How Jon Stewart changed the media … CNN, at least

When a comedian hands you your ass on a plate, the best way to respond it to learn from it:

Stewart clearly has had an impact on other media careers and decisions, most notably on the termination of the political debate show Crossfire on CNN. The then-CEO of the network, Jon Klein, said when he canceled the show in 2005 that he was “firmly in the Jon Stewart camp” on the issue of cable news offering too much partisan arguing. One veteran CNN executive told me that Stewart’s determined efforts to hold that network’s feet to the fire had had an impact all the way to the top of CNN’s management.

via Bill Carter: How Jon Stewart Changed Media (and Made Megyn Kelly Cry) – Hollywood Reporter.

It’s a pity Fox didn’t respond the same way.

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Looking Back at ‘NewsRadio’s Perfect Pilot – Splitsider

Looking Back at ‘NewsRadio’s Perfect Pilot – Splitsider.

I love NewsRadio, but I disagree. The pilot is a little clumsy — watch the “Catherine” character and Joe Rogan’s predecessor in particular.

The pilot of Cheers, mentioned in the story, is indeed perfect, introducing Sam, Diane and the wonderful Coach.

“Is there an Ernie Pantuso here?”

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Great moments in bad reporting, climate change/Ice Age edition

You may have seen some reports recently about the “Mini Ice Age” coming up in the 2030s, and you may have wondered why this wasn’t reported anywhere beyond sensationalist UK newspapers and conservative U.S. media.

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s because you can’t just throw a couple of words together and assume cause and effect.

The study, presented at the Royal Astronomical Society last week but not yet peer-reviewed and so forth, suggests the sun may be headed for another “Maunder minimum,” a period of relative inactivity last seen when there was ice on the Thames.

Naturally, some alleged science writers ran with the “Mini Ice Age!” story.

Which is not what the researcher said. The researcher was talking only about the sun. If the sun was the only factor in the Earth’s temperature, then yes, we would be getting colder. Of course, if the sun was the only factor in the Earth’s temperature, Earth would be uninhabitable. We can live and breathe and not freeze to death because we have an atmosphere. It’s nice.

The lamestream media were a little slow to respond to the “Mini Ice Age” story because, you know, research takes time. It’s much easier to draw an irrational conclusion and run to the pub, which explains a lot about the UK media (especially if you read soccer transfer gossip). Thankfully, the Post’s Sarah Kaplan came up with the following:

1. Researcher Valentina Zharkova presented this information without talking about a “Mini Ice Age.” She’s only studying the sun. It’s what she does.

2. Other studies have already taken the Maunder minimum into account. Here’s one conclusion:

Therefore, under the increasing anthropogenic emissions in the future, the impact of the grand solar minimum such as MM-type is likely to reduce the global warming by about 20%. It means that a future grand solar minimum could slow down but not stop the global warming. These conclusions should be verified by more projection experiments from many other climate models.

And they have. They show solar activity might mitigate some of the worst climate change scenarios in some regions — at least, that’s what I draw from this poorly written sentence: “For a high-end decline in solar ultraviolet irradiance, the impact on winter northern European surface temperatures over the late twenty-first century could be a significant fraction of the difference in climate change between plausible AR5 scenarios of greenhouse gas concentrations.”

So we might still be able to ski in Norway?

Here’s an older and clearer study, linked in the Post study along with the other two:

The Maunder minimum is connected to the Little Ice Age, a time of markedly lower temperatures, in particular in the Northern hemisphere. Here we use a coupled climate model to explore the effect of a 21st-century grand minimum on future global temperatures, finding a moderate temperature offset of no more than −0.3°C in the year 2100 relative to a scenario with solar activity similar to recent decades. This temperature decrease is much smaller than the warming expected from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century.


3. Other factors contributed to the freezing of the Thames, everything from volcanic ash to bridge construction.

And, you know, the fact that we had not yet wrecked the sky.

So, I’m sorry, but further research beyond concluding that A+B=C shows us that we’re getting, at best, a slight mitigating factor.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to find holes to punch in the New Yorker’s Seattle earthquake doom story.

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Rolling Stone and Rush mythbusting

On its 40th anniversary tour, Rush has officially broken down the last of the rock establishment’s resistance. They’re on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Even better, the article is terrific. It doesn’t just rehash the band’s history. It captures them as a vibrant group of human beings. They make mistakes in rehearsals and struggle to play their difficult songs. Geddy Lee gets clever revenge on Joe Perry.

The story should also drive the last nail in the notion that Neil Peart is a right-wing role model or even a good Ayn Rand disciple. He gives money to a homeless person and talks about regaining his generosity, which admittedly seems to run counter to the message of Anthem.

And he gets more explicit in his politics:

Peart outgrew his Ayn Rand phase years ago, and now describes himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian,” citing his trips to Africa as transformative. He claims to stand by the message of “The Trees,” but other than that, his bleeding-heart side seems dominant. Peart just became a U.S. citizen, and he is unlikely to vote for Rand Paul, or any Republican. Peart says that it’s “very obvious” that Paul “hates women and brown people” — and Rush sent a cease-and-desist order to get Paul to stop quoting “The Trees” in his speeches.

“For a person of my sensibility, you’re only left with the Democratic party,” says Peart, who also calls George W. Bush “an instrument of evil.” “If you’re a compassionate person at all. The whole health-care thing — denying mercy to suffering people? What? This is Christian?”

So perhaps the last decade of Rush going mainstream is simply a matter of seeing them as thoughtful, compassionate people. Not wind-up machines who play every note perfectly and pledge allegiance to libertarianism.


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The Attack on Truth: Postmodernism and propaganda

In grad school, I worried that the same “postmodernist” tools that ivory-tower professors used to question reality were also being used by propaganda merchants to question climate change, evolution and so forth.

I hate being right. But this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Attack on Truth, confirms it.

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Granted, the seeds of doubt go back a bit farther than that:

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.

And to some extent, our discussions have never been about finding truth:

In a recent paper, “Why Do Humans Reason?,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.

So we’re talking about deeply ingrained human nature. But we often fight against that human nature and come up with the occasional Age of Reason or Enlightenment, pushing our scruffy species a little farther up the road toward good government, good decisions, and technology. If our species could never agree on truth, Apple engineers would still be yelling at each other about how to make an iPod. We’d never have an iPhone.

The bad news today is that we have the means to amplify every crackpot, and the media business landscape makes shouting pundits more profitable than careful research.

An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.

Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth. Call it “objectivity bias.” Sensitive to criticism that they, too, are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced by presenting “both” sides of any issue deemed “controversial” — even when there really aren’t two credible sides. That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific issue — has actually been settled.


A lot of this was written in some guy’s grad-school thesis in 2000:

With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.

I hate being right.

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Rush: Retire? Residency?

What do you do with a band full of guys in their 60s who keep getting better?

I saw Rush for the sixth time (I think — I may have lost count) last night, and it was the best Rush show I’ve seen. I can’t think of a better concert I’ve seen, period.

The hook for the R:40 (40 years since their only personnel change) tour is that they go backwards through their catalog. They have been rotating a few songs, but the basic structure starts with three songs from Clockwork Angels, their most recent album and one of their best.

By the time those three songs were done, I turned to my friend and perennial Rush concert companion and said, “They seem especially on tonight.”

I think the rest of the crowd felt it, too. As the band went back through its catalog to all the rock-radio staples (Tom Sawyer, The Spirit of Radio) and prog-rock anthems (the rarely played Natural Science, the even more rarely played Jacob’s LadderXanadu and the enduring 2112), the crowd either sang along or simply roared.


The show is clever, too. While the band is playing, a crew clad in red suits disassembles and reassembles the stage props to re-create what they had on different tours through the years. By the end, when they’re playing songs from their first three albums, they look like they’re playing in a high school gym.

And they have star-studded videos. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, known for their Rush fanaticism in the film I Love You Man, pop up to lip-sync the infamous “rap” section in Roll The Bones. A blooper reel of videos from past tours includes Jerry Stiller. Eugene Levy pops up in character as one of his old SCTV guises, introducing the band as he might have done in 1975. (If you want a few glimpses, check this review with videos.)

But nothing overshadows the band. Geddy Lee continues to be a modern miracle, hands fluttering over the bass while his voice exudes power, holding several notes for the crowd’s appreciation. Alex Lifeson plays guitar with such easy motions for such complex parts. Drumming icon Neil Peart had a shorter drum solo than usual, but I thought it was one of his best. The retro drumkit with the tubular bells was a nice touch.

It’s astounding to think how long they’ve been doing this. My buddy and I had spent part of dinner laughing about our aging. We’re in our 40s, and we’re falling apart. These guys have passed 60, and they’re flying through a dazzling rock concert. Peart powered through the double-bass drum part on One Little Victory. They even busted out the monstrous 1970s double-neck guitars for Xanadu. The Canadian health care system must be really good.

But Peart has said plenty of times that what he does requires a certain amount of athleticism, and now he’s battling tendonitis. Lifeson’s typical lead-guitar grimaces might be worse than usual, given the arthritis in his hands and feet.

So this might be the last full-scale Rush tour. And that would be a pity, given the form these guys are in.

What other band compares? Who else has released such strong albums nearly 40 years into their career? Other bands of their era may still tour, but they’re no longer the creative forces they were. Some bands don’t even have that many original or even “classic” members — Yes is set to tour for the first time without bassist Chris Squire (get well soon), and lead singer Jon Davison wasn’t born when Yes released its first couple of albums.

Touring is a grind they can no longer maintain. Even apart from the effects of aging, Peart is more interested in family time than travel time — especially understandable given the remarkable regeneration he has had since losing his wife and daughter in the 1990s.

I’ll toss out a novel suggestion: A residency.

That concept is no longer just for Vegas acts, thanks to Billy Joel and Madison Square Garden.  Imagine a monthly Rush show in Toronto and/or near Peart’s Santa Monica home.

No need to truck everything around. They could adapt the venue to have complete control over the lights and videos.

Plenty of time to recover between gigs. And plenty of reasons for Rush fans to visit Toronto. I’d definitely make the trip at least once.

Plenty of time at home for the guys and their extended families.

We can’t ask anything more of these guys after 40 years of sustained excellence. But if we can find creative ways to keep them around, everybody wins.

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Is Fox News irrelevant?

That’s what the iconoclastic Jack Shafer implies.

The reliably liberal Frank Rich appreciates better than most that Fox’s essential harmlessness. In a piece published last year in New York, he concluded more than that aside from infuriating liberals, Fox flexes little political power. The median age of a Fox viewer is 68, eight years older than the MSBNC and CNN median age, and its median age is rising. “Fox is in essence a retirement community,” Rich writes, and a small one at that! “The million or so viewers who remain fiercely loyal to the network are not, for the most part, and as some liberals still imagine, naïve swing voters who stumble onto Fox News under the delusion it’s a bona fide news channel and then are brainwashed by Ailes’s talking points into becoming climate-change deniers,” he writes.

Maybe the real problem with Fox is that it makes conversation with our parents and grandparents that much more difficult.

What Liberals Still Don’t Understand About Fox News – Jack Shafer – POLITICO Magazine.

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