who, rather than crediting him for bring the information to the fore, tried to stab Penenberg in the back by leaking the story to Howard Kurtz (who has found his place as an awful journalist at Fox). Kurtz' article didn't even credit Forbes.com or Penenberg.  He was the outsider, after all.  

Moreover, it now appears that some 42 of Glass' articles were completely or partially fictional, and no one caught him at it until Penenberg because Glass' stories played off of cliches, stereotypes and prejudices.  The hacker in "Hack Heaven" (the article that sparked Penenberg's investigation) is a 16 year old kid who wants a Miata, Young Republicans in another one of his stories were nasty to women and minorities, etc.  

Similarly, Judy Miller at the New York Times wrote article after article claiming that Saddam Hussein had biological/chemical/nuclear weapons and was planning to use them on the U.S. - literally parroting what the Bush Administration told her, and no one called her out for it. Instead, it was liberal bloggers who took her stories apart piece by piece. The same could be said for Dan Rather and the Bush draft-dodging story.

So, after almost 20 years, I think the Glass saga remains as compelling as ever, and the movie is ridiculously good.

Friday, January 3, 2014

First Post of 2014 - Thoughts on the Bahamas, Legal Pot, Slander, and Numbers

For those of you class action attorneys out there, here is one thing you should never do - schedule a class certification motion in between your wedding and your honeymoon. Yes, even if they are a month apart.  Trust me on this.  Don't ask me why.  Anyway, the past couple of months have been hectic, but rewarding, and I think I really should blog more this year. Because so much happened, this is going to be one of those random thoughts blogs.  Sorry people.  So, without further ado. . .

The Bahamas: When my wife and I were trying to decide where to go for our honeymoon, we both realized that for a honeymoon, there really is only one proper activity - sitting on a beach, or in a pool, drinking.  Okay, there are two proper activities, but we aren't going there.  So, outside of marital activities, the only proper thing to do during a honeymoon is to sit on a beach, someplace warm and drink cold drinks.  That pretty much eliminated Europe, as we would be compelled to go and see things. We also eliminated Mexico because its literally 20 minutes south of my office, and we figured we would probably go there a bunch in the future.  So, we opted for the Bahamas.

Honestly, its a great place to go, sit on a beach, and drink rum. And drink more rum. And some more. Seriously, there is a hell of a lot of rum to be drunk, which I may or may not have consumed. The majority of the time it was absolutely glorious, and I'm glad I went.  Add to that the fact that the Bahamian government works ridiculously hard to accommodate tourists, and going was convenient, fun, and worth doing. If you do go, check out Junkanoo, the New Years' celebration.

That said, there are a couple of things that are bothersome. First, and I wasn't aware of this before I went, there is basically no agriculture to speak of in the Bahamas. This is because the islands of the Bahamas are all essentially limestone with sand on top. While there are a good number of plants that can grow, most don't produce really produce food. So around 95% of the food found in the Bahamas is imported - meaning it is expensive and verges on the crappy. Add to that the sugary rum drinks (which, by the way, are fantastic), and you can end up feeling pretty gross.

The second thing about the Bahamas that struck me was the racial aspect of being a tourist.  Here I am, a white guy, being served by Bahamians (almost all of whom are African in decent), sitting in a hotel which has a building meant to look like an old manor house - as in a manor house from the bad old days of slavery. Yeah, not good.  While the Bahamians couldn't be nicer, and on Grand Bahama they were very nice, I can well understand frustrations boiling over into violence, which it totally is in Nassau.  And I don't see how it gets better - the Bahamas are absolutely dependent upon tourism (70% of their GDP), and remember, because they live on crap soil, they can't grow their own food, and they don't have much industry outside of shipping to provide Bahamians with high paying jobs. It does concern me.

Pot is Legal in Colorado: Unlike the Bahamas, smoking pot is something I've never done. I'm not sure why exactly - I like stoners, I get their humor, and enjoy late night snacks as much as the next guy. I've been around people who used it, and was offered some on a variety of occasions, and I've never done it.  Maybe it was all the anti-drug messages I got as a kid. Certainly, I'm part of the generation that was scared off from ever using cocaine.  Anyway, with pot now legalized* in Colorado, pundits are making dumber and dumber remarks about pot and why it should not be legal.

But the one thing no one has really told me is whether or not pot is more dangerous, and less healthy than alcohol.  For me, the alcohol test should form the basis of American drug policy - is this drug more dangerous than alcohol.  After all, the U.S. prohibited alcohol and then ended the prohibition.  So, we as a society have clearly decided that we are willing to tolerate a certain amount of danger from the drugs we ingest recreationally.  Is marijuana more dangerous, in and of itself, than alcohol?

And honestly, I don't think marijuana is. Now, the experimentation with legalization* in Colorado and Washington will tell us more about the dangers as we go along.  But California and a fair number of other states have had legal* medicinal marijuana for years now, and there hasn't been a rash of deaths. And if we had a functioning legislative body at the federal level, marijuana activists could use this information to legalize pot at the federal level. But, sadly, we don't.

Dwayne Crenshaw Sues Myrtle Cole and Larry Remer for Slander/Defamation of Character: My old friend, and former boss Dwayne Crenshaw is suing his former opponent Myrtle Cole and her political consultant Larry Remer for slander and defamation of character. In case anyone was wondering, let me say this - good for Dwayne. As with any case, its all based on the facts, and here Cole and Remer used a disgusting attack (with strong racial implications, by the way), that had been debunked 10 years ago. Put another way, the Labor Council put out a lot of mail slamming Dwayne, accusing him of all kinds of bullshit things, but even they wouldn't touch this disgusting ad.

Now, procedurally, here's how it will play out: under California law, you can file a particular motion killing lawsuits before any investigation and discovery if you can prove that the lawsuit attacks a constitutionally protected right by the Defendant. This was put in place to protect protesters from getting harassed by lawsuits from big corporations, etc. Under the First Amendment, of course, speech, especially political speech, is protected so long as: (1) everything said was true; or (2) the speaker thought he was making a true statement, and had a reasonable belief that what was being said was true. Also, satire - making a statement that is so outrageous that its obviously fake - is also protected.  So, Cole and Remer will file their motion to kill the lawsuit.  At that point, Dwayne will have to prove that his allegations are true - that the ad they published was untruthful, that they knew it was untruthful, and that he suffered damage as a result - at the motion stage.  If Cole and Remer win, they can ask the Court for attorneys' fees, paying for the cost of bringing the motion.

If, however, Dwayne defeats the motion, he pretty much has clear sailing because in the Judge's eyes, he's proven his case. All that's left to do is gather some incriminating statements from the Defendants to make them look like assholes to the jury, and he's ready for trial.  So, if there is a pressure point where the case settles, its going to be around the time Cole's motion to kill the lawsuit (called a motion to strike) is about to be heard.

Numbers and Rabid Conservatism: One of the more amazing things about the 2012 elections was the whole unskew thing pushed by several high level conservatives.  The concept was that the opinion polls were skewed toward Obama supporters, and thus, Romney was going to win in a landslide.  This theory was accepted by a fair number of people, including Karl Rove and Mitt Romney.  Of course, they were wrong.  Now, it seems to be issues with the number of Obamacare enrollees that drive the baseline conservatives crazy.  Is it the wildness of social media that makes this look bigger than it is? I don't know. I hope so.

*Marijuana is not actually legal anywhere in the United States because its usage is outlawed by federal law, which preempts state law. To the extent that people in Colorado can use marijuana, its because the feds have decided to let them do so.