How the Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact can make ALL political coverage better

Today’s 2010 Knight-Batten Symposium gave me visions of political debates and speeches transformed from exercises in sound-bitery and emotion into civic lessons and conversations.

It gave me visions of political news stories that provide context not just about the issue at hand, but also context about the people at hand.

(Also, it gave me the vapors. But mostly just visions.)

Here’s one vision:

On TV, political debates display a fact-check tally for each candidate (how many true, truthy, lying-liar, etc. statements each candidate has made). Fact-check details about a particular statement are displayed as soon as they’re available.

No more useless meters showing allegedly uncommitted voters’ emotional reactions:

Instead, imagine if the debate screen looked like this (well, imagine a non-crappy-mockup version that looked vaguely like this):

Here’s another vision:

Online, any streamed speech, debate, or hearing displays a combination of fact-checking material, aggregated contextual material, real-time commentary and public reaction. Any story or video that mentions politicians displays some combination of:

  • Fact-checking details for that person’s recent statements (any of their statements and/or recent statements related to the story being viewed)
  • Campaign contributions to that person from individuals/organizations related to the story’s subject.
  • The candidate’s biggest contributors (individuals/organizations and industries).
  • Lobbying information for the person and/or their staffers
  • If in office, recent votes the person has taken related to the story’s subject.
  • Biographical information about the person.

Now here’s the great thing about these visions: The Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact have pretty much already fulfilled them!

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Presidents who looked like actors

This is what I learned during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential portraits room: Many of our presidents looked like actors or movie/TV characters.

Some of the presidents looked like creepy characters, some like dashing actors.

I think McKinley looks like an older Don Draper (same piercing glare). Others think he looks like a vampire.

Our character-actor presidents.

In defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

A few hours before the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, Albritton’s Jeff Sonderman tweeted: “Food for thought: Is journalists’ pursuit of journalism awards (Pulitzers) bad for journalism? Does it mislead priorities?”

The question reflects a percolating cynicism toward, if not outright backlash against, the prizes and journalism awards in general over the past few years.

Journalism-sacred-cow-tipper Jeff Jarvis has written several posts criticizing various aspects of the Pulitzer Prizes and culture (distilled: they turn “the profession into a circle-jerk of mutual self-love”). Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton wrote an anti-Pulitzer post on the occasion of the 2008 Pulitzer announcement, arguing that “these self-congratulating awards, and the attention devoted to them, are symptomatic of the decline of the newspaper industry.” The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus joined the parade last year with an essay in Columbia Journalism Review titled “Newspaper Narcissism” (subscription required to read more than a preview; I don’t have a CJR subscription, but read a slightly longer bootlegged preview).

I’m a world-class cynic, and I’m all for tipping sacred cows when warranted. But I just can’t hop on this bandwagon (or bandtricycle — I don’t want to fall into the false-trend trap, either). While the list of the news industry’s problems and self-inflicted wounds is long, I don’t think the Pulitzer Prizes belong on it.

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Objectivity isn’t truthful — it’s pathological

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Objectivity is dead, maaan” club since 2002*, when Jonathan Chait’s TNR essay about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and “liberal bias” blew my young mind. Since then, I’ve read many more arguments for why objectivity is outdated, including a spate of 2009 posts. (Obligatory caveat: Good intentions and common sense underpin the objectivity enterprise. The problem is rigid adherence to a specific, previously unquestioned strain of objectivity.)

But I’ve never read a rethink-objectivity argument quite like Steve Buttry’s recent post on the subject. The language he uses is unexpected — and gets at the heart of why objectivity-at-all-costs is ultimately misguided.

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My favorite music of the decade

The 2000s were a great time to be a music fan. The “heavenly jukebox” became a reality as iTunes, post-Napster file-sharing, AllofMP3.com (briefly), Rhapsody, Lala, imeem, Pandora, Hype Machine, music blogs, and dozens of other sites and programs enabled us to access pretty much any song ever made, often for cheap or free.

Having the world’s music library available to anyone with an Internet connection made competitive notions like airplay, shelf space, and cover shoots a bit less important; attention became somewhat less of a zero-sum game. This allowed a sort of post-critical music culture to take hold, where notions of taste and guilty pleasures gave way to … well, at least to questions of whether taste and guilty pleasures had any meaning anymore.

The popularity of Pitchfork suggests that the more widely shared answer is “No, as long as your non-guilty-pleasure guilty pleasures are the right ones.” Inside my own head, the answer has been a more definitive no — so much so that I seem to have lost interest in one of my former life goals/dreams: being a music critic.

In that spirit, I wanted to share my favorite music of the decade. Not “the best” or “the most important” music of the decade; you can read any number of lists that will tell you why Kid A, Stankonia, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Merriweather Post Pavilion, et al were decade-representative and influential and great.

I don’t necessarily disagree; I respect or quite like Kid A, Stankonia, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Animal Collective does nothing for me, though). But respecting Radiohead’s artistic experimentation and growth doesn’t mean I ever think, “Hey, I know what would be fun to listen to now! Thom Yorke’s processed voice going ‘Nnninnn innnn onnnn ninnnnninnn mmnnnnn … Yesterday I woke up sucking on le-mone’ while a brooding synthesizer cascades behind him and the rest of the band chats about Chekhov in the other room.”

I’m increasingly convinced that the way we hear, appreciate, and respond to music is highly idiosyncratic, even biological. Here, then, is my highly idiosyncratic list of favorite albums and songs of the decade. Some of them I like because a note or chord change triggers an endorphin rush for me; some have interesting lyrics or structures; some I probably like because other people liked them; most of them I can’t properly explain why I like them.

And yes, a silly Darkness Christmas song really is my favorite song of the decade.

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Why I secretly want Conan to leave ‘The Tonight Show’

While I would never wish sadness or the crushing of lifelong dreams upon Conan O’Brien, I would secretly cheer if he decides to leave The Tonight Show (or if NBC honchos decide they’ve had enough of his on-air insubordination).

Conan’s a brilliant late-night host, of course. But his oeuvre consists of a classic Simpsons run and 17 years of late-night ephemera. Ricky Gervais has The Office; Chris Rock has his stand-up specials; Woody Allen has Annie Hall and Manhattan. Will Conan end up with “Marge vs. the Monorail” … and a box set of Masturbating Bear and Triumph bits?

There’s probably a behavioral economics argument for why sustained but ephemeral late-night genius is better than a half-dozen classic movies surrounded by a couple dozen The Curse of the Jade Scorpions. But it sure would be exciting to see that genius set loose from its late-night confines, even for a little while. Who knows what crazy shows, movies, Shouts & Murmers columns, comedy songs, and other assorted awesomeness he’d come up with.

Like any practicing comedy elitist, I have a visceral dislike of Jay Leno. I’m obviously on Team Conan. But are his monologue one-liners really that much smarter than Leno’s? Are Conan’s celebrity interviews really less puffy?

I’ve only seen scattered Conan bits since watching Late Night regularly for the first few years of the aughts (the little time I have for late-night shows goes to The Daily Show, obviously). On the other hand, I would have kept up religiously if he had instead made three movies, two seasons of a cult show, and a bunch of web shorts in those seven years.

So I hope, for Conan’s sake, that everything works out and he gets to keep his beloved Tonight Show gig in the right time slot. But if he has to go, this fan selfishly thinks it’ll be for the best.

(Adam Frucci has some thoughts along these lines at The Awl.)

More on Ticketfly’s service charges

Damon at Ticketfly sent a prompt response to my open letter about paying $8.75 in service charges on a $20 ticket. Here is Damon’s response, and my reply.

Greetings Josh,
Thank you for writing in and giving us the opportunity to answer your questions.

Ticketfly provides a service, for a fee. Ordering through Ticketfly couldn’t be easier and you can do it from the comfort of your home or office!

Tickets purchased on Ticketfly.com are typically subject to a per ticket convenience charge and a non-refundable per order processing fee. In many cases, delivery prices will also be owed.

As we do not collect any of the ticket face value, we use the fee to pay for hardware, employees, training and so on. Basically, the fee is what keeps us running. If you wish to avoid paying the service fee, please contact the venue or promoter of the event to see if they offer tickets directly. This also explains your comparison to companies like Amazon. They do, in fact almost every “retail” outlet, charge a fee. For them it’s called “Mark Up”. Because they own the product they are selling, that mark up is where they get the money to pay their employees, train their staff, pay their rent and so on.

Ticketfly does not claim to be the cheapest ticketing alternative, but we are striving to be the better ticketing alternative.

Please do let me know if you have any other questions.

Thank You
Damon @ Ticketfly

My reply:

Hi Damon,

Thanks for the prompt reply, and for explaining what the service fees pay for.

However, this doesn’t answer all of my questions.

True, Ticketfly does not claim to be the cheapest ticketing alternative. But as I quoted in my first email, the company clearly recognizes that people are frustrated with ticketing services (citing “downright absurd” practices) and makes claims to being different (“We plan to get rid of all those hidden fees”).

Given this:

1. Why does the site talk about killing hidden fees if you still charge those fees?
2. What are some examples of “downright absurd” ticketing practices that Ticketfly does not engage in?
3. What does being a “better ticketing alternative” mean if you charge similar fees as other ticketing companies — fees that are by far the most frustrating thing about buying tickets?

Further, you say that “Ticketfly provides a service, for a fee” — i.e., letting consumers buy tickets “from the comfort of your home or office.” But there are thousands upon thousands of e-commerce websites that provide the same service — letting consumers buy something online — without charging “service” or “convenience” fees on top of the product price. (Of course, in many cases it’s *cheaper* to buy something online versus by phone or in a store.) The vast majority of these sites also have various hardware and overhead costs, but still don’t tack on extra fees.

Given this,

4. How is Ticketfly’s business (or the ticketing business in general) so different from nearly all other online businesses that the company has to charge consumers this fee?

Thanks,
Josh