Stewart, Colbert, truthiness and journalists

One of my (few) regrets since moving to England is that I won’t be in the U.S. or anywhere near Washington DC when Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert stage their dueling rallies, the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive.

Imagine my surprise when I read that NPR was banning its news employees from attending the rally. The New York Times and Washington Post, while allowing their employees to attend, have also given them strict guidelines on how to behave. Don’t wear supportive shirts, don’t give any impression of support, try hard not to laugh (no, really). The Times’ directive in particular makes use of the Royal We (it might as well be) and has the distinct flavor of an Old Testament God hurling down orders from on high. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Colbert Nation wristband.”

Washington City Paper hilariously lampooned such guidelines in its own tongue-in-cheek staff memo regarding the rallies. My personal favorite guideline is #10: “Feel free to laugh heartily at any jokes that target the terrorists.”

And there, I think, is the rub. It’s OK to laugh at terrorist-targeted jokes because it’s easy and requires little in the way of political or journalistic courage. It comes down to news agencies’ skittishness about their credibility and a mad dash to snuff out anything that might remotely resemble a conflict of interest. Despite Stewart and Colbert frequently mocking both sides of the political spectrum, it’s clear which side has organizations nervous.

Media ethicist and Miami Herald columnist Edward Wasserman summed it up perfectly in his Oct. 25 column. He notes that hand-wringing over whether employees attend a DC celebration of satire (is The Onion next on the chopping block?) dilutes very real conflict-of-interest dilemmas. Conflicts of interest are taken extremely seriously, and at their core, they undermine a reporter’s ability to fairly and objectively report a story. A true conflict of interest, Wasserman notes, is something like “the business reporter who covers a company in which she owns shares.” It is not employees attending a comedic event off the clock.

He goes further and says that it’s actually against news judgment principles — seeking tenets of prominence, conflict, proximity, unusualness, timeliness and impact — not to allow reporters to attend the rallies. Telling a reporter not to attend a well-publicized, controversial, first- and possibly only-time, celebrity-attended, interesting event on their own time is akin to telling an off-duty firefighter to stay away from any burning buildings he sees.

It comes down to courage versus cowardliness. Are news organizations secure enough in their own integrity to allow their employees to attend the Colbert and Stewart rallies off the clock, or are they so afraid of the conflict-of-interest shadow that they think that not allowing their employees to attend will make any difference at all to the people most likely to scream “BIAS”? People out to undermine news organizations will always find something to nitpick. If it wasn’t this event it’d be something else.

Most ominously, Wasserman says, is the question of how news organizations will handle stories and events that actually have legitimate ethical and moral implications when they can’t or won’t face a satirical event head on.

Bodiam Castle and Rye

On Saturday, I went on a day trip with the university chaplaincy (I’ve been attending Anglican services on Sundays) to Bodiam Castle and the small town of Rye, both in East Sussex.

The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (that’s a mouthful), who served King Edward III and received permission to build the castle from King Richard II. Its intended purpose was to stave off a French invasion during the Hundred Years War. The castle itself was built with an artificial moat and was the seat of the feudal Bodiam Manor.

Its owners seem to have had a bit of rotten luck over the years. Dalyngrigge himself died in combat on a knightly campaign, and its next owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, made the mistake of supporting the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. King Richard III confiscated the castle, although the Lewknors eventually got it back when King Henry VII took over.

During the English Civil War, its owner was John Tufton, who was a Royalist. Another owner on the wrong side of the victors, Tufton had to turn the castle over in the face of heavy taxation. The castle was torn apart, and passed down to Lord Curzon, who tried to fix it up and gave it to the National Trust in 1925. The castle is mostly ruins inside, but has a remarkably intact exterior.

Not too far away is the town of Rye, sitting up on a hill. Back when it was founded, the sea came much farther inland, and the town’s position on the hill kept it from getting washed out. The village is very attractive, with cobbled streets and a wide variety of tea houses, antique shops, cottages and cafes.

Enjoy photos of the castle and village below.

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Note: Just giving a big thanks to everyone who’s been reading The Canterbury Tales. October 2010 has been my most-viewed month so far, and it’s not even over yet!

Waiting for “Waiting for Superman”

Just about the only thing I regret about living in England is the lack of access to many specialized or independent films that I’d be able to see at home. Case in point: “Waiting for Superman.”

I had a feeling that, whether I ended up agreeing with its thesis, “Superman” would be an interesting documentary to see, as it tackles a domestic issue of importance to me: public education and the voucher system.

The film follows a collection of children and their parents as they try to gain admission to quality charter schools via a lottery system. The assumption is that admission will give the children an academic leg up, while getting shut out will be a crippling blow. As is usually the case in social commentary such as this, the dark cloud of income inequality hangs over the whole affair.

In addition to following the children’s narratives, the documentary interviews various prominent figures in education, including Geoff Canada, whose “from birth” method and creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone are success stories of the system, and Michelle Rhee, who’s been tasked with fixing Washington D.C.’s school system.

In a piece for GOOD, John Morrow called “Superman” overly simplistic. In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman praised it lavishly.

So who’s right? I can’t say. Much of Morrow’s criticism is that the film (directed by Andrew Guggenheim, who did “An Inconvenient Truth”) paints charter schools with a broad, positive brush, ignoring the statistical evidence that most charter schools are not, in fact, “outstanding.” Having written a 4,200-word research project on the voucher system for my honors American politics class a few years ago, I can say my findings corroborate this. Morrow also criticizes the film for using broad terms such as “great teaching” without confirming what, exactly, that entails.

Friedman, meanwhile, lauds the film for pointing out that it’s everyday men and women, working out of genuine interest and love of their communities, along with great teachers and involved parents, who make a school outstanding. But didn’t we know that already?

I freely admit, despite having received an excellent public education myself, to being skeptical and unnerved with the direction that American education is heading. I’m only 23, but even I notice gaps in knowledge — appalling grammar, ignorance of the scientific method, poor math skills, little to no knowledge of history, civics or geography — that weren’t as noticeable during my school days. Thanks to budget cuts, forget art, music, media and technical education. So what’s left? And other than supplementary education, I think a lot of problems are down to inefficiency and methodology more than funding. I used to think of private schools as the realm of snobs and homeschooling as repressive and backward. Now both look like viable options. But again, what about children like those depicted in “Superman”? Other than charter schools, what can be done for them?

I probably won’t be able to see this film until it’s on DVD. But maybe you should try to see it, even if you end up disagreeing with it.

An afternoon in Whitstable

My friends (Deborah, Hannah and Rachel) and I had planned to head up north to Whitstable, a small satellite village on the North Sea renowned for its oysters, today. After a couple of weeks of drippy, overcast weather, we couldn’t have expected a truly gorgeous day, as you can tell from the photos at the bottom.

After a lovely Anglican service early this afternoon in Eliot Chapel (during which I read the liturgy and after which I indulged in some lemon cake a few local ladies brought in), I met up with my friends and packed into Deb’s car and drove up to Whitstable.

The beach there reminded me a lot of Maine — more rocky than sandy, windy and cool. We didn’t swim, obviously, but I’d wager it was chilly. Lines of lovely houses, some private, some turned into bed-and-breakfasts, stood up and down the seaside. You could see people swimming and on their boats. I lost track of the number of dogs: spaniels, terriers, retrievers, labs and shepherds of all kinds, some on leashes, some not, all well-behaved. We also found oyster shells to collect.

Up the beach is Whitstable Harbour, which has a fish market and several fresh seafood restaurants. A few boys were catching nice-sized crabs right off the pier using nets. We headed into the town centre, passing all sorts of little shops, cafes and pubs. When we’d exhausted the high street options, we settled in for a late lunch at Coach and Horses. All four of us had a typical “Sunday roast” dinner: Beef (cauliflower-and-cheese bake for Hannah), yorkshire pudding (not really pudding; it’s a pastry used to sop gravy), roasted potatoes and vegetables.

On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes at a penny arcade (I won some sort of magnet game) and then at a little ice cream parlor called Sundae Sundae, where we got cheap waffle cones. Then we had a nice leisurely walk back up the beach to the car. All in all, a lovely day, and it makes me want to go back to Whitstable on a Saturday morning (the buses go there) for the farmers market.

Perhaps most importantly, the evidence of an actual beach in England torpedoes my uncle Tim’s rationale for not coming over in July to see my graduation.

Enjoy the photos below.

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Note: The period from now until December is VERY busy! So be sure to check back for photos and news from Bodiam Castle and Rye, Guy Fawkes night, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Bruges and Paris.

How London can use Foursquare

Now that I’m able to successfully take my mobile crack, er, media addiction on the road (thanks to an iPod Touch and, I hope, an Android phone in the near future), I’ve become a major fan of Foursquare. What is Foursquare? Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that not all of my friends are journalism/social media junkies, and most people probably aren’t familiar with it.

Think of it like Twitter on the move. Basically you “check in” at different venues to which you travel — shops, restaurants, bars, airports, train stations, landmarks, bus stops, churches, grocery stores, boutiques, shopping malls, a damn boat. Experience-wise, you get out of it what you put in — ideally you’ll leave tips and notes at places you’ve been, telling the people who arrive after you what to see, do or eat there. For instance, after having a stellar curry in Canterbury, I promptly listed a tip on the place’s Foursquare listing.

If you check into a place more times in the past 60 days than anyone else, you become the mayor, a post you hold until someone else boots you. You can see where your friends have been, and earn badges for various things, like checking into specific types of venues, checking into many different venues, or checking in a certain number of times.

If you use your imagination, the application is entrepreneurial gold. Several months ago, Gap and American Eagle (I believe) both offered discounts if you checked into their stores. Starbucks offers drink specials for its mayors. The mayor at a Wetherspoon pub in the UK gets 20 percent off his tab. It rewards brand loyalty and in turn, the venue receives your business, and your tips populate the venue’s Foursquare listing. Brands like Zagat, Bravo, The History Channel and the Wall Street Journal have their own special badges that you can earn if you follow them. To earn the Zagat badge, for example, you just need to check in at five different Zagat-rated restaurants.

But what about something such as, say, tourism?

Cities like New York, Chicago, Boston/Cambridge and San Francisco and even entire states like Pennsylvania have badges designed to give people incentives to explore them, like a scavenger hunt. As I was rooting around online looking for free WiFi hotspots in London (which I’m visiting tomorrow to see friends, woo), it occurred to me just how awesome a London-based collection of badges (both for tourists and people who actually live or work there) could be.

  • Check into 10 different Underground stations and get a Tube badge.
  • Hit 3+ musicals or other shows and get the West End badge.
  • 3+ gallery check-ins? Give ’em a Turner badge (a generic Warhol badge already exists for gallery check-ins).
  • Five words: “I’m on the London Eye.”
  • Hit Paddington, King’s Cross/St. Pancras, Waterloo, Victoria and Charing Cross and get a Rail Rider badge.
  • Multiple check-ins in the City gets you a Financial Whiz badge (I know WSJ does something similar for financial district check-ins in New York).
  • Check into 5+ castles or royal residences (not necessarily just in London) and earn a King/Queen for a Day badge.
  • 5+ churches, cathedrals or historical houses of worship, like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, ought to be good for something … pious.
  • London pub crawl badge? Yes, please. Even better, narrow it down by the specific beer associated with each pub.
  • A Borough Hopper badge for visiting 5+ different boroughs, like Chelsea, Westminster, Camden and Southwark.
  • A Sloaner badge for checking into 3+ shops on Sloane Street, or Harrods.
  • The London 2012 badge is so obvious I’m not even going to elaborate.
  • 3+ museums should get you a Rosetta Stone badge.
  • Double-decker badge for 5+ check-ins on a bus.
  • There’s already a badge for checking in on or near a boat, but what about on or near the Thames?
  • Ultimate London badge for checking into 15+ predetermined landmarks (this would be an awesome scavenger hunt/travel itinerary thing).
  • London Nightlife badge for checking into 3+ predetermined bars or night clubs.
  • The Footie badge for checking into 3+ football matches.
  • Earn a Green London badge for visiting 3+ city parks.
  • Check in 5+ times while crossing the Thames and get a Bridge Too Far badge.
  • And this isn’t even counting event-specific badges for things like Fashion Week, the opening of Parliament, Wimbledon, general elections, Trafalgar Square rallies, major sporting events, the queen’s birthday and Guy Fawkes night.

I came up with 20 specific badges right off the top of my head. In addition to the badges, tangible rewards are also easy to figure out — check in on the Eye, get a discount on your next ticket. 15% off museum/gallery gift shops if you earn those badges. Discounted train fare, free entry to landmarks, store deals. So why isn’t anyone (the local government, Transport for London, a media group or someone) doing this already?

Do you really want the Yanks to have all the fun?

A possible dissertation topic

I said the D word, run for your lives!

Since we had a brainstorming session in my research methods class last week, I’ve been trying to think of a possible dissertation topic. This is especially important because, even though we don’t begin formal work on the paper itself until this summer, a lot of prep work for it is due in November (a research methods outline) and January (a formal proposal that must be department-approved).

After slightly stressing out over it, I think I may finally have a topic — foreign aid. Namely, aid that the United States gives to developing countries. While I’m going to do more in-depth reading before choosing a precise angle on the topic, I’m considering writing about aid’s effectiveness, or lack thereof. What does the U.S. hope to accomplish by distributing aid — security, goodwill, humanitarian success — and what does it actually accomplish? How efficient is aid? Would another form of assistance or demonstration of soft power be more practical or successful? How much aid actually gets to people who need it, and how much ends up on the black market? How much does the U.S. actually distribute versus what it says it will?

A final, streamlined approach, which may very well be just a single question listed above, will probably have to wait until I’ve done more research and had a chance to chat with a supervisor. But for now I’m fairly confident that the final product will be something to do with developmental economics and aid.