Richard III has one hell of a car park bill

As an insatiable student of history, I geeked out this morning when I saw that Richard III’s remains had been found in a car park (a parking lot) in Leicester. (As you might expect, the BBC has the best coverage of the goods.)

The skeleton had taken a fatal head wound, the burial site matched the alleged location of Richard III’s final resting place, the remains matched the time period and Richard’s age, and a mitochondrial DNA test matched known descendants of Richard. Most intriguing, to me, was the fact that the skeleton had a curved spine — scoliosis — that was the basis for calling Richard a “hunchback.”

Richard’s story — the brother of a king who became king himself under interesting circumstances, only to die in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field — holds political significance even now. Namely, the story shows that history is written by the victors — in this case, the Tudor dynasty, victorious in the final stand of the Wars of the Roses, painted Richard as a deformed, child-killing villain, with the help of one William Shakespeare. And above all, it shows that “might makes right.”

The discussions on the BBC story are fascinating to read. A few decry Richard as a murderer who should be left where he was found. Others say he was framed and that Henry Tudor was responsible for killing Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London. (While I think we’ll never know for certain, I tend to believe that Richard did it; come at me.) There are those who want him interred in York Minster or Westminster Abbey (right now a Leicester burial is planned). And there are those who insist that Edward IV was not a legitimately born son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and that Richard III, his younger brother, was the legitimate king after all. Oh, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was a usurping jerk.

This last part is interesting for a few reasons. First, Edward IV overthrew Henry VI, the last Lancaster king, and thus could, in theory, have claimed the throne by right of conquest no matter who his real father was. Second, Richard’s claim was largely through being Edward’s brother, based on Edward’s success against Henry VI. Richard and Edward’s father had been a duke but not a king. So if Edward was illegitimate and not qualified to be king, Richard as his brother should not have had a claim either — it’s circular logic, saying that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward, when Richard’s immediate claim was derived from Edward’s military success. If Richard was the rightful king, it follows that Edward must have been, too; if Edward’s claim was bunk, his heirs’ claims must have been too, surely? While it’s true that both men had claims by being descended from Edward III, they were certainly not alone there; the primary argument for the York dynasty at that point was defeating the Lancasters.

And the same can be said for Henry Tudor. Rightful claim or not — Henry’s mother was descended from a legitimized branch of Edward III’s family through his son, John of Gaunt, and his father descended from a Welsh upstart who married Henry V’s widow, a French princess — Henry still defeated Richard and could claim the throne by right of combat.

That justification for rule just seemed lost on much of the BBC audience. Arguing about legitimacy and parentage and the church and rights, while forgetting that in those days, the throne belonged to whoever could keep it. Richard failed, Richard died and Richard lost. And he wasn’t the first one — Henry Tudor (technically on the Lancasters’ side, but who founded the Tudor dynasty) overthrew Richard, who helped overthrow Henry VI. Whose grandfather Henry IV overthrew his own first cousin, Richard II. And on and on back to William I. So who gets to decide who’s rightful? When does a usurper become legitimate, and vice versa? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So it goes.

Regardless of how misplaced I think some of the commenting on this story is, it’s nonetheless a huge development in understanding a critical moment in English history — considered the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages by many — and I was thrilled that it happened. I also hope that more can be done to understand Richard and how he lived, and maybe even change popular opinion about his reign and personal character. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I for one am curious to see where this all goes.

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Stupid is as stupid tweets: Six tips for Twitter users

Yesterday, during a conversation with a good (non-journalist) friend, the talk steered toward the News of the World scandal and the Kansas City Star’s sacking of columnist Steve Penn for plagiarism. (Full disclosure: As discussed numerous times on this site, I interned with the Star last summer.)

He was angry about the NOTW’s alleged phone hacking, while I was flummoxed as to how any professional journalist could plagiarize in this era and expect not to get caught. The ending question was the same for both of us: How could anyone be so stupid?

Fast forward to this afternoon, when the BBC posted an updated list of social media guidelines. Included, verbatim, in the guidelines is the blunt advice, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

After laughing a little, I thought, “Well, what does that mean?”

The BBC guidelines suggest that its journalists should avoid overt partisanship on sites like Twitter, that any “official” tweets should be read by at least two people, and that “official” BBC personality profiles should be kept professional at all times.

The tips were common-sense enough, almost deceptively so. Social media — especially Twitter, but theoretically any such site — is fraught with potential mistakes and lapses in judgment. In print, your words go through an assignment editor, a slot editor, a rim copy editor and a proofreader. Any flagrant stupidity is, I hope, flushed out. If nothing else, there’s time to consider words and allow anger to cool off.

With Twitter, though, it’s easy to slip in a moment of hot-headedness. In 15 seconds, you could type and post something that you’ll regret for years. Journalists have been fired or asked to resign over tweets. So have spokespeople. Not to mention political candidates and public relations workers. Whether their terminations were justified is beside the point; their employers determined that their tweets were inappropriate to the point where they were sacked.

So how can you avoid this? How can you not “do anything stupid”?

1. If you tweet for your job, I’d consider having two separate profiles, a personal one and a professional one (example: @john_doe, @john_doe_kcstar). Many journalists I follow on Twitter have just one profile for both personal and professional use, and that’s fine. But it’s something to think about, especially if you’re new to Twitter or unsure about your company’s precise policies.

2. If you keep one all-purpose Twitter account, it’s worth using up biographic real estate to cover your butt. “RTs are not endorsements.” “A follow is not an endorsement.” “My opinions are my own.” Obviously this won’t be enough to save you if you’re flagrantly misusing Twitter, but it does create a conscientious wall between your personal views and your professional ones.

3. Avoid getting into Twitter spats with readers. I see far too many writers (a lot of them columnists) engaging in prolonged insult-fests with members of the public. A reasoned response or even a tart one-liner is probably fine. But it just looks childish if your feed is clogged with a back-and-forth argument. The longer it goes on, the angrier you’ll get and the likelier it is that you’ll say something stupid. Remember, if you’re arguing with an idiot, so is he.

4. For the love of all that is holy, know the difference between normal tweets and direct messages. Let’s not say that Anthony Weiner’s political downfall was in vain, yeah?

5. If you retweet anything — especially if it’s a photo or a link — make sure that it says or displays what you think it does. Never retweet anything blindly (I admit I’m guilty of this when I’m in a hurry). If you think you’re linking to a Times story, make sure you’re linking to a Times story. Nothing is more annoying and embarrassing than unknowingly retweeting spam or something else that’s inappropriate. In the same vein, if you’re following people and reporting on their tweets, make sure that what you’re following are their real accounts, and not parodies.

6. The adage that it’s better to be correct than first is true with Twitter as well. Before you fire off a tweet, edit yourself. Without a copy desk, the responsibility is even more on you to make a good decision. Let it sit for a few minutes, however long it takes. Is it something you’d say face to face with someone? Would you include it in a print or Web story with your byline? Does it target anyone based on religion, race or gender, even in jest? Does it contain profanity? When in doubt, don’t hit send.

Twitter at this point is an absolute necessity for journalists, politicians and most major companies, but it can be a double-edged sword. So tweet smart.

A note on News of the World

Last week, it broke that News of the World, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had allegedly hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. As the week progressed, more allegations came out. The hacking victims now allegedly included military families and July 7 attack victims, and there were whispers of possible police corruption. The scandal broke at a bad time for Murdoch, as he prepared to bid for a heavier share of BSkyB, a deal that now looks likely to fall through. Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director, is embroiled in the controversy, as is Rebekah Brooks, former NOTW editor. NOTW itself has formally stopped publishing.

Plenty of people, including members of Parliament and media rivals, have trashed NOTW for its legal and ethical violations. But in throwing the tabloid (I won’t call it a newspaper) under the bus, I think we’ve missed a real opportunity to evaluate NOTW’s actions and have a debate about how this actually affects the public’s trust in journalists.

Before it was closed, NOTW beat out the Guardian, Telepgraph and Independent in readership — a “red top” gossip sheet had a bigger audience share than Britain’s big three national (and respectable) newspapers. In this sense, NOTW’s tragedy (in terms of what it wrought, not its ultimate demise) is also a readership tragedy. What they peddled, sold well. Does the public have at least some ownership in this debacle, given its appetite for salaciousness?

Given the rabid nature of British tabloids, I perceive that it’s difficult here for journalists to command and maintain trust and respect. Many newspapers, if not most, have outright political leanings, which, to their credit, they make no attempt to hide. Even the BBC isn’t without controversy, whether it’s down to salaries or coverage. I imagine that it’d be frustrating for a legitimate journalist in Britain now, constantly being suspected of hacking, political hit jobs, bias, graft and who knows what else. The many may be tarred by the actions of a few. News International also represents, to many, a corporate infestation in the media. Of course all media is corporate in some sense, but  as Murdoch (who is not a British citizen) attempts to buy more and more information properties, the public and the government have legitimate concerns about his outsized influence in politics and culture.

The NOTW’s greatest crime, in the end, may be its devastating blow to the nation’s journalism profession and its integrity.

This is news?

Full disclosure: For a long time, probably a good 5-6 years, CNN was “my” news station. I had always thought of its journalists as being fairly on-the-ball and objective (or at least, my version of objective, which may or may not be someone else’s). It was also the only news channel I could get in my dorm room, so it was convenient.

I haven’t regularly watched it in quite some time, mostly because I’ve been out of the country. At the time I last watched it, though, I had noticed a marked — and, to my mind, fairly rapid — descent into inanity.

Call me a snob, but I never did like the whole iReporter thing. Some people really appreciate “citizen journalism” and think it has value. To my mind, members of the general public, especially those on the scene of major events, can and should make great sources, and time and again their photos and video make compelling supplementary material. But that’s what it should be, in my opinion — supplementary. It should not replace the work of journalists — people not only trained in writing, editing and news-gathering, but also in ethics, judgment and legal theory. Likewise, Twitter trends can be a good starting point for news items, but they should not be the news item. Not only because Twitter can suffer from herd mentality, but also because a lot of what’s on it just isn’t true (according to Twitter, Johnny Depp died, like, four times last year).

So this trend toward relying on people-on-the-street for news items had already somewhat turned me off. Imagine my horror when I got on Gawker earlier today and saw this. Jon Stewart, bless him, ripped CNN a new one over some of its segments. They range from corny (Stream Team, which … I don’t even know) to borderline offensive (You Choose the News). The example of the latter segment involved an anchor (read: glorified infotainment card-reader) giving the audience three possible story topics. People would text to pick which one they wanted to know more about.

This concept might be cute or funny if it was for animal stories or some other fluff. But the topics to choose from were: the Afghan government’s takeover of women’s shelters, homeless female Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and the arms trade in Abu Dhabi, which has implications for Africa and the Middle East. As Stewart said, “Those all seem kind of important.” Someone in the comments helpfully pointed out that in the time CNN spent shilling (I almost wrote “whoring”) the segment, they could have covered all three stories in a fair amount of detail.

Granted, it’s not just CNN. It’s an easy target because Stewart did such a good job ridiculing it. After spending almost five months living in the UK, I think maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the BBC. The BBC has its share of cute stuff, but more often than not it covers the world hard-core. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, even Wisconsin: The stories are there. Analyses of fashion, technology, film and music sit next to market reports, biographies of world leaders and multimedia coverage. Reader input is requested and used, but it sits alongside the coverage, giving it depth and perspective.

I wondered, how could the BBC (and even other sources like Al Jazeera English) get things so right and CNN and its ilk get things so … tone-deaf? I believe the answer is that the BBC is considered a public good. Its budget comes from license fees paid in by anyone with a TV set or access to live broadcasts. It is beholden to the British public (and Her Majesty, by Royal Charter), not to any corporate behemoth. Granted it has its own problems — people still accuse it of some bias and some of its anchors’ salaries are under fire — but I don’t think it would ever treat serious news like some sort of raffle prize. Despite accusations of bias (which you’ll find anywhere), it strives to be as non-partisan as possible given its structure and funding. And it’s everywhere.

On the other end is CNN (and Fox and MSNBC and to a somewhat lesser extent the networks), taken to corporate news’ inevitable conclusion: the watering down of issues and news turned into entertainment and entertainment trying to pass itself off as news.